SPEAKING TO THE SOUL – R’ Manis and Benny Friedman in Mishpacha

By Barbara Bensoussan, Mishpacha

Rabbi Manis Friedman
Born: Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1946
Current location: Twin Cities, MN
Position: Chabad Shliach
Inspiration: The teachings of Chassidus

Benny Friedman
Born: Twin Cities, Minnesota, 1984
Current location: Crown Heights
Occupation: Singer
Inspiration: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Avraham Fried, Moshe Yess

It’s an older apartment building like many others in Crown Heights: the heavy doors that clang shut when you’re buzzed in, the cavernous lobby that echoes with the sound of children playing in the stairwells, the concrete walls painted in shades of landlord yellow and dark brick. But up a flight or two, hidden behind one of many identical doors, one of Jewish music’s newest singing stars has found a place to enjoy his private life in quiet anonymity.

Benny Friedman came onto the music scene in 2009 with the release of his album Taamu, a collection of lively, pop-style songs produced by Avi Newmark. Musical talent — or more specifically, a mellifluous, expressive tenor voice — clearly runs through the male Friedman line: Benny’s uncle (his father’s brother) is Jewish music superstar Avraham Fried. And Benny’s father, Manis Friedman, while not a musician per se, has made a career out of persuading unaffiliated Jews to change their life tunes into a more soulful Jewish key: Rabbi Friedman spends much of his life on the road doing outreach with his warm, adroit approach to kiruv.

Twenty-six-year-old Benny got married about a year and a half ago and set up housekeeping in Brooklyn to concentrate on building his career (this following a childhood in St. Paul, and years spent in yeshivos and shlichus across the country). The apartment behind the door, unlike the worn lobby and hallways, looks shiny-clean and freshly redone for a new couple, with refinished parquets and modern furniture. A few carefully chosen wedding photos adorn the bookshelves, and a clock in the shape of a treble clef is hung prominently on the wall.

It’s a rainy Shushan Purim, but since Rabbi Manis happens to be in town for the week, the three of us — father, son, and journalist — have grabbed the chance to meet. We sit down at the little dinette and do our best to rise out of the post-Purim fog to hear how the Friedman family legacy has been passed down, albeit through differing channels, across the generations.

A Common Thread

Benny’s a personable young man with a short brown beard and neat, casual attire; his father has a spreading white beard and more imposing presence. In a quiet gesture of kibud av, Benny brings his father a fresh cup of coffee as we begin the conversation.

While Rabbi Manis has achieved renown as a speaker, he seems in no hurry to start talking; he waits to be drawn out. To my surprise, this icon of Chabad outreach answers my first question by informing me that his own parents were not originally Lubavitcher chassidim. “My father was from Poland, my mother from the Ukraine,” he says. “They had connections to Bluzhev and Sanz, and later to Bobov, after they came to the US. My older sister and I were born in a DP camp in Prague after the war.

“My father was active in a Jewish hatzalah organization that tried to get Jews out of Europe; they had offices in Paris and in Prague. The communists raided the office in Prague, and threw my father in jail for six months. My family was finally able to leave in 1950.”

Although Rabbi Friedman was only two years old when his family left Europe, the trauma and mesirus nefesh of his father’s imprisonment colored the family mythos for years to come. “My father helped Jews obtain fake passports, and he sat in jail for it,” he says. “But that sense of activism always remained there with us. Today, I’m also busy trying to save Jews — just in a different way.”

Rabbi Friedman’s family settled in Crown Heights in an era when Crown Heights was a diverse Jewish immigrant neighborhood. “The Bobover Rebbe used to be in Crown Heights, on St. Marks Street,” Rabbi Friedman says, explaining how his parents developed a connection to Bobov.

But over the years, as the family grew in size (there would eventually be eight children), they were drawn into Lubavitcher Chassidus, where all the children achieved prominent positions. The two daughters became shluchos in Detroit and the Long Beach, California, area, respectively.

As for the five remaining brothers, Friedman says, “One is a shliach in Kansas City, one is a writer and teacher in Tzfas, one runs the Lubavitch Youth organization in Crown Heights, one runs Kehos Publishing, and one” — he shrugs his shoulder and gives a mischievous smile — “well, one is a bit of a singer.”

Rabbi Friedman remembers clearly the moment when he decided to go into shlichus, at the tender age of twelve. “I had gone to daven Maariv by the Rebbe — I was a typical American kid, who didn’t know much,” he says. “So I was watching him daven, and I was struck so intensely by the way he bowed at Modim. It was so evident that he was bowing to someone — he looked so humble, so much an eved Hashem. Right then and there I decided I would one day go out on shlichus.”

By 1971, as a newly minted rabbi fresh out of yeshivah, Rabbi Friedman became involved in kiruv. “At the time we had two yeshivos for men,” he says, “one here, and one in Kfar Chabad. One night I was sitting around with some of the guys I worked with, and we started joking, ‘Great, we’ve created all these baalei teshuvah, but who are these guys going to marry?’
“But before too long we became dead serious — we realized it was a very serious question.”

Rabbi Friedman had been sent on shlichus to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and had the idea to invite women college students from campuses all over the US for a summer session of Torah learning. At the time, he said, it was “unheard of” to teach women — especially, perhaps, for a twenty-one year old Lubavitcher chassid. So he found some improvised teachers, in the form of some of the sixteen-year-old girls from Crown Heights who’d come to St. Paul to help with the summer day camp.

In this rather makeshift way, Bais Chana was created, a first spark which Rabbi Friedman claims eventually ignited such important spinoffs as Machon Chana in Crown Heights and Neve Yerushalayim in Israel. “We would only get the women to the first rung, getting them interested in learning more,” he says.

“In the beginning, though, they had nowhere to go to continue. Some of them had no choice but to sit in on classes with the little girls at Bais Rivka in Crown Heights, but it wasn’t really the right place for them. The programs that developed later, in response to us, offered longer-term learning.”

He says that today even the frum-from-birth kids are sometimes lacking in basic Jewish fundamentals, going to yeshivos that emphasize memorization over principles. “What’s taught in the baal teshuvah yeshivos is more real, more close to the core of Yiddishkeit than a lot of what kids in yeshivos are taught,” he affirms.

“Sometimes the frum kids get to real life and find they don’t have anything meaningful to fall back on.” He compares it to heating a home: if you manage to heat one room really well, the rest of the house will become somewhat warm. But if the fireplace isn’t hot enough — if our teachers aren’t truly inspired — then you can’t hope to spread the warmth. “Then the game is over,” he says.

He chuckles when he recalls his very first group at Bais Chana. “This group came in definitely not interested in shopping, not interested in sightseeing! They were angry! It was 1971, the Vietnam War was going on, and these were political young women — I recall one of them even came in wearing army boots — who were furious that they couldn’t stop the war. They came in demanding to know what Judaism had to say about fixing the world!”

In order to answer those questions, Rabbi Friedman found himself pulled into round-the-clock learning that would “begin at eight in the morning and end at eight in the morning.” He says he’d lie down on the carpet, grab a few hours of sleep, and start the intellectual tug-of-war over again.

As exhausting as it was, it was successful enough to warrant repeating a second year.

Having psychologically prepared himself for another onslaught of Angry Young Women, Rabbi Friedman was baffled to find his next cohort of women … peacefully contemplative! “The war was over, so there were no more politics,” he beams. “This group was composed of the women who’d gotten into meditation and Buddhism, who had just gotten back from India! What they wanted to know was, ‘What does Judaism have that Buddhism doesn’t?’ I had to spend two months learning about Buddhism!”

By now the news of Bais Chana was rapidly spreading (“by word of mouth alone,” Rabbi Friedman says; “We never had to advertise”), necessitating two outreach sessions a year. It was just a matter of months before the next wave of recruits came in. “The next group wasn’t interested in politics or Buddhism,” Rabbi Friedman says. “Now it was macrobiotic food! We had to have four kitchens for these women!” He makes a little mock-hurt face. “They kept criticizing our Tam-Tam crackers.”

Yet he seems to miss the early days, when recruiting was indiscriminate and the college students mixed with the grandmothers [today Bais Chana runs more specialized programs]. “It was wonderful — it was so real,” he says. “We were the only program at the time, and women were coming from all over the world — Europe, South America, even Israel!” The irony of women having to leave Eretz Yisrael to find Torah isn’t lost on him: “Can you believe it?” he laughs incredulously. “People were coming from Israel to … St. Paul, Minnesota!”

Some of the women came in not possessing any Jewish name, and while Rabbi Friedman says the Rebbe’s policy was usually that people in this position should choose their own names, many of his early students “were so sincere, so real that they preferred to ask the Rebbe to give them a name.” Often, he says, the results were surprising. “He would pick unusual, unique names — Leiba Ahuva or Dina Tirtzah,” he says. “And he was very definite about it; he’d tell them in no uncertain terms, ‘This is your name.’

In the last twenty years, he says, the system has become more sophisticated. Applicants are screened more carefully, and sessions are divided: teenagers, college students, married women, couples, even single mothers (“The divorced mothers are amazing,” Rabbi Friedman remarks. “They have horror stories, real scars, and yet they handle their lives so bravely, with so little support from the community.”) Now that society has moved well beyond the Vietnam War, Buddhism, and macrobiotic food, I ask, what are the burning issues of 2011?

“The hottest subject is family,” he answers without hesitation. “Relationships. Marriage, kids, parenthood — they’re all in crisis, because there are no rules any more.” He winces. “It’s even true in the frum world. Just recently I got a call from a young man who woke up one morning after three years of marriage and realized he had no sense of why he was married, of right and wrong, of why he lived as he did. At least he had the good sense to call someone!”

In fact, Rabbi Friedman says sometimes the teens from nonobservant families have a keener sense of what’s missing than the kids from frum homes. “We underestimate those kids,” he claims. “But they have a deep understanding of what’s missing and how things are supposed to be. We need to get back to basics! We’ve lost all sense of what it means to be a husband, a wife, a parent — I regularly ask people to define the terms husband and wife, and they’re stumped. They get married not knowing how to make the change from man and woman to husband and wife. They get married without knowing what it means to be committed to a marriage.
“People today go out to date, not to get married. If you can get two people who are already convinced that marriage is great — which is an idea that has largely been lost — you’ve already won half the battle.”

His formulations of Torah hashkafah regarding dating, marriage, and family life eventually led him to publish a book entitled Doesn’t Anyone Blush Any More? (Harpercollins, 1990). The book gives voice to his position that the destruction of social boundaries is wrecking havoc in our personal lives. He writes: “When the border of the world fall, when the walls of morality fall, everything falls … there was [once] a border that set the family territory apart from the nonfamily, what was private from what was public.… Today those borders have weakened and blurred, even in the best of families. As a result, family life is suffering.”

This is obviously a problem that has only been exacerbated by the encroachment of Internet and phone technologies. The good rabbi shakes his head and says pointedly: “If you can’t bring eidelkeit and kedushah to the family, where will the next generation be?”

His personal solution to today’s dissolving social structures is unyielding: cede no territory, make no compromises. We have to dig our trenches deeper, augment the kedushah in our lives. Attempting to accommodate to “modern” life by allowing laxity in tzniyus or other halachos will only be counterproductive. “People won’t get better from doing less,” he states firmly. “What I try to project to the people who come hear me is: I’m presenting you with the emes. Will it make you happy? I don’t know. What you do with it is your business. But at least now you know.”

Number Eleven Son

Rabbi Manis Friedman was busy with more than kiruv during the past four decades in Minnesota: he and his wife were also busily raising, bli ayin hara, fourteen children, of which two are still living at home. Benny is the eleventh child; “I’m the oldest of four,” he jokes.

What was it like growing up in Minnesota, with waves of army-booted politicos and airy Buddhists, and health food nuts floating into their home in between the snowstorms and too-brief summer? Benny shrugs. “I knew my father ran a kiruv school, and went out a lot on speaking engagements, but I was mostly oblivious to his activities. We lived across the street from a golf course, and in the winter we used to go sledding across it and do winter sports.” He smiles. “Life was good!”

There are people who find it hard to be part of a mega-sized family — the noise, the lack of privacy, getting lost in the middle. But Benny seems unfazed; on the contrary, he says, “It was always a party by us.” He didn’t even mind not having his own room.

“I think it’s terrible when kids have their own rooms,” Rabbi Friedman interjects. “They lose something by being alone.”

Benny was nevertheless shipped out of the house from the age of twelve, to attend yeshivah two and a half hours away in Postville, Iowa, in the halcyon years before the 2008 raid that nearly destroyed the town. (“It was a great community then,” father and son both sigh.) At age fifteen, he went off to Tzfas to learn in yeshivah, near his uncle’s home. Then, he says, it was back to Minnesota for a year, off to California for a year, then off to Miami, with a couple of years doing shlichus in Tucson.

So where does the passion for music come in? Were the Friedmans one of those families that sing zmiros in four-part harmonies every Shabbos?

Read the full article in Mishpacha Magazine’s Pesach Issue, in stores now in New York and around the country

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