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“The Real Zalman” – Life of the man who was undoubtedly the most controversial rabbi ever to live in Winnipeg examined in new book

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN On December 12, 2016 the Jewish Heritage Centre hosted an evening at the Asper Campus that was billed as “Rabbi Zalman Schachter and the Winnipeg origins of the Jewish Renewal Movement”.

I wrote about that meeting for this paper and my article about it can be found here: https://jewishpostandnews.ca/features/the-late-rabbi-zalman-schachters-time-in-winnipeg-recalled-at-lively-evening-hosted-by-jewish-heritage-centre/

During the course of that winter evening, various speakers, including his protegé, Rabbi Alan Green, spoke of the great impact Rabbi Schachter had on their lives. Yet, there was also a dissonant note, as several members in the audience were more disparaging in their recollections of Rabbi Schachter.

One theme that was raised throughout that evening, however, was the dearth of written information about Rabbi Schachter’s relatively lengthy stay in Winnipeg (from 1956-1975). I say “lengthy” because, after reading a just-published book about Rabbi Schachter, titled “The Real Zalman,” by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, looking at the timeline that Rabbi Dalfin produced about Rabbi Schachter’s life makes you realize just how peripatetic.

But it’s not all the moves in Rabbi Schachter’s life that make him such a fascinating figure. No, it was his combination of scholarship, charisma – and undoubtedly controversy, that arguably make him the most fascinating rabbi ever to have set foot in this city.

However Rabbi Dalfin hasn’t written a typical biography. Certainly there is a great deal of information about Rabbi Schachter’s life, given in chronological order through the first five chapters of the book. But the final – and lengthiest chapter, deals with an interview that Rabbi Schachter (who by then had added the name “Shalomi” to his surname) gave to Rabbi Dalfin in his Boulder, Colorado home, in 2010, four years before Rabbi Schachter’s death.

You don’t have to be at all conversant with Chasidic Judaism, of which Rabbi Schachter was a follower for most of his life, until he broke away from the Lubavitcher moment in 1968 to found what became the “Jewish Renewal Movement,” in order to find this book quite interesting.

Here’s what Prof. Jonathan Sarna, Professor of Jewish History at Brandeis University, has to say about “The Real Zalman”: “A valuable contribution to the biography and understanding of “Reb Zalman”: founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, disciple of Chabad-Lubavitch, and a controversial and pioneering rabbinic leader. Wonderful primary sources, including photographs, newspaper articles, and revealing interviews with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi makes this a volume that anyone interested in post-war-American Judaism will want to consult.”

Who is Rabbi Chaim Dalfin? After speaking with him several times, I was impressed by how little bias he showed in talking about Rabbi Schachter, either pro or con, and how engaging he was. According to information provided by Rabbi Dalfin, he “has authored over 90 books, is a Chasidic Historian and Ethnographer. He also lectures on psychology and Judaism based on his book, ‘Tanya on Mental Health.’ His books have been endorsed by academic scholars and professors. He lives with his family in New York.”

Rabbi Dalfin’s interest – and it comes through clearly in the book, was to delve into the complex character of an individual who was very hard to pin down, without passing judgment about him to any great extent. (Rabbi Dalfin does explain though why the Lubavitcher movement finally tired of Rabbi Schachter, offering a clear explanation how what Schachter did deviated so thoroughly from Lubavitcher teachings.)

Of all the many aspects of Rabbi Schachter’s life, certainly the most controversial ones have to do with what was not only his open drug use (certainly his experimentation with LSD, taken together with the leading advocate for LSD, Timothy Leary, still comes as a shock to many who don’t tend to think of rabbis advocating using LSD), also his several marriages (four altogether), made him an easy target for criticism.

But Rabbi Dalfin is quite open-minded when it comes to trying to understand what might have motivated Rabbi Schachter to chart such an atypical path for someone who, after all, had been raised devoutly orthodox within the Lubavitcher community. The book offers both criticisms, as voiced by others, of Rabbi Schachter’s often erratic behavior, yet it also offers explanations for those same behaviors.

Winnipeggers especially might find the excerpts that deal with Rabbi Schachter’s 19 year sojourn here especially interesting.

There are many anecdotes, as told to Rabbi Dalfin through the course of the numerous interviews he conducted with a very large number of people who had got to know Rabbi Schachter here. Here, for instance, is an anecdote as told to Rabbi Dalfin by Joe Wilder, who was referred to as “Yossele Wilder” by Rabbi Schachter:

“In 1956, Yossele Wilder was the president of the Hillel House in Winnipeg. He greeted Zalman when he arrived the first time to check out the Hillel House. (Ed. Note: Rabbi Schachter’s first position when he moved to Winnipeg was director of Hillel.)

“After spending a half hour showing Zalman everything in the building, he noticed Zalman wearing a ring. It seemed strange because Zalman looked like a Chassidic rabbi, with his full beard. Wilder knew that Chassidic rabbis did not wear rings, especially not in 1956, so he asked him about it, and Zalman told him it was a Masonic ring.

“Yossele asked Zalman whether he was a Mason, and Zalman said yes. Yossele was most shocked, because, as far as he knew, the tenets of Masonry contradicted Torah. However, he did not press the issue.”

And neither does Rabbi Dalfin in the book. What he does instead, for the most part, is offer what other people had to say about Rabbi Schachter, often quoting newspaper articles that were written about him over the years.

Rabbi Schachter was also a follower of the late, esteemed head of the Lubavitcher movement for many years, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Despite the controversy associated with Rabbi Schachter throughout his adult life – and even somewhat before he became an adult, it seems, Rabbi Schneerson seemed to adopt a very patient stance when it came to tolerating Rabbi Schachter’s often shocking behavior. But, as Rabbi Dalfin notes, it might have been a bit much for Rabbi Schachter to claim, as he did, that he had Rabbi Schneeron’s blessing to take LSD.

Given how animated that December 2016 evening was when the subject of Rabbi Schachter was put out for discussion among a Winnipeg audience, one would think that a reprise of that evening would be in order, but this time there would be a book that could serve as the basis for discussion. (As my 2016 article noted, the only available accounts of Rabbi Schachters’ time in Winnipeg – to that point, were oral interviews given by 28 Winnipeggers that now reside in a collection at the University of Colorado in Boulder.)

“The Real Zalman” does much to complete the missing gaps in what we have known about a fascinating figure.

The Real Zalman

Published by JEP

May 2023

180 pages

(including 163 footnotes, 65 pictures, articles, timeline, bibliography & appendices)

“The Real Zalman” can be ordered directly from Rabbi Dalfin on his website, www.rabbidalfin.com or emailing him at info@rabbidalfin.com. For speaking engagements in your community email him.

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