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Review: 'Rebbe' an in-depth biography of influential leader Schneerson

The title hints at unabashed admiration.

Joseph Telushkin's new biography, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, fascinates nonetheless.

Perhaps it's because amid accounts of a man of great kindness, wisdom and piety, who worked behind the scenes on behalf of persecuted Soviet Jews and who is said to have inspired the expansion of the food stamp program to feed the hungry in this country, there are details about seeming contradictions, sorrow, a family's human frailties and messianic claims.

The Rebbe — the word means rabbi (teacher), Telushkin tells us — was the seventh leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, a sect of the Hasidic (pious) branch of Orthodox Judaism, headquartered in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Readers will be in awe of Schneerson's stamina for nightlong private meetings, as he counseled and blessed devotees who clamored for advice on topics ranging from spiritual concerns to health, jobs, marriage and children.

Schneerson, who died in 1994 at age 92, had no children. In the sect's tradition of hereditary leadership that likely would have conveyed his position to a son, or even a son-in-law, no one has emerged to take the place of the man some followers believe was, or is, the Messiah.

Two decades after his death, his grave site continues to be a place of pilgrimage on his yahrzeit — the anniversary of his passing — and year round. Telushkin reports that African-American U.S. Sen. Cory Booker prayed there the night before his 2013 election.

The publication of Telushkin's book coincided with the 20th anniversary of Schneerson's death. With a glossary and timeline, it is extensively sourced from interviews, correspondence, journals, conversations and the author's own memories. Rebbe keeps a reader's attention as it slips behind the doors of 770 Eastern Parkway, headquarters of the movement the Chabad leader nurtured and prodded to expand far beyond the confines of its traditional New York City borough.

Telushkin, a rabbi himself, chronicles the beginning of the campaign that is a hallmark of the movement today, the dispatching of young couples to start religious outposts of their own in far-flung corners of the world and in cities and towns (including St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater and Palm Harbor) across the United States. The sending of emissaries into the world to spread Judaism, Telushkin writes, "is acknowledged as the Rebbe's most revolutionary and perhaps enduring achievement."

Yet the man who studied mathematics and science and spoke several languages is known to have discouraged his young followers from pursuing higher secular education and eschewed the theory of evolution in favor of the biblical creation account.

Chabad (pronounced hah-bahd) is a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The movement got its start in the 18th century on the Polish-Russian border. Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the movement's seventh rebbe, born in southern Ukraine and named for his great-great-great-grandfather, the third rebbe. Schneerson and his family suffered under communism, and he left the Soviet Union in 1927 and studied in Germany and France. He and his wife, Chaya Mushka Schneersohn, the daughter of the sixth rebbe and a distant cousin, fled France after the Nazis occupied Paris and arrived in America in 1941. Family members of both Schneerson and his wife perished in the Holocaust.

Schneerson came into leadership reluctantly, agreeing to head Chabad in 1951, a full year after the death of his father-in-law. His visitors at 770 Eastern Parkway included Israeli leaders, Robert Kennedy and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

Telushkin writes that Chisholm, who as a representative from Brooklyn was given an "intentionally absurd" appointment to the Agriculture Committee, credited the Rebbe for inspiring her to work to expand the food stamp program. She also helped to create the program of food supplements for pregnant women and children.

"If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it's because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision," she said years later.

The Chabad leader was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously. The campaign to crown him the Messiah was at its height in the early 1990s. Telushkin writes that ads appeared in secular newspapers referring to him as the Messiah. The belief is held by few Chabad members today, says Telushkin, who devotes an entire chapter to the controversial claim.

The author does not avoid the scandal over rare religious books surreptitiously removed from the Chabad library by a relative and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The family member, the nephew of the Rebbe's wife, said he had a right to the books since they had belonged to his late grandfather, the previous rebbe. Schneerson and his wife countered that they were Chabad's property. The family quarrel ended up in court, and Chabad won. Telushkin writes that Schneerson's sister-in-law had long been upset that her husband had been overlooked to lead the movement. The rift between the sisters was never healed.

For Telushkin, the book offered a posthumous connection to his father and grandfather, who knew the Rebbe and held him in high esteem. The biographer senses that his work is pleasing to them.

"This thought, which obviously I can't prove, but which I strongly believe, is very precious to me," he writes.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

By Joseph Telushkin

HarperWave, 640 pages, $29.99

Review: 'Rebbe' an in-depth biography of influential leader Schneerson 07/10/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014 12:52pm]
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