The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part V

By Ray Schultz

Joseph L. was the son of a non-religious Oakland, Cal. pawn broker—his father had never even been bar mitzvahed. Not interested in going into pawnbroking, Joseph trained as a cook, then shipped out in the merchant marine and visited places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Along the way, he dabbled in various religions, and for a time was what they then called a Jesus freak.

The time was the early 1970s. Young people were spurning traditional religions and looking for spiritual guidance wherever they could find it. Some joined the Hare Krishna’s and could be seen dancing and singing in the street in saffron-colored robes. Or they were drawn to such leaders as the 15 year-old Guru Maharaji. The Lubavatchers had an answer: Hadar Hatorah (“the beauty of Torah”), a school for returning Jewish youth.

“The Lubavitchers are oriented towards bringing in the rest of the fold of Judaism, all the Jews, whether you find them on the streets of Greenwich Village, or in a Chinese restaurant eating pork and apples,” Samuel Shrage explained. “He’s a Jew, and he’s ours, and we’ve got to bring him in.”

“When a boy enters here, he’s usually been through a lot,” said a young rabbi and vice principal named Meacham Blau. “They either come from a broken home, or they’ve had background with drugs. Most often, one of our men will approach them and ask them if they want to get back to their religion.”

Joseph discovered Lubavitch, and went through the course at Hadar Hatorah, and he was an excellent candidate. After finishing, he intended to ship out again, but the Rebbe himself suggested that going to sea would not benefit the practice of Orthodox Judaism. So Joseph was given a job cooking at the school.

Joseph decided it was time to get married. He went to a matchmaker and was offered Hinda, a woman who had lived in hippie communes and had a young son. She was a friend of Joseph’s sister, and had gone through the Lubavitch girl’s program, which focused more on how to run a Jewish home.

Joseph had his doubts: one rabbi told him to choose somebody else because he would always question if he married her for mercy or love. But he thought about her often and finally decided he would marry her and adopt her son and make sure he had a Jewish education. For this, he received great credit. “If you give a child a Torah education, he becomes your own child,” someone said. “It’s more important than birth itself, if you do that—the yoke of heaven.”

Don’t ask why, but I was invited to the wedding. At 7 p.m. on a September evening, I entered the Brooklyn Jewish Center on the north side of Eastern Parkway, went up a flight of grand steps, then into a room where several people were waiting—parents, relatives, Reform Jews to whom all this must have looked strange. Bottles of vodka were produced from the Rebbe’s private stock, paper cups were passed around along with bottles of Mayim Chaim club soda. Each boy got up and said a hearty “L’Chaim!” to Joseph and he acknowledged each of these toasts. He was dressed in a very fine black outfit.

The mothers of the bride and groom stepped on their glasses on the floor in the traditional manner. This was followed by more singing, more shots and pounding on the tables. A band with a clarinet, accordion and violin played Klezmer-style music. Joseph gave a Ma’amar, an address, which the previous Rebbe had given at the present Rebbe’s wedding, and which everybody is now required to recite when they are wed. It was a long statement on how a man cannot be great unless he has a wife. Joseph went into complete lapses of memory at some points, and had to be coached by the 80 year-old Rabbi Jacobson. Finally, another glass was broken, and we all went outside.

A canopy had been set up in in front of 770., and there were about 25 people standing on it. The bride arrived by motor vehicle, her face completely veiled. She was walked to podium, and marched round in a circle several times while Langer’s father seeming bemused by the whole thing, carried a dripping candle. Rabbi Jacobson recited various prayers, two cantors sang a couple of recitations, a personal message from Rebbe was given, wine was blessed and consumed on the podium, and the bride came down, her veil finally off.

Then the real fun started. The Talmud states, ““Whoever attends a wedding and does not make the bride and groom merry, he violates five commandments.” That was the spirit of this occasion. Slightly drunk on whisky, bottles of which were on each table, I sampled the food on the buffet tables—there was chicken, rice, chow mein, chopped liver, egg salad, eggplant and a couple of hot vegetables.

Joseph arrived, and was placed in a chair and carried above our heads across the room at a frightening pace. Then he was placed down, a circle formed around him, and the dancing began. At intervals, men would leave the circle and do their private dances in front of the groom; one did Russian knee-kicks. Two others came up as a team, and swung around and around: It was dizzying. Then it seemed like all control was lost. Men climbed on each other’s shoulders, and one stood on his head, while another leapt through his spread legs. Joseph was lifted up high, then down again. They were riding each other around like horses. One kid’s hat fell off. Langer climbed on the shoulders of somebody else, and at great peril replaced the hat with a yarmulke.


The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part IV

By Ray Schultz

Enfeebled by a stroke, the 86 year-old Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, lived in Bar Harbor, Rockaway, and rarely visited Williamsburg. The congregation had to manage without his personal advice, emotional support, organizing skills and leadership in strict obervance of the 613 commandments. The adminitrative responsibility largely fell on Albert Friiedman, a man who could have been in his ‘20s or early 30s, but looked older. He had stepped into the role after his father Leopold died the year before. I met him one morning at Satmar headquarters on Lee Ave. in Williamsburg, not far from the Marcy Ave. El stop with its Hispanic-flavored stores on the street below. “We have our problems,” Friedman said. “Some people need assistance to maintain a certain minum standard of iving. The schools, the health center, the medical facility, the drugstore—we’re trying to get services for our pepople who cannot afford various things. The median income is about $6,900, but with eight or nine kids, it doesn’t go far.”

We sat down around a table with Leopold Lefkowitz, a crystal maker and major donor to Satmar, and a couple of other men. One older man said, “As much as you have to eat and drink, you have to have a religious education. You must.”

I tried to pursue the Rebbe’s stance against Zionism. Friedman informed me that the Rebbe “used to go to Israel before he had his stroke. Every couple of years. He has mny intitutions there, even though he’s not as favorable to Zionism. He did much more for people in Israel and institutions there than most of the Zionist leaders here.”

It fell upon Samuel Shrage to explain the Satmar position to me. “They dislike the state of Israel as it is now constituted,” he said. “What is Israel without it’s santicity, without the spiritualism? A piece of land.”

Shrage gave me some background. “After the war, we were offered land in Africa. They were looking for a place to dump the Jews. Some places had oil. But we said, ‘This is our holy land, the land of the Torah, of the Bible, of our ancestors.’ That’s what the argument was. And even In the halls of the United Nations, what document was used to claim that Israel must now be turned back to the Jews after so many years of Arab residency? The Bible, the oldest recognized document in the world. Fine. So we get Israel. But what kind of document is this? When it appeals to you and you get your land back, it’s a good document. But the document has other clauses. It talks about the Sabbath observance and Kashrut, (the dietary laws). It talks about the religious observances.”

For his part, Friedman seemed to soft-peddle the issue, although I knew from my visit to Camp Rov-Tov that it aroused strong passions among the Satmar.

We returned to the subject of the Rebbe himself. I knew just a little bit about him. The Rebbe, the descendent of several holy men, had escaped Hungary on the so-called Kastner train, a train taking Hungarian Jewish “prominents” out of the Nazi zone. The Nazis allowed Dr. Rudolf Kastner, an official of the Jewish Agency, to select several hundred Hungarian Jews for safe passage to Switzerland. The list included Zionists, Kastner’s own family members and several ultra-orthodox leaders such as the Satmar Rebbe. Iin return for this cynically proffered gift, Kastner would, it was said, reassure the Jews in Kluj and Budapest and withhold from them the true destination of the trains they were boarding—the death camp at Auschwitz. It was later shown in an Israeli court that Kastner collaborated with Adolf Eichmann and other top Nazis, including Kurt Becher, a Jew-killer Kastner defended and helped free after the war.. In his book Perfidy, the U.S. author Ben Hecht charged that the Jews of Kluj could have easily escaped to safety in Rumania, three miles away. but Kastner soothed them and allowed them to go to their deaths; soon they were ash, Hecht wrote. In 1957, Kastner was assassinated in Israel.

Whatever the circumstances, the Rebbe got out. He made his way to Palestine, then to the United States, where he attracted survivors and new adherents. His followers formed yeshivas and congregations.

“Most of the people came after the war, they lost all their families there,” Friedman said. “They went to the Rabbi for every ittle thing, even for to get married. He has a personal interest in each and every individual. Remember, he’s also very sophisticated and worldly. It’s supposed to just be just mysticism, but he’s more sophisticated than anybody else beucase he has more problems coming to him. And he gives good advivce, money advice, business advice, legal advice. People are successful.”

“He’s our father, he’s our father,” Lefkowitz said.

“How can he deal with so many people?” I asked.

“Tight schedule,” Friedman said. “He would be up until the wee hours, then up early the next morning. For 50 years, he didn’t sleep in a bed except on Friday nights: he would sleep on a chair or a couch for an hour or so.”

Following this talk, Friedman and I walked around the neighbodhood. We went into a Satmar meat shop, where glatt-kosher chicken was selling for $1 a pound, compared with 68 cents for the non-kosher variety advertised by Pathmark. We entered a shul on Ramsey St., large front room with benches and tables for studying, mostly occupied by old men, then into the main synagogue, which had a large chandeler for which Lefowitz had supplied the crystal.

Like Shrage and many others, Friedman shared his love of the Sabbath.

“The Sabbath consists of relaxation, enjoyment—mostly study,” he said. “We learn, spend time with the children. Of course, some don’t study, they just waste the day.” Friedman then made a wry comment about his own life: “I change clothes when my wife tells me to.”

A few weeks later, Friedman invited me to cast eyes on the Rebbe himself. This took place on a September Sunday. It was the week before Rosh Hashanah, and the Rebbe had come in to pray at the synagogue on Rodney St., and to give his blessing to a distantly related couple who had married.

First, he visited the main Satmar synagogue. There was a mob of young boys waiting outside the rear entrance. Every time the door opened a fraction of an inch, they tried to get a glimpse inside.

Suddenly there was a rush for the door, with much shoving in all directions. Two or three men came out, leading a very old feeble-looking individual, who happened to be the Rebbe of a different Hasidic group—perhaps the Kalusenburg–who had been visiting the Satmar Rebbe; the two were related. The kids were fascinated by him, and followed his progress down the block. Then a couple of rough looking individuals cleared a path, and other men came out helping the Satmar Rebbe himself.

Friedman removed his hat, then handed me the solid felt yamulke underneath so my head would be covered.. I put it on. Then the Rebbe emerged—A thin, white-haired man wiith a thin face and lips. He had on a round black hat and a purple kaftan. He was stooped over, and could barely move by himself. They helped him into the back seat of the car, while the crowd mobbed around, mesmerized by his presence.

Friedman tapped me on the shoulder and we jammed into the back seat of another car, and the vehicles all started pulling away in a line. We turned down Bedford, swung around on Williamsburg East, then drove into another block. “You see, the kids will be running here when they find out where we are,” Friedman said. Sure enough, we could see several running along the streets. Finally, we pulled up at a building. A small crowd was gathered around the car of the Rebbe as he was helped out. His wife, the daughter of another Hasidic Rebbe, seemed sturdier. Everyone went in. A man at the door shoved me quite hard when I tried to enter, but then Friedman cleared me and I was allowed to pass. Inside, there were three or four tables set up lengthwise in the dining room. There were no pictures in this room; just a bookcase in back with religious volumes and manuscripts. Around the front of the table and down the sides stood several men, with others crowded into the doorway. Everyone was singing heartily when the Rebbe came through and was helped to a chair. The Rebbe sat in front with several people all round him. Several women were crowded into the kitchen, from which they did not emerge. The table was piled high with cakes and loaves of bread, plus a few plates with the remnants of a feast. This was the 7th day of the wedding celebrations, and it was a high privilege to have the Rebbe there. It was time to read the blessing. They put a white towel over his lap, as he sat slumped in his chair, then opened up the prayer book. Someone put the microphone in front of him–they were recording it, so valuable is the very sound of his voice to them. The host opened the curtains in the front windows, revealing a large crowd standing outside. Then he opened the windows a little so the people out there could hear of their holy man’s prayers. Finally, the praying was done. The Rebbe made the Kiddush over the wine.

I was struck by their devotion, and I admit that I myself was awed by the sight of him—he who had narrowly escaped death during the Holocaust, and who led his followers in the U.S. for 30 years and was uncompromising in both his stance on Zionism and his interpretation of Jewish law, yet seemed so kindly. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And I started wonderng about the seeming fragility of it all. The Rebbe’s three daughers had died, there was no heir apparent.What would happen when he passed on? Rabbi Chaim Stauber, the editor of a Yiddish-language newspaper called Der Yid, put it this way to me: “It’s inconveivable. The future of our children is so dependent on this one individual. We pray he is well enough to lead us. Heaven is not deaf to our prayers. It is a very painful question, one we cannot face.”

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part III

By Ray Schultz

There wasn’t much doubt who was going to succeed the alter Rebbe. Joseph Schneerson had left no son, so the mantle would—most likely—fall to his son-in-law. But the elders wondered if he was up to it, and whether he even wanted it.

Menachim Mendel Schneerson had studied engineering at the Sorbonne., and had worked on atomic submarines. He was a Torah scholar and had served the Rebbe; his wife, the Rebbe’s daughter, was his third cousin. But he was only in his late 40s. There were elder Hasids who were privy to the late Rebbe’s council. These men knew Schneerson as “Mendelah, Mendalah,” Shrage said. “As a kid, he used to hang around, you know, ‘Mendelah.’ All of sudden, it took a lot of soul-searching for them to accept this new leadership. It’s not just ‘the Queen is dead long live the Queen’—it’s a spiritual transference. Some were crying, saying, ‘God, give me the strength, I must accept my Rebbe.’’

Shrage was one of the very young admirers who followed Schneerson wherever he went. “We stuck with him, calling him Rebbe, annoying him that way.” Still, Schneerson resisted.

“The first year after a person dies is the year of year of sadness and contemplation,” Shrage explained. “And the old-timers began to see him in a different light altogether, all of a sudden they would begin to see this man. During the first year, he would pray and lead the congregation, and he couldn’t complete his prayer, he’d just break down in deep sobbing, in deep tears, like when he was repeating the 18 benedictions, the most important part of the morning prayer, and there would be silence in the synagogue.”

Schneerson also refused to sit in the previous Rebbe’s chair. “He’d sit next to it,” Shrage said. “And to this day, when they bless the new moon, he gets up early in the morning and is driven to the cemetery, old Montefiore, and spends a whole day at his grandfather’s grave. When you ask him for a blessing, he says, in Hebrew, “I will remember it at the grave site.”

Yehuda Krinsky was another Young Turk. “My years go back to three or four years before he became Rebbe,” Krinsky said. “I used to observe him very closely, I used to scrutinize everything he used to do publicly, that was visible. I think that the students at that time used to look at him a little differently. First of all, he was the previous Rebbe’s son-in-law. He was obviously a little bit different. At the same time, it was clear that the man was a sheer genius in everything he discussed, especially the Torah. He was totally immersed in Torah and Yiddishkeit. There were things he used to do that we tried to scrutinize—why did he do it this way? Or that way? He didn’t conduct himself differently than anybody else, he used to daven in the shul like anybody else, and went about his business like everybody else, but yet there was something noticeable to those who knew who he was a little different. The Talmud tells us that one leader is not taken away until there is a leader than can take his place. And obviously, though he was sort of clandestine, and very secretive in many things—not obviously secretive, but for a person who tailed him, you could see there was a lot more to the person than was visible to the naked eye. A gentile professor in psychiatry said that the Rebbe was the first man besides Freud and Einstein to give him new insights into his profession.


The Crown Heights Dairy was a glatt kosher luncheonette located just south of Eastern Parkway on Kingston St. It specialized in Eastern European Jewish fare like kasha varnishkas. Coffee was served in a glass, and as in Russia, some people sweetened it with a cube of sugar they held in their front teeth. The Lubavitch public relations machine had kicked in, and it was there I met Rabbi Leibel Groner, a direct descendent of the founder of Lubavitch, Schneur Zalman, but he didn’t tell me much about that, nor about the mystical aspects of Chabad, which I wanted to delve into. “Hasidim falls into two general categories,” Groner explained. “The Lubavitcher and all the others. The others stress the emotional aspect—the joy. Lubavitchers stress the intellectual part of it.” He then gave me a progress report. “On the Rebbe’s 70th birthday, we asked for 71 new institutions,” Groner said. “We gave him 143. For his 71st birthday, he has asked for 72. We plan to give him 145.”

My own entry into the mysteries of Hasidic prayer began–rather quickly–with an afternoon service attended by the Rebbe. It took place not in the grand synagogue, but in a small room filled with wooden tables. A couple of men were already davening. I was escorted in by Rabbi Menachim Blau, and we got ourselves a perch at a table in the center. Other men came in, and a group of boys from Israel. The prayer books were on this table, and men were gabbing at them. There were a couple of jars, one with look on, for money for poor, and an empty bench and chair in left-hand corner near the left-hand door. Everyone stood facing the front of room at no particular angle. Suddenly there was a hush of expectation, and the Rebbe came in. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. He had a deep-set face, a white beard and a quiet, almost somber look. As always, he was dressed in knee-length black coat. He stood holding a prayer book.

A man in the right front started the prayers, and the others answered in cadence. The Rebbe mostly stared at the book. One Israeli boy wearing colorful clothes let out with burst of incredible burst of prayer, the Rebbe looked up at him. I faked my way through it as best I could. Then it was over. The Rebbe turned and left, and the men followed him out, clamoring amongst themselves.

I pondered this event for days—just what was this man’s power that if he told an adherent to go to a town in Iowa where there were few Jews, he would go? How did he hold together an extended group, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, keeping close tabs on everyone, it was said? “In Yiddish, there’s an expression—he doesn’t sleep himself, and he doesn’t let the other fellow sleep,” Krinksy explained.

Krinsky let it be known, though, that there would be no interview with the Rebbe. What would I ask him, anyway? I was in over my head.

Meanwhile, at Shrage’s urging, I attended a rally for the mayoral candidate Abraham Beame at the Satmar Hasidic summer camp upstate. At first, the Hasidim were wary of Beame—it was almost as if they feared the exposure a Jewish mayor would bring—but they had warmed up to him. Shrage said, “We know that nobody is going to say to Rockefeller, that Protestant bastard! Whoever will call John Lindsay an Episcopalian bastard? Beame is not Beame the bastard, but Beame the Jew bastard.”

After the event, Shrage kindly offered me a ride back to the city. I spent the early evening with Shrage and his wife Rose at their getaway, the Pioneer Hotel near Liberty, and we had dinner in the dining room. It being Tisha B’Av, a Rabbi read from Torah and said the Kaddish prior to dinner. The meal started with shot glass of cherry wine, and it was followed by cake, coffee and soda.

Rose remained at the hotel, and Shrage and I took off for the city. The conversation got personal during the two-hour ride. He told me that he welcomed Friday night, the start of the Sabbath. “I really need that to recharge my batteries,” he said. “I forget about all this—I don’t answer telephones. It sustains me.”

He admitted, though, that “I have doubt that I could go back to the yeshiva after being in world. I introduced Beame because I wanted him to see who could deliver these votes.” Shrage dreamed of running for mayor himself and dedicating a statute in front of City Hall to the millions who died in the Holocaust.

In contrast, my conversation was stilted—I recited literature to show I had a retentive mind. Finally, we arrived in New York, he asked me my Jewish name so Rose could sew it on a yarmulke. If I had one, I didn’t know it. But a few days later, I got a yarmulke in the mail, with the name “Raymond” sewn on it, and a cordial note from Shrage saying that he and Rose hoped I would often have occasion to wear it.

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part II

By Ray Schultz

Samuel Shrage’s father belonged to a Polish Hasidic group called the Beltz, (after the town memorizlied in the Yiddish song, Beltz, Mayn Shtetele Beltz). But he had a dark vision in the mid-1930s. “They saw the impending Holocaust,” Shrage said. It was hard to get a visa to the U.S., but Brazil was looking for immigrants, so the Shrage family went there without knowing a word of Portugese.

They arrived in Brazil on Carnival Day, and saw thousands of people of jumping and screaming on the street. Shrage’s mother was frightened and wanted to get back on the boat. But they settled in Belo Horizonte (“beautiful horizon”) wih 30 to 40 other Jewish families.

“My father’s a very devout orthodox Jew—a saintly man,” Shrage said. “He reads and studies all day, and never eats meat in Brazil because he doesn’t trust the quality of the kashrut. My father fasts because the great Kabala students of years ago believed in fasting twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. He’s up all Thursday night praying.”

Yes, a saintly man, but a poor one who made a meagre living selling lottery tickets. His son was more ambitious in the worldly sense. One day, the mayor of Belo Horizonte, Juscelino Kubitschek, came to the school and heard Shrage, the valdictorian, gave a speech.

“You know, Samuel, one day you’re going to be in government the way you talk,” Kubitschek said.

“And you’re going to be a great man,” Shrage blurted out.

“Kubitschek became president of Brazil—he built Brasilia as a monument to himself,” Shrage laughed. “I’m still waiting to become a great man in government.”

But he soon became a militant Jew. One night, young Shrage heard voices in the living room at 2 a.m., and came out and saw his father and some men holding shovels and picks. His father invited him along—to rob a grave.

A local Hasid had married a Christian woman, and while he never converted, his children were being raised in the Catholic faith. The man repented of these deviations on his death bed. He told the senior Shrage, who had often invited him to Passover Seders, “You have to do one thing for me. I lived as a goy, but I want to be buried as a Jew.” But his wife had him buried in a Catholic cemetery.

The men in the living room were about to reverse that decision.

“He didn’t like to do it—it was dangerous,” Shrage said. “If you’re caught, in Brazil, you can go to jail for the rest of your life for messing with the Catholic church. But my father felt it was a good education for me in the meaning of being a Jew—and in the middle of the night we went to the cemetery, dug that man out and buried him that same night in a Jewish cemetery.”

Despite that episode, Shrage was becoming assimilated: He sang on radio, and enjoyed his secular studies in the public schools. “One day my father found out that my Catholic teacher was getting married and I was going to sing the Ave Maria in the church,” he said. “That did it for him.”

One day, a Lubavitcher emmissary showed up and Shrage’s father said, “Please take me son with you. There’s no future for him here. I’m afraid of intermarriage, I’m afraid of assimilation. He already hangs around all these places. He knows too much.’”

The Rabbi asked the youth, ‘Why don’t you come to learn in New York at the Yeshiva?” “I didn’t buy that, but when he told me that America meant the Empire State Building, Hollywood, and all that, I figured why not, it’s a trip,” Shrage said. “So I came to the U.S. in 1949. I left a little boy of 13, the week after my bar mitzvah.”

* * *

Shrage didn’t see Hollywood, or even New York. “My last contact with the outside world was on the S.S. Brazil,” Shrage said. “Swinging parties and the whole thing that goes on. And here I come to the port of New York, Rabbi Weinberger is waiting for me, and another rabbi, and they drive me down to Bedford-Stuyvesant, to this dismal-looking place, and they take me downstairs to the kitchen for lunch. And an old man puts two pieces of whole white fish on my plate, and I almost died because I always saw the old men in shul eating white fish and I figured, ‘This is it, I’m in for it, that’s gonna be my life.’ And I cried for three weeks. I couldn’t take it.”

The worst part was the yeshiva schedule. Up at 6:45 a.m., prayers from 7:15 to 9 a.m., breakfast until 9:30, then rigorous Talmud classes until 1. There was a 45-minute lunch, followed by more Talmud. From 3:30 to 7, they studied secular high school subjects, then had supper. A half hour later, the boys turned to Hasidus, and at 9 began their “home” study. At 10:30, they were called to evening prayers. Finally, at 11, they were allowed to go to bed.

The only time Shrage ever left the building was on Shabbos. “The Yeshiva was poor and they couldn’t afford to feed us, so generous people would invite us to their homes,” he said. “We would sleep there Friday night, and have our meals, and come back Saturday night.”

There were no movies or television. The New York Times was allowed because of secular high school requirements that the students know current events. But the very devout wouldn’t even read that out of fear that it would dilute their principles.

Four weeks after he arrived, Shrage was brought before the old Rebbe. “Somebody says it’s good for you to come and see him. It was possible to get to him because he was very ill—they schlepped me upstairs, they pushed me and they shoved me, suddenly I’m faced with this grand room at 770, that looked like the chambers of King Arthur of the Roundtable. There sat a man in a wheel chair, motionless, kindly blue eyes, very ill, yet red-faced, white beard, and he was wearing that fur hat, and he was looking straight ahead, never winking his eyes. It was an amazing thing, and it shocked me to see that. I was planning how to run away, stow away or something, and go home. Then I stood facing that man and chills came down my spine. I never saw anything like that in my life.

“Somebody put a slug of vodka in my hand and said, ‘Say l’Chaim!’ So I gave a shout, ‘l’Chaim!.’ The rabbi looked at me and his face was almost motionless because he was paralyzed, and he smiled at me, and if I were a painter, 23 or 24 years later, I would still be able to paint that scene vividly. That changed my mind about running away.”

It was just in time. Shrage was finishing prayers in Brownsville one cold Saturday in January, the 10th day of Shevat, when a man entered the shul and said, “The Rebbe passed away.” “I was stunned,” Shrage recalled. “My God, it was only a few weeks since I had seen him—it meant so much to me. I began to run back through, to Brownsville and Crown Heights, and I saw Eastern Parkway crowded with black hats, people with their kaftans, word had spread, nobody could call, by word of mouth. People were coming from all over. I came to 770 about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and the old men were crying, and there was such deep sadness, there was a pall on Eastern Parkway, and by then there were thousands of people—nobody could get through.”

In came Rabbi Wiler, to whom the untrained Shrage had given haircuts, caryying two shopping bags filled with bottles of vodka. “He asked, ‘Where is everybody?’” Shrage remembered. “We said, ‘Didn’t you hear? The Rebbe passed away.’ He said, ‘What Rebbe? We said ‘Our Rebbe.’ He dropped the bags and broke the bottles, and started screaming, screaming, out in the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, He saw the significance of this as being the end of the world.”

That night, Shrage, that “little schnook from Brazil,” found himself viewing the body of the deceased Rebbe. It was laying on the ground, covered with white linen, surrounded by men saying the psalms of David.

The body had to be cleansed before burial. And this fell upon one of Shrage’s teachers: one Rabbi Dov. “He was a kind man, a pious man. But had to perform this, so he took a gallon of vodka, and drank it all because he didn’t want to have his senses while he did that,” Shrage said.

The next day was the burial at Montefiore Cemetery. The Squarer Rebbe was there, and he fainted. “There were thousands of people on Eastern Parkway—people had come in on charter flights from Montreal, the provinces and even Europe. The police were on horses to hold the crowd back, everybody wanted to touch the casket.”

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part I

By Ray Schultz

One spring Saturday in 1973, an African-American doctor was trying help a patient in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but the access road where he was parked was blocked by Hasidic Jews observing the Sabbath. There was a scuffle, the police arrived, and Hasidim poured out of their synagogue. The cops arrested several, then entered the renowned Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway like Cossacks raiding a village, and committed the offense of making their prisoners ride in vans on Shabbos.

What a story: Orthodox Jews being clubbed by cops on horseback–in modern-day New York. How could this be? As a writer who specialized in urban strife, I thought this was perfect, and it would be so easy to get: All I had to do was talk to Samuel Shrage, who in 1964 had founded a Hasidic street patrol called the Macabees, said to be nice Jewish boys with walkie-talkies who tried to defend the elderly from muggers. Shrage now worked in city government as director of the Neighborhood Action Program, under Mayor John Lindsay. I called, and was given an appointment.

A few days later, I entered a spare but high-ceilinged government office on Chambers St. and met a large dark-haired man dressed in a crisp modern suit and head-covering, and wearing the obligatory fringes and beard.. He greeted me cordially, using my full first name instead of the single syllable I used in my byline, then started talking and didn’t stop for two hours.

First , he described the episode. “They walked into 770, the Temple of the world, with guns drawn on the Sabbath. Can you imagine what would happen if they came into St. Patrick’s Cathedral? With their guns drawn? Can you imagine when a cop walks into a Black Muslim temple? It’s a big issue.”

Were the cops anti-Semitic? “Cops are big in our community,” Shrage answered. “They represent order. That Saturday, a lot of it wasn’t racist at all, just too many cops for too small an issue, and too many who didn’t understand the Hasidim don’t ride in cars on Shabbos. The Hasidim will gather if one their people are in trouble. They’re not going to assault anyone, they’re just going to be there.. Too many cops from different precincts were not as familiar with the cultural thing of the Hasidim. They saw a mob coming, and said, ‘Let’s take our sticks and break the mob apart.’ The cop who works there knows the Hasidim are always in mobs. We’re mobs.”

Shrage was used to this kind of controversy. He had been criticized for starting the Macabees, even within his own synagogue. “’What are you doing?’ they said. ‘The goyim are gonna say this, the goyim are going to say that.’ There was so much concern about the goyim. Well, I like to get along with the goyim, I like the goyim. I’m part of this society, I’m an American. But damnit, I can’t go around doing things to please other people when I’m being stepped on.”

Shrage went into politics, campaigning for Lindsay and eventually was named director of the New York City Youth Board, the first Hasidic Jew ever to achieve such a post. “After the Macabee experience, I said, ‘If we can’t fight in the streets, let’s fight in City Hall. And I also believe that we broke ground then politically. Up until then, if you take a look at the Hasidim, they were the lovely little remnants of yesteryear walking the street. If they ever wanted to see somebody in government, like a district leader, they had to hire a lawyer to be a spokesman for them. And the lawyer will say to them, ‘Chaim Yankel, you stand in the corner, there, I’ll do the talking for you,’ and there stood the Hasid smiling, looking good. I’ve seen that, and it killed me.’”

And now?

“There were those here who said look closely at this because you’ll never see it again,” he went on. “The acculturation processes of America are going to make real American Jews out of these people, meaning that their beards and their earlocks and their black kaftans will go. They said, ‘That’s a dead generation.’ The fascinating thing is right here in America the movement has not only increased in quantity, it has increased in quality,” Shrage said.

I wanted to know more, especially about the latter point, so Shrage gave me some phone numbers, and I found myself at 770 Eastern Parkway a few days later, meeting with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a kindly but slightly pained-looking man, who served as personal secretary to the Lubavacher Rebbe, in charge of public relations, among other things. He had attended the Boston Latin School, and had a partially non-Lubavitch background. Krinsky asked if I had any religious affiliation. I answered that I had none—I considered myself an existentialist, neither Christian nor Jew. I think he sensed some softness both in that and in my plan. He advised me that. I could write about the neighborhood conflicts, and the Lubavitchers would offer what little comment they could. Or I could write about the Hasidim in general, and they would help. Maybe it was his paternal manner, but I chose the latter.

Meanwhile, I studied up on the Hasidim in my imperfect way. Hasidism was founded by Israel Bal Shem Tov (circa 1700-1760), a Jewish peasant and mystic who taught his followers, mostly illiterate Jews who could barely live off the Polish mud, that book learning was not as important as fervor in dealing with the Almighty. His ideas were opposed by Jewish scholars like the Vilna Goan. But they were accepted by the suffering masses. Within 30 years of the Bal Shem Tov’s demise, half the Jews in Eastern Europe were Hasidim (pious ones), and every town had its tzaddik or Rebbe, a Hasidic master whose word was taken as law by his followers.

Some were in Poland, some in Hungary, still others in Russia. And while their beliefs and observances were the same, each group developed its own character. “There was practically no contact at all,” one rabbi told me. “Once in years would different Hasidim ever meet—at a wedding, perhaps.”

Schneur Zalman founded what is now known as Lubavitch (or Chabbad) in the Russian city of Ladi. It was both mystical and intellectual, a “profound system,” one man called it, based largely on Hasidus and Kabala.

But it was a hard life in the Pale of Settlement, the area to which Jews were restricted in Russia: They could expect a pogrom by Cossacks at any time. And things worsened, if anything, when the Bolshevik experiment started in in 1917. Joseph Isaac Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was sentenced to death by the Soviets in 1927 for spreading Judaism, I was told. Jews in the United States appealed to Herbert Hoover to get him freed, and through some diplomatic maneuver, it was done in 1929. But it was only a temporary relief.

In 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. Like Hoover, Roosevelt intervened on behalf of Schneerson. “Two men from Goering came and asked the Rebbe for a list of people he wanted to take with him out of Poland. He picked 10 or 11 people, and they crossed the Lithuanian border in December 1939 after promising never to return.”

The Rebbe arrived in the United States on May 25, 1940, determined to reach out to Jewish youth. In Europe, The Nazis commenced the Holocaust. “The Hasids were particularly massacred in Europe, because they were so visibly Jewish,” Shrage said. “In fact, if you take a look at Nazi propaganda materials, they taught their children in Goebbels and those books it would always be a man with a beard with the earlocks.”

Rebbes like Schnerson “demanded very much from themselves, and they demanded very much of those people who were close to them, who adhered to whatever they said,” Yehuda Krinsky said. “It was true in Russia. It wasn’t only the Rebbe who was involved, but hundreds of Hasidim who used to go around literally with a sword at their throats, building mikvas in basements and establishing chedorim. Getting matzohs to the Jews for Pesach, all this went under the threat of the death penalty. Many were killed, or sent to Siberia and never heard from again.”

Their ranks decimated, the Hasidic survivors tried to regroup after the war. Many went to Palestine, and large groups ended up Brooklyn. Some gravitated to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brownsville and Crown Heights, some to the Satmar Rebbe in Williamsburg, still others to the Bobover Rebbe in Borough Park. They hadn’t all been followers of these Rebbes, but their own tzaddiks had perished in many cases. I wondered if a few chose their new Rebbes based on where they could find an apartment.

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews–Introduction

By Ray Schultz

For a thin man, I have a strange tendency to associate key events with food. For instance, I can never think of one of the strangest days I’ve ever spent—at a Hasidic summer camp in the Catskills—without recalling the feast bestowed on us by our hosts.

I had arrived at Camp Rov Tov D’ Satmar that morning. The occasion was a political rally, but I really was there to learn about the Hasidim, so I was early and had no sooner gotten out of the cab from the town when I was surrounded by teenage boys who looked like they had come from an 18th century village in Eastern Europe. Dressed in long black coats and wide hats, some had beards and all had side curls; not one had a sun-tan.

They were gentle and gracious. They asked me who I was. I stated several times that I was a reporter, and they repeated it to each other in Yiddish. One, a 19-year old named David, offered to act as host, and he invited me to walk around with him. So I did, followed by the entire group of boys, and saw a series of low-rise, run-down buildings, some serving as barracks, others as synagogues, and an empty swimming pool with moss growing in the cracks in the cement. One young man was sitting on the ground painting a pair of signs, saying: “Welcome, Abe Beame,” for the mayoral candidate who was visiting that day.

Then the conversation started. At least two boys asked me if I had seen “The Ten Commandments,” the Cecil B. DeMille epic that had been around for about 20 years. Of course, I had seen it. They had heard of it, though they were denied access to television and movies.

Another boy asked me about “My Name Is Michael,” a pop tune that was out then, and seemed to call for a better world. I wasn’t very aware of it.

Finally, one boy asked, “Do you know how we feel about Zionism” That I knew. I had been warned: the Satmar Hasidim were against the secular nation of Israel, believing that a Jewish state should not exist until the Messiah arrives. There were rumors that they had defaced the Israeli embassy to the UN.

Pro-Israel in the conventional way, I couldn’t understand this. I asked them if they would fight if threatened. One kid vehemently said, “Of course we would fight if we are threatened with death!” Then I asked: Didn’t the Holocaust prove that the Jews needed a state? I don’t know why I thought they needed to be educated on this subject. David answered for everyone.

“We have no grandparents!” he said.

Most of the boys left to go to a Talmud class. David remained, and we were joined by an adult, one Rabbi Stein, who invited us into the administration building for a spread of soda, cake and matzos, my first experience in Satmar hospitality.

Now I was no religious scholar, nor a believer in much of anything. But I soon grasped that the whole Satmar set-up rested on the shoulders of one man: the Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, who was now 90 and ailing. They went to the Rebbe, who had rebuilt the community in the U.S. after Work War II and the Holocaust, for everything–for legal advice, for his blessing on marriages, for textual interpretation.

We sat there and snacked. I learned that David lived with his parents and three brothers in a three-room flat that cost $120 a month. His father had a blue-collar job, but David planned go into clerical work. Young men were usually given a year after school when they could continue to live at home while learning a trade. Then, at 20 or 21, they got married with the help of a paid matchmaker, after a long courtship in which the two parties rarely if ever saw each other.

Suddenly there was tumult outside: Abe Beame had arrived, along with the rest of the press pack. David and I went out. The 5-foot tall mayoral candidate spoke briefly and was mobbed when he finished. The boys practically carried him into one of the barracks. I never saw him smile once.

Following this tour, everyone started crowding into cars to move on to the Satmar girl’s camp down the road; David pushed me into one. On the way, we passed a man identified as Israel Zupnik, a middle-aged Hasid who also seemed to be trying to hitch a ride. Mr. Zupnik made a fortune selling Nutola vegetable oil to the U.S. Army in World War II, and he and his wife Thelma were major benefactors to Satmar, I was told; Mrs. Zupnik ran the girl’s camp.

We arrived at Camp Emunah, and I saw the future wives of the boys I had met lined up next the entrance road. They were conservatively dressed, wearing dresses and long socks. One girl presented Beame with a torch, but smeared red paint on his shirt. Again, he didn’t smile. Beame toured the girls’ rooms, with their homemade quilts and curtains.

There was another speech or two. Then we all went into a building, and were served cakes stuffed with almonds and apples, bottles of soda, then plates of blintzes made by Mrs. Zupnik herself, the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere, accompanied by coffee and homemade coffee ice cream.

This partly erased my view of the Hasidim as dour people who did little but gnash their teeth: But it was a short-lived occasion. We were in the middle of Tisha B’av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 66 AD and includes a day of fasting. I realized that for these boys—and adults—this event was only a momentary break in the serious daily routine of Talmud, Torah and prayer.

Tears For The Tar Baby

By Ray Schultz

Jack Johnson, newly pardoned by President Trump, had one of the hardest heads ever pounded on by the leather boxing glove. Stylish, arrogant, successful and persecuted, he was, like Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, revered by many for his attitude and skills. But if Johnson was typical of black aspiration in the ring, he was never typical of actual black gain. He was healthy and still trading on his name when killed in an auto crash in 1948, unlike Sam Langford, who died blind, broke and forgotten, except by true aficionados.

Johnson may have been run out of the country and jailed by the white establishment, but he never sank to the misery experienced by his black contemporaries who fought each other for peanuts and were denied the chance to challenge for the world title.

This may be a good time to reflect on the history of black fighters in the heavyweight class.

The first men ever to fight for sport and profit in America were black freemen—Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond, “The Black Terror.” They practiced their brutal art in the early years of the 19th century, and were close friends, according to the historians. Molineaux became the first American ever to fight for a championship—the heavyweight title—when he met Jim Cribb in London in 1810 and lost by a very tight margin—so close, in fact, that a rematch was held a year later at Thistoleton Gap in the County of Rutland, and Londoner Pierce Egan, inspired by what he had seen, started the first publication ever devoted exclusively to boxing, Boxiana.

Boxing was illegal in those days, and matches were conducted on the sly, at hidden rendezvous, much the same as cock-fighting today. In his book, “The Sweet Science,” A.J. Liebling describes a picture of the second Molineaux-Cribb bout that had appeared in Boxiana. The scene was typical of boxing matches up into the twentieth century.

“In the foreground of the picture there is a whore sitting on her gentleman’s shoulders the better to see the fight, while a pickpocket lifts the gentleman’s reader (watch). Cribb has just hit Molineaux the floorer and Molineaux is falling, as he has continued to do for a hundred and forty-five years since.”

But Liebling adds that “the detail I recall first when I think of the picture is the face of Bill Richmond, also an American Negro, as he sees his man go. He is following Molineaux down with his eyes, bending as the challenger falls, and his face is desolate.”

Egan paid heed to Molineaux by writing: “The hardiest frame could not resist the blows of the Champion; and it is astonishing the Moor stood them for so long.”

It is equally astonishing that boxing stood its illegality for so long—right up to the time of Jack Johnson. If it was difficult for a white man to get along in the sport, it was ten times as difficult for a black man. Talented black fighters could only hope to scrape out living in the ring—nothing more.

John L. Sullivan barred black opponents while champion, saying, “I will never fight a black man.” Sullivan’s leading contender was just such a black man, Peter Jackson, who was finally held to a draw in 61 rounds by Gentleman Jim Corbett after several years of futile waiting. Guess who got the title shot? After losing to Corbett himself for the title, Sullivan is said to have remarked, “Thank God I lost to an American.”

Black fighters of the lower weight classes were never quite that unfortunate, although they came close. The most untalented heavyweight king is always a shade above the middle and welterweight champions in charisma and respect—the title is like a lightning rod. Thus, several lighter black men—Joe Gans, George Dixon, Joe Walcott, Tiger Flowers, Battling Siki—were able to become champion of their divisions during times when a black heavyweight king was unthinkable to the white American public.

Conditions were at their worst, if anything, during Johnson’s unlikely reign. The leading black contenders—Sam McVey, Joe Janette and Sam Langford—were forced to fight each other sometimes as many as 20 or 25 times in every tank town along the pike. The white contenders avoided them if they could, and even Johnson, as champ, refused to fight them. He did face a black contender—Jim Johnson—during his exile in Europe: they fought to a draw in Paris. But the bout lost money. It was the first time two black men every met in a heavyweight title fight, and the last for many a long day.

Sam Langford, the Boston Tar Baby, was typical of the time. He was a slippery boxer with a good punch, and murderous infighting skills. Born in Nova Scotia in 1880, he began boxing in 1902 as a featherweight. Growing up the weight scale, he fought almost every leading boxer of his time: Joe Gans, Joe Walcott, Jack Blackburn (who later trained Joe Louis), Stanley Ketchel, defeating many of them. He beat most of the white hopes of the time: Jim Barry, Jim Flynn, Tony Ross and Sandy Ferguson, and lost a close fight to Johnson who refused to meet him again for the title or otherwise.

As a result, Langford with his deadly skills was forced to go on tour of the sticks, fighting his fellow blacks. He fought Joe Jeanette 14 times, McVey 14 times, and Harry Wills 23 times. He took many a beating, and dished many out. Towards the end of his career he went blind from cataracts, and managed to stay alive in the ring by holding on to his opponents and punching in their direction in the clinch. He retired in 1924, with a record of 151 pro fights, 39 decision wins, 99 knockouts and only 19 decision losses and 4 knockout losses, the remainder being draws and no-decisions. When elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955, he was living in cellar in Boston. They took up a benefit for him, but he died a year later.

Langford, like Johnson, was hated and feared by a generation of whites. After he fought Gunboat Smith in Boston , the Boston Globe cartoonist wrote some very racist captions for drawings of the fight: “The Tar Baby’s grin, which rapidly vanished,” for flashing white teeth, and “The smoke at times made if difficult to see the Tar Baby,” for a picture of dense smoke and the vague shadow of a human form.

Johnson, of course, didn’t fare any better in the press. One cartoon of the era showed a group of white hopes running away from a black man (looking very much like Johnson) with a spear, vowing never to fight “that coke,” or “that smoke.”

Even Damon Runyon was guilty of racism when commenting on Johnson’s loss to Jess Willard in Havana in 1915, Had Johnson cut a deal with U.S. authorities to throw the fight and be readmitted to the States after his fled to Europe to avoid being jailed on a Mann Act conviction? Runyon wrote that “the case was in the hands of the feds who were not making deals with the likes of Johnson.”

Jack Dempsey, in his autobiography, admitted that he was frightened of Sam Langford and refused to fight him on the way up. Dempsey, however, is better known for his failure to meet another African-American fighter, Harry Wills, who was a leading contender during Dempsey’s championship reign. Wills was entitled to the shot, and at one point had even signed a contract with Dempsey for the bout. Somewhere along the line, Dempsey’s people pulled out, and in Dempsey’s own words, Harry Wills died without ever knowing how he would do in a title fight.

It is unclear today who deserves blame, but Dempsey’s promoter Tex Rickard could share some of it. Rickard had promoted the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries match in Nevada in 1910, when Jeffries was brought out of retirement to re-establish the “fistic supremacy of the white race,” and was beaten to a pulp. The match caused repercussions that were still felt up to and after Dempsey’s time. It wasn’t until 1937 that another black fighter received a shot at the heavy title, and only after he had carefully instructed about how behave. He was Joe Louis.

Black heavyweight kings have been predominant since then. But they owe a debt to the McVeys and Langfords, and others who went down unsung.

Doggone It: More Bullying By United Airlines

By Ray Schultz

In yet another sickening case of airline brutality, two travelers were forced to put their dog—a sort-nosed French bulldog who probably couldn’t breathe all that well—into a closed overhead bin, where the frightened puppy barked for two hours then died

United should be sued for millions, and the flight attendant who performed that stunt should be fired.

This is the same airline on which officers dragged a passenger off because he refused to surrender a seat he had paid for, and almost beat him to a pulp.

Now one may wonder: Why did the family with the dog comply with this demand? Personally, I would have said, “Land the plane. Arrest me. You’re not touching my dog.”

Based on what I’ve seen in TV news reports, this was a case of bullying of people who seemed vulnerable. Let’s not blame the victims.

It is, of course, only one episode. No matter how many airline miles people wrack up, the service is terrible on planes, the seats are cramped and the help is often rude.

Yeah, I know, drunken passengers sometimes cause disturbances and physically attack flight attendants.

But most of us don’t—we quietly endure the torture. And most of our dogs don’t nip. Yet we stand to get arrested for terrorism if we even complain that the coffee is cold.

No wonder some of us would rather take Amtrak when we can.

I’m tired of these blogs in which flight attendants list the things you should never ask them.

Rubbish, I’ll ask them anything I want, and it’s their problem if it aggravates them. It’s their job to serve passengers. To paraphrase a character in Godfather II, it’s the business they chose.