In some ways, this part of the trip afforded me with a most significant lesson in morality and middos.
On Friday night we were fortunate to be invited to a family home of the Chosson. The host is well-known to me as a fellow graduate of Yeshivah College in Melbourne. The hostess is a more recent person who I met in Melbourne a few times, and is somewhat more “reserved” but charming. I know many of their children, and with one of the husbands discussed his PhD, and if I can, I am hopeful to help him achieve some of dreams flowing from those ideas. He and his wife represent the essence of values that makes Chabad an attractive proposition to those who are searching and attuned to the spiritual. At subsequent Sheva Brachos my wife also discovered a common educational language. I was thrilled with that outcome.
The Dinner proceeded, and whilst I had been asked to pop in and meet the well-known Rebbetzin Henya Lane (a sister of my Mechuteniste) after Friday Night dinner, that didn’t happen because Friday night’s dinner ended late, partially due to wonderful hostessing and the happy, relaxed ambience. By that stage I wasn’t about to barge into someone’s house late on a Friday Night. Henya’s husband is also related to Avremy Raskin (who isn’t?), and is in need of a Refuah Shelema, since then. I understand he is on the mend, Boruch Hashem, but I don’t think I formally met him. My feeling is that he will return to full activity and vigour, and for whatever my Brocho is worth, R’ Chaim Dovid has it.
The “morning after” was Shabbos and it was time to go to Shule. Again, the combination of a windowless basement, remnants of jet lag, no alarm clock, and good food and drink the night before conspired to make me late to Shule. I’ve never been one to come late to Shule; I abhor it! I have to admit that on this occasion when I arrived at 770 for the aufruf upstairs, I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself for being late. The Aufruf was upstairs in the Yechidus room; the room where I felt very comfortable, and I again met some wonderful Talmidei Chachomim, including Rav Michoel Seligsohn, with whom I discussed various issues, and stay in touch. He is a very quick to respond, and I appreciate his perspicacity and learning. I had wanted to meet R’ Chaim Serebryanski who davens downstairs, and asked someone to see if he was there, but learned later that he finishes his seder learning and davening, early.
As davening came to a close, I initiated the process of remembering where my overcoat and hat were placed and thank God, I was still on the ball and found them. This is another weakness of mine. I’m prone to losing things. To many this is trivial. For me, it’s a major challenge. I still got lost merely negotiating the upper floor.
As I picked up my hat, I noticed the venerable Rav Yoel Kahn שליט’’א giving a shiur in Chassidus to the Bochurim of Tomchei Temimim. I felt I should experience this, as he is considered the doyen. Unfortunately, a combination of his accent, and compromised health, meant that from the distance, there was little chance for me to understand what he was saying. I waited for a moment wherein nobody noticed, and quietly slipped out, not wishing to offend.
My good friend, the Gaon, Rav Shea Hecht also has Yohr Tzeit around this time after his father R’ Peretz, and we shared much of the previous year at Ohel Devora in Melbourne saying Kaddish for our fathers. I had heard that Reb Shea was “around” and wanted to say Good Shabbos to him before I headed off to Getzel’s Shule for the Kiddusha Rabba. Someone advised me that he was in “that room” on the right, just down the hallway, otherwise known as the Cheder Sheni. I popped my head in and saw Shea and he greeted me warmly. As is his ebullient way, he introduced me to a packed room of people in the middle of a Kiddush, packed on benches like sardines.
Suddenly a colourful character named “Pinto” began speaking in a loud and boisterous and voice, challenging aspects of my views on various matters with a smile. This didn’t bother me, of course. Pinto was clearly refreshed and in a happy mood. I like happy people, as long as they haven’t left their brains parked at home, or don’t have any to find.
The next thing I knew, I was “magically” propelled onto one of the benkalach among this group of what I now know to be seasoned kiddush machers. They were generally my age and older and were a jolly group for whom opinion flowed with un-alarming alacrity. They insisted I should make Kiddush as this was the real Kiddush. Pleas that I needed to go to attend a Kiddush for a Simcha seemed to be irrelevant.
Nu, so you will go after this kiddush.
I didn’t think too much of it, as I have a well known penchant for a drink after davening (I don’t eat before Shacharis which can make this dangerous), so I sat down thinking I’d spend 15 minutes or so and then head over to Getzel’s Shule. I was asked if I wanted wine, and answered that my preference was to make kiddush over mashke every shabbos, in the self-same way I did with my father ע’ה each week, and since. I asked for Scotch, and discovered that this colour didn’t seem to figure in the room at the time. There was herring and all manner of good Kiddush food (farbaysen), but it became obvious that I had stumbled into a Russian-Style Kiddush where everyone quaffed white liquid. At one stage, when I was told
we have everything
I challenged by asking for Galeh (pecha) and in an instant it was in front of me, and was really good (although not as good as my wife’s cuisine, of course :-)
I don’t dislike white liquid, but suggested that the cup they had given me was three times the Shiur of the Chazon Ish, let alone R’ Chaim Naeh, and a usual 80-100ml cup would be plenty. Plastic sufficed, I didn’t follow Poskim who held you needed a more substantial material for a cup. Immediately, a cup of appropriate size was placed in front of me, brimming with “lighter fluid”, and I made Kiddush.
On my right was a friendly person who engaged in conversation. I was to learn later from R’ Shea that I had engaged anyone who
tried me out
and held my own with dignity, giving back anything I was dealt. Much of the conversation was “Have you been to the Ohel”. I explained my general feeling of uncomfortableness and inadequacy at visiting places like that, but this only spurred the crowd (rabble?) on more, in the sense that they stated
well if that’s how you feel, you davka are the type of person who should go.
I was to discover that the “Vodka” I had consumed a number of subsequent times included the famed “Zeks und Ninetziger”, otherwise known as rocket fuel. My Zeyda Yitzchok after whom I was named, drank Zeks und Ninetziger every Shabbos, and I knew the secret was to pour and not allow it to touch the extremeties of one’s mouth. My father used to mention this to me.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember the details of conversations.
As I was about to leave, the gentleman on my right said to me
Nu, what time tomorrow shall I pick you up to go to the Ohel.
I hadn’t even agreed to do so let alone committed to such after Rabbi Kotlarky’s talk on that topic. By that stage, I felt somewhat “worn down”, and his ehrlichkeit penetrated. Knowing that we had lots to do on Sunday (including catching a flight later to Montreal), I thought I’d say 7am sharp, and this would surely prove to be too early for my interlocutor. He asked me where I was staying, and promised he’d be there at 7am. I had no contact number, and at that stage didn’t even know his surname. I didn’t know whether he was serious or not, but he was rather heartzig (heartfelt) and earnest and seemed to ooze chesed (kindness), so I took him at face value.
As I found out later, he was married to a lady I saw on our first evening in Crown Heights and whom I mistook for our good friend in Melbourne. Her mode of speaking and voice are almost identical and I had met a few years prior in Melbourne on Chanuka.
We left the Kiddush, and he accompanied me. We spiralled into a number of Chabad homes, while people were eating their lunch, and of course “had” to have a L’Chayim and some Gefilte fish at each such place. My “Chavruso” didn’t leave my side and directed me to all places. As we walked in, he was always greeted very warmly with
Good Shabbos Moshe.
Everyone seemed to know him and warmed to him, seemingly magnetically. Moshe was very kind, and looked after me (I would have been lost without him, having no spatial skills whatsoever. Eventually we both finally made it to Getzel’s Shule for the Kiddush). I sensed the host would would have liked me to have come earlier, and he was very right. I still managed a L’Chaim or two. Thankfully I had davened Mincha at 770 beforehand.
It was really only then, when others asked me “where have you been” and I responded that I had been with Moshe Rubashkin, that I retraced my steps. It didn’t interest me to ask why people said
oooh, with Moshe
as if I had been with the King of England.
I woke on time, and sure enough, Moshe was also there on time. I had my Tallis and Tefillin and didn’t know if we’d daven before or after the visit to the ציון of the Rebbes. On the way we spoke, and although he was rather Russian, and I was an Aussie academic whose מהות (soul) was still planted in Rawa Mazowiecka, Poland, we had a curiously common language and got on very well. He kept saying I was “funny”. I don’t know what that meant, but I assume it meant that I was somewhat more unpredictable with my responses than he was used to.
When we arrived at Montefiore Cemetery, I didn’t know what to expect. We walked through a front door, and were confronted by the video of a past Sicha on a big screen. Somewhat fortuitously, sitting to the right and behind the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a light suit, was Reb Yisroel New (whom I knew, as a great-grandfather of the Chosson). The topic was “holidays”. and the LR was fulminating that there could not be a holiday from Torah and that he couldn’t understand how Mosdos would close down completely. I was on holiday, but I didn’t feel I had stopped my small engagement with Torah, so took his words in context. Moshe stood there and listened באימה, and I didn’t move until he moved on.
At every stage, everyone seemed to greet him with warmth, and I realised he was a real personality amongst the populace. We moved into a large room where minyanim were taking place (and apparently a Bar Mitzvah was being prepared for) and then suddenly I came to a door.
I opened the door and tentatively entered and was confronted by the scene of two stark Matzeyvos filled with mounds of torn paper. I physically recoiled backwards. This was my natural reaction as a Cohen. Although there was a mechitzah around the Kvorim, it was not natural for me to be so close, and my Cohanic instincts made me take two backward steps.
I had the Maaneh Loshon with me, and after staring at the graves and scrutinising the words, noting the slight difference in language, my mind wandered to the contribution and responsibility these two Rebbes had played in my life, overseeing and supervising the establishment of the School that I was to attend for 12 years. People around me were saying Tehillim, and one lady was weeping audibly. Rain was dripping on my hat and Moshe was saying Tehillim. I didn’t write any note, nor did I take off my shoes or knock at the door. I didn’t feel disrespectful.
Eventually I started saying the Maaneh Loshon, but the words were floating around on the page, and I can’t say that they were at one with my mind and thoughts. I subconsciously decided that silent contemplation with my eyes shut was appropriate. It required great concentration not to commune directly with the Rebbes. I concentrated on asking their Neshomos to join me in beseeching Hashem for various things relating to others. Only at the end, did I venture into a short matter about me. I’m not sure how long I was standing there for, but was to learn that Moshe went 2 or 3 times a week, and normally said the entire Tehillim. I felt a little guilty, when after some time I felt I had ended my experience and tentatively started to leave. Moshe compromised his usual timing and joined me immediately. This was something I learned later.
A minyan was just starting, and I recognised the Ba’al Tefilla from 770 upstairs but had never asked his name (he was a gingy). During davening my mind occasionally wandered back to that sombre scene, and I understood why Chassidim felt drawn to visit their Rebbe’s resting place. Again, there was so much
Hello Moshe, how are you
I was amazed at the “celebrity status”. He asked someone walking along the muddy path if they needed a lift, and we drove back. He had no airs or graces.
When we returned, we sat in the car and continued talking for what seemed ages. Finally, there was this knock on the window, and I saw my wife with her hands up in the air, saying
I’ve tried to contact you for hours. I had no idea what happened to you, we have to go to X, Y and Z
She wasn’t angry, but had that look of “knowing her husband” and my proclivities. She said,
I see you seem to have found a soul mate.
I responded that we had a natural affinity to each other and could have spoken for another two hours without a problem, even though externally we are chalk and cheese.
Later, people told me about amazing acts of Chesed that Moshe was doing for many people, and I was not surprised.
I asked him to apologise to his wife for keeping him out for that long and mentioned that I had met his sister-in-law on the street when we arrived. He said
that was actually my galicianer wife
It was only then that I realised that Moshe and his wife were actually the bookends of our visit to crown heights: His wife when we arrived and Moshe when we left.
On my return, I obtained Moshe’s number and sent him a proper thank you. Should I return to Crown Heights, I will definitely seek him out. He helped make my visit to the ציונים of the Rebbes less stressful and dignified, and without pressure to conform in any way.