In this monumental article, Mrs. Rochel Altein a”h shares memories of her parents’ home and challenges the notion that the new wave of chassidishkeit is really better.
Mrs. Rochel Altein was born in 1924 to Rabbi Yisroel and Shaina Jacobson, and raised in Brownsville, NY. With no Jewish schools at the time, she attended public school, yet, the chinuch she received at home gave her strength and pride.
In this article, first published in Di Yiddishe Heim, Winter 5745/1985, Mrs. Altein recalls the lifestyle she observed in her parents’ home and what it meant to be a Lubavitcher chossid.
By Mrs. Rochel Altein
“The generations regress; if our ancestors were like angels, then we are but human. If they were human, we are like donkeys.”
In our heart of hearts, how many of us really agree with that famous Talmudic statement? I am not speaking here about “reformers” of whatever ilk, whose entire philosophy is that today’s “modern, progressive” people understand so much better what is proper and suitable for the advanced, technological society of the 20th century (or 19th or 21st) than their predecessors who had no access to their superior education, modern research, et. al.
No; it is my experience that even those who are quite familiar with the many places in our holy writings which praise the wisdom of previous generations, and exhort the older generation to pass on that wisdom and knowledge to the next, feel that “we are really different”. How many times has this middle-aged lady been told “You don’t understand. It’s a new generation; they see things differently. They live in a different world; the old answers, the old ways are not for them.”
When one loses a parent, one perforce muses about the old and the new generations. Since my dear mother a”h passed away, I have thought a lot about my parents and what they stood for, especially when I read the notices of various Neshei Chabad groups announcing seminars and lectures about “A Chassidishe Home”; “Raising a Chassidishe Child”, etc., terminology I never heard in my youth. Yet, whoever knew, or knows of, my parents, knows of course that they were living examples of what chassidism is all about, but never did I hear in my childhood home the expression “chassidishe” home or child.
Let me share with you what I did see and hear.
Torah scholarship was one of the prime values in our home; it permeated every part of our lives. My father [Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson a”h] who was always busy with dozens of community needs, always, always had a safer open before him. He rose at 6:00 a.m. and went to bed late, so he could learn. And one of my fondest memories is the hoarse voice of his father, learning out loud with that wonderful Gemara nigun that woke me up in the dawn hours when I would spend a Shabbos with my grandparents. I remember an aunt of mine from a well-known Chabad family, telling me how shocked she was when she came to America in the 1930’s, because she had never before seen a religious man or boy sitting around just talking rather than learning in a sefer.
My grandfather, after his retirement from being a schochet, happily sat learning from morning to night. In the fourteen years following he made two lavish family parties celebrating a “siyum” on all of Shas (the Talmud) and he was on a third cycle when he passed away.
It was clear in my home that Torah scholarship was what distinguished Chabad chassidim. My father often told me that the “Tmimim” — students of the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Russia and later Poland, who came to America in the 1920s and ’30s, all served as Rabbis, Roshei Yeshivah, Shochtim, etc. Far more than I heard the term “chosid”, I remember the term “a tomim”, spoken with a special inflection, clearly implying a special kind of person. My father also often referred to the “Nusach HoAri” Jews, not scholars, but wonderful people who had lived in Chassidic towns in Russia and were close to Chabad. They, too, learned Torah regularly, but an altogether different standard of scholarship was the assumption for a Lubavitcher Yeshivah student.
Coupled with the emphasis on Torah learning was “frumkeit” — an absolute, uncompromising, devoted observance of all the mitzvos on the highest possible level. Both my parents adhered to this standard, but they were not at all rigid or self-righteous. It was a most natural and happy way of life.
My mother, who often deplored her lack of holy learning, was very knowledgeable about many dinim. When she was too weak to go to the shmurah matzah bakery to “take challah”, my father insisted on bringing the whole days’ baking to our house, at great inconvenience, because he knew how much the mitzvah meant to her. And he smilingly indulged her and gave both my mother and her older sister her own esrog, because my mother knew that whoever “bentches” esrog first establishes possession (one of the mitzvos relating to esrog), and it was hard for her to resolve the conflict between two mitzvos, benching esrog first and honoring an older sister.
My mother wore a wig from the day she was married, even in America where there was so little demand for “shaitels” that there was only one wig-dealer in all of New York City, and she wasn’t kept that busy either. Although we were far from affluent, my mother cared about her appearance. She was not “fashionable”, but she had good taste and a natural flair for what was becoming. Yet much as she made sure that her dresses suited her well, and fit just so, she did not hesitate to add material to her sleeves when necessary. (There were no shops catering to the “frum” trade before W.W.II). The humblest housedress and the best Shabbos outfit-all had to have a proper-length sleeve. If the added material was not such a good match and spoiled the looks of the otherwise “perfect” outfit, so be it. No compromises, ever.
Only years later did I appreciate the fact that many of my parents’ peers did not live up to their high standards of mitzvah observance. Never did a word cross their lips about what others their friends and relatives — did or did not do. The one exception I remember vividly was when one “tomim”, at the height of the depression, shaved off his beard in the hopes that that would make it easier for him to find employment and feed his hungry family. My father was beside himself with aggravation. “How could a tomim do that?!”
My father drank only cholov yisroel and ate only glatt kosher meat (when his father put it aside for him in the slaughter-house; otherwise he ate chicken) long before these foods were generally introduced in the U.S.A. But he never discussed this, or any other “hiddur mitzvah” that he practiced.
This was our ordinary, matter-of-fact way of life, and we never got the feeling we were remarkable or superior, or deprived and repressed either. Just lucky.
I should say that we never got the feeling that we were different and better because we had such a high standard of learning Torah and observance of mitzvos. Our parents, however, definitely gave us a feeling that we were a special breed because we were religious Jews, and Lubavitcher. We grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in a neighborhood about 95% Jewish, mostly first generation immigrants. Most ate kosher food, were familiar with, and observed many traditions, but were not really frum as we understand the term. I attended public schools, since there were no Yeshivos for girls then. If not for the fierce pride in being frum that my parents instilled in me, even if it meant being different from most of my Jewish classmates, neighbors and friends, I wonder if I could have “made it” with my faith intact.
My grandparents, too, shared this concern: that their children must, despite the time and place — “treife” America in the 1920’s and 30’s, remain religious. They encouraged their bright and talented children to learn a trade, rather than go to college and learn a profess ion like their peers. The attrition rate from Yiddishkeit for college students was at least 90% at the time; it was almost impossible to observe Shabbos properly. A tradesman had a fighting chance — he could be his own boss.
But always, the emphasis was on being frum; “chassidish” was not the term used.
Lubavitcher — that was a term that was used. It meant, in addition to Torah scholarship and uncompromising frumkeit, two other things to us.
One, of course, was devotion to the Rebbe. My parents were exceptional people blessed with unusual talents and abilities; this is not the place to enumerate their contributions to Chabad. But the spirit of their dedication — that was an everlasting lesson to us. I don’t think it ever occurred to my parents that they should use their talents and abilities for their own material benefit — to get money, or pleasure or whatever. Although all their time and talent, their very lives, were spent in involvement with projects of the former Rebbe and, may he live and be well, the present Rebbe Shlite, my parents would have considered the idea that they were doing something for the Rebbeim absurd.
Every time I hear the expression “Do this or that so the Rebbe should have nachas,” I wince. My parents devoted their lives to the Rebbeim, but rarely if ever did they talk about them. My father served three Rebbeim; he had to work closely with them on some of the projects they assigned him, yet even within the family he rarely spoke about it.
It was clearly understood that to discuss the Rebbeim in any way, even their greatness, was presumptuous and not in the spirit of proper respect. Implicit in their every action, and at times explicitly explained to us, was the belief that it was the greatest privilege and honor to be involved in anything related to the Rebbeim, an honor beyond price that we are all unworthy of.
The giving was 100% one-sided: from a Rebbe to a chosid. The reverse was ridiculous, contrary to the basic concepts of Rebbe chossid relationship.
One important part of our “chassidishe” lives does seem a little different nowadays: the celebration of Yud-Tes Kislev. That was a real Yom-Tov. We proudly exchanged “good yom-tov” greetings throughout the day. Besides Purim and Simchas Torah, it was the day my parents made a tremendous feast and farbrengen in our house. It was not just one of the chassidic farbrengen days; it was Rosh Hashanah for Chassidus, the most important day in the Chabad calendar. (A misnagid, thinking he was making a barbed joke, once sent a New Year’s greeting card to us on Yud Tes Kislev. My father thought it a great idea.)
My grandmother once told me that she remembered her grandmother gathering all the children, distributing sweets to them and telling them, “Kinderlach, today is a big yom-tov. Today they freed the great Rebbe from prison.” If I remember correctly, my grandmother said her grandmother remembered from her early childhood the actual original day of Yud-Tes Kislev! It just doesn’t seem the same nowadays.
Service to Others
My father would often tell me that one of the distinctions of Lubavitcher Rebbeim is, in addition to their exceptional Torah erudition, their concern for the entire Jewish community, not just their own chassidim. It followed, naturally, that Lubavitcher chassidim must share that universal concern and spend their lives in service to the community, helping institutions, groups and individuals. This communal responsibility superseded all personal considerations. No “Let George do it; it’s too hard, why should I kill myself?” There was no saying “No — I can’t”, to anyone who asked for help — ever. Home and heart always open and involved in helping others — that was their whole life.
I could go on; one unforgettable incident from my childhood says a lot.
As we were sitting down to the seder one Pesach, someone knocked at the door. It was a horrible-looking beggar, who sometimes came to our house for a meal. We children were afraid of him. With hindsight I realize he must have been an alcoholic or addict; he wore filthy, tattered garments, his nose and eyes ran, his hands twitched, strange noises emanated from him. A fleeting look of repulsion crossed my father’s face, then his face softened and he asked the man to join our seder: “O.K. — go wash up and join us.” And to us, horror-stricken, he said, “After all, when we say, “Kol dichfin — whoever is needy, come and join us” we are supposed to mean it.” By the end of the seder we realized he was just a pathetic, pitiful figure; we never feared him again.
“Chassidishe” there was no talk of, but there were countless remarks and expressions and little stories that breathed chassidic thought and feeling. In my ears still cling, “Don’t be a chitzon (superficial)”; “You have too big an ich (ego) to be a true chassidiste”; “The world is batul b’mtzius” (untranslatable) — all in Yiddish, of course.
One favorite, oft-repeated tale: the classic remark of one Rebbe to his gabbai: “I am heavy because anxiety makes you thin; and I have yet to find one single thing on this lowly earth that is worth a deep sigh.” The world and what most people think of as its pleasures did not occupy a very important part in our lives.
My parents, as said, were very frum, yet they loved to tell another tale if, say, for some reason a particular traditional dish was not served on Shabbos or Yom Toy, or when discussing other’s priorities: A Rebbe once said in such a situation: “I am not afraid of the punishment I will receive in the next world for not being punctilious about these mitzvos which give the body material enjoyment.”
* * *
The way of life of that generation — its Torah scholarship, unpretentious piety, dedication to working for the good of the community, concern for every individual Jew, lifelong bond to the Rebbeim, its every moment replete with Torah principles and precepts — does it tell us anything, or does a new generation know it all — better?!