Waiting for the Messiah of Eastern Parkway

New York Times Magazine/September 21, 2003
By Jonathan Mahler

The synagogue in the basement of the Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the closest thing to holy ground for the Hasidic movement, though with its peeling paint, dirty linoleum floors, wooden benches and unidentifiable odor, it feels more like a junior-high-school cafeteria than your average Jewish sanctuary. But at a little before 10 p.m. on a recent Friday night, the place is thick with spirituality. Small clusters of bearded men bob furiously in prayer, while a smattering of women watch from behind the plexiglass in the balcony above.

In the center of the room, a group of about 25 men are dancing hypnotically in a circle. A few bounce little boys on their shoulders as they chant a single phrase over and over: Yechi adonenu morenu verabbenu melech hamoshiach leolam voed. A middle-aged man standing near me catches my eye. Like everyone else here, he's wearing the Lubavitch uniform -- black wool suit, white shirt and black fedora. When he opens his mouth to speak, I expect his words to come out coated in Yiddish. Instead, they're pure Brooklyn.

''That's the No. 1 hit in Crown Heights,'' he says, stroking his big red beard and grinning.

It looks almost like a rain dance, only instead of precipitation, these Lubavitchers are trying to hasten the arrival of the messiah. There's just one problem. The words of the accompanying song -- ''May our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah, live forever'' -- refer specifically to a man who died nine years ago: Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the grand rabbi and spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement from 1951 until 1994. The Yechi, as it is known, is sung as a demonstration of faith that their beloved rebbe will be back soon -- rising from the great beyond in a manner more befitting Jesus Christ than the savior of the Jewish people.

So if Yechi -- ''May he live'' -- is a demonstration of faith to some, it borders on a profane outburst to others. A swath of Lubavitchers are not only unwilling to utter the Yechi; they also refuse to be present in synagogues or at gatherings where it is chanted. To understand the concern of these so-called anti-messianists, consider that only a few men in Jewish history have been revered as the messiah after their deaths. One was Jesus. Another was Sabbatai Zevi, who won hundreds of thousands of followers across Palestine and Eastern Europe after publicly declaring himself the messiah in 1665. (Zevi's death was, relatively speaking, a small challenge to his adherents, who had already chosen to stick by him after his conversion to Islam.)

For the anti-messianists, their messianic brethren present a public-relations disaster of epic proportions. They worry that their Hasidic movement, which is 300 years old and has survived pogroms, Communism and the Holocaust, will become confused with a cult. What's more, they can hardly ignore the obvious Christian overtones of messianism: what kind of Jews believe in a second coming?

Lubavitch is insignificant in terms of the global Jewish population, accounting for just a couple hundred thousand people, but it plays an outsize role in worldwide Jewish life. Unlike other, insular Hasidic movements, the Lubavitch credo, articulated repeatedly by Rebbe Schneerson himself, calls for encouraging secular Jews to become more observant. Between its emissaries and far-flung outposts (last year alone, Lubavitch opened 34 Jewish schools around the world), the movement has almost certainly done more to promote the growth of Judaism than any other organization. It is this last fact that makes the dispute between messianists and anti-messianists more than a communal squabble. ''What people have not yet grasped is that this is a watershed event in the history of Judaism,'' says David Berger, a professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College and the author of an unusually vitriolic academic book attacking Lubavitch messianism. ''People will eventually come to see this moment in apocalyptic terms.''

Chaim Meyer Lieberman, a tall man with a long, graying beard, traces his roots back to the beginning of the Hasidic movement in 18th-century Poland. When World War II broke out, his parents headed for Russia, figuring the climate would be less hostile to Orthodox Jews. By 1949, when Lieberman was born, they had been fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust and find their way to a displaced-persons camp in France.

In 1954, shortly after Rebbe Schneerson was named grand rabbi, the Liebermans joined the nascent Lubavitch community in New York. Although Schneerson's predecessor had escaped to Brooklyn during World War II, many of his followers had been trapped in Europe. This meant that the rebbe inherited a movement decimated by Hitler and Stalin.

In the 1950's, Schneerson set about rebuilding Lubavitch in a small section of Crown Heights. Lieberman came of age as the movement was being reborn. By the time he was a teenager, there were thousands of Lubavitchers living in Crown Heights, and thousands more coming every week to hear Schneerson's stirring sermons. The rebbe himself rarely left Brooklyn, but he sent emissaries, a sort of Jewish Peace Corps, into the darkest corners of the world to rekindle the embers of Judaism.

Schneerson's reputation soon transcended the movement, yet even as his fame grew and it became almost impossible to get an audience with him, Lieberman felt a close connection to his rebbe. ''He took a personal interest in my life,'' he tells me one recent afternoon in his grand if slightly rundown Tudor house on Eastern Parkway, less than a block away from 770. His wife has set out pistachio nuts and sunflower seeds on the oversize dining table. The youngest of his 17 children, a 4-year-old, is doing laps around the room and shrieking.

In 1968, Lieberman participated in the building of the synagogue in the basement of 770, which was formerly a medical clinic. Today Lieberman refuses to pray there during the Sabbath, when the messianism reaches its most fevered pitch, opting instead for one of the community's nonmessianic synagogues. ''It's such an abomination,'' he says in disgust. ''My blood pressure goes through the roof when I walk in there.''

When the rebbe was alive, just about every Lubavitcher, Lieberman included, was confident he was the messiah. Because all Lubavitchers consider the messianic era to be imminent, it stands to reason that every generation would believe that its particular rebbe might be the messiah. Even given this predisposition, though, the movement's faith in the messianic potential of Schneerson, who was childless, was always uncommonly strong. This was partly a matter of historical context. When the rebbe took the reins of the movement, the Jewish people had just survived the worst calamity in their 3,000-year history -- a propitious moment for them to be delivered from the sufferings of their exile.

As the years passed, the Lubavitch community became increasingly convinced that their rebbe met all of the requirements, laid out by Maimonides, to be the Jewish messiah. Most significant was his emphasis on outreach. ''Maimonides said the messiah would be a Jewish leader who will 'repair the breaches,''' one messianic rabbi, Eli Cohen, told me, ''or fix that which is missing in Jewish observance, and that's what the rebbe did.'' World events -- specifically the fall of the Soviet Union, which had suppressed the practice of Judaism, and the struggle over Israel -- fanned the community's messianic flames.

But that consensus was ruptured on the night of June 12, 1994. Lieberman remembers hearing the blare of the horn used to signal the end of the Sabbath. Only the Sabbath had ended hours earlier. The rebbe had suffered a stroke a few months before, and Lieberman correctly feared the worst.

Hustling over to 770, he saw hundreds of Lubavitchers converging outside. Some wept; others, however, were gleeful, downing vodka, dancing and singing Yechi. Lieberman was stunned. As his grief turned to anger, he spoke to a prominent rabbi in the community, who stood near him. ''How can you stand by here when you see this display,'' he remembers saying to the rabbi, ''and not open up your mouth?''

Though he'd been sick for years, the rebbe's death came as a shock to the community. Some Lubavitchers, like Lieberman, started the process of accepting the reality that their messiah in waiting was gone. ''Sure I felt disappointment, but you have to move on,'' Lieberman says. ''What can one say other than that life is not always what you want it to be?'' But many clung stubbornly to their faith, insisting that the rebbe never really died or that the process of redemption was under way and that the rebbe would soon return and be revealed as the messiah. ''Exactly how this is going to come about we really don't know,'' Rabbi Cohen says. ''What we do know is that if you open your eyes, you can see that bit by bit it's coming to pass.''

What started as a fissure between the community's messianists and anti-messianists has gradually opened into a canyon, with each side insisting that it is the true heir to the rebbe's vision. Over the years, the conflict between the two factions has also become one of propaganda, with rival publishing houses, magazines and bookstores. There are also endless semantic distinctions between the two factions, the most common of which is that anti-messianists write ''Of Blessed Memory'' after the rebbe's name, while messianists insist on ''Long Live King Messiah.'' There is even a Lubavitch version of the school-prayer debate, over whether the yeshivas should encourage students to sing Yechi. (Some do, some don't.)

The messianists, who say they believe they can hasten the rebbe's return by persuading as many people as possible that he is the messiah, promote their agenda in the streets, proselytizing regularly in non-Lubavitch neighborhoods, approaching strangers and prodding them to recite Yechi. Their calls are echoed by two messianic talk-radio shows, ''Living With Moshiach'' (the Hebrew word for messiah) and ''Moshiach in the Air.''

The messianists are clearly straying from Jewish norms with their belief in a resurrected messiah. And yet, they are also reclaiming an abandoned element of the religion; Judaism, after all, was the original Western messianic faith. Still, for most Jews today, observant and secular alike, the very concept of a messiah has become, at most, a metaphorical one. And the idea of one Jew trying to persuade another one that a deceased Brooklyn rabbi is the messiah is repellent. ''I'm embarrassed to tell you some of the things I've seen,'' Lieberman says. About a year ago, he watched in humiliation as the police were called in to confront a group of Lubavitchers who were camped out in front of a synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, trying to persuade members of another Hasidic community to accept the rebbe as their messiah.

Nowhere is the divide between messianists and anti-messianists more visible than at the hallowed 770, a site holy enough to have inspired an exact replica in Israel. Not only have the messianists assumed ownership of the synagogue, hanging messianic banners inside and in several instances physically attacking anti-messianists who tried to remove them; they have also vandalized the dedication plaque on the building's facade, scratching out the Hebrew acronym for ''Of Blessed Memory'' after the rebbe's name.

Though there are no numerical breakdowns of the two factions, during the weeks I spent in and around Crown Heights, it seemed as if the majority of the community is messianic. Nevertheless, in addition to the anti-messianists, there are plenty of messianists who worry that aggressively advertising their message will push people away from Judaism altogether and are thus reluctant to directly address the question. ''There are definitely disagreements about publicizing it,'' one especially outspoken (or ''hot'') messianist told me, ''but I think everybody agrees that the rebbe is moshiach.'' Whether or not this is true, there is a practical concern here: Lubavitch raises hundreds of millions of dollars a year from non-Hasidic Jewish philanthropists like Ronald Perelman and Ronald Lauder.

Perhaps for these reasons, perhaps because it is difficult to campaign about not believing in something, the anti-messianists, rather than battling it out shout-for-shout in the streets, are focusing primarily on image control. Long term, of course, the anti-messianists would like to win over as many people inside the movement as possible. But in the short term, there are perceptions to manage, which means convincing the outside world that the epidemic has at least been contained.

Locally, this means trying to quietly urge messianists to take down the huge yellow banners emblazoned with a crown -- the symbol of ''King Messiah'' -- that hang from many of their windows, and to stop plastering their cars with messianic bumper stickers. (A popular one features the rebbe's crinkled face -- the fluffy white beard and piercing blue eyes -- alongside the word ''Yechi.'') Outside the community, the anti-messianists spin. A P.R. contact for the movement was eager to set me up with a few Lubavitchers who were quick to play down the presence of the messianists.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the anti-messianists are fighting for control of the various Lubavitch institutions. ''It has to be done without making a big commotion in the community,'' Lieberman says, pointing out that the New York Lubavitch youth committee has recently marginalized a few of the more aggressive messianists, including Rabbi Cohen, who is no longer in charge of student outreach at New York University. ''N.Y.U. is a major university,'' Lieberman says. ''We can't make fools out of ourselves there.'' (For his part, Rabbi Cohen says he is working with his successor, who also is a messianist.)

Lieberman watches his son for a moment and then looks back at me and sighs. ''It's a very difficult time,'' he says. ''I feel bad for my children. They won't have what I had. I worry for them.''

In a sense, the Lubavitch movement today is stronger than ever. Its 2002 budget was close to $1 billion, and it continues to open new schools, synagogues and Jewish outreach centers all over the world. But there is no question that the continuing messianism has the potential to cause significant attrition among the next generation. It is difficult enough to keep young people in a small enclave in the heart of Brooklyn insulated from the temptations of the secular world without also asking them to believe that a man who died nine years ago is about to return and redeem them.

As one 20-something ex-Lubavitcher wrote me in an e-mail message: ''Lubavitch is in trouble. They socialized their children to live according to premises that include that the rebbe is moshiach, which gave him authority over issues such as college, secular literature, etc. If people begin thinking the way I did/do and consider the possibility that the rebbe is human, they will no longer be able to explain why they shouldn't go to college et cetera. Uprooting these premises will jeopardize the entire value system.''

Thirty-five years old and skinny, with long kinky black hair and a Frank Zappa goatee, Baruch Thaler left the Lubavitch movement several years ago, but his mother, stepfather and five siblings are all still very much a part of it. Making one of his occasional trips to Crown Heights on a recent afternoon, Thaler takes me to meet his mother. ''This is what a messianic house looks like,'' he says, ushering me into the living room of his family's semiattached home. He is wearing a white shirt, untucked, black jeans and sneakers and a black knitted yarmulke that he has put on for the occasion.

On the bookshelf is a stack of Beis Moshiach magazines, the local messianic weekly, as well as the Igros Kodesh, a collection of the rebbe's letters that messianists use for guidance by flipping to a random page and reading the rebbe's words as an answer to something about which they need advice.

Thaler's mother, Rachel, 57, with blue eyes and braces on her teeth, comes down the stairs in traditional Orthodox garb -- a brown wig and ankle-length skirt -- and takes a seat next to her son on the couch. It is one of the peculiarities of the movement that for every Lieberman, an Old World Hasid, there is a New Age seeker like Rachel Thaler, who was a lapsed Jew living on a macrobiotic commune in upstate New York when she discovered Lubavitch in the early 1970's.

As with many fundamentalist faiths, whose most zealous practitioners tend to be converts, the most ardent messianists were not born into Hasidism but are rather ba'al teshuvah, or returnees to the faith, like Rachel. ''God recreates the world every second,'' she says, explaining her messianic faith to me. ''It's like a movie -- every frame can be totally different.''

If Rachel's messianic hopes were not deflated by the rebbe's death, her son's certainly were. A promising student in the local yeshivas, he had been on track to spread the rebbe's teachings as a Lubavitch emissary when he found himself among the throngs outside 770 on the day after the rebbe's death. Forcing his way to the front of the crowd, Thaler, who was 25 at the time, managed to grab the rebbe's coffin as it was being carried out of the building and into the car that would transport it to a graveyard in Queens.

Because Jewish law requires that corpses be returned to the earth and most New York cemeteries mandate that dead bodies be fully enclosed, some Jewish coffins are made with a thin wood panel on the bottom that slides out when they are lowered into the ground. Reaching up to lift the coffin, Thaler found himself pushing directly up into that layer of plywood. As he shuffled toward the street, he could feel the shifting weight of the dead rebbe pressing into his bare hands. ''Later, people would insist that the casket was empty,'' he says. ''But this was total reality -- physical-touch confirmation.''

After the rebbe was buried, Thaler pulled away from the movement. He was, as the expression goes, ''frying out,'' a term adapted from the word ''frei,'' Yiddish for free. He spent the rest of his 20's and early 30's enjoying an overdue adolescence -- listening to reggae, having sex, traveling in Southeast Asia, discovering Burning Man. He now lives on the Upper West Side, where he's getting an undergraduate degree at Columbia while doing Yiddish translation on the side. While he's no longer observant, he retains a sentimental attachment to the movement. ''It isn't my interest to give up the positive elements of Lubavitch that I still love,'' Thaler says, ''the music, the literature, the congenial spirit of Hasidism. That can live on forever.''

This is not enough to satisfy Thaler's mother. ''He should be at peace with his relationship with the rebbe,'' she tells me as Thaler clutches at his yarmulke, which had slipped off, and places it precariously back on top of his head. ''I don't think he is now.''

Later I ask Thaler about his mother's messianism. ''Does believing in a man hanging on a cross make any more sense?'' he replies. ''Once you're in that mind-set, it's not a great wonder that you have people like my mother who seek the answers to life's crucial decisions based on opening a book.''

As a little girl, Malkie Schwartz,who is now 22, lined up with the masses most Sundays to receive ablessing and a dollar bill from the rebbe, as was the custom in hislater years. After the rebbe's death, she attended Lubavitch campswhere she and her fellow campers sang songs beseeching him to returnand redeem them.

For a while, the rebbe's physical absence made her spiritual yearning for him that much greater. ''I believed full-heartedly that he was moshiach,'' Schwartz says one morning in early August outside a Starbucks on Astor Place. ''I longed for him.''

Over time, though, Schwartz began to have doubts -- doubts that she had a hard time sharing with her fervently messianic parents. In the fall of 2000, at age 19, she sat down at the kitchen table with her mother and father, picked up a yellow highlighter and a blank piece of paper and drew a box and three stick figures. Two were inside the box and one was outside.

''See,'' she said, pointing to the drawing. ''You're inside the box. You believe the Torah is divine and the rebbe is moshiach. I'm outside the box.''

Her father cut her off before she could elaborate. ''But the Torah is divine,'' he said, ''and the rebbe is moshiach.''

Two weeks later, Schwartz, who had been the valedictorian of her Crown Heights yeshiva, moved out of her parents' house and into Manhattan. That the hardest part of leaving was not abandoning her family and friends but turning her back on the rebbe, underscores the power of messianism's hold on many Lubavitchers. ''Even when I left I knew the rebbe was always right -- I knew I was messing up,'' she says.

Now a senior at Hunter College, Schwartz is starting a nonprofit for members of ultrareligious communities who are trying to make inroads into the secular world. Since leaving Lubavitch, she has forged a strained peace with her parents, but at the same time her feelings of guilt toward the rebbe have curdled into resentment. She doesn't doubt his worthy intentions, but she does feel almost personally betrayed by his failure to anticipate the problems that the messianism he tacitly encouraged would one day cause. ''If you're going to have people waiting on line for hours to see you . . . he had to have seen how enthralled everyone was,'' she says. ''What he was thinking? Where did he think this would go?''

At the heart of the struggle between the anti-messianists and messianists, of course, is the question of what the rebbe wanted. Each side insists that they are the true interpreters of his teachings, and because the rebbe named neither a successor nor even a governing body to act in his absence, no one has the authority to resolve the dispute.

For anti-messianists, the biggest worry is the prospect that their beloved leader will be remembered as a false messiah. As the executors of the rebbe's will, they at least retain control over his personal notebooks and can edit and publish them with an eye toward de-emphasizing any statements that might encourage the messianists.

The biggest difficulty in trying to figure out what the rebbe really wanted is that he, too, was aware of his movement's image and thus sent different signals to those inside and outside the community. This was more than a mere P.R. gesture. The rebbe seemed to believe that bringing secular Jews back into the fold was a critical part of the process of redemption and was thus understandably wary of scaring people off with messianic zealotry.

What does seem clear is that the rebbe was, for many years, eager to quell the tide of messianism when it began to rise. But as he grew older, he became more reluctant to do so. Among the messianists' abiding articles of faith are two videotapes of the rebbe in his later years. One shows him smiling as a crowd of Lubavitchers sing Yechi around him; in the other, he is accepting a petition signed by thousands that identifies him as the messiah.

In the late 80's and early 90's, the rebbe, no doubt increasingly aware of his approaching mortality as well as of his lack of progeny, began speaking more and more frequently about the messiah -- not explicitly nominating himself but nonetheless encouraging a messianic urgency among his followers and even occasionally hinting that the messianic era had already begun.

Max Kohanzad was a teenager in the Lubavitch yeshivas during those critical years. He and his classmates spent four hours a day poring over the rebbe's messianic discourses. In the aftermath of the rebbe's death, he was among the jubilant messianic Lubavitchers whose behavior so appalled Lieberman. ''I spent the entire day with the other yeshiva students singing Yechi and anticipating the actual redemption,'' says Kohanzad. ''What was understood was that this was the day utopia was going to begin.''

Unfazed when it didn't, Kohanzad and his fellow messianists soon started putting out their first underground publications, contending that the rebbe's death didn't diminish his legitimacy as messiah and pointing to Jewish sources that allow for a second coming. Kohanzad continued to dig deeper into the rebbe's messianic philosophy at various Lubavitch yeshivas. As he did, he felt a growing sense of discomfort with the rebbe's messianic rhetoric, which he thought clashed with traditional Jewish orthodoxy. Kohanzad, who left the movement in 2000 but is now completing a Jewish studies dissertation on the rebbe's messianic theology, has come to think that the messianists and anti-messianists are, to a degree, both correct. ''The rebbe himself was purposefully ambiguous with regard to his messianic statements, which leaves room for the two interpretations,'' he says.

In this context, it's possible to see the rebbe as a postmodern religious leader, one who intended for his followers to make their own decisions about his identity as the messiah. This would be in keeping with the tradition of Hasidism, which itself began as a populist effort to wrest Judaism from the grip of an elite group of Talmudic scholars. ''I think the rebbe wanted to dismantle his movement in a way,'' Max says. ''He realized that in order for people to be redeemed, they have to redeem themselves. The current mess is part of the rebbe's attempt to empower people.''

Or maybe there's another way of looking at it. Perhaps the rebbe was trying to walk the fine line between discouraging cultlike fanaticism among his followers and wanting to avoid shattering their hopes for imminent redemption.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.