My friend Danny
By Joseph Aaron – Chicago Jewish News 

I am having a really hard time believing Danny is gone.

The death of Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, hit me really hard, stunned me when I first heard and continues to be something my head is having a very hard time accepting as true.

I knew Danny Moscowitz for more than 50 years, which is a very long time, indeed is longer than I knew the three other people whose deaths shook me to my roots. I was in my 30s when my bubbie and zaydie died and while I, of course, felt grief and pain at their passing, I had a whole bunch of other feelings as well.

My bubbie was not what you would call a stereotypical Jewish grandmother. She was as tough as nails, was not at all warm and fuzzy.

I felt sorry for myself that she wasn’t, felt deprived of a sweet, gentle grandma baking cookies for me. But when she died, I found myself feeling a lot of respect for her, an appreciation and admiration for her. She and her husband and her five chidren, of whom my mom was the youngest, managed somehow to survive a Siberian labor camp. And I realized it was due in large measure to her.

Whether she was always tough and resourceful or whether her hellish circumstances made her so, I don‘t know, but I do know that it was because she was as she was that she kept her family alive, despite all.

I didn’t feel sad when my zaydie died because he was someone who always made me smile. He was the most gentle soul I have ever encountered, pure sweetness, always funny, as pious a Jew as G‑d ever created. He was not learned or worldly, but he had a pure, simple faith, lived life as G‑d wishes a Jew to live, was always a mensch.

I was numb when my dad died. I was only 26 years old and though he had been ill for much of my life, his death hit me like a ton of bricks, so much so I cut off my feelings. The funny thing is while right after his death, I didn’t feel much, as the years have passed, I have more and more missed him, almost ache thinking of having him for so little a part of my life, so wish he had been here the last 30 years or so, so I could have talked to him, shared with him, learned from him. His death affects me more now than it did when it happened.

So I knew my dad all of 26 years, my bubbie and zaydie a bit more than 30 years. Danny Moscowitz I knew more than 50 years. My first memories of him are of when I was about 7. I was actually a classmate of his brother, Moshe, Danny being a year older than me.

But we were all students at a new day school called Bais Yaacov and there weren’t very many students. Indeed, there were only 9 boys in my first grade class and all nine of us went all through day school together up through eighth grade. Interesting fact: of the 9, eight went on to be ordained rabbis. And then there was me.

Another interesting fact: anyone who knows Jewish history, knows the Bais Yaacov movment began in the early 20th century as a day school for girls. Why those who began it in Chicago chose to call the new school Bais Yaacov even though it was attended by both boys and girls, I still do not know. I do know that I have a diploma showing me to be an official graduate of Bais Yaacov, which is always good for a laugh when I show it to my Orthodox friends.

In any case, since there were only nine of us boys, we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. And so I was a frequent visitor to the Moscowitz home where, in addition to playing with my classmate Moshe, I played with his big brother Danny. I remember well that though he was older than me, he never made me feel that way, was always nice to me.

As the years passed, somehow I kept more in touch with Danny than with Moshe. Part of that had to do with our jobs. I have always been a very big fan of Lubavitch, see them as the finest Jews there are.

That is, of course, thanks to their sainted leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, without doubt the greatest Jew of the last 100 years. What the Rebbe taught Danny and all his followers is that every Jew counts, every Jew is precious, every Jew is special and deserves to be treated with respect.

Most ultra-Orthodox Jews remind me of Republicans, always emphasizing what they’re against, always finding fault in others, always thinking of themselves as more righteous. And always making you feel less, painting a dark picture of what Judaism is about, emphasizing what you can’t do, where you fall short.

Chasidism in general, and Lubavitch in particular, do the exact opposite. Their emphasis is on what they are for, which is joyful Judaism. They are about always finding the good in every Jew, never judging any Jew, reaching out to every Jew, literally wherever in the world they are, whoever in the world they are. Lubavitchers always make you feel good about being a Jew, always emphasize the happiness that comes with being a Jew, always paint a beautiful uplifting picture of what Judaism is all about, emphasizing how much G‑d loves you, how much meaning is to be found in being a Jew.

I have found that what someone once told me to be very true. In the Orthodox yeshiva world on Rosh Hashanah, the feeling is that your neck is in the noose, G‑d is this close to pulling the rope and you have to pray your guts out to be spared. Lubavitchers, by contrast, say that on Rosh Hashanah there is no need to worry, that G‑d wants to forgive you, wants very much to bless you with a happy new year, wants you to know how much He loves you. With Lubavitchers, praying on Rosh Hashanah is not about saving your neck but feeling in your heart and soul how much G‑d cares about you.

That was Danny Moscowitz, always with that loving, lovely smile on his face. Always reaching out to Jews, all Jews, always wanting to bring the message of the Rebbe, always wanting to spread love of G‑d, always wanting Jews to feel good about themselves and feel how lucky they were to be Jews. He was about joys, not oys, about kvelling, not kvetching.

I feel really privileged to have known Danny, to have been friends with Danny. And I feel very grateful to him for a couple of very special things he did for me. When it was the 80th birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Danny not only bought me a ticket to New York to accompany him to the gathering the Rebbe held, but made sure I had a front row seat right in front of the Rebbe. And it was at the end of his talk that the Rebbe stood for hour after hour handing each of the thousands there a copy of the Tanya, the central book of Lubavitch teachings. And so I got to stand in front of the Rebbe and receive a Tanya from him.

Now, regular readers of this column know what a cynical bastard I am, how little I think of most rabbis. So you know it takes a lot for a rabbi to impress me, for me to be wowed being handed a book by a rabbi, but there was just something about the Rebbe. He was an incredible person, not only incredibly learned in terms of Jewish texts, but so well versed in science, politics, world affairs. Unlike most Orthodox rabbinic leaders, he didn’t shun the world, but embraced it, didn’t fear technology but employed it, didn’t label and dismiss certain kinds of Jews, but accepted and cared about every kind of Jew.

Danny knew how I felt about the Rebbe and so he arranged for me to be in a small shul where the Rebbe sometimes prayed and to be seated literally a couple of feet away from him. I must admit I could not take my eyes off the Rebbe, felt a tangible sense of holiness emanating from him unlike any I have ever felt anywhere with anyone. And I have been in the presence of quite a few learned and renowned rabbis.

Once when I was on my way to Israel, Danny told the Rebbe’s key aide that I would be spending a couple of days in New York before flying to Israel. The aide told the Rebbe who in turn told his aide to give me a 100 shekel bill and to tell me it was to represent “mayah brachos,” 100 blessings.

I was floored. Yes, to receive 100 blessings from the Rebbe himself, but more because of something deeper. We are taught that every Jew is obligated to say 100 blessings a day, which is easy to do if you pray three times a day. But having had some really unpleasant experiences at the day school and the yeshiva high school I attended because of my journalistic penchant to ask questions, I was very turned off at that point in my life to Judaism, and manifested that by, among other things, not praying three times a day, or even close.

I felt in sending the message of “mayah brachos” to me that somehow the Rebbe had peered into my very soul, knew very well I wasn’t saying 100 blessings a day and without criticizing or chastising or calling me a bad Jew, he instead was gently and lovingly telling me, for my own sake, to start saying 100 blessings a day. That he did it as he did, without putting me down but by building me up, touched me deeply. And from that day to this, I have said 100 blessings every day.

Because of how the Rebbe cared about me, because the Rebbe treated me like something precious.

That happened thanks to Danny, as did other things I don’t have the space to relate. One final Danny story. A couple of years ago, Danny had a heart attack and so the first time I saw him after that, I asked him how he was doing. I will never ever forget the love in his eyes when he looked at me and, because he and I were both shall we say a bit overweight, telling me to take care of myself, to watch my health. It wasn’t just words, he really meant it from his heart, was so caring in telling me that, was being a real friend.

That was all Danny. A caring mensch, a true Jew, a rabbi as we wish rabbis would be, a shining example of living the Rebbe’s teachings. Danny’s death hit me real hard. I really still can’t believe it. I will miss him very much. I am so very glad he was in my life for more than 50 years.