The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part XIV–Epilogue

By Ray Schultz

There is a reason this account stops in 1974 and does not continue as a full-fledged history: I had a bad, chopped-up article appear in the New York Times Magazine that fall, which I now find mortifying. and after that gave up on the idea of doing anything more—there was no demand, and I would have lost access in any case. This narrative mostly consists of verbatim notes I wrote up in 1973-74 on cheap yellow paper, then retyped into my computer over the last couple of years, editing along the way.

I don’t present this as a great work of journalism. But it’s a document of sorts: It tells the story of my encounters with the Hasidim at a particular moment in history: the era of Watergate and the Yom Kippur war, and the aging of the great Rebbes. 

Almost 50 years have passed, and there are postscripts to several of the stories. 

Samuel Shrage died of a heart attack in 1976. There were charges within Hasidic ranks that the African-American ambulance attendants took their sweet time and let him die. I couldn’t believe that. 

A summer or two later, I was in CBGB’s, the Bowery punk-rock club. As Patti Smith was shrieking, I ran into David the Lubavitch dropout. He was very unfriendly, and said, “Stop asking me how I am.” I concluded based on his attire and the venue that he had not returned to Lubavitch. 

In 1979,  the Satmar Rebbe died at age 92. Given the state of his health, I suspected the Satmar were already used to getting along without him. Later, I  learned that the movement split into two groups, with different rabbinical leadersship.

There also was change at Lubavitch, although it took longer to unfold. In 1991, the Rebbe and his caravan of cars were driving back to Crown Heights from Montefiore Cemetery, when the last car in the procession hit and killed Gavin Cato, a seven year-old African-American child. This precipitated riots and conflict in which a young Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death. These tragic events exacerbated stresses that had existed as far back as the 1960s. 

The Rebbe died in 1994. And the Lubavitch movement also split into two groups, at least intellectually—those who believed the late Rebbe was the messiah and those didn’t. 

The Bobover Rebbe died in 2000, and his movement, too, eventually broke into two groups.

Historians may uncover the truth behind these splits.. But I have my own theory: that the job in each case had become too big for one man. 

The passing of the Satmar, Lubavitch and Bobover Rebbes marked the end of an epoch. These were the leaders who escaped the Holocaust and made their way to the United States. There they pulled together small groups of survivors and new adherents who had nowhere else to turn, helping them get a toehold in America and in so doing rebuilt their shattered communities until they were more robust than ever, in the face of grave poverty and other problems, all the while giving tirelessly of themselves as they entered old age. Hopefully, no future Rebbes will face such harrowing challenges. 

That’s why this account is called The Last Rebbes. 

Of course, other Rebbes performed similar feats. And both younger and older Rebbes continue to lead their congregations today. But Schneerson, Teitelbaum and Halberstam were giants of a type that surely deserve study. 

As for me, you might wonder if this experience turned me into a Hasid.  It didn’t. A skeptic, a bohemian and a hack. I could never submit to the kind of regimented religious life pursued by Hasidic Jews: My brief taste of it convinced me of that. 

Then there were the political issues.

I had long been bothered by the Haredi’s outsize political influence in Israel, and the Orthodox rabbinate’s power to determine who is a Jew and to pass on the legitimacy of marriages. It’s one thing to voluntarily choose a religious way of life—it’s another to be compelled to observe even small elements of it. Surely, there must be room in the Jewish tent for converts, non-believers, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, individuals whose fathers were Jewish but not their mothers, gays, lesbians, the transgendered and other outliers. 

One must also question Hasidic positions on the occupied territories, and the tendency of the Orthodox in the U.S. to support Republican candidates and to align on issues with the religious right. 

Late in 1974, I was on the Broadway Limited train from New York to Chicago, when men wearing black coats and hats boarded in Ohio. Not Hasidim—Amish. I did a double take. My traveling companion scarcastically said. “There’s your next article,”

Please, no—I’d had enough of black-coated religious groups for a time and was in fact fleeing New York to escape the probable reaction to my article in Crown Heights. But one thing became clear as the years went by and I grew even more ambivalent about the politics and my own belief structure: I missed the Hasidim. 

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI

Part XII

Part XIII

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

By Ray Schultz

It was the evening of Thursday, Aug. 8, 1974. The Lubavitchers had announced a farbrengen with the Rebbe, and I dutifully showed up in Crown Heights. But my mind was elsewhere, as were most people’s: Richard Nixon was giving a speech that night, and the reports said he was resigning. 

Maybe it was me, but there was a strange feeling in the hall—it wasn’t as festive as usual. A Hasid was selling black shoes in the lobby. The Rebbe spoke, and there were the usual songs and toasts. But what did he say on this strange night? 

“He spoke a lot about the Messiah,” Hirsh Gonsburg told me. (That seemed logical, given the belief that the Messiah’s arrival will be preceded by great turmoil.) 

“He feels the Messiah is overdue?”

“He says it all depends on our work.”

“What does he want you to do?”

“What we’re doing—everything. Help out other people, mostly spiritual. He starts with Talmud, and Bible, like a lecture.” 

A few days later, armed with the assignment from the Times Magazine, I met with Yehuda Krinsky. First, we went over questions the Times wanted answered, like how many Lubavitchers there were in the world and Krinsky answered (there were 750,000). Then he tried to explain Hasidism to me. 

“The Chabbad philosophy is not just a philosophy,” he said. “It’s actually a deeper understanding of and involvement in Judaism. As such, it makes the person a better Jew, but it also makes him a different Jew. Because his comprehension of what Judaism is a lot deeper and more sensitive than the Jew on the street who hadn’t had the advantage of the Chabbad way of life, and therefore his practice is different.”

“How so?” I asked.

“There’s a story about this old Tzaddik, who when he used to put on his tefillin in the morning, he would be so emotionally involved in it that two people would have to hold him because he used to go into an ecstatic involvement in it. Why? Because his concept of tefillin was such that his involvement moved him to the state of ecstasy. Of course, not everyone is at that level. His putting on tefillin was different than my putting on tefillin, because he was one with what he was doing.”

“But how do you get to that stage?”

“What Chabbad philosophy tries to inculcate in a person is that the  person, whatever he does, does it with a deeper understanding of what the mitzvah is, so he knows this is God’s Torah, not an intellectual book of philosophy, and therefore, he’s a different kind of person.”

Krinsky then enunciated a belief that ran against my egalitarian grain.  “There are different levels in people. The Bible talks about the eyes of the people. The leaders of the people are often referred to in Judaism as ‘the heads.’ In the physiological structure of a person, you have his head, his heart, his hands, his feet. Now there are different levels of life. You can’t compare the level of life in the heart to the level of life in the sole of the foot. A person can live without a foot, but he can’t live without a heart or without a mind. So, obviously, the life coming forth from the soul has different levels of emanation.”

Krinsky was just getting started. “The same thing is true in the structure of a people as a whole. You have those who are the leaders, and those who you might call the feet of the people. The Bible tells about Moses–he mentioned the 600,000 foot people that ’I am amongst.’ There is this difference between levels of people. And the leader characterizes the head, which is delicate and very sensitive. It’s simply a different type of person. In a democracy, everybody is the same. You have the past president—is he or is he not above the law? Obviously, he’s not above the law. But in any case, when you’re talking about the Jewish people as a whole, they’ve been blessed through the generations with extraordinary leadership—not in the secular Jewish sense, I’m talking in the religious sense. Beginning with Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob, and subsequently Moses, Joshua and the Prophets, then we came into the time of the Mishnaic sages, and the Talmudic sages. They’ve been a very small number, but they’ve been people who were capable of leading the people through very difficult times. And actually, they are on a different level. They don’t look upon themselves as different—it says that Moses was the most modest person, he held himself lower than the lowest of the people that he led, because he was in fact a true leader, in an authentic way.”

“Is the Rebbe on that level?” 

“The Rebbe is in the same way, because of the outstanding ability, the outstanding concern for the people,” Krinsky answered. “I would say the Rebbe is more concerned with his fellow Jew, regardless of the type of Jew, than a person on a lower level who’s a compassionate person involved in helping others. This mitzvah campaign—it’s not the Rebbe’s business. He doesn’t gain anything off it. What gain does he have? There’s no monetary gain, it doesn’t make his house any nicer, no more prestige or honor—he simply does it for the sake of the mitzvah itself. If there’s something lacking somewhere, by any Jew, in any part of the world, he feels that lack, he feels that something, he can’t rest or take it easy. What I’m trying to say is that the Rebbe’s capacity for leadership in general—there are certain prerequisites. First of all,, the man has to be well-versed in Torah study—you can’t be an ignoramus, and as far as that’s concerned, the Rebbe is an acknowledged genius in all fields of Jewish study. That’s intellectually speaking. But you have to be emotionally involved with your people, you have to feel that their concern is your concern. And it’s very evident.”

“It sounds like a lonely job, almost like the presidency,” I ventured. 

“I think that to a degree, there’s a comparison there. I think it’s a very lonely kind of a position. The Rebbe is not only closely tied in with the people constantly, he knows what’s going on. He’s very well informed as to everything, in the total world in general.”

“But what about the man? I impertinently asked. “Do you think he enjoys his food?”

“We’re talking on a very superficial level,” Krinsky replied. “You must remember that there is a difference between Judaism and other religions. In Chabbad Hasidus, more than any other philosophy, it’s a total job, it’s not something where you go to church on Sunday, and the rest of the week you can do what you want. It’s a total, encompassing kind of existence, from the instance you’re born to the end of your life, and we believe, beyond that.” 

He continued, as if I were a candidate.

“There’s a definite pattern by which a person must live. From the instant he gets up in the morning, he has to wash his hands, says his prayers, then he has to put on tefillin. ‘In all your ways you should know Him.’ That Biblical injunction is not to be taken superficially, it’s a very serious one in the sense that a Jew, no matter what he does, when he eats, sleeps, he does it with a certain ultimate goal, an ultimate purpose in mind, which is to bring Godliness into the world. He should do his job thoroughly, he should give to charity, raise children, lead his family in Yiddishkeit. There is no area in life that is exempt of Yiddishkeit. In the Tanya, the basic book of Chabbad philosophy, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, he talks about when one eats, everything one does, has to be for a higher purpose. When one eats, he should not go down to the level of the food, but he should bring the food up to a higher level. For example, you have the animal, mineral, vegetable. The ultimate of the mineral is that it should give out vegetation, it should produce the vegetable. The ultimate of the vegetable is that it should be eaten by the animal. The ultimate of the animal is that it be elevated to a higher sphere, which is the human being. The ultimate of the human being is that he be elevated to a higher sphere, to Godliness. So that obviously, the food that a person eats is on a lower level than he is, and his obligation is to elevate to divinity, which is to be found in everything, the food hat he eats to a higher sphere.”

I was awed—he had, in effect, answered my question, although that wasn’t the type reply I was seeking. 

 “Who would be the closest person to the Rebbe?”

He mentioned a Rabbi Hartichov. “He’s about the same age, and is the Rebbe’s closest confidant,” Krinsky said. 

“He’s just a friend?

“Not just a friend, it’s his position. He’s involved in that work. He works until very late at night, and even when he’s home a few hours resting, his mind is here. I think it’s

 that way with most of us here. There’s a lot of satisfaction, of course. You’re really never free of it, when you’re home.” 

“Does it take away at all from your observance?”

“As far as practical observance is concerned, you still do that. But it does diminish from the time that I put in on studying. Speaking for myself, I wish I had more time to study.”

“The Rebbe’s health is good?” 

“Thank God. Sometimes he looks tired, which is understandable. He’s never left for a vacation or taken a rest that I know if. He just hasn’t. He’s never missed a day. I think what drives the whole thing is when any one of these individuals stationed in any part of the world looks at the Rebbe and sees how hard he drives himself, I think this gives him the stimulus to drive himself, and he doesn’t let up on himself, and he’s demanding of other people he works through, and I think his own schedule and his own approach to work stimulates others. He doesn’t ask any more of anyone else than he does himself.”

“If you’re working with him closely, is there a level on which you can socialize with him?”

“There’s really no socializing. I’ve been involved right now about 17 or 18 years, and as close as I’ve come to the Rebbe, I would say that he’s still an enigma, and I think even his closest confident, Rabbi Hartichov, would attest to the same thing. Despite the close activity at any given time, the Rebbe remains an enigma. He seems to be all locked up. There are territories there that are just virgin seemingly. No one has entered. “

“Do you think he has doubts?”

“Well, I would assume the decisions that he makes are thought through very carefully, cautiously, and before a decision is made, there might be doubt, I don’t know how to term it.” 

“I mean religious doubts, philosophical doubts.” 

“No, no, no. The Rebbe is a very believing man. Chabbad does profess intellectual inspection and introspection and involvement and research, but it doesn’t negate belief in any way. Therefore, belief is always there, it’s the rock bed of Judaism, and all the investigation that goes on intellectually speaking or philosophically speaking goes along hand-in-hand with the belief. There are no doubts by the religious Jew as to basic Jewish beliefs. The reason for the mystery is that the Rebbe is such a deep character, a complex person, that I simply think that he might be involved with certain studies, with certain matters of Torah, that he might not speak to the individual about at the time.  But in his thinking, his way of life, these are things he is involved in, in a higher sphere of mental and emotional involvement.” 

That was my last visit to Lubavitch.

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI

Part XII