On a wintry night in 1951, in a Brooklyn shul, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson acquiesced to become rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, few Jews knew what a Lubavitcher was; fewer still knew who Schneerson, 48 at the time, was. There were only several hundred Chabad families in New York; several hundred more were scattered, even isolated, overseas. It was a time when chasidim were seen as little more than a relic of the European “churban” (apocalypse). Rebbes in Brooklyn were reduced to standing on sidewalks in the twilight, asking passers-by to help make a minyan.
Is there a Jew who doesn’t know the rest of the story?
Yet, who remembers the sun before its rising, though in those hours it was shining every bit as bright?
For the first time, chasidim and biographers can go back in time. Kehot Publication Society has just released the greatly anticipated (in Chabad circles) compilation “Early Years: The Formative Years of the Rebbe,” edited by Elkanah Shmotkin, director of JEM (Jewish Educational Media) and director of several documentaries about the rebbe, and Boruch Oberlander, the senior Chabad emissary to Hungary and a lecturer at the University of Budapest. Their 541-page volume, whose virtue is a spirituality as aromatic as a perfume ad, and whose deficit is its brevity (one wishes it continued beyond 1928), is not filled with hagiographic arguments but with evidence: 390 photographs (a surprising number in color), copies of letters (the young rebbe had an impeccable Yiddish handwriting), civic and academic records, archival data, Yiddish and Russian newspaper clippings, maps, accompanied by a few sentences on most pages, often in the quoted words from the rebbe’s contemporaries in the century’s first quadrant.
The collection, Shmotkin told us, was compiled over 15 years, as word of the project spread, resulting in a scavenger hunt through attics and suitcases from Brooklyn to Belarus. Most dramatically in Moscow in the files of the KGB and its predecessors, accessible after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Each chapter is introduced with historical overviews provided by the editors and experts in that specific time and place. The overview on the rebbe’s years in Riga, for example, was assisted by the chair of the University of Latvia’s department of modern and contemporary history of Latvia and Eastern Europe.
Of course, some information could only have come from the family itself. The rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, recalled a blessing from the Rebbe Rashab (the Lubavitcher rebbe 1893-1920, and a cousin) before baby Menachem entered the world. The Rashab took a particular interest in the baby, sending “no less than six telegrams [with] detailed instructions” and blessings. For example, the Rashab directed that whenever the newborn awoke, he Rebbetzin Chana recalled, “I should wash negel vasser (ritual hand rinsing) with him before nursing him, which [the Rashab] didn’t instruct me to do for the other children.” She rocked him to sleep with “Oifen Pripetchik,” the lullaby about Jewish children learning Alef-Bet by the fireside.
Anti-Semitism was ever-present. A very young Menachem had to hide with other children (whom he calmed) during a pogrom; he saw his father working with the Mendel Beilis defense team in the famous blood libel case. The future rebbe later wrote that while he was still a cheder boy, “the vision of the future Redemption began to form in my imagination… a Redemption of such magnitude and grandeur, that through it the purpose of the sufferings, harsh decrees, and the anguish of exile will be understood…”
“Early Years” contains an invaluable compendium of turn-of-the-century cheder stories, and the evolution of Jewish customs. In 1974, the rebbe, suggesting that unmarried girls light a single Shabbos candle, recalled that this was popular custom before World War I, when depravation made it too difficult for Jews to get candles for both a mother and her daughters, so candles went only to adults. “After the war,” said the rebbe, “the original custom was virtually forgotten,” until the rebbe resurrected it.
In 1925, Yeshayu Sher, who often visited the Schneerson home, remembered “the star charts covering the walls” of Menachem Mendel’s room. “Apart from his daily study regimen in Talmud, Jewish law and chasidic philosophy,” one day “[Menachem] Mendel disclosed to us that according to his mathematical calculations, a solar eclipse should occur,” and exactly when. And he was right.
In the Leningrad winter of 1926, Menachem was found reading and writing English and stenography. Asked why, he responded, “Believe me, if I did not think I would have use for them at some point, I wouldn’t be looking at them.”
In 1906, Chabad’s Rebbe Rashab encouraged Menachem’s father to visit Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (Reb Chaim Brisker), writing that Reb Chaim “will certainly welcome you graciously.” More than 20 years later, when Menachem enrolled at Berlin’s Humboldt University, he became friendly with Reb Chaim’s grandson, Joseph Soloveitchik. Joseph described Menachem’s memory as “gevaldig (astounding)… I never encountered someone with such a memory. … The rebbe has a gevaldiger comprehension of Torah.”
Menachem, Joseph recalled, “never missed going to the mikveh for even a single day during the time he was in Berlin…. The rebbe always had a Torah book with him… As much as chasidim think they know the rebbe, they should know this: He was a nistar [a hidden tzaddik, of exemplary piety] in Berlin, and he is still a nistar. There is so much more to his greatness…”
When the rebbe became ill in 1978, Rav Soloveitchik, then the leader of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, publically prayed for his friend, “the crown of Israel and its glory… to illuminate the eyes of the masses until the arrival of Moshiach. We all need him and are praying for him.”
When students of the rav once wrote to the rebbe about the rav, they wrote, “We know how strong are the bonds of friendship,” between the two rabbinical leaders. The rebbe circled the words, “we know,” adding in the margin, “much more than is known.”
In Berlin, Menachem took classes with Professor Walther Nernst (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1920), and Professor Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Prize for Physics, 1933).
During a final holiday with his parents before leaving Russia for good, Rebbetzin Chana remembered, her son tried to “erase from everyone’s heart the fact that this might be his final Simchat Torah… at home, under one roof with his family.” He was “cheerful,” inspiring everyone “to be happy, both in shul and at home. Nobody besides my husband and I were aware that he was about to set out on a long journey. That Simchat Torah we spent so much time together, dancing constantly… in order to hide our true feelings.”
There was a Kotzker chasid in the hall, dancing joyfully, but singing a song, said Rebbetzin Chana, “which burned us like salt on a wound.”
The Kotzker sang, “Yankel sets out on a long journey without a penny. Yankel returns home from his journey with full pockets.”
Menachem Mendel linked arms with the Kotzker, dancing in their circle, around and around. “Each time my son danced past the place I was standing,” said Rebbetzin Chana, “he looked at me with eyes that told me how pained he was that he had to leave us. But they were also telling me, ‘Mother, don’t worry…”
As he wrote in 1928, “This letter should reach you on the third of Tammuz,” the day in 1994 when the rebbe left forever.
Chabad dances on. A chasid doesn’t worry.