The Wandering Jews
Weekly editor Sue Fishkoff finds meaning among the traveling emissaries of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Thursday, January 8, 2004
But that isn’t what happened. The book that came out of the deal, The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, published in April of 2003, has turned out to be more of a success than she had imagined.
First it received a glowing review in the New York Times. Then a bunch of other newspapers and magazines took notice, and more reviews followed, all good. Sales took off—the book is already in its fifth printing. And last month, Publisher’s Weekly put The Rebbe’s Army at the top of its list of the best books on religion for 2003.
And something else happened—something perhaps more important than a successful first book. Fishkoff says the process of researching and writing The Rebbe’s Army changed her life a little.
Sitting in Montrio this week, sipping a Chardonnay and nibbling appetizers while discussing the book and what it meant to write it, Fishkoff spoke about her family, about her Jewish roots, about the years she spent living on an Israeli kibbutz, about the Bible and its place in the modern psyche. She brings an obvious depth and passion to these ideas.
In the prologue to her book, she writes that “the Lubavitchers I met activated within me what they would call my Jewish soul.”
The Rebbe’s Army is about Chabad-Lubavitch, a group of Hassidic Jews based in Brooklyn who, instead of remaining within their insular Hassidic society, send young people out into the world to devote their lives to trying to persuade largely non-religious Jews to become more Jewishly observant.
Lubavitchers, who still take their inspiration from their late rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a charismatic Russian-born leader who died in 1994, are viewed by many as a cult—a claim Fishkoff successfully disputes. Chabad-Lubavitch is fast becoming part of mainstream American Jewish culture, yet this is the first book about how they built their billion-dollar international outreach empire.
To write her book, Fishkoff traveled around the country to spend time with the young pioneering Lubavitch couples, known as shlichim, or emissaries. In most cases, she moved in to their homes with them for a time. She attended Chabad gatherings and went out into various communities with the shlichim as they encouraged Jews to return to the rituals of their faith.
What she found was not some bizarre cult of missionaries, but a devoted group of religious men and women who were working to make Jewish orthodoxy available to non-observant members of their faith.
“The Chabad shliach is nonjudgmental and welcoming toward other Jews, while maintaining his own ‘authentic’ credentials through strict adherence to Jewish law,” she writes, attempting to explain how this ultra-orthodox group is able to appeal to modern, secular American Jews. “This combination of operational flexibility and personal scrupulousness can be disarmingly compelling.”
It is clear throughout the book that Fishkoff was somewhat disarmed by her subjects. While she does not avoid casting a critical eye on the group, Fishkoff exhibits a clear affection for the Lubavitchers she encounters.
She says that she recognized going into the project that there was a danger that she would get too close to it—a danger faced by any journalist at work on a piece of in-depth reporting.
“So many of us in America have a yearning for meaning,” she says. “As an American Jew in search of meaning, I was fodder for them. I am exactly the kind of person they are trying to reach.”
Fishkoff says she developed an admiration for the basic human virtues, which are religious tenets for the members of Chabad, that guided her subjects’ lives. “It is about trusting,” she says, “about doing right by your fellow man, about self-discipline, and about being called to action.”
This was a bit of a shock to her, because, like most people who have had a passing acquaintance with the black-clad Lubavitchers, Fishkoff went into the book slightly suspicious.
“What surprised me most about my research was that the people who go to Chabad houses are not losers or lost souls,” she recalls. This realization allowed her to write the kind of personal portraits that make the book such a gripping read.
Weekly associate editor Sue Fishkoff will discuss The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch Saturday, Jan. 10 at 7:30pm at Temple Beth El in Salinas. 424-9151.