It happened a long time ago. I remember exactly when it happened because it was the year of our great tragedy. We had been in the United States for only five years, having arrived from Stockholm, Sweden, where my father, Rabbi Yacov Yisroel Zuber, of blessed memory, had been sent as a Lubavitch emissary for nearly two decades.
The adjustment had been very difficult, but at this stage everything was falling into place. My father was the Dean of the Lubavitcher School in Boston. He was an important member of the rabbinical court of the city, and had progressed from rabbi at a smaller synagogue in Dorchester to a larger congregation in Roxbury. My mother, Rebetzin Zlata Zuber, of blessed memory, was taking English classes at night, participating in women's auxiliaries and organizations and socializing in the new community.
And then, the tragedy struck.
One day I was an innocent, carefree student; the next, a devastated, bewildered, young adult. There was an abrupt change from childhood into the ugly, gruesome world of adult reality. In today's world where crime and violence have become a part of everyday life, we might react with less intensity to brutal acts, but in 1953 the world was safer and more stable, so the news of our great loss was publicized not only locally and nationally, but all over the world.
Early one winter evening, just as the secular new year began, my father lost his life at the hands of unknown assailants, and our lives were forever changed.
Then to my great surprise, the Rebbe asked me about my very personal plans, about my dating to get married. And this is where my story actually begins. A few months later, my mother decided we should go to New York for a private audience with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
I had been in an audience with the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, twice. Once, when I was a very young child, we visited him at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm when he was on his way to America. Immediately upon our arrival in the United States was the second time. But this time it would be very different. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, now known as the Previous Rebbe, had passed away about three years earlier, and we were going to have an audience with the new Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel.
My memories of the Previous Rebbe were very clear – a dignified, large man, somber – a very serious looking person. I felt overawed and somewhat intimidated by him. But now things were different. My life had changed—I was no longer a child within a family, but a responsible, young adult. I thought the audience would be an interesting experience, and of course I wanted to carry out my mother's wishes to accompany her, but I had no idea what to expect.
Appointments for the audience were made weeks in advance; the names were written down and time slots assigned. The times were arbitrary, however, because it was quite impossible to know the exact length of time of each audience before us. There were often last minute changes for dignitaries, visitors from far away places, and emergencies. We were told to keep in touch with one of the Rebbe's aides, Rabbi Leibel Groner, during the specified evening so that we would not have to stand in the lobby for any great length of time.
There was a hushed silence inside 770, as Lubavitch World Headquarters became known, when we arrived. Some people waited right outside the office of the Rebbe, some in the outer hall. It wasn't very crowded. The audiences began in the evening, and often continued until the early hours of the morning.
Then the Rebbe turned to me and asked about my courses, my future plans, and my interest and concernsRabbi Groner kept track of the time and would knock on the door to the Rebbe's office, or even open the door, to signal that time was up. If the Rebbe was engrossed in conversation, he would disregard the interruption. From the list that Rabbi Groner had, we knew when it would be our turn.
My mother was visibly distressed. She was now the head of our family, a position for which she was quite unprepared. She was overwhelmed by the loss, the strange language and the newness of the country.
Tension built up as we waited. The silence became stifling. And finally it was our turn. We were quickly ushered into the room. The Rebbe was sitting behind a large mahogany desk, facing the door. Two empty chairs were facing the Rebbe's desk, but we stood behind the chairs as is the custom. Around the room were bookcases filled with books of Jewish learning and I think there were piles of scholarly books near the bookcases as well.
My mother was crying softly while I glanced at the Rebbe. He looked at us with great compassion and concern: he had known my father well, and been involved with us in the aftermath of the tragedy. Then he smiled gently and invited us to sit down. He seemed so human, so warm, I immediately felt at ease. He spoke to my mother for a length of time—of her plans for the future, about her daily activities, about my father, and everything of concern to our life.
Then the Rebbe turned to me and asked about my courses, my future plans, and my interest and concerns. It was without difficulty that I responded. He seemed so genuinely interested in everything I said, and from his responses and interjections, I knew he was listening carefully to everything. The bell rang, time was up, and we walked out feeling comforted and reassured. I clearly remember my mother remarking that she was surprised at my interaction with the Rebbe, that I seemed so comfortable and at ease, as if he were a family member, someone I had known all my life. And indeed that is how I felt. A few months later when I went on a visit to New York with some friends, I decided to go to see the Rebbe again. The appointment was made from Boston, and on the specified date I arrived at 770. I felt somewhat awkward waiting alone. I didn't know many people in the area, and no one in the lobby area that night. And then my turn came, and I was very excited to have the opportunity to meet with the Rebbe again. Now that I knew what to expect, my enthusiasm was quite boundless.
At first we discussed my studies. The Rebbe asked at length about my courses, my professors, and my interests and plans for the future. Then to my great surprise, he asked me about my very personal plans, about my dating to get married. I told him that I had met several young men, but I had not met someone I wanted to marry.
The Rebbe smiled broadly and asked my opinion about a specific student. I swallowed hard, I could not believe it, but the question concerned a young man I had recently met.
The Rebbe then asked about another student, and a third and I was totally overwhelmed. He apparently knew everything about my life, certainly in this aspect. I just shook my head and blushingly explained why each one was not the right one for me.
And then, as a father to a daughter he began to explain to me the meaning of real loveThen the Rebbe chuckled lightly and told me that I read too many books. How did he know? But know he did. Love, he explained to me is not that which is portrayed in romantic novels. It isn't that overwhelming, blinding emotion that is portrayed in a romance. These books do not portray real life, he said. It is a fantasy world, a make-believe world with made-up emotions. Fiction is just that – fiction – but real life is different.
And then, as a father to a daughter he began to explain to me the meaning of real love. Love, he told me, is an emotion that increases in strength throughout life. It is sharing and caring and respecting one another. It is building a life together, a unit of family and home. The love that you feel as a young bride, he continued, is only the beginning of real love. It is through the small, everyday acts of living together that love flourishes and grows.
And so, he continued, the love you feel after five years or ten years is a gradual strengthening of bonds. As two lives unite to form one, with time, one reaches a point where each partner feels a part of the other, where each partner no longer can visualize life without his mate by his side.
Smilingly he told me to put aside the romantic notions developed by my literary involvement, and view love and marriage in a meaningful way. I walked out of the Rebbe's office with a huge smile on my face. The Rebbe knew how to communicate with a dreamy young girl. He knew what to say and how to say it. His words, spoken from the heart, reverberated within my heart. That is my Rebbe.
From all over the world rabbis, businessmen, community leaders and politicians sought the advice of the Rebbe, frequently on issues of far-reaching significance, affecting large numbers of people. Yet, in the case of a young girl standing at the threshold to life, preparing to make the most crucial decision of her life, to this young maiden he gave his undivided attention. With fatherly love and compassion, with patience and concern, he presented her with a life-long understanding of the meaning of love, marriage, home and family.
By Chana Sharfstein Chana Sharfstein, an expert on Scandinavian Jewish history, is a noted author, educator and tour guide. Raised and educated in Stockholm, Sweden, Chana is a retired member of the New York City school system, and a docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Center of Jewish History. This article is an excerpt from a soon-to-be-published book containing chapters from Chana's rich life experiences for over fifty years in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. More from Chana Sharfstein