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A Soul Comes Home on Chanukah

A Soul Comes Home on Chanukah

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Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

In my freshman year of college in Philadelphia, on the last day of the semester, I went up to my professor of Physical Science and asked him if he believed in G‑d. Looking back, I am struck by how ingenuous I was, and how troubled by the question. His answer, kindly given—“One cannot help but believe in a Creator”—satisfied my mind for the time being. But it would take many more years before I found an answer that would stick.

I grew up in a family that strongly identified with its Jewishness. Everyone had unquestioning, simple faith in “the good L‑rd,” as my father called Him. So I don’t know where my need to search for Him came from. All I know is that my mind couldn’t settle on a G‑d who I felt was abstracted It would take many years until I found an answerfrom my life. Something in me compelled me to seek a “personal G‑d” who knew me and understood everything I was going through in my life. (I think back with a smile to that girl so unversed in chassidic thought. I wanted a G‑d who knew me? Who knew my life? How could He not know me? He is my life! That girl had a ways to go, but she would get there.)

So after university, and after I had already begun teaching high school English, I embarked on what I know now was a spiritual quest. Over the course of almost five years I traveled from Philadelphia to Jerusalem, back to Philadelphia, on to Montreal and then to Toronto, back to Philadelphia, on to Boston, with stopovers in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, back to Philadelphia, and then on to Crown Heights, Brooklyn—the last stop of an inner journey.

My first trip, in answer to what I experienced as “an inner call,” was to Jerusalem. I found an apartment right away in the holy city, and two students to tutor. I took a part-time job weeding plants at the Hebrew University’s Botanical Gardens (searching for my roots, as it were). I loved the air and the stones, and thought the black-garbed men and religious women “picturesque.” (In the Holy Land, I was outside the picture frame looking in—it took more years of searching before I was ready to step inside.) But I began feeling lonely, and within six months—together with my brother, who had come to get me—I was on a plane back to the States.

During this early searching time, I discovered Martin Buber’s two-volume Tales of the Hassidim in a bookstore in Philadelphia. From then on, in all my travels, I carried one of those pale blue volumes with me. “Who were the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that they should be so familiar to me and such comfort to me in strange cities?” I asked myself.

Montreal. Toronto. Heading now into the last lap. Back home in Philadelphia, I suddenly wanted to listen to Jewish music—just as, not long before that, I had suddenly wanted to light Shabbat candles. In a small shop I found a record with a cover depicting an artist’s vision of chassidim with uplifted hands singing at a long festive table, where a bowl of bright fruit and a very big fish were happily placed. The artist, I read on the back cover, was Rabbi Kleinman, and the songs without words were called niggunim. That painting and those wordless melodies were like messengers from a long-forgotten past. What were they so beautifully saying?

“Did you ever hear of Lu-ba-vitch?” I asked a friend.

“Oh, yes. There’s a Lubavitch center right in the Northeast . . .”

The Northeast! How come I had never heard of them?Not far from where I grew up! How come I never heard of them? I called the center, left my name and address since the rabbi wasn’t there at the moment, then went as scheduled to Boston. In Boston, I met a very nice group of professionals who kept Shabbat by having a kind of soul-picnic in their suburban countryside Shabbat day, singing and telling traditional stories. They were sincere, and I was sincere in joining them, but somehow I knew I wanted more.

When I returned to Philadelphia, a message was waiting for me from the Lubavitch center I had contacted. I made an appointment with Rabbi Shemtov, and I remember the day I sat opposite him at his desk, telling him my story. He listened quietly, then handed me a brochure. “There’s a seminar coming up on Chanukah, in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. It’s for college students and others. You stay with a family over Shabbat. You might want to go.” I took the brochure, and knew on the spot that I absolutely had to travel to New York.

December. Cold. I packed a skirt for Shabbat, and wore the most conservative clothes I thought would do for the train trip: navy blue wool slacks, white blouse, black boots, my black wool winter coat. When I emerged from the dark subway station at Kingston Avenue into the “light” of Crown Heights and the Festival of Lights, I did not know that this would be the turning point of my life. No grandiose chapter title such as “Her Life’s Turning Point” was written in the winter sky, as I, curious and dimly aware, stepped forth into the cold, gray day, noticing the soft, wet snowflakes beginning to fall, and the few chassidim in the street. Before I arrived at the house of my “family,” however, I was keenly aware of one thing—the slacks were “wrong.”

Zahavah, the lady of the home, sat me down at her kitchen table over a cup of coffee and apologized for having to bustle around to prepare for Shabbat while we talked. The whole time, she never said anything about the slacks—Lubavitchers are known to be accepting. I felt relaxed, even happy, asking her questions, trying to understand her answers.

On Friday night, two young women came to escort me to shul. Why did I feel as if I had always known them? Stranger still, why did I feel as if they already knew me? They made me feel at home, like someone in their family. And then we came to the shul, known as “770,” which I found strangest of all. Through the brown-tinted glass in the women’s section above, I could see a thousand black-hatted men singing, a long narrow table covered with a glowing white Shabbat cloth, and the Rebbe in his chair. I felt a collision of worlds—what had I to do with that sea of hats?

I was drawn to the mystical ideas expressed at the seminar, I felt a collision of worldsalthough I only vaguely understood them. What affected me the most was the warmth of the community, how the people were, how they lived—I recognized instinctively that it was true. When the seminar was over and I walked back along Kingston Avenue (wearing my skirt), the thought came to me: “The Jewish people are a holy people.” I had never encountered in my life anything I would have known or called holiness. Two months later, I would return and delve deep into those mystical concepts in earnest at the women’s seminary. My soul had come home on Chanukah.

Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem, where she writes, edits and teaches creative writing. She recently published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper. Woven throughout the entire book are the Chabad concepts she first encountered at the seminar in Crown Heights on Chanukah.
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Devorah December 9, 2015

Beautiful memories of the Rebbe. I remember well. No sweeter, wiser, Torah loving man ever walked this earth. One could only feel joy in his presence. Sea of black hats. Nothing Like it. The women, children all make it the most blessed experience. Wonderful Story. Happy Hanukkah to all! Reply

Rut Margot brea Mesa, AZ December 9, 2015

A Soul Comes Home on Chanukah How blessed are you my dear. I am waiting for something similar to happen to me, if I find favor in my Creator. I was not blessed in my early years of life, like you, for whatever reason Hashem, blessed is He, did not allow me. He gave me chances when I was young, but unfortunately I did not know or understood His ways. I understand now that things had to happen in my life to be able to reach the goal I was seeking. My faith is stronger now, and my love for Him has increased. I will be with Him in His Kingdom soon. I know that now. B"H Reply

Linda h Uk December 9, 2015

Thank you for your story. I needed to read it. Reply

Janis Kohlenberg Wisconsin December 8, 2015

This is such a beautiful story. Awe inspiring. Reply

Sylvia UK December 7, 2015

Drawn Thank you, for sharing your journey to the truth. Reply

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