A new volume of correspondence belonging to the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, sheds new light on the Berlin and Paris lives of his daughter and the son-in-law who would succeed him, particularly the increasing push by the Jewish leader for his son-in-law to assume ever more vital and public roles.

The years preceding the 1940 arrival in New York of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson and the future Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, had not until recently revealed little in the way of primary sources dealing with the scholarly back and forth between the Sixth Rebbe and his son-in-law and the latter’s courtship of the Rebbetzin.

But the release of the 15th volume of the Sixth Rebbe’s letters by the Kehot Publication Society, the publishing arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, opens a door on a trove of correspondence discovered in just the past several years at the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s home three blocks from Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. The new volume offers 303 of those letters, taking care to omit correspondence dealing with the Sixth Rebbe’s medical care and his financial transactions.

What emerges is a fascinating story beginning with the meeting of two distant cousins, progressing to the suggestion of the young Rabbi Menachem Mendel marrying the Sixth Rebbe’s daughter and concluding with the Rebbe’s delegation of publishing responsibilities to his new son-in-law.

“My daughter this week, I learned, gained knowledge of Mendel,” the Sixth Rebbe writes, affectionately using the middle name of the future Rebbe.

When the young Chaya Mushka was away in a remote vacation town, her future husband stayed with the Sixth Rebbe. He records that they spent the entire first day together, thereafter conversing “almost every day for several hours a day.”

“I could say that I already know him a little,” the Sixth Rebbe writes to his daughter.

Thus began a continued process of the Sixth Rebbe granting more and more responsibilities to his son-in-law. The letters touch on the future Rebbe’s involvement in communal affairs after Soviet authorities imprisoned the Sixth Rebbe in 1927, and note an interesting example of the leader’s reliance on the future Rebbe’s judgment.

Among the tasks the Sixth Rebbe assigned to his son-in-law was to evaluate the well-known scholar Rabbi Yehudah Eber, who was under consideration for a leadership position in the Lubavitch educational system, the movement’s flagship institution.

“I did not recognize in him, for the entire duration that we spoke, the existence of haughtiness and self-importance,” the future Rebbe wrote to his father-in-law. “I requested that he give me some of his novel [Torah] writings, so I could review them.”

On advice of his son-in-law, the Sixth Rebbe appointed Eber to the position, where the scholar remained until the German Army invaded Poland.

The correspondence also documents the future Rebbe’s unyielding care to follow Lubavitch customs, including one letter responding to a request to assist in attaining a citron for the holiday of Sukkot from Calabria, Italy. Despite the difficulties in obtaining one and at a time when many different varieties were available on the market, the Rebbe would not forgo using such a rare fruit.

Move to Berlin

Immediately after marrying, the future Rebbe and Rebbetzin moved to Berlin, where he enrolled as a university student. In addition to his studies, the future Rebbe juggled an increasing number of projects entrusted to him by the Sixth Rebbe, including researching various manuscripts and the identification of books for his father-in-law’s personal library.

But above all, as revealed by the letters, the Sixth Rebbe beseeched his son-in-law to emerge from the sidelines of public life. He instructed him to visit various individuals on his behalf and attend public events in his place.

The Sixth Rebbe even remarked in a 1933 letter to his daughter that his son-in-law’s preference to keep a low profile needed to be worked on.

In the letter, the Sixth Rebbe writes that he met Jewish activist Marx Sofer in Paris and the subject of the son-in-law came up in their discussion.

“I told him about our treasured and dearest son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel, your honored husband. He was greatly astonished and he very much wants to arrange a meeting,” the Sixth Rebbe writes. “I would very much want this meeting to take place, however it should [punctuated by] conversation, not silence.

A letter from the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to his son-in-law.
A letter from the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to his son-in-law.

The future Rebbe’s “hiding from others does not bring any outcome,” he continues. “I do not know why [he acts this way]; this causes me great heartache. On the contrary, he needs to want to be known, and in certain cases and certain situations, to let others get to know him.”

The Berlin years were also characterized by the Sixth Rebbe’s increasing demand to get to know his son-in-law better. In many letters, he specifically asks for an accounting of the future Rebbe’s daily schedule.

When the future Rebbe gave his father-in-law a brief outline, he expressed his displeasure; the issue wasn’t dropped until the two spent an entire year together, from mid-1934 to mid-1935.

But the letters also reveal a growing concern on the part of the Sixth Rebbe for the safety of the young couple. As the Nazi Party gained in strength, he beseeched them to not venture outside more than necessary.

He blessed them, writing that “G‑d should protect you everywhere you live with good protection.”

The Future Rebbe as Editor

The Sixth Rebbe frequently sent his son-in-law his letters, transcriptions of his talks, and even original manuscripts of unpublished works. During the Berlin years, the future Rebbe was painstakingly creating an extensive index of all published and not-yet published writings, teachings and correspondence of all of the Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes.

The future Rebbe soon suggested to his father-in-law that he publish all of these works. And in 1935, the central Lubavitch yeshiva in Otwosk, Poland, began publishing a scholarly periodical called Hatamim, with the future Rebbe as its anonymous editor.

“With G‑d’s help, through the work and effort of your honorable husband … will soon be published an important journal,” the Sixth Rebbe writes to his daughter. “The editors on paper will be others; however, the entire work is his.”

Repeatedly, the Sixth Rebbe requested and, at times, demanded that his son-in-law review his Chasidic discourses and offer his critiques.

In the same vein, the Sixth Rebbe gave additional publishing assignments to his son-in-law, including spearheading a translation project of extant Chasidic discourses and the compiling of his correspondence for publication.

Several differences of approaches between the pair appear in the new volume, which contains letters written in Hebrew and Yiddish between 1913 and 1947. Among them is the desire of the future Rebbe to compile his father-in-law’s writings according to topic. The Sixth Rebbe, however, writes that he’d rather his writings be published as a gathering of varied letters.

But later, during World War II, the Sixth Rebbe approved the idea and allowed his son-in-law, who had since moved to New York, to arrange scholarly works by topic.

While the volume presents only a few letters written by the future Rebbe to his father-in-law – most have not yet been found – one letter, which was also recorded in the son-in-law’s personal notebook, reveals his feeling that stories of miracles were important to tell over. The Sixth Rebbe, however, differed in this approach.

This volume is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the two Rebbes’ lives during those years. While missing the important background to many of the letters, which it is hoped will be provided in by a future volume of documents on the Rebbe’s pre-New York life, it is well-footnoted by Rabbi Shalom Ber Levine, the chief librarian at the Agudas Chasidei Chabad Central Lubavitch Library, the book is a fascinating read; when paired with the eight published volumes of the Rebbe’s personal notebook, it offers a retelling of crucial years in the development of his leadership style.