Thirty-five years ago, my father, the novelist Harvey Swados visited Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on the occasion of a "farbrengen" - a traditional gathering of the adherents of the Lubavitch movement - and again privately, when they were granted a late-night audience.

The article my father wrote about his experience with the Rebbe, who passed away on June 12, 1994, at the age of 92, was, somewhat inexplicably, never published. It lay in the archives of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst until 1993, when a writer who was researching material for a possible biography came across it and brought it to the family's attention.

An excerpt from the article was printed on the New York Times op-ed page two days after the Rebbe's passing. Here is the full text of the article.

- Robin Swados

Before I learned in the winter of 1964 that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the then sixty-two year old leader of Hasidic Jewry, would receive me in audience, I had made several visits to these devout Russian Jews' Brooklyn Headquarters. The modest brick building, between Flatbush and Crown Heights on Eastern Parkway, houses publishing offices, a school for children, a Yeshiva for young men and a substantial auditorium.

My first visit was merely to introduce myself to their public relations man, a pleasant, bearded young Boston Latin School graduate named Yehuda Krinsky. I wanted to clarify in my mind the distinction between these people and the Hungarian Hasidim led by the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.

It was at Rabbi Krinsky's suggestion that I paid my second visit, some weeks later, on the occasion of a farbrengen, a traditional gathering of the adherents of this two hundred year-old movement to discuss developments, recount tales of Rabbis, and bolster each other in the faith. The one that I attended is an annual event, commemorating the miraculous release of the late Rebbe from a Russian prison. It is often swelled by the arrival of chartered planeloads of Hasidic Jews from abroad.

When I arrived, at about eight-thirty, and made my way past the Irish cops chatting amiably with clusters of orthodox Jews whose earlocks hung down beneath their broad-brimmed hats, the crowd of faithful and curious was already dense, and the Rebbe had just made his way to the dais. The ceremonial of oratory, toasts, and singing would go on uninterruptedly for five or six hours.

I had been prepared for a crowd, but not for this crushing mob of bearded males, many of them like myself in winter overcoats which they could not possibly raise their arms to remove; nor for the little seven and eight year-olds, their heads uniformly covered with leather helmets (the kind that we called 'Lindy hats' when I was that age), squeezed and swaying so that I feared for their safety.

Someone recognized me as an invited guest, and I was passed along through a side entrance, and so found myself wedged on a corner of the platform not six feet from the Rebbe, who was addressing the throng from a chair in which he was seated behind a long table covered with a white cloth, and flanked by two rows of the dignified, black-frocked elders of the Hasidic movement.

Looking out at the congregants, I saw what the Rebbe must have seen: a most remarkable assemblage, and one which for my part I shall never forget.

Seated facing at each other at three long tables, also covered with linen cloths on which stood an occasional bottle of Tokay Kosher wine, a dish of cookies, a paper sack filled with cakes, were several hundred men, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies. Some were in business suits, others in the elegant black dressing gown that a pious Hasid wears for festive occasions, tied in the middle with a gartel, the sash that symbolizes the separation of man's higher mental and spiritual qualities from the inferior ones. Perhaps nine out of ten were bearded — not for convenience, or perhaps vanity, as I was myself, but in accordance with religious prescriptions — and for some moments I was lost in contemplation of the immense variety of thickets, red, brown, black, gray, some sparse, others extravagantly luxuriant, in which many of their wearers allowed their fingers to stray, thoughtfully and proudly.

But as I freed myself from contemplation of the panorama of beards over the white tables, I became aware of the younger men closely packed against either wall, standing on raised planks like bleachers, of the many hundreds wedged tightly together at the rear of the hall, among whom I too had been squashed, and of those in the balcony, which was concealed from the rest of us by tinted green glass - because, I realized, it was reserved for female congregants, some carrying little ones, their noses pressed to the glass. I became aware, too, of how these hundreds thronged together were attending, with a kind of passionate patience, to the speech of the Rebbe, who was addressing them calmly and steadily in a fluent Yiddish, without rising or raising his voice.

Since I could not follow the complex line of his discourse, with its parables taken from traditional Hasidic tales and homely incidents, interwoven with abstruse philosophical theory, I was free to stare at all those around me — rabbis, merchants, scholars, small businessmen, students, workmen — who were listening with an intensity I had never encountered, whether in a classroom, at the public lecturn, or at a religious or political rally.

Several teen-age boys, their beards just starting to sprout, their eyes half-closed, trancelike, unseeing, swayed back and forth rapidly from the waist up, almost as if their torsos were propelled by some independent internal motor, in the contained ecstasy of their participation in the Rebbe's peroration.

Behind me, his hands clasped in his lap as he listened, quite motionless, sat a well-known mathematician from a midwestern university. Just below me, a sturdy rough-hewn man hunched over the table in profound thought as if carved of wood, his shaggy brows and greying beard shaded by the peak of a Russian workman's cap of the kind that one sees in old photographs of Russian revolutionaries and litterateurs. Who could he be? I discovered later that he had been released only two weeks before from twenty years of captivity in Soviet prison camps (where he had gained extraordinary renown for selfless generosity), and that he had flown from London relatives directly to this farbrengen in order that he might listen to the Rebbe.

Meanwhile the Rebbe, having concluded his first address of the evening, moistened his lips with the wine gass, and accepted, with a smiling inclination of the head, toasts eagerly offered him by those about him. It was then that the singing began.

At first spontaneous, soon encouraged and "conducted" by the Rebbe, who swung his forearms gaily, rhythmically to the beat of the music from his seated position, the simple song rose to a pitch of unrestrained enthusiasm, with the chorus repeated ten, fifteen times, each time wilder and faster. A man would have had to be made of stone not to respond to this great release of joyous energy. I did not know the words, but I found myself singing along with all those who showed their teeth through their beards bobbing from side to side in time to the music, often hopping up and down as well.

Suddenly, at the slightest of signals from the Rebbe, everyone fell silent. Refreshed and restored, they reverted to their posture of rapt attentiveness while the Rebbe resumed speaking for another three quarters of an hour. Fascinated by this alternation of intense intellectual virtuosity and physical release through song (the Rebbe continued speaking, I was told later, until about three o'clock in the morning), I stayed until perhaps midnight before going off to a neighborhood Hasidic hangout with a warm-hearted young Lubavitcher.

I had seen two aspects of Rabbi Schneerson, the coolly analytical and the gaily earthy; in each role he was the charismatic leader, gaining the rapt devotion of his followers. Others had told me that this scholar-philosopher, fluent in some ten languages and an engineering graduate of the Sorbonne before he accepted the task of leadership of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, was even more impressive — if more difficult to see — in private conversation.

I jumped at the opportunity to talk with the Rebbe, even though my appointment was for eleven o'clock on the night of what turned out to be the winter's fiercest snowstorm. Not only was my wife given welcome shelter in the building from the blinding snow — there were no other women in sight, at this late hour the last of the Yeshiva students were still droning away in sing-song at their studies — but the Rebbe himself greeted her most kindly.

"We don't discriminate here," he said with a smile, and after he bade us seat ourselves before his desk, he inquired in an English that was heavily accented but more fluent than my own, whether I would mind if he answered my questions in Yiddish.

Rabbi Schneerson's office, by contrast with the Victorian opulence of that of the Satmar Rebbe, was as bleak as the rest of the dingy building, the bare Venetian blinds drawn against the beating snow outside, the walls bare also, and with nothing on his desk but a pad and a telephone.

The Rebbe sat very still, attending to my queries with his head bent forward so that his broad-brimmed hat shaded his face, which appeared deceptively ruddy. He is a strikingly handsome man, whose almost classically regular features are not at all obscured by a graying beard which is full but not bushy, and whose pale blue eyes remain fixed upon you with an unblinking directness that can be disconcerting.

He rather reminds one of a Rembrandt rabbi in the shadowed planes of his composed countenance, which is not simply dignified but somber in repose; and yet the tilt of his hat seems at times almost rakish, and the glint of his eyes under its brim puts you in mind of those gifted bohemians of 19th-century Paris whom one encounters in Impressionist portraits. It is easy to imagine the figure he must have cut as a young man at the Sorbonne.

I began, as I had by the Satmar Rebbe, by asking his opinion of the causes of the holocaust which resulted in the extinction of six million European Jews — and of the controversy about the behavior of the German masses and the Jewish leadership, which has tormented the western world ever since, particularly since the appearance of Hannah Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial. His reply made no reference to abstractions, whether theological or philosophical, nor did he remark — as had the Satmar Rebbe — on the sins the victims must have committed to be punished so terribly by God. He pointed instead to political realities, to the incredible difficulties in maintaining one's faith under a totalitarian regime.

Speaking of the hardship and the anguish undergone by the Jews of Communist Russia, he asked rhetorically: How much more difficult do you suppose it was to keep hold of one's integrity under the crushing weight of the German tyrants, who were so much more efficient than the Russians? No, he said firmly, the miracle was that there was any resistance at all, that there was any organization at all, that there was any leadership at all.

This was not exactly what I had expected. Was it his opinion, then, that the tragedy was not a unique visitation upon the Jewish people, and that it could happen again?

"Morgen in der fruh," he replied unhesitatingly. "Tomorrow morning."

Why was he so certain? The Rebbe launched into an analysis of the German atrocities in a rhetoric that shifted eloquently and unhesitatingly, often in the same sentence, from English (for my benefit) to Yiddish (for nuance and precision). He did not speak mystically, nor did he harp on the German national character and its supposed affinity for Jew-hatred. Rather, he insisted upon the Germans' obedience to authority and their unquestioning carrying out of orders — even the most bestial — as a cultural-historical phenomenon that was the product of many generations of deliberate inculcation.

Then what future did he envision for the Jewish people? Would it not seem that they would tend to polarize — either to return to Israel, the land of their fathers, or to amalgamate with the general populace of such countries as the United States and Russia?

The Rebbe smiled. "No," he replied, "in my experience, the Jewish people have been moving from left to right."

Coming from his lips, the expression had almost political ring to it. At my evident puzzlement, he repeated the phrase, which I took to mean that he had been witnessing a kind of religious revival among the new generation of Jewry.

In this connection, I was most curious to learn what this distinguished leader of Hasidic Jewry, consulted not alone by humble followers desiring his blessing and his counsel on personal problems, but also by such political figures as the President of Israel, would have to say about Martin Buber, internationally renowned for his presentation of Hasidic tales and his incorporation of aspects of Hasidic beliefs into existentialist patterns of thought.

In his response, the Rebbe turned to analogies, I now began to see, that would be more easily comprehended by me than those drawn from more recondite sources.

"The Buber versions of our Hasidic tales can be compared to reproductions of works of art. One gets a sense of what a great painting is like from a print, but one cannot apprehend the painting from the print any more than one can apprehend a great sculpture from a plaster copy. In terms of their value, it is true that some people are stirred by reproductions and copies to seek out the original and discover the secrets of its greatness. Most, however, are inclined to take simple satisfaction in the delusion that they have been given a painless revelation of artistic profundity. To the extent that Buber leads people to think that they are getting a genuine understanding of Hasidism without having to learn from the source, his influence is not constructive."

At this point I decided that I might safely inquire as to what the Lubavitcher Rebbe thought of the conduct of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. Rabbi Schneerson leaned back and smiled at me, amused.

As the shadow of his hat brim was removed, his face changed color, looking no longer ruddy but pallid, almost translucent. "Why should I comment," he asked good-humoredly, "about the relationship between a man in Williamsburg whom I do not know and the State of Israel, which I have never visited? It is one thing for me to discuss the Germans and the Jews — I am a Jew, and my own people have suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis. But this other question of yours really does not concern me."

I forbore to press the point, particularly since we had already been talking for over half an hour, and I did not wish to encroach on his time or on that of those who were waiting patiently to see him. I thanked him for his courtesy and half rose to leave, when he restrained me with a motion of his hand.

"Now that you have interviewed me, I'd like to interview you. Unless you have any objections?"

"Please," I said, "go right ahead."

"But I am afraid that I won't be as diplomatic with you as you have been with me." And the Rebbe grinned wickedly at me.

After a few questions about my background, he asked me about the subject matter of my books. When I protested that it was not easy to sum up in a sentence or two books that had taken me years to write, he retorted, "Surely I can expect a better summation from you than from anyone else."

He seemed particularly interested in my description of On the Line, a book in which I had attempted, by means of a series of fictional portraits of auto assembly workers, to demonstrate the impact of their work on their lives. It was a theme I had originally selected because it seemed to me, as a former factory worker, that it was being neglected by other novelists.

"What conclusions did you come to?"

The question nettled me. It struck me as obtuse, coming from a man of such subtle perception.

"Did you suggest," he persisted, "that the unhappy workers, the exploited workers, the workers chained to their machines, should revolt?"

"Of course not. It would have been unrealistic."

"What relation would you say that your book bears to the early work of Upton Sinclair?"

I was flabbergasted. Here I was, sitting in the study of a scholar of mystic lore late on a wintry night, and discussing not Chabad Hasidism, Aristotelianism or scholasticism but proletarian literature! "Why," I said, "I would hope that it is less narrowly propagandistic than Sinclair's. I was trying to capture a mood of frustration rather than one of revolution."

Suddenly I realized that he had led me to the answer that he was seeking — and what was more, with his next query I realized how many steps ahead of my faltering mind: "You could not conscientiously recommend revolution for your unhappy workers in a free country, or see it as a practical perspective for their leaders. Then how could one demand it from those who were being crushed and destroyed by the Nazis?"

"But when I questioned you, I wasn't associating myself with the Arendt positon on Eichmann and the Jewish leaders," I protested. "I was simply trying to solicit your opinion of a question that has troubled me deeply."

"I realize that," the Rebbe smiled. "I am only suggesting that you might search for some of the answers in your own background and your own writing. After all, you have certain responsibilities which the ordinary man does not — your words affect not just your own family and friends but thousands of readers."

"I'm not sure I know what those responsibilities are."

"First, there is the responsibility to understand the past. Earlier, you asked me about the future of Judaism. Supposing I ask you how you explain the past, the survival of Judaism over three millennia."

"Well," I said a bit uneasily, "the negative force of persecution has certainly driven people together who might otherwise disintegrate. I'm not certain that the disappearance of that persecution, whether through statehood in Israel or through the extension of democracy in this country, wouldn't weaken or destroy what you think of as Jewishness."

"Do you really think that only a negative force unites the little tailor in Melbourne and the Rothschild in Paris?"

"I wouldn't deny the positive aspects of Judaism."

"Then suppose that scientific inquiry and historical research lead you to conclude that factors which you might regard as irrational have contributed to the continuity of Judaism. Wouldn't you feel logically bound to acknowledge the power of the irrational, even though you declined to embrace it?"

Hypnotized by the elegance with which he was leading me to meet him on his own grounds, I assented; as he continued, he turned occasionally to the metaphors of science, partly, I was sure, because they came to his mind as readily as the theological, and partly because he realized that I would find them intellectually more comfortable.

"The artist who wishes to present something more original than those copies of which we were speaking" — once again he was making a connection between his responses to my questions and mine to his — "must bear in mind his responsibility not only to his readers but to his past, his heritage."

"You have a certain talent, a gift for expressing yourself so that thousands are swayed by what you write. Where does that talent come from?"

I was beginning to sweat. "Partly from hard work. From practice, from study."

"Naturally. But is it unscientific to suggest that you might owe some of it to your forebears? You are not self-created, you did not spring from nothing."

"I recognize," I said desperately, "that in the genes, the chromosomes..."

"If you wish. The point is, isn't it, that something has been transmitted to you by your father, your grandfather, your great-grandfather, down through the ages? And that you owe them a debt, a debt which you have the responsibility to try to repay?"

Now I was sweating heavily. In the silence that enveloped the room I could hear my watch ticking; my wife's hands, I noticed, were clenched as tightly as my own. But the Rebbe sat relaxed, seemingly with all the time in the world for me to fumble for responses. I had the feeling, like a student faking, that if I didn't say something, no matter what, I would be stuck here forever.

"Are you suggesting, Rebbe," I asked, "that I should re-examine my writing, or my personal code and my private life?"

"Doesn't one relate to the other? Doesn't one imply the other?"

"That's a complicated question."

"Yes," he smiled amiably, "it certainly is." He paused. "I warned you that I wouldn't be diplomatic, didn't I?"

Silence again. Then I thanked him, as we all arose, for being so generous with his time. The Rebbe waved that aside. "We'll see," he said, "what your writing turns out like in the time ahead."

For a moment I thought he was referring to what I might write about our meeting; then I realized that few things could matter less to him. For he is a man quite without vanity, and what he was expressing was the hope that my work would go well — certainly better than before, which is always devoutly to be wished...

Outside, the snow was blowing furiously, piling up in swirling drifts along Eastern Parkway. Several Lubavitcher stood on the side with their wives, bundling up against the blast, but waiting nonetheless to hear our account of what the Rebbe had said to us.

The last thing in the world I wanted was to stand in the howling snow and summarize an hour and a half of intensely concentrated conversation, but they were so innocently eager that I had to try to give them some notion of what their leader had said to me — if not of my own reaction.

"Tell me," demanded one, beaming with pride at my recounting of the intellectual agility of Rabbi Schneerson, "what kind of impression did the Rebbe make on you? I know it's cold, but just tell me in one word."

There it was again. This time I did not bridle; perhaps the traditional good humor of the Hasidim as well as their bluntness had penetrated my chilled flesh at last. "If I had to choose one word to characterize him," I said, surprising myself more than my nodding listeners, "I guess I would choose the word 'kindly.'"

And my wife and I clambered into our snow-covered automobile for the long dangerous drive back home, both of us silent for a long time, wrapped in our own thoughts.