July 19, 2007
This is the midnight underworld of Jewish life -- far removed from our everyday Jewish experiences, and set in the mystic realm of blind faith and the power of holy men.
I've been visiting holy men for as long as I can remember -- all kinds of holy men: Chasidic, Sephardic, Persian, Iraqi, kabbalists, young, old, ancient, you name it. I'm Sephardic, and Sephardim are suckers for holy men. Call me or any Moroccan Jew at any time to tell us there's a holy man in town giving brachas, and we'll schlep anywhere -- even to the Valley at rush hour.
So you can imagine my reaction a few weeks ago when my friend and neighbor Louis Kemp called to tell me that the famous Biale Rebbe from Jerusalem was at his house giving brachas, and that I had better come quickly because he was flying back to Israel the next morning.
I had heard of this rebbe (officially called the Ostrova Biale Rebbe, to distinguish him from his older brother who is also called the Biale Rebbe), but had never met him. This was my chance.
I got there a little after 10 p.m., and got in to see him right around midnight. The wait was hardly a bother, because I got to observe the silent drama of people who yearn for miracles.
In a large living room overlooking a nighttime Los Angeles that looked like a million candles were lit all over the city, a quiet group of adults and a few carefree kids milled around, with almost every adult staring at whoever came out of their session with the rebbe, as if looking for a sign.
In the middle of this scene was a bear-like character named Eddie Friedman, acting as the unofficial schmooze-meister.
Eddie was there to keep things light, because he knew how much tension there must have been in the hearts and minds of the visitors. Nobody would say, of course, why they were there, but Eddie knew. He's been one of the rebbe's most loyal followers for the past 10 years, and, as an occasional translator, he's seen his share of hard stories.
He knew that on any given night, there were people praying that a cancer would go into remission; or a broken marriage would be put back together; or a child who had left the Jewish faith would return to the fold; or that a father's parnassa, his income, would improve to fend off an eviction notice.
And he knew that the rebbe would fight for them.
It's hard not to be moved by Eddie's description of how this rebbe fights for his flock. In the rebbe's mind, he's going to war against the yetzer harah, the evil inclination, which is out to destroy your life. The rebbe will purify himself several times a day in the mikvah, to better channel God's power against this spiritual foe.
But more than that, as I saw for myself, this rebbe gets very emotional.
When I got in to see him, he asked for the Hebrew names of family members, and, as he wrote them down, immediately told me stuff about my life. I couldn't help thinking: Has he talked to my friends? How else would he know? Does he Google?
These distracting thoughts slowly evaporated when he moved his big, boyish face close to mine, so close that I could feel his breath.
At one point, tears came down his thick reddish beard. I was taken aback, because I hadn't said much. Some rebbes have the studied calm of Don Corleone. This one is a human volcano. His desire to help you is so intense that his emotions continually erupt in front of you. When I shared with him some personal good news, he was so happy he exploded in cries of joy.
I imagine he doesn't often hear good news. In the poor neighborhood where he lives in Jerusalem, I hear that hundreds of people -- many of them Sephardim -- line up throughout the night to share their hardships and ask for his holy intervention.
I can see why someone might ridicule this kind of primitive faith in the power of a holy man. It's like believing in magic. When I asked Eddie why so many people believed the rebbe could help them, he gave me this long, quiet look, as if to say: "Why are you asking me? You see rebbes all the time. What do you think?"
It's true that I love to see rebbes. I'm not sure exactly why. It's certainly not that I expect the brachas to create miracles. I know a lot of people do, but for me, that's asking for too much.
I think I just enjoy basking in their holy glow. They put me in a good mood. When I walked out of Louis Kemp's house that night, I was on a high. I felt like I could do anything.
Maybe that's the rebbe's hidden magic: he loves you so much that his brachas give you more faith in yourself. That's a special kind of miracle.
Even my great therapist can't pull that off -- at least not in one session.