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Family Reunion

A Brooklyn writer, great-great-grandson of a revered Hasidic rebbe, travels to Hungary to see if he feels a connection to his iconic ancestor

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Dinner in Mako, Hungary. (Menachem Kaiser)

The Hasid to my left, who seemed much too young to have the five children he claimed, whispered that this rebbe doesn’t sleep. He only micronaps occasionally, and he owns no bed.

Toward the end of the Friday night meal, the rebbe, in shirtsleeves and woolen tzitzit, poured two beers and motioned that I take one. He raised his cup and, after briefly inquiring about my life, delivered a 10-minute blessing. This was awkward. He spoke to me, and only me, the only guy in the room not in uniform, about repentance and renewal, about the constant opportunity to start fresh, to not be weighed down by sin. He told me that my ancestors are ready and willing to help me redeem myself. I didn’t catch everything he said, but I got the general drift.

I nodded and blushed, and wanted to down my beer. Afterward, Reb Mechel came up behind me and put his shtreimel on my head. “Next year, it’s mandatory,” he said. “And this hair up here”—he mussed my crown—“belongs on your face.”

Eventually, the rebbe left, and things relaxed. One Hasid passed around solvent-grade schnapps. I asked for stories of the (original) Rav, of which there are many, almost all implausible, like how he assured the Mako community that they would survive the war. (Or, as a less-audacious variant has it, that they’d be OK as long as he was alive.) And how the cars holding Makovians got detached from an Auschwitz-bound train. Twice. How the more progressive members of the community sought to build near the graveyard, inevitably desecrating graves, and went ahead and broke ground despite the rebbe’s warning, only to then die within the year. I understand these as myths, not stories; in their retellings, these ever more fantastical legends overtake and obscure the personality they’re meant to valorize. They transform a real, multifaceted person into a one-dimensional miracle-worker, which makes it that much harder to gain any realistic understanding of who my great-great-grandfather was. But for the Hasids I met in Mako, the stories may be less important than the story-telling. Maybe this is how they ascribe greatness to their rebbe. And maybe that is how I’m supposed to know my great-great-grandfather—as someone about whom people tell miracle stories.

On Sunday morning, we headed to the gravesite, in a cemetery outside the city that was difficult to get to, even in the Jeep we had hired for the day. Its inaccessibility is a preservative—there were no signs of destruction. The Rav’s grave, along with that of his wife, is in a humble mausoleum. Weak daylight snuck in through the windows, barely supplementing the dozens of candles clustered on top of the tomb. A few people were reading the Rebbe’s writings (collected, edited, and published posthumously by Reb Mechel). The current rebbe was writing names on slips of paper—names of those who required prayers for healing or livelihood or some other blessing—that he would then place on top the tomb. There was an ongoing, unorganized effort to recite the Tehillim, the Psalms. I hadn’t brought a prayerbook of my own and know maybe one psalm by heart, which I started repeating. Then I stood idly for a while, feeling conspicuous and useless, until an old woman approached me. I don’t know who she was, but she knew my name. She carried a yellowed Tehillim, full of loose and uneven pages that looked like they might crack. She opened the book and showed me what was inscribed: “From the library of Moshe Vorhand.”

I prayed from my great-great-grandfather’s Psalms, and for a brief moment I felt what everyone else had been feeling the entire time. For a brief moment I understood—even if I can’t fully articulate—why veneration traverses generations, why family is something to take pride in, why it matters that my great-great grandfather was a rebbe.

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Tobias Engel says:

Thank you for living in more than one world, and being willing to wander back and forth, and share your story.

Scarlet Michaelson says:

Your story is an interesting one and you brought it to life with great details. Why, at the end of the piece, do I get the feeling that you’re just getting started?

rebecca says:

loved this article! i am also jewish hungarian and went there some years back looking for anyone of my family left in lasczuncs (spelling?) Hungary. Much to my dismay I couldnt find anyone. The language came naturally to me and the history, food, lifestyle made sense in my body and mind. I hope to go back soon! Thank you for the article!

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Family Reunion

A Brooklyn writer, great-great-grandson of a revered Hasidic rebbe, travels to Hungary to see if he feels a connection to his iconic ancestor

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