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Menachem Caytak

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Interviewee: MENACHEM CAYTAK
Interviewer: Cary Levy
Interview Date: June 22, 2020
DOB:5/7/1996; Place of Birth: Ottawa, Canada
Location: Remote Zoom
Interview No.: 05.07.96-MC (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 28 min)
Transcription: Yousaidit (DS), Fiverr

Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Holocaust, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Menachem’s family was a traditional Jewish family. Menachem’s father was in training to be a doctor when he became interested in Chabad and living the lifestyle of the Hasidim. The Lubavitcher rabbi encouraged him to become a doctor, rather than leave medical school and become a rabbi. His mother became religious when she stayed on a religious Kibbutz in Israel. Menachem is the ninth of twelve children. Since many relatives had died in the Holocaust, Menachem’s parents felt it was important to have a large family. He went to a Jewish day school in Ottawa, Canada, and then high school and yeshiva in Chicago with further study in New York and Israel. He describes how his marriage followed the Chabad traditions of using a matchmaker followed by the couple meeting and talking to see if they shared the same values and beliefs. After becoming a rabbi, he and his wife decided to settle in Troy, Michigan to advance Jewish growth and pride in being Jewish. With the emergence of the coronavirus and the Covid-19 restriction, he has learned more about technology and doing virtual events.

Example of proper citation/ attribution:

                              Levy, M. (Interviewer) &Caytak,M. (Interviewee). (2020)MenachemCaytak: Jewish Journeys[Interview transcript]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation ShirTikvah: https://shirtikvah.org/cstoralhistoryarchive

 

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

 

[00:00 Silence]

Interviewer: Okay. The name of the interviewer is Cary Levy; the name of the interviewee is Rabbi Menachem Caytak. The date is June 22, 2020, and we're in Troy in Menachem’s home at the Chabad center of Troy. The purpose of the interview, we reviewed the purpose of the interview, and you signed the agreement. Do I have your permission to do this audio interview?

 

Interviewee: Yes, absolutely.

 

Interviewer: Can you tell me about your upbringing? What life was like as a child in the home that you grew up in?

 

Interviewee: So I could start a little bit before that, how my parents, my parents. My parents actually they didn't grow up religious. My father was a son of a holocaust two holocaust survivors, both from Poland. And after the war, they came to Montreal, Canada, and they started a life there. They had two children, my father, and his sister.

And my father medical school in McGill, he always grew up, he grew up in a traditional family, they went to shul on every Shabbat. But I’m saying he never, he discovered in medical school the Chabad movement and he became entranced with it, became very interested in it. And in the middle of medical school, he decided to switch his lifestyle to become a Hasidic man.

So it's very interesting, he wanted to drop out of medical school and become a rabbi. And of course, his mother was very upset, and of course parents, I’m saying they pushed him very much as many Holocaust survivors wanted that their children should get a very good education. So he asked the Lubavitcher Rabbi what to do. And the Rabbi pushed him very much to stay in medical school and said you'll accomplish more in practicing medicine than with being a rabbi.

So my father, until this day, is a practicing emergency room physician. My mother, so he was already religious; he was already Hasidic when he started dating my mother. My mother also wasn't religious, she grew up in Minnesota, and she grew up in a very Conservative household. And when she was a teen, she went to Israel, and at that time, the Conservative movement didn't have their own Kibbutzim in Israel.

And so she was hosted, she spent a couple of months or an extended period of time in Israel on a kibbutz, and the kibbutz was religious. And she saw the way of life, and she became very, I’m not sure exactly what caught her, but she just got very you know very moved by their way of life. And when she came back to Minneapolis, she decided that this is something that she wanted to do.

So she actually contacted the Chabad there, and she actually became religious. And my father and mother met after my father was already a doctor, my father became a doctor very young. He was 22 when he was a resident, and then they married. So I was born into this setting.

So I was born into a religious family, and my parents, it was always very important to my father have many children, to build a big family. His entire extended family was wiped out by the Nazis, and he felt that it was his way of so to say have revenge was to repopulate the Jewish people. So we actually were 12 siblings.

 

Interviewer:   And where are you in the?

 

Interviewee: So I’m ninth. So surprisingly, I’m actually the only one of my siblings, which decided to become a rabbi. So I’m saying all my siblings are part of the Chabad community, but they all went into different professions. I’m saying I have a brother that's a biomedical engineer.

I have a sister that's a speech therapist. I have another sister that's right now studying to become a nurse. I have sisters that have a clothes company that's a designer. So each one went into their own field, and number nine, I was the first one to typically become a rabbi.

 

Interviewer:   And they're all still orthodox, and are all still observant?

 

Interviewee:   Everyone's still orthodox.

 

Interviewer:   That's right. Now your parents were survivors; your father was a survivor from [00:05:00.04] the holocaust, his parents were from Poland and came here, went to McGill college. Joanne has a cousin who teaches at McGill.

[00:05:00]

Interviewee:   Are you kidding.

 

Interviewer:   Who taught at McGill, but he's now in Toronto. So we have a lot of history in Canada also. And then your dad went to medical school, thought about becoming part of the Chabad movement, but was talked out. Any reason why the rabbi wouldn't want him to be, he thought he could do more?

 

Interviewee: So this was actually the rabbi's opinion, the universal opinion. Being part of the Chabad movement doesn't mean that you have to be a rabbi; being Chabad
is just the way of life that you're I’m saying it's a way of giving. It doesn't mean that necessarily that you're a rabbi.

So, my father, I’m saying my parents are part of currently part of the Chabad movement. The reason why the rabbi didn't want him to become a doctor was the rabbi held very strongly that those that were ready in their professions should stay in their professions. That he felt that my father being a religious Jew, could influence people that he comes into contact with, more than if he was a rabbi. And I’m saying we see that all the time that people walk into the emergency room to be treated, and they see a guy with a white beard. And my father always gets into these conversations with them, and it's very powerful.

 

Interviewer: Yes, that's interesting. So obviously you observed all the Jewish holidays, was there a favorite holiday as a kid that you had or a favorite event?

 

Interviewee: So I think my favorite holiday was Hanukkah. There was a time that especially when I was a kid, that family got together, and we, of course, lite the menorah. Back to my father, that my parents, his parents, this is interesting. His parents were worried that there would be a second Holocaust.

So they said that if there's a second Holocaust, they want their son to be well equipped to survive. So they made sure that he knew to play the accordion. So my father's a musician, and so Hanukkah was a time that we sat around the menorah, and my father used to play, and some of my other siblings are musical. So it was a really...

 

Interviewer: The house is full of kids.

 

Interviewee: House full of kids; it was a great feeling.

 

Interviewer: Yes. Do you do anything, musically?

 

Interviewee: I’m actually the odd one out. A lot of my siblings are very musical, but I’m the odd one out.

 

Interviewer: So, is there a time that you first felt like you were really Jewish? The community that you lived in was it predominantly Jewish, was it mixed, was it?

 

Interviewee: No, so it actually wasn't. I’m saying Ottawa; we didn't even live in a Jewish neighborhood, so to speak. We were saying of the Jewish people, wasn't an orthodox. It was a very integrated community, so I had kids in my class that I’m saying some came from religious homes, some didn't. And we all I’m saying, we all got along. We all respected each other for who they are.

 

Interviewer: And the Chabad was big enough to support minyan and all that? It was large enough; the community was large enough to have a Jewish presence?

 

Interviewee: Yes.

 

Interviewer: Okay.

 

Interviewee: So there's a large organized Jewish community. I’m saying there's a number of [Inaudible 00:08:21.26] as in Ottawa, and there's also a number of other organizations that operate there.

[00:08:00]

Interviewer: Okay. So you always knew you were Jewish from birth?

 

Interviewee:   Of course, I always knew that I was Jewish. And of course, you could say that I’m saying my environment influenced me. Especially when I was in high school, it was something that I studied a lot, the teachings of the rebbe. And the rebbe was a very; it was fascinating what he did and what he pushed for and what he stood for.

 

Interviewer: Did you go to yeshiva, or did you go to public school, or what was your education?

 

Interviewee:   So in Ottawa, there was a Jewish day school, which I went to, and so after eighth grade, we graduated, and I went to yeshiva. So I went to Chicago for high school, and for college, the equivalent of college it was with like yeshiva. I went to England and Israel.

 

Interviewer: Okay. And you got your rabbi education through?

 

Interviewee: So I was studying in New York, but it was done through the high court of Israel. Meaning their rabbi would come and test us, and make sure that we were.

 

Interviewer:   Okay. Ever since I’ve met you, it's obvious you have a deep love for learning and Jewish things and [00:10:00.00] everything. Is there someone in your history that promoted that more? It sounds like your parents surely did. Is there anybody else?

[00:10:00]

 

Interviewee:   Yes, of course, my parents. But the Lubavitcher rebbe was someone that I really look up to and really influenced me in the way that I act and the way that I think today. That even though I’m only, I was born in 1996, he passed away in 1994.

 

Interviewer: Oh my god.

 

Interviewee: So, I never had the honor to actually meet him. But it was his teachings and what he stood for that really influenced me.

 

Interviewer: Okay. And this is the same rabbi that told your dad to stay with medicine?

 

Interviewee: Yes.

 

Interviewer: Okay, cool. So tell me how you met your wife.

 

Interviewee: So this is interesting if anyone's watched the Fiddler on the Roof. So this is, I'll explain how it works in the Chabad circle in the Chabad community. That until the time of marriage, boys and girls are very separate, we don't date just for leisure or just for fun. So all schooling are separate, the high schools are separate, even elementary schools are separate

And when it comes time for dating for marriage, so you need to find a girl. So the way it works is that there's a matchmaker, and basically, the matchmaker sets up. The matchmaker looks like two perspective matches, the boy and a girl. And they see if their values match, if they share the same goals and if they're both good people. And through studying the two people that they would suggest it to their parents.

And the idea is they'd suggest it to the parents, and then you would go out, or you suggest it to each perspective match, and then you go out. And it's just that meeting that they arrange, but dating is completely I’m saying you, and you date, and you decide if you want to marry that one.

 

Interviewer: Okay. Is there a, like, are you given months or years to figure it out?

 

Interviewee: You could take as long as you want. I have friends that dated like 30, 40 girls before they settled on one. I was lucky; I closed down early. I found the one early.

 

Interviewer: Yes, that's good. And she was already steeped in Chabad and her family is connected to Chabad forever, right?

 

Interviewee: It's actually interesting. Her father, I'll back up even her grandfather. The rebbe had this Lubavitcher rebbe, the leader of the Chabad movement. So he pushed very hard to not create insular communities, but rather if you know something teach it.

And so he pushed that people shouldn't just settle in the Chabad center, which was Brooklyn, the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Rather, go out and spread the love of Judaism to the world. The first couple that went on this mission, so to speak in North America, was Chana’s grandparents, where they actually settled in Detroit.

 

Interviewer: Oh, wow, and what year was that about?

 

Interviewee: So that was 1958. So that was the first Chabad rabbi to settle, and from then, I’m saying the number has grown to over 5500.

 

Interviewer: Yes, all around the world. That's interesting. And where was she living when you met her?

 

Interviewee: So she was living in Detroit, she was working in a high school.

 

Interviewer: And you were still in Canada?

 

Interviewee: No, I was actually studying in New York at the time. So I was finishing my rabbinical studies in New York.

 

Interviewer: And how long did you date?

 

Interviewee: We dated for over a month. But the dates are not, meaning until marriage.

 

Interviewer: Yes.

 

Interviewee: Until marriage, there's no contact. So the dates would consist of just hours and hours of just speaking and getting to know each other and just making sure we share, of course, we have to love each other.

 

Interviewer: Mostly on the phone or in-person?

 

Interviewee: No, always in person. So we used to commute, I’d come to Detroit to come there and then we decided let's make this a marriage.

 

Interviewer: Okay, but you knew from the first time, right?

 

Interviewee: Yes.

 

Interviewer: Okay. And I know you love to study, how much studying do you get to do now?

 

Interviewee: So now, most of my studying I get to do in the morning. I’m a morning type of guy, so I could wake up early in the morning.

 

Interviewer: And do you have a group that you study with, or do you study on your own?

 

[00:15:00]

 

Interviewee:   [00:15:00.00] So no, I study on my own. I have one; there's a rabbi in Delray Beach, Florida, a friend of mine. So we study sometimes on the phone, but besides for that, it's not.

 

Interviewer: Okay. Can you tell me what the whole Chabad movement means to you? If you could condense it into a few words. I know what I've learned in the last couple years about it, which is very interesting. At what age did you know this was what you were going to do?

 

Interviewee: So I think at high school, in high school, I'm saying I studied a lot the teachings, and it really spoke to me. And the principal rule of the Chabad movement is love your fellow like yourself. I’m saying that's a principle rule of the Torah, that's the principle rule of Judaism, but we would take that to an extreme.

 

Interviewer: Okay.

 

Interviewee: The idea is every single Jewish person is a gem, and can't look at a person by their external, but rather look at the person who they are. They're son of god I’m saying; they're fellow human beings. And it's the idea of not focusing on yourself or rather giving to others.

 

Interviewer: Okay. And who made the decision to end up in Troy? Or was that your decision or and how was that decision made?

 

Interviewee: You know, so the way the Chabad movement works, it's very disenfranchised if that's the word. Basically, no one's telling you what to do. So we decided we wanted to be become Chabad rabbis, go under the Chabad movement, Chabad umbrella of emissaries around the world.

And you have to find your own place. So we first were scouting out even different countries, we were looking in South America. And then we weren't being so successful in finding the perfect place, and we decided to look closer to home and say my wife's home in West Bloomfield. So we found Troy, that Troy seemed like a place that's not a strong Jewish community. There's a nice number of Jews that live here, and we felt we can make our mark in the community.

 

Interviewer: Okay. And what are your goals for the Chabad of Troy?

 

Interviewee: The goals of Chabad of Troy is to advance the Jewish community here, and take it to the next level. So we're not focusing on building a big center, a big operation. What our goal is that every single, we're trying to help advance the growth of Judaism and the pride of Judaism of every single Jew that lives here.

So we're looking at the individual, the individual comes together as a community that's fantastic. But our goal is to reach out to individual people, create these relationships, and help them grow in their Judaism.

 

Interviewer: Okay, why I think you have for sure done that already. How far do you think you are in this process?

 

Interviewee: We're just in the beginning; we have tons of work to do.

 

Interviewer: Okay. Is there a road map for a city like Troy? The way you know how many people there are and how many Jews there are. Or is it different to run a Chabad in a fairly mixed environment as opposed to Brooklyn or some other higher density Jewish place? Is there a different way you approach it?

 

Interviewee: Definitely. We're not approaching it so much from; I’m saying some communities, the Jewish community is very traditional. So all they want is just to come to synagogue and just to hear bible study and the like.

Here we're approaching it from a much more engaging level, and we're not trying to create a place like a religious, but we don't feel that people are interested in that. We're trying to cater to people's needs where they feel they just want more social activity and more engaging activities that they could enjoy.

 

Interviewer: Okay. Can you tell me, was there ever an event, one single event in your life that made you feel more Jewish or more connected to god? Or was there an event that made you question your faith at all? Either one or both?

 

Interviewee: That's a good question. I’m saying a powerful moment, of course, I think it might be a little cliché. But I'm saying I studied two years in Israel and just to see the history of the Jewish people, how rich. How just you read all about it, and you hear about it, but to actually be there and to witness the history in front of your eyes, so I think that was a very powerful moment.

 

Interviewer: Do you ever have a moment that you questioned your faith or question your?

 

Interviewee: I'm sure I’m a human being like everyone else, but I'd have to get back to you on that one. It's not like I have perfect faith or anything, but one specific moment that.

 

Interviewer: Okay, can you tell me about what COVID-19 has done for your life other than you can't have your Shabbat dinners here? I know that's a big change.

 

Interviewee: So COVID-19 has pushed me to take the technology a lot more seriously and to just become a lot more familiar with how to use that, saying I’m becoming a lot more familiar with, of course, Facebook I always knew. But advertising, and a lot more familiar with doing virtual events. And so it's been actually a very big learning experience.

 

Interviewer: And your personal life has changed at all because of it or?

 

Interviewee: So personal life, I actually found that during COVID-19 I’m saying with people in Troy and my own family, that it's just a time that we come together a lot more. And the people that weren't didn't have time to just hang out or whatever is just the relationships got a lot deeper and a lot better. So I found that with people in Troy in general and also of course with my family just spending a lot more time.

 

Interviewer: Yes. We notice we're with people that we have missed for years that have forgotten about, and we spend more time virtually with them. Do you or the Chabad center of Troy have any dealings with non-Jewish organizations? Do you have any affiliations at all?

 

Interviewee: So we don't have any affiliations. But it's something that we're planning on doing this year. But of course, we're going to have to push it for next year, to push a lot about education in the city. Education is not something that's a Jewish thing; the Jewish religion has a lot to offer. And it's something that we want to push strongly in Troy.

 

Interviewer: Okay. Did you have any real success stories where you found somebody in Troy that was wanting to be more Jewish and didn't know how to express themselves or something like that?

 

Interviewee: Actually, I just had this story, I don't know if this is a success story, but I just had this story just this past week. That when we first moved here, so we put in, the paper here CNG news, they put in an article about the opening and that we're having Rosh Hashanah dinner.

So a lady emailed me, and she said she hasn't been to anything Jewish in many years, and she wants to come. So I right away welcomed her, invited her and she didn't show up. Just during COVID I gave her a call, and I said it's the rabbi, I’m just checking in, how is everything? I just said rabbi I’ve been wanting to get involved in the Jewish community for so long, I just never got the chance.

Thank you for giving me the call, you come to my house, and I want to put a mezuzah on my door. So this is something that just happened last week. Actually, we took a picture.

 

Interviewer: That's cool, that's very cool. So that's what you're all about, yes?

 

Interviewee: That's what we're all about. We're focused on helping individuals grow in their Judaism.

 

Interviewer: Do you have any stories of anti-Semitism growing up at all or since you've been in Troy? Any anti-Semitic?

 

Interviewee: It's actually something surprising that a lot of people expect that there should be big anti-Semitism because of the way that I dress. It's very apparent that I’m Jewish. But surprisingly, I just have nothing; one incident that happened to us was in Manchester.

 

Interviewer: Manchester, England?

 

Interviewee: Manchester, England. That, someone yelled at us, go back to the gas chambers, or whatever. But in Troy, I’m saying I’ve been living here for a year, nothing. I’m saying I think it's a wonderful community.

[00:25:00]

Interviewer: Yes. We've been in Troy for a long time, and we found it it's incredible. Our block has got every religion on the map; we're the only Jew on our block. But every time a kid got sick, everyone asks them to go to their church or their mosque or their synagogue and pray for their kid, and everyone accepted everyone else.

And so we found Troy to be pretty special place too. Have you ever had a burning bush moment? Where you thought you were in the presence of God? Where you could speak directly to god at that moment and be heard by chance?

 

Interviewee: No, I guess I’m not that spiritual.

 

Interviewer: Yes, well, I think you are. I disagree with you on that one. Let's see, is there anything else you want to cover with us, or there's something that you think we missed or something you want to talk about?

 

Interviewee: So there's a story that I was actually speaking with a friend of mine today from Troy, that I think it's very powerful about the whole Chabad outlook. That there's a certain rabbi from a different Hasidic sect that came to the Rebbe, the leader of the Chabad movement. He said he has a question, so what's his question? He said that it says in the Mishnah that even wicked Jews are full of good deeds like a pomegranate is full of seeds.

So his question was how is it possible to say that they have good deeds if they're wicked people, that was this question. So the rebbe told them I had the same question, but just the other way around. If they have all these good deeds, how could you say that they're wicked people? So I think that's a big outlook that influences us, it's the big way that we think that we don't look at the negative, that we judge every person according to his positive and to look right past with any external things.

 

Interviewer: The glass half full instead of being half empty.

 

Interviewee: Exactly, that's exactly it.

 

Interviewer: Is there anything you plan on teaching in the near future?

 

Interviewee: Yes. We're going to continue; I’m saying we did two courses which you joined both of them. I didn't decide yet after probably in a week or two, we'll come out with the next one. I’m saying that's something that we're going to hopefully continue and be a continuation.

 

Interviewer: Okay. And are you set in Troy for life now do you think? Is Troy going to be the American world?

 

Interviewee: I think so.

 

Interviewer: I hope so.

 

Interviewee: It's a powerful move that some Chabad rabbis feel when they move to a place. They buy a plot in the local cemetery that they're here to stay. So I don't have anything, but we're here to stay.

 

Interviewer: Okay, all right. Well, thank you very much. Anything else you want to add, anything else?

 

Interviewee: No.

 

Interviewer: It was delightful. Thank you very much, very interesting, and that was great, thank you.

 

Interviewee: Thank you.

 

[00:28:16]

End of interview

 

 

 

Mon, April 12 2021 30 Nisan 5781