When Rabbi Hershel Slansky’s mother-in-law came down with an illness for which there was no known cure, he suggested she speak to the Rebbe. The Rebbe gave advice, and 15 years later, still remembered to follow up.
After directing a yeshivah in Buffalo, New York, in the 1950s, Rabbi Hershel Slansky went on to serve as the executive director of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights and then Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, Long Island, before retiring in 1997. He was interviewed in his home in Woodmere in July of 2014.
When I was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, there were no yeshivot there, just a local Talmud Torah where most of the religious boys went, four days a week. We learned how to read and write Hebrew, we learned Jewish history, but no more than that. My parents were not satisfied with this and also arranged for me to study Torah with a tutor on Friday and Shabbat afternoons.
“When you become Bar Mitzvah,” they said, “we’ll send you to a yeshivah in New York.”
Back then, you would have to take a bus from Newark to the Hudson Tubes, and then take the subway from there, which was really a bother for a small boy to do, especially when traveling alone. When the time came, however, I was going to go to Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn.
One day in 1942, Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Katz, a Lubavitcher who was living in Newark at the time, came over to my father. “Mr. Slansky,” he said in Yiddish, “We want your son.”
My father was a kibbitzer, he had a sense of humor, and so without hesitation, he replied, “Take him!”
Rabbi Katz then explained what he wanted me for: “We want to open a yeshivah in Newark.” My parents were thrilled by the idea, because their one and only little boy wouldn’t have to travel far from home.
When I got older, I joined a new high school that Lubavitch opened up in New York, and thank G-d, it was a good school. Rabbi Lasker, who taught English, was a top educator and every morning, we would go to 770 where Rabbi Shmuel Levitin would teach us Chasidic philosophy. Sometimes, if we got up very early, one boy who had a car would take us out to Brighton Beach to dip into the ocean, for mikveh.
This was before the Rebbe became Rebbe. I remember sitting in the study hall, and he would come in and walk among the boys. He wore a gray suit and a gray hat with the brim down — at that time, all the boys in the yeshivah wore gray hats. He was friendly with the boys, and would stop and speak to them. He’d put his hand on your shoulder and ask, “What have you learned today?”
We didn’t look at him like a Rebbe; we looked at him like a friend. But after the Previous Rebbe passed away, I remember there was a petition that went around, asking him to become the Rebbe, and we all signed it.
After my marriage in 1954, the Rebbe sent me to make a yeshivah in Buffalo, where we lived until 1959.
It was during that time that my mother-in-law had a sickness called Tic Douloureux; it’s a French term, for when the trigeminal nerve is injured and fires painful electric-like shocks up and down one side of the face. At that time the doctors had no cure for it, and they didn’t know what to do. To speak, to smile: Everything caused pain. She couldn’t even eat without a straw. One neurologist she went to told her that some people with this pain committed suicide.
At one point, some doctors suggested severing the nerves on her face to relieve the pain. However, they told her that this would immobilize her face so that she wouldn’t be able to show any expression; she would look like a golem.
“I don’t want to look like that,” she remarked. “It’s bad enough that I have the pain, I don’t want people to pity me.” She refused to have it severed.
So, I called up my mother-in-law, and said, “Let’s make an appointment for you to go to the Rebbe for a blessing.”
“I already went to another Rebbe,” she said. “The other Rebbe told me to make sure to have company in my house.”
He must have figured that having more people around would distract her from the tic, but that wasn’t the issue: My in-laws had three daughters and there were always people in their house.
“How can I describe the pain to the Rebbe?” she continued. “I can’t even say the name of the condition in English.”
“You know, the Rebbe understands French,” I told her. “Just say it. I’m sure he’ll know what you are talking about.” Since I had gone to class together with Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, I had a little pull and was able to get her an appointment without a long wait.
When my mother-in-law came back, she was amazed.
The Rebbe had a way of making people feel relaxed. When she entered, the Rebbe told her to sit down for the audience, which surprised her.
She thought he would give her a blessing, but instead he said, “There’s a doctor in Columbia Presbyterian, Dr. Sciarra.” I still remember the name. He explained that there was a certain medication that was available in Europe, but hadn’t been approved by the American government. “That doctor is doing research, and I want you to check in there.”
And so, my mother-in-law became a guinea pig for a new experimental medicine. For three weeks, she received the medicine as they tested her blood. A year later, it came out under the name Tegretol, which they now give to epileptics and people who have seizures. It doesn’t cure the condition, but it does alleviate the pain, so that you can live with it.
Fifteen year later, I recall attending one of the Rebbe’s gatherings with my family; my wife and daughter were upstairs, and my sons were with me. It must have been 2:30, maybe 3 AM, after the farbrengen, and my sons and I were filing past the Rebbe to receive some wine from his cup — kos shel bracha. I was holding three little cups, one for my wife, one for my daughter and one for me, while my boys were behind me with little cups of their own. As we came to the Rebbe and he began to pour, he leaned in and said something to me. I stopped short, and my wife upstairs saw me bending over.
“How is your mother-in-law doing?” he asked me.
That the Rebbe knew about this doctor doing research in the field, for a sickness that not too many people even heard of, is amazing. But that he should remember to ask about it fifteen years later? That is something I will never forget.