by Drew Alexander
I thought I was going to see a film. What I saw was live cinema, a multi-media performance using film as but one medium, more like reader’s theater with film accompaniment.
I couldn’t have been more thrilled. My obsession throughout high school was theater. In college I got beyond acting into the actual study of drama, its different periods and styles, with a little film and other visual arts to round out the mix.
The star of this show, the medium par excellence, was the spoken word, Bentzi Avtzon‘s exceptional translation of excerpts from the notebooks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The reading, from a simple stool illuminated by a single spotlight, was done by Avtzon as well. Archival film set the historical context, beginning in France, 1935, and ending in New York, 1947, with a spare soundtrack, which added a little flavor, enough to be suggestive, but not enough to be manipulative.
Selected stages of the progression of Nazi-perpetrated disaster were followed by reflections of the Rebbe, in some cases preparatory notes for addresses to be given later, in some cases simply thoughts provoked by the situation, reactions to the gathering gloom that faced the Jewish refugee community of which he and his wife were a part.
The excerpts were all religious reflections; he was, after all, a rabbi, more, a rebbe. Conventional wisdom says that a rabbi gives you the answers to your questions, while a rebbe helps you understand the background against which your deepest questions will be formed.
This is the territory occupied by the Rebbe in these excerpts. For example, on Shavuous, 1939, as Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe were finding refuge in France, he wrote, in part:
Gdola Havtocho – great is what G-d promises . . . A promise need not be put into words, a promise can’t be put into words. It comes from the heart,
which can’t be heard, can only be sensed
and not from a distance, only from up close. . .
Great is what G-d promises . . . And great are the people who are so close
that to them G-d has made His promise.
I was astonished by these words. As someone who has read a not insignificant amount of the Rebbe’s writings, and seen many of his addresses, I was struck by a very distinct difference between the excerpts from the Rebbe’s journals, and anything else of his I’ve ever read or heard. The Rebbe as the teacher, the unfailing didact, who taught in every speech, every letter, every encounter by his famous “dollars” line, is not found.
Instead, we have a glimpse behind the role of the Rebbe as a teacher, of the man, the observer, the poet who is, as they say, “writing for the drawer,” only for himself. Is the prevalent anxiety about G-d’s promise, provoked by dire events, reflected in his words? Is the Rebbe reminding G-d of His promise, at the time of the giving of the Torah? These are a poet’s questions, nothing a leader would share with anxious people. But there is no one else in the room, no one to teach, to console. I was able to ask Avtzon how much of the poetic character of the text came from him, and how much from the Rebbe. “I heard poetry in the words,” he replied, “And that’s what I translated.”
Maybe Alone, Never Forsaken (ch. 1)
Later on in the film we watched as Paris is bombed, and the refugee population flees south into Vichy territory. They are living in tents, exposed to the elements. Having failed to obtain visas in Paris, the Rebbe and his wife were without papers, without anything but refugee status, which only has meaning when there is an entity to recognize it. The Rebbe wrote:
There are two rules – and these two rules meet.
Nothing did He create in vain, everything has a purpose, a purpose that is realized through fulfilling G-d’s mitzvoth.
There are two rules – and between them stands man.
Man is challenged by the events that are shattering lives and worlds. He must confirm the meaning of Divine creation through his actions, even as others seek to destroy that creation. The precariousness of the situation does not change this fact (so precarious, that this entry was undated).
Every single thing, every single happening, every single moment, they are only means, they are only
pathways, through which man serves G-d. In this world, this world as man knows it, there is nothing
else. Nothing else besides him and G-d.
In this world, man is alone, alone with G-d.
In such a time of extremity, the refugees must have felt alone, and in many cases, abandoned. But the Rebbe, a person of unshakeable faith, only acknowledged the isolation in the form of a paradox. Because if G-d is omnipresent, how can one be alone? Only if one breaks one of the rules, which is to deny one’s connection to G-d, the connection forged through the mitzvot.
Maybe Alone, Never Forsaken (ch. 4)
I did not take pen to paper to write a diminished representation, a pale imitation of Avtzon’s fine work, which to date is a one-off, but rather to do my best to convey some of what I found so powerful, and really extraordinary here. I have read religious poetry, some of it excellent and stirring and thought-provoking. I have read the contemporaneous work of another rebbe, R. KK Shapira (Sacred Fire), a collection of biblical drashot on the weekly Torah portions he delivered in the Warsaw ghetto. In effect, these drashot were his attempt to craft a theology of the Shoah from within the belly of the beast. Those, too, were didactic, and very much in the role of a rebbe trying to inspire his flock to stay connected despite the exigencies of the time.
What I find extraordinary here, however, in these first translations (that I know of) of the Rebbe’s Reshimot, diaries, is their incredible intimacy.
When I was fortunate enough to be in yeshiva in Israel, about twelve years ago, my mentor, Rabbi Kaplan, told me a story one Rosh Chodesh, about when he was in yeshiva by the Rebbe. On Rosh Chodesh, when it falls on a weekday, one wears tefillin, but removes the tefillin for the culminating musaf prayer. Rabbi Kaplan told me that those praying together with the Rebbe couldn’t help but notice his bare arm, the coat-sleeve of his left arm hanging unused as it had been when the tefillin was still on. He said they felt a little awkward, like they were seeing something intimate, something that wasn’t meant for their eyes. Their relationship with the Rebbe was very formal, they wouldn’t have dreamed of shaking his hand, for example, and bare arms certainly weren’t part of that formality, either.
I retell this story here because this is what I feel to some extent has been accomplished here: We have been permitted an intimacy, a window into a part of the Rebbe’s mind that we might not ever have dreamed of seeing.
As the Master of Ceremonies, Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov, noted, when the notebooks were found, they had to decide whether there was a boundary, a privacy issue that needed to be respected. In the end, it was decided that the Rebbe must have meant for the notebooks to be found, having left them in the drawers of his office desk. Fortunately for those of us for whom Hebrew editions would remain opaque, we have Avtzon’s wonderful translations to draw from. The day after the performance I sent him some notes. The last sentence was, “I hope you are already working on the sequel.”
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