My cousin Ya’acov Balbin ז’ל was an ardent student and חסיד of R’ Zalman. It was R’ Zalman who approached my Uncle, Meir Balbin ז’ל to entrust Ya’acov into his care so that he attended the Yeshivah College in Melbourne, as opposed to Mt Scopus College. Ya’acov would not stop speaking about R’ Zalman or R’ Groner (whose Yohr Tzeit is tomorrow) as formative influences in his life. I was younger and R’ Zalman was a smiling elderly חסיד with a rasping cough who always projected warmth and love, but about whom I was too young to call my teacher.
Sitting next to me at Shule is R’ Shimon Allen, an equally devout חסיד of R’ Zalman. Shimon’s eyes well with tears each time he tells me a story about R’ Zalman and the profound effect he had on his life and the life if his wife Adina. I used to feel that I was regaled about R’ Zalman in stereo: Shimon in my left ear and Ya’acov ז’ל in my right. I asked Shimon (in response to emails from readers in respect of recounting my experiences with elder Chabad Chassidim of my youth) to consider writing something about R’ Zalman. Shimon referred me to a speech he had given at Monash University which I reprint below (with light editing) on this day, the 20th Yohrtzeit. May his memory be a blessing.
It is an honour to speak to you this evening, regarding the years I was privileged to spend as a Talmid, a student, of Moreinu HaRav Reb Y’hoshua Schneur Zalman Serebryanski zichrono livrocha.
Reb Zalman is, and will always be, an important part of my life. Chaim Serebryanski, Reb Zalman’s son, once called out loudly at a farbrengen: ‘Der Rebbe is mein tatte!’ I was sitting close to Reb Zalman who laughed very heartily at hearing this. I can say, ‘Reb Zalman is mein tatte’ and though Reb Zalman would probably laugh heartily at this also, I am sure he would know where both those feelings emanate from.
Tonight we are gathered here in the Jewish Museum to relate some aspects of Reb Zalman’s life. However, a museum is a building used for storing and exhibiting objects illustrating antiquities, natural history and art. The truth however, is that our yiddishkeit, our Judaism is not represented by buildings. Yiddishkeit is the transmission of a mesorah—tradition—which is handed down from generation to generation, from time immemorial.
If we view yiddishkeit – Judaism – objectively, our tradition – our mesorah – has really existed throughout the eon only because of the continuation of Torah values. Jewish culture on the other hand, varied with the geography, but the real linkage between the Jewish people, wherever they might be, throughout the ages, is that spark which manifests itself in the mores, morals, values and commandments of our Torah.
So while we are gathered here in a building presenting antiquities, the building of itself cannot capture those heavenly, sublime values of Torah which were intrinsic to the life of Reb Zalman.
For Reb Zalman embodies, and bridges, the mesorah – traditions – from earlier generations, until the end of time. Reb Zalman’s life spanned the generations from horse and cart, to the landing of man on the moon. His mores, morals, values and adherence to the commandments of the Torah remained constant throughout his life, in what was certainly the most cataclysmic time in world history. Reb Zalman’s life is, of itself, proof of the existence of Hashem, for the way he conducted his life, links us inextricably to the giving of the Torah some 4000 years ago on Har Sinai – Mount Sinai.
Although I am nowhere near to Reb Zalman’s spiritual standing or intellect, I would like to relate a few personal experiences and from that, I hope you can have some inkling, some hint of the depth of Reb Zalman’s persona.
We who were fortunate enough to know Reb Zalman well, came to understand from the manner in which he conducted his life, the true meaning of humility, wisdom, sincerity, understanding, graciousness, love, a sense of humour and humaneness.
Reb Zalman was short in stature, but what I remember most vividly, what always struck me were his eyes – that sparkle, that twinkle, that gleam lifted my spirits and simply made everything light and bright. Other times when discussing matters of importance … well it felt as if he was able to see into the deepest recess of my heart and mind, to know what was really bothering me. And when he laughed, his cheeks would lift high on his face, turn bright red and his bushy eyebrows lowered and his eyes seemed to almost disappear.
He was always, even in his years of old age, immaculately dressed. A black hat, his suit or kapota was spotless, a sharp crease in his trousers and his shoes always polished. Never a mark. Never a stray hair. Always a picture of order and cleanliness. Even when walking around his home, in shirt sleeves, his shirt, and I can still see the pattern of it in my mind’s eye, was the whitest of white and his tzizit always appeared as though they were being worn for the first time. There was an elegance about Reb Zalman.
I first saw Reb Zalman on Simchas Torah, 35 years ago. We had davenned shachris and celebrated the hakafos in Katanga shul As usual there was a Kiddush in shul, and as is customary on Simchas Torah we went from one Kiddush to another, eventually making our way down to the home of Reb Nosson and Mrs Nechama Werdiger. the son-in-law and daughter of Reb Zalman, who at that time were living in Springfield Avenue. I entered their home, and for those who remember, the living room was immediately on the left. There, directly opposite the living room doorway was Reb Zalman, sitting beside the coffee table with a small glass of vodka, the bottle beside, other filled glasses on the table and in a circle around him was a group of unmarried young men.
I did not know at that precise moment who Reb Zalman was, but that first encounter is forever etched in my mind. The phrase ‘hadras ponim’ a shining countenance, is not a cliché or exaggeration. Reb Zalman had the most wonderful eyes which were totally ‘lit up.’ He was speaking very quietly, very softly, and those young men gathered around, were concentrating carefully on what he said. I could not hear what Reb Zalman was saying, suffice to say that first impression is everlasting.
The following year I entered Yeshiva Gedolah, and there began a relationship, which is cherished, beyond words, I was introduced to a world of Rav Perlov and limud hatorah; of Reb Shmulik Althaus and nigun; of Reb Nochum Zalman Gurewicz and gemillus chassodim; Reb Isser Kluwgant and kibud hatorah, and most importantly I came to know Reb Zalman.
We are now in the days of sefirah – counting the 49 days from Pessach until Shavuos – the time of the revelation of matan torah – and if I may, as an aside, I note that if we will count 49 days from today, for everything is hashgocha prot’e’us, we will arrive at Reb Zalman’s yahrzeit and there will be an aliyah, a revelation for his neshoma which on the yahrzeit moves, to a higher spiritual level – and it is customary on Shabbos to recite each week a perek – chapter – of Pirkei Avos – Ethics of the Fathers. The Torah tells in the first perek, the 6th mishnah stating “asay lecha rav – provide yourself with a teacher— uh’k’nay lecha chover – acquire for yourself a friend, “ve’he’vay don es kol ho’odom le’chaf zechos” – and judge every person favourably. Each of these statements is a separate concept. And we all know the dictum … she’loh le’shmo – bo le’shmo – that, which is not for the sake of heaven will become for the sake of heaven, because Reb Zalman was my Rov – that ‘asay lecha rav’ of Pirkei Avos —and I found in him a friend and he taught me to judge every person favourably.
Reb Zalman was a chassid, and a Rov, and a melamed – a teacher, and a mashpia – mentor, and a mechanech – educator, and a Rosh Yeshivah, and a baal hasogah – a man of ideas, a baal da’as – a man of deep understanding. Reb Zalman was appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as menahel – the director of Lubavitch and depending on the situation, each of these roles were carried out, always, with great equanimity.
Reb Zalman loved and feared Hashem — and there is no question that Reb Zalman was a great chossid of Lubavitch – totally iber g’geben to the Rebbeim. But I would like to relate an incident which occurred which showed how much people revered Reb Zalman. Yeshiva Gedolah had moved from its home in Meadow Street to its present home in Alexandra Street. I was amongst a group of bochurim walking into Yeshiva Gedolah via Wavenhoe Street., together with Chaim Ber Wilshansky. For Chaim Ber to be there, then it must have been for a fabrengen, for he always helped prepare, with food, from Nasheray. As if from nowhere, an elderly lady approached us, and from her appearance she did not look close to yiddishkeit, but she asked us, in Yiddish— ‘Voss macht der rebbe?’ We looked at each other wondering what this elderly lady’s connection was to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Of course as Chaim Ber was a balalbos, the eldest in the group, we naturally let him answer. Chaim Ber smiled, lifted his hands and replied in Yiddish ‘mstoma der Rebbe iz gut Boruch Hashem.’ This elderly lady looked at us, with a slight smile as if to say ‘thank you for this information,’ sighed and said in Yiddish ‘oiy, der rebbe Reb Zalman’ and walked away.
What can one say? Perhaps that elderly ladies ‘oiy’ was a reflection of the ahavas yisroel shown to her by Reb Zalman, or to whomever else he came in contact with. This was often experienced by the placing of his hand on your shoulder, on even the tallest man, and the question ‘nu, voss machst du ?’ When Reb Zalman asked me how I was, I used to answer, ‘Boruch Hashem.’ He once quizzed me, ‘Boruch Hashem gut?’ And he explained to me that as we both have to praise Hashem for the good, we must also praise him for the opposite, ‘chas v’sholem.’ He wanted to know where ‘I was at’. From that time on I always replied ‘Boruch Hashem good’ or ‘Boruch Hashem bad’ and that more accurate description pleased him.
Each day, among the Hallelukas of the p’sukei di’zimroh of davenning, in k’pital ‘kuf mem zayin,’ – Hallelukah kitov zamroh elokaynu — we daven —’hanoh’sain sheleg ka’tzomare – He gives snow like fleece; and the m’forshim – our sages – explain that wool and snow have significant similarities. Wool is noted for its quality of insulation – to keep the body warm. Snowflakes are shaped in such a way that air spaces are created in them and when they fall, they too, insulate. Ahavas yisroel is like she’leg ka’tzomare – snow like fleece —which covers and insulates / and which gives warmth. Reb Zalman showed true ahavas yisroel – no matter what the my’mid u’matzev – situation – of the person he was speaking with; man or woman, rich or poor, scholar or not, I felt / people felt ‘insulated’, you could feel his warmth, it was palpable. One felt that he, or she, is important, that there was no need to put up a barrier, and that Reb Zalman accepted you unconditionally. A snowflake has the ability to insulate us, but we know that we cannot touch / we cannot have an effect on a snowflake – it is so aiydel, so refined, that if we try to touch it / if we try to ‘influence’ it simply melts. Reb Zalman was that snowflake, he would insulate us / he would warm us – but if for some reason we could not reciprocate that love, if we tried to ‘touch’ that love he showed us / to influence that love, it did not matter, because Reb Zalman’s ahavas yisroel was true, it was aiydel, it was refined and unable to be affected.
Reb Zalman was a very humble man. A yeshiva is a place of learning. Yeshiva Gedolah is a place of learning and here I learnt not only Torah, but humility from Reb Zalman. While I learnt with many bochurim during seder, the most cherished times, the sweetest times of learning was always with Reb Zalman. Reb Zalman understood lofty concepts of Torah. He was able to break down a complex gemorrah, or a section of chassidus to its component parts, but Reb Zalman always before delving deeply into a topic would ask ‘nu, voss mainst du ?’ – what do youthink? He wanted to find out how much I had grasped and how much I didn’t understand. And then he would begin to ‘chazir iber’ – go over the gemorrah or chassidus and I remember many wonderful times learning, literally spending an hour, on one or two words, but every facet and nuance that was contained in the words, became so clear and precise, that I felt that I had achieved something wonderful. When we as bochurim were in a group learning with Reb Zalman and he asked the question directed to everyone ‘voss mainst du?,’ if someone answered with pride, trying to show off how much he understood, more than the others, to try and impress Reb Zalman, well, a pity on that Talmid, Reb Zalman would quizzically ask ‘you know? you understand?what do you understand?’ and Reb Zalman would then ask a series of questions which showed how much the Talmid did not understand and when that person became contrite, Reb Zalman would start again, from the beginning to explain, so that each Talmid really and truly understood the learning. This point was even further pressed if we were studying chassidus, where the concept of bittle hametzios, the nullification of ‘ich’ was a paramount lesson. So if R.Z. received an answer ‘I think’ with an explanation, he raised his eyebrows at the Talmid and said ‘ich ? vere bist du?’ – ‘who are you to think?’
In the early years of Yeshiva Gedolah, we learnt in the Yeshivah in Hotham Street On one occasion a small group of us were learning chassidus in shul with Reb Zalman and Reb Aryl, Reb Zalman’s son, whom we all know to be a Talmid chocham, came over to where we were sitting to tell Reb Zalman that he now understood something that they must have previously discussed or learnt, Reb Zalman said ‘nu, loh mere hearen.’ Reb Aryl gave his explanation and Reb Zalman concentrated, listening carefully, and then quietly explained to Reb Aryl were he was incorrect and explained the piece of chassidus once again – a young Talmid, or an older Talmid, his son – it did not matter. Everyone received a correct explanation of what they were studying so as to be able to reach the next level of learning. Reb Zalman was patient, the most amazing and wonderful mashpia, b’chesed el’yon.
Another lesson in Reb Zalman humility; after the birth of our first child, Avrumki, we were of course elated. Every parent feels the tremendous joy, the miracle of birth, Boruch Hashem, and wishes to share that simcha with those people who are nearest and dearest. I was a Talmid of Reb Zalman. Adina and I were always welcome in his home and for us it was the most natural thing that Reb Zalman should be sandek. I approached Reb Zalman and told him we would be greatly honoured if he would be sandek. Without hesitation he looked me straight in the eye and asked ‘Shimonke?’ – and truth be said, I don’t remember when Reb Zalman began calling me Shimonke, but it was always that. Nobody else refers to me as Shimonke – so I understood this as a term of endearment. Shimonke, did you ask Rav Perlov first? If he will not, then ok. My head was spinning . For us it was a foregone conclusion that he would accept. We were as close to Reb Zalman as one could imagine and even now at this momentous occasion in our lives he was teaching me a lesson, the lesson of koved hatorah – Rav Perlov was sandek for our first-born child.
I have another memory to share with you which reflects Reb Zalman’s constant care. After our chasana we moved into our first home, a small flat in Westbury Street, opposite Reb Isser and Rebbitzin Kluwgant aleihem hasholem. Reb Zalman popped in to see how we were settling in and when we greeted him at the door, he didn’t even hesitate, but walked straight into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door, looked inside to see if we had sufficient food and exclaimed ‘I want to make sure Adina is feeding you well!’
All the years I knew Reb Zalman he lived either at number 96 Hotham Street, or on the corner of Hotham Street and Balaclava Roads. We all know this to be a busy intersection, trams, buses, cars and trucks. But on entering Reb Zalman’s home there was a serenity. For some reason the outside did not intrude into the daled amahs of Reb Zalman, and his Rebbetzin Brocha Serebryanski’s oleho hasholem’s, home. Their home was modest. Spotlessly clean. Sometimes the radio was on in the kitchen, softly playing classical music. Rebbetzin Serebryanski was the akares habayis, supporting and fussing over Reb Zalman and when I was in their home she always offered me a cup of tea, or fruit and when she felt that everything was organised and under control she would then leave us. In Rebbitzen Serebryanski’s old age, Reb Zalman would often remain at home to assist her with whatever was necessary and he once commented to me, with a little smile and a hidden message … ‘un dos iz neet a za geferlecha zach tzu helfen der frau’ – it is not such a terrible thing to help your wife!
Often I would see Reb Zalman bend over and pick off the carpet some piece of lint, whether at home or in the Yeshiva Gedolah, which my eye never saw. His home was immaculate and here time took on a different dimension. Sometimes I was there for a seudah – a meal, but the food always seemed unimportant. Other times to learn a little. And other times to simply talk. Reb Zalman when listening to me, cocked his head ever so slightly to the side, with eyes downward looking, holding his reading glasses between his fingers in a particular manner and obviously concentrating – it seemed to me as if he was praying that whatever my concern was, it should be removed. Reb Zalman advised and counseled and encouraged and when I left their home there was an inner calmness and confidence to move forward.
Reb Zalman had a mischievous sense of humour – please let me explain. A Shabbos morning, Reb Zalman’s davenning was always a picture of bittul and concentration. He sat at his mokam k’vua – his place – on the left hand side of the aron hakodesh a few rows from the front – his tallis covering his head, his moustache was so thick it was difficult to see his lips moving. There was hardly a movement of his body and then suddenly he was off – carrying a small silver box of tabac – snuff, in his hand, which he tapped in a certain way before opening. Often he would circulate in the shul, ‘working the crowd’ so to speak, at a time when he , according to halacha, was unable to speak. I sat on the right hand side of shul and watched Reb Zalman as he approached numerous balabattim, Mr. Josefberg, Mr. Ross, who was hard of hearing, Mr. Tessler, Mr. Schechter, Mr. Selzer, Mr. Gedalia Segal, Mr. Nessanel Slonim and many others, with that beautiful big smile, often gently pushing them on the shoulder as a ‘hello’, or shaking hands, offering them a shmek tabac and of course they would say ‘Good Shabbos Reb Zalman.’ He loved them and they in turn loved him, and by his presence he encouraged them to talk, or perhaps they simply wanted to talk with him – I’m not sure. Of course Rabbi Groner would be shushing to maintain the decorum of the shul – but Reb Zalman took no notice still not talking himself, but with his eyes and facial expression encouraging others to!! And he would laugh as someone got into ‘trouble’ and then he would move onto the next balaboss and caused further mischief and all the while those eyes were gleeful and laughing. Those were amazing moments.
Reb Zalman was a baal hasogah – a man of vision. He often mentioned to me the necessity to have a keren – a fund – that with the interest earned, and only the interest, for the principal should never be touched, would be provided to the day schools, to subsidise the cost of education. He saw how fees escalated and put tremendous strains, financially and emotionally on families, in some cases causing parents to remove their child from a Jewish school. If our community, and we do have the ko’ach b’yodo – the strength in our hand, to bring this vision to fruition, then I can think of no more appropriate, no finer naches ruach for Reb Zalman.
In the pesukei d’zimroh of Shabbos davenning, the Hallelukah of kipital ‘kuf lamed hay’, we daven: peh loh’hem v’lo y’da’bay’ruh, Ö ayenayim loh’hem v’loh yir’ooh, oznayim loh’hem v’loh ya’a’zeenu. They have a mouth, but cannot speak, they have eyes but cannot see, they have ears but cannot hear. There is an English phrase: I have been able to view distant horizons, because I sat on the shoulders of a giant! Now I can say that I too have seen distant horizons. My eyes have been opened because I sat on the shoulders of a giant, Reb Zalman, who taught me how to think and speak Torah thoughts, who taught me how I should behave with my eyes, and ‘tuned my ear’ to what I should be listening to.
We have been speaking about Reb Zalman, a chassid and Talmid chocham and it is appropriate to finish with words from Sefer Malachi, perek shaynee, possuk hay, which epitomises his life: ‘Brisee hoysaw eetoe ha’chaim v’ha’sholem vo’etname loh mo’roh va’ya’roh’ain’nee uh’mip’nay sh’mee nee’chas hu. Toras e’mes hoy’sow b’fee’hu v’av’loh loh nim’tzoh v’so’foh’sov b’sholem uh’v’me’shor ho’lach ee’tee v’ra’beem hay’sheev may’oh’von. My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips; he walked with me in peace and equity and did turn many away from unrighteousness.
May his merit/memory be a brocha for us all.