Like many other young men in Crown Heights, Itzik Balulu studies the Talmud and other Jewish texts from early in the morning to well into the night.
But you should see his ride. When he’s not ensconced in 770 Eastern Parkway, the center of the Chabad-Lubavitch universe, the 26-year-old Israeli and his crew drive around in a blinged-out Cadillac, a regular kandy-kolored streamline baby. Oy vey.
The Caddy, which they bought a few years ago, is bright yellow and covered with enormous decals featuring a "King Messiah" crown and a picture of the messiah himself: Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson. A dollar bill is attached to the upper right corner of the windshield—a symbol of the rebbe’s practice of handing out dollar bills to his visitors to give to charity.
Among Lubavitchers, the rebbe is more than revered. Officially, he died 14 years ago. But to many Lubavitchers, dead he’s not, and the messiah—not just for Jews, but the entire planet—he most certainly is.
When they aren’t studying, the yeshiva boys doggedly tool around the city and install yellow flags in homes and businesses. The flags look a lot like the images on the car: a crown and the words "Long Live the King Messiah Forever and Ever." Balulu installed seven last week and just ordered a thousand more from a factory in China. He plans to go to India next year: The rebbe, he says, has advised him to be a Chabad emissary.
For now, Balulu goes to Union Square every Friday afternoon to hand out Chabad materials and to "bar-mitzvah" non-observant Jews. He and the boys usually set up shop beside an Amish cheese vendor at the weekly farmers’ market. They tend to get into friendly discussions with passersby, like a recent confab they had with a teenage Korean Christian missionary and the Pennsylvania Amish vendor over the meaning of Orthodox Judaism. Their target, however, is secular Jews. From behind their table festooned with (what else?) yellow flags, the boys ask Jews to pray with them—specifically to repeat, word for word, a prayer referred to as the Yechi chant, which identifies the rebbe as the messiah. Yes, the Messiah.
"Luke Ford reports all of the 'juicy' quotes, and has been doing it for years." (Marc B. Shapiro)
"This guy knows all the gossip, the ins and outs, the lashon hara of the Orthodox world. He’s an [expert] in... all the inner workings of the Orthodox world." (Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff)
"This generation's Hillel." (Nathan Cofnas)