It's a bit of a cliche - the youngsters gathering around an alter chossid at a farbrengen hearing stories of how things were in the "olden days". These recollections become all the more precious as the older people in the community move on from this world, which is why projects that collect this history are so important. As the older generation pass on, the role of alter chossid also shifts forward a generation, which sometimes seems odd to people of my vintage.
What was even more strange was the discussion that came up last Simchas Torah at the kiddush/farbrengen we traditionally hold in our home.
It was quite late in the night, we were all heavily inebriated, and a couple of the smicha bochurim asked me if I was ever "by the Rebbe" (I'm sure they meant "with") over the yomim noro'im. These were boys in their early 20s, and in a post-Gimmel Tammuz world, they were craving a description of what it was like to be with the Rebbe during those special times of the year - a connection to the "olden days".
Having not spent extended time learning in yeshivah in or near CH, the only time I was there for yom tov was shortly after my engagement, and just for Rosh Hashana. It was a very new experience for me - intense and crowded and not like anything else I had known. My fondest memories of yomim noro'im were of Rabbi Groner OBM's davening at the amud, and of Chaim Serebryanski's tekiyos, where I would imagine that there was some heavenly kitrug holding them back (rather than the more obvious explanation). The Rebbe's tekiyos were, for me at that time, something I could not fully appreciate spiritually.
While I did my best to convey something of the CH atmosphere to these boys, the conversation had me thinking and imagining the nature of the relationship with the Rebbeim of the elter chassidim of my time. Back in those days (the real "olden days"), travel was difficult, and if someone was able to spend a few days with the Rebbe even once a year, they were very fortunate indeed. It would have taken months to receive printed ma'amorim and sichos. Correspondence was via "snail mail" and took months.
Comparatively, we were spoilt. I remember the excitement as a child in the 1970s when there was a "hook up" - a live audio broadcast of a farbrengen. Everyone would gather in the shul to listen as it was played over the speakers (and class was adjourned). Reb Arel Serebryanski told us it didn't matter if we didn't understand yiddish, because our neshomo understood. As new volumes of Likutei Sichos were published, or we would receive printed booklets of the unedited farbrengens, they would be gobbled up and studied. Those in or near CH were even more spoilt, with the ability to engage closely with the Rebbe daily - to observe him davening, to attend farbrengens in person, to have yechidus or receive a dollar. One could send a letter and receive an answer within hours.
But what did this ability to maintain such a physical closeness to the Rebbe really mean? Did it make us better chassidim? I don't know (which is a nice way of saying "I don't think so").
In pop culture, the story of a futuristic or post-apocalyptic world is common. The good ones (Brave New World, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Living Dead) are a deep examination of the human condition - of what happens and how we respond when the things we take for granted in this world are stripped away or changed radically. That is the test of what we truly are deep down.
I doubt if there was ever such an (internal) examination while the Rebbe was here physically. But we find ourselves now without the ability to interact with the Rebbe in the way we used to (or in the way other communities do with their leaders), with a young generation growing up on videos and pictures, children's books about visiting the Ohel, and articles in the Jewish Forward with meaningless speculation about the future of the movement. This sometimes feels like an insurmountable challenge. We can't even make Breslov jokes any more!
Perhaps just like in the post-apocalypse stories - where most of the world's population has died, and there is no electricity, modern transport, processed food, etc - we have to take a deep look at what is left when we strip back many of the things we took for granted.
What made the elter chassidim great was not walking past the Rebbe and getting a dollar every Sunday, or observing the Rebbe daven or farbreng on a regular basis. Their hiskashrus was through studying the Torah of the Rebbeim - chassidus - and through living the shared goal of doing our utmost to bring the geulah closer. On those measures, we are more blessed than any previous generation, with an abundance of learning material available and more accessible than ever, and the ability to reach out through modern technology to the entire world in an instant.
This brave new world we find ourselves in has a new set of challenges. By looking back, we can understand the important things that underpin our lives as chassidim and how, despite not having a Rebbe here physically, we can continue to thrive in our mission ad biyas goel tzedek.