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In the Presence of the Rebbe
Copyright © 2000 Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D
Altogether I had been in a New York City hospital more than three months when one morning before dawn, an aide entered my room. She was out of breath, and immediately went to the window craning her neck to see what was happening outside. Not minding she woke me up, she seemed pleased I was awake and excitedly asked if I heard the commotion when they brought the rabbi into the hospital in the middle of the night. "What rabbi?" I said, wishing she would go away. She looked at me in disbelief and said, "The rabbi. He had a seizure during the night."
I knew she had to be referring to Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the powerful and controversial 92 year old leader of the Lubavitch group of Hasidim, who some followers considered to be the Messiah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as he was called, had suffered a series of widely reported strokes. I told the aide I hadn't heard any tumult and closed my eyes, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. Instead, she eagerly assured me his people were still out there below his window, which happened to be a few floors above mine.
The news hardly excited me. I was still depleted from the aftermath of two surgeries to replace my hip. I had broken it in a fall while in the throes of an acute exacerbation of multiple sclerosis. In the ten years I had been battling against and living with MS, I had been able to draw on an inner strength, a strength prior to the illness I never knew existed, but was inexplicably available whenever I needed it. That is, until I broke my hip. Then I felt as if I had fallen off a mountain and been removed from under a pile of rubble, bruised and dispirited.
Surgery was made long and difficult by an apparent congenital anomaly in my hip. The first time I laboriously attempted to stand, it dislocated. The surgeon, an earnest young man, told me he was now out of his league, and suggested the name of a highly skilled -- world-class, if you will -- orthopedic surgeon.
With more surgery, came more complications. A sliver of the fear I was trying so hard to suppress kept rearing its sharp edges, painfully reminding me that when I once again attempted to stand, my hip might dislocate again. And it did. I was put into a body brace for more than two months, with the hope that the muscles and ligaments would scar together and hold my hip in place, but there were no guarantees. My neurologist, a caring man who unflaggingly stood by my side, gently told me I might never walk again, even if my hip held in place. I had been immobile long enough to lose significant, possibly irrevocable, body mass.
My family and friends were loving and supportive, and often called on a higher power: prayers were said, messages were placed by Jewish and non-Jewish friends in the Western Wall in Israel, and a "healing circle" was even held on my behalf. Nevertheless, I was in dread of the moment when I would once more attempt to stand. My physical therapist, however, who had been a wrestler in the former Czechoslovakia, remained undaunted. He diligently worked with me, helping me do passive exercises to strengthen my weakened muscles. Even so, my ailing body felt heavy, leaden, like a statue that had fallen down, cracked, and been repaired -- only to crack again, and still again.
I tried to get a drop more sleep before nurses and aides would again invade my personal space, but to no avail. Screeching and banging noises started coming from outside sounding like a loudspeaker was being set up. Soon I heard the Rebbe's followers beginning to chant. They quickly got into a rhythm they were obviously familiar with, but these were not the sounds of prayers in the synagogue that I knew. Then I remembered being told that the melodies of the Hasidim were different from those of other Jews of Eastern European origin.
My grandfather, a man who was alleged to have lived a rather checkered life, broke with Hasidism in Poland more than 100 years ago. While I could never know his hopes, or why he left the fold, I was thankful he came to America. Reading Martin Buber's "Tales of the Hasidim" made it easy for me to retain a lingering romanticism about the mysteries of Hasidic life more than a century ago. But I knew little about present-day Hasidim who, dressed in their their18th century black garb, hurried along the streets of Manhattan as if they were rushing to get to a different time, another place. Still, I wondered: Did my grandfather know the tunes the Hasidim below my window chanted so ardently, or were these melodies of a more recent vintage?
As I listened to the voices of the Rebbe's disciples, I could almost feel their yearning rise past my window. Their chants grew more urgent, and seemed to pulsate, as if their intensity alone could ensure the Rebbe's health. After a while, just as I could hear the imploring voices below me, I could almost feel the presence of the Rebbe above me.
As the afternoon stretched into evening and the chanting grew ever more fervent, I felt touched by its intent, and enveloped in its energy. A deep peace embraced me, and I felt comforted by the thought that I was a small part of a very large story that existed well before me and would continue long after me. As I fell asleep, I knew I had found the strength to risk standing.
When my physical therapist came into the room the next morning, he gave me an expectant look, and said in a crisp European fashion, "So." I replied, "So, today I stand." I sat up slowly and pulled my braced and unbraced legs over the side of the bed. Then, with the physical therapist's guidance, I carefully positioned my feet on the floor and my hands on the walker. Using the strength in my arms, I firmly pressed down against the walker, and felt my body rise. I was standing. I took a deep breath. Nothing creaked, nothing seemed to break. I then took another breath, lifted my unbraced leg, a leg that felt as if it was made from heavy concrete, and took a small step. One more breath, and I lifted my even heavier braced leg, and took another small step. My hip didn't dislocate, and I was walking.
At the time I knew that for a brief moment I drew courage from the presence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the passionate devotion of his followers. But with reflection, six years have passed, I came to understand that my Jewishness is not simply to be found in an existential moment -- albeit a profound one -- but is always present, that "pintele Yid," the small spark within each Jew that is ever-ready to rekindle the spirit.
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This article is dedicated to the memory of Herman Weinreb, MD., a caring doctor who saw me through this episode with grace and humor. Dr. Weinreb, who pioneered using the Internet to enhance doctor/patient communication, previewed an earlier version of this piece and commented that the time the Rebbe was in the hospital "was magical".
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About the author
PHYLLIS B. GRODSKY, who holds a Ph.D. in Social/ Personality psychology, has previously published in The Jewish Magazine : (http://www.jewishmag.com/32mag/amends/amends.htm). Her award winning Web site, "PLAY IT AGAIN" (http://members.aol.com/PBGrodsky/), shows grandparents how to engage in imaginative play with their grandchildren.
from the May 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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