September 21, 2003

DO THE YECHI:

Waiting for the Messiah of Eastern Parkway (JONATHAN MAHLER, September 21, 2003, NY Times Magazine)

In the center of the room, a group of about 25 men are dancing hypnotically in a circle. A few bounce little boys on their shoulders as they chant a single phrase over and over: Yechi adonenu morenu verabbenu melech hamoshiach leolam voed.

A middle-aged man standing near me catches my eye. Like everyone else here, he's wearing the Lubavitch uniform -- black wool suit, white shirt and black fedora. When he opens his mouth to speak, I expect his words to come out coated in Yiddish. Instead, they're pure Brooklyn.

''That's the No. 1 hit in Crown Heights,'' he says, stroking his big red beard and grinning.

It looks almost like a rain dance, only instead of precipitation, these Lubavitchers are trying to hasten the arrival of the messiah. There's just one problem. The words of the accompanying song -- ''May our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah, live forever'' -- refer specifically to a man who died nine years ago: Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the grand rabbi and spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement from 1951 until 1994. The Yechi, as it is known, is sung as a demonstration of faith that their beloved rebbe will be back soon -- rising from the great beyond in a manner more befitting Jesus Christ than the savior of the Jewish people.

So if Yechi -- ''May he live'' -- is a demonstration of faith to some, it borders on a profane outburst to others. A swath of Lubavitchers are not only unwilling to utter the Yechi; they also refuse to be present in synagogues or at gatherings where it is chanted. To understand the concern of these so-called anti-messianists, consider that only a few men in Jewish history have been revered as the messiah after their deaths. One was Jesus. Another was Sabbatai Zevi, who won hundreds of thousands of followers across Palestine and Eastern Europe after publicly declaring himself the messiah in 1665. (Zevi's death was, relatively speaking, a small challenge to his adherents, who had already chosen to stick by him after his conversion to Islam.)

For the anti-messianists, their messianic brethren present a public-relations disaster of epic proportions. They worry that their Hasidic movement, which is 300 years old and has survived pogroms, Communism and the Holocaust, will become confused with a cult. What's more, they can hardly ignore the obvious Christian overtones of messianism: what kind of Jews believe in a second coming?


Why's it any more cult-like to be a Lubavitcher waiting for the second coming than to be a standard issue Jew waiting for the first?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2003 5:32 PM
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