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.

Meanwhile, the fight continues to play out right inside the building. Chabad, the empire, has its headquarters on the third floor, and it's at war with many of the people who pray and study in the synagogue below.

Last December, as a part of the same court battle, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that the owners of the building had the right to remove a banner that the messianists had placed over the Torah ark in the downstairs synagogue. The banner, proclaiming the rebbe "King Messiah Forever and Ever," had been put up by four messianist trustees who were elected to run the synagogue. Naturally enough, they're appealing the judge's ruling.

There are two things that most Lubavitchers agree on: Crown Heights is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and for the messianists, 770 is the holy nerve center. Some consider the building to be the resurrection of the Great Temple, destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Young people incorporate 770 into their e-mail addresses; older folks try to buy houses with that auspicious number and have built exact replicas of the Neo-Gothic building, which once housed a medical clinic, in places as far-flung as Argentina and Brazil.

Portraits of the rebbe and his wife are fixtures in just about every home. Schneerson was a powerful figure who received heads of state and advised multimillionaire financiers, and his followers cherish their memories of him, even at a house next to his (ostensible) Long Island grave, where the video Encounters With the Rebbe plays on a continuous loop.

Now about that grave: Unlike the thousands of other Lubavitchers, Sara Kanevsky has never paid a visit. She doesn't know who or what is in the grave, but she's certain it's not the rebbe. On the anniversary of his death this past July, while more than 50,000 people waited on a four-hour line outside the cemetery, midnight buses rolled in from Canada, and Israelis camped out for the weekend in the Chabad house next-door, Kanevsky went to 770 to celebrate.

Kanevsky does a lot of celebrating when others are mourning. She says that in the time of redemption, all rules are reversed. Two years ago, she walked around eating ice cream in 770 on a fast day, which led to her being kicked out. And on the most recent fast day this summer, she talked with some Chabad members in Florida who were enjoying a spaghetti dinner. Kanevsky has even written a book in four languages on the new rules.

She acknowledges that to some people in Crown Heights, she appears to be a nut. But even that, she says, is part of the program. "The rebbe says you have to be crazy about moshiach," she says, using the Hebrew word for "messiah." "Miracles are crazy."

Those lubavitchers who believe that Schneerson is the messiah became more vocal about it after the rebbe suffered a debilitating stroke in 1992.

In the preceding year, Schneerson himself had begun to tell his followers that the redemption was imminent. He urged them to do everything in their power to bring it about.

Though he never referred to himself directly as the messiah (the rebbe rarely spoke about himself), some people began to see it that way. At religious gatherings, hundreds of people shouted the Yechi chant. It's unclear what the rebbe thought of these outcries. Messianists say he shook his fist in support; confidantes claim that he was pained by the sight of it; and still others aren't sure whether, after the stroke, the rebbe was able to understand the implications of what was happening before his eyes.

No one really knows how many Lubavitchers believe that Schneerson is the messiah. It's been a mostly futile effort trying to quantify them, though some have tried methods like counting yellow flags. This is partly due to the gradations of belief among the messianists: While many believe that the rebbe's death was an illusion, there are some who accept it but are convinced that he will one day be resurrected; others who believe deeply that he is the messiah but don't publicize it, preferring to keep the whole thing a matter of the heart; and still others who aren't 100 percent sure either way but are afraid to really talk about it, since it has become such a contentious matter. And then there are those, like Kanevsky and Balulu, who proclaim their faith to everyone they meet.

A youthful, 40-year-old mother of seven, Kanevsky and her friends live their lives in a state of near-ecstasy. And while fervor and joyousness are central to all forms of Hasidic Judaism, the messianists' exuberance is unusual.

The crown lies easy upon their heads. In fact, as Kanevsky stands before a cluster of five women sitting on benches in 770, she's wearing not only a form-fitting black skirt and a long-haired wig, but also a necklace with a golden crown attached to it—the symbol of the King Messiah. The jewel-studded crown is larger than her palm. She has two cell phones pressed to her ears. Another cell phone and an iPod rest on the bench in front of her. The devices are recording her daily three-hour radio address and workshop, the topic of which is the redemption. The address is being broadcast live over the Internet. A blown-up portrait of the rebbe has been placed on a bench behind them.

The women pass around grapefruits, figs, and homemade baked tilapia in a large aluminum catering tray. "We call this the fish of the redemption," says regular attendee Devorah Leah Blau as she fills her plate (a friend is rocking Blau's baby).

Kanevsky is largely self-taught, but when she has a question of any significance, she says she consults the rebbe. Like Balulu and others, she does this by either placing a note or asking a question aloud in front of a stack of books containing his collected letters. Then she turns to a page at random and finds that the rebbe has left an answer there. Last week, for example, she wondered in a dream whether her friend Ruth would become a millionaire. When she opened the book, she says, the date of her friend's birthday was on the page—a sign that the rebbe was listening.

After Kanevsky's class ends, she stashes the rebbe's photo behind a bookcase in the women's section. "Did I tell you about the time I got arrested?" she asks. Then she bolts out the door and onto the promenade, which is elevated about 10 feet above the sidewalk. She looks over a stairwell and points down below, to a cornerstone in the façade of the building. In 2002, the Chabad leadership placed a plaque engraved with the words "of blessed memory" beside the cornerstone in honor of Schneerson. The messianists, resenting the implication that Schneerson was no longer alive, vandalized the plaque and put their own in its place. Multiple riots erupted in front of 770, and the police put up barriers and surrounded the plaque.

During one pf the uprisings, Kanevsky saw the commotion and decided to leap from the promenade. But wearing high heels, she fell, and people thought she had broken her ankle. Then she got up and ran to the cornerstone. Her friend Ruth jumped in after her. The women held onto the stone until the police pulled them away.

Zalman Shmotkin acknowledges that Jewish law allows for a great wise figure in every generation, but he's not convinced that Schneerson should be considered the king messiah of them all. Shmotkin, who has an office on the third floor of 770, says he never prays in the building's synagogue. One of his deepest fears is that people will see messianism as the face of Chabad, and that this will alienate them from the rebbe's teachings. "It's so not what we're about," he says.

"It violates common sense and makes the movement seem insane," says David Berger, a historian and the author of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. "They think it turns people off to Hasidic teaching, and it's a sincere concern."

Berger, himself an observant Jew, says that while researching the book, he watched videos that were filmed at 770 after the rebbe's death. In one, people cleared a path across the synagogue to allow the invisible rebbe to walk to his chair. "When people tell me that the kind of scene I just described is crazy," he says, "I react by saying that there are millions of people in the world who are perfectly normal and intelligent people, who believe that the priest is holding a piece of bread and that this bread is the real presence of Jesus of Nazareth."

With the Lubavitchers as with Christians, messianic beliefs are nuanced, Berger says. He thinks that most Luba- vitchers, either secretly or openly, do believe that the rebbe is the messiah, but that only a small fraction believe he is still alive.

That contention has made Berger the target of severe attacks in the Lubavitch world. And though he staunchly opposes the movement, he says that there are strong theological underpinnings both to the messianism and even to the "seemingly crazy assertion" that the rebbe really didn't die.

"Judaism says that in every generation, there is a righteous person that connects the world to the divine energy," he explains. "If there is no leader, the world would actually cease to exist. So the fact that the rebbe has died and that the world continues to exist is a conundrum to them, and it leads them to believe that the rebbe must not have died. But even people who believe he did die find this to be a challenging question." They resolve it, he adds, by opining that we're living in strange times, or that the rebbe is still providing the divine connection from his grave.

Kanevsky finishes her class in the late afternoon. By that time, Crown Heights is a rush of preparations for Sabbath. She passes hat shops with old-world lettering on their façades, ancient gumball machines, and elderly women begging for some Sabbath charity on the sidewalk. Kanevsky gives each of the women a few dollars and walks into a glatt-kosher meat store. The store sells things like goulash and schnitzel, but Kanevsky is looking for a special kosher chicken.

The store appears to be out of stock. The clerk—who doesn't wear a yellow pin—says to Kanevsky, in Hebrew: "With your luck, Yechi ha Melech, you'll find the meat." She reaches into a pile and finds the last package for sale. Yet another miracle.

Kanevsky continues walking, buying flowers from an Israeli child. She stops in a Caribbean-owned dry cleaners to pick up a jacket and laments that she is out of the moshiach business cards that she normally carries around. Then she remembers that she gave them all out on the subway earlier in the day. As she passes a group of men, one of them calls out: "Moshiach!"

Kanevsky looks over her shoulder. "See? They believe it, too, but don't show it," she says, almost surprised that someone would keep the greatest thing in the world a secret. Then she smiles. "They know what I represent."

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