Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Rebbe in my Childhood

My own connection to the Lubavitcher Rebbe was formed haphazardly. I first knew of him as the faceless leader for whose health we Russian-Jewish kids were asked to pray for in a Chabad-affiliated summer camp, perhaps in '92 or '93, just a year or two after my family immigrated to the US. It was perfunctory, and somewhat strange, to pray for a man you never met, never mind to pray at all, for me, in those days. And who was the Rebbe? And why were we praying for him? I may have been the only child to ask my counselor, and very cautiously, when everyone else was distracted. What would I say, now, in his place, to a child who knows nothing? I would say whatever he told me, except I do not know now what that is - you do not prepare such words in advance, not for a child.

My brother, four years my elder, who had developed a interest in observing our Jewish faith even back in Moldova, quickly found a place for himself in the Russian youth division of the Chabad Shul in Milwaukee. The unflagging commitment of Rabbi Shmotkin, the Rebbe's Shaliach (emissary) to Wisconsin, to reach out to and provide programming for newly arrived Russian Jews in the early 1990s - which probably exceeded, by multiples, the efforts of the rest of the local Jewish community put together - practically bankrupted the institution for the next decade.

My brother's decision to embrace the movement came as a sort of slow-motion shock to my family. With my mother working two and three jobs, often menial positions beneath her gold-standard Leningrad education, and my father spending three and six month stretches on business overseas for an American firm building Siberian dachas for the Russian mafia (and who else in Russia had money to build dachas in those days?) my brother's growing activities in Yiddishkeit went unobserved, and maybe ignored.

I played my part in the secrecy, the deception, the underground life to which my brother belonged. We lived in the same room, my brother and I, and so I knew where the siddur was hidden, and the tzedakah box, and so on, and I told no one. We were strictly obedient children, certainly by American standards, born to strictly domineering, demanding parents. The only secret of a child is shame, and an adult, too, but not always. It was how we were raised, on secrets, and I had mine, and these belonged to my brother.

Secrets suited me. I never told. Even when he broke the last jar of tart and sweet Moldovan cherry jam that my father's mother had made, G-d rest her soul, I took the blame with stoic duty, for I was the younger and less was expected of me. Our code of honor forbade involving the parents, under the direst penalty of excision, in the maximalist clarity of a child's mind, until my brother broke the code and we did not speak for years, to the day I grew up and forgave him, and he forgave me, but all that was much later, and anyway it was never really the same again, and it still isn't.

I suppose my parents thought it better that he was spending time with Jewish mentors, venerable learned Rabbis, no less, and not with hooligans on the street. (I never met these hooligans, but we all knew they were there, ready to corrupt us with drugs and criminality, in dark alleys, but especially at night, in doubly dark alleys.) Whatever they knew of his other life, they did not learn from me. When it finally came out that my brother - strong-willed and bull-headed as any man alive - would no more eat my mother's unkosher food than drink from the toilet, it couldn't be hidden any longer, even with secrets, it was as if my parents were fighting for their own lives, and my brother was fighting for his. And I, I didn't know who should win, even as I felt us all lose. Against my father's terrifying anger and my mother's lacerating words stood my brother's stubborn will. If that didn't break him, then nothing will, and no one, but maybe it did, in a way.

It was then, when my brother did not come home for days, that he sometimes would call in the afternoon, maybe knowing that only I would be home, newly arrived from school, watching cartoons with one eye out the window, for there was homework left to do, and always more of it than what was assigned if I was caught watching cartoons. I was an obedient child, but with secrets, and shame; a sly child, my mother would say, her little partisan, with one eye out the window, and I was never caught watching cartoons. It was then, on the phone with my brother, after I pretended that his voice didn't sound so far away, and I delivered my report on the family situation, and when it would be safe to come home, and I never asked where he was and if he knew what he was doing - this is not the way of younger brothers - or that I spent the entire weekend looking for him on my bike, knocking softly on the doors of synagogues, that he would sometimes tell me that he wrote to the Rebbe. And maybe the Rebbe had passed away by then, I can't remember, but the letter would be read over his resting place just the same. My brother would write for peace in our home, peace between our parents, for all our health, and maybe even for forgiveness. I did not know how, but I knew it would help, that the Rebbe would help us, somehow, that someone had to. And sometimes, when things had calmed down for a while, and my brother was back home, I would remind him, or he would remind me, but we didn't dwell on it, with a nod is all, that he helped.

Mumbling playground blessings for his health and my brother's letters - all that the Rebbe knew of me - and I soon forgot, and for a long time there was nothing at all, until it was time to remember.

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