The Crown Heights Lubavitchers

Ecstatic Jews, a messiah proclaimed, and the consequential divisions

Like many other young men in Crown Heights, Itzik Balulu studies the Talmud and other Jewish texts from early in the morning to well into the night.

But you should see his ride. When he's not ensconced in 770 Eastern Parkway, the center of the Chabad-Lubavitch universe, the 26-year-old Israeli and his crew drive around in a blinged-out Cadillac, a regular kandy-kolored streamline baby. Oy vey.

The Caddy, which they bought a few years ago, is bright yellow and covered with enormous decals featuring a "King Messiah" crown and a picture of the messiah himself: Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson. A dollar bill is attached to the upper right corner of the windshield—a symbol of the rebbe's practice of handing out dollar bills to his visitors to give to charity.

Among Lubavitchers, the rebbe is more than revered. Officially, he died 14 years ago. But to many Lubavitchers, dead he's not, and the messiah—not just for Jews, but the entire planet—he most certainly is.

When they aren't studying, the yeshiva boys doggedly tool around the city and install yellow flags in homes and businesses. The flags look a lot like the images on the car: a crown and the words "Long Live the King Messiah Forever and Ever." Balulu installed seven last week and just ordered a thousand more from a factory in China. He plans to go to India next year: The rebbe, he says, has advised him to be a Chabad emissary.

For now, Balulu goes to Union Square every Friday afternoon to hand out Chabad materials and to "bar-mitzvah" non-observant Jews. He and the boys usually set up shop beside an Amish cheese vendor at the weekly farmers' market. They tend to get into friendly discussions with passersby, like a recent confab they had with a teenage Korean Christian missionary and the Pennsylvania Amish vendor over the meaning of Orthodox Judaism. Their target, however, is secular Jews. From behind their table festooned with (what else?) yellow flags, the boys ask Jews to pray with them—specifically to repeat, word for word, a prayer referred to as the Yechi chant, which identifies the rebbe as the messiah. Yes, the Messiah.

Schneerson's the reason you see dark-suited young men like Balulu in Union Square every Friday calling to passersby and asking: "Are you Jewish?"—and also the reason there are Chabad houses in Laos and Bangkok and South Africa.

The nerve center, however, remains 770 Eastern Parkway, which has such cachet because it was the home and synagogue of Schneerson, the Chabad-Lubavitch's head rabbi from 1950 until his death in 1994. He is credited with turning a demoralized group of Lubavitch Jews that had moved to Brooklyn in the wake of World War II into a multimillion-dollar global empire that spans more than 70 countries, boasts hundreds of thousands of devotees, and has established beachheads on more than 100 American college campuses.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in Crown Heights who could point to a single character flaw that the rebbe possessed—or still possesses, because people like Sara Kanevsky insist that he never died.

Kanevsky's is a world of constant miracles. Pictures of the rebbe plaster the walls of her third-floor apartment. Every night, she and her friends put on a trance CD of traditional Yiddish hymns set to techno music, and they dance for hours. They take belly-dancing classes that can start at midnight. Her cell-phone ringtone plays the Hebrew messianic slogan Yechi ha Melech, which roughly translates as "Long Live the King Messiah Forever and Ever." She answers the phone with these same words.

Not all Lubavitchers have gotten the message. Even as Chabad has grown into a billion-dollar empire in the wake of the rebbe's death, the battle lines between those who accept Schneerson's demise and those who don't have hardened.

Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for Chabad, describes the behavior of people like Kanevsky as "more painful than words"—an abuse of the rebbe's message. For some Jews within and outside Chabad, messianism, with its prophecy of a sort of second coming, smacks too much of Christianity. Others say it violates the monotheistic religion's prohibitions against idolatry. And some think it cultish or just too simplistic—a caricature of Jewish teachings.

"At the end of the day, running around saying, 'My guy is the messiah' over and over—it's an echo chamber," says Shmotkin, a 39-year-old rabbi. "And what the rebbe was creating was the opposite of an echo chamber."

Meanwhile, the conflict continues to reverberate. In Crown Heights, messianists and non-messianists pray in separate synagogues, listen to different radio programs, and study in separate houses of learning. Many messianists wear yellow lapel pins adorned with crowns and erect matching yellow flags on the façades of their homes. The two groups do not intermarry.

In a way, Kanevsky herself is a cornerstone of the controversy. A court battle between the two camps is connected to Kanevsky's arrest for doggedly hanging onto the cornerstone of 770 Eastern Parkway during a contretemps outside the building in 2004: The Chabad leadership had obtained a restraining order against the messianists after they defaced the stone. That case is still on appeal.

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