Inside The Rebbe’s Army — Of Publishers
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Inside The Rebbe’s Army — Of Publishers

Twenty-five years after Rabbi Schneerson’s death, new material continues to surface.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

While it has been 25 years since the passing of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, books are being published that continue to shed new, and perhaps unexpected, light on his vision.

Through robust publishing efforts based in Crown Heights, new books offer contemporary takes on issues, even as they are grounded in decades-old views. A new title for this fall, “Inclusion and the Power of the Individual” by Rabbi Ari Sollish (Ezra Press), shows the Rebbe to be a pioneer in reaching out to people with special needs, promoting inclusion even as exclusion was then the norm. Sollish explains that this was a natural stance for the Rebbe, as he saw and embraced the dignity of all.

Many other new books and updated editions of previously published books that incorporate newly discovered material are available, and ongoing publishing projects are in the works, making the teachings of the Rebbe more accessible than ever.

“People are only now catching up with the extraordinary quantity and quality of the Rebbe’s scholarly corpus, which plumbs and illuminates such a vast range of topics on so many different levels — within Torah and within the world at large. The Rebbe revealed in everything, from a seemingly ‘simple’ halacha all the way to the deepest Talmudic and mystical secrets, a conceptual consistency, a core idea, along with the urgent imperative to translate it into practical deed, to impact the world and increase our love for one another,” Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesperson for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, tells The Jewish Week in an interview in Crown Heights.

“One by One” is part of a new Chabad publishing effort. Courtesy

“In terms of authenticity of the texts and adherence to the meaning intended by the Rebbe,” he says, referring to the highly connected network of Chabad organizations engaged in publishing, “we apply great rigor to discover and adhere to the Rebbe’s intent.”

This is a publishing world where the emphasis is on old ideas.

“Everything is sourced to the original. We are not presenting new ideas of our own. Instead, we’re presenting the Rebbe’s innovative ideas — which are just as vibrant and meaningful today,” Rabbi Dovid Olidort, senior editor of Kehot Publication Society, says.

Rabbi Olidort was one the scholars tasked with remembering and writing up the Rebbe’s discourses delivered at his fabrengen, Yiddish for gatherings, which included a mix of Torah lessons and singing, and which were held most Shabbat afternoons and on holidays and might go on for six or seven hours. Since writing is not allowed during Shabbat, a circle of scholars with the gift of good memory would assemble afterwards to produce a written version of the talks, which the Rebbe would sometimes edit and illuminate.

Courtesy

The editors at Kehot, the main publishing arm of Chabad, also see their work as “revolutionary. We don’t just want to do more of the same. We try to publish the Rebbe’s ideas in a way the reader is not accustomed to — we try to find areas where people can learn something new. The authors are transmitters, not setting forth their own interpretations. The user-friendly presentation is the revolutionary thing,” says Rabbi Mendel Laine, who serves as managing editor.

The question of “What does the Rebbe think?” comes up all the time in their publishing decisions, Rabbi Yirmi Berkowitz, associate editor, explains. As a team, the editors make publishing decisions based on their understanding of the Rebbe’s preferences related to the written word, and, as they believe he would have insisted, they make their books affordable.

For 10 years — the first years that Rabbi Schneerson was in New York, while his father-in-law was leading the Lubavitchers—he developed and oversaw the book publishing operation as part of the movement’s educational efforts.

“The Rebbe did all of our jobs,” Rabbi Laine says, and Rabbi Avraham Vaisfiche, associate editor, pulls out a copy of a 1950 printing invoice where the Rebbe’s careful handwriting is seen, correcting the numbers, and another hand-written note in Yiddish and Hebrew specifying details about the particular binding and attached ribbon.

Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries pose for a group photo in front of Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. They are among 4,700 rabbis from around the world who are in New York for the annual event, which is aimed at strengthening Jewish awareness and practice around the world. Courtesy of Chabad.org/News

Under Kehot’s Ezra Press imprint, the publishing house puts out Chabad-inspired books for children and adults, and recently published “Positivity Bias” by Mendel Kalmenson, a book of practical wisdom for facing life with optimism, as the Rebbe did. The book provides spiritual self-help, guiding readers to make choices toward positive living. The first printing sold out in three weeks, and Rabbi Berkowitz asserts that it might be making best-seller lists if religious bookstore sales were tabulated in national lists.

Upcoming titles under the Kehot imprint include a six-volume set in English and Hebrew (facing pages) of a selection of the Rebbe’s talks and the first compilation in English of the Rebbe’s pastoral public messages for every holiday titled “To the Sons and Daughters of Our People Israel,” due out shortly.

In offices connected through hallways and staircases to Kehot, in the building adjacent to 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad-Lubavitch’s headquarters, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook directs Vaad Hanochos B’Lahak, a scholarly effort to document, edit, update and footnote the talks and letters of the Rebbe, incorporating newly uncovered material and thus adding nuance to his text. The “new” material might come from correspondence sent to their office, or hand-written materials that resurfaced in the process of digitization.

The amount of material is massive: The Rebbe spoke publicly for more than 11,000 hours. His output is probably the most prolific of Jewish thinkers in recent generations. He spoke at length — whether about the Torah or issues of the day — without notes, and afterwards, as happened after the farbrengen, others would write up the talks, and he would edit; sometimes it took several rounds to approximate the Rebbe’s meaning.

So far, the editing team has published 109 volumes of “Torat Menachem” and expects the complete set to include about 170 volumes; they are always updating and sometimes publish pamphlets with new material. “Likutei Sichot” includes an additional 39 volumes — these are the most authoritative editions of selected talks, edited by the Rebbe. And so far, there are 33 published volumes of the Rebbe’s letters, “Igrot Kodesh,” with another 16 in the works. Some of the letters are written in response to well-known individuals — their queries can be inferred — and in others the names have been redacted.

Born in Israel, Rabbi Brook came to New York in 1985 and worked in the publications office. When he inquired about going on shlichut — to be named an emissary for Chabad — the Rebbe told him that continuing to work on the manuscripts and publishing was his particular responsibility.

Men look through books in the neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, Feb. 25, 2019. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

He shows a visitor original documents written by the Rebbe on the backs on envelopes, yellowing onion skin and small scraps of paper — the Rebbe didn’t like to waste paper. He would write in small but neat letters right to the very end of the page, marking his inserts with arrows, numbers and other symbols.

When asked about the experience of working on these documents, Rabbi Brook says, “This gives my life satisfaction, vitality, meaning. You see the way the books develop and then have an influence in the world. You see that the Rebbe has answers for everything.”

Another Chabad organization, Jewish Educational Media (JEM), curates and collects the audio and visual records of the Rebbe’s teachings. Its new book, “One by One,” grew out of its oral history project and includes personal stories of people, some well-known, whose lives have been deeply influenced by an encounter, or series of encounters, with the Rebbe.

An index to almost all of the talks of the Rebbe, going back to 1935, was collated by Rabbi Michoel Seligson, who began the indexing work in 1992, after the Rebbe suffered a stroke and was no longer speaking. After a decade of work, he published it in 2012. The index, “Sefer HaMaftechos LeSichos Kodesh,” published by Kehot, is 1600 pages and has been updated in print and online.

There are also new works being released based on the words of the previous rebbes.

A narrative work by someone outside of Chabad, “Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World” by Philip W. Wexler with Eli Rubin and Michael Wexler (Herder & Herder), distills the Rebbe’s teachings related to activism and social justice. While the book has an academic slant, it shows the Rebbe’s manifesto for change to be pragmatic, galvanizing and timely, starting with the local and personal and extending to the global.

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