Twenty years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement’s seventh and final leader, two well-known rabbis — Joseph Telushkin and Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz — have come out with new books on “the rebbe.”
To these authors, Schneerson was no ordinary biographical subject — in fact, according to the subtitle of Telushkin’s book, “Rebbe,” he is “the most influential rabbi in modern history.”
Telushkin will discuss his book Sept. 14 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and the JCC of San Francisco.
Telushkin’s father, Shlomo, worked as an accountant for both Schneerson and his predecessor. When he was left paralyzed and disoriented by a stroke, Shlomo got two phone calls each day from the rebbe. One day, the rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, conveyed an accounting question from the rebbe for Shlomo to answer — and he answered successfully, despite being ill.
“I was very profoundly moved because I realized … the rebbe was sitting there in Brooklyn, dealing with all these major issues, and he could empathize with the situation of my father, who suddenly had his whole life turned upside down and probably was feeling quite irrelevant, and the rebbe was sort of bringing him back into the world,” Telushkin said.
That story, included in the introduction of “Rebbe,” is emblematic of the anecdotes infused throughout the 640-page book, providing a comprehensive history of the rebbe’s focus on the individual — from heads of state to the everyman. The biography is the result of a five-year process in which Telushkin conducted hundreds of interviews and received unprecedented access to other interviews from Jewish Educational Media, Chabad’s video archive and multimedia arm.
“It was not easy to write a biography because the rebbe was very unrevealing, didn’t talk about himself much and didn’t leave behind many documents about himself, so I had to construct a biography to a large extent on people’s interactions with him,” said Telushkin, the author of more than 15 books, including “Jewish Literacy.”
Three nights a week, starting at 8 p.m. and lasting until the early hours of the morning, the rebbe would hold one-on-one meetings called yechidusen.
“I realized, this is a very unusual phenomenon, [revealing] a man who led a worldwide movement, and yet who always was able to remain very focused on the individual,” Telushkin said. “Ob-viously that’s at the heart of Judaism, because every human being is created in God’s image.”
Telushkin said he did not begin working on “Rebbe” with the 20th anniversary of Schneerson’s death in mind, and did not expect the project would take five years to complete. He also concluded that Schneerson “is probably the most well-known rabbinic figure since Maimonides, who lived 800 years ago.”
While Telushkin opted for the title “Rebbe,” Steinsaltz called his book “My Rebbe” because of his personal relationship with Schneerson.
Steinsaltz writes in the preface, “I enjoyed a warm and close relationship with the Rebbe. He and I had long, private, one-to-one meetings, in which we discussed global Jewish questions. While this book reflects my own feelings, it is also a concerted effort to create an honest and objective work, one that strives to portray the man and his dreams.”
Like Telushkin, Steinsaltz — who has written 60 books and is perhaps best known for his translation of the entire Talmud from the Aramaic language to modern Hebrew —did not specifically write his book for the rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit. It took years to complete and it was “almost by chance” that it came out now.
An alternate title to the 250-page book, he said, could have been “Father, Teacher, King,” Steinsaltz said. “The notion of a rebbe is that you accept that person as your guide.”
Writing on the topic of miracles, Steinsaltz explains that the rebbe performed what might be considered modern-day miracles through his ability to perceive things others could not. Those who met the rebbe often truly internalized the encounters and changed their behavior.
“With some people it wasn’t a miracle,” Steinsaltz said. “With some people a deep and lasting connection was just an exchange of looks.”
Writing “Rebbe” was personally transformative for Telushkin. For instance, the rebbe, because of his emphasis on using optimistic language, would refer to a hospital in Hebrew as beit refuah, meaning house of healing, rather than the widely used beit cholim, meaning house of the sick. Telushkin, likewise, said he now refrains from using the word “deadline” for a project because it connotes death; he now uses “due date,” which connotes exactly the opposite — birth.
This principle of “optimism and careful choosing of words” is among the rebbe’s “seven virtues” cited in Telushkin’s book.
Telushkin noted that when Schneerson became ill in the years before his death, people started to wonder about the continuity of the Chabad movement — but all doubts have been put to rest and then some, and according to Telushkin, that is to Schneerson’s credit.
“Instead [of Chabad being weakened], during the last 20 years, Chabad has tripled in size, it’s now in 80 countries, there are Chabad houses in 48 of 50 American states,” Telushkin said. “It has had this extraordinary vitality. The true test of leadership is what happens when a leader dies, and here’s an example of a when a leader died, the movement has been growing even stronger.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin will discuss “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $25-$30. Information: www.paloaltojcc.org/rebbe. He will also speak at 7 p.m. at Kanbar Hall, JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $15-$25. www.jccsf.org.
“Rebbe” by Joseph Telushkin (640 pages, HarperCollins, $29.99)
“My Rebbe” by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (250 pages, Maggid, $24.95)