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A Special Connection With God

Life Among the Lubavitcher Hasidim

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Like brothers and sisters fighting over the keys to heaven, the various Jewish sects disagree over the degree to which Jewish laws and customs must be followed, and among the family members, the Lubavitcher Hasidim fight the hardest. A Hasidic sect devoted to the strict observance of ritual laws, the Lubavitchers grudgingly admit that everyone will go to heaven--Christians, Buddhists, Muslims--but they believe that their ways are the holiest and that their mission is to persuade other Jews that theirs is the correct way through the gates.

"We look at all other Jews as beautiful Jews, with souls that sparkle like diamonds," explains Chaya Penansky (all the names have been changed), a small, slender, 55-year-old Lubavitcher Hasid. "Some Jews have a higher source of soul," Penansky continues. "Some Jews have less capacity. Some of these other Jews have much better sources of soul, many times better, than us. We look at the sparkling soul of the nonreligious Jews as being covered over like a peel--like an orange peel--which is represented by not knowing Torah. Every time such a person practices a mitzvah [one of the 613 Jewish commandments], some of the peel is pulled away and the fire is there to burn brighter. Inside this peel, the fire lusts for godliness, actually lusts for God, tries to get to God. All you have to do is remove some of the peel and the fire will come out. And that's what a Jew is supposed to do, to have godliness. All the Jews are the same, from the most nonreligious to the most Holy Roller."

But, Penansky says, "the nonreligious Jews have gone off the lines of halakah [the legal guidelines]. They say the Bible was written by various men and not God. They have trouble with spiritual matters. They have trouble realizing there is something above that they can't know. If somebody denies that spirituality, that person has problems. To be Jewish, you have to admit spirituality, you have to submit to a higher law, bow to God's law. It is our mission to bring other Jews and gentiles to a recognition of God."

Penansky is not one of those who has difficulty submitting to a higher law. Her whole life is dominated by the sacred laws, which were given, in her view, to Moses by God 3,000 years ago. Hasidism (which translates as "Pietism") is a way of life that emphasizes prayer and personal religious devotion. Penansky says a b'rocha, a short ritual prayer, for almost everything: She gives thanks for the giving of bread, of life, of new clothing. When she wakes in the morning, even before she gets out of bed, Penansky offers a prayer to thank God for "giving back" her soul. Then, she explains, "You can't touch any opening in your body--eyes, ears, nose, mouth--because, when you awake, there is a residue of spiritual uncleanliness from sleep." To rid herself of that uncleanliness, she washes with a gissur, a round, lipless pitcher. She pours water over her hands, rinsing first one hand, then the other, three times. "Unless you do that she says, "it is dangerous." Only after this ritual can she urinate. And every time she does, she says in Hebrew, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has formed man in wisdom and has created within him . . . numerous orifices and cavities. . . . If one of them were to be blocked or if none of them were to be open it would be impossible to exist even for a short time. Blessed are you, Lord, who heals all flesh and performs wonders."

Following this ritual, she gets dressed, covering her short hair with a scarf because a mitzvah commands that a married woman cover her head (she will wear a shaitl [wig] when she goes out or has guests). Then she reads aloud from her siddur (prayer book), about seven pages of text, walking about the room swaying because davening (praying) must, according to the Torah, be done with the whole body. The prayers "acknowledge that God gave us our souls and eventually he will take them from us." They ask that God "keep me from illness or malicious tongue or unnatural death." In effect, it is a prayer for protection for the day. "Then," she adds, "you say a b'rocha for studying the Torah, for the precepts that bring joy to the world--honor your father and mother, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, taking care of a poor bride, escorting the dead, bringing peace between men and between husband and wife, concentrating on prayer. The study of the Torah is the equivalent to them all because then you know how to do it."

After these prayers, Penansky continues to daven for another 15 or 20 minutes. She reads from the Torah and recites the Tehillim (Psalms). "In the old days in Europe," she says, "they davened for two hours in the morning. Now, they've come up with meditation. Judaism has always had meditation, but ours is with our whole bodies, not just sitting quietly. You've got a spiritual part--the soul--and a physical part--the body. You have to use your voice. You're talking to God. You gesture, talking to God with fervor, actively engaged in communication."

One bright early morning, I arrived at the Penansky house while Chaya was still davening. She sent me into the kitchen, excused herself, and continued her prayers. When she finished, she replaced her scarf with her wig and joined me in the kitchen. While her cereal was cooking, she put some money into a couple of the 11 tzedaka (charity) boxes that sit on a shelf in her kitchen. Each box is for one or another Jewish charity. The Penanskys give 20 percent of their income to charity.

When her cereal was ready, Penansky said a b'rocha over it, then ate her breakfast. She usually eats bread or cereal because "the Talmud says that a person who eats bread in the morning has 60 times more power than someone who doesn't." When she eats bread, she first dips it in salt and says a prayer. On the second morning I visited her, she ate a dry bagel. Penansky will daven once more during the day, for ten minutes or so sometime between noon and 6 PM, as required by the Torah, and she will say prayers before and after her meals.

In accordance with the Jewish dietary laws that require the separation of dairy and meat products, she cooks her cereal and boils water for our coffee in milchig (dairy) pans on her milchig stove on one wall of her kitchen. She eats her breakfast from milchig dishes with milchig silver. Her fleishig (meat) stove is against a different wall. Her double sink has two drain boards so the milchig and fleishig pots, pans, dishes, and silver never touch each other. Her milk, or cholov, comes from a dairy that has rabbinic approval and whose production is inspected daily for standards of purity. Fifteen years ago, Chaya's husband, Neyach, began going to the farm very early in the morning to watch the milk being processed, and then brought it back to the city to the families that wanted it. In recent years, the demand for cholov has increased as the Lubavitcher community has grown, and a man has been hired to handle this responsibility.

Jewish dietary laws, adhered to by Orthodox Jews and followed strictly by Hasidim, help establish and maintain the separateness and holiness of those who follow them. Of the 248,000 Jews in Chicago recorded by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago in 1982, only 4 percent were Orthodox. The Hasidim believe that the larger Jewish community doesn't meet their standards in the manufacture and preparation of food. Lubavitchers eat only meat from their own shokhet (butcher) in New York. Cottage cheese is also imported to ensure that it is made only from cholov. The Penanskys import most of their ready-made foods, in fact, from other cities. There are now about eight kosher restaurants in Chicago. The Penansky daughters love the two kosher pizza parlors, though a pizza in a kosher restaurant doesn't much resemble one from Giordano's.

During Passover, Jews avoid all food containing leaven--any substance, such as yeast, that causes fermentation. The house must be cleansed of every remnant of grain. Penansky has a special kitchen in the basement of their four-bedroom bungalow where she cooks for Passover and stores the dishes and cookware that are used only then. To use her kitchen sinks she covers them with aluminum foil, and her cupboards--including those in the bathroom, where alcohol is sometimes used in toiletries--are all sealed off.

Religious customs are observed throughout the house. Each doorjamb in Penansky's house has a mezuzah affixed to it--a small parchment scroll with a passage from Deuteronomy. Penansky explains that the mezuzah "asks God to protect the house marked by it, just as he protected the homes of the Jews who marked their doors with lamb's blood when he killed the firstborn sons of the Egyptians." Many Jews enclose the parchment in elaborate boxes of pottery, metal, or wood. Lubavitchers, Penansky says, believe mezuzahs need no adornment and simply wrap them in cellophane. There are, according to Penansky, 4,000 ways a mezuzah can be "unkosher" (illegitimate): the parchment may tear or curl, a letter may have weakened. Twice in seven years it must be examined by a sofer (a religious scribe) to assure its legitimacy. Penansky says that after the Entebbe hijacking of the Israelis it was discovered that all the passengers had "unkosher" mezuzahs.

On Fridays, Chaya Penansky cleans her house in preparation for the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath--sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--is one of the central laws of ancient Judaism, and all Hasidic, most Orthodox, and some Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews keep it as well. Penansky cooks the meal to be eaten Friday night and puts up a lunch for Saturday, probably a cholent, a dish of beef, potatoes, and carrots. Since it is forbidden to turn on or turn off gas or electricity during the Sabbath, Penansky will place the cholent on a tin plate over a burner, where it can remain on a low flame throughout the Sabbath. She will also fill her electric coffee urn with water and plug it in at sundown so that the family will be able to make tea and coffee. She will turn on a few lights that will stay lit throughout the weekend. Beginning at sundown, she will not answer the phone or talk about worldly things. She will not travel or carry anything beyond her home or yard, nor will she do work of any kind. She will walk to the shul (synagogue) on Saturday morning, where she will sit in a section separated from the men and, for the rest of the day, she will daven and relax. These rules exist to establish boundaries between activities of the Sabbath and those of the week, between the earthly and the godly.

Many Orthodox Jews and most of Chicago's Hasidim live in Penansky's neighborhood of west Rogers Park. Of the 60 Lubavitcher families in the Chicago area, all but a handful live in west Rogers Park, where they can walk to the shul and where they have their schools and each other. West Rogers Park is also the location of the mikvah, a private bathhouse maintained by the Orthodox community. A central concept in Orthodox Judaism, one that Penansky says provides "a honeymoon every month," is that husband and wife must have no contact--not even passing a spoon to one another--during the woman's menstruation and for seven days afterward. After the period of abstinence, women must visit the mikvah for immersion in a purifying pool before they can reunite with their husbands. About 1,000 women use the Chicago mikvah every month.

Among the 613 Torah commandments, some are mishpatim, basic laws having to do with general justice. "Honor thy father and thy mother" is among them. So is "Thou shalt not kill." A second group, called edos, have to do with holiday commemoration and memorial services and such. The third group, chukhim, include such rituals as the mikvah and wearing wigs. They are simply God's decrees; there is no rational explanation for them, though over the years some have tried to explain them rationally as being grounded in health and safety, among other things. Penansky insists that these laws are not rational. Challenge, an unofficial description of the Lubavitcher movement published in England in 1970, says, "Our basic motive for observance [of chukhim] is that G-d gave them to us. By observing them, a bond is created between men and the Creator. By neglect or violation, a barrier is erected; man is demeaned, corrupted."

Penansky has observed a practice of "family purity" since she was married 37 years ago, though her practice has become stronger in the 25 years since she became a Lubavitcher. Throughout their lives together, husband and wife have not displayed affection for one another outside the walls of their bedroom. "You won't find a religious home in which a husband gives his wife a hug and a kiss in front of the children," Penansky explains, "because then the children say, 'Uh-huh, Mommy is permissible now, but if Daddy doesn't touch her, that means she has to go to the mikvah.' We avoid all that."

Penansky has no problem with the ritual. "If you have a honeymoon every month when you come back from the mikvah, you say, 'Look at what God did for me!'" There's another aspect to this mitzvah for which Penansky is grateful. "For that time, your body is your own. You're your own mensch. I love my husband, but it's a relief. And then when he comes back to you it's wonderful."

All of this periodic honeymooning, of course, ends with the menopause. The Code of Jewish Law decrees that "once a woman has had her menopause and gone to the mikvah, she is purified forever," Penansky says.

Sex is an important part of Jewish life, she continues. "It's a mitzvah to have a good sexual experience. In Catholicism, the saints stay away from sex. In Judaism, the holy man has to have a wife because he's considered only half a person if he doesn't. It's like one soul that was split apart and put back together again. True, we have our divorces, but generally, a marriage is an institution--sometimes a nuthouse--out of which everything comes."

Marriage is sustained by still another mitzvah that decrees that men and women who are not married may not touch--even in a handshake. The Lubavitchers place great emphasis on dancing, but men and women may not dance together. From the time they are in kindergarten boys and girls are separated in school. An engaged couple may not touch each other until their wedding night. Furthermore, a woman must keep her head, elbows, and knees covered at all times, except in the bedroom, for fear of enticing a man. "That's because of the way they're built," Penansky says. "The men are very sexy. Even a guy with a beard down to his knees is very sexy. Don't let them fool you. The woman is the one who has to work hard not to entice him." (Lubavitcher men do not generally shave or trim their beards, though they do not usually wear side locks as do other Hasidim. They also wear large-brimmed black felt fedoras, and for all religious occasions a kapota, a knee-length double-breasted silk coat.)

While Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews faithfully follow the laws, there is nevertheless a long tradition of argument and discussion about the meaning of the laws. For each law, there are hundreds of commentaries. Penansky calls a Lubavitcher phone line every morning to hear a tape-recorded discussion of some aspect of Jewish law. The question may be how any given law precisely serves God, but the bottom line, of course, is that, by obeying these laws, one serves God. Though they may seem arbitrary at times, if one is truly religious, one obeys the laws. As Penansky says, "They are not rational. They are God's will."

It is mostly the degree to which the laws are observed that separates the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox groups of Jews, though that is only a start. Reform Judaism, which considers much of the legal tradition irrelevant, is characterized by its liberal approach, having abandoned Hebrew in religious services and introduced instrumental music. In recent years, however, in response to a movement among many Jews to return to the ancient traditions, many Reform synagogues have introduced some of the traditional ritual into their observance.

The Conservative movement began at the turn of the century in reaction to the extremes to which the Reform movement had gone to remove traditional ritual. Conservatives adhere to the laws of the Torah and the Talmud, but make some allowances for keeping with the times.

What sets the Lubavitchers apart from other Orthodox Jews is their more fundamentalist dedication to these laws (i.e., personal devotion), and a different philosophical approach to be found in the major text, the Tanya. A story repeated by the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in his "Thought for the Week" (a weekly publication) perhaps best exemplifies the philosophical difference. "A great Rebbe once said to his Chasidim and followers, 'In the parable of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hasidism] the stress and emphasis is not so much on the "Father, Father, save me!" but rather on the crying-out.'" In other words, the content of prayer is less important than the act of prayer itself.

The Hasidic movement was born in the first half of the 18th century in Poland, in an effort to bring common people into a more active practice of Judaism. After dreadful pogroms had drastically reduced the Jewish population and had demoralized the remaining Jews, Hasidism said, in effect, "Do not despair; rise up, take God into your life, and we shall be saved." The new movement elevated singing, dancing, mysticism, and personal prayer to the same status as the study of Torah, which sets apart the ordinary Jew from the religious men. Whereas earlier the religious life had been dominated by the Torah scholars, now women and ordinary men were included. It also elevated the leaders to heights that had not been known in Judaism since the earliest Temple days. Hasidism is characterized as well by its reliance on rebbes, charismatic leaders thought to be mystic intermediaries. As Hasidism spread, local groups, called courts, developed under their own rebbes.

World War II took a dreadful toll on the Hasidim. Before the war, there were hundreds of courts with a total of more than three million members. Today, according to Lis Harris, author of Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family, there are an estimated 250,000 Lubavitchers in the U.S., with about 200,000 living in New York, mostly in Brooklyn. Though there is no actual census, the Lubavitcher Hasidim (whose movement began in Lithuania and who take their name from the Polish town where their second rebbe presided) are believed to be the largest group of Hasidim.

The Lubavitchers (who have one rebbe, a hereditary chief rabbi based in New York who presides over the worldwide community) are different not only from their Hasidic brethren but from all other Jews--Orthodox and otherwise (the Jews for Jesus are not included here)--in their zeal to persuade other Jews to follow their religious way of life. "The ultimate objective of Lubavitch is nothing less than the desire to revolutionize completely and irrevocably the life of the modern Jew," says Challenge. "Teshuvah emphasizes return. It means the reorientation of one's will and desire to conform to Divine Law. It means a total revolution . . . in one's personal life; a yearning to cleave to G-d."

Penansky explains her philosophy further: "The whole reason we're doing this is that we feel that God created the Torah first and used it as his blueprint for the whole world. There always have to be people following the Torah and teaching the whole world about God's presence. We have to teach the whole world--non-Jews, everybody. Every millisecond the world is alive, it is God's will. It's like a movie projector. If it shuts off, the world ends. It's God's will. If he takes away his will for a second, the physical universe goes poof. Physical matter goes poof. By doing mitzvahs, we keep the world going. Goyim, too, by doing good things. Less is expected of the goyim but they have many, many laws. They do not have to keep kosher, study Torah, keep shabbos [the Sabbath], but they have to study the laws that apply to them. They are not allowed to pray to a form--Yeshki [Jesus], or Buddha, or Mary. They have to pray to God only. That's what keeps the world in existence. So that's what Hasidism is: teaching people to follow Torah, to be righteous, honest, those general things, and then all the things the Jew has to do--kashruth [keeping kosher], marriage as a foundation, shabbos, and so on."

Every Lubavitcher has a responsibility to teach the Torah, but some are more diligent than others. Of their nine children, seven of the Penansky children (the other two are still too young) are either already schlukim, actively spreading the word, or in training. Nineteen-year-old Devorah struck me as the most intensely devout of the six children I saw I last spring when I spent the Passover and Sabbath with the family--she davened almost steadily. Devorah just graduated from Beth Rivkah, the women's seminary in Brooklyn. Yochanan, 16, a slight, handsome boy, is also in Brooklyn at the Lubavitcher high school. Every Friday, Yochanan goes to several apartment buildings in Manhattan where he visits Jews and "lays tefillin" (takes part in ritual prayers) with the men. The forehead and left arm are wrapped with leather straps at the end of which are little leather boxes (tefillin) containing pieces of parchment similar to the mezuzah. He gives the women candlesticks so that they can light candles for the shabbos.

Yitschok, who is 24, is studying in Brooklyn in a kollel, a seminar-type Torah study group, while his wife teaches in the Lubavitcher kindergarten. He, like Yochanan, who will follow, is preparing to go out to do missionary work. Two of his sisters--Beila, with six children, and Nechama, with two--are already in the field: Beila in Melbourne, Australia, and Nechama in Rochester, New York. The eldest daughter, Sara, 36, the mother of five, is in Boston, where her husband, Chaim, heads up a Chabad house (the principal center from which the Lubavitchers conduct their missionary work). The eldest son, Chaim, is principal of a Lubavitcher day school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Next year, Mina, 14, will go to the girls' high school in Brooklyn because she feels that the education she is getting in the general Jewish girls' high school in west Rogers Park is not intensely observant enough.

Chany, 11, attends the Lubavitcher girls' heder, or elementary school, in her neighborhood, which is held in an Orthodox synagogue. Chany davens with her class when she gets to school. Then she gets three hours of instruction in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Torah study. After lunch, she gets one and a half hours of English academic instruction. At the Lubavitcher heder, the teachers translate the Hebrew Torah into Yiddish.

One of Chaya Penansky's missionary tasks last spring was to help a child whose mother wanted her to learn Yiddish. The child's Japanese father had left them and the mother was making the girl "return" (a term used to describe a Jew who becomes Orthodox). One of Penansky's major missionary responsibilities is placing children from "nonreligious" homes in Jewish day schools. One day last spring, I accompanied her when she took a different young woman around to see several of the seven Jewish day schools on the north side and in Skokie. The woman is not observant herself, but wants her children to learn about Judaism, she says. Penansky suspects that she is in conflict about her own beliefs and feelings and that this is an easy place for her to start her own return. The woman is a Russian emigre who grew up with no religious training and whose parents don't approve of her interest.

Penansky took the young woman to the Lubavitcher school where her own younger daughter is a student and where Penansky regularly substitute teaches, and then to a couple of less fundamentalist schools. Lubavitcher children go to school six days a week, from Sunday through Friday, with half days off (after religious instruction) for Jewish holidays and a week off for Passover. In the summertime, the kids all go to the Lubavitcher day camp, which includes two hours a day of Hebrew lessons and Torah study. (Penansky says, "Our kids are not on the street.")

Penansky says of the atmosphere in the Lubavitcher school, "The children are more refined there." The young mother promised to consider it, but was clearly more attracted to the less religious orientation of the other schools. She was also worried about money. She wasn't sure she could afford the tuition and bus service. Penansky reassured her; money is never an obstacle to a family that wants to send its children to Jewish school, she said. She herself raises $15,000 to $20,000 a year from the Orthodox community to send children to school and to the Lubavitcher day camp. She knows from her own experience that when you start children off right, they tend to join the fold more readily.

Most of Penansky's missionary work, though, is dedicated to FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), the organization whose Chicago branch she founded 15 years ago. With little children underfoot, a baby at the breast, and a husband who was "ready to tear the phone out of the wall" because she used it so much, Penansky almost single-handedly built the organization, which is designed to bring Russian refugees, most of whom had no religious education, into the Lubavitcher fold. Started in New York by a group of young Russian men who had been underground Lubavitchers in the Soviet Union, FREE had been named and blessed by the rebbe. On a visit to New York, Penansky met the Russian men and determined that she would do the same thing in Chicago. With the rebbe's blessing, the men came to Chicago to help Penansky get started. She says, "I was the mother of FREE, now I'm the grandmother."

The organization, located in a large storefront in west Rogers Park, is now run by a Russian-born rabbi, with an annual budget of about $350,000. A small part of it is given by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, but the rest of the funds are raised in the community. The organization operates as a synagogue for Russian Jews, doing births, circumcisions, weddings, bar and bas mitzvahs, and celebrating all the holidays. It also provides food, money, clothing, and job counseling to refugees. The staff of eight gives parties regularly. "If we don't give parties," Penansky says, "they'll go to the Russian restaurants. We have to be their social center." Of the 3,000 Russian Jewish families on FREE's mailing list, varying numbers participate in the different functions. There were 400 people at the two Passover seders last spring, and 100 were at the special Seder given for the families who are "becoming frum," who are making their return to religion and, specifically, are becoming closer to the Lubavitchers.

Nowadays, Penansky's role in FREE is mainly to place children in the Jewish schools and to help maintain the morale of people finding it difficult to make the adjustment to a new country. "I have one woman calling me every day threatening to kill herself," Penansky says. While her phone no longer rings constantly (she recalls one dinnertime call: "We have a body in the morgue. Can you come down to identify it?"), she still receives enough calls to keep her busy. This summer she searched for and found air conditioners for refugees. She also teaches Sunday school to the Russian children and tutors the girls for their bas mitzvahs. She also collects clothes for them and helps out with parties. She does not take people into her home--and never has--as the rabbis who serve FREE do. Her husband won't let her. "He knows he is saving my life," she says. "The rabbis have no private lives. That's Lubavitch in action. They do everything. They even take the women to the mikvah."

It isn't unlikely that Chaya Penansky considered me a potential convert. About a year ago, I had an article in the Reader about Jews returning to religion. Penansky called me a couple of months later, introduced herself, and invited me to a Lubavitcher women's organization luncheon celebrating International Women's Week. "I'd like you to come to see that we're human beings," she said. I went and was impressed; the Lubavitcher women seemed more independent than I had imagined. The myths that swirl around this group had led me to expect docile women dependent on their men. Instead, I found a group of aggressive women that included some professionals and some who devote their lives to Lubavitcher activities. One group had built a miniature model of a Lubavitcher home for display at gatherings. Another group was selling Lubavitcher family literature. I was further surprised to find that the husbands of these women hold professional or well-paid corporate jobs. Some have their own businesses. The women were well dressed and gave off an aura of well-being and self-confidence.

I was also impressed with what I sensed as Penansky's missionary zeal. In addition to me, she had invited two other women whom she was clearly trying to influence.

A couple weeks after the luncheon, Penansky called again to invite me to another women's function. I was otherwise engaged so I demurred, but by now I was intrigued. Lubavitchers were aggressively messianic, very devout, very fundamentalist, very much under the influence of a hereditary rabbi; the women, however, looked like all middle-class women, and were not shy and withdrawn as I had expected.

I called to ask if I might attend her Passover Seder, scheduled for the following Friday evening. It would give me an opportunity to observe the Lubavitcher Seder and to meet her family. Six of her nine children, with their families, would be there, some of them from out of town. She said she would have to ask her husband. She called back to invite me on the condition that I respect their customs--that I cover my head, elbows, and knees, that I not smoke in the house during the holiday, and that I stay through the first two days of the traditional Passover holiday. Their house would be desecrated if I traveled on the shabbos. I said I could stay Friday night through Saturday evening, but not the second day. She said she would check with her rabbi and called back to say it would be all right.

Throughout my stay, Penansky insisted that I participate in all the rituals. She would teach me, she said. I lit the shabbos candles and said the b'rocha with her. I washed my hands as prescribed at the required times and I said prayers before eating. I put money in the tzedaka boxes. I did not carry my purse to the shul on Saturday morning. I partially covered my head and wore a Iong-sleeved dress.

I sat in the women's section. On the right side of the sanctuary, it is raised to a level where the women can see the men but the men cannot see them. This is so, as Penansky explains, they will not be aroused. I observed the women reading from their siddurim and the men, with their heads covered with tallithim (long, white, fringed prayer shawls trimmed with black), some of them with children in their arms, davening, with the cantor as the chief davener. Penansky had brought her son's two-year-old daughter and had kept her with her for the first 15 minutes or so. Then she sent the girl down to her father, who took her in his arms as he davened. There was a low murmur throughout the sanctuary as the men said their prayers aloud, sometimes with fervor, though low in tone. The cantor was louder and more energetic.

As I sat there, I was reminded of the intense criticism leveled at the Orthodox. "Orthodox Judaism treats women as second-class citizens" is the familiar refrain. In the Reform and Conservative synagogues, men and women sit together and listen to the rabbi conduct the service. Women in these groups are not expected to cover themselves or to go to a mikvah. Most of the traditional ritual has been abandoned by these groups. In recent years, women have been welcomed in the rabbinic schools of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches, which has horrified the Orthodox. When the rabbi dances around with the Torah, a woman rabbi would jostle the men, explains Penansky. And when she is davening or giving her sermon the men would be likely to focus on her breasts, she says. Other Orthodox Jews would probably offer more lofty explanations of the exclusion of women from the rabbinate; Penansky is characteristically more earthy. Hers may just be the most solid explanation.

Among the Lubavitchers a great effort has been made to glorify the role of women, to point out their exalted status in the Torah, to deny that they have ever been seen by Judaism as second-class citizens. Penansky says, "Some women are complaining that they're not allowed to be in the men's part of the synagogue, not allowed to be part of the synagogue services, that this gives them an inferior status. But those people don't know that the synagogue is not the main expression of Judaism. The home is. If a community is poor and has to make a choice between building a mikvah and a synagogue, they have to build a mikvah. They can sell a sacred Torah to build a mikvah. The family unit is the main institution. You can daven in a room, in a store, in a loft. You don't need a synagogue. And [to pray] a man needs a minyan [ten men] but a woman is a unit by herself. A man needs zizith" (a fringed undergarment that the Torah commands men to wear; the commandment says that the fringes, which have to show, are to be worn "that ye may look upon [them] and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and . . . seek not after your own heart . . . which ye use to go a-whoring").

"A woman doesn't need zizith. It isn't a matter of being second-class. A man is a creation that needs all these things. A woman is complete herself. . . . The women who are screaming don't understand. The Reform and the others dropped all the things a woman has to do like the kashruth and the mikvah. The rabbis tell them, "If you feel clean, you are clean." What about what God says? They dropped all the things of the home and the family and all they had was the synagogue. And then they scream about the separation in the synagogue. They don't understand at all."

Challenge takes up the question: "Is women's role in Torah law secondary?" It answers: "To the extent that the mitzvahs constitute an exercise in self-discipline for moral advancement (which is one of the many infinite aspects of the Divine Commandments) it would seem that the Creator has endowed the Jewish woman with a greater measure of such natural self-discipline, since He has exempted her from certain mitzvahs." Feminists claim that these exemptions indicate not a higher but a lesser view of women, that by these exemptions it is clear that less is expected of women's capacity. Penansky explains that the exemptions have mostly to do with time-based laws. Women, for instance, can daven more or less at their own convenience, given their responsibilities in the home, while men must follow a strict time schedule. She also points out that women in the Torah were expected to do business to increase the family fortunes and could own property when most of the world denied women both these rights.

Penansky translates a Hebrew poem that a husband recites to his wife on the shabbos: "'She is the center of the household. She tells her maids and everyone what to do. She considers a field and buys it.' In other words, she does real estate or business to improve the family income. 'Her light doesn't go out at night,' which may be an allusion to sex or maybe that she works late into the night. 'Her husband is known at the gates.' In other words, her husband is known as an upright, righteous man because she runs the household, which is clean and normal. Her kids aren't cuckoos. 'And her children call her blessed.' This is the idea of the Jewish woman."

Laura Alter, an anthropology student at Northwestern University, argues in a paper that explores the sexual roles of the Lubavitchers "that the Lubavitch gender classification is not hierarchical; that it is complementary; that Lubavitch female and male relations are based on mutuality and cooperation; and that their symbolic representation of gender roles generates a 'separate-but-equal' ideology."

My own observations lead me to question Alter's assertion. If religious observance is the highest spiritual form of activity for Lubavitchers, and the women are barred from the highest job in the religious apparatus, there is no equality. While it is true that the woman is the center and, to a large extent, governor of the household, where most of the religious activity takes place, it is also true that the final arbiter of religious belief and practice is the rabbi.

While one can't generalize about a whole community based on experiences with one family, and while Alter has seen more families in her research, I did not see any "separate-but-equal ideology" evidenced in the three generations I observed of this highly observant Lubavitcher family. The men seemed to make the decisions for the family. The decision about whether I might attend the seder was made by Chaya's husband, and the decision that the family would not be identified in print by name was also his. At the seder, the young boys in the family were given a much more prominent role than were the girls, and the women deferred to the men in their conversations and behavior. Perhaps most important in the relations between men and women, Lubavitcher men are trained for the rabbinate; the women are not. The men hold the status religious positions in the community; the women do not.

In the hours I spent in the Penansky home, I was struck by the almost unearthly calm that prevailed. Among the 18 people, including nine children under the age of 12 who were living there or visiting for Passover, there was not a harsh word spoken within my hearing. The babies rarely cried, the youngsters all talked quietly together, the adults went about their business; but there seemed to be a general understanding among all that needed few words. Neyach, the large, heavily built father of them all, is a bit short-tempered and impatient when things don't go the way he wants, but he was, perhaps because of my presence, always civil and polite. It didn't seem to be merely civility, though, among these people. They seemed genuinely content in their lives dedicated to serving God. The men were wearing their kaputim, the women were stylishly dressed, and the children were dressed in velvets and laces, but they did not seem to be preoccupied with worldly concerns.

During the seder, as is common at Reform and Conservative seders, there was political discussion, but unlike the others I have attended, this discussion only lasted about five minutes. The word Sandinistas had come up suddenly, as if out of nowhere. Nineteen-year-old Devorah angrily dismissed them as "Communists all over South America." Her brother-in-law looked at me and raised his eyebrows. He asked Devorah, "What else do you know about the Sandinistas?" "I don't need to know any more," she replied. And that conversation ended.

In fact, it seemed to me that there was precious little said between these family members. The Lubavitcher seder, a ceremony that most Jews know as a shared, communal one to which everyone contributes, was instead a highly individual affair in which each person read from his or her own Lubavitcher Haggadah (the seder text) in Hebrew without regard for the others. While the sacred foods and wine are generally passed around the table at Reform and Conservative seders and at some Orthodox seders as well, at this one, which I was told was the standard Lubavitcher seder, the fathers of each family and the single son each prepared the sacred food offering for his family and poured the traditional four glasses of wine for his own family. (Some of the women and the younger children drank grape juice.) Chaim, the Boston son-in-law, had prepared his nine-year-old son to ask a couple of questions in the usual fashion, but his questions were all but ignored by Neyach and the others. Chaim explained that this four-hour seder was abbreviated to accommodate the little children, but he seemed frustrated that there was very little but this individual activity going on. Twice, once with his son and the other time with Devorah, he tried to change the tenor of things, but failed.

On Saturday evening, knowing that I would soon be leaving, Neyach came into the kitchen where I was chatting with Chaim and his wife, Sara, to bid me good-bye. I rose to stretch out my hand to say good-bye and thank him for his hospitality. He waved me off without a word. I turned, shocked, to ask Sara for an explanation. Chaim explained. "Men and women do not touch outside of marriage. A man is easily aroused and this law guards against any unpleasant incidents. True, a handshake is so common between men and women now that you'd wonder about it. But what does it mean? It does not mean genuine affection, which would make it wrong in our view. And if it doesn't have any real meaning, why should we break our laws for it?"

Chaya Penansky comes by her traditional Judaism, if not the Lubavitcher tradition, naturally. When her mother was only about 11--her family under fire and near starvation in World War I in Russia--she had a job as a housemaid to a prosperous Jewish family that was very religious. She watched the traditional observance of this family and, Penansky says, decided, "This is what I want." In Chicago, married and living in the old Jewish community on the west side, Penansky's mother carried out the traditional observances and sent her three children to Jewish day schools. Penansky idolizes her mother as the perfect Jewish woman. "I can never attain her standards," she says. "She never had a harsh word to say about anyone. If we started to tear someone down--it was so delicious to gossip--she would say ssh. She wouldn't hear it. I still have to work on myself about that."

When Chaya was 11, she decided that she would "be religious." When she was 15, she observed across the synagogue a young boy her own age conducting a service all by himself. "I liked him a lot," she says, smiling. He had attended a Lubavitcher religious school for two years, as long as it lasted in Chicago. "Chicago wasn't ready," she says. There were five Lubavitcher shuls in the' city, but the dedication wasn't intense enough, apparently, to support a school. This young boy she observed was obviously very devout. He went to public school during the day and the yeshiva (the Orthodox religious school) in the evenings. They were engaged when she graduated from high school and married a few months later. He went to Roosevelt University to become a CPA, worked part-time as an accountant, and went to the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie at night. In his last year, just before he was to take his exams, Chaya rebelled. "Go to work," she pleaded. She had two youngsters and a third on the way. They were living on his part-time earnings, and he was never home. Neyach gave up his formal religious training, but met regularly for informal training with a rabbi he respected. This rabbi was a Lubavitcher; Neyach met the previous Lubavitcher rebbe on a visit to Chicago and never forgot his words: "You have to lay tefillin and keep shabbos."

Meanwhile, Chaya had met a schliach (an emissary sent by the rebbe to recruit in Chicago). They became close. She called Penansky regularly to remind her to observe the mitzvahs. "She would call me and say Chaya, you have to do this, and Chaya, you have to do that." Gradually, the somewhat reluctant pupil came around. It was, Penansky says, "a religious odyssey" that took more than ten years.

Gradually, her observance of Torah law grew, though it was ten years before she began to cover her head and follow the modesty laws that forbid short sleeves and shorts. On a visit to New York, during those years, her husband insisted on a visit to the rebbe. She wanted "to see Arthur Godfrey." They went to see the rebbe and she was greatly moved. "He was so friendly and warm," she recalls. But she insists that he is not a cult figure. "The rebbe doesn't make any laws of his own. What he says is pure Torah that's been with us all these years." But, she explains, he does interpret Torah. "Ordinary people can't figure out what the laws mean. The rebbe and the rabbis have to do that."

The Penanskys were married for about ten years before they became Lubavitchers, but they were already sending their children to Jewish day schools and were already very observant. Eighteen years ago, when their oldest children were adolescents, they realized they should throw out their television set. Their children have not been permitted to watch TV since then. They are also not allowed to go to movies or rock concerts, to read comics, to "be on the streets," to do most of the things we usually associate with youngsters.

When Chaya and Neyach were married 37 years ago, though they were both religious, they had what was then considered an ordinary courtship. They went on dates to the movies, to the beach, to amusement parks, whatever suited their fancy. They held hands, necked, did all the things that American kids did at 16 and 17 in the early 50s. Their children, however, have had Lubavitcher marriages, of quite another order.

Lubavitcher boys and girls are separated from the time they start school. They do not play together except at home and they do not date "for the fun of it," as Penansky says. When a young person decides he or she is ready for marriage, at 19 or 20--"when their glands tell them"--they let their parents know. Some people give their children's name to a shadchen (matchmaker), others just let the word out. After Beila Penansky decided she was ready, when she was finishing her studies at the Lubavitcher women's seminary in Brooklyn, her mother began to get calls from people in New York.

The calls to the Penansky home did not come from the parents of the young men; that wouldn't be right, Penansky says, because there might be the humiliation of being turned down. Friends of the parents of young men call, as they did Penansky for Beila. They say, "I know a lovely young man who wants to meet your daughter." Penansky called Beila with such messages about 15 times. The girl said no to each one. It seems that though they are separated completely, the young people do know of each other. Penansky says her daughter said, "He talks too much," or "He doesn't want to be a schliach, he wants to go into business," or some other excuse. Finally, a friend of Beila's told her mother that she thought her cousin and Beila would be well suited. Penansky called Beila to tell her of that phone call. Beila said yes.

A meeting of the two was arranged in a neutral place. They met and went out. Not to a movie or a bar or an amusement park. "I don't know where they went, but I'm sure he found something nice. Maybe a ferry ride." The couple had a second date. And a third. "By the fourth, that's usually it. He asks if he can write to the rebbe," Penansky says. With the rebbe's permission, they get engaged. And a few months later, they marry. They are anxious to marry because, until their wedding night, they may not touch each other. "If he tried to touch her, she would know he wasn't a serious Jew, and she would drop him," Penansky insists. Beila got married ten years ago. She and her husband have six children and live as schlukim (emissaries) in Melbourne, Australia.

All of Penansky's married children had their weddings in New York, out of doors in a traditional Hasidic wedding in the rebbe's courtyard. The 86-year-old rebbe no longer performs the weddings; a favorite rabbi of the young people performs them instead. Before the wedding, the young woman goes to Torah classes in marital relations conducted by a woman whose responsibility this is. In addition, refresher courses are given every couple of years. "We always keep learning it," Penansky says. "If you don't add to your knowledge, it all goes away. But," she adds, "it is all said in a very refined way."

Chaya Penansky lives entirely in the world of religious Judaism. Sitting peacefully at her kitchen table, drinking weak tea, wearing her everyday shaitl as she has during our previous conversations, she says, "I don't have any bad feelings about the secular world. I like music." But asked what kind of music she likes, she says, "Jewish music." She "can't stand" the classical music her husband listens to on WFMT; it doesn't have a beat. She and her husband, she says, used to go to plays, concerts, and movies, but they haven't done so for many years. "I don't feel I miss them," she adds. "Why do my emotions have to be exploited by watching someone making love on the screen? That's not Jewish. We don't have such a thing as 'this is good for adults and this is good for children.' The whole thing is for everybody. You're not allowed to watch animals having relations." But children, she says, get sex education "from the start. It starts them off right. Abram knew his wife and she became pregnant. They get it right there in a healthy atmosphere."

She reads the Jewish press, but does not read the secular press unless her husband, who reads the newspapers in his office (he works as a comptroller at a large corporation), brings home an item of special interest. "I try not to read the newspapers," she says. "I can get along without it. This is where I developed myself religiously. I'm involved in my activities and I listen to the news on the radio, but I don't need that other anymore in my life.

"Of course, I get very disturbed if I hear an Israeli soldier has been killed or there is sickness or death in the world because I think the Lubavitch rebbe has given a very nice view of the world: not that you have to be afraid of the goyim, or that the world is bad. It's completely the opposite. The rebbe has a very wide view. Everyone has a charge from God. People are all the creations of God and everyone is good."

The Penansky home does not contain one solitary piece of secular reading material and very few books in English. Most are in Hebrew or Yiddish. They do read the Lubavitcher intellectual journal, B'or Ha'Torah, subtitled "Science, the Arts and Problems of Modern Life in the Light of the Torah," published in Jerusalem, part in English and part in Hebrew, with articles, essays, stories, poems, and artwork by scientists and professionals of all kinds, in addition to those by Torah scholars. Many of the contributors are recent converts. While the range of articles is very wide, the following, from "Geocentrism" by Avi Rabinowitz, an American theoretical physicist now living in Israel, reflects the general tendency of the science articles to include religion in a discussion of science. After a theoretical discussion of cosmology, Rabinowitz says, "Far from being a blow to religion, the new discoveries in cosmology, and of science in general, serve rather to aggrandize and elevate our concept of G-d. Knowledge of the true vastness of our universe aids in neither the proof nor the disproof of the existence of G-d--indeed, these are both probably impossible ever to achieve. Nevertheless, those who truly understand the wonders of nature and appreciate its beauty are affected alike by a profound sense of awe. . . . G-d is elevated from the King of a clump of earth to . . . the Designer of a fabulously complex system of bio-chemical organisms composed of almost magical physical particles." Much of what Penansky says, in her simple way, sounds as if it derived from B'or Ha'Torah. It reflects and forms her view of the wide world.

But mostly Penansky follows her rebbe and her mother. "I love everybody," she says. "Were all human beings. But a Jewish soul comes from a different place. Different things affect it. A Jewish soul has a special connection to God. Anybody can acquire a Jewish soul by having a calling, by having a kosher conversion. Judaism is not exclusive. It is democratic. It does not recognize color of skin or slant of eye."

(Not all Lubavitcher families are like the Penanskys. I spent the night after the Penansky's seder with another Lubavitcher family. It was a young couple with two little children. There were no before-meal prayers, and the entire atmosphere seemed more relaxed. There was a television set and a variety of books: some about astronomy, the young man's hobby, and a few best-sellers, along with a small collection of religious books in English. The young woman works part-time as a hairdresser and complained bitterly about the food one is limited to on Passover. In their backyard, they have a swing set and other toys for their children. The Penanskys have no backyard. They have a big basement room outfitted with couches and chairs where the children obviously played in their childhood.)

Throughout all my conversations with Chaya Penansky, one issue kept running through my head but was never raised--the issue that has for so many years been a pivotal one that separated the fundamentalists from the moderns. Why I didn't raise it until the very end, I don't know. Perhaps the issue was a question I didn't feel sure about. Perhaps I didn't want to put my informant on the spot. Perhaps the answer was just too obvious. Finally, I asked her: "Do you believe in evolution?" She shook her head to signify a definite no. "God created the world out of nothing and human beings as they are," she said. "Evolution is only a theory. It does say in the Torah that God created six worlds before this and they were all destroyed. Not necessarily people. But the world as we know it today--animals, people--was created 5,748 years ago. The dinosaurs may have lived for a short time and died. No one says they didn't exist. Maybe they belonged to a previous world that God created. But man didn't evolve from a monkey. There are no written documents before that time." How about cave paintings? "Well, if you go back to Africa, you'll find primitive people. In America, the best show of that is that American Indians were living primitive lives while a giant civilization was going on in Europe."

The Lubavitcher rebbe has this to say about evolution: "The theory of evolution actually has no bearing on the Torah account of creation. For even if the theory of evolution were substantiated today, and the mutation of species proven in laboratory tests, this would still not contradict the possibility of the world having been created as stated in the Torah rather than through the evolutionary process. . . . Science has to do only with theories but not with certainties. All scientific conclusions, or generalizations, can only be probable in a greater or lesser degree according to the precautions taken in the use of the available evidence, and the degree of probability necessarily decreases with the distance from empirical facts, or with the increase of the unknown variables. . . . If you will bear this in mind, you will readily realize that there can be no real conflict between any scientific theory and the Torah."

As if to substantiate the rebbe's views, Paul Rosenbloom, a Lubavitcher professor of mathematics at Columbia University, writes in B'or Ha'Torah: "A theory is a working hypothesis. If predictions agree with the facts, the theory becomes more plausible, but never certain. This agrees with the views of all scientists and philosophers. . . . This belief in a theory is an act of faith, not a matter of reason and observation. . . . Evolution, at present, is not a scientific theory, but rather a conceptual scheme for interpreting the fossil record and the similarities and diversities among organisms. Thus, any observations whatsoever can be fitted into the scheme, and it would be impossible to conceive of evidence contradicting it."

In one of my last conversations with Penansky, she asked if I had ever considered immersing myself in the community. "You would get a different view." She was offering me the keys to heaven. I said, no, that had never occurred to me. "Well," she said, "it should all be good for you. Zei gezunt [a phrase meaning "be healthy" that punctuates much of her conversation]." I said thank you, appreciating her good wishes. Maybe, I thought, she will include me in one of her prayers. But it worries me that she tells me that she never gives up on a Jew. This is one persistent woman. She is determined to share her keys to heaven with the rest of the world; heaven seems to me a glorious construct that belongs to the poets and philosophers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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