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

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

By Ray Schultz

One hot Tuesday in August 1974, I found myself in a Hertz truck manned by young Rabbinic students on vacation. Their job was to drive around the city, jump out at different spots and urge American Jews to “identify.” My job, as I saw it, was to survive the ride.

By this time, I was on assignment from The New York Times Magazine. The Times had spurned an earlier proposal of mine, but another writer’s article on the Hasidim had fallen through, and the Times suddenly was interested in a mish-mash I had written, its main virtue being that it was “not too chicken soupy,” an editor wrote. But they wanted revisions. And their first demand was that I ride one of these new Mitzvah Mobiles—that was the news hook. I called Yehuda Krinsky, who seemed none too friendly at first. But faced with an impending article, he was helpful.

So there I was. Our first stop was Wall Street, where the truck attracted bemusement at best. The young men who manned it would sidle up to people on the street and ask, in confidential tones, “Are you Jewish?” If the answer was yes, they would start their pitch, but would withdraw the proffered booklets if the person said no.

Men who said they were Jewish were invited to enter the trucks. Most didn’t—as Shrage had said in a somewhat shocking remark, the Hasidim reminded acculturated American Jews of  “something they had a nose job to forget.” The few who did enter were instructed on the importance of charity boxes and tefillin. And they would be invited to put on tefillin. I, a non-believer, also was coerced into donning tefillin before the truck even took off, but I was now fairly skilled at wrapping it around my arm.

We left Wall Street, and after a bumpy drive to Brooklyn, parked on a corner near Sheepshead Bay. With klezmer music blaring from the truck, an old man started dancing on the sidewalk. They kept asking him if he was Jewish, but he wouldn’t stop dancing long enough to answer.

***

My other mandate from the Times was that I profile a “plain foot soldier” in Lubavitch. So Krinsky served one up. Hirsh Gonsburg, age 45, ran a printing house, The Empire Press, on Empire Blvd. He was born in Moscow, where he attended a small yeshiva in a basement. His father was an alumnus of the original Lubavitch yeshiva, and a photographer who occasionally took shots for Isvestia, the Soviet news agency. In 1938, the family moved to Palestine to avoid the coming war, and young Hirsh and his two brothers were able to pursue their yeshiva studies in peace. In 1948, at age 18, he came to America to study in Crown Heights, and met a young woman named Rasha Denburg, who came from a respected family. They were married. Rather than going in for teaching or further Rabbinic training, Gonsburg took a job with a small print shop in East New York, and started learning the printing business. After a brief period in Montreal, he returned to Crown Heights, and in 1967, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, he and Mordecai Chean, opened their own shop. They print publications for Lubavitch in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, and pamphlets for various businesses in the area. Both men enjoyed the work, but said it was tough to make a living. No matter what they earned, 10% of their incomes had to go to Lubavith. “It’s part of Jewish law,” said Gonsburg..

Like most men, Gonsburg carried the burden of mitzvahs for his family. He arose at 6:30 every morning and went to shul. There he donned his tefillin and tallis (prayer shawl) for morning prayer. He davened for 45 minutes, then returned home for breakfast. His shul was a small place near his house. Though most men would rather daven where the Rebbe was, they usually went closest to home. At 9:30, he arrived at work and began a long, hard day. Within an hour, his hands were usually full of printer’s ink, and his ears subjected to the constant clacking of the hot-type machines. Occasionally, he and Chean had to wash up and go over to Manhattan for business. In the course of a day, they were required to go through two more prayer sessions. One was mincha, or afternoon prayer. They usually davened together at the shop, with the co-workers. “The only requirement is that we do it by sundown,” he said. “If it’s late, we’ll just close the shop up: it takes about 15 minutes.” At night, he went to shul for evening prayer, which also takes 15 minutes, and after dinner he usually studied Torah for an hour or two by himself. “We have to keep studying,” he said. “It’s an ongoing thing. The Rebbe is studying, too.”

Gonsburg’s two sons attended yeshiva, where they spent half a day on religious subjects and half on state-required secular subjects. An average Hasidic schoolboy, in his bright-colored yarmulke and close-cropped hair, spends 8 or 9 hours a day (in school and at home) of grueling work in Torah, Talmud and Hasidus, and by the time he is 10 years old, will already be something of an expert, I was told. In addition, by the tender age of five, he would also mostly likely speak English, Yiddish, the sacred language Hebrew, and possibly one or more European languages, such as Russian or French, depending on where his parents came from.

At some point, I asked Gonsburg about his wife, and he replied, somewhat abashedly, that she had passed away in 1969. “We manage, thank God,” he said

To get a woman’s perspective, I visited Rabbi Menachim Blau’s home to interview his wife Esther, who ran the Hadar Hatorah women’s program.. Their house was neatly but not plushly decorated—there were photos of the previous and current Rebbes on the wall. Blau took out tefillin, kissed it and bade me to put it on. Esther brought out a quart of Tropicana orange juice and lemon meringue pie. While we talked, another woman sat in the front room and rocked their small baby.

Mrs. Blau told me the girl’s training program was the right one for women. “Girls can’t sit and study, they must work to support the men during first year or so of marriage while the men complete their studies,” she said. Her husband gravely nodded in agreement at some point.

Mrs. Blau continued that women are relieved of many of the responsibilities that fall on men—not that women are less valuable, only that “each sex has its role,” she said. “That of women is to make children—they are required only to observe those commandments for which they can find time. We want women to serve our Lord, but her part or role is by raising the family, to be fruitful, to have children.” Finally, without my even inferring it, she said, “Religious people don’t feel women are lower.”

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI