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The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch

After meeting her last week at the AJPA.org yearly conference, I email Sue Fishkoff, author of The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, for an interview 7/1/03.

She emails back: "Hi Luke, I'd be thrilled and honored to be featured on your site, which I think is brilliant. Someone sent me this week's site, where you wrote up Amy and me, and it made me laugh and laugh. You haven't lost a budding friendship with me at all--more like, kindled it. I may be kind and gentle (don't forget sweet and forgiving), but I like hanging out with mean, nasty folks so I can enjoy the fun without sacrificing my own karma. You know, I had no idea you were a writer when you showed up at the AJPA. Even when you said you had a website, I didn't cotton to it. So I was pretty surprised to see our little exchange in print! But as I said, it was fun to read. (But I didn't pay for the books---Schocken sent them for free. Never mind). Sure, call me about the book. But if you write anything I don't like, I'll rip your head off. Love and kisses, Sweet Sue"

We take it to the phone.

Sue: "You write gossip on all the writers, right?"

Luke: "That's what it is."

Sue: "You're so funny about trying not to stalk Amy [Klein, managing editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles]."

Luke: "I've got Amy Tourettes. Maybe there's a medication for it?"

Sue: "If there is, don't take it. Were you at her birthday party on Saturday or didn't you get that invite?"

Luke: "I didn't get that invite."

Sue: "You should complain about it in your next column."

Luke: "So how did you enjoy the AJPA conference?"

Sue: "Am I on the record?"

Luke: "Yeah."

Sue: "It was ok. I liked the Hollywood panel. David [Lonner, Partner, The Endeavor Agency], said the Jewish media in New York and the pro-Israel lobby are much more hooked into Broadway than the LA [Jewish media and Israel groups] are into Hollywood. That Broadway stars are always showing up as keynote speakers at Israel fundraisers in New York while in LA, the Jews working in Hollywood try to distance themselves from the Israel organizations or just don't feel connected to Israel.

"It was fun to hear from one of the Sex in the City writers, even though he wouldn't tell us what's going to happen this season. I should have begged him."

Luke: "Was it invigorating to be around the best and the brightest of your profession?"

Sue, long pause: "Invigorating?"

Luke: "How did the subjects of your book react to it?"

Sue: "With shock and awe? Not with shrapnel bombs at least. Clearly the emissaries, the shlichim, were happy to be in the book and the ones that I heard from were generally happy. Their whole life is about promoting their message. And if there's no publicity, they haven't promoted their message. That there's a book explaining what they do and people are reading it validates their entire mission."

Luke: "What percentage of them were happy and what percentage of them were not happy with the book?"

Sue: "Eighty six point four percent were happy and the others I haven't heard from. I have been getting angry calls from other Lubavitchers who weren't in the book or who were Messianists who said I didn't understand and I've been getting calls from unidentified Jews in Brooklyn who say that I don't understand how Chabad is trying to take over the world and they are very evil. I get between five and ten hate calls a day.

"If you want to see something mean that I wrote, look for my story in the Jerusalem Post when the Skirball Museum opened. I was writing as a high-on-the-horse Zionist just moved back from Israel, and I wrote that American Jewish history shouldn't end with the big Statute of Liberty, as it does at the Skirball Museum. I thought it was too parve an exhibit and too America-centered. Now I really like the Skirball."

Luke: "I'm looking in your prologue where you write that you aren't looking for scandal."

Sue: "You hate me for that, don't you?"

Luke: "I do."

Sue: "You're such a mean person. All you care about is scandal."

Sue writes in her prologue to her book: "There's a lot that this book isn't about. It's not about what's wrong with Chabad. One can find criminals and ne'er-do-wells in any group. Chabad is no exception."

Fishkoff thus separates her book from Stephen Bloom's blistering work Postville, a devastating portrayal of a Chabad community in a small Iowa town.

Sue: "I didn't use the word 'scandal.'"

Luke: "Why would you ignore the criminals and ne'er-do-wells in Chabad if they were shlichim?"

Sue: "Why did I ignore shlichim in 45-states?"

Luke: "Because you didn't have time."

Sue: "And because it was not necessary for the purposes of my book. Why didn't I write about the theology? The history of the movement?"

Luke: "I'm just interested in the scandal here."

Sue: "But it's the same answer. My answer to why I didn't talk about Pinchas Lew [Chabad criminal immortalized in the book Postville] because that was not my thesis."

Luke: "Did you turn a blind eye to wrongdoing that you witnessed?"

Sue: "I didn't witness anything. I'm sitting in somebody's house for three days. If any of the shlichim had committed a murder while I was there, for sure I would've written about it. That would've been fascinating. That would've been within the scope of my story. My story was about what I saw visiting the shlichim. When I was doing extra research, that was to support what I found in my reporting.

"I happen to think the whole chapter on menoras get into what you might call scandal. By you it's not a scandal because nobody got murdered."

Luke: "And there's no sex. It was good legal reporting."

Sue: "And also coming into a community, steamrolling in, stealing lists of Federation donors, calling them up and saying, 'Give to my Chabad house.' It's not pretty but I was happy to write about it because it was part of the story. There's no sex and no murder and I do apologize for that."

Luke: "You received universally glowing reviews."

Sue: "Glowing but most of the reviews do say what they wish I had done differently."

Luke: "Was there anything common to that?"

Sue: "The Forward and The New York Times, the two reviews I take the most seriously, both wished I had talked more about specific conflicts in local communities and I agree with that. Both of them suggested I was too close to [her subjects] and was not critical enough. I do agree with that too. It was a first impressions book."

Luke: "And you're also a nice person, right?"

Sue: "I'm a very nice person."

Luke: "You're not dying to take scalps."

Sue: "No. I'm dying to get married. That's why I'm such a nice person."

Luke: "Did you find any potential mates in your research?"

Sue: "No, and I begged every single Chabad shaliach to find me somebody. But have they helped me? No."

Luke: "Why are you living in Monterey when you could be living in Los Angeles and mixing with the hundreds of thousands of Jews here, getting married and having 12 children?"

Sue: "Because I never thought of it in quite those terms. Because my family lives here and it's good for birthday parties..."

Luke: "Were you changed by your research?"

Sue: "Yes. I used to be a man.

"This is more fun than the AP interview I did yesterday."

Luke: "I bet The New York Times didn't criticize you for lack of sex?"

Sue: "Many people think that the Lubavitchers do not have sex. That's erroneous."

Luke: "How were changed by researching this book?"

Sue: "I feel much more at home in the overall Jewish community. I feel comfortable in an Orthodox crowd. I feel comfortable walking through a street of Hasidim. I feel more of a sense of kinship around other Jews I felt awkward around before. It's been said that the Lubavitchers actualize the Jewish values many of us talk about. I've found myself lately being aware of lashon hara (evil speech) and making shivah (comforting those who mourn) calls to people I do not know. I'm subject to this same American attitude towards death that most of us have. I shy away from it. If you don't know the family well, you think that they won't want to hear from you. It feels awkward to send a letter to a family you don't know to say how much their son or daughter meant to you. I've been doing it lately and hearing back from the families. That is something I would never have done before. I would've thought - that is not my place. I should stay away. Now I reach out, and that's because of Chabad."

Luke: "There's a widespread perception that Hasidim are dirty. Can you speak to that?"

Sue: "It's a stupid perception."

Luke: "What about the hole-in-the-sheet perception?"

Sue: "I didn't check their sheets."

Luke: "Did you ever talk about it?"

Sue: "No, because I know that is not true with Lubavitchers."

Luke: "What about other Hasidim?"

Sue: "That may be true. Certainly the story came from somewhere and it wasn't entirely invented but I'm not sure specifically which groups might engage in such perversion. It sounds like a form of bondage. Maybe it makes sex more exciting. I personally have never tried it."

Luke: "Which reactions to the book have most surprised you?"

Sue: "That the reviews are so positive and there has been so much interest in the book from the media. I expected it to be more of a small niche book. Once The New York Times review came out, which stunned me because it was so positive, that gave legitimacy to the book and other people started reviewing it."

Luke: "What do you love and what do you hate about the book?"

Sue: "I love the cover. I hate that I didn't have another year [to work on it]."

Fishkoff devoted 18-months to the book.

Luke: "What were your biggest obstacles in writing this book?"

Sue pauses. "I'm hesitating because the absolute honest answer to that I don't want in print. It's too personal. The biggest obstacles to the book were all inside my head."

Luke: "Your own feelings about the subject matter?"

Sue: "Yes, and about writing a book and being lonely and shutting myself up in a room for half a year to write it. And feeling that I'm not an expert and didn't have any business writing a book like this. Even though the publisher said to me specifically that was why she wanted me to write it. Because I was coming at it as a reporter and not as a self-proclaimed expert. I felt the lack of my own background and knowledge was an obstacle."

Luke: "Were most of the emissaries believing in the rebbe as moshiach?"

Sue: "Few of them did. Messianism was more widespread during the rebbe's illness. Since he died, it's been decreasing, but decreasing much more sharply among the emissaries than among Lubavitch communities. That is a function of class and of education as well as these are the people who are out in the world. Few emissaries are messianists. Of those who are, few of them will say it out loud. One who did say it out loud, who was shliach at New York University, has resigned. No coincidence in my opinion. At any rate, what somebody believes in his heart isn't as interesting for my purposes as what they're proclaiming."

Luke: "So David Berger is hysterical over very little?"

Sue: "For him, it's a matter of life and death because he believes in a flesh and blood Messiah. For him, it's very important what an individual Jew believes in his heart. And that a shochet who's slaughtering a cow should not believe in his heart that the rebbe is Messiah, for David Berger, that is of monumental importance. Me, I don't care."

Luke: "At what points did your own thoughts and feelings rise up and you had to battle them to do your job?"

Sue: "What are you talking about?"

Luke: "You might have strong feelings about various issues that clash with Chabad. It's sure to push hot buttons to immerse a secular person within the Chabad world."

Sue: "The only times I got close to that were at some classes where they were talking about the Afterlife in front of people who'd just converted. According to Orthodox Jews, and Orthodox Jews don't like to talk about this, in the Messianic times, all Jews will be resurrected along with the righteous Gentiles. That means there are non-righteous Gentiles who dissolve into the mists. Some of the converts were saying, 'How will I know if I'm going to be in Heaven with my family?' Being a [Orthodox] convert myself, that whole conversation appalled me. That reminded me of the ugly underbelly of Orthodox Judaism that we don't talk about - that Jews are a Chosen people who have an additional soul that enables them to be a holy people. All of that ugliness touches a bad chord in me."

Luke: "In Orthodox Judaism, it's difficult to do anything with non-Jews except business, except to make money off them. You can't eat with them or drink with them unless it is on your own terms."

Sue: "That's absurd for you to say. Orthodox Judaism does not restrict interaction with non-Jews only to making money off them, like you just said. Chabad shliachim do outreach to non-Jews and teach them about the Noahide laws [seven laws Judaism requires of Gentiles, such as don't murder, don't be cruel to animals, no incest or adultery or homosexuality, etc]."

Luke: "This sort of interaction is not intimate.

"Did you ever find yourself getting into arguments with the shlichim?"

Sue: "Sure. About Israel and Palestine, a lot. I'm very left-wing on that and they tend to be very right-wing."

Luke: "How do you think Chabad will do in America in this century?"

Sue: "I think they will prosper and become stronger in the former Soviet Union and in South America. And in this country, they will firmly take their place as a mainstream Jewish denomination."

Luke: "Did you find yourself relating to Reform and Conservative differently after your research?"

Sue: "No. I find myself now paying dues to my Conservative minyan."

Luke: "Was writing the book a harrowing experience?"

Sue: "Horrible."

Luke: "What was hardest? The writing or the research?"

Sue: "The loneliness.

"Chabad doesn't keep its own history. I had to collect the background orally from various people and compile the stories into a coherent history. It was difficult to start from ground zero, sitting in a little bedroom in Washington D.C.."

Luke: "How did your friends react?"

Sue: "A couple of people tried to talk me out of it at the beginning. They said it would only bring me heartbreak. They knew it would be hard."

For the past ten minutes, Sue has been speaking in a whisper. "But most of my friends and family were much more positive about it than I was."

Luke: "Was there a difference between the way your Jewish and your non-Jewish friends reacted to the project?"

Sue: "My non-Jewish friends were completely positive. The Jewish reaction was more mixed."

Luke: "Do you believe in God?"

Sue: "Yes."

Luke: "How long have you been Jewish?"

Sue: "Twenty six years."

Luke: "Since you were five years old?"

Sue: "Since I was 19."

Luke: "Who do you admire in Jewish journalism?"

Sue: "Tom Friedman and the Forward, most of all."

Luke: "What did you think of the book Postville?"

Sue: "It was a fascinating lurid read, filled with stereotypes and lies."

Luke: "What were the lies?"

Sue: "A lie by omission. The town [of Postville] and the Lubavitchers reached a modus vivendi, an agreement, before he turned in the final manuscript, but he chose to end his story while they were still at loggerheads. That was deceptive. He could've at least put that in the epilogue."

Luke: "Anything else?"

Sue: "That was the only lie. The stereotypes were almost anti-Semitic in his depictions of the fat, sweating, sloppy, Hasidic Jewish butchers."

Luke: "You don't think they could've been accurate?"

Sue: "They could have been accurate but the deceptive part of it was presenting that as a picture of Hasidic Jewry. If you go to a slaughterhouse in Chicago and you talk to the workers and you present that as a picture of Americans, that's no more or less deceptive or accurate. Yes, probably those descriptions of those particular people were accurate but it was the context that was misleading."

Luke: "So you didn't frequently encounter the Hasidim he depicts in your travels?"

Sue: "No, because who was I interviewing? The best and the brightest at the top of the foodchain. I would've encountered the same people he did if I had written his book. That said, it's a fascinating book. I read it all in one night. He's a very good writer."

After thinking a second, third, and fourth time about our interview, Fishkoff has me delete more than ten paragraphs. So if you think the above was good, you should've seen the unexpurgated version.

I chat by phone with Stephen G. Bloom, author of Postville. He's on Sabbatical in Miami Beach, where his wife grew up.

Stephen: "I haven't read [Sue Fishkoff's] book. I read Samuel Freedman's review of her book in The New York Times Book Review, in which he cites Postville. He says her book is an interesting read but it's a valentine. It doesn't really deal with some of the more complex issues of the Lubavitchers.

"You're a good journalist for trying to pin her down when she says it's filled with stereotypes and lies. What were the lies? She sort of backtracks and says a lie by omission.

"I am in contact with many people in Postville on a weekly basis. The town of Postville and the Lubavitchers have never reached an agreement. I turned the manuscript in in mid-2000. There was not an agreement reached in mid-2000. There is not an agreement reached in the summer of 2003. I am not sure what she's talking about. I go up to Postville and talk to people in Postville and there's still a civil war being waged in Postville. I can give Sue Fishkoff, you, or anyone else, the names of dozens of people who will tell you that they want the Lubavitchers out. That the Lubavitchers have ruined that town. Crime has increased. The nature of that insular community is not the same.

"I'm not sure if Sue Fishkoff has been to Postville, if she's listening to the Lubavitchers and that's their story... I chose to end the story while they were still at loggerheads. They are still at loggerheads.

"She also talks about the stereotypes are almost anti-Semitic. I don't think so. My job is to report. My job is to go up there, open my eyes, and write what I see. If I see people who are sweating, doing a difficult job that requires a strong back and a strong stomach, I'm going to write that. That they are Jewish, should that enter into some kind of self-censorship? Absolutely not.

"Then she backtracks and you smartly say, 'Don't you think those descriptions could've been accurate?' She says they could've been accurate but the deceptive part was presenting that as a picture of Lubavitch. No way. This book is about Hasidim in a tiny town 23-miles west of the Mississippi River, in a corner of Iowa sandwiched between Minnessotta and Wisconsin. It's not about Hasidic Jewry. It's about a town. The name of the book should tip off Sue Fishkoff that this book is not about the rebbe's army. It's about Postville. I'm not sure how more clearly we could've alerted the reader to that issue.

"Postville is a tiny town of 1400 that suddenly changed when 150 ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist Jews came and opened up a slaughterhouse."

The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch

Reviewed by Stephen Fried for the Washington Post

It's always good news for journalists--and readers--when the tools of investigative reporting and narrative non-fiction writing start being used on a subject previously dominated by party-line, press release coverage. Over the past decades, we've seen this happen to the journalism of crime, sports, politics, the high and low arts, business, law and medicine. And it finally appears to be happening in the coverage of religion. In December, Publishers Weekly noted the rise of narrative non-fiction writing on religion (which could explain why religion book sales held steady during a year when nearly every other category was hammered.) And the recent Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting on the Catholic Church scandal is certain to signal to the next generation of journalists that there are rich veins worth mining in religion reporting.

Some will do strip mining. Others will be more mindful of environmental impact; sometimes too mindful. In many cases, the approach will depend on whether the work was inspired by their own growing affection or disaffection with religion.

In "The Rebbe's Army" (Schocken), Sue Fishkoff, a freelancer for Jewish publications and an editor at a California alternative weekly, tells us right up front how she has been personally affected by covering the Chabad-Lubavitch. She was especially touched by the main subjects of her book, the shlichim-the bearded emissaries of the controversial Jewish right-wing movement, known for buttonholing people, inquiring about their semitism, and trying to convince them to engage, right then and there, in a meaningful Jewish ritual.

The Lubavitchers have, she admits, "activated within me what they would call my Jewish soul." And her book does an admirable job of showing just how this unique army of guerilla proselytizers, who aim to "convert" non-observant American Jews back to some version of their own religion, have succeeded in reactivating souls in many creative and ambitious ways.

Two paragraphs below, however, she tells us something that pretty well describes where her considerable efforts come up short. She says that she and many other Jews she interviewed "have been touched by how Lubavitchers incorporate into their daily lives the Jewish values most of us give little more than lip service." She notes that the Lubavitch "visit the sick" and "comfort the grieving" and "take care to avoid embarrassing others" and whenever she visits one of their homes she is "urged to stay for dinner." The implication is that the rest of organized (and disorganized) Judaism has given up on all that, which is what her Lubavitch sources seem to believe. Having just spent the better part of the last five years covering synagogues and rabbis, mostly in the more centrist Conservative movement, I can assure Fishkoff that there are plenty of non-Lubavitch Jews all over America who would visit her, comfort her and feed her--and then try to feed her again. (My mom, for example.)

This was the first of many instances where I found myself wondering if Fishkoff could have included more perspective from the Jewish clergy, lay leaders and even secular Jews outside the Lubavitch movement-the main audience for her book, I'd think--to confirm that the claims made by the shlichim, God's sales force, could bear up under contemporary journalistic scrutiny. Especially in the chapters that explore how Chabad Lubavitch have influence in Washington and Hollywood, I would have liked to see fewer quotes from the gregarious Chabad rabbis-Levi Shelton in D.C. and Baruch Shalom Cumin in L.A.-and more from those they purport to influence, including White House spokesman Air Fleischer who is identified as a "regular at Chabad events."