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The Rebbe and the Historian
In Palm Springs where I live nowadays, I go to a Hasidic synagogue. I am not at all a Hasid, but it is a reasonably short Sabbath walk. Later in my book I writea lot about this mystic pietist movement, which arose in eastern Europe around 1700, and still flourishes worldwide. Our likable young American-born rabbi--lean, tall, long brown beard--settled here years ago. In this desert town of golfing and sun his intensive Orthodoxy has proven a hard sell, and his family is large and growing, so he perforce doubles as a prison chaplain. Now and then after a taxing week, he asks me to give the Sabbath sermon. I try to fill in with a few plain words about the week's Torah portion, and that once led to a bizarre incident which can serve as a topic sentence for this book.
In the summer, the little congregation can shrivel below the ten men needed for a minyan, a prayer quorum, but come winter the place is packed with black-clad fur-hatted Hasidim of varied allegiance, known like their Rebbes by the ghost names of their destroyed shtetls--"little towns"--Lubavitchers, Satmarers, Belzers, Gerers, Bobovers, and so on. One Rebbe, who comes himself with his followers to warm up, is the Munkatcher, a grizzled imposing personage in his Shabbat garb of white stockings, dark knee breeches, and black or gold-embroidered long coat. As I was holding forth one Shabbat on a verse in Exodus, the Munkatcher Rebbe suddenly rose to his feet and stalked out into, the sunshine, considerably disconcerting me. I had been citing a comment, by Ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century exegete who strongly influenced Spinoza, and had I madereference to Spinoza I might have understood the Munkatcher's walkout. But I had not, and Ibn Ezra is a classic authority accepted by all.
The comment I was quoting was on the laws of the Hebrew bondman, the eved ivri. This, passage in Exodus precedes the law on murder. Ibn Ezra observes that the sequence is proper, because freedom is more to be prized than life itself. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, once said something like that to me, and I was mentioning this when the MunkatcherRebbe, upon hearing the name "Ben-Gurion," got up and left the synagogue.
There is more to the story, but let me first explain what it was that Ben-Gurion said.
"What took you so long?" Ben-Gurion asked me when we first met, during the intermission of a performance in Hebrew of my Caine Mutiny Court Martial, at the Habimah Theatre in Tel Aviv. It was a gala evening, laid on in honor of the playwright, a newcomer to Israel, so even the informal Israelis were somewhat dressed up; but the squat paunchy Zionist leader, instantly recognizable by the floating wings of white hair on his tanned balding head, wore a khaki open-neck shirt and pants. My wife and I had been out at sea with the fledgling Jewish navy, had docked late in Haifa, and had been rocketed to Tel Aviv in a military car, barely, in time for the second act. So his inquiry might have been a gentle twitting about that, but it was not what he meant, and I understood him.
"I'm not here yet," I replied, adopting his allusive style.
He grinned and invited Sarah and me to his home in the Negev desert. Next day we came to the Sde Boker (Fields of Morning) kibbutz in a command car escorted by a jeep with a mounted machine gun, for back in 1955 the raw little country was being bloodily harassed in broad daylight byfedayeen, terrorists from Egypt and Gaza. Ben-Gurion was out of office and working on his memoirs, so he discoursed in long Churchillian style on history, politics, philosophy, and literature until the sun was low. His wife Paula, seeing that he was enjoying himself, invited us to stay for dinner.
"No, no, they're kosher," said Ben-Gurion.
"So I'll make them hard-boiled eggs and salad. "
"Paula, they have to get back to Tel Aviv before dark."
When we were leaving he came out with his straight Zionist line, no more hints. "You must return here to live," he said. "This is the only place for Jews like you. Here you will be free."
"Free?" I ventured to reply. "Free? With enemy armies ringing you, with their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out ‘the Zionist entity,' "With your roads impassable after sundown-free?"
"I did not say safe," the old man retorted, "I said free.
That was how I happened, nearly forty years later, to mention him and outrage the Munkatcher Rebbe.