Joseph Telushkin’s 2014 biography of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson is an exquisitely detailed and thoughtful description of the the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life and his influence on the international Jewish community. As a semi-outsider in the Crown Heights and Chabad orbit, Telushkin writes with a reverence for what the indefatigable Rebbe accomplished, without glossing over the controversial aspects of his leadership.
I picked up this title while browsing through the Kindle Deals of the Day earlier this year, and was surprised by how quickly Telushkin drew me into the Rebbe’s story. I have never been affiliated with Chabad, the Rebbe died when I was a teenager, and I have some strong reservations about the movement’s organizational structure and theology. Event still, reading this book was a deeply moving personal experience. The Rebbe’s leadership, his mission to reach out to Jews around the world, and his vast celebrity, fundamentally shaped what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. Telushkin’s writing brings the Rebbe’s imprint on my Jewish life into sharp focus.
I especially enjoyed reading about the Rebbe’s years as a university student in Europe before the Second World War and his emphasis on connecting individually and intimately with Jews seeking his guidance. I was less interested in the controversies relating to his accession to to the position of Rebbe, and the legal battle surrounding the Chabad library. And as impressive as the Rebbe’s influence among political and religious leaders truly was, Telushkin’s continuing references to such relationships threatened to become tiresome. I wish that Telushkin had included more information about the Rebbe’s wife, Chaya Mushka, but I can’t blame him for not including material that doesn’t exist. As a celebration of the Rebbe and his work, I appreciated every detail that provided context about how the Rebbe was able to become such an inspiring leader.
Telushkin’s writing is engaging and accessible, although some readers may find the Yiddish terminology difficult. Readers who have exceptionally strong opinions about the Lubavitcher movement may struggle with Telushkin’s portrait of its structures. This biography should be required reading for aspiring clergy, and would be a useful tool for Jewish lay leaders who want to understand the interplay between leadership and community-building. The book has the power to move readers in surprising ways.