There is a reason this account stops in 1974 and does not continue as a full-fledged history of the Hasidim: I had a couple of chopped-up articles out on the subject, but then gave up on the idea of doing anything more. This narrative mostly consists of verbatim notes I wrote up in 1973-74 on cheap yellow paper, then retyped into my computer over the last couple of years, editing along the way.
I don’t present this as a great work of journalism. But it’s a document of sorts: It tells the story of my encounters with the Hasidim at a particular moment in history: the era of Watergate and the Yom Kippur war, and the aging of the great Rebbes.
Almost 50 years have passed, and there are sad postscripts to several of the stories.
Samuel Shrage died of a heart attack in 1976. There were charges within Hasidic ranks that the African-American ambulance attendants took their sweet time and let him die. I couldn’t believe that, but his death saddened me.
A summer or two later, I was in CBGB’s, the Bowery punk-rock club. As Patti Smith was shrieking onstage, I ran into David the Lubavitch dropout. He was very unfriendly, and said, “Stop asking me how I am.” I concluded based on his attire and the venue that he had not returned to Lubavitch.
In 1979, the Satmar Rebbe died at age 92. Given the state of his health, I suspected the Satmar were already used to getting along without him. Later, I learned that the movement split into two groups, with different leadership.
There also was change at Lubavitch, although it took longer to unfold. In 1991, the Rebbe and his caravan of cars were driving back to Crown Heights from Montefiore Cemetery, when the last car in the procession hit and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old African-American child. This precipitated riots and conflict in which a young Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death. These tragic events exacerbated stresses that had existed as far back as the 1960s.
The Rebbe died in 1994. And the Lubavitch movement also split into two groups, at least intellectually—those who believed the late Rebbe was the messiah and those didn’t. The Bobover Rebbe died in 2000, and his movement, too, eventually broke into two groups.
Historians may uncover the truth behind these splits. But I have my own theory: that the job in each case had become too big for one man.
The passing of the Satmar, Lubavitch and Bobover Rebbes marked the end of an epoch. These were the leaders who pulled together small groups of Holocaust survivors and new adherents who had nowhere else to turn, helping them get a toehold in America, and rebuilt their communities in the face of grave poverty and other problems, all the while giving tirelessly of themselves as they entered old age. Hopefully, no future Rebbes will face such harrowing challenges.
That’s why this account is called The Last Rebbes.
Of course, other leaders also performed remarkable feats during that time. And both younger and older Rebbes continue to lead their congregations today. But Schneerson, Teitelbaum and Halberstam were giants by any measure.
As for me, you might wonder if this experience turned me into a Hasid. It didn’t. A skeptic and a bohemian I could never submit to the kind of regimented religious life pursued by Hasidic Jews:
But I did feel drawn to Jewish community, on whatever level–my wife and I would sometimes show up at Friday night services at a Conservative synagogue, just to feel like we belonged. But there were limits to this.
While a Zionist, I had long been bothered by the Haredi’s outsize political influence in Israel, and the Orthodox rabbinate’s power to determine who is a Jew and to pass on the legitimacy of marriages. It’s one thing to voluntarily choose a religious way of life—it’s another to be compelled to observe even small elements of it. Surely, there must be room in the Jewish tent for converts, non-believers, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, individuals whose fathers were Jewish but not their mothers, gays, lesbians, the transgendered and other outliers.
People of a certain bent might also question the tendency of the Orthodox in the U.S. to support Republican candidates and to align on issues with the religious right.
Late in 1974, I was on the Broadway Limited train from New York to Chicago, when men wearing black coats and hats boarded in Ohio. Not Hasidim—Amish. I did a double take. My traveling companion sarcastically said. “There’s your next article.”
Please, no—I’d had enough of black-coated religious groups for a time and was in fact fleeing New York to escape the probable reaction to my article. But one thing became clear as the years went by and I grew even more ambivalent about the politics and my own belief structure: I missed the Hasidim.