With warmth and admiration, journalist Warren Kozak writes about the rabbi's extraordinary life—from his family's escape to Palestine in the late 1930s to his witnessing of Israel's rebirth in 1948, to his move to New York City, where he lives today.
A rare window into the normally closed world of Hasidic Jews, The Rabbi of 84th Street is also the story of Judaism in the twentieth century; of the importance of centuries-old traditions; and of the triumph of faith, kindness, and spirit.
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The Rabbi of 84th Street
The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser
Crossing the Street
What Haskel Besser does best -- and he does a lot of things very well -- is demolish any preconceptions people may have of religious Jews.
On the one hand, he is indeed a Hasidic rabbi with a black suit, a black fedora, and that long gray beard. His appearance is always immaculate and he never deviates from it, no matter what the season. If he's just going down to the corner to buy a newspaper, he wears a suit with a vest, starched white shirt with cuff links, and a tie.
Partly that's because of the European tradition in which he was raised. But this immaculate attention to image also gives away another detail of his personality. He understands his context in the greater, non-Jewish world, and he knows that when he walks out his door, people will judge not Haskel Besser, but all rabbis and, hence, all Jews, by the way he conducts himself. That's never far from his mind and accounts, in part, for his courtly manners that are both charming and somewhat out of place in twenty-first-century America. This is a gentleman in the old sense of the word. It is also someone who takes his position very seriously.
Besides the suit and tie, there is one more crucial piece of attire: he always has a yarmulke on his head -- outside, inside, anywhere. (And on Shabbos and Jewish holidays, he wears a streimel -- a round, fur hat Hasidic men don on special occasions.)
Many years ago, when Haskel Besser was a young man living in British Palestine, a prospective colleh (bride) asked him why he continued to wear this outfit, which may have made sense in Poland, but seemed to make no sense in the airless humidity and heat of Tel Aviv.
"She had a point," the rabbi admits. "It was uncomfortable. But I dressed that way then and now because my father and his father did the same."
Traditions, for Rabbi Besser, come in all sorts of large and small packages and he considers all of them important. But there is another crucial facet to this man's personality that sets him apart from many other equally observant Jews who dress the same way and follow the customs of their forefathers. He is also very much a part of the outside, non- Jewish world. His circle of friends includes Jews and non- Jews. He has a deeply sophisticated knowledge of literature, music, and politics. And while his understanding of Talmud and Torah is legendary and he is respected by the most famous rebbes in the world, his admirers extend far beyond that world. He has been an invited guest at White House dinners and presidential inaugurations. He is the recipient of one of Poland's highest civilian medals and he is admired throughout Germany and Austria. He even counts the president of Romania as a good friend. But power brokers are hardly the epicenter of the rabbi's life.
With a unique sense of humor and a special knack for telling a story, he is also a master of the disarming gesture. The rabbi has been known to be distracted by moths.
One Friday night, a moth was flitting about the window of the Besser dining room during the Shabbos dinner. The candles were glowing, the rich, warm smells of dinner wafted through the room, and the rabbi got up to open the window to let the confused insect outside.
"It looks like the butterfly would rather be out than in," he said.
A guest corrected him: "It isn't a butterfly, it's a moth."
"I know," the rabbi responded with that smile, "but it's Shabbos and I wanted the moth to feel a little better about itself. Everyone should feel better on Shabbos."
All creatures -- high and low -- get equal treatment.
Rabbi Besser has a definite destination when he leaves his house at 6:30 every morning. It's the same trip he has made daily for the past fifty years: he crosses the street.
The destination is a brownstone house that, except for the discreet Hebrew lettering over the front door, looks like all the other brownstones on this residential block of Manhattan's Upper West Side. But walking through the front door of that brownstone is like walking through a portal into another era. You could easily be in Eastern Europe a century ago.
At 6:30 in the morning, the rabbi is often the first person to arrive. He goes through the usual ritual of unlocking the door, turning on the lights, and walking up the stairs, perhaps a bit slower than he once did. Sometimes "Doc," his friend and the unofficial caretaker of the building (Doc's day job is cardiology), gets there first and takes care of these mundane details. But the rabbi is happy to do them himself.
The initial observation of a first-time visitor to this brownstone is how unfancy everything is. The first floor contains only a metal coatrack with wire hangers. There's a small sink for washing hands and a bulletin board with various community announcements tacked up in a haphazard way. On the right is the staircase, covered by a frayed and wornout carpet, which leads to the main room on the second floor. It smells a little like the stacks of a university library containing endless shelves of books dating back to the nineteenth century.
At the top of the steps, a plain curtain separates you from the main room of the building. Pulling it back leads to the next surprise: a scene of what appears to be complete disorganization. Prayer books are scattered on various tables, and the chairs and tables are set in what appears to be a completely random way.
Although this is a house of worship, it is unlike most of the thousands of synagogues and churches throughout the United States where pews are placed in strict regimental order, all facing the front ...The Rabbi of 84th Street
The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser. Copyright © by Warren Kozak. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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