The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part VII

By Ray Schultz

The next meeting on my agenda took place on a Friday afternoon leading into Shabbos. It was with 80 year-old Rabbi Jacobson. I visited him in his home, a place pervaded with a strong aroma of food. We sat in his cluttered front-room study while the Shabbos preparations were going on—there was a feeling of anticipation .

The rabbi had come to the United States from Russia in 1925. In 1929, he was instrumental in bringing over the alter Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneerson. He gave me a pet talk on Hadar Hatrorah and made a wry comment about young people eating “that schmutzig rice.”

Now I was a quiet person—they may have seen me as a candidate, I’ll never know. But suddenly a door opened up, and I was invited to spend Shabbos in Crown Heights.

I arrived around 5 p.m. on a rainy Friday night in September, at a dormitory on the North side of Eastern Parkway, opposite 770, an was greeted by my two guides: Pinchas and Abba. They made me surrender my umbrella on arrival because you can’t carry anything on Shabbos; I also had to empty my pockets.

We went up two fights, and Pinchas gave me a drawer in a dresser. It was a large dormitory room that could have been at any college except for the mezuzahs on every doorway. Abba and Pinchas began studying, but not before Abba presented me with tefillin, two small leather boxes containing verses from the Torah that are attached to leather straps, one of which you wear high on the arm to signify the devotion of the heart and one on the hand to show the obedience of the mind, and invited me to put them on.

It was impossible to argue about it in the circumstances, so I did as told. Abba coaxed me along on the prayers—each time, you’re expected to more or else remember one more word—and over time I became reasonably good at wrapping up my left arm in these phylacteries, as they are also called.

I had made clear to everyone that I was a journalist, but that got lost as they tried to enforce Hasidic rigor on me—at one point the next day, I went into the rest room and someone barged in after me to warn that you can’t flush on Shabbos.

But it was hardly a solemn atmosphere. The men ate, told jokes and talked.. I followed Pinchas over to a table at the window, and another boy, very friendly, began reading about five words at a time on the subject of Hasidus. It was a circuitous discussion, and I don’t think Pinchas was making much of it either Finally the kid said, “What do you think of all this?”

“It’s rather…”

“Abstract!” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Well, the Hasidus is a very advanced form of study. There are secrets which it takes years to learn.”

On this note, we discussed the messiah. He said the messiah was due no later than 7,000 years after the creation, and we were in the 5,000s or 6,000s now. His arrival will be preceded by great turmoil and unhappiness. In fact, he may be alive on this earth right now.

Ever a skeptic, I probed about his physical characteristics. They sloughed off that part, telling me only that the messiah will definitely be an observant Jew. Then, without my asking, they denied he was the Guru Murahaj Ji.

It was time for the evening prayer and the welcoming of the sabbath. They pointed me to other side of room to prayer book racks. I picked one out an English-language version, and faced the Eastern wall like everybody else, and proceeded to render myself extremely uncomfortable.. Everyone was chanting to himself.

After a period of self-consciousness, I began reading and trying to digest the contents. There were psalms, ancient prayers, rhythmic words. Then it broke up. We sat down at a table with several other students and Rabbi Kohn, a youngish bearded rabbi, presided from the head of the table, speaking with a marked English accent. He had been attending an orthodox yeshiva in Britain. Then, unsatisfied, he began studying Hasidus in his room late at night, a thing he couldn’t reveal. Finally, he couldn’t hold it in anymore, and announced that he was going to Brooklyn to the Lubavitcher yeshiva. They tried to talk him out of it, then attempted to kidnap him at the airport, they said. But he escaped and caught the plane.

Now, quoting the prior Rebbe, he instructed us to emulate the Bal Shem Tov, revere the Ebeshter (the Almighty) and “be a Hasid.” He added that if a man performs a mitzvah, he gets credit for it even if it is not part of his regular character. But he should strive to do even better. Kohn wound it up by saying, “And you can all be here at 8:30 tomorrow for study,” which caused a few chuckles.

There were more prayers—a good stiff session of them. Then the supplicants loosened up slowly, and warmly greeted each other by saying “Shabbos!” Pinchas, introduced me to our host for the evening, Meir, a reserved individual with glasses and blond hair, who had done time in an ashram in India. The two other guests showed up, one boy, a talkative adolescent, and an overweight person with a florid face and burning red hair named Zvi The five us assembled on the stairs, and left for the Shabbos meal.

We walked slowly in the late Friday night rain, down Troy Ave. to Empire, and then a block south. My feet were sore from a new pair of boots, so I fell behind with the out-of-breath Zvi. He said he was from Uruguay, had attended a Yeshiva there and was now studying here; apropos of nothing, he said he was opposed to the Allende regime in Chile. He inquired about my own religious orientation. I was tired of telling people that I was a non-believer. I said I was religious to an extent, but not a full follower of the commandments. He grunted and said, “Something is better than nothing.”

We came to a large, old-fashioned Brooklyn apartment building with scalloped mantelpieces in the lobby, and began walking up six flights of stairs (you can’t ride in an elevator on Shabbos), into a darkened apartment lit only by candles. We were greeted at the door by a young woman wearing a floor-length dress. We sat down. The teenage kid smugly—and condescendingly—challenged all of us on our fervor.

First we had to wash, pouring the water from the pot over each hand three times, saying the prayer, then remained silent while our host Meir broke the bread. He held it out in front of him under a towel or cloth. We all had to hold it while he said the prayer, then he cut it, first taking a little chunk off for himself, dipping it in salt and tasting it. Then he cut larger slices, dipping them each in salt, and passed them around to the rest of us.

He also said Kiddush over the wine, and soon we each had a glass of it, mixed with grape juice. My sprits improved when I felt a bit of alcohol enter my system. All during this, Meir gave lessons, reading from the Rebbe’s speech on Rosh Hashanah the year before, which exhorted the faithful to be even more religious during the holidays, and not to use them as an excuse to sleep and eat more. “Everybody takes it for that, but that’s not what it is,” he said. “You’re supposed to sleep and eat less and pray even more. Go to the synagogue and stay there.”

The teenager chimed in. “My mother always wanted me to feed me more,” he said.

“Yes, Meir said. “Our mothers always want us to eat more on those days. It’s not right.”

I was surprised at this outburst against mothers. The kids started singing, and the food was finally served (Meir had snapped, “Wait until I’m finished” when his wife tried to bring it out the first time). The first course was gefilte fish with horse radish, better than you could get at any deli in Manhattan, followed by salad and tomatoes. The next course was noodle pudding with breadcrumbs. Being a starch addict, I enjoyed the noodles, which went down very well with the wine, but the teenager said, “Are you a vegetarian, don’t you serve meat here?” “I had requested meat,” Meir said, “Maybe it would take too long to prepare. ”

As we ate, Meir explained that it was no sin to sin—if you wanted to come back into the fold, you only had to do so. And you would be joyously welcomed.

Nobody was particularly focused on me, so I started enjoying the experience. The Torah instructs Jews to observe the sabbath. but I could see that this is not only an obligation: it’s the highlight of the week. Given the darkness and the feeling of being away from the world, I could see why the Hasidim loved it.

The meal over, we prayed again, and walked back to the shul in the rain. This time I fell in with the teenager. He said had planned to enter a Greek monastery. But he met some Belze Hasids in Israel, and realized that Hasidism was the answer to his religious quest.

We walked across Eastern Parkway and into the dormitory. The room had one bed, and mattresses on the floor. I chose a sleeping bag on the floor next to the window, figuring that I at least might be able to get some fresh air. I listened to the rain and at length—remarkably—went to sleep.

Suddenly it was Saturday morning. Pinchas was at the door, saying, ‘It’s really late, we have to hurry.’ We rushed over to the Yeshiva at 824, where a full-fledged prayer service was beginning to rev up. Pinchas deserted me, so I found an empty spot at a table and began reading an English version of the book of Jewish laws. This service went on for an interminable period—they took the sefer Torah scroll out of the cabinet and read the weekly portion. They read—and read—and read. Some were rocking back and forth in the corners, their faces to the walls—this form of prayer was very intense and personal. There was a sort of break in it, then it began again. I was hungry and weak and had nothing like the ease I had felt the night before: I needed a cup of coffee. This was a day of rest? Pinchas asked, “Would you like to do Kiddush?” I knew what that meant. We gathered with five or six others and headed to a house on Troy, up a flight of stairs and into a narrow sunlit dining room. There was a long table filled with plates of cakes and bottles of grape juice and apple juice. The host said Kiddush—it seemed he had been married in France the week before. There were about nine of us at table. Another couple of kids came in, so the host pulled a couch out of other room, swung it around. I found it is permissible to move furniture on Sabbath. We ate—first, as usual, we started with gefilte fish and horse radish. And there was wine, for which I was grateful. At length, we finished and thanked our host and hostess.

Then we went to the Farbringen—an occasional gathering presided over by the Rebbe–in the large shul. The place was stacked with picnic-type benches and tables, and was already filled with black-clothed men. There was sort of a podium set up in front, with a long table. Other men came in, hundreds of them, it seemed. Not a woman in sight—they were upstairs in stalls, behind the windows, looking down on the scene. Pinchas and I stood on the side for awhile. He told me about Kabala and Hasidus. Jesus was accepted as a great miracle worker because he knew the secrets of the Kabala, including gematriya, Jewish numerology: every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value and you can work wonders with the combinations.. He told me Jesus went into the Temple in Jerusalem. The secrets had never been taken out, but Jesus sewed some of the documents into his leg, and sneaked them out in that fashion. “All the stuff he did was nothing new to us. We had guys doing that for hundreds of years.”

Then there was the case of Frankenstein, another goyische misrepresentation. Pinchas told me that Frankenstein was in reality a body which the rabbis had given life to by means of Kabalic secrets. In another instance, Rashi, one of the great Talmudic codifiers, rendered himself invisible when tormentors came to get him—thus, the myth of the invisible man. And the sainted Bel Shem Tov himself did things like walking on the water, and praying to remove cloud covers when they obscured the full moon (“you can’t make the prayers unless the moon is visible”).

Of course, those were the days you could do miracles. The Kabalists and rabbis could never perform them now because the world is in so unstable a condition. “If I got up and flew right now,” Pinchas said, “I would be accepted as God by the human race. That’s all you would have to do. That’s why the people who know these things don’t want to mess around with them that much.” This all sounded nonsensical to me, and hardly the right focus. But what did I know?

The main area down front was filed with the benches, but the sides and rear were taken up by bleachers. Men were standing on every level of these bleachers, swaying back and forth. It looked dangerous, given that there were no railings. By this time, the elders were all seated at long table on the podium. I was shoved into a place at one of the tables so I could see the whole thing better. But I didn’t see much. Elbows and knees were pushing into my ribs from all angles; there was no way to turn. A husky guy with blond hair began shoving people out of the aisles. One of the kids told me that during a previous Farbringen around Yom Kippur the year before, there had been a horrible fight because of the crowding. Finally, the entire mass of bodies turned in one direction—the Rebbe was coming in from the side. There was silence as he walked to the podium, looking the same as usual. He ascended and said Kiddush over the wine. Then the singing started, with bodies swaying all over the place. Bottles of Kedam kosher wine were broken out, and the little plastic cups were filled with the stuff and passed down the line of bodies at the table. When you received a cup, it was your duty to stand up and hold up your glass until the Rebbe noticed you and nodded, at which point you immediately said, “L’Chaim,” and when the Rebbe nodded his concurrence, then you sat down again. When it came my turn, I did what I was told to do, but I had barely been rewarded with the Rebbe’s nod, when I imagined that he saw right through me for the slime and hypocrite I was. Then the singing stopped and the Rebbe began speaking in Yiddish.

His voice was soft—it was definitely that of an old man. What he said, I found out later, was that every person should have his own place to pray, his own particular shul. I’m not sure of the timing of some of his comments, but they were in my notes, and I suspect that he said them on this day. If I am correct, he discussed the three stages of growth towards the sense of the “unity of God,” pointing out all the historic instances in which the number three played a role. For example, the Torah, which has three main sections, was given to the Jews, who had three main divisions (Cohens, Levites and Israelis), in Sivan, the third month of the Jewish calendar, on the same date as two other important events in Jewish history: The death of King David, and the death of the Bal Shem Tov. In addition, Moses was the third born, after Miriam and Aaron, and there were three censuses of the Jews during the Exodus in the Sinai Desert. “Blessed be the Merciful One, who gave a threefold Torah to a threefold people through a third—born on the third day in the third month,” he reportedly said. After about an hour, the Rebbe stopped, and the singing began again and more shouts of “L’Chaim!”

This cycle repeated itself about twice, then suddenly the singing stopped again, and without warning, men pushed toward the front. At this point, the Rebbe gave his Ma’amar, —in Hebrew, of course. I couldn’t hear it at all. When it was over, and the singing began again. I had lost my seat in the rush, and was forced toward the back where you could scarcely hear or see a thing.

For the rest of the affair, which went on for four hours at least, I wandered in and out. A Jews for Jesus truck pulled up in front, and was immediately surrounded by angry Hasids. I feared it would end in violence. One man said, “Do you know what we have suffered in the name of that man?”

Finally, the Farbringen was over. An afternoon prayer service followed, and Meir and Dov and I grouped up and walked to Meir’s house for the evening meal. By this time, I had a splitting headache. There was much less singing this evening than the previous one, and the teenager wasn’t there. There was, of course, gefilte fish, and a sort of barley stew, again with noddles. Meir wanted to hurry because Rabbi Kohn was going to give a translation of the Farbringen speech back at shul. So we ate fast. Meir’s wife talked for a change—she complained that where she went to pray, the women were always chatting and gossiping.

Meir said perhaps they shoud set up a woman’s prayer area at Hadar Hatorah, or some such place—his wife agreed. She cited it as reason she didn’teven bother to go to the Farbringen. Meir seemed to frown on this. But he admitted that he had never gone through a entire Farbringen himself, probably never could. He added that he hadn’t eaten first today, and after standing for all those hours, so hungry, he was feeling shaky. I knew the feeing: I felt shaky, and I had eaten.

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