The Rabbi of 84th Street, Warren Kozak
New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.
If you walk around New York much, you see them. Elderly rabbis from various Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities go their way and you wonder, “What is their story?”
Most of them would be unlikely to tell you anything about themselves. Most of their stories will be known only by the circles they choose to share life and faith with. But we get a rare treat in The Rabbi of 84th Street, a look into the life of a person whose experiences and stories would normally be off limits.
Rabbi Haskel Besser, born in 1923, is the spiritual leader of a small Shtibel (a house that functions as a place of study and prayer) in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is an important and well-known figure in American Judaism. Rabbi Besser and the Agudath Israel organization helped American Jewry develop what is now a standard practice of Orthodox spirituality, the Daf Yomi or page a day study of the Talmud. Rabbi Besser also helped reestablish Jewish life in Poland in the 1980’s with a foundation created by billionaire Ronald Lauder (son of Estee Lauder). He has also been a leader in restoring cemeteries in Holocaust-riven Eastern Europe.
Rabbi Besser is a living artifact, which I mean in the most positive way. He is the Hasidism of pre-war Europe still alive and shuckling. He knew personally several of the Hasidic rebbes of Eastern Europe who perished in that war.
For the uninitiated, Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism is a branch of mystical Judaism that started with the Baal Shem Tov in (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) in the 1700’s. Hasidic Jews emphasize joy, kabbalah, and a Judaism for the ordinary person, not just the scholar. In pre-war Europe, the rebbes, or heads of dynasties within Hasidism, would gather followings of tens of thousands. And there were numerous dynasties, especially among Poland’s three million Jews.
Most of Hasidism was destroyed by the Nazis. Rabbi Besser knew personally, for example, the Radomsker Rebbe, a man he regarded as being very close to God. Rabbi Besser knows of the world that existed before the Holocaust and of the Hasidic world today which is only a shadow of that era.
Biographer Warren Kozak, a journalist whose career has been in writing for television news, is a Conservative Jew. He writers of Rabbi Besser:
I was surprised to see an elderly Hasidic rabbi who looked out of place in the corporate suite in midtown Manhattan. Although I was curious, I was reluctant to introduce myself because even though I have always felt a strong connection to my religion, I was not Orthodox and thought the rabbi might not be interested in meeting me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. . . . It should be obvious that a friendship between a Conservative Jew who forgot most of what he learned in Hebrew School and a brilliant Hasidic rabbi is unusual at the outset. But it says more about Rabbi Besser than it does me.
Most of the book is about stories of the Jewish community before World War II and Rabbi Besser’s escape into British Palestine just before the Nazis entered Poland and exterminated 3 million of the 3.3 million Jews there. Rabbi Besser was one of the fortunate 9% who escaped. Sometimes he and other survivors feel that they too should have died with their people. But that does not mean Rabbi Besser fails to enjoy life, each and every day. He is a man who sleeps little and works around the clock to pray, study, teach, and to restore Hasidic Judaism in America and Eastern Europe.
For me the primary value of the book was to hear firsthand accounts of a world largely lost to the fires of genocide. The remarkable thing about Rabbi Besser’s stories is not compelling accounts of atrocity. Rather, it is the positive focus of his stories that draws the reader or listener in. It is accounts of people great and small who saved lives by actions great and small.
The Radomsker Rebbe, who perished as soon as the Germans entered Poland, saved the life of Rabbi Besser’s family with a simple piece of advice. A Catholic priest in Poland, not particularly fond of Jews, saved Rabbi Besser’s life at the age of seventeen on a train fleeing before the Germans came. A German Gestapo officer looked the other way and a relative of Rabbi Besser’s was allowed to escape. Rabbi Besser’s outlook is optimistic and signs of the divine image in man abound in his tales of the world that once was.
The Rabbi of 84th Street is not a work of deep theological insight. We do not see here any examples of biblical or Talmudic interpretation. There are no great theological answers to the problem of evil. The book, like Rabbi Besser, simply overwhelms you with optimism that is more powerful than philosophical or exegetical quests for answers.
One story that highlights the optimistic quality of the book comes at the beginning. Rabbi Besser is in his home with some guests for the Sabbath. The good rabbi suddenly got up from the table to open a window. He said, “It looks like this butterfly would rather be out than in.”
A guest corrected him and said, “That is really a moth.”
Rabbi Besser said, “I know. But it’s Shabbos and I wanted the moth to feel a little better about itself. Everyone should feel better on Shabbos.”