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Posted in: Judaism, General Jewish Themes

Published on May 19, 2017 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by Phyllis Chesler

My Evening With The Rebbe

Co-authors Boruch Oberlander and Elkanah Shmotkin have just published a massive, 543 page tome about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.Titled Early Years: 1902-1929, it is filled with pictures of handwritten and typed letters, (in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Russian, maybe Polish, and English); photos of post-stamped envelopes, synagogues, hotels, and homes; photos of friends, relatives, esteemed rabbis; and passport photos, city-street maps, and the names of European cities where Jews once flourished and from which Jews also had to flee—and blessed letters from Palestine/Israel.

The documents are described very carefully, beautifully, and lovingly. The co-authors insist that they did not wish to draw conclusions. Their goal was to gather this missing evidence, (which took them 15 years), and to present it. The interpretations are ours to make.

And how, exactly, you might wonder, did this book come into my possession?

Last night, my friend and shul mate, Daniele Lassner, took me along with her to a lecture that the authors were giving at KJ (Kehilath Jeshurun), a mere ten blocks away. And there they all were, the sweet-tempered, smiling Chabadniks, in their black hats, beards, and frock coats, the incredibly young and the not-so-young shluchim that the Rebbe first sent forth so long ago to the far-flung corners of the earth—and still they keep coming and going forth.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz welcomed us; Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski shared some memories and Torah knowledge; Rabbi Jacob J. Schachter shared memories and Torah knowledge, introduced the authors, and asked them questions.

Allow me to share some memories of my own.

I met the Rebbe fifty years ago, in 1967, although I am not exactly sure what month it was. My father z’l, had died in February. My mother, z”l, a very practical and industrious woman had, uncharacteristically, decided that the “evil eye” was on our family because three tragedies had occurred during snowstorms.

The Hasidim lined the hallway to the Rebbe’s office and nearly shrank into the wall itself as two woman passed them by.

There he sat, he had the kindest, most piercing, very psychic eyes; I remember them as blue, but wonder if that could be true. In any event, there was my tough, uncompromising, take-charge mother, a new widow, going it alone, pouring out her usually hidden heart to a stranger.

He briefly questioned each of my two brothers. He then asked me how I was. I told him that I was in graduate school and working hard.

The Rebbe listened, thought for only a moment, then assured my mother that no, the evil eye was not upon us—and she instantly believed him. Her worries on that score were over. This transformation astounded me.

He smiled--and then he turned to my mother and answered her unasked question.

The Rebbe said: “Don’t worry, she’ll be alright.”

His eyes literally seemed to twinkle.

Six years later, at the end of 1973, I married an Israeli man whose mother is among the eighth generation of descendants of the Baal Shem Tov. I was privileged to meet her mother, among the seventh generation of descendants, and together, they showed me some memorabilia that had belonged to the Baal Shem Tov--that they were about to turn over to a Museum in Tel Aviv. I remember a hannukiah, and perhaps one or two other precious items.

Thus, my son, my beloved son, the best possible son, Ariel David, is among the tenth generation of Baal Shem Tov descendants.

Did the Rebbe forsee any of this? Is that even possible? Well, why not…and, my son’s Israeli father, a sabra, a “legal” Jew, born after the state of Israel had come into existence, was born on the same day, (many years apart), on which my father died.

Is this a sign, a gift--or merely a coincidence?

As we were waiting for the panel to begin, various women came by to say hello; it was so haimisch, a little bit like living in a village. And then a sweet, sweet, upper east side Chabad rabbi, Shmuel Metzger, who runs the pre-school that my granddaughters attended came over. We chatted. He said: “Come for Shabbos. You’re a blue blood, so to speak.”

“No, dear Rabbi, that’s my son and although he’s not a Hasid, he has a very special sweetness. Maybe it is in his blood….

My third Lubavitcher memory is this:

When I returned to New York after experiencing the first major UN-sponsored “pogrom” against the Jewish state in Copenhagen,1980, I needed to be with “out” Jews, people who were obviously Jewish and religiously so. I began to haunt Crown Heights.

Soon , I had some splendid and rather hilarious Shabbos invitations. For example, I would invariably be seated next to a former feminist who had once worked on the Alaska pipeline but who had since “found God.” Or, next to a former rebel and Buddhist who had now returned to her roots. Alas, this was all a bit heavy-handed for the likes of me and when I asked to study Torah with the woman who taught women—she scared me off.

Unlike the Shabbos warmth, which was all-enveloping, she looked me over suspiciously and asked me if I was drawn to the community. I said I was. She said: “You are merely experiencing the consequences of lawfulness. Do you really want to study the law? Are you ready to change your ways?”

She made it sound so demanding, so forbidding, so…..Episcopalian, that I reluctantly bowed out and went on my way.

Still, the Rebbe had seen something.

By the late 1980s, I had found my chevrutah, Rivka Haut, and began Torah study with her; our partnership would last for a quarter-century.

By the early 21st century, I had also found a modern Orthodox shul, Orach Chaim, headed by a Talmud Chacham, Rabbi Michael Shmidman who is also a modern scholar with a very sweet disposition and the most welcoming Rebbitzen, Chai. He is now retired and is still the senior Rabbi but our new and much younger Rabbi, Ben Skydell, is quite a passionate scholar whose class I attend religiously every week.

There’s more to tell—but I wanted to share at least this much with my readers who have not heard my voice for quite a while because I am working on three book deadlines at once.

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