Years later, I was invited to the wedding of his older brother, who had been my student while in 8th grade. Despite it not being a fully religious wedding, I nevertheless decided to go for a short while and pay regards to my former student.
As I entered inside the wedding hall, I found my table number and headed over to take a seat. To my surprise, Howey was sitting at the table. I could sense that even now, years after he was thrown out of school, he was considerably upset at the administration’s decision. Sitting next to him was his girlfriend as well, who was clearly not Jewish. I quietly took a seat and minded my own business, not wishing to intrude and offset him. Howey, however, completely ignored me and the few other rabbis seated at the table, subtly conveying his annoyance and aggravation at his former rabbis, school and religious Jews.
When the time for the first dance began, I knew what to expect. A mechitzah would be put up, and the first song would be hava nagila where the rabbis would have the opportunity to dance with the chassan, after which they would leave. I planned on joining the dancing, although I had someone in mind whom I wished to greet beforehand.
Approaching Howey, I extended my hand and let out a smile. “Howey, shalom aleichem! How are you?” Howey, caught off guard, looked at me startled. “Listen,” I said, “it’s the hava nagila dance. I didn’t throw you out of school, and in fact you were never in my class. Please don’t be angry at me. Come, let’s dance!”
Howey turned aside to his girlfriend for her approval. “Do you think I should dance with the rabbi?” “Sure,” she happily replied, “go ahead. Just don’t leave me here for too long.”
Howey joined us, with me and his brother dancing alongside. A short while later, I was left dancing with just Howey himself. I knew that now was the time for me to say something. Pulling him close, I gave him a big kiss on his right cheek and whispered into his ear, “Howey, I apologize for what happened to you in yeshiva, but I just want you to know that I love you and you are a very special boy.” As I said this to him, I could tell he was moved. But I wasn’t finished.
Pulling him close again, I gave him a kiss on his left cheek and whispered into his ear, “But you need to know something else. You really cannot stay with that girl.” I then finished dancing with him and headed back to my seat. Slowly gathering my things together, I proceeded to leave the wedding hall.
Howey continued to trail behind me and walk outside too. He wanted to tell me something. “You know Rabbi Wallerstein,” he began, “I am a Buddhist. I traveled to the Himalayas and met this girlfriend of mine who is a Buddhist.” I know understood why his head was completely shaved and he had huge tattoos of a Buddha on both his arms. I listened to what Howey had to say, after which I made the following offer.
“You know, Howey, Buddhism is an interesting religion. I do not know much about it, but maybe you would like to come to my Tuesday night class and tell us about it.” Howey was taken aback, yet oddly interested. “You really would let me do that?” “Sure,” I said, “I am very open. You never know; maybe I’ll become a Buddhist. I don’t know if I like that zero haircut, but you can tell us all about Buddhism.” Howey was extremely excited to hear this, as was his girlfriend. “That would be amazing!” she cried out. “Can I come too?” “Let’s start with Howey,” I said, “and we’ll see what happens.”
The next Tuesday night, there was Howey standing in front of my class, lecturing all about Buddhism. After he spoke for quite some time, I got up and offered my own input. I first wanted to break the ice, so I began making light of Buddha. “Look Howey, “I said, “there is one thing which is bothering me. How can Buddha be g-d? He is extremely overweight and he hasn’t lost one pound in two thousand years. If he’s a g-d, he should be able to figure out a way to lose some weight!” I then continued with a more serious rebuttal of the many ideas he mentioned, which put my class back on track.
From that night on, Howey and I started talking to one another about Buddhism and Judaism. The next Tuesday night, lo and behold, Howey showed up to the class again, and so he did the next Tuesday night and the next Tuesday night. Three months later, he was no longer in touch with his Buddhist girlfriend. It was at that point that I suggested he leave America and go to Israel. “Let’s go to Israel together and find a yeshiva that is suited for you.”
Howey agreed to make the trip and enter a yeshiva. After spending some time in one place, he relocated and wound up in a different yeshiva, where he fell in love with Chassidus and changed his entire life around.
Two years later, he had made tremendous progress in his growth and devotion to Yiddishkeit, and wore the part with a long beard and peyos. He then gave me a call. “Rebbe,” he said, “I need to come back to America.” Strongly suggesting that he stay in Israel as it provided him with the best and healthiest framework for continual growth in Judaism, I got the message across, although sensed he was still concerned about something. “Here in Israel I will never find a shidduch. I have a Buddha on one arm, another Buddha on the other, and plenty of other tattoos on my back and chest. Who is going to marry me in Israel? Maybe in America I will find someone who would be willing to put up with me.” Hearing Howey’s worries, I compromised. “Just give it a couple more months. If by then you don’t find a shidduch, you can come back to America.”
A month later, I was back on the phone with Howey, who was now known as Chaim Simcha. “Rebbe, you won’t believe it! One of my teachers set me up with someone and she seems to be a good match.” But Howey was still very worried about something. “She comes from a regular family, though, and I have no idea how I am going to explain the story behind all my tattoos.” In the past, Howey could be seen walking down the streets of Israel on the hottest day with a long-sleeve turtle neck, just so he could hide all the tattoos. They were literally all over his body. “As soon as I tell her about them, she is going to run…”
“Look,” I said to Howey, “you have come so far in Yiddishkeit. Don’t say anything until you’ve gone out a few times, and if things are going well and she really likes you, maybe she will then understand and it will not be as bad as you think.”
A little while later, I got a call from Howey. He had gone out five times and everything was going very well. “Rebbe,” he nervously said to me, “what am I going to do now? I like her and she likes me, but I know that if I tell her about the tattoos she will jump out of the car that very minute.” “Howey,” I gently yet firmly said, “Hashem runs the world. You have to do what you have to do.” He was understandably anxious about the situation, but there was no other option. He needed to tell her the truth.
At the end of the next date, as Howey pulled up in front of Kfar Chabad, he turned to her and said, “I have to tell you something.” As soon as Howey said that, the girl’s mind began to imagine one thing: marriage. “I think he is going to propose now,” she thought to herself. “I need to tell you this,” continued Howey, “but please don’t react right away.” By now, the girl was almost certain that Howey was going to propose, so much so that she was nearly sticking out her finger, waiting for a ring to be slipped onto it. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, trying to allay his fears. “Just say what you have to say.”
“There is something about me which is a little different.” “What do you mean?” she asked. “Well…wait a minute.” Howey proceeded to pull his arm out of his jacket sleeve. And then she saw his tattoos. “Wait,” Howey interjected, “that’s not the only one I have. I have another one on my other shoulder and more on my chest and my back.” The girl sat there silently, taking everything in.
“I understand and accept the fact if you do not want to see me again. This was my past and it has left its consequences.” Howey continued rambling on and on, until the girl interrupted him. “Okay, I heard everything you have to say. Now let me tell you what I have to say.
“I only see one tattoo, and that is the tattoo on your soul. You are so spiritual. I see that you have G-d’s name of Y-K-V-K tattooed on your soul and that is the only tattoo I see. Don’t you worry about anything else.”
Howey let out a sigh of relief. “By the way,” he said, “will you marry me?”
Today Chaim Simcha lives with his beautiful family in Bnei Brak.
Here was someone who saw past this boy’s outer appearance. She saw beyond the external tattoos and discerned the one true and beautiful tattoo of spirituality and G-dliness. The same is true of us all. Embedded deep within each and every Jew lies a pristine neshama full of purity and potential. All we must do is learn to see beyond the outer façade and perceive the real person which lies beneath. And when we do so, we will unquestionably find a world of inner beauty awaiting to shine.