I guess it must have been about 20 years ago, when I sat at the Seudas Bris of a baby who had just been named Avrohom. For some reason, I can vividly remember the scene, including the exact table and seat where I was sitting. I don’t normally remember such things in this way. Rabbi Groner ז’ל was speaking in his renowned powerful and emotive manner; a style which many of his students have naturally if not genetically assumed in their own delivery.
“Let me tell you about R’ Avrohom Mayor” he thundered. “In Melbourne, you don’t know who he was nor are you aware of his greatness. R’ Avrohom was an עובד who learned Chassidus for many hours before davening only to then daven for another 4 hours each day. You could see him at lunchtime in 770, draped in Tallis and Tefillin, in deep contemplation while still davening שחרית. But one thing I will tell you, despite his עבודת התפילה, R’ Avrohom would never peform his daily עבודה before he had made sure each of his children had had their breakfast, and food was on the table. R’ Avrohom was completely בטל to the זולת. First it was somebody else, and only then was it R’ Avrohom Mayor.”
I do not know why, but I remember these words with remarkable clarity. The little baby was a great-grandson born through R’ Avrohom’s daughter’s family (Rubin). We were and remain close friends of the then little Avrohom’s parents and family. Subsequently, I saw a large photo of R’ Avrohom Mayor and was awe-struck by the holy הדרת פנים of his countenance. That was then.
Recently, I read that a book had been published by his grandson (Moshe Yosef Rubin) which could be described as a biography of R’ Avrohom. Lately, I have been caught up buying lots of books, and wanted to add this one to the long list of books I intended to read. Not finding the book at bookdespository.com or amazon.com made the purchase less than automatic, so I expedited the process by borrowing a copy.
Over Shavuos, I finished reading the book and it left me feeling both inspired and inadequate. The book is nicely referenced and footnoted, and even allowing for the natural license of a grandson to possibly exalt his Zeyde or omit the odd narrative, it was inescapable that I had read about an impressive and incredible human being.
In my travels, I have been to the USA several times, but only twice to New York. Despite my school years in Chabad, I felt no specific desire to visit 770 Eastern Parkway, and, in point of fact, I have never been there. I am not a Chosid, and have never been in Yechidus with any Rebbe, let alone the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל. I never felt I had anything meaningful to say, and all that I asked for, I tried to achieve through my poor but personal davening. For reasons of familial nostalgia, I did want to visit the Amshinover Rebbe, if only to tell him that I was attending on behalf of my late namesake, who was an Amshinover Chasid, but alas, each time I attempted to see him, it didn’t work out. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be. After reading this book, however, at this stage of my life, I would have liked to have spent a weekend participating in one of R’ Avrohom Mayorer’s apparently intimate and uniquely inspiring farbrengens.
Elderly Russian Chassidim were not a new phenomenon to me. Rav Perlov ז’ל and Rav Betzalel Wilshansky ז’ל were originally Chassidim of the Rashab ז’ל and even a young non conforming and fiercely individualised lad like me could not help but be intrigued by their הנהגות, demeanour and countenance.
Rav Perlov seemed to be ancient. We were davening שחרית at the school’s 7am minyan, and he seemed to have been there from the crack of dawn. Watching him slowly removing his Rashi Tefillin and don Rabeinu Tam’s tefillin was like a slow motion movie. The world seemed remotely removed from Rav Perlov. Time was an irrelevance. He was seemingly hovering above time. His קריאת שמע took an eternity. R’ Perlov’s wife was no less daunting. I can still vividly see her face, as she walked across the school yard while we played football. She held up her hands, shielding her face, slowly shuffling across the yard, concerned that a ball might hit her. We, of course, froze, and halted our sport until she had safely passed.
Rav Betzalel, with his rounded enormous hat and greyish kapote, was a picture of יראה. I feared looking at him. He seemed thoroughly gripped and enveloped by דע לפני מי אתה עומד. It was as if he was acutely aware of אלקות at each moment, while we were remotely meandering through a confused sea of גשמיות with the odd sprinkle of רוחניות. One Tisha B’Av stands out. R’ Betzalel was called up to say the Haftora of אסוף אסיפם and his loud wailing and sincere crying left me speechless and in awe that someone could so acutely feel the words of the נביא. It is also one of those moments where I can vividly remember exactly where I was standing, as I watched R’ Betzalel literally go to pieces.
R’ Zalman Serebryanski ז’ל was the warm and smiling, intellectual, Rosh Yeshivah and R’ Isser Kluwgant ז’ל carried himself with the dignity of מלכות. R’ Betzalel Althaus ז’ל epitomised שירה וזמרה and התעוררות, but it was R’ Nochum Zalman Gurewicz ז’ל who was the master story-teller. It was R’ Nochum, who interrupted our Gemora classes to tell us about the NKVD and his time in the army. It was he who attempted to regale us with stories of near escapes from the clutches of the evil Soviet empire. But I, and many others, were the sons of Holocaust survivors.
As second generation survivors, stories of Soviet persecution didn’t leave me with the type of indelible tattooed watermark of the שארית הפליטה. This was not the archetypical definition of death and destruction: the evil Amalekite Nazi regime. Put in simple terms, I was brought up surrounded by Holocaust survivors and their harrowing tales. I could not make room to digest the stories of Soviet Jewry, despite being surrounded by the aforementioned respected, impressive and honourable older Chassidim.
Fast forward to this new book. I have a new-found understanding. To put it simply, the stories in this book captured important elements of the attempted destruction of Judaism in the Soviet archipelago, whereas the Holocaust was about the attempted destruction of the Jewish Nation. The Nazis didn’t care if one was frum, half-jewish, a bundist or fascist. If you were Jewish, you were to be exterminated: end of story. The Soviets, however, would leave you alone, and indeed embrace you, if you cast off your Judaism and adopted the communist oath of allegiance to Stalin ימח שמו and his evil socialist ideology.
Enter R’ Avrohom Mayorer and others of his kind. These were Chabad Chassidim who fought with all their might to stave off the attempt to kill Judaism. Story after story of immense bravery, courage and conviction is retold expertly and one is left in wonderment and disbelief. How much easier would it have been to stay alive, unpersecuted, and in comparative safety, simply by compromising and exclaiming יעבור ואל יהרג?
The inspiration for this struggle against the Soviets was the fulfilment of the direction from the Rashab and the Rayatz ז’ל. These Rebbes loomed large in the hearts of the Chassidim who risked their lives, daily, to make sure that the נכשלים אחריך didn’t give up their souls to Godless Soviet atheism. But this was not just a story about the Soviet Union.
R’ Avrohom continued with the same fervour to build up Chabad institutions in the new State of Israel. Whether it was Lod or Kfar Chabad or Tel Aviv, R’ Avrohom Mayorer was devoted to his task of ensuring that Torah (and Chassidus Chabad) flourished in the most difficult and challenging times during the formation of the Yishuv. Life was physically challenging and these were a different style of pioneer in the newly growing, but constantly challenged State.
In his later years, R’ Avrohom finally moved to New York where he was united with the family he so dearly loved. It would seem from all accounts that the last Rebbe ז’ל preferred that R’ Avrohom spend all his days in Israel. R’ Avrohom, was R’ Avrohom. You could take the man out of any country, but you couldn’t take his care and support for Chabad and indeed any Jew, out of the man. You could transplant him into Uganda, and he would find a way to spread Yiddishkeit בכלל and Chabad חסידות בפרט. The issue of R’ Avrohom not remaining in Israel isn’t covered in the book, nor would one expect such a private issue to be discussed in the context of a book written by his great-grandson. Notwithstanding this fact, in my view, it can only be the small-minded, gratuitous, simplistic and ignorant חסיד who failed and fails to see the wood from the trees and appreciate the immense impact and personality of this major תלמיד חכם. It is not a matter of chance that arguably the Rebbe’s greatest חסיד, R’ Yoel Kahn, spent many long hours in deep conversation with R’ Avrohom. Like the Chassidim I encountered in my youth, this book vividly painted the picture of a man who was larger than life.
On Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur, I am emotionally exhausted and distraught when I sing the chilling words:
כי לא תחפוץ במות המת
What does it mean? Hashem doesn’t want the death of a dead person? If he doesn’t want it, then why let man die? And so what if כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה—even after תשובה man dies. R’ Avrohom Mayorer explained this in a brilliant way. What Hashem doesn’t want, is במות המת. When we leave this world after 120 years, Hashem doesn’t want us to leave as a מת, someone whose time was already up; someone who was retired and no longer active; someone whose strengths and abilities were no longer manifest; someone who was physically there but who had effectively ceased their living task. No, on the contrary, we are exhorted to work and live until our last breath and try to bring more קדושה into this world through the מצווה of והלכת בדרכיו. This also epitomised the עבודה of R’ Avrohom Mayorer.
For this vort alone, the book was well worth reading. I will always remember this vort. May his memory be a blessing.