This last Shabbos, I was in two minds concerning which Shule to attend. Generally, I daven at Elwood Shule every second week, and the main Chabad Yeshivah Shule in Melbourne on the other week. Recently, I have davened at Elwood more often, feeling the need to show support.
The plan was to daven at Elwood, and like many, follow davening with an in-house Kiddush, Mincha, and eventually to a late lunch leading into the Taanis. After reading Emmanuel Althaus’s excellent e-mail of community events, it was apparent that Shabbos was R’ Nochem’s Yohr Tzeit on Tisha B’Av, and that a Kiddush/Farbrengen would be held at Yeshivah after davening given that the fast was moved to Sunday. R’ Nochem was one of my teachers; I had to attend the Kiddush.
R’ Nochem left an indelible mark on me (and others, of course). In what way does a teacher of year 11 and year 12 do that? Was it just because he was a good teacher? Why indelible? Let me be up front. R’ Nochem was not a Geonic teacher who dazzled the class with exquisitely crafted Pilpulim on the Gemora. He’d usually sit at the front of the class, stroking his beard, while uttering an elongated “Yeh”. We knew that during this time he was dealing with the Pshat in the Gemora or the Pshat in a Tosfos. We saw him struggle with these at times. That’s not to say that he had any unnatural difficulty learning. Rather, what we witnessed was an honest and open interaction between R’ Nochem and the Gemora. He hadn’t spent hours in preparation.
How was this helpful? Surely a student ought to see their teacher in absolute control of their material? Teaching a new subject this semester at University, one of the things terrifying me is not being in “complete” control of the material. Will a student ask a question for which there is no apparent response? Will I become tongue-tied at one of my bullet points because a mental blank clouds the ability to convey meaning and intention adequately? It’s not merely an egotistical fear; subconsciously, as a University professor, we are expected to know what we are talking about. It need not be that way, however. R’ Nochem had no such tickets on himself. His was an exercise: a journey of educational engagement. It was as if he was saying
I’m learning the Gemora and Tosfos, and you will learn it with me. We will make mistakes together, but we will learn and eventually come to an understanding.
Pedagogically, there is nothing second-rate about this mode of learning and teaching. Indeed, provided that a student is mature, some would consider it superior. There was more, however, to R” Nochem’s classes than Gemora and Tosfos.
R’ Nochem came across, primarily, as an ordinary human being; a Tomim (simple and humble personage). Whether he did so consciously, I’ll never know, but his stories entranced and regaled. In a moment, we were transported from a difficult piece of Talmudic logic into the world of a Jewish soldier in the Soviet communist army. Pursued by the NKVD or “EnKaVehDeh” as he pronounced it, we were at once in Soviet Russia feeling his challenges, his pain and his hunger. R’ Nochem didn’t talk about himself exclusively by any stretch of the imagination. There were a wide array of personalities that somehow, almost star trek like, entered the door of that simple class room at 92 Hotham Street in Melbourne, Australia.
R’ Nochem’s Lubavitch was somewhat different to the one many of us are exposed to today. His was not a pastuerised and homogenised existence. Like Rabbi Groner ז’ל there was a keen reverence for Rebbes and Tzadikim of other groups. We heard stories about R’ Meir Premishlaner and R’ Zushe extending to contemporaries about whom he conjured an almost personal interaction. He showed great joy when expounding a good vort, even if it wasn’t derived from traditional Lubavitch sources. Yet, he was also a real Chosid. He knew his personal faults and never hid them. He was self-effacing and paradoxically charming at the same time. This contradictory infusion only increased a charismatic magnetism, discussion of which he would find most embarrassing.
As youngsters, we knew he “schnorred” for the Yeshivah. He had worked in knitwear earlier. He mixed with the Smorgons and other paragons of the community. Yet, that job description connoted a pariah-like existence to young teenagers and was considered derogatory. Today, employees are known by the more professional and acceptable title of “fund-raisers”.
R’ Nochem toiled as a worker. Rising well before the crack of dawn, he seemed to be davening in every minyan: from the first through to the last. No word in the siddur escaped his attention, and each was lovingly given due reverence. In R’ Nochem’s “spare” time, and this included his infamous vehicular conveyancing, an undercurrent of Tehillim was murmured in that idiosyncratic tone. Every time his car was fixed by the panel beater, we placed bets on how long it would be before it once more looked like he’d been in a serious accident. Without exaggeration, if you were “lucky” enough to hitch a ride with R’ Nochem, benching Gomel, B’Sheim U’Malchus was assuredly advised.
I remember once when in early high school, he called for volunteers to help on a mission to Carlton. I put my hand up. It was certainly a better proposition than the boring three R’s. The ride took an eternity. R’ Nochem meandered through many wrong turns. Finally we arrived outside an old Edwardian half-house in a quiet Carlton side street. We wondered what our task was to be. The deceased had apparently left his “estate” to the Yeshivah, and our job was to assist in loading a clapped out panel van with anything that appeared to be of value. I don’t remember many things impressing us as being any real value, although we did enjoy an interesting time rummaging through draws, finding ancient writing implements and the like. Of course, we also shlepped. We made it back in one piece, but it wasn’t always clear on that return journey that this would indeed be the case.
R’ Nochem was the “pinchy man”. He adored children, and the level of this adoration extended to an often painful pinch of the cheek. Ironically, in our more enlightened society, he would probably have been charged with harassment and battery, but what would they know about genuine affection. At least one of my children, Tzvi Yehuda, experienced this form of “love” and I’m glad he did!
R’ Nochem was spotless. This was a man whose suits, shirts, shoes and ubiquitous beige cardigan were at all times salubrious. His beard was always “clean”, his breath never unpleasant. We took these things for granted but when one looks around today and sees people in respected positions, with their shirts out, tzitzis dangling wildly in unkempt and gay abandon, jackets barely able to enclose an extended girth, pockets filled with the days takings, squished, dusty, off-colour fedoras and more, one comes to appreciate that N’Kiyus, cleanliness, is not anathema to a Chosid. I should add, that both R’ Zalman, R’ Isser and others were also immaculately groomed at all times.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. At times, R’ Nochem would blow up unceremoniously at a recalcitrant Talmid. These were not “ordinary” Talmidim. They were children of holocaust survivors whose parents essentially “deposited” their sons and daughters at the doors of the Yeshivah, praying that an educational experience be imparted. These parents worked 24/7 and mostly had neither the time, patience or Menuchas HaNefesh to cope or deal with children in a new country, let alone in a more modern era. One colourful character, whose name will remain anonymous, had a tendency to incessantly disturb the pervasively calm class ambience. Enraged, R’ Nochem grabbed his black umbrella hurling it towards the back of the class and almost impaling the said Talmid. Well, it was funny at the time, but yes, we know it could have ended badly. With R’ Nochem, you saw what you got and you got what you saw.
I was rebellious but not in the sense that I didn’t want to learn. Rather, I became somewhat estranged from the curriculum on Fridays. I didn’t have the presence of mind or a mature appreciation of Friday’s chassidic sicha. I used to slink off to the back of the class and learn basic Chumash/Rashi together with a little Sefer written in the style of “Itturei Torah” whose ditties on psukim I quite enjoyed. Determined to “do my own thing”, I put my black bag (“techke”) on the desk in front of me, effectively cutting myself off from what others were learning. Okay, okay, I hear your pseudo-psychological assessment of my behaviour and your assertion that not much has changed since then …. this article isn’t about me, though. R’ Nochem in his wisdom, accepted my position. He said:
As long as you are learning, it’s okay with me
How many teachers, including myself would tolerate such insolence? These days, when I lecture and see a student seemingly not paying attention because they are peering at an open laptop, I gravitate towards their seat and say
If you are looking at my overheads, they are in front of you on the screen, so please close your laptop or you will miss important information
In a word, R’ Nochem was tolerant. He had a clear sense of mission. His mission was simply to build the organisation. He worked tirelessly. He didn’t live in a grandiose setting and was humble until his last days in our world. R’ Nochem was always the first person at someone else’s Minyan when there was a Shivah. He was a source of comfort to so many people. I recall going to his flat in Alexandra Road when he was sitting Shivah—I don’t remember for whom. I was struck by the absolute simplicity of his flat. There were no trappings. This was a humble existence. He wasn’t “Rabbi” Nochem Zalman. Alas, I didn’t know his Rebbetzin. I firmly believe, though, that behind every good man, there is an even better woman.
His son, Mulik, otherwise known as Mr G, in keeping with the education imparted by both of his parents began his delivery at the kiddush by speaking not about his father, but about the other co-sponsor of the Kiddush, who also had a Yohr Tzeit. This struck me at the time as consonant with the example set by his parents. Somebody else always came first. Mulik mentioned (and I’ve heard this from him many times) that his father was very frum and a big medakdek b’mitzvos. I surmise that one of the reasons why Mulik refuses to be called “Rabbi” is because he couldn’t possibly see himself as being seen to be “more” than his father.
In the words of one of R’ Nochem’s grandchildren, as relayed to me yesterday
They don’t make them like that anymore
יהי זכרו ברוך