Menachem Schneerson’s Ghost Roils the Art World


Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is rearing his ghostly head from a grave on Long Island, sending shudders of frustration through the halls of the New York art world.

A complex legal dispute over Schneerson’s Library — a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents assembled by members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — is causing Russian art institutions to cancel scheduled loans of world-renowned artworks to American art institutions.

The impact is immediate: Russia is holding back on shipping a Cezanne painting that was to have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next week. The Russians are afraid that the Chabad organization will ask a court to seize art from Russia and hold it hostage in the dispute.

Considered by some Orthdox Jews to be the Messiah, Schneerson died 16 years ago, but he “remains as powerful a presence in death as in life,” as the Times noted last year. Many of his followers don’t even think he’s dead, as we pointed out in 2008.

Schneerson’s “Library” is housed in different archives through Russia. Since 1991, the year of Schneerson’s death, leaders of the Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish sect have been arguing that the collection belongs at the movement’s headquarters, at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (770 Eastern Parkway was Schneerson’s home and synagogue).

In 1991, a court in Moscow agreed to turn over the library to Chabad, according to an account by the Times’s Clifford Levy and Carol Vogel. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the ruling was set aside. The Russian government now says it wants to keep the archive for future scholars.

In July, federal judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Russian government to repatriate the collection. The Russians — who refused to attend the court hearing — also refused to give the collection to Chabad, arguing that the U.S. had no business telling Russia what to do with its cultural works.

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