“Our life resembles the process by which the world came into being.”
— Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
Rarely do I awaken before my dog. When I do, obligation demands it. For the past two years I have risen at 6:00 on Thursday mornings to attend a minyan, the prayer quorum of ten Jews. The minyan was originally convened at the behest of a Peruvian Jew whose father died in South America, so that he might properly recite the mourner’s kaddish for the twelve months in which the soul may linger in the lower spheres before its ascent to higher domains: “Exalted and honored be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory transcends, yea, is beyond all praises, hymns and blessings that man can render unto Him. . . .”
We meet in the family room of a professor’s home. The men don skull caps, bind themselves — chest, head and arm — with phylacteries, small leather cases containing scripture passages, and wrap themselves in prayer shawls, all with the appropriate blessings. Then we open our prayer books and pray. The Hebrew word for prayer — daven — means not “to beg” as in English, but “to attach.”
The prayers are in Hebrew which I half understand. Plodding slowly, I lose my place frequently. Often, my mind wanders to last evening’s basketball game, to that waitress at breakfast, to my dog sleeping, rest assured, on my empty bed.
A Hasidic tale tells of a disciple who traveled many miles to visit the court of his master, Sholem of Belz, so that he might see the Rebbe, palm and citron in his hand, recite the Hallel prayers on the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating the harvest. The disciple looked up to the Holy Ark of the synagogue so that he might gaze upon the Rebbe’s wondrous face. Such was the fervor of the Rebbe’s prayers, however, that the Rebbe had disappeared, having incarnated himself in the citron. Other tales tell of Hasidim who pray so furiously that their bodies erupt into searing flame, and one gazes upon their blinding light only at great peril.
I had not seen Alex since our high school days in New Jersey. He had been an end on the football team, an artist, and because he rode a motorscooter, was regarded back then as a “beatnik.” My contact with him in the intervening years was intermittent and indirect: a cousin knew him when Alex was a mailman in Berkeley. I had seen his picture on a record album of Shlomo Carlebach, the Hasidic troubadour. The parental grapevine passed word that he and his wife had emigrated to Israel where he devoted himself entirely to his painting and religious studies.
Searching a map, I located the moshav (agricultural co-op) of Migdal on a bus route north of Tiberias. Once there I am told to ask for Elyah Succot or “Redbeard,” the American artist.
As I trudge up the road from the bus stop, I pause to catch my breath as well as the view. Before me loom towering white cliffs; beneath are the lush fields and orchards of the moshav, and beyond them is the Sea of Galilee or the Kinneret, as it is called in Hebrew, “the violin.” The curving road is lined with small stone houses; I had been told that Elyah’s was the last hut, on the highest slope.
I climb the steps and peer into an open door. Elyah and his wife sit at a homemade table while more children than I can quickly count scurry about. My journey of thousands of miles climaxes in a moment of complete and mutual non-recognition. Though I know who he is, physically even, he seems changed, much thinner, with scrawny beard and earlocks. So I introduce myself. Still, the atmosphere seems a bit awkward until his wife motions toward my head. Then I realize: muttering a lame excuse about the severity of the climb, I reach into my pack and push a skull cap on my head, and the atmosphere relaxes. Blessings are recited; hospitality is offered; cold drinks are served; old friends and family are recalled. Elyah introduces me to his wife and children as a classmate from his Hebrew school days, a fact which, indifferent student that I was, I have entirely forgotten. A small part of our past suddenly grows very important. Elyah has rewritten much of his own life.
The walls of the hut are covered with Elyah’s paintings, fantastic paintings with frames in the shape of wings. Elyah studies Zohar, the cabalistic texts, and draws his themes from them. Lines of scripture weave in and out; faces appear and disappear into the landscape; an eyeball encompasses a world. The colors — vivid reds, bright blues, living greens — swirl and dance.
We stand in his garden and talk. In a glance I simply cannot absorb the totality of the view, not just because of its magnificence but because of its scope and variety. The Psalmist, I should have realized, had glorified this land sometime before my arrival. Elyah points to the cliffs above us. They contain caves, he tells me, where nearly two thousand years ago the saintly Rabbi Akiva hid before his capture and martyrdom, teaching Jewish law to children during the ill-fated rebellion against Rome. One expects that of Israel, that nature would breathe history, but I was unprepared for the pure physical beauty of the land: the palm trees and citrus orchards, the blue water, the quality of pale light. The edenic setting seemed so perfectly attuned to the peace Elyah emanated from within himself. “Come live in Israel,” he urges me. “In America you’ll live in a wooden house; here you can have a house of stone.”
The following is from the Midrash Pinchas by Pinchas of Koritz; it appears in Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries by Jiri Langer:
Everybody has a special light burning for him in the higher world, totally different from the light of every other person. When two friends meet in this world, their lights up above unite for a moment, and out of the union of the two lights an angel is born. However the angel is only given sufficient strength to live one year. If the two friends meet again within the year they give the angel a further lease of life. But if they do not see each other for a whole year the angel wastes away and dies for lack of light. The Talmud bids us, when we see a friend whom we have not seen for a whole year, to bless God for “raising the dead.” This is a strange commandment indeed, since neither of us have died. Whom then has God raised from the dead? Surely none other than the languishing angel whose lease of life is renewed each time we meet.
According to a Talmudic legend, four rabbis were permitted to enter the Garden of Divine Knowledge. When they departed, one died immediately; one went mad; one turned to heresy; and the fourth — Rabbi Akiva — left in peace. Saturday mornings we gather, four or five men, one or two women, to discuss Talmud, Jewish civil and religious law, with Dr. Schlessinger, who is a rabbi as well as a philosopher.
When his mother was assaulted, she grabbed the attacker’s knife and broke the blade with her hands, turning this instrument of evil into a token of divine power. The policeman . . . was amazed at her miraculous strength. That’s how things are in Brooklyn.
For thirteen years now Rabbi Schlessinger has proceeded through the seemingly endless volumes chapter by chapter, line by line, word by word, translating from the Hebrew or Aramaic. Our class size fluctuates, often declining in number, never quite dying by Zeno’s paradox that a fraction of a fraction can never reach zero. Such is the state of Talmudic study in Chapel Hill.
Since by and large we are a less than observant group, why is it that we expend our energies arguing the smallest point of law: what objects may be carried outside the household on the Sabbath? How can the exact second of dusk be determined so that the festival candles may be lit at the proper time? What regulations govern the harvesting of the first crop of tomatoes? The Talmudic arguments are copious and tireless, centuries upon centuries of commentators, not dogmatic pronouncement but interpretations, often conflicting, which are argued with a finesse that borders sometimes on the fanatic, sometimes on the inspired. The scrupulousness of the Talmud’s subject — on praying and planting, on astrology and personal hygiene — at times repels by its self-conscious regimentation, its seeming denial of spontaneity. Despite an occasional enlightened opinion, its attitude toward women is frequently narrow, if not repressive. Yet, the cosmic breadth of its concern reveals an insatiable spirituality; the conviction that every event, however seemingly insignificant, reveals a divine purpose and must be consecrated, blessed, and elevated to the holy. Nine hundred years ago, Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote, “If thou find in the Torah or the Prophets or the Sages a hard saying which those canst not understand . . . place it in a corner of your heart for future consideration, but despise not thy Religion because thou are unable to understand one difficult matter.”
Here I am lost in Safed, the holy city, for centuries the center of Jewish mysticism. I have climbed the hill from the bus station, clutching in my hand a slip of paper, a note from Elyah to his friend Yakov, as if it were a map, a guide through the maze of Safed’s labyrinthine streets. The alleys of Safed twist and turn, climb and drop, broaden and narrow, sometimes dead end. Safed is stone, stone, stone: despite its antiquity and the solidity of its buildings, the old city sits precariously on the edge of a hill, a fortress against war and earthquake. At its foot is a medieval Jewish cemetery, containing the graves of the revered cabalists (as well as those of several dozen children massacred when Arab terrorists ambushed their school bus). Beyond Safed are the valleys and hills of the Galilee.
Dusk gathers quickly, and I know neither my destination nor the means to find it. Turning in an alley, I start down an endless stairway and spot two Hasidim, in black frocks, hands clasped behind their backs, enjoying their evening stroll. Perhaps in my rudimentary Hebrew, they could point me to the address on the note.
“So vere are you goink?” they answer in perfect Brooklynese. “Come, vee show you.”
In this, the 5740th year since creation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his name be blessed, sends two of his Hasidim to bring the light of Torah, the body of Jewish religious teaching, to the Jews of the American South. Yossi and Shlomo are two Hasidim like other Hasidim. Despite their beards, they are uniformly businesslike in their dark conservative suits. Their trick: beneath their fedoras they wear skull caps. They are aggressively, but not impolitely, pious. Their “discussion” groups are, in fact, lectures, and with each successive visit, a pattern emerges. They seize upon someone’s question or a remark — the meaning of an approaching holiday, life in Brooklyn — and begin their talk, ascending the ladder from the mundane to the holy, and just as adroitly, returning down the ladder to the here and now. Then they pass around schnapps and sing. Sometimes the ambience is genuinely spontaneous, even joyous; other times, the mood is argumentative, divisive, forced.
This particular evening we sit in the elegant living room of a Hungarian-Jewish woman, a touch of Vienna on Westwood Drive. Someone asks, how bad are things in Brooklyn? We read in the newspapers about fights between blacks and Jews, Hasidim storming a police station. Not with local blacks, Yossi demurs. His own sister plays jump rope with black children and has taught them Yiddish rhymes. His very own mother, however, was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant in the laundry room of their apartment house. This event provokes a discussion of evil and of the divine purpose of evil. We must see how evil fits into the divine scheme. Then Yossi moves on to the Godhead; how we must approach ha-Shem (“The Name”) — God’s name itself is too holy to pronounce — through reason and emotion. The head must inform the heart. The heart must enlighten the head. (Lubavitch Hasidim is founded on the three pillars of ChaBaD, an acronym for chochma, binah, dat — wisdom, knowledge, understanding.) We must purify our acts to conform to the divine spark within ourselves, to raise the physical world into the realm of the spiritual. So we recognize that even evil contains a Godly element, a kernel of holiness, if we can break through the shell of the material world. When his mother was assaulted, she grabbed the attacker’s knife and broke the blade with her hands, turning this instrument of evil into a token of divine power. The policeman who took her to the hospital was amazed at her miraculous strength. That’s how things are in Brooklyn.
I walk through a small courtyard, a neat flower garden, and knock on Yakov’s door. It opens. Before me stands a Hasid in round hat, thin, tall, and dark, with black stringy earlocks and beard, frock and knickers. This is no counter-culture, guitar-strumming Hasid but the genuine article. “Yes?” he inquires. I hand him Elyah’s note. “Ah, yes.” He pauses thoughtfully.
“I am sorry but I cannot offer you the hospitality of my home this evening.” He is embarrassingly apologetic. “My wife is soon to give birth, and I have house guests for the holiday. Come, I will take you to a place.” We walk briskly down a narrow street. The conversation is awkward as he continues to apologize. “You must understand, because of my wife’s condition, I must first respect the sanctity of my household . . . and these house guests for L’ag B’omer. . . .” In turn, I apologize that in truth I had come only to deliver the note from Elyah, that I had no intention of asking for a place, and so on. Secretly, I regret that I had not waited until morning to deliver the note. Yakov takes seriously, I soon realize, the biblical injunction to give comfort to the stranger in his land, and he obviously feels discomfited about his inability to perform this deed, this mitzvah. He invites me to return at 9:00 the next morning, but for now he takes me to a nearby pension which, it turns out, is owned by direct descendants of the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, who in eighteenth-century Poland founded the mystic Hasidic movement.
The pension is utterly charming, set in a luxuriant green garden. The great-great . . . granddaughter of the Baal Shem Tov, a middle-aged woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips, gives me a key to the room while in the small lobby her son and her mother argue over who controls the television dial.
Elie Wiesel is one of those writers with whom the reader makes a personal compact, and, as I enter Page Auditorium, I am somewhat jealous of the large audience which is intruding on what I really regard as a personal encounter, the two of us. But I know, too, that Wiesel will somehow insist on his unapproachability; as a survivor of Auschwitz — harrowingly evoked in Night — Wiesel will build a fence around himself. The darkness of his knowledge, of his experience, shuts out our daylight world, hides some awful power that was inaccessible to all others. “And yet, and yet,” he frequently writes, he sees himself less as a spokesman for the dead than for the enduring, though he saw his mother and sister led to the crematorium and watched his father die painfully days before liberation. Souls on Fire, Messengers of God, A Jew Today, all Wiesel’s books, are less testaments to a vanished world — the thousands of spiritual centers and millions of Hasidim (“pious ones”) that vanished in the Holocaust — than to the vital continuity of that tradition. Wiesel quotes the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlaw who issued edicts which specifically forbade Jews to despair in the midst of a savage pogrom. In Souls on Fire Wiesel recounts stories of Hasidim dancing for joy in the cattle cars as they were driven to their deaths. More than one critic has described Wiesel’s writing as beyond literature; others accuse him of self-dramatizing.
I am late. I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, a Duke cheerleader in uniform who also is going to the lecture. Walking down the balcony steps in the darkened auditorium, Wiesel spotlighted on stage, I feel the illusion that we are face to face. He sits alone behind a long table, an open book before him. He looks long and lean, contorted, severely angular. An unruly lock of hair falls repeatedly from his forehead as he gesticulates expressively with his hands and arms. I recognize the pose: the Rabbi expounding Talmud to his students.
He has written, “God created man because he loves stories,” and so he begins this afternoon, as Jews traditionally do, with a story. When Pharaoh decreed the death of Israel’s first born, the angel Michael swept down to Egypt and grabbed an Israelite child. The angel took this child before the divine presence and confronted God with the potential victim of his severity. When God gazed upon the sweet face of the child, in mercy He relented in his judgment.
He had first heard this story, Wiesel tells us, when he himself was a child, a young Hasid, and he was proud. He was proud of the Jewish child who entered into the court of the Lord. He was proud of the angel who demanded justice of God. Most of all, he was proud of God for his compassion.
Now, what kind of God — Wiesel leans forward, unclenching his fist — permitted the murder of two million Jewish children in the death camps of Europe?
We sit despondently in the hospital lounge, my family and I, on plastic chairs bolted to the wall. Before us is my grandfather, strapped to his wheelchair. With one arm he pushes a wheel, inscribing semi-circles on the floor, while the other arm dangles uselessly. His head hangs loosely, bobbing and weaving, and he makes gurgling noises. Death will be only weeks away, yet even now it seems his higher soul has departed from him, leaving before us a creature of the lower depths.
The elevator doors open and Rabbi Kellner steps briskly out. His black suit and brimmed hat accent his white beard and ruddy complexion, his crystalline blue eyes. I cannot tell whether Rabbi Kellner is an old young man or a young old man. He places his brief case on the floor, opens it, removes a skull cap which he places on my grandfather’s head, and takes out a cellophane bag of cheap vanilla cookies. Kneeling before my grandfather, he slaps him gently on the cheek. Bending over, staring him in the face, he recites the blessings in Hebrew over the bread: “Baruch atah adonai . . . Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.” He sticks the cookie in my grandfather’s mouth, and it is eaten. Placing his hands on my grandfather’s shoulders, he sings to him in Hebrew and Yiddish, pious songs, folk songs. Slowly, my grandfather’s lips move and then mumble; noises grow into syllables; syllables form words, until my grandfather sings. He pulls himself up in the wheelchair; now the two of them sing lustily, joyfully, not singers but only song.
Now what kind of God — Wiesel leans forward, unclenching his fist — permitted the murder of two million Jewish children in the death camps of Europe?
Rabbi Kellner kisses my grandfather on the forehead, packs his briefcase, picks it up from the floor, and without waiting for thanks, walks briskly down the corridor. There are other rooms to visit. He is a very busy man.
Hillel used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The Talmud, Pirke Aboth I, 14.
I am looking for the entrance to Yad Vashem, the museum and memorial of the Holocaust, on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. I enter the wrong gate and lose my way in a military cemetery. The cemetery has the feel of a park, meticulously maintained with neat shrubs and gardens. Each grave is a raised rectangle of brownstone with a cover of greens or flowers. The headstone itself, the shape of a pillow, reposes at an incline, as if the grave were an empty bed for an anticipated guest. These are not the ancient stones of Jerusalem; death here is new — 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 — and those buried here, almost alone in Israel, are safe from the archaeologist’s spade. The effect of the cemetery as a whole is almost indecently suburban, spic and span, a housing development of expensive graves, as if some overly-zealous do-it-yourselfer had embarked on a frenzy of patio-making.
I take the obligatory photographs.
Walking the rambling paths, seeking a way out, I find myself deliberately lost. The enormity of it all tolls. Here, in one area, shipmates are buried side-by-side. On some graves comrades have placed polished artillery shells, engraved with a message. Occasionally, memorial candles flicker in lanterns. Other tombstones are topped by pebbles, placed there by mourners according to custom. More haunting are the small framed photos of the victims, mostly, it seems, of Sephardim, Jews from Arab lands. The faces tend to be young, dark and smiling, incongruously casual for funereal portraits, candids from a party perhaps.
Climbing through a fence, I tear my pants slightly on barb wire. Enough. I would leave if I could find a way. A gray man, dressed casually in the Israeli fashion, approaches up a road.
“Excuse me sir, could you tell me how to get to Yad Vashem?”
“Please,” he says, waving away my question with his hand, “I come to visit the grave of my friend.” Under his arm he carries prayer shawl and phylacteries, the mourner’s gardening tools.
The Holocaust and Halakhah by Irving J. Rosenbaum contains rabbinic responses to such questions as: may a Jew desecrate the Holy Torah to save his life? May he accept a forged baptismal certificate, effectively denying his Judaism, to escape capture by the Nazis? “Is it permissible for a father to bribe a concentration camp guard to save his son from extermination, knowing that another will be selected in the son’s place? What is the proper blessing to sanctify God’s name before one’s own execution? This excerpt comes from the Warsaw ghetto diary of Hillel Seidman, dated October 2, 1942, the seventh day of the Succot festival, describing a scene in a slave factory:
Now, here I am in Schultz’s “shop.” The people are driving in nails and saying Hoshanot (prayers). . . . Here you see sitting at the wooden block and mending shoes . . . the Kozieglower rebbe, Yehuda Arieh Fromer. . . . This Jew is sitting here, but his spirit is soaring to other worlds. He does not stop studying from memory and his lips keep moving all the time. From time to time he addresses a word to the Pleaseczna rebbe, the author of Hovat Hatalmidim, who is sitting just opposite him. . . . Gemarot and biblical texts are quoted, and soon there appear on the shoe block, or rather in the minds and mouths of the geonim, the Rambam, the Rabad, the Tur . . . and who cares now about the SS men, the Volksdeutsch supervisor, or about hunger, misery, persecutions, and fear of death! Now they are soaring in higher regions, they are not in the “shop” at 46 Nowolipie Street where they are sitting, but in loftyhalls . . . !
The basement of the Duke Baptist Student Union is an unlikely place to celebrate Simhat Torah, the holiday commemorating the “rejoicing in the law.” On this holiday and Purim the rabbis command us to drink until we can no longer distinguish between good and evil.
Yossi lets us know rather overtly that he is with us only at the command of the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself. For tonight in Brooklyn he is missing an occasion of singular importance. One year ago the Hasidim gathered by the thousands, as is their custom on Simhat Torah, before the Rebbe’s home on Eastern Parkway, closing the street, where they sing and dance all night. Before their perfect master, the Hasidim aspire to a state of bittul, self-obliteration. Last year, however, as the festivities began, the Rebbe collapsed, struck by a severe heart attack. The Hasidim fell silent as the Rebbe was taken to his bedroom to be attended by physicians. They stood in the street, stunned, awaiting word. From his sickbed the Rebbe passed a message: he could not hear the singing of his Hasidim. And so they resumed the revelry with renewed fervor until the return of dawn. (In such matters Jewish law is unequivocal: if a funeral and a wedding procession cross in a street, the mourners must yield to the celebrants.) A year later, to his regret, he is not with his Rebbe to celebrate his miraculous recovery. But here at a Methodist college in the basement of a Baptist student union, he will bring to us some of the spirit of Eastern Parkway.
The evening begins with a prayer service: in deference to the audience we are segregated by sex not back to back (as in a conventional orthodox synagogue) but side to side. After we daven, we move to a table in the back where lie two covered Torah scrolls and enough bottles of scotch, gin, and bourbon to stock a small-town ABC store. Yossi begins the procession, carrying a scroll and chanting a lovely Hebrew melody: “We beseech Thee, O Lord, save us. . . .” Then we drink and toast l’chaim, “to life.” The Torah scrolls are passed around. In the center two men lock arms and swing around in a tight circle; around them the other men join arms and dance in a larger circle, and another circle of women forms around them. The Torah is passed from arm to arm, as each takes a turn in the middle. Periodically, we break to resume our drinking. Yossi and Shlomo resume the procession, chant another prayer, and once again, the singing and dancing rekindle.
Into the night the drinking and dancing take their toll, and the decorum of the service rapidly yields to frenzy as we circle and spin to the point of dizziness. Old Dr. Brodie, silver haired and patriarchal, dances alone in the middle of the swirling circles, clapping his hands and singing songs of his youth in Galicia. His wife sits and chuckles.
With each renewed bout of drinking, one by one, the weak drop out in exhaustion. Not so our Hasidim who, despite their dark suits, seem not to show a drop of fatigue. When well past midnight the festivities die a natural death, Yossi and Shlomo can scarcely conceal their disappointment. “You should only see what’s going on tonight on Eastern Parkway,” Shlomo mumbles.
Shortly after Elyah’s arrival in Israel in 1973 war broke out. A musician as well as a painter, he was dispatched with a friend to entertain the troops. They arrived at a kibbutz, which, unbeknown to them, had been overrun by the Syrians, who had been driven out only moments earlier. Even as they pulled up, the kibbutz defenders were emerging from their bunkers. Corpses and pieces of corpses littered the ground. Though still heavily armed, the soldiers demanded that Elyah and his friend play their guitars. Shaken and shattered, they refused; it was impossible. The soldiers ordered them to play, and so they played. Throwing down their weapons, the kibbutz defenders, men and women, joined arms, singing and dancing.
Menahem Mendel of Przemyslany used to say, “Three things are fitting for us: motionless dancing, upright kneeling, and silent screaming.”
“When I die and face the heavenly tribunal,” Rabbi Zusya used to say, “they will not ask me why I was not Moses; rather, they will want to know why I was not Zusya.”
When asked in a recent interview (Quest/80, July-August) if he is a Jewish guru, Adin Steinsaltz is not amused. “Basically, it’s revolting,” he answers, for people to stare at him with cow eyes. Surely they have never met him. Pure attachment, he says, is death, as much as is pure detachment. Self-mastery, not unquestioning deference, is the Jewish way, and that is a process, an “oscillation” up and down, a movement “heavenward and earthward, like breath; this is life.” To be Jewish implies struggle; and he quotes Tolstoy who said that a Jewish non-believer cannot exist whether inside or outside the tradition. “Israel,” Steinsaltz reminds us, was the name given to Jacob, the ancestor of the Jews: in Hebrew it literally means “one who wrestles with God.”
Adin Steinsaltz is a phenomenon as much as he is a person. He was raised in a militantly socialist family on an Israeli kibbutz and received a secular education, acquiring degrees in physics and mathematics. Obsessed with religious questions, he embarked on a task of awesome monumentality: to translate by himself the entire 33 volumes of the Babylonian Talmud and to add his own commentary, the first wholly new edition of the Talmud in 700 years. As well, he has written The Essential Talmud, a primer; Beggars and Prayers, a retelling with commentary of the mystical tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav; and The Thirteen Petalled Rose, a personal — and highly accessible — exposition of cabalistic theology. Additionally, he has written on archaeology, science fiction, cats, and politics. He founded the Shefa (Abundance) Institute to bring traditional Judaism to secular Jews and publishes its journal. Last year Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir invited him to Paris for a dialogue with Palestinian Arabs. He is 42 and has a wife and two children. He suffers from a genetic disease which has severely taxed his health.
Recently I met him. Though I had heard vaguely of his scholarly reputation, I knew little of him personally, whether he was a dry academic or personally devout. He is, in fact, a pious man, physically slight, a mystic, who exudes that curiously compelling blend of gentility and liveliness, modesty and authority, that one sees in the truly religious, in those who sojourn in other worlds. Despite his Promethean labors — another Jew forcing the Messiah’s hand — he maintains perspective.
Question: Rabbi Steinsaltz, what brings you to America?
Answer: To meet Woody Allen.
“When I die and face the heavenly tribunal,” Rabbi Zusya used to say, “they will not ask me why I was not Moses; rather, they will want to know why I was not Zusya.”
9:00. I open the iron gate of Yakov’s courtyard; his wife, a fair woman and very pregnant, waters the flowers. (Later I learn that she will give birth that very day.) She calls to Yakov. I am apprehensive, never having chewed the cud with a Hasid before. He again apologizes for his inability to extend hospitality the previous evening and invites me upstairs to his studio. Climbing the steps we are bedeviled by his young son who mischievously steals stares at the stranger. The father firmly but gently tells the child to apply himself to his prayer and studies. He explains that his child is home today from the yeshiva in Meron because of the festival of L’ag B’omer. On this holiday thousands of pilgrims visit the tomb of Simeon bar Yohai, the legendary author of the Book of Splendor, the Zohar, but he refuses to expose his son to the idolators among them: hawkers selling cheap wares, beggars, pimps, and as he puts it, “women immodestly dressed.” He ushers me into his studio.
The walls are lined with his paintings, geometrical abstractions in the current international style. Some are shaped canvases, repeating a Star-of-David motif. Other designs, he explains, he borrows from ornamentation on ancient synagogues. The forms are based on cabalistic numerology. On one canvas ten rays, corresponding to the sefirot (the channels of divine emanation), pass through four blocks (the four levels of being), and disappear into white light (the ayin sof, non-being, the Infinite Itself, the Godhead). Yakov removes a battered catalogue from beneath an easel. His colors he has borrowed from Ben Cunningham, a British expressionist of the 1930s.
We retire to his balcony — a long view across the valley — and recline on two plastic chaise lounges. How is it possible, I want to ask him, to be a geometrical abstractionist in this ancient holy city? In his person, in his art, time past and time present seem to conjoin happily. He drops names of artists and dismisses the reputations of ungodly self-promoters. He himself will sell his work only to and through people who are “Torah-centered.” He has found a rabbi in Haifa who owns a gallery. He discusses the prophet Micah and tells bad jokes about Jimmy Carter. He is curious about American Jewry. “How is it possible,” he asks me, “to be a Jew in North Carolina?”
When the Baal Shem Tov was troubled he would go to the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, pray, and — miraculously — what he asked was done.
When his disciple the Maggid of Mezeritch sought heavenly help, he would go to the same forest and say: “I cannot light the fire, but I do know the prayer.” And what he asked, it, too, was done.
In a later generation Moshe-Leib of Sassov would return to the same forest as his predecessors and pray: “I have no fire. I do not know the prayer, but this is the place in the forest, and it must suffice.” And so, too, what he asked was done.
Finally, Israel of Rizhin sat at his home and beseeched the Holy One: “I cannot light the fire nor do I know the prayer. I am unable to find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and it must suffice.”
And that, too, was enough.