The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part V

By Ray Schultz

Joseph L. was the son of a non-religious Oakland, Cal. pawn broker—his father had never even been bar mitzvahed. Not interested in going into pawnbroking, Joseph trained as a cook, then shipped out in the merchant marine and visited places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Along the way, he dabbled in various religions, and for a time was what they then called a Jesus freak.

The time was the early 1970s. Young people were spurning traditional religions and looking for spiritual guidance wherever they could find it. Some joined the Hare Krishna’s and could be seen dancing and singing in the street in saffron-colored robes. Or they were drawn to such leaders as the 15 year-old Guru Maharaji. The Lubavatchers had an answer: Hadar Hatorah (“the beauty of Torah”), a school for returning Jewish youth.

“The Lubavitchers are oriented towards bringing in the rest of the fold of Judaism, all the Jews, whether you find them on the streets of Greenwich Village, or in a Chinese restaurant eating pork and apples,” Samuel Shrage explained. “He’s a Jew, and he’s ours, and we’ve got to bring him in.”

“When a boy enters here, he’s usually been through a lot,” said a young rabbi and vice principal named Meacham Blau. “They either come from a broken home, or they’ve had background with drugs. Most often, one of our men will approach them and ask them if they want to get back to their religion.”

Joseph discovered Lubavitch, and went through the course at Hadar Hatorah, and he was an excellent candidate. After finishing, he intended to ship out again, but the Rebbe himself suggested that going to sea would not benefit the practice of Orthodox Judaism. So Joseph was given a job cooking at the school.

Joseph decided it was time to get married. He went to a matchmaker and was offered Hinda, a woman who had lived in hippie communes and had a young son. She was a friend of Joseph’s sister, and had gone through the Lubavitch girl’s program, which focused more on how to run a Jewish home.

Joseph had his doubts: one rabbi told him to choose somebody else because he would always question if he married her for mercy or love. But he thought about her often and finally decided he would marry her and adopt her son and make sure he had a Jewish education. For this, he received great credit. “If you give a child a Torah education, he becomes your own child,” someone said. “It’s more important than birth itself, if you do that—the yoke of heaven.”

Don’t ask why, but I was invited to the wedding. At 7 p.m. on a September evening, I entered the Brooklyn Jewish Center on the north side of Eastern Parkway, went up a flight of grand steps, then into a room where several people were waiting—parents, relatives, Reform Jews to whom all this must have looked strange. Bottles of vodka were produced from the Rebbe’s private stock, paper cups were passed around along with bottles of Mayim Chaim club soda. Each boy got up and said a hearty “L’Chaim!” to Joseph and he acknowledged each of these toasts. He was dressed in a very fine black outfit.

The mothers of the bride and groom stepped on their glasses on the floor in the traditional manner. This was followed by more singing, more shots and pounding on the tables. A band with a clarinet, accordion and violin played Klezmer-style music. Joseph gave a Ma’amar, an address, which the previous Rebbe had given at the present Rebbe’s wedding, and which everybody is now required to recite when they are wed. It was a long statement on how a man cannot be great unless he has a wife. Joseph went into complete lapses of memory at some points, and had to be coached by the 80 year-old Rabbi Jacobson. Finally, another glass was broken, and we all went outside.

A canopy had been set up in in front of 770., and there were about 25 people standing on it. The bride arrived by motor vehicle, her face completely veiled. She was walked to podium, and marched round in a circle several times while Langer’s father seeming bemused by the whole thing, carried a dripping candle. Rabbi Jacobson recited various prayers, two cantors sang a couple of recitations, a personal message from Rebbe was given, wine was blessed and consumed on the podium, and the bride came down, her veil finally off.

Then the real fun started. The Talmud states, ““Whoever attends a wedding and does not make the bride and groom merry, he violates five commandments.” That was the spirit of this occasion. Slightly drunk on whisky, bottles of which were on each table, I sampled the food on the buffet tables—there was chicken, rice, chow mein, chopped liver, egg salad, eggplant and a couple of hot vegetables.

Joseph arrived, and was placed in a chair and carried above our heads across the room at a frightening pace. Then he was placed down, a circle formed around him, and the dancing began. At intervals, men would leave the circle and do their private dances in front of the groom; one did Russian knee-kicks. Two others came up as a team, and swung around and around: It was dizzying. Then it seemed like all control was lost. Men climbed on each other’s shoulders, and one stood on his head, while another leapt through his spread legs. Joseph was lifted up high, then down again. They were riding each other around like horses. One kid’s hat fell off. Langer climbed on the shoulders of somebody else, and at great peril replaced the hat with a yarmulke.


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