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The Landing Of Letters That Would Not Be Burned

Friday, 15 September, 2017 - 2:20 am

The young Hasidic woman took off her shaitel;
and let her long blond hair down.  
Styled in the latest fashion she would pass;
about her baby she wasn’t sure.
Hopefully he wouldn’t cry on the train;
and she wouldn’t have to change his diaper.
The Nazis did a spot-check;
a dark–haired German woman was ordered off,
Bronia was complimented
as the paradigm of German motherhood.  
The SS soldiers were horsing around.
“Pipe down,” Bronia admonished,
“you don’t want to be waking up a future soldier.”

Late at night an SS guard sat down next to her.
He was agitated,
and must have judged her a sympathetic woman.
The killings out east were too much he said.
He showed her pictures of the mass shootings.
She was hoping her horror would be taken as sympathy for his shattered nerves.  
“In Zhitomer,” he said, “was the worst.”

I read this story in Yafa Eliach’s book.
It was the most current reference
of that once-vibrant Jewish city that I had heard.
That line ‘in Zhitomer was the worst’
has stuck with me ever since.
I was in 770 -- Lubavitch in Brooklyn.
I was finishing davening and I overheard two bochurim, probably about nineteen years old talking about
-- the word caught my attention --Zhitomer.  
They were too lighthearted to be talking about, well, that.
I eavesdropped.  They were talking about a day camp one of them had just finished.  He did or didn’t like the head-counselor, color-war was good, the 200 pair of tzitizis didn’t arrive ‘til the second week of camp, the kids liked “American football” better than baseball;
yeh, you try doing line-up in Russian. . .

Rabbi Chanania was being burned at the stake by the Romans; they had wrapped his body in the Torah scrolls and drenched them in water to prolong his agony.
His students, (how lacking a word!) his Chassidim, displaying a presence of mind I can’t call my own,  
asked him, “Rebbe, what do you see?”  
He, displaying a selflessness I see clearly in my Rebbe, answered “I see the scrolls are burning,
but the letters are floating into the air.”
It’s been many long and painful years
since the scroll of flesh and blood that I loved so much was removed from the ark that was the only frame of reference I ever had.
I could never have imagined spending a Tishrei -- the whole holiday season from before Rosh Hashanah until after Sukkos and Simchas Torah -- without once joining the Rebbe.   
Hundreds came to spend a full month there.  
(When France passed legislation banning vacations abroad for longer than a two-week duration, there was talk of making an exemption for Jews going to New York for Tishrei.  I don’t know how that all ended up.) Thousands more came for parts of Tishrei, a Rosh Hashanah, a Simchas Torah.  
Rabbis and stalwarts of communities in the Tri-state area (New York lingo for anyone who lives where Manhattan is simply ‘the City’) had to be in their places for Yom Tov. You would see them rushing in after havdalah
at the end of Rosh Hashanah, the end of Simchas Torah, to get Kos Shel Bracha, some of the blessed wine from the Rebbe's Havdalah cup.  
They would come to "Bet Lekach", to say the beracha on the lulav and etrog.
Those letters -floating into the air-casually drop from the mouths of teenagers
who talk of Zhitomer in terms of Jewish continuity (though they would never use such a term) instead of Jewish burning.
In terms of Jewish day camps instead of concentration camps.  
Oblivious of the revolution they are making they do line-ups and camp cheers.  
In Zhitomer like it was Brooklyn, Tel Aviv or El Paso. Singing Shma Yisrael where once it was screamed. Oblivious to the miracle coursing through them.   
I feel a loneliness come Tishrei,
this month of breathtaking awe,
unmitigated joy, exuberance, quietude
all wrapped up in so fleeting a month.  
And this loneliness is what astounds me,
almost puzzles me of the Chassidim of Rabbi Chanania.  
I know it wasn’t callousness for their Rebbe’s suffering that prompted their question ‘what do you see’.
It was their connection beyond body and beyond words. A connection to him, to what he was connected to,
to each other, to themselves.
Maybe if I had what they had
I wouldn’t feel the loneliness that I do.
For now, I think of the most eloquent response
to the unimaginable:
The teenage counselor bochurim in Zhitomer.

The landing of letters that would not be burned.

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