Rabbis write up the Rebbe
By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
Rabbis Joseph Telushkin and Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz have come out with new volumes on “The Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 20 years after the death of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement’s seventh and final leader. To these authors, Schneerson was no ordinary biographical subject – in fact, according to the subtitle of one of their books, he is “the most influential rabbi in modern history.”
Telushkin’s father, Shlomo, worked as an accountant for both the seventh Rebbe and his predecessor. When he was left paralyzed and disoriented by a stroke, Shlomo got two phone calls each day from the Rebbe. One day, the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, conveyed an accounting question from the Rebbe for Shlomo to answer—and he answered successfully, despite being ill.
“I was very profoundly moved because I realized what happened was, the Rebbe was sitting there in Brooklyn, dealing with all these major issues, and he could empathize with the situation of my father, who suddenly had his whole life turned upside down and probably was feeling quite irrelevant, and the Rebbe was sort of bringing him back into the world,” Joseph Telushkin told JNS.org.
That story, also included in the introduction of Telushkin’s Rebbe (published by HarperCollins), is emblematic of the anecdotes infused throughout the 640-page book, providing a comprehensive history of the Rebbe’s hallmark focus on the individual – from heads of state to the everyman. Released June 10, the biography is the result of a five-year process in which Telushkin conducted hundreds of his own interviews and received unprecedented access to other interviews from Jewish Educational Media, Chabad’s video archive and multimedia arm.
“It was not easy to write a biography because the Rebbe was very unrevealing, didn’t talk about himself much, and didn’t leave behind many documents about himself, so I had to construct a biography to a large extent on people’s interactions with him,” said Telushkin, a renowned lecturer and the author of Jewish Literacy, which his website calls the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past two decades.
Three nights a week, starting at 8 p.m. and lasting until the early hours of the morning, the Rebbe would hold one-on-one meetings called yechidusen (singular, yechidus). While Telushkin details many yechidusen, he devotes special sections to the Rebbe’s meetings with philosopher Yitzchak Block; Yehuda Avner, an adviser to four Israeli prime ministers; novelist Harvey Swados; and Chana Sharfstein, who came to consider the Rebbe as a father figure after the murder of her own father when she was a teenager.
“I realized, this is a very unusual phenomenon, of a man who led a worldwide movement, and yet who always was able to remain very focused on the individual,” Telushkin said. “Obviously that’s at the heart of Judaism, because every human being is created in God’s image. We all acknowledge that, but people are not always so careful in carrying it out.”
Telushkin, who has written more than 15 books, said he did not begin working on Rebbe with the 20th anniversary of Schneerson’s death in mind, and did not believe the project would take five years until realizing that “there was an inordinate amount of material to assimilate.” Another realization Telushkin said he had during his research was that the Rebbe “is probably the most well-known rabbinic figure since Maimonides, who lived 800 years ago.”
That is why Telushkin made what he called a “seemingly audacious claim” in the book’s subtitle, which identifies the Rebbe as “the most influential rabbi in modern history.” There are few other rabbinic figures – if any – whose names would be recognized like the Rebbe’s by large percentages of Jewish audiences in the world’s largest Jewish communities, explained Telushkin.
Who else might be in the running for “most well-known rabbi”? Telushkin suggested the religious Zionist Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (“Rav Kook”) – but said that in the U.S., outside of the Orthodox world, “if you cite Rav Kook you have to introduce him.” The Reform movement’s Rabbi Stephen S. Wise might be the most famous U.S. rabbi of the first half of the 20th century, and there are two prominent synagogues named for him, yet “the percentage of American Jews who know much about him is small,” Telushkin said.
While Telushkin opted for Rebbe, he said Steinsaltz had the right to use the title My Rebbe (published by Maggid Books) because of his personal relationship with Schneerson.
Steinsaltz writes in the preface, “I enjoyed a warm and close relationship with the Rebbe. He and I had long, private, one-to-one meetings, in which we discussed global Jewish questions. While this book reflects my own feelings, it is also a concerted effort to create an honest and objective work, one that strives to portray the man and his dreams.”
Like Telushkin, Steinsaltz – who has written 60 books and is perhaps best known for his translation of the entire Talmud from the Aramaic language to modern Hebrew – did not specifically write his book for the Rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit. He told JNS.org that My Rebbe, released May 1, took “many years” to complete and that it was “almost by chance” that it came out now.
“It was, emotionally and intellectually, a very hard job,” Steinsaltz said.
An alternate title to the 250-page book, he said, could have been Father, Teacher, King – the roles any rebbe plays in the lives of his followers.
“The Rebbe was what basically a rebbe is, a focal point in which you try to adjust yourself,” said Steinsaltz. “In that sense, he has a unique position… the notion of a rebbe is that you accept that person as your guide.”
Writing on the topic of miracles, Steinsaltz explains that the Rebbe performed what might be considered modern-day miracles through his ability to perceive things others could not. He told JNS.org that while biblical-era miracles were impressive, they “didn’t change much.” The Jews crossed the Read Sea with Moses, and a few days later they had enough chutzpah to complain about him, Steinsaltz noted – but those who met the Rebbe often truly internalized the encounters and changed their behavior.
“With some people it wasn’t a miracle,” he said. “With some people a deep and lasting connection was just an exchange of looks [with the Rebbe].”
Writing Rebbe was personally transformative for Telushkin. For instance, the Rebbe, due to his emphasis on using optimistic language, would refer to a hospital in Hebrew as “beit refuah,” meaning house of healing, rather than the widely used “beit cholim,” meaning house of the sick. Telushkin, likewise, said he now refrains from using the word “deadline” for a project because it connotes death; he now uses “due date,” which ironically connotes exactly the opposite – birth.
This principle of “optimism and careful choosing of words” is among the Rebbe’s “seven virtues” that make up Part Three of Telushkin’s book. Another one of those virtues that has influenced Telushkin is “anything worth doing is worth doing now.” He said that in the past he would often put off an unpleasant phone call he had to make for days, but now he tries to “be much better about taking care of things, both negative and positive things, and trying to do it now.”
While the Rebbe’s legacy is certain to be a topic of debate amid the 20th anniversary of his death, he actually left “marching orders” rather than a legacy, Steinsaltz writes in My Rebbe. Many Jews have “all kinds of books that are theoretical books to rely on, or to refer to, but that is not always something that makes people move in the same direction,” Steinsaltz told JNS.org.
When the Rebbe became ill in the years before his death, people started to wonder about the continuity of the Chabad movement—but all doubts have been put to rest and then some, and according to Telushkin, that is to Schneerson’s credit.
“Instead [of Chabad being weakened], during the last 20 years, Chabad has tripled in size, it’s now in 80 countries, there are Chabad houses in 48 of 50 American states,” Telushkin said. “It has had this extraordinary vitality. The true test of leadership is what happens when a leader dies, and here’s an example of when a leader died, the movement has been growing even stronger.”
Meeting with the Rebbe
Every Sunday afternoon, from 1986 – when he was 84 years old – until he fell ill in 1993, the Rebbe would stand outside his office on the second floor of 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y. – sometimes for six hours or more – and welcome thousands of people who, as their turn came, would ask for blessings and advice. Throughout the years, scores of people came – men, women and children; Jews and non-Jews; luminaries such as New York Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.
Apart from this, downstairs in the shul, the Rebbe would also meet with those marking lifecycle milestones – e.g., wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, etc. Each individual would approach the Rebbe and hand him a personal letter, which the Rebbe would later read.
In both these cases, the Rebbe would give each person visiting with him a dollar, sometimes more, which were meant to be given to tzedaka. When the Rebbe led children’s gatherings, he would often distribute dimes to the kids – often giving each child two dimes; one for tzedaka and one for the child to keep.
In 1991, around the time of her bat mitzvah, Yehudis (Gopin) Wolvovsky met with the Rebbe and handed him her letter. Wolvovsky, who is director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Glastonbury with her husband Yosef, grew up in West Hartford. Standing behind her is her sister Raizel (Gopin) Rosenfeld, who currently serves as director of Chabad of Portugal, along with her husband, Eli Rosenfeld.
As a young boy, Rabbi Baruch Kaplan, who serves today as director of Chabad of Wallingford, met with the Rebbe, as his grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Hecht, who served as president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, looks on.
Remembering the Rebbe who changed my life
By Vera Schwarcz
Having travelled around the world in my work as a China scholar, I have had many encounters that were deeply transformative. None, however, match the subtle, enduring change enacted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom I met only briefly three times in my life.
“Met” is not the right word for the Rebbe’s impact. Rather, I learned to see my own existence in an utterly fresh light by looking into his very blue and very kind eyes. I did not know that I was seeking a new perspective when I first encountered one of the Rebbe’s emissaries. She was a high school girl waiting for a bus in Jerusalem in the summer of 1978. I was standing at the same stop, excited by this first visit to Israel. We started to chat. Somehow this young woman started speaking about her school (and I must have told her about my teaching at Wesleyan University). She invited me right then and there to one of her classes. I had never been to a yeshiva before; never sat and looked at Jewish texts slowly. It turned out to be great intellectual joy.
A couple of days later, the girl called me to invite me for Shabbat to the home of a poet in Mea Sharim. I had not been keeping Shabbat, but I wanted an entry into the “secret” world of the religious. A poet who graduated from the University of Chicago sparked my interest. So, I came to meet a seasoned, soulful follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Over the next 35 years, our friendship has continued to grow deeper and deeper. At first I simply glanced at booklets she sent to me about the Rebbe’s teaching. I did not take them to heart. During my first prolonged sojourn in China (1979-1980) I wrote to her simply because it was fun to send and receive letters from Jerusalem in Beijing.
When I came back from China, my Jerusalem friend urged me to reach out to some of the Rebbe’s followers in New Haven. There I met a Rebbetzin Feige Levitin, with whom I continue to learn Torah to this day. It was Feige who suggested that I go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the winter of 1992. By that time, I had learned more about Shabbat, had tenure at Wesleyan, and was the mother of a seven-year-old boy. I was also very eager to have another child. Being no longer young (a predicament that weighs on many career oriented women such as myself), conceiving again was not an easy matter. I simply wanted a bracha from the Rebbe to give birth again.
Feige accompanied me to my first trip to the “dollars line” on Jan. 5, 1992. This was a Sunday like all the others when the Rebbe stood for hours while seekers for his blessing and advice lined up around the block from 770 Eastern Parkway [in Brooklyn, N.Y.]. Feige had urged me to write out what I wanted to say to the Rebbe. I saw no reason since it was a simple request to be blessed with another child. She kept urging, so I did. When my turn came to pass by the Rebbe, I was introduced as “Professor Schwarcz,” though I saw no reason for an academic title when I had such a personal, simple, womanly request.
When the Rebbe looked at me I started to cry. No words came at all. Suddenly I understood why Feige had urged me to write out my request. In tears I mumbled something and heard the Rebbe’s infinite kindness and concern wash over me. As I moved on, he called me back and said, “This is for your husband.” I had not mentioned anything about our complex situation at home, yet he sensed it and responded with laser-sharp accuracy. I cried some more and walked around the block to pick up a video of my two minutes with the Rebbe. I listened and listened later, heard the blessing, but not in the terms I had asked.
On Feb. 22, 1992 I was back, alone, in line for dollars. In the short month-and-a-half from my first look at the Rebbe, I had become pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. Now, I came ready to cry, with my pitiful plea for another child more ardent still. Again, the Rebbe saw into the depths of my soul, again he blessed me, again I picked up the video, and again I listened. There was something in there about another child, but very muffled by my tears.
In the spring of 1993, I decided to take our eight-year-old-son Elie to see the Rebbe. We were getting ready for a sabbatical year on Kibbutz Maaleh Gilboa in Israel and I wanted my child to know that there was a holy man who had helped launch our whole family in a more positive direction of Jewish growth. By this time the Rebbe was infirm and there were no dollar lines. On some rare days he would simply allow children to pass by him as he sat outside his study. We travelled to Crown Heights and waited to see if this was to be such a day. By late afternoon, we were told that there is no point in waiting. Then, just as I got into the car to drive home, word spread that the Rebbe was going to see people. Hundreds lined up in seconds in the narrow hallway of 770 Eastern Parkway (Lubavitch World Headquarters).
When it was our turn to walk by the Rebbe, I placed my son before me. Elie took one look at the Rebbe (who was sitting and hence at the child’s eye level) and stopped. He would not budge for a long, long minute while the crowd behind me was pushing forward. Something in the Rebbe’s look had accosted him. On that day, I believe, the Rebbe saw and activated the deepest layers of my son’s neshama (soul). Any time I worry about him or celebrate his accomplishments, I recall what the Rebbe saw. And also how my son felt in being countenanced by a tzaddik. I pray and hope that the encounter will carry him for many years to come.
The Rebbe’s blessing for another child came to fruition in the spring of 1995, when we adopted our daughter Esther from Hungary. By that time, I heard clearly the Rebbe’s blessing, and it was not for birthing a child but for raising a very special neshama that was meant to be part of our family. On the way to Hungary in 1995, my husband and I stopped at the Rebbe’s Ohel (the place where the Rebbe is laid to rest) to pray. A tough journey became infinitely smoother with the strength we gained there.
I now look back upon the decades during which the Rebbe’s care and concern guided and changed my life. I recall how I used to phone the Rebbe’s secretary in the 1990s to ask if I should still be going to China. I had become observant and wanted to focus more on Jewish studies. The answer from the Rebbe, again and again, was to keep going – to keep building bridges of understanding that I now see have borne fruit in my own scholarship and teaching as well as in the strengthening of ties between Israel and China.
Each step along the way, the Rebbe has been an inspiring presence at my side. When I am in doubt about what path to pursue, I ask myself: “What would the Rebbe say?” And a quiet, small still voice answers from within and guides me still.
As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a century ago, the greatest events are not to be found in “our loudest but our stillest hours.” Encountering the Rebbe was such a great event in my own life. He was and remains an utterly unique force for mobilizing the best in each of us simply by modeling a vision of goodness and integrity sorely lacking in the contemporary world.
Dr. Vera Schwarcz is Freeman Professor of History & East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown. She lives in West Hartford with her husband, Dr. Jason Wolfe.
Marking the Rebbe’s 20th Yahrzeit Around CT
SUNDAY, JUNE 29
Queens, N.Y. – A Day of Study, Reflection and Inspiration at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts, with lectures, workshops and study session on the Rebbe’s teachings; departing Chabad of Greenwich, 75 Mason St., at 9:45 a.m., (203) 629-9059.
TUESDAY, JULY 1
Greenwich – A Musical Tribute through Song and Story in commemoration of the 20th yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, featuring Rabbi Ruvi New, director of Chabad of Boca Raton, 8 p.m., Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, (203) 629-9059. $18/person
WEDNESDAY, JULY 9
Hartford – State of Connecticut Tribute to The Rebbe, marking the 20th yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson; hosted by Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman; 5:30 p.m.; at the Capitol, (860) 659-2422, firstname.lastname@example.org. FREE