I’m starting with some (self-indulgent) prose, as this will more fully inlay context.
As ought to be inferred from blog postings on pitputim, my tendency is to inspirationally respond to more rationalistic approaches of Judaism. I recognise of course that one size does not fit all.
This predilection isn’t for pre-conceived ulterior motives or להכעיס. It is perhaps a natural inclination of my id as opposed to some super-ego. Perhaps a PhD, based on formal logic and a grounding in science affected (or infected) a tendency to align myself with certain of the 70 faces of Torah. At the same time, I have always had a love for פשוטו של מקרא and that is a natural follow on.
I am certainly not the first or last to procure a comprehension and meaning through this particular prism. In some ways, it is the prism of Brisk, where my grandparents on one side were married and lived close by. Undoubtedly this is a reason for a veritable love affair with more halachic aspects, and a disdain for pilpul. I have modified my approach after realising that this isn’t the taste of Torah my kids want to hear at the table 🙂 Indeed neither do most unless one happens to know of a specific היתר. For example, I held for 30 years that showering on Yom Tov is permitted. Now many Poskim agree with that. I am far from a Posek, but I can detect when there is a hungarian-style inertia stopping the obvious 🙂
I am technically a תמים although in reality פסול is evident. Being classified a תמים means one learned in a Chabad Yeshivah. Chabad made Melbourne, irrespective of what Adass or Mizrachi or Johnny-come-latelys may claim or dream. The previous two groups have made enormous contributions, but these have been upon the shoulders and foundation of people sent by the Rayatz and last Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע whose foresight was as prophetic as one can be, limited by the clouds of today’s גלות.
Many of us gained from the simple presence and הנהגות, primarily from the likes of (In no particular order) R’ Shmuel Betzalel Althaus, R’ Nochum Zalman Gurevitch, R’ Zalman Serebryanski, R’ Betzalel Wilshansky. Rav Perlov, R’ Isser Kluwgant (I never met R’ Abba Pliskin) and of course the late and great Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner זכרונם לברכה. Although I didn’t notice it in an active learning sense (except with Rabbi Groner) most of the דמות תבניתם passively infused my soul and the lessons are indelibly etched. Understandably, I didn’t understand or realise much or most of this phenomenon until I was older and less of a one minded חריף. Indeed, the older I become, the more I miss “the real McCoy”.
One of the lessons passively learned over time is an extreme disinclination towards those who speak or act in a degrading way concerning another Jew because of a perceived lowly position that other Jew seems to occupy in the ladder of Torah and Mitzvos. Unfortunately this is a hallmark of some and their philosophy. I understand it, but I vociferously disagree with it.
Chabad are masters at seeing and seeking the good and never being judgemental. I have a spine chilling aversion to the word חילוני or even בעל תשובה. Neither of these words rest easily with me. I actually abhor them. When one truly does a דין וחשבון over oneself, I don’t understand how those words can enter anyones vernacular.
While I admit that when I was fresh out of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, a Yeshivah which I will forever be indebted because it imbued me with a sense of genuine התמדה and יגיעת התורה, I tended to be much more of a black and white person, a real loner. I would have no problem in those days sitting for three hours by myself on two lines of a Tosfos. I refused short cuts. Life and its experiences have taught me that the approach of compartmentalising people as “Chofshi” or “Yeshiva Leit” or “Nisht Frim” make me uneasy.
I was super sensitised when I returned from Kerem B’Yavneh to the extent that I literally hid in my car between lectures so that I would not be amongst the אומות העולם. Upon returning home from University, I used to lie on the couch in a semi-state of depressive stupor and did little homework. My mother confided years later that she and my father ע’’ה wondered and worried greatly whether they had made the right decision asking me to come home when I wanted another period to advance my learning. I listened to my parents, however, not for halachic reasons but because they are and were giants in my eyes. In all honesty this was happening subconsciously. I was sensitised to an extreme level.
Life is hard enough for any of us to climb up the ladder, and the higher one manages, the bigger even a little fall can potentially cascade one downwards into a spiral. We’ve all seen this sadly.
I discovered a love of Israel while at Kerem B’Yavneh and being in ארץ אשר עיני ה בה מראשית השנה עד אחרית השנה was super special. This was not something that was imparted to me in Chabad in Melbourne. The “Medina” wasn’t a word that was used. ארץ ישראל was mentioned scantily and mainly in the context of גאולה. In Chabad there was basically 770 (or as they call it בית רבינו שבבבל). This was their epicentre until משיח took them out.
I was a lad when the technology of live Sichos beamed through the Shule, and our Torah classes were suspended. Although there was a live translation, I didn’t understand much, and frankly, for most of us, we saw it as an indulgence for our teachers and an opportunity to “wag” or play ball. In hindsight, the teachers could have listened to a recording, but I digress.
This year we not only wanted to go on holidays we needed to. My wife and I were exhausted physically and mentally. The mortal body and the soul need some rest and relaxation (although I ironically heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe speak against this concept 40 years later when I entered a room leading to his קבר. There was a recording playing when one entered the ante-room, and this was part of his topic.) Was he telling me I didn’t need a holiday? I don’t think so. My understanding was that Torah could not stop because one was on holidays, and it didn’t for me anyway. I found myself in many discussions of interesting issues. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself was somewhat supernatural in that respect. He was tied to his room and his Chassidim, except for the daily beautiful visit to his loving soul mate to enjoy a cup of tea and a chat. Medically, both my wife and I needed a holiday.
When my father ע’’ה was in this world he wanted us around him in Surfers Paradise, his favourite holiday destination. I didn’t go the beach or walk around bare-chested like those, for whom holidays affords an opportunity to be a little lax. For me, I strolled around mainly sharing “love and other bruises” with my father. I cherish those days and our nightly “farbrengens” which were catered in a way that superseded usual holiday-based epicure-centred compromises. We danced, we sang, we shared special moments and we were light-headed through the addition of ubiquitous Tamdhu whisky. These moments are vividly captured in pictures and videos and cherished by the extended Balbin family.
The body, soul and brain do need a rest. My wonderful wife and I hadn’t been in a position to have a holiday for seven years. After my band Schnapps performed magnificently and professionally at Rabbi Yossel Gutnick’s magnanimous yearly “Chanukah in the Park” and once I knew all was well from a medical perspective, we booked to leave the very next morning.
770 was really not my destination of choice, to be honest, I had been in the States only once before, when presenting a paper in Texas and spent some days in Manhattan. I loved listening to Jazz late into the night. The quality was stupendous, and I knew some Jazz players, who used to play in my band Schnapps before they moved to live in the States. I could easily have stayed in Manhattan again and wiled my evenings at good fress outlets followed by Jazz; the latter being something my wife shares with me. However, things changed. Through our exuberant Mechutonim and our children and children-in-law there was a familial connection to Chabad now. There were now a range of people whom I now knew and knew of who lived there and importantly, my wife enjoyed the ambience and vibrancy she experienced the year before when she dashed there (while I was an Avel) to be at the engagement of our daughter Batsheva to Yisroel Goldman (aka izzinism) the son of well-known and Choshuve Chabad families. I had spoken to to Yisroel’s maternal grandmother, the well-known Mrs Shula Kazen,
whose son Yosef Yitzchok ז’ל was curiously one of the first frum Jews I “met” on the internet back in the days of soc.culture.jewish and Aarnet. We developed a long distance relationship and neither he nor I could ever imagine that my daughter would marry his nephew. Shula, with her ultra clear head, is a true foot soldier of the last Rebbe and she continues what she understands to be her Shlichus into her 90’s. She has no holiday! She spoke with me many a time in Melbourne from the USA, apologising that she could not come to the wedding. At her house, I also met her sister, who is the mother of the acclaimed Gaon, R’ Feitel HaLevi Levin.
I wanted to also meet the famous Rabbi Shimon Goldman, may he have a Refuah Shelemah, having read his book on Shedlitz. He shared that town with Professor Louis Waller, whose family were rooted in Shedlitz, and whose son Ian, president of Mizrachi Melbourne married my sister Adina.
I have a natural affinity for older people; they project Tachlis and חכמה with real stories that resonate. Accordingly, I promised Rebbetzin Shula that on my first opportunity I would visit her in her apartment and chat face-to-face. I wanted to meet Rabbi Goldman and at least give him Bircas Cohanim as well as Rebbetzin Rivka Groner’s father (Rabbi Gordon) who isn’t as well as he should be.
Our friends,Avremi andRifka Raskin’s son Ari, was getting married at that time in freezing Montreal. We watched Ari grow up from a babe, and Rabbi andRebbetzin Raskin, as I like to refer to them, had always been more than magnanimous when it came to our children’s weddings. Their home was and remains open for the entire community. Their hospitality is infectious.
Over the last few years, we also had the Zechus to farbreng in our Succah with R’ Michel
and Danya Raskin. Michel was very sick at one stage, and I could see it was affecting Avremy in a major way. I did what I could to cajole the Aybishter to give R’ Michel a lease of life. Thankfully Hashem had his plans for R’ Michel and these included a recovery and his famous crushing handshake. R’ Michel (and a line of traditionalists) love my wife’s Galeh (he calls it Pecha) and I love to hear his stories about Russia. It’s a natural extension of my life-long love of talking to older people. I found his stories and history much more interesting than the Booba Mayses and simple Shikrus that now pervades the Yeshivah Succa on Shemini Atzeres. Oh, for the times when Rabbi Groner farbrenged on Shmini Atzeres-I stayed the entire time.
In truth, from a halachic perspective I would move inside the house if it was cold or pitter pattering with rain on Shemini Atzeres, but out of respect for R’ Michel and other guests, I couldn’t do that, despite the Halacha being clear (to me). There is also the concept of כבוד הבריות and there was a certain romantic feeling about the rain pattering while being regaled with stories of awe.
So, logically, my wife suggested we spend a few days in Crown Heights before heading for a few days to Ari’s wedding and eventually enjoying a holiday in Miami on the way home (as it was the closest warm place where one could be Maaleh Gerah with gluttonous and fiscal abandon)
[to be continued]