By Ray Schultz
One hot Tuesday in August 1974, I found myself in a Hertz truck manned by young Rabbinic students on vacation. Their job was to drive around the city, jump out at different spots and urge American Jews to “identify.” My job, as I saw it, was to survive the ride.
By this time, I was on assignment from The New York Times Magazine. The Times had spurned an earlier proposal of mine, but another writer’s article on the Hasidim had fallen through, and the Times suddenly was interested in a mish-mash I had written, its main virtue being that it was “not too chicken soupy,” an editor wrote. But they wanted revisions. And their first demand was that I ride one of these new Mitzvah Mobiles—that was the news hook. I called Yehuda Krinsky, who seemed none too friendly at first. But faced with an impending article, he was helpful.
So there I was. Our first stop was Wall Street, where the truck attracted bemusement at best. The young men who manned it would sidle up to people on the street and ask, in confidential tones, “Are you Jewish?” If the answer was yes, they would start their pitch, but would withdraw the proffered booklets if the person said no.
Men who said they were Jewish were invited to enter the trucks. Most didn’t—as Shrage had said in a somewhat shocking remark, the Hasidim reminded acculturated American Jews of “something they had a nose job to forget.” The few who did enter were instructed on the importance of charity boxes and tefillin. And they would be invited to put on tefillin. I, a non-believer, also was coerced into donning tefillin before the truck even took off, but I was now fairly skilled at wrapping it around my arm.
We left Wall Street, and after a bumpy drive to Brooklyn, parked on a corner near Sheepshead Bay. With klezmer music blaring from the truck, an old man started dancing on the sidewalk. They kept asking him if he was Jewish, but he wouldn’t stop dancing long enough to answer.
My other mandate from the Times was that I profile a “plain foot soldier” in Lubavitch. So Krinsky served one up. Hirsh Gonsburg, age 45, ran a printing house, The Empire Press, on Empire Blvd. He was born in Moscow, where he attended a small yeshiva in a basement. His father was an alumnus of the original Lubavitch yeshiva, and a photographer who occasionally took shots for Isvestia, the Soviet news agency. In 1938, the family moved to Palestine to avoid the coming war, and young Hirsh and his two brothers were able to pursue their yeshiva studies in peace. In 1948, at age 18, he came to America to study in Crown Heights, and met a young woman named Rasha Denburg, who came from a respected family. They were married. Rather than going in for teaching or further Rabbinic training, Gonsburg took a job with a small print shop in East New York, and started learning the printing business. After a brief period in Montreal, he returned to Crown Heights, and in 1967, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, he and Mordecai Chean, opened their own shop. They print publications for Lubavitch in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, and pamphlets for various businesses in the area. Both men enjoyed the work, but said it was tough to make a living. No matter what they earned, 10% of their incomes had to go to Lubavitch. “It’s part of Jewish law,” said Gonsburg.
Like most men, Gonsburg carried the burden of mitzvahs for his family. He arose at 6:30 every morning and went to shul. There he donned his tefillin and tallis (prayer shawl) for morning prayer. He davened for 45 minutes, then returned home for breakfast. His shul was a small place near his house. Though most men would rather daven where the Rebbe was, they usually went closest to home. At 9:30, he arrived at work and began a long, hard day. Within an hour, his hands were usually full of printer’s ink, and his ears subjected to the constant clacking of the hot-type machines. Occasionally, he and Chean had to wash up and go over to Manhattan for business. In the course of a day, they were required to go through two more prayer sessions. One was mincha, or afternoon prayer. They usually davened together at the shop, with the co-workers. “The only requirement is that we do it by sundown,” he said. “If it’s late, we’ll just close the shop up: it takes about 15 minutes.” At night, he went to shul for evening prayer, which also takes 15 minutes, and after dinner he usually studied Torah for an hour or two by himself. “We have to keep studying,” he said. “It’s an ongoing thing. The Rebbe is studying, too.”
Gonsburg’s two sons attended yeshiva, where they spent half a day on religious subjects and half on state-required secular subjects. An average Hasidic schoolboy, in his bright-colored yarmulke and close-cropped hair, spends 8 or 9 hours a day (in school and at home) of grueling work in Torah, Talmud and Hasidus, and by the time he is 10 years old, will already be something of an expert, I was told. In addition, by the tender age of five, he would also mostly likely speak English, Yiddish, the sacred language Hebrew, and possibly one or more European languages, such as Russian or French, depending on where his parents came from.
At some point, I asked Gonsburg about his wife, and he replied, somewhat abashedly, that she had passed away in 1969. “We manage, thank God,” he said
To get a woman’s perspective, I visited Menachim Blau’s home to interview his wife Esther, who ran the Hadar Hatorah women’s program. Their house was neatly but not plushily decorated—there were photos of the previous and current Rebbes on the wall. Blau took out tefillin, kissed it and bade me to put it on. Esther brought out a quart of Tropicana orange juice and lemon meringue pie. While we talked, another woman sat in the front room and rocked their small baby.
Mrs. Blau told me the girl’s training program was the right one for women. “Girls can’t sit and study, they must work to support the men during first year or so of marriage while the men complete their studies,” she said. Her husband gravely nodded in agreement at some point.
Mrs. Blau continued that women are relieved of many of the responsibilities that fall on men—not that women are less valuable, only that “each sex has its role,” she said. “That of women is to make children—they are required only to observe those commandments for which they can find time. We want women to serve our Lord, but her part or role is by raising the family, to be fruitful, to have children.” Finally, without my even inferring it, she said, “Religious people don’t feel women are lower.”