The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part VIII

By Ray Schultz

I wasn’t the only one suffering from a spiritual overdose. Levi was a 26 year-old ex-Hasid, a very thin young man with long hair, a friend of David’s. His father was a Lubavitcher Hasid who came to the U.S. in 1946 after spending most of World War II in China. Levi received the standard Yeshiva education, and was considered a brilliant student, a credit to his father who taught at the same school. By his teenage years, though, he began to have doubts. For one thing, he could see the bad effects the Hasidic life had on his family. His father struggled to support multiple children on a yeshiva salary of roughly $80 a week: he was sometimes ill-tempered. And Levi gradually had a loss of faith that was aggravated by the fact that “I wasn’t allowed to read certain books and check out certain ideas.”

Meanwhile, he deplored the bullying that went on at the yeshiva, some of it practiced, he claimed, by the principal Samuel Shrage. I let him know that I had very friendly relations with Shrage, but he was adamant in his dislike of him, claiming that he beat people for minor infractions.

Even without that, Levi was bored by the constant, trancelike study of the Talmud. “You’d spend six hours on one paragraph,” he said. “I still get into those trances. There’s the commentaries, and the commentaries on the commentaries, and the contradictions between those commentaries. I think you have to lay something very heavy on a kid to get them to want to dwell on that stuff—something along the lines of a lobotomy.”

His faith slipped further, and audiences with the Rebbe failed to bring him back. “They always have one saint after another to send you to, until they finally touch a raw nerve, then they work on that until you break—they’re experts at it. But the Rebbe didn’t seem to spot where I was at that point. He was laying a lot of things on me that he should have been able to know I wouldn’t take seriously. It was very disappointing.”

In what way?

“Very unconversational, very pedantic, shallow, actually. He’s very impressive in the way he looks and the way he moves, but not in the things he says. And he didn’t seem to spot where I was at the point. You know, he was laying a lot of things on me that he should have been able to know that I wasn’t gonna take seriously, so it was a disappointment. I didn’t feel he had a personal interest. His hegemony was really threatened because I think he really sensed I was considering actually breaking away, and he was acting very stern and all that because I feel he was being threatened politically.”

Levi went to Yeshiva University, a compromise with his family, then to Columbia, which had not yet erupted in protest. “I wore the yarmulke at Columbia at first, because my father said he was gonna make periodical checks on me to make sure I still wear a yarmulke. But then I called his bluff and realized he wouldn’t dare do a thing like that.”

Then Levi started taking drugs, and school authorities saw him as “self-destructive.” He suffered two confinements in a mental hospital. The second time, he was drugged with heavy doses of Thorazine. Fearful that they would keep him for a long term, he asked his father for help, and his father went to the Rebbe. “A guy came up from Lubavitch,” he said. “He was a friend of mine I went to school with, and I cried my head off to him. He put tefillin on me. I never dreamed I would put tefillin on again. Finally, the Legal Aid got me out. My father thinks it was the Rebbe’s blessing that got me out, but I know better. Still, it’s the only time in my life I think he really came through. That’s why I remain in touch with him, because he could have said to himself, ‘I’ll let this kid go through the whole thing and he’ll come running back to Lubavitch,’ but he didn’t, he stuck up for me, and I admire him for it.”

Now Levi was living a life similar to that of David, and to me seemed even more vulnerable. He belonged to a mall mental patients’ liberation group. “The hospital is the most important thing that’s ever happened to me, and I learned a lot about so-called systems,” he said. “Like I put together and could sort of see that the outside culture, the American culture, had just as many rules and regulations and kind of taboos that Hasidic culture had, and I just wasn’t living up to them somehow. So they had to cure me from that, and I think it was a disciplinary move.”

Now, as we sat in the West End, Levi discussed his feelings about Hasidism:

RS: What’s the difference between Orthodox Judaism and Lubavitch?

Levi: There’s a real difference. You see, orthodoxy is a way of life but it’s not a real community. It has rituals and prescriptions, like you have to do this, and you have to do that, and you do this when you’re supposed to do that. But it doesn’t have that cohesive force which keeps people trapped the way Lubavitch does. Lubatich is is a commuinty, a totality, it’s got it’s center., it’s got the Rebbe, who’s really the focal point of everything.

RS: Do you admire the Rebbe?

Levi: That’s like the rough question. Just like every other movement has something to go on, otherwise it couldn’t eist, so they have their talent, he’s an extremely talented guy, an exceptional con artist, a beautiful man, he probably has a lot of psychi cpowers and stuff like that, but I think he’s an evil person because he’s, like, ontorlling people’s lives like that. It’d be oice to try to sort it out, you know, if I didn’t have any real biases against it I could dig through it all and see what in it was really good. The way I see it now, baseically it was an oppressive system, so like, he’s the leader of it, he’s gto be condemned for that. He’s an eceptionally talented guy, what’ he’s doing, but it’s very easy to see through him, just like you see through a leader of any sort.

RS: What will happen when the Rebbe dies?

Levi: I don’t know what’s going to happen when he goes. There’s gonna be a lot of sectarian fights within it, and it may just dissipate. There are probably people who could possibly take over who have reached positions of power, but no-one has the kind of charisma that he’s got. And it it really revolves to quite an etent around him. And when he passes on, it’s gonna be really rtough on a lot of people, who won’t know where to go.

RS: Do you still see yourself primarily as a Jew? 

Levi: Probably more universal because I wasn’t really brought up as a Jew, I was brought up as a Hasid. We didn’t have a real Jewish consciousness. We didn’t even study Jewish history–very little, in fact. I know more about the Talmud than the actual hisory of my people. Very znti-Zionistic, so that didn’t even exsit. I had a Hasidic consciousness, or a religious consciousness,, so I don’t really see myself as a Jew. That’s where I’m very different from David. One of the first things he’ll note or try to find out about a person—usually, he can spot it without inquiring—is whether the person is Jewish or not. I can’t tell, and I really don’t care.”

RS: Do you believe in God?

Levi: I don’t think it’s a religious question, I think it’s a political question. It’s sort of like asking, ‘Do you think that all these things that are great are one, or are all these things part of one onsciousness?’ That’s either political or semantical—I don’t think it’s the religious question. It’s always a mistke that people first try to find out, ‘Who’s the boss hesre?’ That’s not the point, the point is to find out what’s inside yourself, what’s around you, how to look at life and really experience the likeness of it rather than know who’s boss in this world. I think that whole conept of God has evolved for political reasons. Like kings or leaders of the tribe or something wanted to have an analogy or a model –so –kings always aligned htemselves with God, they always said they were the son of God.

RS: So you don’t believe the Torah was divinely inspired? 

Levi: Well, something can be divinely inspired even if there’s no God. There’s the great spirit or something. I don’t believe in the Torah at all, in fact, I believe it’s one of the most uninspired things I’ve ever run across.

RS: Did you find contradictions in the way the Hasidim relate to sex?

Levi: No, there’s no contraction in the way they realate to it, they have it all worked out. In fact, there’s more contradictions on the outside. In the first world, there are no contradictions at all. It’s mainly a lot of repression, sublimation, it’s all explaied do you and you know exactly why you’re doing it, and when to do it, it’s all defined. I think it’s lousy, but it’s not full of contradictions, and it’s not as painful.

RS: How do people fare when they’ve left Hasidic life? 

Levi: I find with ex-Hasidic Jews, with the eception of me and David, I guess, is that they walk into the success story mentality very quickly because that’s what they feel they’ve been depirved of. So they get into this conception of making it, and I think David’s going to fall into that pretty soon. I don’t think he has the facilities or educational background for it, but he’s gonna get into that soon.

RS: David says he may actually go back to Lubavitch.

Levi: I think he may actually go back. I would never try to stop hi because he’s in a lot of pain now. 

RS: And you?

Levi: The only thing I ever did I my life that I’m proud of was to break away from Lubavitch because it took a lot of courage. But I’d never recommend it to anyone else because I couldn’t tell them where to go.

 

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