New insight into Habad's legendary leader

After 15 years of research, a new book reveals details about the Lubavitcher rebbe’s early life.

Earliest known photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, around the age of 3, taken in Nikolayev (photo credit: JEWISH EDUCATIONAL MEDIA)
Earliest known photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, around the age of 3, taken in Nikolayev
W hile his teachings have been a subject of study for hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, the story of the early life of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, from birth to his wedding, remained somewhat of a mystery, until now.
Over the last 15 years, a wide network of Chabad-Lubavitch researchers tracked down every available piece of paper telling that story, leading them to archives in Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Germany, Israel and Poland.
The research gave birth to a book titled Early Years, which was officially published last week by Kehot Publication Society and Jewish Educational Media.
With very little narration, it compiles 550 pages of footnoted information accompanied by high-resolution pictures and document scans as well as written first-hand accounts, all aiming to retrace the Rebbe’s early life.
Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, who co-authored Early Years with Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, told The Jerusalem Post that when they began the research into the rebbe’s life, the goal was to create an oral history project with the information by recording interviews with people who could discuss it.
“When we started about 15 years ago, the first interviews we wanted to capture were the ones from the earliest periods because those people would be the oldest naturally,” Shmotkin explained. “So we said we were going to make a film about the rebbe’s early life and we would interview people for it to give us a focus and an emphasis to start these interviews.
“We started doing some research, scratching the surface, trying to understand,” he added. “For some reason, I think the main one being that nobody ever took the time to study [the rebbe’s early life], it wasn’t so well known.”
Schneerson was born in 1902 in Nikolaev, Russia. He was the seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, and is considered one of the most important Jewish personalities of modern times. He died in 1994.
In June 1941, the rebbe and his wife, Chaya Mushka, called the rebbetzin, fled the Holocaust and arrived in the United States. In 1950, the rebbe’s father-in-law died, leaving him the leadership of the Lubavitch movement, which he developed into an international enterprise by establishing Chabad Houses, open today in countless cities around the world, to foster Jewish life. The houses are run by Chabad emissaries.
Through the course of the project, Shmotkin and Oberlander found an overwhelming amount of documents, too many to include in a short film. They then decided to make a book that tells not only the story of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s spiritual leader, but also of the extensive research work behind it, which the authors describe as a “labor of love.”
“When we really drilled down and understood the backdrop of the rebbe’s childhood and youth, we realized that – this was really the first Chabad House,” Shmotkin said. “We learned how the Schneerson home had streams of Jews of all different stripes pouring through, and how the rebbe’s parents embraced them all with love – all the while sticking to their principles, and sharing with them Torah, mitzvot, and Yiddishkeit.
“You can’t help but notice the similarity to “the quintessential Chabad House,” and the warm accepting shluchim [emissary] couples,” he added.
“This was the rebbe’s very own childhood experience.”
Quite a few challenges came in the way of the research. Many of those connected with the rebbe from the period between his birth to his wedding in the late 1920s, were no longer alive; access to archival information was very difficult, as it had been censored in Soviet state archives; some of the reported key dates in his early life had been wrong; and there was little information about his exact movements throughout prewar Europe.
Through studying his talks, written notes and letters, the authors were able to pinpoint exact dates and locations, allowing them to create a timeline.
UP UNTIL the final touches of the book, however, questions kept arising. Just six months before publication, as they were putting together one of the book’s maps, found at the beginning of every chapter, Shmotkin and Oberlander discovered disparities within the data relating to key locations of the story. They found themselves engaging in a whole new round of research to clarify the information.
“One of most exciting discoveries of the book came to us literally several months ago,” Shmotkin said. “We knew there was another teacher the rebbe had in his childhood, after Rebbe Zalman Vilenkin, the well-known teacher who taught him for four and a half years. But nobody knew who this was.
“Literally a few months before the book came out, we found him and we found a photo and marker on his grave,” he added. “We even found documentation that he was the rebbe’s teacher. I have no doubt that more things are waiting to be discovered and will come to us.”
Shmotkin also explained that he and Oberlander “set a very high bar for what could be admitted to this book.”
“There are many stories that I know to be true, but if we don’t have documents to point to, we didn’t use it,” he said.
“Every document we found needed to be thoroughly analyzed,” Oberlander added. “Little by little we began piecing them together. It is fair to say that every fact that went into this book was not only documented, but over-documented.”
Those who worked on Early Years said they hope the book helps connect the younger generation, who will never have the chance to meet the rebbe, with him and his vision.
“The rebbe’s teachings, his talks, his writings, are incredibly meaningful on their own, but when they come together with the rebbe’s life story they are even deeper and more meaningful,” Shmotkin told the Post. “When this comes together with the story, it’s that much more connecting, especially to somebody who hasn’t seen the rebbe.
“The life that comes together with the lesson is much deeper, more connecting, more powerful,” he added.
“And frankly, I don’t think you can truly understand one without having the other.”
Shmotkin also said he has no intention of stopping the research now that the book is published.
“I am fascinated by it,” he said. “To study it, understand it and share it, is a lifelong passion. I’ve been doing this for years and there are many others doing similar work. Once you catch the bug, you don’t want to move on.”