Memoirs of Chasidic masters’ liberated Scion


A decade ago, distinguished Orthodox filmmaker Menachem Daum produced and directed the documentary “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” a restrained and loving effort to introduce the seemingly strange and alien world of Chasidism to outsiders. Several years later, he produced another film, “Hiding and Seeking, about the non-Jewish Polish family who saved his wife’s family during the Holocaust. His task then was to introduce his own family to the deeply forbidden and contaminating non-Jewish world, which seemed so strange and alien to them, and yet which included these rescuers, who were responsible for the very existence of his own wife, children and grandchildren.

As English has become the native language of all but the most devout, access to this world is now far more open and available. ArtScroll, the most ambitious and effective of the Charedi publishing efforts in the United States, is the product of Charedim acculturation to the United States as well as an inadvertent spur to that very acculturation. The proud partnership of contemporary graphics with traditional texts translated into English recognizes that even American Charedi Jews are more fluent in English than in the sacred tongues of our people and can only really open the great texts of Judaism with the assistance of English translation and commentary.

So it is no wonder that the writings of current and former Charedi Jews, who describe the inner world of their community in anguish, in anger and even in joy, have made their way into the English language. 

Among the more interesting works is Judith Brown’s “Hush” (Walker Childrens, 2012) which explores sexual abuse and coming of age among Chasidic girls, and Hella Winston’s “The Unchosen: The Hidden Life of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2006), which chronicles the strange and painful journeys of those who have broken with their devoutly Orthodox past to venture forth into a world for which they are unprepared.

In this genre of work is Izzy Eichenstein’s  “The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son: Finding My Soul Beyond the Tribe” (Oakstone Company Publishing, $18), the autobiography of a local real estate developer born into one of the most prominent of all Chasidic families — the paternal Zhidachov and the maternal Novominsk dynasties — who chose to leave the Chasidic world. (A note to my readers: I met Eichenstein more than a dozen years ago, when we shared an office suite and would bump into each other in the hall or on the track in La Cienega Park. I knew he had Jewish interests, but I did not know him. A couple of months ago, we met in a parking garage adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport, and he said he had a present for me, a book he had written. I accepted it as a courtesy and opened it with considerable skepticism and then read it with growing enthusiasm.)

Although Eichenstein is a rebel who clearly left the fold of his ancestors, the book is written without bitterness and with the most restrained of anger. His father, Rabbi Moses Eichenstein, began the journey, albeit unknowingly, when Chicago neighborhoods started changing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rabbi Eichenstein left his elderly and impoverished fervently Orthodox congregation, which had been weakened as more affluent and younger Jews moved away in droves to safer and more tony neighborhoods, and as the young abandoned Orthodoxy. He took a position as the rabbi of a traditional congregation in Chicago. Unlike Conservative Judaism, where rabbis were expected to accommodate and adjust to their congregation, in traditional Orthodox Midwestern congregations there was a deliberate disconnect between the rabbi and the congregants, one that was not to be bridged. Rabbi Eichenstein remained Orthodox, set apart from his congregants, and he expected his children to follow his lead and not to integrate into their environment. But Izzy could not accept the confines of the truncated world that was his inheritance. He could not adjust to yeshiva study, all-male environments long on textual knowledge with most minimal exposure to secular studies and summer camps where study rather than play was the norm and gender separation absolute. The more he rebelled, the more his father and his family disciplined him on a straight-and-narrow course.

Like many “troubled” young men, Izzy was sent to Israel to “yeshiva boot camp,” where, removed from the world he knew, living in a more remote place, he could be shaped into the Jew his family wanted him to become. But such an environment did not work. Izzy was labeled “an evil influence.” He explored different worlds. He worked as a manager for Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who is now posthumously revered, but was then also regarded as a rebel. He got to meet Bob Dylan and other musical giants. 

His parents did not relent. Both of their own accord and in response to the pressure of an extended, highly observant family who looked down on Izzy’s rabbi father for his compromises, they doubled down and tried to force Izzy into a world increasingly removed from his interests. Izzy’s journey took an unusual turn when he met a woman, Rita, then a freshman at Northwestern University, who was the child of Orthodox Holocaust survivors and who also was slowly leaving the world of her parents, but while still loving and being loved by her parents. Izzy and Rita understood one another. Their families rejoiced in the yichus that each would bring to the marriage, and they rejoiced in each other: A rebellious journey is less isolating if pursued with another.

Izzy came out to Los Angeles to be a promoter and discovered the world of Hollywood, including its empty promises and charlatan promoters. He was taken, yet he remained and established another type of career for himself.

Local readers will appreciate the depiction of Los Angeles’ Jewish life in the last decades of the 20th century, when Izzy and Rita valiantly tried to meet the demands of their respective parents and fit into the world of Modern Orthodoxy but were unable to accept its premises and its restrictions. One day Izzy said to his wife, “You know the difference between us and them: They want to be here.” Implicit in that statement was that Izzy and Rita did not. Their religious practice was vicarious; they were doing it for parents, out of guilt and obligation. And Angelenos will understand how the Eichensteins could not fit in with Hillel and its Orthodox norms. The reader follows their journey to Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills, with its dynamic leader, Rabbi Laura Geller, an odd place for the scion of Chasidic masters to find his spiritual home, but a place where he was free to accept himself and be accepted for himself.

The epilogue of his book is the marriage of his son to a Roman Catholic woman just down the road from the great yeshivas of Lakewood, where Izzy’s cousins and nephews find their home. Izzy accepts the journey with equanimity. One imagines his relatives as saying, “See, I told you so. Once you leave the path, it is inevitable.”

We live in the first generation since the Enlightenment, where Orthodox Judaism — even the most fervent Orthodox Judaism — is not declining, but growing. But there is a hidden story, seldom spoken of and seldom told, of those who cannot follow that path.

Izzy has given an honorable and graceful description of the path he has followed. It will be an invitation for some to begin their own journey and a warning for others who are afraid of where that journey might lead.

But one wonders what might have happened if the choice placed before him was not either/or — if his parents could have accepted the fact that there was more than one way, at least for some children who cannot conform.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

Rolling with not so holy Chasidim


Danny A. Abeckaser—or “Danny A.,” as he likes to be called—looks like your typical slick, smooth-talking Sephardic “playa” from Brooklyn.

He’s wearing a dark blue dinner jacket over a white V-neck T-shirt, showing a smidgen of his chest, where a gold chain and a white beaded necklace hang over low riding cross-stitched jeans held up by a leather belt that’s just the right hipster color amber.

With his slicked, gelled jet-black hair and thick uber-nerd-cool black-framed glasses, the 37-year-old night-club owner/actor-cum producer looks significantly different from Jackie Solomon, the sleazy Israeli-American drug lord/party boy he plays in the film “Holy Rollers,” which Abeckaser also conceived and produced in his first foray as a filmmaker.

If this sounds like blatant stereotyping, no worries, because this new, languid, low-budget indie feature revels in them.

The film tells the story of Brooklyn Chasidim who serve as drug mules to transport ecstasy from Europe to New York. The religious family talk is filled with schmaltz, using words like “gelt,” “bubbeleh” and “baruch Hashem,” and the other characters hurl epithets like “schvartze,” “goy” and “Polack,” or say things like “I never heard a Jew complain so much about making money.”

But for Abeckaser, “Holy Rollers” is simply a beautiful story that needed to be told. After he watched a documentary about Interpol and drugs that mentioned the Chasidic mules, Abeckaser (“I’m not a writer”) hired writer Antonio Macia. They put together a fictional story of Shlomo “Sam” Gold (the convincingly confused Jesse Eisenberg from “Zombieland” and “Adventureland”), who loses his way after a match with a potential wife falls through and is duped into transporting drugs, which at first he thinks is “medicine for rich people.”

As it says at the end of the film, “Holy Rollers” is based on the real crimes of an Israeli drug ring in 1988-89 that was responsible for transporting more than 1 million pills using the Chasidic patsies, who stuff the drugs in their fur streimels and suitcases. (In real life, the Israeli ecstasy cartel continued for many more years, bringing more and more pills, with Chasidic and other mules.)

“I grew up in that community and I thought it was fascinating that people don’t know what it’s like,” Abeckaser told the audience at a screening at Soho House in New York City, which showed the film in conjunction with the Woodstock Film Festival (which will feature “Holy Rollers” and other Jewish films in the fall).

Abeckaser was born in Israel, the sixth of seven children of Moroccan parents who immigrated to America in 1980. He attended yeshiva for sixth and seventh grades, then switched to public school for the rest of junior high and high school.

“Everyone sees that this is a story that could happen to anyone,” Abeckasser says, mentioning Shlomo’s struggle with his family, who throws him out of the house when they find out he is involved in drugs. Shlomo cuts off his (fake-looking) sidecurls, removes his big black yarmulke and other black garb, and looks like, well, like Jesse Eisenberg.

Shlomo, now Sammy, is drawn into the world of clubbing, Shabbat breaking and women (the inevitable blond hottie, played by Ari Graynor)—although he doesn’t fall as far as his friend Yosef (Justin Bartha from “The Hangover”), a real shyster who begins to take drugs and skim money off the top from his boss, Jackie Solomon.

Why did Abeckaser give himself the role of the dim-witted Israeli boss, the third lead?

“I didn’t think I could pull off the Chasid thing,” Abeckaser says with the right accent because he’s fluent in Hebrew.

“But I knew so many guys like Jackie, I’ve been around them. Growing up Israeli, it’s not a hard character for me,” he says. Besides, Abeckaser shrugs, “I always like to be the bad ass and not the good guy.”

The good guy, though, is not really so good, as he leaves his religion and starts recruiting his own Chasidic mules to do the dirty work. Jewish audiences might not like to see their own running drugs, to let the world wonder if what’s under a Chasid’s bekeshe—the long, black coat—are packets of drugs.

“I would say that’s sad,” Abeckaser says.

“I feel like we tell a beautiful story. You can see how beautiful the community is and how happy they are there,” he says. “Obviously everyone would like their children to be doctors or lawyers or rabbis, but people go on the wrong path.”

At one point in the film, Abeckaser points out, the rebbe warns, “All men must choose to be either closer to Hashem or further from Hashem.”

Shlomo, he adds, “strayed far away and yet he moves closer to Him [God] in the end.”

Abeckaser says he fought with the director for the last scene, in which Shlomo has regrown his sidelocks.

“I would never want to portray Jews in a bad way—he goes back to religion in the end,” Abeckaser says.

What would he tell those people who only see the world through the lens of “Is it good for the Jews?”

“I’m a big Jew and from a big Jewish family, and I want them to know this is a beautiful Jewish story because he goes back to religion in the end,” Abeckaser says. “The most beautiful thing about the religion is that God forgives everyone.”

(“Holy Rollers” opens May 21 in New York and Los Angeles, and May 28 and after across the country. For more information, visit http://holyrollersfilm.com/now-playing.)

Roots of the Divine


For all of you ecologists out there (and I believe every good Jew should be one), you know there’s been a lot in the news lately about this new "Healthy Forests Initiative," which was introduced by our government to help thin overcrowded forests. The debate continues among different environmental groups as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But imagine, for a moment, a world without trees at all. Indeed, this could have been the fate of our world had God’s original plan been realized. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

As the world was undergoing revolution and renaissance in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish world was undergoing the same. New ideologies, theologies and practices were introduced, many of which are still with us to this day.

Chasidism was one such movement. It emphasized that Judaism is something for every Jew, not just for the intellectual elite. One does not have to be a scholar to achieve Divine closeness. Instead, one’s deeds and the joy that one expresses to the Creator are the most necessary ingredients for spiritual greatness.

Later, the Mussar movement arose among non-Chasidic Jews; it emphasized the need for self-development, introspection and a constant questioning of one’s true motives and spiritual level.

While overlaps certainly exist between Chasidism and the Mussar movement, there are distinct differences. Chasidism emphasizes action and emotion — introspection is only of secondary importance in one’s Divine service. For the Mussarist, however, if one is not constantly examining himself to make sure his character is intact, every mitzvah runs the risk of being tainted.

In discussing creation, the Midrash attributes sentience to the various components of God’s new world. When it came time for the trees to sprout forth from the earth, God had commanded that the trees be produced in such a way that the actual wood of each tree would be edible and taste just like their fruits. However, the earth chose not to obey God’s command, and instead only produced trees with edible fruit, while the trees themselves remained hard and inedible.

What a bizarre Midrash. Obviously, there’s a deeper lesson here. The Torah teaches that the earth not only sprouted forth trees — it also sprouted forth man. It would seem, therefore, that whatever phenomenon manifested in trees would also have some parallel in the human experience.

The tree is an analogy to man. Extending the metaphor, man’s roots, trunk and branches are just different components of his essence — his personality, his character, everything that makes him uniquely that person. The fruit that one’s tree bears is man’s good deeds — the "fruits" of his labor, the imprint of himself that he leaves in this world for others to share.

What is the problem with a tree having a good taste, like fruit? A person may be tempted to eat the tree itself before giving it the chance to bear fruit.

Similarly, a person who emphasizes his "tree" over his "fruit" — his own character development over his actions — may end up becoming so self-absorbed that he is no longer able to bear fruit and be a productive Divine servant.

This is why the earth did not want to have trees that tasted like fruit.

But there was a downside to this objective. If man only addresses his behavior and completely ignores his character, then he is in danger of developing into a diseased tree that can no longer bear the same quality fruit.

This is what happened when Adam sinned. He decided to degrade and corrupt his own "tree" by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, he could no longer produce the same kind of quality actions in this world.

That is why when Adam was cursed the land was also cursed. Just as now, Adam would manifest negative behavior together with his good deeds, so, too, would the land produce thorns and thistles together with its delicious produce.

And so the lesson in all of this is that one cannot be exclusively a Chasid, or his tree may wither. But nor can he be only a Mussarist, or he will consume his tree before it can properly bear fruit. Introspection and self-analysis are vital for one to be able to know oneself. But all my years of meditation and self-knowledge won’t amount to a hill of beans if, at the end of the day, I haven’t been a productive member of society and made this world a better place.

Let’s hope that the "tree problem" is resolved soon. And let’s remember how much there is to learn about ourselves from a tree.


Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.

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