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I remember my first Shabbos in Meah Shearim. The manner in which people dressed, the cobblestone streets, the large families living in small homes, the courtyards where neighbors would stand and talk to each other. I could go on and on.

It was not only the physical setting that was different; what affected me most was the difference in the spiritual setting. Shabbos was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The lives of the people beat to a different drum, one that had a distinct Jewish rhythm, that had not been exposed to the influences that shaped the American mentality.

I would not say that these people were necessarily better — they were people. They had their natural desires, their foibles, and their shortcomings — by no means were they saints. But their lives had a different focus. For me, it was a through-the-looking-glass experience.

A short while later, someone gave a me a copy of the Rebbe Rayatz’s Zichronos (“Memoirs”). If I had not spent that — and subsequent — Shabbasos in Meah Shearim, I would have never been able to understand the book. In the Rebbe Rayatz’s rich prose, the shtetl came alive. Yankel, Berl, and Chayim the water-carrier; they became real people to me. Here I felt a unique source of energy. What was it? What endowed these people’s lives with vitality was a possuk Tehillim, a mitzvah, the Shabbos.

As an American so used to living a life where the tone is set by what happens outside, it was refreshing to be exposed to a life where it is what is happening inside which makes a difference. I was used to a world of variety and change. In the world the Rebbe Rayatz describes, people lived year after year in the same small community. There were few — if any — distractions to their day-to-day routine. And so, the people knew if their outward setting would not vary, it was inwardly that they would have to move.

Sometime later, I was shown a copy of the letter written by the Previous Rebbe which — now years later — Shimon Neubort has translated, and we have entitled “The Making of Chassidim.” Here again the Previous Rebbe collected stories from the elder chassidim and used them to build an image of the shtetl, recreating its unique vitality and life.

The Previous Rebbe left Lubavitch in 5676 (1915), and from that time on he lived in cities. Forty years afterwards, the world of the shtetl entirely ceased to exist.

Why was the Rebbe so interested in recreating this world and sharing it with others? Because the knowledge of the past would help inspire Jews in the future. Hearing about the way our people lived in the past would enable them to tap those same resources of personal growth even when they had exchanged their physical settings for others.

There is another element to the world described by the Previous Rebbe. In our modern world, bombarded with a plethora of things happening outside, we have the tendency to draw into ourselves. Living in crowded metropolises, we seek aloneness. Some of us don’t even know the names of our neighbors, and less frequently do we have meaningful relationships with them. The world of the shtetl, by contrast,was characterized by togetherness. The rhythms of life were shared. In a very real way, all the people living in a community could be considered as an extended family.

And that leads to a further point: in a family, sometimes there are squabbles. Because of the close feelings we share with our family members, small differences — and how much more so, significant differences — can become sources of friction.

Well in the shtetl world where inner change and inner growth were so important, inner differences and variances in approaches were the things that mattered very much.

The book speaks about two groups in the Jewish community — chassidim and misnagdim. Sometimes it seems that they regard each other with bitter hatred, or with great scorn. Because when it comes to my brother, the feelings are powerful; we talk in extremes. But even when I’m most angry and excited, it is precisely because he is my brother that these feelings are aroused. Similar concepts apply with regard to the relationship between chassidim and misnagdim.

The era which this book describes was a very trying one for the Jewish people. After the sorrows caused by the Chelmnitzki uprising, G‑d revealed a path of Divine light that would enable the Jewish people to meet the challenges of those and future times and prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach. This was the core of the revelation of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his spiritual heirs.

Not everyone welcomed these new developments. There were great Rabbis who had reservations about the new elements of Divine service chassidism introduced, and some were virulent in their opposition. The issues over which chassidim and misnagdim strove were real. For each had a different approach and each was sincere in their commitment to the approach that they had chosen. There is no question; at times, these differences may have been severe. But the reason that they were severe, was because they were between brothers.

It took several generations for the Jewish people to realize this. But ultimately, chassidim and misnagdim appreciated the need for combined efforts. The differences in approach did not disappear. Indeed, they have been preserved until the present day. But there is an atmosphere of mutual respect, and a productive cross-fertilization between the two camps.

Most importantly, both camps are looking forward to the time, when they will join together in complete unity, and proceed together with Moshiach to Eretz Yisrael with the coming of the Redemption.

Eliyahu Touger

Pittsburgh,

Sivan12, 5756

From the writings of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
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