The Lubavitchers, mixed media, 24" x 20," $425
From the Journals, Ann Arbor, MI, 1984
Last summer was the first summer since 1980 that I have not lived in Ann Arbor. I have lived in Ann Arbor summers because of the art fair and the proximity to other art fairs in the Midwest. Usually I get to Ann Arbor in late May and rent a student place half price for the summer, but in 1984 shows in Texas prevented me from getting to Ann Arbor until late, and with my dog Mr. Brown I found it impossible to locate any summer accommodations. I went as far west as Evanston, but the dog was a no-no. Finally I returned to Ann Arbor in despair and called up the rabbi at Chabad House and asked him for some advice. He suggested that I move into Chabad House for the summer and put my dog outside in a pen, which I did.
So with Rabbi Goldstein's blessings I spent two and a half months in Chabad House, a seedy, cavernous, stone ex-fratemity house that might best be described as a synagogue with rooms attached. It is part of an international network of Lubavitcher Chasidic centers. The Lubavitchers are an eighteenth-century sect that appears frozen in time but considers itself the bearer of ancient principles in a modern age. The dozen or so occupants of Chabad House, especially during the summer, are not necessarily members of the Lubavitcher sect and I should emphasize that I myself knew only a little about the Lubavitchers before my arrival.
Started in the eighteenth century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi of Poland, himself a disciple of the Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Chassidism, the Lubavitcher movement holds a special place in the spectrum of Judaism. Originating as a fervid, mystical sect stressing song and dance in addition to study as a means of worship, Chassidism has become, above all on college campuses in the past twenty years, a worldwide movement to bring Jews back to adherence to the Torah or law. The disciples of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a saintly elderly man who lives in Brooklyn, thus unite mystical intuition with practical proselytizing. Lubavitchers are known not for their affluence but for their generosity, and indeed, during my stay at Chabad House I had many occasions to witness Rabbi Goldstein's benevolence and dedication. The following reminiscences of my residence at Chabad House perhaps provide an inkling of what it was like to be catapulted into an atmosphere half familiar and half exotic.
The rabbi at Chabad House is thirty-five years old. Himself the son of a rabbi, he is totally immersed in the world of Lubavitcher Chasidism. When he is not praying, he is studying, and in his spare time he takes care of Chabad House. In one way the rabbi is sad. As the only Lubavitcher Chasid in Ann Arbor for the last nine years, he is in genuine exile since he has no one on his level to talk to. In another way he is happy. He wants to be in Ann Arbor to teach and try to inspire others. All the rabbi's interests are confined to Judaism in its traditional formulation. Even the extensive record collection in his office contains not Beethoven and Bach but only Jewish music.
Friday nights the rabbi has a ritual dinner that starts after services at ten o'clock and usually concludes about one in the morning. Those attending services the rabbi invites for dinner. The trek is only six blocks to his house, a nondescript place filled with Hebrew tomes, old engravings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe dynasty, and a few ghastly paintings. His wife, the rebbetzin, is always at the door to greet the guests. The five children are asleep. There are no handshakes with the rebbetzin because as the rabbi once put it to me succinctly"one thing leads to another. Only three observations might be made of the rebbetzin. She is mostly silent. Towards the end of the dinner she disappears to read her psalms. And she lays a good tablesuperb gefilte fish, excellent chicken soup, not-so-excellent chicken, delectable sweets and sundries. The rabbi sits at the head of the dining room table beneath a chandelier fixed to click off automatically at the mandatory hour of midnight whereupon the room is lit by candles. The rabbi davans, drinks the wine, cuts the challah. The guests wash. The rabbi passes out frayed booklets of Chasidic songs for the first of the five or six melodies of the evening. It is in between these melodies that conversation takes place. The rabbi presides but doesn 't dominate, let alone pontificate. Present tonight were Michael, a medical intern who attends the Tuesday night Tanya class and the Wednesday night Talmud class; Doron, an Israeli lawyer of about thirty studying for his Ph.D. in law, who lives across the hall from me; Gershon, a gung-ho type studying for the bar exam next week; and a yeshiva student from East Lansing and his wife, who are spending the weekend at the rabbi's.
After the meal I turned to the rabbi and said, "I have a question, but the question must be prefaced by a few remarks. Two years ago in a laundromat I came across a free magazine, Plain Truth, put out by a Protestant fundamentalist sect and I sent away for a free subscription. Then after a year I sent away for one of their free books."
The rabbi looked incredulous. "What in the world would lead you to do this?"
"I have a long-standing interest in religions," I replied. "At any rate, back it came a book, the argument of which was that Queen Elizabeth is the direct descendant of King David and that the ten lost tribes of Israel made their way to Western Europe and then to America. The whole argument is shoddy, fallacious, contemptible. But my question is as follows: In the Book of Kings God says to King David that his throne will remain for eternity. But the throne ended with the e Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C. How do you explain that contradiction?"
The rabbi put down his fork, pulled himself up to his full height, and answered. "First, the throne never disappeared, nor the House of David. This the Rebbe tells us"
"Wait a minute! How is this possible? How does the Rebbe know this?''
"Because the first rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was a direct descendant of the Maharal and the Maharal knew he was the direct descent of someone else, and it was handed down from father to son. Furthermore, you must not take the statement about the throne literally."
"If it is not literal, then what is it?"
"It is symbolic. It is symbolic in the same way that the Temple itself is in the spiritual world. It has to be symbolic or there can be no Messiah." At this point the cuckoo cooed one o'clock and we decided to call it a night.
Upstairs at Chabad House lives Joseph, who is forty one and who describes himself as a physicist working on a paper that will complete Einstein's Unified Field Theory. When I first met Joseph three weeks ago, I asked him why he wasn't teaching physics in a university, and he replied that he didn't want to be implicated in weapons research. The other day he mentioned that his father had designed the casings for the first atomic bombs. Whether this is true is problematic. I am not sure that Joseph has all his marbles or that what he says always relates to recognizable reality. In fact, this morning I confronted the rabbi in the basement about Joseph, and the rabbi commented that he is indeed a batlon (a man without direction). And yet Joseph and I have become quite friendly. We take daily walks through the Diag and hold long conversations about rabbinical matters. There is about Joseph the air of a con man or aging beatnik. Joseph often gets into fist fights and looks like a punched-out Belmondo type, his good looks battered by a broken nose and smashed lip. For years he lived in the Carribean on a yacht engaged in marlin fishing; now he is on welfare.One day in the basement the rabbi suddenly turned to me and said, "So Reuven, how was Madison?" (Parenthetically I should state that only the rabbi calls me Reuven, which is my Hebrew name.)
"Look, Rabbi, Madison was total disaster. My expenses were three hundred twenty dollars, and I sold eight small paintings for four hundred eighty dollars, which means that I earned one hundred sixty dollars selling my eight paintmgs. I'll let you figure out how much that is for each painting. And they picked good paintings in Madison. In Madison they have taste. And never have I ever received so many compliments or insults as in Madison. A man came up to me and said, 'I like your paintings, but the ones with the postage stamps are ungepatchke. Do you know what that word means?' I stood up and replied, 'Sir, in classical Yiddish the difference between a schlemiehl and a schlomozzel is as follows: A schlemiehl is the type of person you invite to dinner and he drops a cup of coffee on your lap. A schlomozzel will also drop a cup of coffee on your lap, but afterwards he will try to sell you a new pair of pants. Sir, I do not think you have yet attained to the status of schlomozzethood. But I definitely think you qualify to be called a schlemiehl.' Whereupon, red in the face, my interlocutor slinked away muttering apologies. InsultsRabbi, I have never received such insults. One person commented, 'Your paintings remind me of Hundertwasser's, but they are not as psychotic as Hundertwasser's.' 'Off the wall,' 'Crazy'these were some of the remarks I heard. But then two potters came up to me and remarked, 'We couldn't afford the entry fee for the show this year, but it was worth coming to Madison just to see your paintings.' Marvelous. If I had a dollar for each flatterer, I wouldn't have had to spend a hundred and ten dollars for gas. No, Rabbi, I am finished with the art world. The art world and I are parting company. I am closing the door. NEVER AGAIN!"
The rabbi took me by the arm. "Listen, Reuven, why don't you attend a yeshiva full-time? Go to Israel. It will cost you nothing. They will support you. Go to Kfar Chabad near Lod. l will write recommendations."
"I am thinking seriously of doing this, Rabbi. We'll discuss it more later."
At 7:00 p.m. Rabbi Melich of Detroit arrived in the study room of Chabad House. I had never seen Rabbi Melich before, though I had heard much about him from Joseph the physicist upstairs. Melich immediately threw a bombshell into my lap by dating the Babylonians' conquest and their destruction of the First Temple at 420 B.C.
"This date is impossible!" I interrupted.
Melich looked at me as if I were a worm. "Listen, we Jews should know our own dates. It is deduced from the Talmud."
I replied, "Talmud, schmalmud. 586 B.C. is the official date. It's in all the history books."
Melich shrugged his shoulders and commented, "Then the Talmud disagrees with the secular historians."
Melich had to leave and was replaced by the rabbi, who began a lesson on three chapters of Maimonides' Mishna Torah. The rabbi commented that Maimonides often went to the Greeks for corroboration of astronomical data and mathematics. I was inwardly still seething about Melich's revisionist chronology,and now I interrupted the rabbi. "I want to do a Maimonides on Melich's date by going to non-Jewish sources. I cannot keep quiet about this. There is, first, the matter of Herodotus. There is, second, the matter of Thucydides. There is, third, the matter of Socrates, who died in 399 B.C. Melich claims that the Temple was destroyed in 420 by Nebuchadnezzar, but it says in Ezra that seventy years later when Cyrus conquered the Babylonians the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. In Melich's chronology this date would then be 350 B.C., which is impossible.
"The Persian-Greek wars, at least as they are described in Herodotus, did not occur until after 350 B.C., because Socrates died in 399 B.C. in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, which happened considerably after the Persian Wars. If Melich is correct, then Socrates died before Cyruswhich is contrary to fact. In addition, in 1972 the Shah of Iran held his extravaganza at Persepolis to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty by Cyrus. Virtually every head of state was invited to Persepolis except the Israeli president which was especially outrageous because only the Jews remember, let alone honor, Cyrus. The year 1972 deducted from 2,500 leaves 528 for the beginning of Cyrus's reign. If we add the approximately seventy-year interval nientioned in Ezra to 528, we get 598, a discrepancy of only twelve years from the official date of the destruction of the Temple, a discrepancy which is accounted for by the fact that Cyrus needed a period of time to consolidate his empire before turning to the minor matter of the Jews and their return to Jerusalem."
The rabbi looked at me and said, "Let us return to Maimonides."
I was walking down the side stairs of Chabad House when the rabbi, accornpanied by Michael the intern, accosted me. "So, Reuven, how did you do at the art fair?"
"I did quite well, Rabbi. I sold twelve paintings, much better than in Madison."
"So you made a lot of money, Reuven. But don't forget that Tuesday night is the Tanya session. The art fair must have been a great pleasure."
"Rabbi, the four-day Ann Arbor Art Fair is a test of endurance,and only that."
"So remember Tuesday night."
Not for anything would I miss the rabbi's Tuesday night Tanya sessions. When I consider all the Jews who have studied the Tanya since its creation by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the eighteenth century, I must insist that mv interest is most idiosyncratic. The Tanya, a tome of post-Lurianic mystical rationalism, was published in Slavita, the town in the Ukraine where my father was born. All my life I have tried to find out things about Slavita from relatives or occasional stray Russians, but always in vain Now the only fact I possess about Slavita, this ancestral Ukranian village, is that the Tanya, the fountainhead of the Lubavitcher movement, arose among its peasant huts This explains my particular fascination with the Tanya.
On Tuesday I descended the murky side staircase of Chabad House, entered the synagogue, and found the rabbi sitting at the study table in the rear library with Michael the intern and an old Polish Jew with the improbable name of Mr. Diogenes. I took my seat, and the rabbi began his commentary on the third chapter of the Tanya. As the rabbi droned on and on about the three categories of the soul in the Tanya, I found its method of discourse highly unacceptable. I remembered an appropriate anecdote about Aristotle. One day Aristotle was taking a walk near the Temple of Sournion when he came across a man fetching water in a cup from the sea and pouring it into a large hole in the sand. Aristotle stopped to watch. For twenty minutes the man trekked back and forth emptying his cup into the hole until finally Aristotle asked, "Why are you emptying the cup into the hole in the sand?"
The man stopped. "Oh, I see it's you, Aristotle. It is quite simple. I am emptying the Aegean into the hole."
Aristotle found the explanation uproariously funny and cried, "But that's impossible.!"
The man put down his cup, stared at Aristotle, and replied, "No more impossible for me to empty the Aegean into my hole than for you, Aristotle, to try to figure out the whole universe with your little head."
This anecdote about Aristotle might serve as my commentary on the Tanya.
The rabbi continued to drone on, and my attention span became shorter and shorter. I had begun to stare out of the window when Mr. Diogenes in his thick Yiddish accent declared, "It's a commandment that a Jew must get married. A Jew must get married. It is as simple as that. And you, Rabbi, how did you meet the rebbetzin?"
"Look, we were brought together in a room to meet. We spent some time together. We were asked if we liked each other. And that was that."
"And what if you had not liked each other?" screeched Mr. Diogenes. "Then what?"
The rabbi stroked his beard. "Then the engagement would have been off."
"For a Jew not to get married is a crime," continued Mr. Diogenes. "It is a crime."
By this time Michael the intern was blushing. I was cringing in my seat. The rabbi continued about the Sephirot-- how everything in the universe is divided into divisions of ten and then subdivided into threes and sevens-- when Mr. Diogenes smashed his fist on the table and screamed, "Abraham was told by God to be fruitful and multiply! It is a crime for a Jew not to marry!"
One evening in late summer Michael and I were chatting with the rabbi in his office when we were suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Rabbi Melich of Detroit, recently returned from a three-week trip to Israel. It was my understanding that Melich was to preside over the evening Tanya class, but once Michael the intern and I were seated in the study room Melich insisted that he speak about his experience in Israel.
"You'd better be careful what you say," I warned. "I spent two years in Israel." Melich smiled. At thirty-five Melich is a typical Lubavitcher. It can be said about the Lubavitchers that they cultivate two traits: allegiance to the Rebbe and fixed ideological views I therefore eagerly awaited Melich's reflections about his trip which had been his first to the Holy Land.
"Indeed, it is the Holy Land, the rabbi said. "Throughout the Torah it is always referred to as Eretz Ha Canaan, which comes from the root that means surrender. This patch of land was singled out by Ha Shem for man to surrender himself to holiness . Holiness is what one finds in Eretz Yisroal. Maybe not all the time, but it is still there. It is written that when Abraham arrived in Canaan, Ha Shem, in order to make all the land holy, actually folded the land and put it under Abraham's body."
I listened, once again incredulous at how the Lubavitchers do not distinguish between fact and fancy. They are in the world but not of it. To them reality lies in the written word. "I have one paradoxical footnote to add," I interrupted, "Islam also means surrender."
Melich digested this tidbit and continued. Fortunately his talk was short, timed to end with the rabbi's arrival for the Tanya class.
Upon the rabbi's entrance I announced that I had been deceived, that I had come for the Tanya class but had heard only Melich's travelogue.
The rabbi turned to Melich and said, "Do you know why he is so interested in the Tanya? Tell him why."All eyes were now directed toward me as I explained my special fascination with the Tanya. Melich, on the point of departure, stopped in his tracks and said, "I'm in a rush but I will tell you one story that has come down about the two brothers who published the Tanya in Slavita. As you know, the Cossacks didn't exactly like the Jews, and the way they piinished the Jews even for minor offenses was to have them run a gauntlet of ten Cossacks on either side with clubs. For some reason the two brothers from Slavita were seized by the Cossacks and forced to run the gauntlet. It is said that one of the brothers suddenly stopped in the middle of the gauntlet, went back a few paces amidst the beatings, and picked up his yarmulke which had dropped off his head. Such were the two brothers from Slavita who published the Tanya."
One day the rabbi, while bicycling past me, suddenly stopped and said, "Reuven, there is the matter of the fifteen dollars a month for the use of the kitchen."
Chabad House's kosher kitchen in the basement is sufficiently untidy that just to enter it makes me squirm. With voice of indignation I replied to the rabbi, "You are asking me for money for the kitchen when I have already told you that I am giving the synagogue a painting? You can have your kitchen money or your painting, but you cannot have both!" And I stomped off.
Later that day the rabbi encountered me in the kitchen and apologetically said, "Reuven, I didn't mean to offend you. I didn't realize we had this arrangement."
I said nothing. But a week later I presented the rabbi with a framed painting of the prophet Isaiah, a sufficiently original work of art that the rabbi, who knows nothing about art, was at first hesitant to accept it rather than something else.
Finally, when I was removing my dog from his pen outside the rabbi's window, he said through the screen, "Reuven, the more I look at the painting, the more I like it. I want you to come tomorrow to my house for lunch It will be Shabbos, so be sure to be here at eleven a.m. for the reading of the Torah. Afterwards I shall have a ceremony when we hang the painting.Sure enough, the rabbi knocked at my door that morning to make sure that I appeared at the proper time in the synagogue, but even with my appearance there were not enough Jews for a minyan. The rabbi went scurrying off to a nearby student fraternity house to find himself a tenth Jew. The synagogue scene was the usual confusion: the rabbi's kids playing with Tinker Toys on the floor, the oldest rushing about with a sailor hat inscribed "We want the Messiah now!", a handful of people davaning, a pair kibbitzing in the rear. On Saturday mornings little in the Chabad House synagogue contributes to the atmosphere of spirituality.
At last the rabbi returned with his tenth Jew, a tall, gangling student. With the rituals completed the rabbi announced the gift of the painting. Everyone oohd and aahed as he hung it We then walked to his house. The rebbetzin was sitting on the porch awaiting our arrival. The table was filled with guests. Wrapped in his black coat, the rabbi davaned, cut the challah, passed the wine, led the singing of the Chasidic songs, and gave a sermon. "Today," he lectured, "is a special Shobbos, called the Shabbos of Consolation, because it comes immediately after Tish Be' Ab. For us Jews there have been many catastrophes, but we always pick ourselves up and continue. For though we know that two Temples were destroyed Ha Shem has created in the spiritual world a third Temple, a perfect Temple, which will descend to the earth when the Messiah finally comes. And the Messiah is coming soon. He is just around the corner. Let's not fool ourselves about that."
Friday, the day before I left, I gave the rabbi a gift of a small painting. He was all aglow, and I probably felt as expansive as he did. I told him I would attend services at night. Since it was my last weekend in Ann Arbor I spruced myself up.
Only a few people were present in the synagogue that evening. The service droned on and on with typical monotony, and afterwards I accompanied the rabbi and two others to his house for supper. The rebbetzin, all thank yous, insisted she loved the painting and showed me its spot in the living room. After the rituals I turned to the rabbi and said, "This book you gave me, Torah and Reason by Chaim Zimmermann, infuriated me such that I did not finish it. Zimmermann combines several of the most odious traits found in writers. First, he is a bigot. He actually dismisses all religions except Judaism as superstitions, and the word is his own. Second, the book is one of grotesque pedantry written in barbaric English."
The rabbi picked at his gefilte fish. He didn't seem impressed by my remarks and asked, "So what are your plans, Reuven? Are you going to Israel?"
"I don't know. I am going to Boston to visit my mother. After that I do not know."