Book Review: I Love When that Happens by Schwartzie (Chai Publishing 2019)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
I Love When that Happens depicts the life and work of Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz—or “Schwartzie,” as he was affectionately known. A major figure in the world of Jewish outreach, Schwartzie particularly influenced campus kiruv, as one of those who launched UCLA Chabad; and the movement to make Judaism accessible, as the creator of the Chai Center, which famously offers free High Holiday services and Shabbos meals for “Any Jew that Moves.”
While the book purports to be a memoir by Schwartzie himself, the truth is more complicated. In the foreword, Rabbi Mendel Schwartz—one of his sons and his successor at the helm of the Chai Center—explains that although Schwartzie began to write his memoir during his final decade, his illness and death prevented the book’s completion. Thus, the family and staff of the Chai Center compiled much of the book’s contents after Schwartzie’s demise, using emails, letters, and other documents written by Schwartzie. They hired Vicky Judah to interview colleagues, friends, and family, and then wove all the threads into a coherent whole.
Surprisingly, the process worked. The resulting text felt like I was being addressed by Schwartzie, who I met briefly on two occasions. As I read, I could hear his voice in my head—playful, full of joy, and slightly bombastic. Material that did not originate with his original draft, emails, or letters has been used mostly to bridge sections or to elaborate on a subject Schwartzie mentions in passing, and it’s set apart with distinctive formatting. I always understood clearly where his words ended and others’ began.
Schwartzie began life as the only member of an Austrian family who escaped the Shoah to be born in the U.S. Growing up in a traditional, misnagdish family in Atlantic City, then studying at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, he was mischievous but grew steadily more devout. He only came to Chabad Chassidus in his late teens. The Rebbe personally intervened with his father to maintain family bonds when Schwartzie left Yeshiva University to study in a Lubavitch yeshiva.
Schwartzie’s years of study and early marriage sound similar to those of other shluchim of the Rebbe—albeit punctuated by a couple dramatically timed deaths and the arrival of the 1967 war while he was studying just yards away from the Jordanian border. It’s only when he and his first wife, Alta, move to California that Schwartzie’s ability to innovate becomes startlingly clear.
His reminiscences of his work, first with Alta at his side, then (after Alta’s untimely death) with his second wife, Olivia (a powerful leader and teacher in her own right) are full of satisfaction and humor.
When I was asked to review the book, I was nervous to see how Schwartzie would portray the more controversial events of his life, particularly his departure from UCLA Chabad. Schwartzie explains what happened from his perspective, true, and in his eyes, he was certainly right. However, his honesty about what happened let me see the other side, too. With great maturity, he focuses on differences of opinion, not on personalities. I was relieved that I didn’t have to endure the mudslinging or wound-licking so often found in memoirs.
One of the pleasures of reading I Love When that Happens is the care which the Chai Center took when preparing this volume. The design harkens back to Schwartzie’s beloved tie-dye shirts, and his radiant face graces the front cover. As I mentioned above, the interior organization and formatting made the text easy to follow.
My favorite part of the book comes in Part Four, where Schwartzie delves into synchronicity, bashert, hashgachah pratis, Heavenly intervention—whatever you want to call it. “I saw the divine hand in almost every chance meeting,” Schwartzie writes (p. 183). “I considered bashert experiences to be ways of bringing order to a chaotic world. Every time a synchronistic occurrence smacks you in the face—in other words, confronts you directly and undeniably—it invariably points to the fact there is a method to the (seeming) madness in our personal lives.” He loved to share these moments via emails with his students, family, and friends, usually capping his storytelling off with a trademark, “I luv when that happens!”
I Love When that Happens is sure to be enjoyed by any of the many thousands whose lives were touched by Schwartzie, people who engage in Jewish outreach, those who are interested in the history of Chabad in Los Angeles.