Undercover Hasid

An Elegy for Reb Michel

Reb Michel

Robert W. Yarra

Reb Michel

Grand Army Plaza,1976. The corner of Flatbush Ave. and Plaza St. in Brooklyn during the ten days of penitence between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s a rough neighborhood; it will be decades before this section of Brooklyn is gentrified. Reb Michel Gurwitz, disheveled, is sprawled on the stairway leading down to the subway station. He’s panhandling. His hair and beard are unkempt, his clothes are unwashed, he holds his beaten grey hat in his outstretched hand. Passersby drop coins and occasionally a dollar bill into his hat. Two Hasidim walk up the stairs towards the street, nearly stepping over him. Suddenly, his voice booms out like a prophet of doom,  as he calls out one of the crucial lines of the High Holiday liturgy. Michel pronounces it in Hebrew with a Polish Ashkenazic inflection: “And teshuva  and tefila, and tzedeka (penitence, prayer and charity) neutralize the evil decree!” Startled and shaken to hear these words rise up from where they would least expect it, as if from the very gates of hell, the two Hasidim stop in their tracks, turn quickly around, their faces ashen, and place fifteen dollars in Michel’s hat. 

Yechiel Michoel Gurwitz—I always called him Reb Michel–was a wandering Hasid, a beat Jewish hero caught in a time warp, a nearly invisible Jewish witness who peered out of the cracks of the big city.  He was Hasidic nobility— a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the legendary founder of Hasidism, and in direct paternal descent from Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin (1745-1815) one of the leading Hasidic masters in Poland, who legend says could see from one end of the world to the other, through time as well as space.  Michel was also a descendant of his namesake, Yechiel Michel of Zlotshav, born in 1726, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and himself a wanderer who roamed from town to town spreading the word of God, always staying one step ahead of powerful enemies of Hasidism who sought to destroy him. 

At one time Reb Michel’s aristocratic genealogy might have paved his way to a good match and a prestigious position, but by the time he was born, it didn’t count for much. This was postwar America. Thousands of scions of the highest and holiest Jewish families had just been murdered; others had been left bereft and wounded, physically and psychologically.  No one cared much anymore who your great, great grandparents were. Michel himself was born in a DP camp in France, the firstborn son of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe who would never fully recover from the trauma of the war years. As an infant in the camp, he contracted polio, and walked with a cane for the rest of his life, his sinewy, broad shouldered body jerking his bad leg forward, as if both too determined and too embarrassed to limp. 

Michel grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn– his family had become Chabad Hasidim after immigrating to America.  Even when he was most angry at G-d, Michel’s face would light up at the thought of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). It did not matter that Michel was sometimes, perhaps always, enraged at Orthodoxy—for him the Rebbe was pure love. Michel’s speech was peppered with Kabbalistic terms such as “Moichin”–light that shines into the brain, or “Elokus”–Godliness. And in all the challenges he faced, and the terrible emotional pain he endured, there was still in him the tempered steel of the Chabad Chassid, something unbreakable, the knowledge he had absorbed into his bones that ultimately, “ein od milvado”, there was nothing but G-d, which permeated all of being.

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But Chabad ultimately proved intolerable. Michel left his home and the Chabad community sometime in the early 1970s and began to wander in New York City. I don’t remember talking to him about what exactly sparked his leaving his world—I understood that at least part of it was a difficult relationship with his parents, and that he had never really fit in anyway. He was an outlier in a community of survivors, subversively innocent in a world of disciplined followers who knew the score.  He published an autobiographical article in 1980, with the help of journalist Jonathan Mark, in the short lived, but groundbreaking“ New Jewish Times”, edited by journalist Yossi Klein Halevi and Mark. In this essay, Reb Michel talks of “praven galus” a spiritual discipline that the Baal Shem Tov had practiced: “At times, my saintly ancestor,” he wrote, “would voluntarily exile himself from family and community, travel from town to town, live in poorhouses or by his wits, and exist in a state of material deprivation as a means of achieving sanctity and penitence.” 

The article tells of a year of Michel’s praven galus in the Bowery, the subways, and the rooftops of New York City.  In a Men’s Shelter in the Bowery, Michel describes “Men standing in a catatonic trance…nearly all of them encrusted in filth….I heard cries from the shower room, cries of homosexual rape.” Michel spent days on the subway; “I studied the subway cars like others studied the various vintages of wines—the F trains were warm in the winter, cool in the summer, but the cars were hard to sleep in because the seats were not extended benches but a series of angles.”  Michel’s hair and beard grew long; his looks became ghostly and frightening. As he passed by yeshivas where he used to teach, he wondered what the students would say if they saw him now.

Yet through this horrific ordeal, Michel continued to struggle and to succeed in keeping in touch with his humanity, what in Hasidism would term his divine soul. Equipped with special radar, Michel constantly tracked the traces of G-dliness in others. His search for “nitzozos”, sparks of the divine light, was ongoing and thorough. Sparks meet up with sparks. In the food line at the Men’s Shelter, Michel witnessed an older black man “one of the few [in the shelter] who has kept his dignity,” asking for a cigarette, and being asked to give up an egg in return. Michel writes, “I took out three or four cigarettes and gave them to him. He took them, and said just three words: ‘You’re a Jew’.” I nodded, and made a point of carrying a pack of cigarettes with me from then on.” 

He notices another man, “a slight pale man whose eyes still had vestiges of humanity, of intellect.” He turns out to be a former physics professor, stricken with schizophrenia and thrown out of his home. They discuss physics, philosophy and Judaism—nurturing one another’s humanity in the midst of squalor. But Michel also discovers in his exilic state, in his own personal galus, that being unmoored from Jewishness can reverse some of the painful consequences of Jewish history. When the weather gets warm, he moves to a rooftop on Thompson Street, and discovers that the people in the apartment building below are afraid of him. As the child of Holocaust survivors, Michel writes, “I grew up in a culture where one fears rather being feared. I was now the scary one, and I enjoyed it.” 

Michel writes that his year of praven galus was the most crucial, intense, and holiest of his life. The truth is that the year never ended. When I meet him in 1982, he is still intermittently homeless, sleeping on the subway, or on the closed-in porch of a friend.  I’m charmed by him; he’s innocent like a child, tough like someone who has chased away numerous muggers with his cane, has the intellectual curiosity that is the sign of a gifted mind, has the heart of a Hasid and the stubborn pride of a rebbe. His face looks like it’s been carved in stone; when he smiles, it’s like a vast cavern has been flooded in light. I understand that in his wanderings he’s an explorer of worlds until now unchartered by the likes of him, or me. He’s an undercover Hasid, searching for the residue of God’s light left from creation, which must be everywhere and anywhere. Or perhaps the residue he seeks is from a light yet to be born. 

 But it also doesn’t take me long to realize that Michel is ill—he is in the grips of a powerful, crippling form of obsessive compulsive disorder–that’s the real reason he is on the street. Unlike schizophrenics, people with OCD know that what they believe is irrational, but they can’t control their repetitive thoughts. Soon after I meet him, Michel is nipped by a little dog, and believes he has rabies. He’s concerned not for himself, but for others. Despite whatever he is told, he is certain that he is contagious, and thus must wipe off everything he touches—shot glasses at a bar, door handles he pulls open. He sanitizes everything with alcohol from a little bottle he carries in his pocket. People get angry: what’s in that bottle? Why is he doing that? But Michel is driven, compelled. Decisions are exquisite torture: he can spend 45 minutes standing on the sidewalk thinking about whether to go to the Barnes and Nobles uptown or the one downtown, weighing all the consequences. He places a sheet of newspaper on a chair before sitting down; otherwise he believes that his back will break. The OCD is his constant companion, clouding his otherwise clear intelligence.  Sometimes it hurts so much that he despairs: “If it weren’t for my nieces and nephews, because it would hurt their shidduchim (marriage prospects) I tell you, Micha, I would go down to the beach on Coney Island and walk into the waves.” 

And yet, all this does not prevent Michel from creating a network of friends, many of whom come to know each other through him. His main haunt, during the first years I knew him, is the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the corner of Amsterdam and 111th Street. It’s a famous hangout of artists, writers, academics, graduate students, and vagrants. You order a coffee, and can get yourself free refills from a pot. The refill coffee is acidic and burnt, but you can stay all day, and many people, including Michel, often do. Covers of books written in the coffee shop are posted on the walls. It’s a place for graduate students from Columbia University and out of work bohemians, and intellectuals. Michel knows all the regulars. If they are Jewish, he has ferreted out their relationship to Judaism— how they feel about being Jewish, what kind of Jewish education, if any, they had. If they are not Jewish, he also intuitively understands whether they love Jews, hate Jews, despise Israel, or simply don’t yet have an opinion. He is interested in everyone, open to everyone, but sometimes because of a real or perceived slight will fume and cross the person off his list for a while. Many of the Pastry Shop regulars, and generally, many of the people Michel knows—and many that I know then too—have had breakdowns, been in mental hospitals, attempted suicide. He’s up for all of it, utterly non-judgmental; breakdowns are like battle scars, or medals, and Michel is an experienced field officer. 

Michel, like some of the other denizens of the Hugarian Pastry Shop, has an intellectual project he’s been working on. He’s translating the epic poem “The Song of the Murdered Jewish People,” from Yiddish to English. The poem is by Yitzchak Katzenelson, a Zionist poet who wrote in Hebrew until he was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, when he began to write in Yiddish, to reach a larger audience. Katzenelson joined the uprising, escaped the Ghetto, but was recaptured by the Nazis in France and sent to an internment camp before being shipped off to Auschwitz and murdered. Katzenelson wrote “The Song” in the internment camp: 

“Warsaw packed with Jews, like a shul on Yom Kippur, like a busy marketplace; 

Jews trading and worshiping, both happy and sad, 

seeking their bread, praying to their G-d…

Come out all of you from inside Treblinka, from Auschwitz, from Sobibor, 

all From Belzec come, from Ponary, and from all the others … 

Open eyed, with a frozen cry, wailing without a voice. 

Come out all the congregation in a circle around me. 

I will see my people, my people that was murdered, And then I will sing. 

Michel finishes his translation: it’s good! It’s very good! But when we take it to a renowned professor of Yiddish at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he tells us that someone else has recently submitted a translation for an anthology he is publishing. Michel is too late. Where did that translation go? Does anyone still have it?

But despite all the pain and obstacles in his life,  many things come to Michel. For years, on and off, he had a relationship with a woman his age, an intellectual and scholar of Torah and literature who later publishes books and articles. She loves Michel despite everything; he’s the one who is never quite sure.  They show up together at another place Reb Michel frequents, the Carlebach Shul on 79th street off West End Avenue in Manhattan. He comes there for Shabbes davening and kiddush sometimes, and on other occasions as well. Michel doesn’t eat much of the free food, he never seems to eat much; he does carry around a small flask of vodka with him, and will often ask me if he can pour a little into my cup of juice or coffee; “Reb Micha, let’s make a l’chaim”, he says, turning the moment into a tiny celebration.  Reb Michel appreciates Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), the charismatic rabbi of the Carlebach Shul and inspiration to many hippie Orthodox Jews from the four corners of the earth, but Michel never becomes his Hasid, he keeps his own center of gravity.  He recognizes that he is a scion of Hasidic masters and prides himself on the pedigree. “Maybe I’ll go to the Land of Israel,” he says, more than once, “and I’ll become a rebbe.” In his childlike way, he’s only half joking. 

It’s the mid-1980’s. I find myself with Reb Michel at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. There is a poetry reading, and a woman in her 30s is reading astonishing poetry about Hindu gods; her imagination bright blue, like Shiva or Parvati, she lifts me twirling into blue nether spheres. Allen Ginsberg is there too, and he follows her, chanting more than reading, pushing what looks like a primitive accordion like the kind Walt Whitman used to use to recite poetry, Allen more a Jewish Buddha than a Buddhist Jew. 

And then we hear a  rough voice, full of warmth, even joy: “It’s the yiddish gimp, the cripple!” A man embraces Reb Michel, who looks confused—and then delighted. It’s Gregory Corso, the youngest of the beats, a friend of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, a former street kid, a celebrated poet. Sometime in the early 1980’s, Michel had lived in San Francisco for the better part of a year, and through his friend Bobby Yarra, a patron of the poetic arts, had befriended the remnants of the beats, including Corso, and the poet Jack Hirschman, a good hearted Stalinist with whom Michel argues about politics. Yarra lent Michel his apartment; when Corso’s girlfriend kicked him out, he came to stay with Michel. Corso, who was a homeless kid in Little Italy, tells us a story.  When he was 15 and living on the subway, he made friends with a Jewish kid. “Come stay in my grandfather’s basement,” the kid tells Corso. “My grandpa always needs a minyan. Just tell him you’re Jewish, and you can be the 11th man. Just pretend you’re looking in the prayer book.” Corso stays there for weeks, unaware that only ten men are needed for the minyan. The story, Corso says, inspired the first line of one of his poems: “I’ve lived by the grace of women and Jews.” We go out to the atrium of the Museum; Corso rolls a fat joint and begins to puff. There’s an after party, for invited guests only. Corso takes out an invitation to the reading, and scrawls on the back: “Let them in.” And by way of a signature: “Allen.” 

For many years I had been telling Michel to try something to help his OCD. “I heard there are good treatments, that Prozac even helps a lot.” But he is resistant. Sometime, perhaps a decade or so before his death, he began treatment, and his life became a little easier. The obsessions soften. He makes new friends, including a 40-year-old Polish-American woman who reveres him, and adopts him. She buys him a cellphone, a computer—both his first. Another miracle happens: A distant relative leaves every descendent of the Seer of Lublin $35,000, and somehow he is located. His brother Beryl manages the money for him. Together with his disability check, he has perhaps, for the first time, just enough to survive with a minimum of security. 

Seven years ago, Michel moved to a city run apartment house for people on disability in Harlem. Two years ago, I visit him there. His room is small, but it’s a room of his own.  He is now 71, but seems better than I have ever seen him. He introduces me to a burly, elderly African American resident—he’s excited to have us meet. “Pastor Joe, meet Rabbi Micha, he says,” Michel tells me that Pastor Joe is a righteous man, and that he himself has become more Jewishly observant. He now often puts his tefillin on, sometimes just before sunset, and feels their holy influence on his mind. We go downstairs to the street—he shows me a restaurant where he sometimes has coffee—everyone else is African American. 

Photography becomes a new hobby. He takes photos and videos and posts them on his Facebook page. They are delicate, illuminating, Michel’s eye scanning and settling on the liminal place, the borderline between the mundane and the eerie. One video is called “Almost Night”–turning the camera, he catches the exact moment when light collapses into darkness, and is sucked into another universe.  A photo called “Harlem Dusk-Praying Branches” posted this February, shows spindly branches reaching towards the heavens. “Study in Green and Blue” is taken through the window of his room, at an angle in which you see a fragile, tiny-leaved branch in natural light and then reflected in blue tinted glass, dark and spectral. 

A video, “First Snow: My Room, Harlem” also begins outside his window, snow falling gently in the dark, then pans into the room, past a copy of “Dvar Malchus”, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings during the Rebbe’s final, most messianic period, then past his computer screen and into the nether darkness of the rest of the room. I comment on that video; it’s from December 2nd 2019, my last communication with him: “I love this Michel, the yellow copy of dvar malchus, snow falling outside. I miss you.” And his response: “Thanks Micha miss you also, after davvening (praying) I usually learn the Seer’s ‘Zoi’s Zich’Ron (a book by Michel’s holy ancestor, the Seer of Lublin,) or Dvar Malchus- The app SEFARIA-if something that has all of the Written Torah the Talmud with commentaries, Kabbalah and Chassidus etc etc – can be called ”app”–is an invaluable tool- I hope to see you soon in Eretz Yisroel?” 

As Corona approached New York, Reb Michel has a sudden coronary. Someone —a young African American named Johnston LaMonte—has posted on his Facebook page “Michael is in the hospital and is not feeling well, so I wanted to let his friends and family know. He is in St. Lennox in NYC.” I later understand from his brother that “not feeling well” meant a coma—he never woke up from the heart attack. After two weeks, his soul returned to its maker. 

On the same December 2nd post that sparked my last exchange with him, he wrote in a comment to another friend, named James: “Thanks James In This abode I’ve now lived 7 years ,in this room 4, It’s Time to move on….What’s Happening with you? Man, it’s been what, 5 years?…Time goes slower now. We’ll keep in touch.” 

“It’s Time to move on. And Time goes slower now.” Reb Michel, I love you. I miss you. Please keep in touch.

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One thought on “Undercover Hasid

  1. What a beautiful melodious article Micha. I remember you and Na’ama hosted him for a long time, it was certainly for many months (was it years?) in your small appartment and gave him a home in Jerusalem/ What a unique wandering Hasid he was, reviving the so-crucial art of Galut that the Zadikim used to practice, but following this path further then his predecessors ever did, and raising sparks they could not have touched. Leonard Cohen writes “A saint is someone who realises a remote human possibility” – it seems that he was such a person. Thank you for your writing which seems to me to be the way he would have desired to be described.

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