Chabad Hasidim And Me: A Healing, Joyful, Contentious Dance

This piece is part of the series, “Readers Take Over Hevria.” Stephanie Wellen Levine was asked to profile someone from a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) background whom she loves and admires.

***Note that names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

If my grandmother hadn’t died, it might have been the best year of my life. Wow, is that my best attempt at positivity: starting off with the death of one of my all-time favorite people? As part of the “readers take over Hevria” series, I was asked to profile someone from a “totally haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish background whom I love and admire. The person requesting this topic wanted someone who is relatively non-observant of Jewish law to take this one on, and I certainly fit. After a bit of floundering around, I realized it made most sense to profile the entire Crown Heights Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidic community that welcomed me during my year-long Brooklyn stay. Many “someones”: an aggregate experience that continues to enrich my thoughts and my deepest hopes.

This world-wide movement’s dual names capture it well. “Chabad” is an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom (chochmah), comprehension (binah), and knowledge (da’at). “Lubavitch” is a town in White Russia where the movement was based for over 100 years. The word means “city of brotherly love” in Russian, and, to this day, Lubavitchers strive to love all of their fellow Jews, and succeed to a shocking degree. 

Modern by most Hasidic sects’ standards but mind-blowingly strict by my own, this group facilitated my success breaking into their world. Their international network of Chabad houses reaches out to all Jews who want Jewish knowledge and experience. My stint in their Brooklyn headquarters turned every home and community space I visited into a Chabad house: a place where I could imbibe my ancestors’ ancient faith. True, it was not my life’s best year. But I’ve often thought that, if I had been anywhere else when the cycle of death that would eventually take all my grandparents began, I might have crumbled.

Shortly after my grandmother’s funeral, while I was still reeling from the blow of realizing that death could and would come to my family—it wasn’t just a source of irrational misery—I was invited to a Lubavitch wedding. Weddings were constant in Crown Heights: as common as coffee meetings in other neighborhoods. I was in no mood to party, and it showed. I was angry with myself for being so transparent. Here I was, a researcher supposedly writing a book: how could I act like a brooding child around my subjects? I was at the beginning of my stay, before interviews and connections had solidified… no way would people let some mopey mump conduct interviews and follow them around as they shopped, studied, chatted, partied, prayed, and went about their lives.

Dancing is uncomfortable for me at best, and now, I was barely able to move when I found myself in a circle of dancing seminary women, celebrating this triumphant day in their classmate’s life. I was this awkward stick in the midst of jubilation, thinking about death when everyone around me was toasting life. How lucky I was to be accepted like this, invited to all these personal events, but since I couldn’t control my emotions well enough to slide in and become one of the bunch, it would surely stop.

A girl named Rifky motioned to me. Her expression was open and warm—not at all judgmental or pitying. I had told people about my grandmother’s death: it explained my absence from school (the seminary allowed me full access to morning classes, and I pretty much went every day like everyone else, hanging out, observing, soaking in the atmosphere) and several other activities.

“Let’s dance, just the two of us,” she said. I felt a whirring motion in my head, like something inside of me was about to explode. I could sort of hide in the big circle. Dancing alone with Rifky, everything would be on display. I’d be a pitiful show for her: an uncoordinated, depressed excuse for a writer. An adult who couldn’t handle the inevitable loss of her grandparents: a basic fact of existence that we hope will happen eventually (the alternative is far worse).

The two of us starting “dancing.” I was just thumping around, unable even to get the band’s beat into my head well enough to move rhythmically. Rifky was unfazed by her rotten dance partner; she just kept smiling and moving around: tallish, slender, comfortable with her soul and its physical casing.

Finally, Rifky said: “Don’t worry. Moshiach will come soon.” Moshiach: the Messiah. According to any form of logic I knew, I should have laughed. It wasn’t funny, though: not at all. If Moshiach comes, eventually, the deceased will be resurrected and death will vanish. Deep spiritual truths and the world’s inherent goodness will be as obvious as the sky, and we’ll all be able to grow—slowly, calmly, joyfully, with no fear that time will run out and we’ll miss something splendid. This very bright girl and almost all of her friends believed it would happen. In most cases, it’s safer to say they knew it would happen. In this community, dying was temporary and surmountable, and I do not scoff at beautiful beliefs when I have no special line into the truth.

Their rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had passed away, but most spoke of him in the present tense. They knew he was deceased (most of them, anyhow: a few holdouts believed he never really died in the classic sense) but they felt they could connect with him through whatever veil separated the living and the dead. I constantly heard of people asking his advice: by praying at his gravesite, or by opening books of his past letters to seemingly random pages and using his comments to shed light on their current lives.

Crazy, crazy, crazy, my friends and family kept saying, but it didn’t feel that way to me. People told me tales of feeling sure they had connected with Rabbi Schneerson after his death, of opening their books to letters that seemed to speak in fine detail about their own dilemmas, even though they were written years ago to completely different people. Or of praying at the Ohel, the Rebbe’s gravesite in Cambria Heights, NY, and finding their prayers answered: for medical miracles, financial success, a kind and compatible spouse… most situations a person might crave.

One reason it felt possible was that I had my own seeming miracle: small and temporary but possibly real. About a year before moving to Crown Heights, I went with a group of Lubavitchers to the Ohel to pray. I figured I’d go for the experience, since the Rebbe was central to this fascinating group’s lives and faith. The site was crowded, filled with long-skirted women and long-bearded men. It was all still new to me, and it felt exotic. I was unhappy when I heard I’d have to remove my shoes. What if someone snagged them in the midst of the tumult? What if I stepped on glass as I futzed around in my clumsy way?

I’d come in a group from Boston’s Chabad house, and it all started to seem like madness. Other people take road trips to fun things like concerts and parties. I was wasting precious time in my finite life going to a cemetery when no one I knew had died.

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But I’d written a letter to the Rebbe about my grandmother, who had been sick with kidney disease for years. I asked for her restored health. Though I don’t remember what exactly I said, I do remember feeling like it was something my 6-year-old self might have written: pure and uncomplicated. “Please help my grandmother feel better so she can keep living and enjoy herself.” Something like that. I’d felt like an idiot as I was writing, but I did it because… well, you just never know.

The evening after my trip, I called my parents and asked my mother how her mother was feeling. She said: “You know, she’s much better. It’s very striking.” I felt a shiver. For about a year after that, my grandmother seemed to have unexplained renewed energy. She certainly wasn’t going on wild adventures, but she was able to enjoy meals out with her family and had a zestful interest in our lives, relishing every detail.

My uncle, who has no spiritual sensibility as far as I can tell, would say that his mother was living on “borrowed time.” I never shared my possible interpretation of his words, but I quietly wondered. Borrowed time. Lent, somehow, by some kind of spiritual power that the Rebbe helped her tap into because I’d visited his gravesite and written him a letter? That’s lunacy, right? Maybe, but I was open to it all.

I was also open to—and deeply charmed by—the ideas so many of my Crown Heights pals shared about the grave and glorious effects of every action and even every thought. Each Shabbos I was in town, I had at least one festive meal at a family’s home. Friday night, I would arrive before sundown: before the holiday began.

Orthodox and other observant Jewish women light Shabbos candles before the Sabbath sets in. This candle lighting supposedly ushers in the Sabbath’s holiness. In Lubavitch, no Jewish ritual is purely symbolic. Women are seen as literally bringing light and peace into their homes and the world at large when they light.

In deference to my poor eye-hand coordination and the dangers I could bring with fire in my hands, I often tried to get out of lighting. I’d duck into the bathroom at an opportune time, or just hang back, explaining that I didn’t trust myself with a match—or that, believe me, every single guest would be happier if someone more graceful lit the candle designated for me. No one ever let me get away with it. From harried mothers of thirteen to glamorous grandmas to 20-year-olds just getting used to hosting Shabbos in their own apartments with their brand new husbands, every single female host I encountered pushed me to light a candle.

They took what I said seriously. No one forced me to light a match. When I expressed concern over the potential hazards, another woman or girl would light the match, use it to light a candle, and pass the candle to me so I could share its flame with another candle: the one representing me. To them, it was mandatory that every single woman light. Each one of us was crucial: we had our own light to bring into that Shabbos.

Indeed, every single act by every single person was seen as fabulously important. People walked around expecting Moshiach at any moment—and feeling that anyone, at any time, could initiate the action that would bring him into the world and usher in the Messianic age. Whether it was a Judaic ritual performed—a woman lighting Shabbos candles for the first time, perhaps—or more general “acts of goodness and kindness,” each one of us had the power to bring this glorious era closer with positive behaviors, or keep it at bay with negative ones. Smile at a gloomy person at just the right time and… boom: the balance might be tipped, and Moshiach might come, transforming the world into a place of wonders we can’t even imagine in our present state.

I found the notion glorious even stripped of its Messianic implications. I can be very sensitive to social cues, both positive and negative. Ignore my email and I might stew about it, even though I realize it’s likely you didn’t even see it. If you smile at me when I’m upset, it might boost my mood far more powerfully than you’d think. I see the effects of small actions on a universe: my own mental world. The leap from that to small actions deeply influencing the wider universe we all inhabit feels manageable to me, when I cock my mind in just the right way. It makes sense that our actions are wondrously, brutally important. Even the “minor” ones: the looks, the comments, the laughs, and the taunts. I embrace this notion in my daily life, even now, years after leaving my Crown Heights apartment.

I did not become formally religious during my Crown Heights stay. So much rang false to me. The overpowering notion that a person is incomplete without a spouse (all the more maddening when I consider that marriage must be heterosexual in this scheme) stung me. I’ve never wanted a mate and wish the whole world—not just Lubavitcher Hasidim—were friendlier and more respectful towards those who thrive better with no romantic partner. The strict laws surrounding diet, clothing, and ritual rub against every innate grain I sense as a soul: my desire to savor life, meet all kinds of people, experience the world’s culinary delights, seize opportunities when they arise with no worries about Sabbath rules, dietary restrictions, and modest women’s dress. I am a boxless, boundless kind of person. I feel outside gender, outside formal religion, outside romantic relationships as most define them.

OK, you know what? That’s not the whole truth. I am boxless and boundless in a way, but I’m also frightened of so much. I hold myself back from adventures because I might get hurt, stay home and work when I could be savoring incredible new experiences, fail to organize myself on time for fantastic opportunities…. I could go on, but I don’t want to beat myself into a hole.

I’m caged enough by my own timidity, disorganization, and worry. An added overlay of Jewish law would push me into obsessive paralysis. I sense in my deepest soul that I need more freedom, more space, more fearless life… not stricter rules that feel like a leash around my neck. For me, that all seems dead wrong.

But I am a many-minded sort of person. I can respect and love, even as I hold myself back. Your truth may be truth—for you. I can exult in other people’s truths and embrace the parts that feel right for me into my own life, leaving the rest for those who find it important.

I believe that’s what I’ve done with the Lubavitcher Hasidim of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I can joyfully think that, who knows, maybe there’s something to that Moshiach stuff. Maybe our seemingly small acts really are packed with metaphysical power. Maybe I miss being part of a tight-knit community where people spot me on the street and feel an immediate bond because they’ve seen me in shul and in school and I’ve been embraced in my own strange way into a group of passionate, spiritually alive idealists. It’s eminently possible that my Lubavitch friends are tapping into some immense spiritual wisdom, even as they embrace legal and cultural specifics that could keep some Jews from reaching their highest spiritual and personal potential.

Crown Heights wasn’t my home or my answer. But it was a fabulous place to live, even with the Brooklyn grime. If I thought I could reclaim my delicate insider/outsider stance, I’d consider going back.