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

By Ray Schultz

There wasn’t much doubt who was going to succeed the alter Rebbe. Joseph Schneerson had left no son, so the mantle would—most likely—fall to his son-in-law. But the elders wondered if he was up to it, and whether he even wanted it.

Menachim Mendel Schneerson had studied engineering at the Sorbonne., and had worked on atomic submarines. He was a Torah scholar and had served the Rebbe; his wife, the Rebbe’s daughter, was his third cousin. But he was only in his late 40s. There were elder Hasids who were privy to the late Rebbe’s council. These men knew Schneerson as “Mendelah, Mendalah,” Shrage said. “As a kid, he used to hang around, you know, ‘Mendelah.’ All of sudden, it took a lot of soul-searching for them to accept this new leadership. It’s not just ‘the Queen is dead long live the Queen’—it’s a spiritual transference. Some were crying, saying, ‘God, give me the strength, I must accept my Rebbe.’’

Shrage was one of the very young Turks who followed Schneerson wherever he went. “We stuck with him, calling him Rebbe, annoying him that way.” Still, Schneerson resisted.

“The first year after a person dies is the year of year of sadness and contemplation,” Shrage explained. “And the old-timers began to see him in a different light altogether, all of a sudden they would begin to see this man. During the first year, he would pray and lead the congregation, and he couldn’t complete his prayer, he’d just break down in deep sobbing, in deep tears, like when he was repeating the 18 benedictions, the most important part of the morning prayer, and there would be silence in the synagogue.”

Schneerson also refused to sit in the previous Rebbe’s chair. “He’d sit next to it,” Shrage said. “And to this day, when they bless the new moon, he gets up early in the morning and is driven to the cemetery, old Montefiore, and spends a whole day at his grandfather’s grave. When you ask him for a blessing, he says, in Hebrew, “I will remember it at the grave site.”

Yehuda Krinsky was another Young Turk. “My years go back to three or four years before he became Rebbe,” Krinsky said. “I used to observe him very closely, I used to scrutinize everything he used to do publicly, that was visible. I think that the students at that time used to look at him a little differently. First of all, he was the previous Rebbe’s son-in-law. He was obviously a little bit different. At the same time, it was clear that the man was a sheer genius in everything he discussed, especially the Torah. He was totally immersed in Torah and Yiddishkeit. There were things he used to do that we tried to scrutinize—why did he do it this way? Or that way? He didn’t conduct himself differently than anybody else, he used to daven in the shul like anybody else, and went about his business like everybody else, but yet there was something noticeable to those who knew who he was a little different. The Talmud tells us that one leader is not taken away until there is a leader than can take his place. And obviously, though he was sort of clandestine, and very secretive in many things—not obviously secretive, but for a person who tailed him, you could see there was a lot more to the person than was visible to the naked eye. A gentile professor in psychiatry said that the Rebbe was the first man besides Freud and Einstein to give him new insights into his profession.

*****

The Crown Heights Dairy was a glatt kosher luncheonette located just south of Eastern Parkway on Kingston St. It specialized in Eastern European Jewish fare like kasha varnishkas. Coffee was served in a glass, and as in Russia, some people sweetened it with a cube of sugar they held in their front teeth. The Lubavitch public relations machine had kicked in, and it was there I met Rabbi Leibel Groner, a direct descendent of the founder of Lubavitch, Schneur Zalman, but he didn’t tell me much about that, nor about the mystical aspects of Chabad, which I wanted to delve into. “Hasidim falls into two general categories,” Groner explained. “The Lubavitcher and all the others. The others stress the emotional aspect—the joy. Lubavitchers stress the intellectual part of it.” He then gave me a progress report. “On the Rebbe’s 70th birthday, we asked for 71 new institutions,” Groner said. “We gave him 143. For his 71st birthday, he has asked for 72. We plan to give him 145.”

My own entry into the mysteries of Hasidic prayer began–rather quickly–with an afternoon service attended by the Rebbe. It took place not in the grand synagogue, but in a small room filled with wooden tables. A couple of men were already davening. I was escorted in by Rabbi Menachim Blau, and we got ourselves a perch at a table in the center. Other men came in, and a group of boys from Israel. The prayer books were on this table, and men were gabbing at them. There were a couple of jars, one with look on, for money for poor, and an empty bench and chair in left-hand corner near the left-hand door. Everyone stood facing the front of room at no particular angle. Suddenly there was a hush of expectation, and the Rebbe came in. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. He had a deep-set face, a white beard and a quiet, almost somber look. As always, he was dressed in knee-length black coat. He stood holding a prayer book.

A man in the right front started the prayers, and the others answered in cadence. The Rebbe mostly stared at the book. One Israeli boy wearing colorful clothes let out with burst of incredible burst of prayer, the Rebbe looked up at him. I faked my way through it as best I could. Then it was over. The Rebbe turned and left, and the men followed him out, clamoring amongst themselves.

I pondered this event for days—just what was this man’s power that if he told an adherent to go to town in Iowa where there were few Jews, he would go? How did he hold together an extended group, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, keeping close tabs on everyone, it was said? “In Yiddish, there’s an expression—he doesn’t sleep himself, and he doesn’t let the other fellow sleep,” Krinksy explained.

Krinsky let it be known, though, that there would be no interview with the Rebbe. What would I ask him, anyway? I was in over my head.

Meanwhile, at Shrage’s urging, I attended a rally for the mayoral candidate Abraham Beame at a Satmar Hasidic summer camp upstate. At first, the Hasidim were wary of Beame—it was almost as if they feared the exposure a Jewish mayor would bring—but they had warmed up to him. Shrage said, “We know that nobody is going to say to Rockefeller, that Protestant bastard! Whoever will call John Lindsay an Episcopalian bastard? Beame is not Beame the bastard, but Beame the Jew bastard.”

After the event, Shrage kindly offered me a ride back to the city. I spent the early evening with Shrage and his wife Rose at their getaway, the Pioneer Hotel near Liberty, and we had dinner in the dining room. It being Tisha B’Av, a Rabbi read from Torah and said the Kaddish prior to dinner. The meal started with shot glass of cherry wine, and it was followed by cake, coffee and soda.

Rose remained at the hotel, and Shrage and I took off for the city. The conversation got personal during the two-hour ride. He told me that he welcomed Friday night, the start of the Sabbath. “I really need that to recharge my batteries,” he said. “I forget about all this—I don’t answer telephones. It sustains me.”

He admitted, though, that “I have doubt that I could go back to the yeshiva after being in world. I introduced Beame because I wanted him to see who could deliver these votes.” Shrage dreamed of running for mayor himself and dedicating a statute in front of City Hall to the millions who died in the Holocaust.

In contrast, my conversation was stilted—I recited literature to show I had a retentive mind. Finally, we arrived in New York, he asked me my Jewish name so Rose could sew it on a yarmulke. If I had one, I didn’t know it. But a few days later, I got a yarmulke in the mail, with the name “Raymond” sewn on it, and a cordial note from Shrage saying that he and Rose hoped I would often have occasion to wear it.

(To be continued in the coming weeks). 

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