By Harriet P. Gross
Before our Jewish community’s BookFest presented Joseph Telushkin Nov. 4, I talked with several people who had already read the esteemed rabbi/writer’s “Rebbe,” detailing the life and teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, who led Chabad Lubavitch to today’s worldwide prominence. All gave it praise, although some were disappointed in what they felt was a dearth of warm-and-fuzzy anecdotal material, a sort of missing “tam” in this compilation of almost 600 pages —massive as books go today.
But Telushkin, a masterful speaker on all subjects, brought this important one to life in his local appearance, evoking rapt attention accompanied by much laughter. What might have seemed cold between covers came across as a human love-fest, and while we listened we could all feel the great Rebbe’s concerns and kindnesses.
As a journalist and writer, I was especially attuned to Telushkin’s emphasis on the importance that Schneerson always attached to individual words. Most especially, and an excellent example of this concern, was the Rebbe’s refusal to call the time limit on anything a “deadline.” That, he believed, connoted actual death. His preferred term was “due date,” which we all know is ever looking ahead, in anticipation of new life. His attitude always encouraged forward movement, and this was reflected in the Rebbe’s way of speaking. “Where never was heard a discouraging word” could refer in solid fact to the Brooklyn enclave that was this powerful man’s headquarters, just as well as — perhaps even more so than — that ephemeral, musical “Home on the Range.”
Whoever said that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me” was wrong (Dead wrong, although the Rebbe would certainly not have put it just that way). Name-calling is at the heart of today’s epidemic of bullying in schools, and whole campaigns have been organized to stop it. The Rebbe just wanted each person to be the best of whatever he or she could be, and to be accepted as such; a successful street-sweeper’s work was as satisfying to him as an eminent scholar’s academic output. He would sometimes refuse to grant approval of something for which one of his followers sought permission, but his way of saying “no” was never demeaning or hurtful. He personalized, truly seeking the path to maximum accomplishment and self-fulfillment for every individual.
I was glad that Telushkin mentioned another great rebbe of our time, Abraham Twerski, who is also a practicing psychiatrist with emphasis on — and great success in treating — young substance abusers. In his office, there is no wastebasket. He’ll often hand a new patient a candy bar and encourage the boy or girl to eat it. Then comes the crumpling up of the wrapper and the inevitable question: “Where should I put this?” To which Twerski will say, matter-of-factly, “Why not eat it?” Just as inevitably, the youngster is shocked by this reply, but Rabbi Dr. Twerski always explains, just as matter-of-factly, “You know you are too good to eat that. So why don’t you realize that you’re also too good to put that [insert here whatever substance is the problem] into your body?” The lightbulb that goes on illuminates the path to healing.
Twerski is my all-time favorite Jewish writer, and his “Generation to Generation,” about growing up in the house of his father, a dynastic rebbe in the Schneerson mold, is my all-time favorite Jewish book. It’s a personal memoir shot through with stories from our tradition as well as those originating in Twerski’s own family. I am rereading its far less than 600 pages as I simultaneously read Rabbi Telushkin’s newest book, where I’ve already found many newly revealed insights.
We’ve all come to know Joseph Telushkin as our quintessential religious expert since the 1991 publication of his seminal volume, “Jewish Literacy.” I can see from “Rebbe” that he is equally exceptional as biographer of “the most influential rabbi in modern history.”