An international cast of characters is embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute over the late rabbi’s personal collection of books
By Avital Chizhik for TabletThere was something surprisingly calm about the tiny Brooklyn courtyard of 770 Eastern Parkway, the address of the international headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch. Groups of Hasidic men passed by talking, clutching cellphones, laughing, carrying boxes of books. One morning this past March, I knocked on a heavy wooden door; someone inside the building buzzed me in.
Down dark hallways and anonymous stairwells, the library of the Agudas Chasidei Chabad was eerily silent. Only the third floor offered a sign of life: a simple exhibition room with an assortment of glass cases, documents from the 18th century enclosed, rebbes’ walking sticks, streimels, phylacteries, portraits, shtenders, and grandfather clocks. The descriptions are in a mix of Hebrew and English, a jumble of cards and numbers that is barely decipherable. This is the kingdom of Rabbi Berel Levin, chief librarian and archivist in charge of over 250,000 books on the premises.
But these 250,000 works constitute only some of Chabad’s official library. There are another 15,000 books, which have been housed for the past century in the shadow of Moscow’s Kremlin and which have been the center of a decades-old property dispute between Russian officials and Chabad representatives based in the United States.
When I explained my reasons for coming to 770 Eastern Parkway, Rabbi Levin sighed. He agreed to speak with me, but only to discuss the history of Chabad’s missing books; the current status of the absent library of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, was strictly off-limits.
“A very sensitive time we are in now,” he said, watching me carefully from across his desk. Over the past four years, the fate of the Schneersohn library has had its international consequences, as American-Russian relations grow increasingly strained. Since February 2011, Russians have refused to loan any artwork to American museums, fearing the pieces will be used as ransom for the Schneersohn books. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow have effectively canceled all loans, the New York Times reported in January; American museums have been left scrambling for alternative pieces to fill major gaps in their exhibits. Walk into any major American museum’s exhibit and you’ll see the blank spaces: The Metropolitan’s most recent Matisse exhibit lacked the painter’s iconic goldfish (housed in the Pushkin Museum); the National Gallery of Art’s upcoming 2014 exhibit of Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt will probably not include the Degas’ “Blue Dancers” or a Cassatt version of “Mother and Child.” “We are all caught up in a political situation that is not of our making,” Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the New York Times at the time of the Russians’ unparalleled decision to halt art traffic.
“All right,” I replied, just as carefully. “Tell me about the past, then. What brought us here?”
The white-bearded rabbi looked down for a long moment, and then he began.