Sunday, October 09, 2005

So, after waxing nostalgic, I swung into action and took the boys to see the Rebbe.

To set the scene, there are two batei midrash(im), one above the other, each the size of a football field. On the front right side of the upper one, there is an entrance to a small room from which there is an entrance to another small room, where there is a door to the room where the Rebbe sits.

In the inner small room people stand on line along the walls spilling out into the outer small room and often out into the beis midrash. Reb Chanina, who has been shammes to the last four Rebbes, sits next to the Rebbe's door and as far as I can tell doesn't do much else. Fleischer is the bouncer, directing traffic and keeping people out as necessary; his girth and authoritative manner would easily qualify him as a bouncer at any trendy club. People in the inner room spend their time on line writing kvitlech or saying tehillim or speaking in hushed tones about what time mincha'll be tomorrow.

Here is who was not there: a cigar-chomping gold-hunter with maps of the Australian outback seeking the Rebbe's advice; a cowboy-hatted magnate from Louisiana seeking a bracha to optimally scam insurance companies; an animal lover seeking a refuah for his parakeet. None of these people were there. And mostly there were no women in the inner small room, the outer small room, either beis midrash or within three blocks of the building. Not gonna happen.

What there was were thousands of big chassidim with big peyos in big bekeshes and big spodeks (but, who knows, maybe some of them write subversive blogs). I wore a suit, a hat and a gartel and my kids wore proste white shirts and kipot srugot; we might as well have shown up in paisley pajamas with Mickey Mouse ears. You want to see variety go to some small-time miracle-working Galitzianer or Hungarian. This is strictly Raccoon Lodge. Members only.

The only way to cut the line is to jump on an express train for shulem geben only -- which means you pass the Rebbe and mumble a git yur or some such without breaking stride. I hopped on to one such train but the door shut again before I made it in. Then the door stayed shut for a half hour. Stuff happens.

Eventually we did get in and here's what didn't happen. The Rebbe took both my hands, looked soulfully into my eyes, smiled broadly, pulled me close and whispered into my ear "Astros over the Sox in five. Bet the house." Then he quietly farhered my kids on the mesechtas they're learning, giving each a hug and some kind advice. He asked us to make very sure that we give his personal regards to my father and to wish him and my mother a git gezint yur. None of this happened. Nor, by the way, does it ever happen except in the fashionable new literary genre of fantastical shtetl stories (Rebecca Goldstein, Alan Hoffman, Mark Helprin, Nathan Englander et al).

What actually happened was that as I passed the Rebbe, I almost broke stride to breathlessly mention my kids names and I believe I saw the beginnings of a scowl. I kept moving. It was one of the most meaningful fractions of a second I've spent since nodding off on the couch after the chulent this afternoon. But it was worth it because at least my kids will know that the Rebbe they won't go to isn't some Hungarian or Galitzianer charlatan.


Anonymous daat y said...

no piece of honeycake from the Rebbe either?
Next time bring cash.
g'mar chatima tova.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Gil Student said...

Major Polish Hassidus with a rebbe in Israel? That narrows it down to two, right? Belz or Ger.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

You ever see a Belzer in a spodek? Also look at the names in my previous post.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous said...

My grandfather knew Reb Chanina in Warsaw and was a ben bayis at 3 rebbes ago before the war and many visits to Israel after. After feeling nostalgic for a while, I went to the big show you describe so well. The big heavy set guy who runs the place now says to me "are you a reporter?" and when I said "no, but my family has a long history of allegiance to your partcular chassdidut" his response went "many people had relatives who were our chassidim before the war; big deal". It was all downhill from there - right to the grumpy stare and snort at my kvitel. A very disappointing experience - and frankly the tisch at your average Galitzianer or Romanian Rebbe at least has some entertainment value. For what it's worth, Rebbe Nachman probably had more chassdim over for Rosh Hashana this year than this rebbe did - though they are neck and neck each year these days.

Basically now, unless you look the part, you may as well not show up. They are very into looking the part - along with other fanatacisms that didn't exist 4 rebbes ago.

The only solace I take is that I've discovered over the years that there are many within the movement who don't like the current rebbe and some who even think he's lost it a bit. Things change from rebbe to rebbe in this chassidut - it's sort of like the Saudi Royal family; you never know if the next brother or nephew will be a mentally unstable closet alcoholic or a religious fanatic (refering to the Saudis here)

Grandpa never went to current rebbe's father after his older brother died - he (and now his son) was more into the askanim than the lamdanim. So you can bet that the spodekless amerikaneshe chassidim are also going to him to discuss some of their "ventures".

Anyhow, you're right - nostalgia ain't what it's cracked up to be, though it's nice to occasionally go to a shtiebel where there are a few old crackers in the audience and some herring after davening..........

7:56 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

The Kotzker would have been so..... proud of your post!

8:56 AM  
Blogger MoChassid said...


A few years ago I went to see the Rebbe to get a bracha for one of my children who was not well. It was arranged by a friend who's family is one of the top two or three financial backers.

I was picked up by a chassid in Yerushalayim and taken to Bnei Brak. I went straight to the front of the line and got about 20 seconds with the Rebbe. Such warmth! Then it was back in the car for another hour back to Y'lem.

Later that week, I got to spend a few minutes with Tzvi Meir, a real rebbe who refuses to accept the title.

4:32 PM  
Blogger DovBear said...

I don't mean any respect when I say this, but it's hard to beleive we're all Jews. Not only do I not have any longing or fondness for the scenes you are desribing, but it's all making me faintly nauseous.

As I wrote on my blog this morning, I don't miss rebbes, or herring. I miss big beautiful shuls. I miss oberlanders and grumpy misnagdim. I miss coffee and cake after davening. I miss style and formality. Sigh. Thanks Ben for digging all this up.

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allen Hoffman isn't a Rebbe, but he does know sports. An added bonus is Steffi's cooking; not to knock Allen's, but him I turn to for conversation and confession; Steffi, for sustenance.

7:03 PM  
Blogger ליפא שנילצער said...

no need to mention the rebbe's name, cuz its about the same by all of them

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:08 PM  

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