Sunday, February 01, 2009

My Elter Zeide and Lubavitch

As told by R’ Aaron Rakeffet, 4 Jan 2009.

An example of transplanting the Alter Heim to the USA, rather than the translation of European Jewry for America which was the method of YU

The Rebbe was running away, the State Dept pulled him out of Poland, in 1940. Ads went out in the four Jewish dailies at the time, religious, secular, socialist, communist - “those of you that remember Lubavitch, the Rebbe is coming to America on this boat on this day, please greet him.” R’ Rakeffet’s cousin was there. A crowd came out about this. There’s video of this from Lubavitch. Maybe 5000 people came out, mostly not religious, they still knew what Lubavitch was, they had been raised Lubavitch, they remembered the cholent from Lubavitch.

The Rebbe came down, he couldn’t speak, he had had a stroke, his wife spoke for him in Yiddish, her translator was Rose Lieberman, Sharon Mintz’s (Mrs. R’ Adam) grandmother. As they wheeled the Rebbe in, someone strikes up a niggun from the Alter Heim. The Rebbe joins in. People started to cry, even distant from Yiddishkeit. And people swore they wouldn’t be mechallel shabbos then. The women would go to the beauty parlor on Saturday to do their hair for the movie palace Saturday night, the women became shomer shabbos when their kids went to yeshiva. Big thing, suddenly the husbands are going to be home on Saturday!

They brought him to the Greystone Hotel on the Upper West Side. Some of the older Chasidim came in to the Rebbe, told him “we have good news for you, in Lakewood there’s a nice community, warmer than NY, some wealthy Chasidim there, you can retire there, they’ll set you up nicely, and we’ll come farbreng with you once a month. At least you’re away from the Nazis, but New York is a waste of time.” I heard the Seventh Rebbe tell this story with my own ears (says R’ARR). This was shocking! Chasidim daring to tell the Rebbe to retire?

The next morning, they all come in to have breakfast with him, everyone is up & happy. The Rebbe tells them, “Chasidim don’t tell a rebbe what to do, the Rebbe tells the Chasidim what to do. “This is what I’m going to do. I’ll go to Lakewood, rest up for a month, and then we’re starting all over, and we’re going to prove that America can be exactly like the Alter Heim!” They thought he was nuts, but a Rebbe redt, speaks, you don’t say a word.

At the end of the month, he calls in the Chasidim, including Rose Lieberman, and her father R’ Cunin, the grandfather of the head shaliach in California today, and says to them, I want to open a shtibl in the finest neighborhood in New York City. So the Chasidim ask each other – how do we know what the finest neighborhood is? Where the biggest Conservative temple is! So that’s how Lubavitch came to Eastern Parkway, because the Brooklyn Jewish Center was right across the street, the biggest Conservative synagogue in the world.

* * *

And this is where I come in, because my great-grandfather, Louis Cohen a”h, Yitchak Eliezer b. Yaakov haKohen, in the pre-WWI era a wealthy coat manufacturer, moved to Crown Heights, built the biggest house on President St. (today an empty brick shell r”l, but 20 years ago still a beautiful home. And for wealthy Jews in this beautiful neighborhood of fine homes and boulevards, there should be a beautiful upper-class Orthodox Synagogue, huge Tiffany skylight, limited to 500 families (although by 1923 it had 1000), no families accepted from beyond Utica Avenue in the middle-class neighborhood of Brownsville (where my father’s parents lived in the 1920s). And that synagogue, the Brooklyn Jewish Center, would follow in the idea formulated by Louis Cohen’s older brother Joseph H. Cohen, founder of The Jewish Center on 86th St. in New York.

Unfortunately, 18 months later, another person on the Board decided to affiliate with the fledgling Conservative movement, but as there was little practical difference between Orthodox and Conservative in those days, my great-grandfather remained part of the synagogue.

My grandmother taught dance classes there, directed plays, etc. as a young woman. She was married in the synagogue on Lag Ba’omer in 1926. As the second Jewish Center in the world, it was a “shul with a pool” and a gym, adult ed, Hebrew school, social groups, etc. Today, the building belongs to Lubavitch, and is used as a yeshiva. They hacked out the beautiful main shul, and replaced the space with a huge beis medrash and a library. The things they learn in that beis midrash, well, the school has a loyalty oath that children of non-Meschichst families are not allowed to make fun of children of Meshichist families. But at least it’s a Jewish institution still, not a church or a tile store or a used furniture store.

So why is Lubavitch in Crown Heights? Why is there still a Jewish presence in Crown Heights? Because in 1918, my great-grandfather decided to set up a big, beautiful Modern Orthodox synagogue.

* * *

R’ Rakeffet’s story was part of a larger point, that while YU was about translating Judaism for America, R’ Aharon Kotler and the Chasidim wanted to transplant Europe to America. It’s rather ironic how the various groups have shifted: the Yeshivish have adopted the trappings of Chassidus – the focus on externals in dress and behavior, the elevation of the Rosh Yeshiva to a Rebbe, a channel to God; meanwhile the Lubavitchers who received this order from their Rebbe that “America is no different!” – they have become the biggest translators of Chassidus for the American scene, accommodating all kinds of laxity, theological, behavioral, etc., in their drive to bring Judaism to American Jews. The influence flows both ways – the Chasidim have become modernized, almost Agudist (yes, in theory, Lubavitch is as anti-Zionist as Satmar, but in practice, they use political influence in Israel as in America or Russia, basically the same position taken by Agudah).

No comments: