The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part VI

By Ray Schultz

Joseph had succeeded in getting into Lubavitch. But others wanted out. One was an ex-Hasid we’ll call David, who lived from hand to mouth near the Columbia University campus. He had forsaken orthodox Judaism, and was now smoking marijuana and indulging in sex when he could.

At 27, David came from a respected Lubavitch family that had, after travels throughout Europe, landed in Brownsville, Brooklyn. His father owned a factory–money was always plentiful. As a child, David was stricken with polio, and was allowed more freedom to think than most Hasidic children. At 12 or 13, he would get on the subway in Crown Heights, ride around the city and go to museums. He read books by such authors as Dickens and Dumas, and suffered a loss of faith. “When I was 17, I started questioning very seriously. Is there a God? Did God give us the Torah? How legitimate is the written and oral law?”

Audiences with the Rebbe failed to dispel these doubts. “I was having emotional problems, and at one point I went to see him,” David said. “I was 21 or 22. He gave me some good advice, and I think his blessing helped me a lot. I believe he’s a holy man. But we had a short philosophic talk that left me unsatisfied. I asked him for certain concrete evidence and he wasn’t able to give it, which I realize now, is silly. It’s like Kierkegaard said. There IS no proof that God gave us the Torah, although there is certain proof that the Jewish people have survived till now, and the Jewish contribution to Western culture itself proves that there is something unique about the Jewish people.”

The West End was a rambling college hangout with a circular bar. It was there, in the back room, that I interviewed David over West Enders, an affordable hamburger platter offered by the place. He was a tall, bearded man who walked with a slight limp from his childhood illness, and often had a pained expression on his face. I met him through mutual friends, and he came to a holiday party thrown by my crowd of struggling writers and illustrators, drinkers and pot-smokers all. He was dismayed by their drunkenness and lack of discipline. He resisted being interviewed, but finally agreed.

David went to a yeshiva in Montreal to pursue college-level studies. “I was studying Hasidus, which is basically an ethical-philosophic system,” he said. “It’s a system of metaphysics, and I like it very much., I still do, I think Chabbad Hasidus is one of the most profound philosophies that Judaism has developed. It’s a very beautiful way of life. It takes a man to be a Hasid. It takes a very strong and noble person.”

But David realized his worst problem regarding Hasdiic life: sex. “I hate how they separate the men and women,” he said. “It screwed me up sexually. The first time I really confronted it was when I was riding the bus once in Montreal. I saw this very beautiful French girl, and there was something about her I liked. She had a very sensitive and beautiful face. I was thinking of following her, but I felt guilty about looking at her in the first place, so I didn’t.”

Not that sex was an entirely unknown topic to David. “The Kabala is highly sexual, they talk a lot about the masculine, the feminine, the masculine giving to the feminine, which are supposed to be metaphors for God and Israel—the Sefirot,” he said.

David wanted to become a psychoanalyst, and his parents allowed him to go to New School in Manhattan after the yeshiva. Bur he ran into the same issues there. “I could imagine people saying, ‘Look, that rabbi is staring at a woman, isn’t that a shame?’ So I started wearing a modern suit and a sports hat. And before I got to school, I’d twirl the hat around and put it in my coat pocket. I think I might have passed for a square intellectual.”

Soon he abandoned even that pretense and went entirely without Hasidic dress, dispensing with the yarmulke, trimming his bead and on a trip to Washington wearing a brightly colored suit. “The Hasidic façade was off,” he said. “It was very liberating.”

In time, David left the New School and began hanging around with people from Columbia, some of them disengaging from their own Orthodox backgrounds. But his personal problems caught up with him, and he ended up virtually homeless.

By day, he sat in on classes at Columbia or read, mostly psychoanalytic and metaphysical works. At 9 o’clock every night, he would wander into the West End bar and make the rounds of the tables, hoping to meet a woman who would invite him home; if that failed, he would ask for shelter with friends.

To get food, David would sometimes order a meal in a restaurant and skip out on the bill. “Many times when I was very hungry, I’d order a small thing, like a tuna sandwich, and I’d walk out or tell the guy, ‘Look, I have no money.’ What’s he gonna do for 80 cents? And there’s a certain place, Bickford’s on 14th and 7th, where they have a counter. I used to sit many times next to the door. I used to dress up, I used to eat a meal for $2.50, and then when the waitress was away. I used to rush out and go into a doorway.” He did this until it dawned on him that the waitresses might have to pay for the order, and then he just starved. “In Chabbad, they teach you to fight your weaknesses,” he said, “so I was able to cope with it. Also, it was easy knowing that I could go home to Mommy and Daddy in Crown Heights, eat a good meal and pick up 30 dollars.”

But what was the cause of his anxiety?

“I was suicidal, I had obsessions,” he said. “One of the things that a religious upbringing does to you is you live very structurally. And when you leave that, you still need a certain amount of structure. So I developed a whole obsessional structure, very sick, that caused me a lot of pain, almost drove me to suicide., which I don’t feel like getting into, but I still have it.”

Then why did he leave Lubavitch?

“There are many reasons I’m not a Hasid,” he said. “One you can say that I’m trying to hurt my parents. Another is it’s an easier way of life, this, to be a Hasid is a hard way—this way of life is a very hedonistic one.”

He also praised the structure of Hasidic life—up to a point.

“If you want to go into business, you ask the Rebbe—there’s a shoulder to lean on,” he said. “Out here, you sort of have to take your own knocks. In that sense, Hasidism is a highly beneficial system. It’s greater than psychoanalysis, people have peace of mind, but they’re paying a heavy price for it in freedom and loss of individuality. And there’s a thing in the Hasidic community—at least it’s been my experience—there’s always a fear of ‘what will the neighbors say?’ As long as you live that way, you’re not really free.”

“Most of the human race lives that way,” I said,

“But I think within the Hasidic community it’s more intensified because for one thing, they have to dress in a certain way,” he answered.

“But it seems they are really into it.”

“Oh, they are into it. When I was into it, I was into it, too. It’s like any other system. Look what the Chinese have done. They’ve alleviated hunger for the first time in thousands of years. It’s probably the most just society on the face of the earth right now, but look at the price they’re paying. They’ve had to give up a lot of individuality.”

(I failed to challenge his comment about China being the most just society, showing our mutual naivety).

We went on from there:

RS: Despite your doubts, you’re still a spiritual individual.

David: Yeah, I’m spiritual. I’m searching for a way of life I’m trying to be ethical, yeah, I am basically a religious person. If you’re raised with a religious system for 23 year it’s hard to shake it off.

RS: Is there a degree of observance?

David: Yeah, I don’t eat ham or bacon.”

RS: And Shabbos?

David: Intellectually, I see Shabbos as very important concept. It’s funny, but I realize over the years on Shabbos I tend to do less as far as traveling—I go more to the library and read. I also try to set aside, inside me, the Shabbos as a day of rest. The Shabbos makes sense, it’s beautiful, it’s one of mankind’s most beautiful days.”

RS: And Lubavitch?

David: They have some very outstanding people in Lubavitch I greatly respect and admire. I greatly respect the Rebbe, too. I think he’s one of the greatest Jews today. He’s a holy man. A great intellectual, a great leader of the Jews. 

RS: Would you clamor to get near him?

David: I would clamor, yes. Sure, he’s a holy man. I’m attracted to holy men—I’ve gone many times to see Swami Satchidananda

RS: Do you feel guilt toward the Rebbe?

David: To the Rebbe? No. I don’t. I think the Rebbe would understand. If anybody would, the Rebbe would. I hold the Rebbe in great reverence and almost a certain fear, a slight fear because I do believe he’s a holy man.

RS: What will happen if he dies? He doesn’t have an heir.

David: I’ve wondered myself. How old is the Rebbe now?

RS: 72 or 73.

David: Well, he’s probably—Lubavitchers believe that he’s a messiah, I don’t know what will happen. I would think that of all of them, Lubavitch is more equipped to deal with a situation like that. More than Satmar. I think they’ll be much more messed up. It seems thhat Lubavitch is a much more smoothly-flowing entity than Satmar.

(I believe this was the first time I ever heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to as the possible messiah). 

RS: Do you think the Rebbe has his own doubts about the existence of God?

David: He’s a highly enigmatic person, the Rebbe. I find it very fascinating. I wonder what he really believes. Who knows he might be putting on a facade, cause he is a very profound mind. Can you imagine if the Rebbe said on Shabbos, ‘I have my doubts about the divine origin of the Torah?,’ what pandemonium that would bring?’

RS: You think they’d disown him? 

David: I don’t know. Maybe all the others would come out with their doubts. It might be one of the greatest liberating things. There was one Hasidic Rebbe, I think Kotzker, and they say—this is more legend than a fact—that one Friday night he came in on Shabbos and lit a candle and said, ‘There’s no judge, and there’s no judgment.’ A very fascinating man.

RS: Would you really go back?

David: It’s as legitimate a way of lie as any other. I’m not saying, there aren’t more legitimate ways. But where are we all gonna end up, anyway? I mean, what are we all gonna be in five years? I could go back. In a couple of years. If I did, I’d be treated with respect, sort of like the spy who came in from the cold. I’d probably be given a good marriage match. But I’d have to believe in it, I wouldn’t go back as a hypocrite. Right now, I’m becoming more religious, and a lot of the Torah makes more sense to me. Shabbos makes sense, kosher makes sense. Some of the sexual restrictions even make sense. Besides, some of the most ethical people I’ve ever met in my life are in Lubavitch. Not like these Marxists in the West End who won’t give you twenty cents to get a cup of coffee.


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