The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, Sue Fishkoff
“Excuse me sir, are you jewish?” If you live in New York and you look even remotely like an Ashkenazi jew, you’ve been asked this question. The people doing the asking are members Chabbad Lubavitcgh, the largest, most outwardly looking movement in Hasidic Judaism. This remains the best book in English on the movement.
That’s kind of unfortunate.
It isn’t that this is a bad book, it isn’t. It’s actually quite good. Fishkoff has the writing chops of the long time journalist. She interviews many of the important players (though, unfortunately, not the Rebbe himself) and she has a good grasp of the history of the movement (and of Hasidism in general). But she suffers a bit from the problem that effects many who write on social movements – she falls a bit in love with her subject.
At least she’s honest about this. Right from the start, she talks about how moved she was by the generosity of many she met in the Lubavitch movement. I appreciate that honesty. And I appreciate her acknowledgment of the scores of good deeds Chabbad does in reaching out to secular Jews across the world. Chabad does a lot of good, and the story of its growth, led by the fascinating, complicated, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is incredible. But in my opinion she downplays the darker side of this, the most vocal and well-known Hasidic dynasty. There isn’t enough here about the troubling messianic tendencies within the organization (especially in the part of it that lives near me, in Crown Heights Brooklyn) and there isn’t enough about the way secular education is often frowned upon, women put upon, and those who leave the fold ostracized. It isn’t that Fishkoff doesn’t acknowledge these issues, she’s too good a journalist for that, but I feel she doesn’t spend enough time exploring them.
Still, a book that is well worth your time if you’re interested in the Chabbad movement or if you’ve ever been asked on the street “excuse me sir, are you Jewish*?”
Recommended for the Enthusiast..
*A sidenote on this issue. As you may know if you read this site regularly, I’m a ger – someone who converted to Judaism. Chabad isn’t very pro-convert, they’d prefer Christians stay Christian, by and large. If I tell a Chabad-nick I’m a jew by choice, I usually get a number of questions about the way I was converted, who oversaw it, do I kept kosher, etc. Its all generally too much trouble. But I also do not want to say I’m not a Jew, because, well, I am. So my standard response is the non response “no thanks”.