Yin and Yang: the Lubavitcher Rebbe and It’s Complicated Quebecois (3 cents)

First, the rebbe. When you think of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, you probably think of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the most recent holder of the title, who passed away in 1994, at the age of 92. No successor was designated, none was selected, and the post remains vacant today, although the Lubavitcher Chabad movement is as strong, or stronger than ever.

But I am not talking about this Rabbi Schneerson, but rather his predecessor Yosef Y. Schneerson, who was the father-in-law of Rabbi M.M. Schneerson and the sixth in the line of Lubavitcher leaders. (Like Roosevelts, Schneersons often tended to marry Schneersons; in addition to being father-in-law and son-in-law, the two rebbes were distant cousins. No incest here.)

Rabbi Y.Y. Schneerson headed the Lubavitcher movement from 1920-1927, first from his home in the Soviet Union, then from Latvia, then Poland, and finally from Brooklyn. In 1927, Rabbi Schneerson, along with a number of other religious leaders from various denominations, was arrested by the GPU (later the KGB) in Leningrad and, apparently, sentenced to death. He was imprisoned in Spalerno Prison for 19 days, his death sentence was repealed, he was exiled to the old Russian city of Kostroma (where a Chabad House remains to this day) and then, after only a few months there and following an exhaustive and fascinating international lobbying effort for his relief, he, his wife, his daughters and their husbands and fiances, and several of his followers were allowed to leave the USSR and relocate in Latvia, then still an independent republic.

In 1999, the movement published a book edited by Rabbi Alter B. Metzger, a professor at Yeshiva University, providing a narrative explanation of Schneerson’s arrest and captivity, excerpts from his diaries and memoirs, details of efforts to free him and related documents. The book is interesting both because of its content, and its structure, which is very atypical.

Y.Y. Schneerson was a very well respected religious figure, who did not plot against the Soviet state, but was determined to support orthodoxy Judaism as he and his movement saw it, and not let the state hinder its development. He had been involved in the movement his entire life, and had been arrested over a half dozen times earlier, either by czarist or Communist officials, although never before actually held in prison. Although no longer young in 1927 and suffering from a number of physical ailments, he was determined not to be bowed and he was a man of great faith and able to deal with whatever came his way.

Having said that, it is also true that, as the diarist of his own experience, it is impossible to know how accurate his description is. He describes a horrific prison system, one in which the least infraction is liable to be fatal (and where in fact you don’t need to do anything wrong to tortured or summarily killed). But he also describes a situation where he talks back to the guards and arresting officials (some of whom are Jewish), demands his religious books and articles, and goes on a hunger strike rather than eat the non-kosher food, yet comes through his captivity if not somewhat worn down, alive. But his description of the prison and his exile is fascinating to anyone who is interested in the Soviet prisons. And his description of his life, and that of his family, is equally of interest, whether or not you are a Lubavitcher follower or supporter.

That’s the yin. As to the yang, we saw a new French Canadian movie this evening at the Avalon, called Les Grandes Chaleurs, or as it is translated: Heat Wave. You probably have seen “It’s Complicated”, where Meryl Streep’s ex-husband Alec Baldwin (who has since remarried) begins to stalk and seduce her anew, achieves more success than he deserves, and brings everything he touches and everyone he has contact with into a high state of confusion and complication.

Well, “Les Grandes Chaleurs” is a Francophile clone, but here we have a social worker (who deals with juveniles in trouble with the law), whose husband has just died after telling her he has had an affair for 20 years or so. What she doesn’t know is that the affair has been with her sister, although her twin children (twenty-somethings) know as does the man for whom she works, but they don’t tell her. In the meantime, a now 19 year old ex-client, still a kleptomaniac, decides that he loves her (she is 52) and they have an affair, which the kids and her sister and her boss do not know about, although they find out at staggered times throughout the movie. Yes, it is complicated. It is also low budget, does not have a Baldwin or a Streep in it, but has some clever lines and appealing moments, as it moves back and forth between something approaching a movie showing real emotions and a French farce. And fantasy: you have a 52 year old woman who has spent years working too hard and caring for a very sick husband. He dies; she is relieved and guilty at her relief. But if she can convince herself that he has had a long time affair with her sister (that also takes care of latent sibling rivalry) and that every man in her life is in love with her (her 19 year old former client, her office mate and boss, even her husband’s boss), she can move forward. Maybe. As an additional plus, the scenes of Quebec City, Levis south across the river and the mountains to the north are beautiful.

It played the Avalon for one night only, part of their monthly French film series. Whether it will be possible to see it elsewhere, I am not sure.

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