The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part II

By Ray Schultz

Samuel Shrage’s father belonged to a Polish Hasidic group called the Beltz, (after the town memorizlied in the Yiddish song, Beltz, Mayn Shtetele Beltz). But he had a dark vision in the mid-1930s. “They saw the impending Holocaust,” Shrage said. It was hard to get a visa to the U.S., but Brazil was looking for immigrants, so the Shrage family went there without knowing a word of Portugese.

They arrived in Brazil on Carnival Day, and saw thousands of people of jumping and screaming on the street. Shrage’s mother was frightened and wanted to get back on the boat. But they settled in Belo Horizonte (“beautiful horizon”) wih 30 to 40 other Jewish families.

“My father’s a very devout orthodox Jew—a saintly man,” Shrage said. “He reads and studies all day, and never eats meat in Brazil because he doesn’t trust the quality of the kashrut. My father fasts because the great Kabala students of years ago believed in fasting twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. He’s up all Thursday night praying.”

Yes, a saintly man, but a poor one who made a meagre living selling lottery tickets. His son was more ambitious in the worldly sense. One day, the mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek, came to the school and heard Shrage, the valdictorian, gave a speech.

“You know, Samuel, one day you’re going to be in government the way you talk,” Kubitschek said.

“And you’re going to be a great man,” Shrage blurted out.

“Kubitschek became president of Brazil—he built Brasilia as a monument to himself,” Shrage laughed. “I’m still waiting to become a great man in government.”

But he soon became a militant Jew. One night, young Shrage heard voices in the living room at 2 a.m., and came out and saw his father and some men holding shovels and picks. His father invited him along—to rob a grave.

A local Hasid had married a Christian woman, and while he never converted, his children were being raised in the Catholic faith. The man repented of these deviations on his death bed. He told the senior Shrage, who had often invited him to Passover Seders, “You have to do one thing for me. I lived as a goy, but I want to be buried as a Jew.” But his wife had him buried in a Catholic cemetery.

The men in the living room were about to reverse that decision.

“He didn’t like to do it—it was dangerous,” Shrage said. “If you’re caught, in Brazil, you can go to jail for the rest of your life for messing with the Catholic church. But my father felt it was a good education for me in the meaning of being a Jew—and in the middle of the night we went to the cemetery, dug that man out and buried him that same night in a Jewish cemetery.”

Despite that episode, Shrage was becoming assimilated: He sang on radio, and enjoyed his secular studies in the public schools. “One day my father found out that my Catholic teacher was getting married and I was going to sing the Ave Maria in the church,” he said. “That did it for him.”

One day, a Lubavitcher emmissary showed up and Shrage’s father said, “Please take me son with you. There’s no future for him here. I’m afraid of intermarriage, I’m afraid of assimilation. He already hangs around all these places. He knows too much.’”

The Rabbi asked the youth, ‘Why don’t you come to learn in New York at the Yeshiva?” “I didn’t buy that, but when he told me that America meant the Empire State Building, Hollywood, and all that, I figured why not, it’s a trip,” Shrage said. “So I came to the U.S. in 1949. I left a little boy of 13, the week after my bar mitzvah.”

* * *

Shrage didn’t see Hollywood, or even New York. “My last contact with the outside world was on the S.S. Brazil,” Shrage said. “Swinging parties and the whole thing that goes on. And here I come to the port of New York, Rabbi Weinberger is waiting for me, and another rabbi, and they drive me down to Bedford-Stuyvesant, to this dismal-looking place, and they take me downstairs to the kitchen for lunch. And an old man puts two pieces of whole white fish on my plate, and I almost died because I always saw the old men in shul eating white fish and I figured, ‘This is it, I’m in for it, that’s gonna be my life.’ And I cried for three weeks. I couldn’t take it.”

The worst part was the yeshiva schedule. Up at 6:45 a.m., prayers from 7:15 to 9 a.m., breakfast until 9:30, then rigorous Talmud classes until 1. These were followed by a 45-minute lunch, followed by more Talmud. From 3:30 to 7, they studied secular high school subjects, then had supper. A half hour later, the boys turned to Hasidus, and at 9 began their “home” study. At 10:30, they were called to evening prayers. Finally, at 11, they were allowed to go to bed.

The only time Shrage ever left the building was on Shabbos. “The Yeshiva was poor and they couldn’t afford to feed us, so generous people would invite us to their homes,” he said. “We would sleep there Friday night, and have our meals, and come back Saturday night.”

There were no movies or television. The New York Times was allowed because of secular high school requirements that the students know current events. But the very devout wouldn’t even read that out of fear that it would dilute their principles.

Four weeks after he arrived, Shrage was brought before the old Rebbe. “Somebody says it’s good for you to come and see him. It was possible to get to him because he was very ill—they schlepped me upstairs, they pushed me and they shoved me, suddenly I’m faced with this grand room at 770, that looked like the chambers of King Arthur of the Roundtable. There sat a man in a wheel chair, motionless, kindly blue eyes, very ill, yet red-faced, white beard, and he was wearing that fur hat, and he was looking straight ahead, never winking his eyes. It was an amazing thing, and it shocked me to see that. I was planning how to run away, stow away or something, and go home. Then I stood facing that man and chills came down my spine. I never saw anything like that in my life.

“Somebody put a slug of vodka in my hand and said, ‘Say l’Chaim!’ So I gave a shout, ‘l’Chaim!.’ The rabbi looked at me and his face was almost motionless because he was paralyzed, and he smiled at me, and if I were a painter, 23 or 24 years later, I would still be able to paint that scene vividly. That changed my mind about running away.”

It was just in time. Shrage was finishing prayers in Brownsville one cold Saturday in January, the 10th day of Shevat, when a man entered the shul and said, “The Rebbe passed away.” “I was stunned,” Shrage recalled. “My God, it was only a few weeks since I had seen him—it meant so much to me. I began to run back through, to Brownsville and Crown Heights, and I saw Eastern Parkway crowded with black hats, people with their kaftans, word had spread, nobody could call, by word of mouth. People were coming from all over. I came to 770 about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and the old men were crying, and there was such deep sadness, there was a pall on Eastern Parkway, and by then there were thousands of people—nobody could get through.”

In came Rabbi Wiler, to whom the untrained Shrage had given haircuts, caryying two shopping bags filled with bottles of vodka. “He asked, ‘Where is everybody?’” Shrage remembered. “We said, ‘Didn’t you hear? The Rebbe passed away.’ He said, ‘What Rebbe? We said ‘Our Rebbe.’ He dropped the bags and broke the bottles, and started screaming, screaming, out in the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, He saw the significance of this as being the end of the world.”

That night, Shrage, that “little schnook from Brazil,” found himself in the room with the body of the deceased Rebbe,  the body laying on the ground, covered with white linen, surrounded by men saying the psalms of David.

The body had to be cleansed before burial. And this fell upon one of Shrage’s teachers: one Rabbi Dov. “He was a kind man, a pious man. But had to perform this, so he took a gallon of vodka, and drank it all because he didn’t want to have his senses while he did that,” Shrage said.

The next day was the burial at Montefiore Cemetery. The Squarer Rebbe was there, and he fainted. “There were thousands of people on Eastern Parkway—people had come in on charter flights from Montreal, the provinces and even Europe. The police were on horses to hold the crowd back, everybody wanted to touch the casket.”

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