The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part IX

By Ray Schultz

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe came down from his study and said, “Good Yontif” to the men assembled there. That greeting is hardly unusual, but everything said by the Rebbe was subject to interpretation, even this. “It was strange,” a Lubavitcher man told me. “It was almost as if he knew what was about to happen, and he wanted to make the best of it.”

They soon found out what was going to happen: Like Henry Kissinger and everyone else, we in New York awoke on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, to the news that Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel on multiple fronts. I felt a shaft of cold fear when I saw the headline: “Egypt Crosses Bar Lev Line,” the sandy build-up on the Sinai side of the Suez canal a day or two later.

As a lefty, I had complicated feelings about Israel. Like many, I exulted in the Israeli success in the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel had destroyed Egypt’s air force with a preemptive strike on June 5. By Saturday June 10, the Israelis had occupied the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. On a newsstand, I found a one-shot pulp magazine that featured pictures from the war, accompanied by funny captions, the running joke being that everything in the Middle East was occupied by Israel. One photo showed Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser walking down a hall, and saying, “I have to use the men’s room.” A cowering aide says, “I’m sorry, sir, the men’s room is occupied.”

The laughter didn’t last, and I took on what I thought was a broader world view. But I was brought back to Zionism by a strange influence: Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League, a friend of Samuel Shrage’s and an alleged racist.

This happened in 1971, a time when things seemed relatively peaceful in the Middle East. Terry Noble, who had lost a leg on a kibbutz in Israel and was now said to be Bob Dylan’s Hebrew teacher, persuaded ABC to let him make a pilot tape for a radio talk show. It never aired. But Terry assembled a formidable panel: Kahane, the Arab spokesman Dr. Muhammad Medhi, a couple of other people on both sides and the Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner. Bob Dylan spent the evening listening in a corner control booth.

It started with Kahane, a man who rivaled anyone in the studio, including Dylan himself, in charisma. “What we have here with our group is a very strange concept: To bring back the old Jew,” he said. “The old Jew is that Jew who lives again in Israel, who fought for it, defended it, lost it, won it, and wanted it back again.”

Dr. Medhi promptly countered.

“We believe that American policy towards the middle-east has been morally wrong and politically detrimental to the interests of the United States, to the Arabs, to the interests of the Jewish people, to the interests of international peace,” he said. “Our concern really is not with the Arabs. The Arabs are at best, a small portion of this beautiful human race. Our concern is really with the human being.”

“I’ve followed you for about seven years, and I’ve always felt that you’re an extremely clever man,” Kahane broke in. “You know exactly what issues to press at the proper time.. When you first began, there was no hint of this sudden love for all people. Dr. Medhi, you’re first and foremost for the Arabs. And you’re using humanism to hopefully catch all our young Jewish friends. And that is dishonest.”

One of those young Jewish friends, Abbie Hoffman, seemed amused by Kahane despite their political differences, and Kahane appeared to aim some of his remarks at him.

“It’s about time that young Jews who march for every miserable cause in the whole world, who bleed for Mozambique and Angola, Biafra, Vietnam and Antarctica and Angela Davis—that’s beautiful,” Kahane said, “But we’d like to see them put in a day, just a day a year, bleeding for something Jewish, too.”

Abbie would joke, “He implied that to stick up for Angela Davis is bleeding-heartism which I always associated with Hadassah because of my background.” But Abbie had a serious answer, too.

“Within the Jewish tradition, and I certainly consider myself Jewish, there’s a history of identification with the oppressed that the rabbi sort of passes on in one broad sweep,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that we are American Jews and we are a minority and the victims of oppression and on the other hand identify wholeheartedly with that oppressor, the United States, with its imperialist policies around the world.”

Abbie moved on to the “drawing-room intellectualization” of Zionism in the early 20th Century. “To talk about Zionism. I think that on paper it was a good idea,” he said. “From Herzl and Chaim Weizmann right up to Moshe Dayan, the problem is that in recognizing this Jewish state would be in Palestine, they overlooked one problem—mainly, that there were people already living there. When Ben Gurian and Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir from Milwaukee stand up in Israel and say there will be tens of millions coming, if you are an Arab sitting there, you get a goddamned gun.”

I knew Abbie slightly, and thought of him as a lovable rogue. I was surprised he knew all that history, but he admitted later that he had boned up on it the night before.

The teacher Kahane promptly corrected him. “There are several errors, Abbie,” he said. “First, Zionism did not start with Herzl. Zionism started the day after the second temple was burned, when that Jew turned not to Mecca, as Arabs of Palestine turn, but to Zion. From that day on, Jews said, ‘We want to go home.’ It’s our home. We Jews want nothing more than what Arabs have except that Arabs have a great deal more than we have. They have not only one country, they have many countries. We don’t begrudge the Arabs their countries. They can have Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Libya and Sudan and Algeria. Wonderful. Beautiful. Do what you will there. You can fight with each other. You can have monarchies or Marxist states. All we ask is one little thing: we want our land back. Back. Back. Back.”

Mehdi weakly countered that Kahane and others had “recently rediscovered themselves and they have become nationalist, while the rest of us, having discovered ourselves over hundreds of years, were getting out of the narrow isms, and become more members of the human race. The rabbi and the others have gone backward, a sort of a regression, whereas the rest of mankind is moving forward to a more universalist pattern of life.”

Kahane blew that right away. “We Jews, quite to the contrary, doctor, are not backward, but quite forward. We’ve been where you’re trying to be. Fifty years ago we leaped into the great humanity business. When the first Politboro met at the Kremlin, there were so many Jews there that we could have prayed the afternoon Jewish service. We really did say, this nonsense of narrow racism has got to end. We learned the hard way. We learned the hard way. Stalin taught it to us. We learned the hard way.”

The question arose of why Abba Eban, from England, was allowed into Israel. Kahne answered, “We are both a nation and a faith. That’s why Abba Eban has a right to come back.”

“How about Sammy Davis Jr.?” Paul Krassner asked, referring to the African American entertainer who had converted to Judaism.

“”Sammy? Beautiful. Right on. He can come right home. He’s a Jew.”

“Could I go there?” Hoffman asked.


“I have a doubt because of Israel’s political ties with the United States, that I would quickly extradited and the doors would be closed.”

“You are wrong. We’ve had far worse than you.”

“It’s a sacrilege!” Abbie shouted. “The Macabees are puking in their graves when they see an Israeli fighter-jet made right here in the U.S. dropping napalm on an Arab village.”

“I haven’t visited their graves recently so I don’t know if they’re puking or not,” Kahane said.

Kahane made a final. point: “The question is not whether one is Jewish because Herzl said so or the Bible said so. When you get right down to it, you are Jewish because non-Jews said so.”

As often happened in those years, Krassner had the last word.

“I was a victim of circumcision, which was the first act of anti-Semitism in my family for me,” he said.  “And it was probably because of Jewish tradition even though I don’t consider myself Jewish. An important point, because it was the Nazi philosophy that Judaism was something that was inherited like a race rather than a culturally acquired religion. I just refuse to identify with the philosophy which, among other things, is male chauvinist. It’s appropriate that there’s only males on this panel. And I think it should be gotten into a kind of perspective that at least we recognize that we’re talking here about value judgments. Not only may Jews not be the chosen people, people may not even be the chosen species.”

All that aside,  Israel was now being threatened again, and a debate was going on right within Hasidic ranks. A day or two after the war started, the Lubavitcher Rebbe told a couple of men that if Israeli meant business, it should go right on to Damascus and hold it as a bargaining point. If true, that statement placed the Rebbe clearly within the Zionist camp. Of course the Satmar maintained their usual antipathy toward Israel.

“I will say it bluntly—our position has not changed,” said Rabbi Chaim Stauber when I called him. “As a matter of fact, this all substantiates our claim that ultimate redemption cannot be man-made. We cannot redeem ourselves from Disapora—it’s a part of our age-old prohibition against rebelling against rulers. Of course, our hearts bleed. Jewish blood has been spilled, life taken once again. We would like to see the war end as soon as possible. But our de facto position has been steadfast. Of course, there is concern for safety, not only for religious Jews. A Jew is a Jew. It’s a part of us, mercy, benevolence, within us, our heritage. Most certainly, this has been heartbreaking.”

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 35: The Godfather Of Spam

By Ray Schultz

On paper, Alan J. Ralsky looked just another loser with a record. He had served probation for falsifying bank records and prison time for selling unregistered securities. And in 1996, at age 52, he lost his licenses to sell insurance in Michigan and Illinois.

But the small-time fraud had another card to play. As legend  has it, he sold his car and used the money to buy two computers,  taught himself to use them, and figured out something that had eluded most of the old junk mail kings: that there was a new channel through which to swindle people: email.

Email was cheaper than direct mail, and could reach numbers that rivaled the entire population of the United States in the time of the Lottery King J.M. Pattee. Ralsky, or his clients, sold everything from Viagra to vacation packages, and he was enjoying a life of luxury in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield. By 2001, he was sending 30 million emails a day, so many that he crashed Verizon’s internet operation. Verizon sued him and he was banned from the network. But he was now known as The Godfather of Spam, a title in which he took pride.

Spam was not new. The first person to send unsolicited email was Gary Thuerk, a marketing executive at Digital Equipment Corp., a computer outfit located in the tech belt surrounding Boston. He had access to ARPANET, a communications system maintained by the U.S. Dept. of Defense. There were maybe 2020 technical people registered on it. He had a brainstorm: Why not use it to market to them?

On May 3, 1978, Thuerk sent a message to 400 people on the system, inviting them to attend A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY.

Some people went, and they bought $13 million worth of computers. But others were unhappy—how dare this guy use this protected system to peddle a product?

By 1994, thanks to the internet, several players were blasting emails, using services like AOL, and later Gmail and Outlook. People started calling it spam, after the canned meat eaten by GIs during World War II and now widely sold; some said this use of the name came from a Monty Python skit.

As with the junk mail that came before it, there were many complaints about spam, especially after Ralsky got rolling. So legislators worked up a law called CAN-SPAM, and President George W. Bush signed it: It took effect in January 2004.

That very month,  Ralsky started a new business, working with a team that included his girlfriend Judy Devenow, son-in-law Scott Bradley and a character known as Wheelchair Frankie—Frank Tribble. And they seemed to take the prohibitions in the new CAN-SPAM  law as their play list.

For one thing, the law prohibits botnets—a network of computers infected with malicious software “that allows a third party to control the entire computer network without the knowledge of the computer owners.”

This Ralsky and his co-defendants did—Ralsky himself placed a job posting on a special ham website: “Need C Programmer Familiar with ClusterMailers,” one who could program “a server daemon for windows that will serve as the installed bot.”

Of course, Ralsky had rented email lists to start his first spam business, but that was expensive and “so 1997,” as some would say. This was easy.

For another thing, CAN-SPAM forbids the use of false header and domain information to hide the identity of the sender—this would include the from, reply-to and subject lines. Ralsky and his team used obtained software that helps with “materially falsifying e-mail header information”

And, of course, CAN-SPAM disallows the sending of mass emails to people who don’t want them. Ralsky and associates “employed several fraudulent means to accomplish the common goals of sending out as much unlawful spam email as possible in order to make as much money as possible.”

Federal prosecutors got wind of the operation, but thought it was just another spam business “selling typical things—Viagra, a substitute imported from India,” said then-assistant U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg.

They raided the home of Scott Bradley, looking for proof. And they were i for a surprise. There they found handwritten ledgers filled with cryptic scribblings—tally sheets of stockmarket ticket symbols. “We were now realized they were involved in activity different from what we thought,” said Berg.

This activity was the selling of Chinese pennystocks, as provided by How Wai John Hui, the CEO of China World Trade. The gang’s emails were designed to create demand and increase the prices of these “pink sheet” stocks, and they had ample incentive to do so:

We get nothing if sold under $1.00

We get $30% if sold between $1-2

And 40% if sold between $2-3

Any thing sold over $3.00 we get 50%

That was only one part of what was turning out to be an international conspiracy. And it was now clear that the techies had taken over from the copywriters and old-time list compilers who sometimes copied government listings onto yellow legal pads.

Ralsky and company worked with one Peter Severa, a Russian hacker and botnet operator whose real name was Peter Levashov. Via online chat, Severa claimed to Bradley that he could get 20 million emails a day info AOL or Hotmail, two of the prime delivery systems. Bradley mentioned Ralsky, and Severa replied, ““King of Spam want to rent me. Cool.”

In barely a month in the summer of 2005, Ralsky paid Severa paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for sending spam with certain stock ticker symbols. And it was a good summer Ralsky, with $3 million in revenue being booked in barely a month.

Then, one day that September, the feds raided Ralsky’s home, seizing financial records, disks and computers. “We’re out of business at this point in time,” Ralsky said. “They didn’t shut us down. They took all our equipment, which had the effect of shutting us down.”

Berg and his staff gathered massive documentary evidence—emails and other proof of wire fraud and mail fraud. “If they had committed this whole scheme by meeting in a Starbucks, we wouldn’t have been able to prove it,” Berg would joke.

Indictments were issued in December 2007, charging a vast network of spammers and the felons who allegedly supported them, with charges ranging from wire fraud to money laundering. Most cooperated with Berg—so did Ralsky. And most pleaded guilty.

Sentencing took place almost two years later. The government recommended from 35 to 43 months for Ralsky in view of his cooperation. Instead, the judge handed him 51 months—over four years, an “excessive sentence,” said Ralsky’s lawyer, Steven Fishman.

“It was the most disappointing event that I have ever experienced in 36 years as a lawyer,” Fishman complained. “The sentence was higher than even what the government recommended, and I never imagined that in a million years. Everyone in the court house was stunned.”

But Ralsky wasn’t alone in drawing a harsh penalty: Hui and Tribble also got 51 months apiece. Bradley was handed 40 months, but Judy Devenow pulled only 18 months.

Severa wasn’t around to either plead or be sentenced: he was thought to be in Russia. Later, he was accused of running the Kelihos botnet, a network of 100,000 hijacked computers that could spit out billions of emails containing viruses, fraudulent offers and ransomware; some even wondered if he was involved in the Russian effort to sway the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

In 2017, Severa made the mistake of vacationing in Barcelona, and Spanish authorities arrested him on a warrant from the U.S. He fought extradition, telling the Spanish court that he probably would be tortured and murdered in the U.S. He claimed to have worked for Alexander Putin’s United Russia Party. “I collected different information about opposition parties and delivered it to the necessary people at the necessary time,” he said. The Russian government denied it. Severa was extradited to the U.S., facing 52 years in jail, and in 2018 pleaded guilty to numerous offenses, including conspiracy, wire fraud and identity theft.


By this time, many other felons had discovered the wonders of online marketing. For instance, the great Norman Chanes was indicted with two other men for luring people into “free tours” of adult websites, then billing their credit cards without permission. One of his fellow defendants, Richard Martino, was a member of the Gambino crime family, prosecutors claimed.

Then there were the frauds coming from Nigeria–the descendants of the old  Nigerian Prince mailers, but with far greater reach and sophistication. Business inboxes were barraged with fake invoices and other emails designed to spread malware and steal money and identities.

Some companies paid up to $900,000. And an incompetent accountant in San Diego transferred over $43,000 to a fraudulent account.

Other emails targeted “persons looking for romantic partners or friendship on dating websites and other social media platforms. The Nigerian lovers would use fictitious names, locations, images and personas.

The so-called threat actors hacked into company systems, laundered money and committed other crimes.

There was one difference with the old days: some of the perpetrators were caught. In 2019, for example, a 252-count indictment was issued against 80 defendants, most of them Nigerian nationals.

The lead defendants, both residing in the Los Angles area, were Valentine Iro and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, Iro and Igbokwe, Nigerian citizens, processed payments and laundered money in return for a cut off the top, the indictment alleged. Of course, most of  the remaining defendants were in Nigeria.

In one case, a small-time player named Michael Neu, age 67, of Slidell, Louisiana, was arrested and charged with 269 counts of wire fraud and money laundering.

Meanwhile, Ralsky, age 64, entered prison—he’d been there before. He did his time in Morgantown, a minimum security facility in West Virginia, also known as Club Fed. Despite his cooperation with the government, he was unrepentant.

“In 2006, 2007 and 2008, we were mailing – in the inbox—400 million a night,” he said in a bizarre video with a guy he’d mentored in jail—Rodney Burton, now known as Bitcoin Rodney. “And will never be repeated. That’s because the standards have changed…the methods that we used were used, you just can’t do it anymore. But if you do it right, email is king. Email will make you ready in the long run.”

If any of Ralskys utterances are remembered, though, it will be one he made before that. Anti-spam activists obtained his address and put it on numerous mailing lists. And the man who had send hundreds of million emails a day, oblivious to the annoyance factor or the harm being done, perhaps spoke for all consumers from the Colonial era to the present, when he whined, “They’ve signed me up for every advertising campaign and mailing list there is. These people are out of their minds. They’re harassing me.”

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.


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.


“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.

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part VI

By Ray Schultz

Joseph had succeeded in getting into Lubavitch. But others wanted out. One was an ex-Hasid we’ll call David, who lived from hand to mouth near the Columbia University campus. He had forsaken orthodox Judaism, and was now smoking marijuana and indulging in sex when he could.

At 27, David came from a respected Lubavitch family that had, after travels throughout Europe, landed in Brownsville, Brooklyn. His father owned a factory–money was always plentiful. As a child, David was stricken with polio, and was allowed more freedom to think than most Hasidic children. At 12 or 13, he would get on the subway in Crown Heights, ride around the city and go to museums. He read books by such authors as Dickens and Dumas, and suffered a loss of faith. “When I was 17, I started questioning very seriously. Is there a God? Did God give us the Torah? How legitimate is the written and oral law?”

Audiences with the Rebbe failed to dispel these doubts. “I was having emotional problems, and at one point I went to see him,” David said. “I was 21 or 22. He gave me some good advice, and I think his blessing helped me a lot. I believe he’s a holy man. But we had a short philosophic talk that left me unsatisfied. I asked him for certain concrete evidence and he wasn’t able to give it, which I realize now, is silly. It’s like Kierkegaard said. There IS no proof that God gave us the Torah, although there is certain proof that the Jewish people have survived till now, and the Jewish contribution to Western culture itself proves that there is something unique about the Jewish people.”

The West End was a rambling college hangout with a circular bar. It was there, in the back room, that I interviewed David over West Enders, an affordable hamburger platter offered by the place. He was a tall, bearded man who walked with a slight limp from his childhood illness, and often had a pained expression on his face. I met him through mutual friends, and he came to a holiday party thrown by my crowd of struggling writers and illustrators, drinkers and pot-smokers all. He was dismayed by their drunkenness and lack of discipline. He resisted being interviewed, but finally agreed.

David went to a yeshiva in Montreal to pursue college-level studies. “I was studying Hasidus, which is basically an ethical-philosophic system,” he said. “It’s a system of metaphysics, and I like it very much., I still do, I think Chabbad Hasidus is one of the most profound philosophies that Judaism has developed. It’s a very beautiful way of life. It takes a man to be a Hasid. It takes a very strong and noble person.”

But David realized his worst problem regarding Hasdiic life: sex. “I hate how they separate the men and women,” he said. “It screwed me up sexually. The first time I really confronted it was when I was riding the bus once in Montreal. I saw this very beautiful French girl, and there was something about her I liked. She had a very sensitive and beautiful face. I was thinking of following her, but I felt guilty about looking at her in the first place, so I didn’t.”

Not that sex was an entirely unknown topic to David. “The Kabala is highly sexual, they talk a lot about the masculine, the feminine, the masculine giving to the feminine, which are supposed to be metaphors for God and Israel—the Sefirot,” he said.

David wanted to become a psychoanalyst, and his parents allowed him to go to New School in Manhattan after the yeshiva. Bur he ran into the same issues there. “I could imagine people saying, ‘Look, that rabbi is staring at a woman, isn’t that a shame?’ So I started wearing a modern suit and a sports hat. And before I got to school, I’d twirl the hat around and put it in my coat pocket. I think I might have passed for a square intellectual.”

Soon he abandoned even that pretense and went entirely without Hasidic dress, dispensing with the yarmulke, trimming his bead and on a trip to Washington wearing a brightly colored suit. “The Hasidic façade was off,” he said. “It was very liberating.”

In time, David left the New School and began hanging around with people from Columbia, some of them disengaging from their own Orthodox backgrounds. But his personal problems caught up with him, and he ended up virtually homeless.

By day, he sat in on classes at Columbia or read, mostly psychoanalytic and metaphysical works. At 9 o’clock every night, he would wander into the West End bar and make the rounds of the tables, hoping to meet a woman who would invite him home; if that failed, he would ask for shelter with friends.

To get food, David would sometimes order a meal in a restaurant and skip out on the bill. “Many times when I was very hungry, I’d order a small thing, like a tuna sandwich, and I’d walk out or tell the guy, ‘Look, I have no money.’ What’s he gonna do for 80 cents? And there’s a certain place, Bickford’s on 14th and 7th, where they have a counter. I used to sit many times next to the door. I used to dress up, I used to eat a meal for $2.50, and then when the waitress was away. I used to rush out and go into a doorway.” He did this until it dawned on him that the waitresses might have to pay for the order, and then he just starved. “In Chabbad, they teach you to fight your weaknesses,” he said, “so I was able to cope with it. Also, it was easy knowing that I could go home to Mommy and Daddy in Crown Heights, eat a good meal and pick up 30 dollars.”

But what was the cause of his anxiety?

“I was suicidal, I had obsessions,” he said. “One of the things that a religious upbringing does to you is you live very structurally. And when you leave that, you still need a certain amount of structure. So I developed a whole obsessional structure, very sick, that caused me a lot of pain, almost drove me to suicide., which I don’t feel like getting into, but I still have it.”

Then why did he leave Lubavitch?

“There are many reasons I’m not a Hasid,” he said. “One you can say that I’m trying to hurt my parents. Another is it’s an easier way of life, this, to be a Hasid is a hard way—this way of life is a very hedonistic one.”

He also praised the structure of Hasidic life—up to a point.

“If you want to go into business, you ask the Rebbe—there’s a shoulder to lean on,” he said. “Out here, you sort of have to take your own knocks. In that sense, Hasidism is a highly beneficial system. It’s greater than psychoanalysis, people have peace of mind, but they’re paying a heavy price for it in freedom and loss of individuality. And there’s a thing in the Hasidic community—at least it’s been my experience—there’s always a fear of ‘what will the neighbors say?’ As long as you live that way, you’re not really free.”

“Most of the human race lives that way,” I said,

“But I think within the Hasidic community it’s more intensified because for one thing, they have to dress in a certain way,” he answered.

“But it seems they are really into it.”

“Oh, they are into it. When I was into it, I was into it, too. It’s like any other system. Look what the Chinese have done. They’ve alleviated hunger for the first time in thousands of years. It’s probably the most just society on the face of the earth right now, but look at the price they’re paying. They’ve had to give up a lot of individuality.”

(I failed to challenge his comment about China being the most just society, showing our mutual naivety).

We went on from there:

RS: Despite your doubts, you’re still a spiritual individual.

David: Yeah, I’m spiritual. I’m searching for a way of life I’m trying to be ethical, yeah, I am basically a religious person. If you’re raised with a religious system for 23 year it’s hard to shake it off.

RS: Is there a degree of observance?

David: Yeah, I don’t eat ham or bacon.”

RS: And Shabbos?

David: Intellectually, I see Shabbos as very important concept. It’s funny, but I realize over the years on Shabbos I tend to do less as far as traveling—I go more to the library and read. I also try to set aside, inside me, the Shabbos as a day of rest. The Shabbos makes sense, it’s beautiful, it’s one of mankind’s most beautiful days.”

RS: And Lubavitch?

David: They have some very outstanding people in Lubavitch I greatly respect and admire. I greatly respect the Rebbe, too. I think he’s one of the greatest Jews today. He’s a holy man. A great intellectual, a great leader of the Jews. 

RS: Would you clamor to get near him?

David: I would clamor, yes. Sure, he’s a holy man. I’m attracted to holy men—I’ve gone many times to see Swami Satchidananda

RS: Do you feel guilt toward the Rebbe?

David: To the Rebbe? No. I don’t. I think the Rebbe would understand. If anybody would, the Rebbe would. I hold the Rebbe in great reverence and almost a certain fear, a slight fear because I do believe he’s a holy man.

RS: What will happen if he dies? He doesn’t have an heir.

David: I’ve wondered myself. How old is the Rebbe now?

RS: 72 or 73.

David: Well, he’s probably—Lubavitchers believe that he’s a messiah, I don’t know what will happen. I would think that of all of them, Lubavitch is more equipped to deal with a situation like that. More than Satmar. I think they’ll be much more messed up. It seems thhat Lubavitch is a much more smoothly-flowing entity than Satmar.

(I believe this was the first time I ever heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to as the possible messiah). 

RS: Do you think the Rebbe has his own doubts about the existence of God?

David: He’s a highly enigmatic person, the Rebbe. I find it very fascinating. I wonder what he really believes. Who knows he might be putting on a facade, cause he is a very profound mind. Can you imagine if the Rebbe said on Shabbos, ‘I have my doubts about the divine origin of the Torah?,’ what pandemonium that would bring?’

RS: You think they’d disown him? 

David: I don’t know. Maybe all the others would come out with their doubts. It might be one of the greatest liberating things. There was one Hasidic Rebbe, I think Kotzker, and they say—this is more legend than a fact—that one Friday night he came in on Shabbos and lit a candle and said, ‘There’s no judge, and there’s no judgment.’ A very fascinating man.

RS: Would you really go back?

David: It’s as legitimate a way of lie as any other. I’m not saying, there aren’t more legitimate ways. But where are we all gonna end up, anyway? I mean, what are we all gonna be in five years? I could go back. In a couple of years. If I did, I’d be treated with respect, sort of like the spy who came in from the cold. I’d probably be given a good marriage match. But I’d have to believe in it, I wouldn’t go back as a hypocrite. Right now, I’m becoming more religious, and a lot of the Torah makes more sense to me. Shabbos makes sense, kosher makes sense. Some of the sexual restrictions even make sense. Besides, some of the most ethical people I’ve ever met in my life are in Lubavitch. Not like these Marxists in the West End who won’t give you twenty cents to get a cup of coffee.


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.