The Amshinover Rebbe
How I Learned The Difference between Pain, Suffering, and the Holy Spirit
In 1972, I spent a year in Jerusalem and almost died.
It was a scooter accident; my roommate drove, I held on from behind. We made a right onto Usishkin; a tree lined boulevard a few blocks from Golda Meir’s home. A blue car smacked into my leg, I bounced off its windshield, and landed in a pool of my blood.
I woke to my uncle peering over my bed, his familiar black hat and beard brought comfort in this strange, new place. Its layout from war movies was familiar: bed, chair, bed, chair, until there was no room for another bed or chair. I was in a ward of 24 people.
Unk is a prominent follower of the Amshinover Rebbe, a Chassidic leader known for his humility and kindness. “The Rebbe sent you a bracha,” Unk said. I thanked him. I could use any blessing I could get.
Two days later, in the early AM hours, I coughed up blood and turned blue. Marrow had entered my bloodstream and clotted in my lungs. “Fet embolism” ruled the doctors. The Israelis made it sound like an eating disorder.
Unk headed straight to the Rebbe for chizook, words of strength, and hired a medical student to be my private nurse. The nurse, more annoying than helpful, mumbled Psalms into my ear through the night.
I recovered from the embolism, had screws drilled into my leg, and a massive, unmanageable cast plastered up to my waist. I stayed for six weeks. Egged bus drivers, heroes of Israel’s intricate transportation system, checked into the bed on my right every three days. In time, I understood.
“Innies or outies?” I asked each newcomer. I was the only overseas student who learned to say hemorrhoids in Hebrew. I also know how to say enema.
To my left was Mr. Sidi an emaciated, unappealing, unshaven, Sephardic man. He used a portable potty at my bedside for a bathroom. Sidi would grunt, groan and squeeze, right under my nose. The nurses drew a shower curtain around him for my privacy as much as his.
One night, Harav Slonim, with a face as grim as his heart attack, joined the ward. A Talmudic scholar, he was the Rosh Yeshiva of a renowned rabbinical school near the Old City. To avoid the inevitable line of rabbis and student well-wishers, his hospitalization was secret; nobody knew. He spent his time alone in study and prayer.
Routine took over as I teased Sidi daily and swapped stories with the Jackie Gleasons of Israel. One evening, long after the enforced visiting hours were over, a tiny man dressed in Chassidic black entered the ward. His wild, unkempt beard, and white side curls falling to his waist, made him more assuming than his humble stature. It was the Amshinover Rebbe.
Rav Slonim looked up from his books. “How did The Rebbe know I was here?” Rav Slonim was honored and surprised.
“I didn’t,” said the Rebbe. “I came to see that boy.” He pointed to me.
The Rebbe sat beside me, in all his glory. It was hard to feel the privilege while the thought that Sidi might suddenly jump out of his bed to relieve himself, frightened me to the core.
The Rebbe asked if I had yissurim. Yissurim is suffering, as in Job. I was just in pain.
“They give you pills?” I shrugged not wanting to look like an addict.
“Take the pills,” the Rebbe said. “Take the pills.”
Ten years later, back in New York, I had a manic episode, soon to be depressed. On a natural high, I had never felt as confident, creative and invincible. When the doc said to take medication daily I couldn’t imagine why I needed a pill. The doctor shook a bottle of pills in my face. “Take the pills, Jesse. Take the pills!”
I jumped out of my chair. “The pills! The pills! The Rebbe said ‘take the pills.’”
I don’t believe in powers or premonitions, but I took the pills religiously. Manic/Depression soon became bipolar and the highs and lows have been gone for years.
“Did the Rebbe have ruach hakodesh, the Holy Spirit?” a rabbi once asked. “I don’t think so,” I answered, hoping not to disappoint him. While the ups and downs were more yissurim than the accident, it was chemistry, not spirituality, that sent me back to the Rebbe.