Publisher: Kehot Publication Society & Jewish Educational Media
By: Rabbis Boruch Oberlander & Elkanah Shmotkin
Format: 7½" x 10½" Hardcover, 564 pages
The product of an exhaustive, years-long, worldwide research project, Early Years tells the riveting story of the early life of the man who, as much as anyone else, set the course of Jewish history in the twentieth century.
What was his childhood like? What type of schooling did he receive? Who were his mentors and teachers? When did he first meet his father-in-law and predecessor, and what was the relationship between them like? At what point did the ideas that were to transform the landscape of post-Holocaust Jewry begin to take form in his mind?
These questions and others about the Rebbe’s early life have never been answered comprehensively.
Presenting newly-uncovered government documents, private journals, letters and diaries, Rabbis Boruch Oberlander and Elkanah Shmotkin have produced a highly-engaging account which offers an unimpeded view of the formative years of modern Judaism’s most recognized personality.
Over 450 documents and photographs are beautifully reproduced in full color, illuminating and informing the text.
Genealogy is a popular hobby. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of people who are fascinated by genealogy. The first kind of person is motivated by the challenge of completeness, of documenting facts and filling gaps. It often takes ingenuity to figure out how to find a particular piece of information—and to ascertain that it is true.
Based on the introduction to the book, compilers Boruch Oberlander and Elkanah Shmotkin fall squarely in this camp: “What was the Rebbe ’s childhood like? Who were his contemporaries? What kind of schooling did he receive? Who were his mentors and teachers? What role did he play in the efforts to preserve Judaism under Soviet oppression? When did he first meet his father-in-law and predecessor, how did the meeting come about, and what was the relationship between them like? What did he do during the years 1928 to 1941, when he was living in virtual anonymity in Berlin and Paris? . . . These questions and others about the Rebbe’s early life have never been answered comprehensively.” (p. vi)
Their goal was to locate every document they could find on the Rebbe’s early life, and the book contains nearly 400 reproductions of their many finds. Shmotkin and Oberlander find great satisfaction in their successes, and also frustration at the documentation that they have been unable to track down. One has the sense of a pair of eager explorers seeking to find buried treasure.
As one notes the detailed maps and photos of Nikolayev and Yekaterinoslav, marking locations of note in the Rebbe’s childhood; copies of the Rebbe’s handwritten letters to various relatives; even the listing of the Rebbe’s name as one of the children submitting the correct solution to a puzzle in a Jewish children’s magazine, one gets a sense of the vast net the authors cast in order to uncover and document as much of the Rebbe’s early life as possible.
It takes a certain kind of mind and discipline to engage in this kind of research—great patience, thoroughness, organizational ability, and attention to detail.
But there is a second kind of person likely to be fascinated by genealogy. This kind of person, frankly, finds the collection process tedious and is frustrated by the dead ends. The hook for this person is the emotional connection—for the present turns to be an echo of the past, and the ripples we see today were set into motion years ago.
I confess to being squarely in the second camp. I blipped through most of the hand-written reproductions of letters (whose text appears within the body of the book itself). I glanced only briefly at the copies of official documents. Those of us who would not voluntarily spend a sunny afternoon sifting through crumbling pieces of paper in a dusty library will find it challenging to sift through the “raw data” of this book of more than 500 pages.
And yet, so often when I was ready to put the book down, I encountered a treasure that made it all worthwhile.
After a parent or grandparent has passed on, many of us have the experience of regretting all the things we never asked them. While they were alive, there was never the right time, the right moment. Often, we had never even thought to ask the question. And then, we encounter an old friend who shares an anecdote, or we find a diary that gives us a new perspective into the past. If we are fortunate, we find a new closeness, a new depth to the relationship, despite the fact that we thought we had reached the end of a “chapter.”
Growing up in Crown Heights in the 70s and early 80s, the Rebbe was a figure that loomed larger than life for my generation. We were constantly swept into the excitement of the moment, the farbrengens, the regular launch of new mitzvah campaigns, Shabbat and holidays with the Rebbe. I don’t think there was time to think of the Rebbe as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. And as the years since the Rebbe’s passing grew, it seemed that what we did not yet know would forever remain a mystery.
Reading this account provides an opportunity to connect with the Rebbe in a very different way, and to deepen our appreciation and understanding of what he gave to us.
I was entranced when reading about the Rebbe’s parents—Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s strength of resolve and ability to win the hearts of those who initially opposed him; Rebbetzin Chana’s tireless sacrifice on behalf the Jewish refugees in Yekatrinislav.
In many ways, like the Rebbe, they loom larger than life. But excerpts from the Rebbetzin Chana’s diary, reframed in the context of the Rebbe’s early life, also give a glimpse of the warmth and closeness of the family.
In this context, I found the account of the Rebbe’s mother asking her sister-in-law, Rebbetzin Rachel Schneerson, to send her a copy of the pre-upsherenish photo of her son, surprisingly moving:
“I have a request, if it’s not too difficult. Make a copy of the picture you have of my son at three years old and send it to me, because I don’t have even one photo.” (p. 24).
Likewise, her account of the last Simchat Torah before the Rebbe left home:
“No one besides my husband and I was aware that he was about to set out on his long journey. That Simchat Torah, we spent so much time together, dancing constantly. In order to hide our true feelings that holiday, we tried with all our might to be more joyous and cheerful than usual. There was a Kotzker Chasid on our city at that time. He danced joyfully, singing a song which burned us like a salt on a wound. As he sang, we each tried to hide our pain from one another: ‘Yankel sets out on a long journey. On a long journey, without a penny. Yankel returns home from his long journey with full pockets!’
That Simchat Torah, our son danced in the same circle as that Kotzker Chasid many times. Each time my son danced past the place I was standing, he looked at me with eyes that told me how pained he was that he had to leave us. But they were also telling me, “Mother, don’t worry.” (p. 213)
As an educator, I was fascinated by the collection of statements gleaned from the many sichos (talks) in which the Rebbe recounts cheder memories. In the original context of the talks in which they were mentioned, these memories were an “aside”—but taken together, they offer an authentic slice of cheder life . . . and the Rebbe’s childhood perspective, a time when one attempts to make sense of the world despite limited experience: . . . “I studied Talmud Tractate Kiddushin before I had ever seen a bear, and I assumed that when I would see one it would look exactly as the Talmud describes it . . .”(p. 80)
It is tempting to think of the value of this book as the ultimate historical documentation of the Rebbe’s early years. But in fact, it contributes something far greater to the corpus of publications about the Rebbe’s life. Readers of this book are sure to encounter some new facts about the Rebbe; but more importantly, in these primary source documents, they will likely find some new points of connection.
For the first time, chasidim and biographers can go back in time. Kehot Publication Society has just released the greatly anticipated (in Chabad circles) compilation “Early Years: The Formative Years of the Rebbe,” edited by Elkanah Shmotkin, director of JEM (Jewish Educational Media) and director of several documentaries about the rebbe, and Boruch Oberlander, the senior Chabad emissary to Hungary and a lecturer at the University of Budapest. Their 541-page volume, whose virtue is a spirituality as aromatic as a perfume ad, and whose deficit is its brevity (one wishes it continued beyond 1928), is not filled with hagiographic arguments but with evidence: 390 photographs (a surprising number in color), copies of letters (the young rebbe had an impeccable Yiddish handwriting), civic and academic records, archival data, Yiddish and Russian newspaper clippings, maps, accompanied by a few sentences on most pages, often in the quoted words from the rebbe’s contemporaries in the century’s first quadrant.
The collection, Shmotkin told us, was compiled over 15 years, as word of the project spread, resulting in a scavenger hunt through attics and suitcases from Brooklyn to Belarus. Most dramatically in Moscow in the files of the KGB and its predecessors, accessible after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Each chapter is introduced with historical overviews provided by the editors and experts in that specific time and place. The overview on the rebbe’s years in Riga, for example, was assisted by the chair of the University of Latvia’s department of modern and contemporary history of Latvia and Eastern Europe.
Times of Israel
It is a story told in frayed telegrams and creased photographs, in faded script on yellowing notebook pages, in postmarked envelopes and stamped passports.
It is the story of the formative years of the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the spiritual leader of Chabad-Lubavitch. And it’s a story that, until now, has scarcely been told.
While there’s no shortage of material documenting the Rebbe’s life in the U.S. after he assumed the mantel of Chabad-Lubavitch in 1951, his years in Europe — from his childhood in Russia to his early married life in Germany and France — were less well-known.
Now comes the 543-page book “Early Years (1902-1929),” a work of prodigious historical investigation by Rabbi Boruch Oberland and Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, which fills in many of the gaps.
This is not mere biography. The book is replete with thousands of original documents that anchor the volume’s variegated text, which includes snippets from the Rebbe’s writings, letters from family members, biographies of people he knew, in-depth passages explaining the sourcing, and scholarly background primers to further illuminate the content.
Liz Spikol, Jewish Chronicle
My study, where I spend most of my days reading, moping, and constructing elaborate schemes designed to ward off the faintest threat of productivity, is a purgatory of piled-up objects. It’s the sort of place that would make Marie Kondo weep, especially if she spotted her lovely anti-clutter manifesto jammed in between three identical copies of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, a small Stonehenge of lifeless iPhones, and official Richard Nixon 1972 campaign memorabilia. None of this stuff is random, though: Each huddled tchotchke is either a souvenir from where I’ve been or a signpost pointing somewhere I’d like to go. And above it all, looking down at me like a bemused elder on an errant boy, is a large black-and-white photograph of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.
That may seem like a strange choice for an unobservant Jew like me, whose eyes may be watching God but whose mouth is too often stuffed with pork, a believer too timid for the rigors of orthodoxy. But the Rebbe transcends such distinctions—that was his genius. This week, as we commemorate both the 66th anniversary of his ascendancy to the head of the Chabad-Lubavitch court and a gorgeous and exhaustively researched new book documenting his early life, and as we wade in political, cultural, and theological divisions that threaten to undo our commonalities, it’s worth taking a moment to look up to this great teacher.
Like all masters who’ve set out to reveal life’s hidden layers to a species too solipsistic to notice them, the Rebbe, too, delivered his wisdom in subtle ways that are difficult to define. Reviewing a collection of the Rebbe’s letters a few years ago in Haaretz, one of the paper’s cerebral columnists complained that the famed spiritual leader was nothing but a charlatan, an old man fond of sophistry and bereft of intellectual sophistication. That’s an odd claim to make about a polyglot who spoke at least 10 languages, had studied under the quantum physicist Schrödinger in Berlin and was en route to a degree in mathematics from the Sorbonne before World War II intervened, and was a towering scholar who invented a brand new way of studying Rashi and had authored hundreds of volumes. But never mind the credentials: The bigger point the columnist was missing was that the Rebbe’s means of communication were designed to address what he, having narrowly escaped the horrors of the Holocaust, considered to be the key challenge of our time—namely, our ability to strip each other of agency and reduce each other to statistics, or worse. If Socrates spoke in dialogues designed to awaken in his listeners the knowledge they already possessed, and Christ in parables crafted to arouse in his followers the dormant spirit, the Rebbe’s medium was Ahavat Yisroel, or real love of his fellow Jews.
Consider the following, described by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his terrific biography of the Rebbe. In June of 1986, the author’s own father, who for decades had been Chabad’s accountant, suffered a serious stroke. The Rebbe’s office called twice daily to ask after the elderly man, but one day it had a curious request: The Rebbe, said his secretary, had a bookkeeping question and asked that his accountant be consulted. Grudgingly, Telushkin posed the question to his father, resentful of the interruption. Then, though, he saw the spark in his father’s eyes and understood immediately what the Rebbe had done.
“Sitting in his Brooklyn office at 770 Eastern Parkway,” Telushkin wrote, “dealing with macro issues confronting Jews and the world, he had the moral imagination to feel the pain of one individual, my father, lying in a hospital bed, partially paralyzed, and wondering if he would ever again be productive. And so the Rebbe asked him a question, and by doing so he reminded my father that he was still needed and could still be of service.”
This moral imagination, the new book about the Rebbe reveals, was inherited from his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. Appointed the chief rabbi of Yekatrinoslav, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, in 1909, he was met with fierce opposition by his fellow Jews, who thought the Hasidic tradition too excitable to accommodate. Schneerson Sr. didn’t waste any time on religious disputations. He didn’t play politics or wage defamatory campaigns or denigrate his opponents. Instead, he invited them to dinner. His prodigious son was 7; by the time the boy became a bar mitzvah six years later, these same detractors were all in attendance, now firm friends. It’s hard to read this account—included in the new book are beautiful reproductions of letters by some of these former adversaries, praising Reb Levi Yitzchak—without thinking about how the father’s tactics influenced the son. Years later, the Rebbe would become known for sending emissaries all around the world and instructing them to erect Chabad houses, where all Jews would always be welcome for a chat and a meal. His own childhood home was the very first such house, and in it, he learned that the personal wasn’t political: Ahavat Yisrael came first and foremost and burned brighter than any disagreement or distinction.
How good are we about following the Rebbe’s example? Myself, not too terrific. The temptation to thunder about the iniquity of others is great—so many misguided souls! so much malice!—and made greater by a torrent of rage-inducing news and roaring social media missives. It’s comforting, in these rocky times, to clamor for the quiet only like-mindedness can bring. It’s tempting to close up your home, not to mention your heart, to all but those who share your convictions and, just as much, your distastes. But the man in the photograph in my study urges me to do better, and the least I can do is try.
Leil Leibovitz, Tabletmag