I first met Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, the ageless widow of six Hasidic rabbis, at the fashionable loft of two well-known Brooklyn artists, one of whom was photographing the rebbetzin for an upcoming gallery show in Boston. Hadassah was radiant, an elegant creature in Italian shoes and tailored clothes (“I only wear couture,” she told me in between teachings). Professionally “represented” (some say impersonated) by Amichai Lau-Lavie, the director of Storahtelling: Jewish Ritual Theater Revised, Hadassah’s “Sabbath Queen” ritual — a raunchy, performance art cabaret show married to neo-Hasidic midrash — recently sold out the Actors Temple in February, and moves to Chelsea’s Belt Theater for two performances this month. And Mrs. Gross is presenting “a radical Austro-Hungarian psychosexual analysis of the Scroll of Ruth” on Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan.
I was not alone in wanting Hadassah’s attention; her entourage also included filmmaker Sandi Simcha Dubowski (“Trembling Before G-d”), who is creating a documentary about her, as well as handlers, assistants and friends. She managed, over the course of our time together, to hold forth on subjects as diverse as the role of the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish life to her favorite liquor (“Slivovitz on ice, every Friday in my bathtub before shabbos,”) to her upcoming book about hair (“the Guide to the Perplexed about Jewish hair, the mysteries and the mythologies.”) There was, in short, no stopping her.
JM: Tell me about the Sabbath Queen.
HG:The Sabbath Queen is a, how you say, rendition of the classic way in which the rebbetzins — not the rabbis, the rebbetzins — bring in the Sabbath Queen on Friday night. It started when I was a young bride, when one of my husbands and the men would go on Friday night to the synagogue, instead of being with their wives and doing the weekly procreation duty. So what are the young brides supposed to do, when their husbands don’t fulfill the obligation? They gather together, just the rebbetzins and the young brides, and they do what is known as the ritual of bringing in the Sabbath Queen. It involves our own system for bringing in the masculine and feminine and bringing in the Shabbos….
So when the men were with the other men, doing what they were doing, the rebbetzins were at home, drinking a little bit, you know, for Shabbos, telling stories, and bringing in the Sabbath Queen into the body, into the neshama, into the extra soul. So I wanted to share this Hasidic tradition of the rebbetzins, which people don’t know, and share it with the bigger world out there, and teach them about shabbos, and how to stop, and to recharge the batteries on a regular basis, and use the customs of our people for this. I know people go to synagogue on Friday night. I know they know about Shabbos. But the fact that there is a queen who comes to the palace of time, which is your house, if you are ready for 24 hours once a week, to improve your life, I think that’s important to know. That is the concept of being shabbosdik: whena you feel it very deep inside you.
Then about a year ago I got a telephone call from a producer of television in Los Angeles, Douglas — very nice man. He told me about this show they are doing about, how you call it, about the homosexualist guy, when they fix up the house [“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”]. He was telling me about the concept, and I thought to myself, it’s exactly like in Kabbalah. It’s people who come into your house like angels and they transform you into something better — what you wear, what you do, what you eat. It’s exactly shabbos. You transform yourself so you can be royalty. So I want to teach people that, that’s what I want to do.
JM: You seem to be everywhere these days, and yet you have also seemingly come out of nowhere. Forward readers want to know: Who is Hadassah Gross? And where has she been hiding?
HG: You know, darling, things take their time. I’ve been around — you know, I’m not a young woman — teaching Kabbalah and Hasidus and the secrets of the matriarchs to very select groups of people. A few factors contribute to my being now more in the limelight. My sixth husband, Moishe Gross, zecher tzadik lebracha, he was an important teacher for me. He taught about Kabbalah, about self-esteem, about bringing together the feminine and the masculine, the opposites in the world. And when he died, there was a big vacuum in my life. I could not sleep. I was resorting to taking pills, and my chemist, Hyman, gave me a lot of different things. I was up all night on his medications and I was thinking thoughts that maybe I would not have thought otherwise. I starting thinking about the many teachings that the Hasidic tradition has taught me that people don’t know, and I thought, “Hadassah, the time is now.”
JM: Tell me, what are some of the guiding principles of your work?
HG: Jews don’t know enough about Hasidic traditions, about the importance of reaching down into their souls, and doing the hard work, which is the work of the soul.What is this work? It is the work that the Hasidic masters speak about, to wake up every morning ready to do the work of the kadosh baruch hu, what you call God. And the work to unite the masculine and the, how you call it, the feminine, the kadosh boruch hu and the Shekhina. You know, I had a good friend, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, he was a famous teacher, and we understood each other. Reb Shlomo and I, we used to do many melave malkas together, and you know what he taught me: What is so good about clapping? It’s that you put the left and the right together. That’s as good as it gets in life. A little moment of union, and then back to more separation and yearning. Union, and separation and yearning.
JM: How do you respond to critics who accuse you and Amichai Lau-Lavie, your manager, of making light of traditional rituals and teachings?
HG: First of all, in the world today we have the problem of irrelevance about the way of the neshama, the way of the soul. I think, in my experience, that a little bit of irreverence is very good for battling irrelevance. Number two, humor is very important to touch the soul. People take religion so seriously. And I think — it’s a serious business, but a little bit of laughing, a little bit of smiling… You now how in the old days, you would always have the clown, the jester. The jester is the one who can tell the truth. I think it’s very inspiring. I mean, to fool around a little bit so you can get to the kernel of the truth underneath all the layers, the shells of the nut. That’s why I believe in a little bit of humor, a bit of levity. I am not making fun of the tradition, God forbid. Just a little bit of holy chutzpah.
JM: I think everyone is curious about your personal life. You claim to have been married in quick succession to three Gross brothers — Avraham, Yitz and Yaakov Gross — all of whom tragically passed away, correct?
HG: I didn’t have much luck with the Gross family, so then they started marrying me off to the cousins of the Grosses. What was his name, the fourth one — Yossele Gross. He was a tzadik also. It was with him that I really began living like a rebbetzin, not like a shlepper. This was in the early 1950s. Then we came to America. There was no hope in Hungary for us. The Hasidic Jews — tsk, it was over. Yossele Gross — we actually divorced, and then he died. (This was in New York.) And then my fifth husband, Duvid Gross — Duvid Gross, he was a character. He’s what you call an artiste. He was a Hasidic rebbe, he was very important in the Grossinger community, the Hungarian community. It was
a very small sect. But he was an artiste. The procreation mitzvah he wasn’t very good at. My third husband, Yakov, he was good at that one. Duvid, no. He’s the one we think was a homosexualist. He was a very nice man, a beautiful red beard. He taught me many important things, but not sexual pleasure….Then I married Moishe Gross. He was the one that even when he was alive, we called him the late Moishe Gross.
JM: We are currently counting the Omer. Do you have any teachings for this time of year?
HG: The most important thing to say about the counting of the Omer is making every day count. We tend to live in an age of fast food, everything is quickly. I remember when I was very young, if you wanted to have an engagement of some kind, you would write a letter. And you would send the letter, in handwriting, maybe typed on machine, and then maybe a week, two weeks would happen, and then you would get the answer about the engagement. And then I remember in the 1980s, they invented the facscimilia machine. I remember a facsimilia came to me from Berlin, and they wanted answer within 24 hours. And now they have the email thing, and the Blueberry thing, what you call it, and instantly everyone they want an answer quickly. Counting of the Omer from one to 50, from the place of slavery to the place of revelation, reminds you to take it slowly, to make every day count.