Dr. Ira Weiss, Senior Attending Cardiologist at Evanston Hospital in Evanston, IL, was called in to attend to the Lubavitcher Rebbe after he suffered a severe heart attack in late 1977. He stayed on for several weeks and remained the Rebbe’s cardiologist through 1992. In that capacity, he had rare access to the Rebbe. Baila Olidort spoke with Dr. Weiss about his experience.
Q: It is my understanding that the Rebbe’s secretariat had a very hard time finding a cardiologist who was willing to take him under their care because the Rebbe refused to go to the hospital. You were the cardiologist who ultimately did. What made you agree?
A: As I understood it, the Rebbe had instructed his executive secretariat that he did not want to leave the headquarters of Lubavitch to be cared for. He wanted to be cared for right on the premises at the time of his illness.
All the doctors who were seeing him there were of the same opinion that he had to go to a coronary care unit. The initial question I got from Rabbi Krinsky was, “Can this kind of care be given outside of the hospital?” Of course I said it can be done because I have witnessed this; my own teacher Dr. Bernard Lown had done these things for people who wanted to be cared for in a private setting.
His next question was, “If that’s true, can I come and do it?” But I was concerned because the Rebbe was in critical condition and it would have taken me at least four hours to get to New York.
But Rabbi Krinsky called me again and I understood that there was no alternative. So I called my colleague at Mount Sinai, Dr. Teichholtz, one of the developers of echocardiography. He had been one of my teachers when I was in Boston, and he, never having been affiliated with Lubavitch, dropped what he was doing to come. He was on a scheduled mission to give a lectureship at the time, which I’m sure was substantially well compensated. He dropped that right away without even asking me too many questions.
He got into Brooklyn within two hours and made it possible for the Rebbe to get immediate care. So by the time I arrived about six hours or so later, the Rebbe was actually back with a blood pressure and with the ability to communicate.
How were you received when you arrived?
Well, at first I met the Rebbetzin who said to me, “Dr. Weiss, your friend Dr. Teichholtz came and has helped him get back to some strength so first we have to make Kiddush, it’s Yom Tov today.”
And when I was introduced to the Rebbe, he already was in a good humor and we had a very thorough conversation. In his usual customary manner, he asked questions with a little twist to them that were humorous. He wanted to know a little about my family background before even getting involved.
Then I asked him what he thought had happened to him, and he had a very good working knowledge of what might have happened.
I said most people have a little bit of warning that they’re on the wrong track before they have a heart attack. He said to me that he did not have any signals like that.
He spoke clearly in perfect English.
You observed the Rebbe up close over a period of many years. Were you able to see what caused him stress, pain?
Many times during his recovery, he read letters, and I could see that he was very, very distressed by some things he would read. I’d see anguish in his face. And it would often be a personal letter from someone. It would be someone’s personal tzuris that would grieve him.
Was there anything that you noticed that gave him joy, that made him really happy?
I could never tell if he was really, really happy. I think he was always feeling such pressure, like he was carrying the world on his shoulders and I never saw him really have a moment of absolute, pure unadulterated joy.
He enjoyed being with his Chasidim, he enjoyed being at the farbrengens; he really put a lot into it. But it’s not like we ever really had a good laugh together.
I was always so tense because I recognized the privilege of being with him and also the responsibility of being with him. So I was never a relaxed person with him.
Did he pick up on that? Did he try to loosen you up a little?
He always did. He always added a bit of humor to the questions he’d ask me and try to make [the atmosphere] a little lighter.
Did you ever have a chance to observe the Rebbe in the privacy of his own home?
Well, I was once at dinner with the Rebbetzin and the Rebbe. I had a chance to see them in action together and it was a very good exchange because the Rebbetzin was very smart. She would be his intellectual sparring partner.
And I think she was challenging him on something he was urging upon the Chasidim. I don’t remember the issue, but they had a little exchange about it in Yiddish. My Yiddish is weak, so it cut me out of some of the action.
But here was a personal conversation between the Rebbe and Rebbetzin talking to each other at the table and having a little bit of intellectual sparring. It was charming and revealing.
In some ways, the Rebbe was unpredictable. Was there anything that he said either to you personally that surprised you?
I could give you an example. My father, of blessed memory, was a great man, but in his love of his earlier years, he would often spend his time in the poolroom playing cards or talking about the horse races or things that weren’t exactly the types of things you would discuss with the Rebbe.
Three years into the Rebbe’s care my father had heart surgery, which failed to help him and also made him have a severe stroke, and the Rebbe took a great interest in his case and in his care. After a while, he asked me, “What are you doing to help your father feel better about this? He cannot talk, he cannot read, he cannot move his right side; he’s totally paralyzed, he’s totally dependent on your mother’s care and your care. So what do you do to make him a little happier?”
I told the Rebbe that I visit him almost every day and I walk him up three flights of stairs and that I take him out on Sundays to have a little lunch with me at a restaurant and he likes that.”
The Rebbe then said, “Is that all you’re doing for him?” I was surprised because I put so much time into it, I felt a little bit insulted. He asked me, “Do you do anything for him that’s really fun for him?” I said, “Well, you know, it’s hard to do that when you can’t talk or read.”
But “what does he like? What are the things that make him have fun?” the Rebbe asked me. I told the Rebbe that he loved playing cards with his friends in the poolroom and hearing about the horse races and hearing this and that. I said, “I wouldn’t want to bring that up because you’re the Rebbe and to tell you about my father like this, put my father in an embarrassing position; this is how he grew up as a child, this is what he knows.”
And the Rebbe said, “Well why don’t you take him back to the poolroom and maybe on a Sunday you could bring him there to see his old friends and at least watch the cards being played and hear about the horse races.” And he talked as if he belonged to the poolroom himself.
I was surprised to hear the Rebbe say that, but I did it with his blessings and it was very successful. We spent every Sunday at the poolroom where he would sit for a couple of hours just to hear the usual drill of things that you would not hear in shul. The Rebbe really considered every case individually. He asked a brilliant question: what was his fun.
The Rebbe studied engineering as a young man. Did you ever see him refer back to that time of his life?
Well at the end of the initial stay—it was about 18 days—the Rebbe said “You’ve done so much for me, Dr. Weiss; can I do anything to help you?” I said that I’d like him to give a blessing to a friend of mine who is having a miserable time with multiple sclerosis. And the Rebbe got up, went to his cabinet and found in his catalog of science articles an article he had saved about multiple sclerosis and its possible connection to the immune reaction to measles.
I had not heard about this myself, but the Rebbe had a file on this and he knew exactly where it was. And I then noticed the file cabinets were just full of all kinds of articles. So I think he always kept his eye on the areas of science that he never went into, but he kept abreast of it remarkably.
Did you notice that he enjoyed the opportunity to talk to people like yourself who were not Chasidim per se, with whom he might have a conversation about things other than spiritual matters?
I think he liked both. I think he could do well in both worlds because he was in both worlds.
The Rebbe had thousands of Chasidim and yet, as Rabbi Krinsky often said, he was so lonely. Did having people like yourself interact with him make a difference?
I think having to contend with me or any other of these other doctors who would bother him with their spiels was definitely a diversion; he had little chance to make a little light talk outside of the ballpark from what he would be talking about in the shul or at the farbrengens.
Do you think he yearned for that?
No, I don’t think so. I think he was still a private person in a sense, even by his own wishes.
His solace was that he always had a time designated to be with Rebbetzin Schneerson, who he really, truly loved. They were a wonderful couple; they really were a close couple. And having a “tea session” every day, almost at the same time the British have it at four o’clock or something—I think that was the routine—was very, very valuable to him.
Did you ever have casual conversations with the Rebbetzin? I talked to her every day.
Every day? Yes, the Rebbe was very attentive to her, and whenever I finished a visit, whether by phone or by personal visit, he said, “Please be sure you tell my wife about my status because she’s the most concerned of all of us about what’s happening.” So I called her from Chicago and I kept track of the Rebbe that way. I asked how his weight was; she would do measurements for me.
She herself was very well-read, and she was perceptive. She knew I was an avid Chicago Cubs fan and she knew when I was a little down. She’d say, “Did the Cubs lose today?”
She was very much tuned in. And I think I could tell from the conversations that she would always have like to have had a son herself, just to talk about small things like that with her boy.
You were with the Rebbe when the Rebbetzin passed away in 1988. You must have noticed an enormous change.
I saw the Rebbe just really kind of fold inward a lot from this loss.
He was much more withdrawn. There was a much more hollow look on his face when I would talk with him from that point on. He was not the same Rebbe as I had seen when Rebbetzin was living. And that carried over all the time till the time he had the stroke in ’92. It had a very adverse effect on him.
I feel that saving the Rebbetzin’s life as we really did in 1981, (I had diagnosed her several years earlier with an aortic valve problem) gave her those additional seven years. It would have taken away a lot from the Rebbe’s effectiveness as a Rebbe I think, had that intervention not been made on her health. That’s how important she was to him.
So did you observe a change in the Rebbe’s health after the Rebbetzin passed away?
I would say not necessarily in a measured way. In a functional way, he was not quite himself. Yet he dedicated more time to greeting people who’d come to get a blessing from him. [Every Sunday he would greet thousands of people who came for a blessing and he gave each one a new dollar bill to give to a charity of their choice.]
The Rebbe wisely did something different and to break his own sense of the emptiness or loneliness that he felt. This was probably one of the ways he could do it. Not having the daily meeting with his wife anymore was a very, very big loss to him.
Do you feel that the quantity of letters and questions that came to the Rebbe were too burdensome to him?
The Rebbe did welcome people’s questions, but I think that had he not had restraints put on him from the heart attack, he would have submitted himself to a schedule that would’ve harmed him, especially as he would get older.
So this heart attack, as badly timed as it was in his career, also shielded him from being overwhelmed. From what I heard before the heart attack, the hours he kept were just so bad.
Farbrengens were good for the Rebbe?
Very good for him. Up to a point, though. When the Rebbe was into the stabilization period, he was very upset that he wasn’t going to have a farbrengen.
I said, “It’s clear as a bell that you can’t go out in this heart attack state to go out to have a farbrengen.” So he came up with the idea that he could perhaps have a radio broadcast. So I made a deal with the Rebbe. I told him “When the twenty minutes come, I’m going to do this [give him a signal] and we are off the air.”
The Rebbe gave a whole farbrengen on the air, which is surely recorded somewhere, and after twenty minutes I gave my signal to the Rebbe but he completely blew off my rule and he kept talking. His talk went for about thirty-five, forty minutes. But he was in a very good spirit, and he said to me that he wanted to have “a real farbrengen by the time we get to Kislev.”
Was the Rebbe up to it then?
Yes, but during his talk at that farbrengen, his heart rhythm became very unstable. And we didn’t know how to deal with it.
We had monitor proof that he was in danger, and Dr. Resnick and I were frantic. We didn’t know if we were doing the right thing or the wrong thing by letting him continue and endangering his life.
But going up on the stage and stopping him did not seem like an option. It came with its own risks—he would not be able to see anyone because no one would want to bother him if he’s that sick. So we let him go through it and he finished the sicha [talk] and the same thing happened in the next sicha.
And then he finally got to a maamer [discourse] where his rhythm was much more stable and we were thankful that we were through the crisis, but we really misjudged that terribly. Had we known that, we never would have had the farbrengen in the first place.
Do you recall a moment of relief, something that made the Rebbe smile after his stroke in 1992?
It was a devastating, dominant hemisphere stroke and we were all just so troubled by the fact that the Rebbe was in such bad condition. I play the flute, and one day I pulled it out of my pocket and sat and played a little niggun [Chasidic melody].
It took everyone by surprise, and it was worth everything. I’m a little bit choked up because I’m remembering the Rebbe’s expression, but he was brought to a real smile. We had not gotten a single smile out of him. So that was a little moment of happiness for him when he heard the niggun.
Music is very penetrating. I felt that it was just worth a remote try since nothing else could help him.
What was the most memorable experience you had with the Rebbe?
I think the most memorable moment was when Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel’s Prime Minister, visited the Rebbe. At the time, Netanyahu was Deputy Ambassador to the UN, and this was his first meeting with the Rebbe. The Rebbe spoke to him about his mission, and told him that he’d be entering a “house of darkness,” and that he’d need to bring light there to dispel that darkness.
But before Netanyahu came to 770, which was overwhelmingly packed, and fire codes were maybe on the edge of being violated if not violated, Brooklyn’s fire marshal came. He came in with his entourage in their full regalia; they were in a decorative uniform and they came to greet the Rebbe. They almost curtsied to each other, and it was a great moment because we all were expecting to hear that we had to clear out in violation of code. But they both just shook hands and exchanged greetings. I think the fire chief was simply enamored, seeing what the Rebbe had at his feet.
After that Netanyahu came with his entourage from Israel, and the Rebbe had this exchange with him that I mentioned. Then came the Simchat Torah dancing which lasted a long time. I’m an athlete so I can tell you it was even trying to me to go the full forty minutes.
He had us all go to the point where we would have had to give up and he was very much part of it, his clapping was part of the dancing too. The Rebbe was leading and we all had a wonderful time dancing together.
The Rebbe was dancing?
The Rebbe was clapping, standing at the edge of this small little circle, dancing. It was Netanyahu, his small entourage, I was with this group of youngish people dancing. This was not even visible to the whole shul because this was way up in front near where the Rebbe stands.
But it was absolutely fabulous.
Looking back now, how do you feel about these years of your service to the Rebbe?
Well, we just were fortunate to have someone like Dr. Tishholtz and some very fine doctors and a lot of fortune from Hashem to really pull off the rescue for someone that was that sick, bring him back to full functionality and even do all the things he’s done in this last active fifteen years were really among his best accomplishments.
This is something that one could not remotely predict as a doctor that you could possibly save someone and bring them into functionality of that nature for that length of time at that point in life. So that was unusual.
The Rebbe never took a vacation.
He didn’t, yet the Rebbetzin did propose it. During the illness, she’d say, “Maybe you can tell him, Doctor, that it would be good for him . . . Maybe you can propose a little travel, that we should go away for a little, away from the community, where he can recover a little bit more.”
Did your perception of the Rebbe change over time?
When I saw the diversity of people that make up the Lubavitch community and the diversity of the world representatives, I understood that this was really the world of Jewry. You cannot appreciate it unless you see it.
It’s like someone visiting Israel and saying I never knew Jews looked so many different ways and have so many different customs. And seeing all the various peoples that came from around the world to be at that farbrengen when the Rebbe got sick, it hit me in the face, how much of a world leader the Rebbe is.
After 15 years of caring for the Rebbe, you had the opportunity to get to know this world leader differently from the way most others did. How did this kind of access affect your perception of him, his person?
The more I would get to meet the Rebbe the more I recognized his magnitude, his grandeur, and his stature. This was in distinct contrast to my usual experience in meeting famous personages; from a distance, they look great and grand, but as you get closer you are disappointed with the human frailties that we all have. My experience with the Rebbe was analogous to my experience of visiting the White Mountains. From a distance, they looked magnificent, but as you got closer, they were even more grand, more magnificent, even impassable. This was the experience I had with the Rebbe.