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Mister Menachem

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Editors note: In 1995, William Morrow & Company published the first widely-distributed book of the Rebbe’s teachings, Toward a Meaningful Life, by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, editor-in-chief at Vaad Hanachot Hatmimim/The Meaningful Life Center. Among the many responses received at our office was a letter from a woman who, as a child of five had met the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. That letter described her first meeting with the Rebbe in 1946, “When he was not yet the Rebbe and … walked freely around the neighbourhood (of Crown Heights).”[17] Below is an extract from a second letter that describes subsequent “sidewalk conversations” with the Rebbe.

Dear Rov[18] Jacobson,

Kol hakavod[19] on Toward a Meaningful Life. The book is a beautiful kiddush Hashem,[20] and does full justice to the Rebbe himself.

As a yiddishe maidele[21] who was born into a traditional family in Crown Heights in 1940, and who had the great zchus and mazal[22] from Hashem[23] to know the Rebbe as a beloved childhood friend – whose name was Mister, or so I thought then –  the book brings tears to my eyes and overwhelming feelings both of joy and loss to my heart. Since I read Toward a Meaningful Life, I have been deluged with memories of events that I’d forgotten for approximately 45 years…

I knew the Rebbe first as Mister, and then when I learned that Mister was not his name (as I thought it was when I was 5) I asked him his name. But I just couldn’t get the name that he told me – he must have been saying Schneerson – so he told me that we had similar names, and could I say Menachem. That I got immediately, and so he told me to call him Mr. Menachem. Which I did.

It was not until I saw a picture of him, taken about 1950, that I realized that my beloved Mr. Menachem was also the Rebbe. I had been praying for the Rebbe forever, or so it seemed, but I never knew that I was also praying for one of the dearest friends I ever had…

Mr. Menachem always asked me what books I was reading. When I was seven – Spring of ’48 I think – I discovered Science Fiction in the library on Schenectady. I loved it. I gave him rave reviews of two authors, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. He was intrigued by the idea of teaching children science through fun-to-read novels. I always told him he should read them, that he would love them. He always told me that he only read Jewish books. Then one day, a year or more later, I told him about Asimov’s book “Foundation”. If you haven’t read Asimov’s Foundation Series then I should tell you it’s about a secret foundation set up by a psychohistorian named Hari Seldon. The purpose of psychohistory and the Foundation was to perfect the Universe. Which is basically what I told him.

Anyway, Mr. Menachem later told me he read the book – which floored me – and told me to concentrate on Asimov, not Heinlin. [And he was right.] He then went on to tell me he’d written to Asimov and had gotten a reply. I was thrilled – that Asimov thought enough of him to write back [Told you I didn’t know who I was talking to. At that point I had no concept of what he truly was, much less what he would become.] He was corresponding with Asimov, and as far as I was concerned that was even better than writing to Jackie Robinson[24], which I think I told him.

Then he asked me what I thought of the idea of setting up a foundation. I thought it was better than Asimov and Robinson combined and told him so. He then told me he was setting up a foundation. I was so excited I started jumping up and down, telling him I wanted to join, please, please please. He said I could. Well, he did set it up, and I did join for a while. He was talking about Chabad and his shluchim. Maybe other things that I haven’t found out yet. Who knows?

Kol tuv,[25]

Nechama Cohen
Tamiment, PA

 


[17]  The letter was printed in The Week in Review vol VII no 23 entitled “When the Rebbe was Mister”

[18]. Rabbi.

[19]. Roughly: “Well done!”

[20]. Glorification of G-d.

[21]. Jewish girl.

[22]. Merit and fortune.

[23]. G-d.

[24] American baseball player, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers 1947-1956

[25]. All the best.

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