By Lionel Rolfe
Recently, when the publication of a paperback version of my first book The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey (the book originally came out in hardcover in 1978), I remembered my visit to Brooklyn to meet my Hassidic ancestors.
My mother Yaltah and aunt Hephzibah were prodigy pianists and my uncle Yehudi, the violinist, had been described as the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart. At that point the three were alive in London, so a stopover in Brooklyn was appropriate.
The first morning after my arrival in Gotham, I emerged from the black pits of the subway to find that number 790, the address of the Hassidic headquarters, was quite a bit further down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway.
As I began the trek down the broad, shabby, but still dignified boulevard, I felt my balding head and cursed myself for not having followed the advice of people who had told me to get some cover for my shiny dome. It doesn’t have to be a yarmulke; any type of hat would do, I had been told.
“But wouldn’t that be dishonest?” I had asked. “I mean, I’m not an orthodox Jew.”
“Just to show them respect,” had been the answer.
Ah, in that case, I knew what would have been ideal: one of those jaunty black berets that my grandfather Moshe always used to wear. Moshe used to have an endless supply of them, one in this room, another in that room, maybe even one in the chicken shed.
A beret made you a dapper, worldly gentleman, and yet, if you had come from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe, it eased your conscience about your naked head. But there were no berets in the ghetto shops. My pace quickened and as it did so, the whirring worrying in my head that I would have to brave the Lubavitcher Court hatless also increased. Many a writer had been thrown bodily out of the Lubavitcher Court. On the other hand, the Schneersohns, the Lubavitchers, were my cousins. The Menuhins were but an offshoot of the famed Chabad father-to-son dynasty, which presided over the Polish-Russian town of Lubavitch.
Once the Lubavitchers had been the major leaders of half of Russia’s Jewish population, which numbered several millions. But the pogroms at the turn of the century, the mass exodus of the Jews before the Russian Revolution and then Hitler, reduced the Lubavitchers to holding sway over only a few thousand souls. They had done so ever since Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the sixth generation head of the Lubavitcher dynasty, had been released from a Soviet prison in the 1920s. He had made his way first to Paris, then to Brooklyn.
Now, I stood in the foyer of 790, behind the heavy entrance doors, uncomfortable because I could be naught but a stranger to the bearded Jews chanting in the next room with a passionate, melodic, electric hum that I recognized. Although in my youth my grandfather did not sing Hassidic melodies to me, there was an intense melody in the hum of his activity. Even if he was merely showing me the right way to pull up a weed or to dig a hole to trap a gopher gnawing at the roots of an orange tree or tamping down the compost heap back of the chicken shed, the old Hassidic energy emerged in melodic glory, thanking G-d for always creating something new.
Now, Hassidim emerged from the room where they had been chanting and davaning; they kissed the mezuzah on the door and went outside. My mind became involved in the kissing of the door’s mezuzah and I wondered if they expected me to do it. When a Hassid, a thin, pale-looking young man, had finished kissing the mezuzah, he looked straight at me, without giving me a sign of acknowledgement. He did not even ask me what I was doing there and left the building. Seconds later, another Hassid, with a more authoritative bearing, walked in the door and asked me what I wanted.
I heard my voice mumble something, and then I was being pointed to a door I assumed was an office.
“Somebody should be there soon,” a passing Hassid told me.
Finally an “American” rabbi arrived I began to explain my purpose to him. He confirmed what the Los Angeles Hassidic American rabbi had said, that Rabbi Israel Jacobson was the man I needed to see.
The “American” rabbi had returned. He kept glancing up at me. Something was making him nervous. Then I laughed.
“Have you a yarmulke” I asked him.
He looked relieved.
“Yes, yes,” he said quickly, and rummaged through a cabinet, coming up with a red yarmulke.
I put it on, and the rabbi looked as if God Himself was smiling in His Heaven.
Now, the yeshiva student became very friendly. He wanted to talk. I asked him if he had ever heard of Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist.
“No,” said the student.
“Well,” I said, suddenly feeling silly, “he’s my uncle, and one of the world’s most famous violinists. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him, for he is also a Schneersohn.”
I talked for awhile about the Menuhins and the Schneersohns, and about the book I was writing.
“I am related to the family, too,” said the student proudly.
I looked at him and saw that his broad, beaming countenance could be said to look like my own.
I told him, “I had not been raised religiously; in truth, I hadn’t even been Bar Mitzvah’d. It wasn’t until six months ago that I had even started to look into my family background. I hadn’t known how extraordinary and eccentric my family was. I had always known they were famous musicians, but not religious figures, too.
“I’ve been reading a lot about my ancestors,” I said.
“Follow me,” the student replied.
We went down a narrow, winding stairway to a basement synagogue, a gigantic room filled with noise and hubbub. Everyone was chanting and talking; it was chaotic, and no one person seemed in charge. The student approached the torah rabbi on my behalf. I was surprised. The rabbi was surprised too, and angry. He glared at the student as if to say, “Deal with it as you will.”
So the yeshiva student returned to me and said I should put on tfillin, the Hebrew phylacteries. For the second time in my life, I did so. I repeated the Hebrew words without knowing what they meant.
We went upstairs, and the student said he would help me find Rabbi Jacobson. The student talked to several people and discovered which of the yeshiva buildings Jacobson was in at the moment. He pointed to the right one. I shook his hand and began walking, and came upon what looked like an abandoned building. From down at the end of one of its darkened halls, however, came the sound of voices, and finally from the shadows emerged the man who, I knew, had to be Jacobson.
“I want to talk,” I said to the rabbi, and got the feeling that he had been expecting me.
Jacobson merely nodded and pointed to the door at the far end of the building. I followed the little man.
It was a small, dark room with a rough bench and some chairs. At first Rabbi Jacobson couldn’t understand, and my heart sank.
“Moshe Menuhin, my grandfather,” I said.
Finally Jacobson took out a piece of paper and wrote the name down, and I began worrying. To whom could I go if this man didn’t know? Jacobson had become my link with the past. “Meshe,” the rabbi finally said slowly, and his face lit up. “You’re related to him? How are you related to him?”
“He is my grandfather.”
“And what do you do?”
“I am a writer. I am writing a book. I am told we are related to the Schneersohns.”
Rabbi Jacobson nodded. “I have a letter,” he began explaining, “written to me from Russia many years ago about Meshe, the father of Yehudi Menuhin. Your grandfather is the direct descendant via a marriage with a daughter of the great tzaddik, Menachem-Mendel Schneersohn, the famed grandson of Schneur Zalman. And on his father’s side he was the great-grandson of Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev.”
He scrawled the name “Levi-Yitzhak” on the back of an envelope. I knew who Levi-Yitzhak was.
I remembered having read about the saintly but eccentric teacher, and saying to myself, “That man reminds me somehow of myself.”
Now I was learning that there might be a reason for this.
“I want to see the letter,” I said.
It’s in Hebrew,” the rabbi told me. Suddenly his tone of voice became suspicious. He was no longer friendly. He began to scowl, and began asking me questions like a prosecuting attorney hot on the trail of a confession. The rabbi questioned me about my family, my Jewishness, my upbringing.
When I said that my brother Robert was a physicist at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he asked “What’s a physicist? Is that like a doctor?”
After that I thought it was best not talk too much about the relentless pursuit of the mechanics of matter, for Hassidim are, after all, mystics, who treasure the universe’s mystery as God’s very own cloak.
Jacobson was on much surer ground when I mentioned my daughters, and the rabbi asked, “Is the mother Jewish?” My first wife had not been Jewish, I had to admit. (Neither were my next two wives, come to think of it).
The rabbi raised his hands in horror and announced that he had no intention of contributing to a book such as mine.
“I will not besmirch the name of the Schneersohns, one of the greatest of Jewish intellectual family names, by linking it with that of the Menuhins,” he said dramatically. “I will tell you no more.”
My anger exploded.
“The Schneersohns have nothing to be ashamed of by being linked to the Menuhins,” I replied. “And you have no right to talk to me that way. I am every bit as much a Jew as you are.”
“Is your mother Jewish?”
“Of course. She’s a Menuhin.”
“And your father?”
“But your children aren’t.”
“What do you expect me to do–disown my own children?”
“I’m not running a charity,” said the rabbi. “I can’t worry about every lost soul. And Yehudi Menuhin, he’s not married to a Jew either, is he?”
“Listen,” he said. “I will maybe help you if you go back to the yeshiva and start by getting to know some of the young men there.” I shook my head. I said I had to be in London soon, which was only partly true. But I knew I didn’t want to spend much more time in New York, let alone with the Hassidim.
“All right then, when you get to London, look us up there,” Jacobson said. “Associate with the right people. Stay away from the shiksas.”
If I did all those things, maybe Jacobson would then consider revealing all the details of my family tree.
Maybe I should simply go back to my Manhattan hotel and catch the next plane out. I was still seething. But no, I owed it another try. I would go to an afternoon of lectures by one of the Lubavitcher rabbis.
The lecture was on Tanya, the great opus of Jewish psychology written in 1797 by the Alter Rebbe himself, Schneur Zalman. The Tanya lecture concerned Jewish souls and non-Jewish souls. According to Tanya, all human beings have souls, but only Jews have higher souls.
One of those around the table listening to the rabbi’s lecture was a loud, aggressive-sounding fellow who, as it finally came out, was a member of Rabbi Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, the militant Zionist political organization centered in Brooklyn, until it moved to the West Bank.
He started talking about “uncircumcised dogs” and I knew I wasn’t going to stay much longer in Brooklyn. My shiksa wife often told me that while they might have circumcised me in the hospital, it didn’t look that way. Oy, I thought, that’s all I needed, to have a roomful of Hassidim telling me I should get an operation. London seemed a much better fate than a retroactive circumcision.
The new paperback edition of “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” by Lionel Rolfe is available from Amazon.