By Yochanan Gordon
This Shabbos, Parashas Korach, marks the 25th year since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I have used this space in previous years to pen my personal feelings and reflections in commemoration of a Rebbe, not just of a singular Chassidic sect, but more accurately a Rebbe of all Rebbes and even the Rebbe of the world. Because 25 years is seen as a milestone in commemoration of other lifecycle events, and despite the endless trove of Torah, empowerment, and leadership spanning virtually every area of life that the Rebbe left behind, the physical absence of the Rebbe over the last quarter century—his vivacious smile, his otherworldly sense of empathy and compassion that he expressed personally to everyone he would encounter—I felt that this year’s commemoration would have to outdo those that I have previously written.
Jewish Educational Media, the video archive and multimedia arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has been dedicated since its inception over 30 years ago to interview every person who had an encounter with the Rebbe and release it to the world. In recent years they have ventured into the realm of book publishing and have released My Story, The Early Years, and One by One, the first and last of which consist of the stories of over 100 individuals whose lives were impacted by the Rebbe. To date they have three recording teams—one in the U.S., one in Israel, and the other exclusively for women—who have conducted 1,565 interviews in over 50 cities in 14 countries with a total of 21,462 pages of interview transcripts.
The truth is, I owe them a review of their last book, One by One, whose release coincides with this yahrzeit, but this article doesn’t represent that. What it does represent, however, is my personal story which has never been made public, with the exception of my telling it over the years to my family, some of whom were present when it occurred. But in keeping in line with their vision to document the Rebbe’s impact on the lives of individuals the world over in their own words, I felt this would be the appropriate time to release this.
I don’t think that I am breaking any news by stating that my paternal family is Lubavitch. My father and his siblings grew up in Crown Heights on Montgomery Street between Kingston and Brooklyn Avenues. If you are a semi-avid reader of this newspaper then you have read, on more than one occasion, about my father’s upbringing and his personal reflections of his parents, grandparents, and the sale of his childhood home, which my grandmother lived in until her passing at the age of 95 only a couple of years ago.
My great-grandfather and namesake served as gabbai to both the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe and also merited, through lottery, to participate in the taharah on the head of the Frierdiker Rebbe upon his passing in 1950.
My great-grandparents had four children—three boys and a girl—Nison, Sholom Ber, Esther, and, yibadlu bein chaim l’chaim, Yisrael. My grandfather, Nison, was a Yiddish journalist of repute for the Tog Morgen Journal and then the Algemeiner Journal over a span of many years until his passing in December 1989. Aside from my grandfather’s connection to the Rebbe through his father, in his line of work as a journalist he represented Chabad and many of the Rebbe’s initiatives to the broader Yiddish-speaking public. That is one of the speculative reasons given for the fact that the Rebbe, after principally not attending any levayas for a span of ten years, grabbed his coat and made his way onto the frigid December streets of Crown Heights on that overcast day in 1989.
Unlike my father’s family, my maternal family hailed from Poland. My grandmother, who just celebrated her 89th birthday (she should live and be well), escaped literally from within the clutches of Dr. Mengele, yemach shmoi, whose guards mistook her, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, to be one of theirs and escorted her away from one of their selection lines. My late grandfather was a talmid of Reb Avrohom Jaffen and the mussar Yeshiva of Beis Yosef, Novardok, a discipline that was deeply rooted in his soul. My grandfather was a simple, unpretentious man who spent all of his waking hours poring over Shas and poskim and whose eyes would light up by the mere mention of Reb Chaim Ozer whom he said endearingly pinched his cheek as a 16-year-old bochur when he visited Vilna one Shabbos. So while my maternal upbringing is vastly different from my paternal pedigree, my maternal grandfather did maintain a correspondence with Reb Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Frierdiker Rebbe, over a period of six or seven years, all of which had to remain back in Siberia, which he could attempt to bring over at the risk of his life.
So if you weren’t already aware, it has been made quite clear that I am the product of a mixed marriage, albeit one that was extremely respectful to the Chabad tradition and its leaders throughout all the generations. I guess the agreement my parents reached, early on, when the question arose regarding which schools I would attend, was that I would be educated in the Litvisher yeshiva system. However, beneath my outward appearance and perhaps the order of the morning berachos and a few other variations within tradition, I always grew up with the awareness of where my paternal grandparents hailed from and carried a great sense of pride knowing that I was among the select group of Chabad chassidim whose emissaries, some of whom were my cousins, were carrying the Rebbe’s vision of a perfected world to the far-flung corners of the earth.
On the sixth night of Chanukah 1989, my paternal grandfather, Reb Nison Gordon, passed away. On the occasion of the completion of his shivah, when my extended family visited the Rebbe for dollars one Sunday, the Rebbe wished my father, his siblings, and our extended family tanchumim upon the loss of our patriarch.
My preparation for this article required me enlisting the assistance of Mendel Gourarie and Zalman Ceitlin and the dedicated team at Jewish Educational Media, who unearthed the photo of me as a nine-year-old gazing into the Rebbe’s eyes, as well as the video of that encounter. In it, one family member after the other who were filing solemnly by, received a dollar, nodded to the Rebbe’s empathetic wishes and moved forward allowing the next family member in line to experience their own personal encounter.
It is noteworthy to mention that many of the encounters mentioned earlier that JEM has made public are meetings of mere seconds. If you were lucky you merited 30 seconds to a minute in the Rebbe’s line of sight. In those few seconds, people’s lives were transformed. With a gesture of his penetrative eyes, or the mere motion of his hand, and with the quick utterance of a word, people who had fallen ill were healed, people who struggled with earning a livelihood were blessed with wealth, and young men and women seeking a marriage partner with whom to settle down and build a family merited to find him or her. It’s hard to imagine if you haven’t experienced it, but a second in the Rebbe’s presence could chart your trajectory for many years into the future, which on some level is what occurred to me as you will see.
I was eight years old at the time, following closely by my mother’s side, as she filed past the Rebbe. Rabbi Leibel Groner, who was at the Rebbe’s side on that day, gave the Rebbe two-dollar bills which he placed deliberately into the hands of each child and adult respectively. As my mother passed by, she took her two-dollars and called me by name, signaling to me that I should take the two dollars that were meant for me. Having overheard my name, the Rebbe turned to look at me and asked: “Es iz a nomen nochen Zaiden?” To which my mother answered in the affirmative as she continued on. But the Rebbe was not finished talking. Rabbi Groner, noticed that my mother hadn’t realized that the Rebbe stopped the line and called out in order for my mother to take heed of what the Rebbe had to say. Somewhat startled by the minor commotion that had ensued, my mother paused and turned towards the Rebbe, who said: “Mistam vet zayn az er geit in direkshin foon di zeiden,” which means: “He will most likely follow in the path sowed by his great-grandfather.” And at that point the line continued moving.
The story doesn’t end here; it was only beginning. But before I continue, there is something about the Rebbe’s words to my mother on that day that is distinctive from many of the other stories that I have read. Where the Rebbe would oftentimes give a berachah here it was as if the Rebbe was saying that because I was named for my Zaide, who was highly regarded as a Chassidisher Yid, he would bequeath those characteristics to me, his namesake, as a matter of course.
But as defining as this encounter has become in retrospect, at the time and for many years after, while the story remained stored in a file in our consciousness, the enormity of those words was not truly felt. I remained in the Litvisher yeshiva system all the way through beis midrash and while I would learn sichos with my father on Shabbos and yom tov mornings, and at the end of mesivta I would begin to learn Tanya and some of the Rebbe’s Maamarim on my own, I didn’t realize the full weight the Rebbe’s words would carry until I began dating in search of a marriage partner.
The question many were asking back then, long before I fully gravitated towards the world of chassidus, was who would Yochanan Gordon end up marrying? Humorously, in a summer yearbook entry at the end of the summer of the year 2000 in camp Nearim, a friend inscribed under my name: “In twenty years: Yochanan Gordon will be the eighth Lubavitcher Rebbe after the seventh Rebbe passed away.”
So when I entered the world of shidduchim, there wasn’t any question that I’d be dating girls from mainstream yeshiva homes because that was the path I was educated upon. For my part, I was going to find a family that respected Chabad and the Rebbe, which at that time already meant a great deal to me.
However, I was dating for quite some time—more than a couple of years—without any prospects that seemed plausible for me. It was then that my moment with the Rebbe occupied a space at the forefront of my consciousness and it occurred to me that I was looking for prospects in all the wrong places.
While my parents were fielding all of my shidduch prospects and I would go out pretty much with anyone who they felt was suitable for me, a feeling of uneasiness began settling in my gut but I was apprehensive about speaking up and letting them know exactly how I felt.
One summer, probably in the year 2005, my mother was away one evening during the nine days and my father and I decided to get dinner together in Bistro Grill, which was then on Broadway and was featuring a nine days fish and pasta menu.
As I type these words I feel the uneasiness that I felt then, trying to muster the courage to state what I was feeling. It occurred to me then that if I didn’t say something at that moment, I’d end up wasting a lot more time. I looked at my father and said, “Abba, I’ve been thinking a lot about the girls who I’ve been dating and it has occurred to me that I’ve been dating the wrong girls. They are all very nice but there is a certain lack of chemistry or connection that I felt, stemming from the differences in our pedigrees.”
I wasn’t expecting the answer that my father gave, because I thought that I was the only one who was thinking about what the Rebbe told us 16 years earlier. However, he answered, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that too but the problem is that you’re too Lubavitch for the Litvish girls and too Litvish for the Lubavitch girls.” When he said that a verse in Melachim entered my mind where Eliyahu Hanavi reprimanded those serving the Baal with the words “Ad massai atem poschim al shtei has’ifim?” Meaning: “For how long will you be flip flopping between two opinions?” In other words, I had felt, due to the circumstances, that my objective in life was to merge the two worlds, but they seemed at that moment to be unable to meet.
I was thrown into a whirlwind of introspective thought, unsure of where to turn or how to proceed. After spending the weekend at home I returned shortly thereafter to Waterbury, CT where I was learning at the time. I reviewed this conversation with one of my rebbeim and asked him if he felt I should leave yeshiva, grow a beard, and choose one path instead of straddling the fence between two divergent ones? At the time, he told me that it was a serious consideration but I knew that at that stage of the game it wasn’t practical. I recall, in a moment of solitude, peering heavenward and articulating the following feelings in the form of entreaty. I said, “Rebbe, when you told me many years ago that I’d mistam follow in my great-grandfather’s direction, you certainly didn’t mean to make my life more difficult or less joyous. Well, shidduchim have been hard to come, and I am at an unsure period in my life right now. Please help me navigate the dark roads of uncertainty and help me in discovering the young woman who was destined for me at the time that it was preordained. While I still didn’t know who I was destined to marry, I knew with complete certainty that the right person would present themselves and that they’d facilitate me in fulfilling what the Rebbe saw that day as nature running its course.
Just a few months after that story, I was already back home working for my father at this newspaper. It was a Friday, and I was in my car on my way home when my rosh yeshiva called me saying that he knew of a family from Monsey whose daughter recently returned from seminar in Bayit V’gan whose father used to be a rebbi in Lubavitch and was now an insurance broker. He felt that this was a great prospect.
I hurriedly made my way home, through the front door, whereupon I was going to report the great news to my father who was on the phone at the time. When the phone call ended he said that it was Moshe Klein, our cousin from Crown Heights who gave him info on a girl from Monsey whose family was Lubavitch but was educated through the Beis Yaakov system. I said, “You’re kidding me, right!?” He said, “No, we just got off the phone and this is what he said. Why?” I said, “I just got off the phone with Rabbi Kaufman from Waterbury and he suggested the same girl.”
I could not figure out how Moshe Klein could come up with the same girl! And then the story became clear. My father-in-law travelled from Monsey to Crown Heights to buy tefillin for my brother-in-law Mendy who then, in 2006, was going to be putting on tefillin for the first time. My cousin Moshe Klein is a well-known sofer in Crown Heights and so my father-in-law went there to look for tefillin. While there, he took the opportunity to ask Moshe if he knew of any Lubavitch boys who learned in Litvish yeshiva for his daughter who learned in Bais Yaakov but was looking for a Lubavitch boy. He immediately mentioned my name and thus this prospect came from both Moshe Klein, who ended up facilitating the shidduch, and my rosh yeshiva.
We dated for three weeks and wed in June 2006. I now live with my beautiful wife of 13 years and our four boys and a girl in Cedarhurst. We daven in Chabad. And while my children attend local yeshivas, there isn’t a day when our nine-year-old Yehuda doesn’t stop bothering us about sending him to Chabad Yeshiva, or when my children collectively hagger me about the absence of my beard—which is a topic of another article. So in case you’re wondering, this seemingly benign supposition that the Rebbe made to an eight year old has borne fruit in the next generation.
This story occurred to me but was not unique to me. There were countless eight year olds, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men, women, and children regardless of race or denomination who found succor and guidance in the Rebbe’s wise gaze. The Rebbe was equally relatable to children and adults, laymen and leaders, professors and politicians, all of whom confided in him and sought to be blessed by him. It behooves all of us to dedicate time this weekend to pay homage.
As Shlomo Carlebach concluded a eulogy he delivered shortly after Gimmel Tammuz 1994, “Friends, there never was a Rebbe like the Lubavitcher Rebbe and there will never be another one like him.”
May the merit of the Rebbe stand in our good stead and may we merit to see the fulfillment of his life’s only goal to see the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.