The word that I employ is “obscenity”

Just reminding readers that although some posts, at times, resemble quasi-eulogies, reminisces (see for example  1,2,3 or 4) or halachic quandaries, the main purpose of pitputim is to provide personal catharsis. Hits, ads or any variegation are of no interest. Comments are useful when something is learned, corrections are made, or its ריתחא דאורייתא. Indeed, no “audience” is fine. Spectators are not a motivation. That being said, a record of thoughts, for the benefit of offspring dawned on me more recently.

Chaim New ע’’ה was a quintessential, non archetypical, unique, Chasid of Chabad.

He would have disavowed such a title, hated that I was writing about him, but that’s how it was. First, a single word:


— the word may be used to show a strong moral repugnance.

What is obscene? I’m referring to the choice of מי יחיה ומי ימות. Trembling, moaning these words, while leading davening  as שליח ציבור made them no less awesome or spine-chilling. Each year (at Elwood Shule, where I was prevailed to function as בעל תפילה after the passing of full-time celebrated Chazonim)  there was a sense of real terror, especially following Unesaneh Tokef . מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו. “Who should leave at their time, and who should leave not leave at their time”. What does it mean “not at their time”. It is a concept that in a Godly sphere is impenetrable, on a logical plane. Chaim New left this world. I do not understand or accept reasoning.

Curiously the feeling was that if the שליח ציבור davened ברדת ובזיעה, with shock and awe, God might be swayed and people would be granted longer life. This is undoubtedly true of some who lead services, but it is so easy to mistaken one’s self-importance to think that Hashem actually can’t see the less than convincing charlatan שליח ציבור (which is how one tends to view oneself over time). My family will testify that I took this (some will say) too personally, and as described elsewhere, perhaps irrationally blaming myself every time another Holocaust survivor left the Shule to a higher abode. I miss them all so much. They were Elwood Shule, where I davened regularly for most of my life.

Only last night I spoke to the son of a now departed member, an ex-survivor, who said that “when I have a hard week, I have to sleep in on Shabbos, so I rarely make it to Shule these days”. I thought to myself: your father not only left ירושה when he came penniless, but he worked harder, went through more, and still came to Shule. This son is already a good guy. I like him. He is one who feels guilty if he doesn’t come to Shule on Shabbos. Kudos to him and to the education his father left him. Most of todays congregants don’t feel any commitment, and the twenty plus regulars on a shabbos at Elwood stand as a sad Matzeyva for what once was.

But this is the obscenity.

Chaim wasn’t a survivor. Chaim wasn’t old. Chaim went to Shule daily. Chaim had shiurim regularly. Chaim did Chesed (as I was to discover) in a hidden way. Chaim was a great soul mate to Sheiny. Chaim was a great father. Chaim was a fantastic grandfather. Chaim was an incredible son and brother. Chaim was involved in a positive way in this world with all types of Jews.

It is critical to record, and this hasn’t been said nearly enough: Chaim was nothing without his Sheiny (or Sheine Gittel as he called her, as a term of endearment). Sheiny is a truly remarkable lady, may she continue in this way until we are all swept to ירושלים on the wings of an eagle. She was his partner כפשוטו. Together, they built a home where the children astound me with positive character traits, warmth, care, and, incredibly, their sense of strength and continued purpose. Chaim, Sheiny and the kids were regular visitors to our house over many years. We watched the children grow. I do not know how they manage to plum the deep depths of strength they display, at the same time making the rest of us unwittingly realise that we are truly pathetic and inadequate by comparison.

I am not known for חניפה (aggrandisement) and mean every word, above, במלוא המובן.

A good friend in Chaim New ע’’ה was rudely removed in the last weeks. He was friends with more people than commonly known. This is a mystery. Chaim was intensely private. To talk on a truly personal level was a rare but occasional occurrence. What I do know, is that we shared, sometimes on the bench at green meadows park, and other times hiding to have a cigarette during a meal, and more.

Davening Shacharis on that fateful Shabbos morning in Melbourne, the news was pervasively apparent in a matter of seconds. A thunderbolt. Words on the siddur started wobbling with some strange momentum of their own. Tefilla was remised. Nausea set in.

Chaim and Sheiny’s children were coming to our house for lunch that day, and I rushed home to tell my wife. She was hysterical and in total disbelief. I felt numb. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, or how to stay calm, let alone deal with my disbelief. I shared countless shots of whisky with Chaim over the years, and I now needed to escape into a hole that I could not find.

Version 2

I went back to Shule, finished Shacharis, and realised that my concentration was hopelessly impaired. I was enveloped in a trance. My wife went immediately to the New household to lend support. Perhaps obscenely, I had just received some very special whisky. Looking up at my wife, I exclaimed, this is exactly the type of whisky I would have shared with Chaim. I made Kiddush on the whisky, adding the obligatory herring and tzibbeles that he knew he would always get at our house, and was only able to retreat to my room, lie on the bed, and stare at the ceiling. Time seemed to meander. I tried to divert my attention by reading. Nothing I picked up penetrated: words were individual disjointed letters that refused to meld. The process of memory recall set in. In parallel, I felt sick in the pit of my stomach for the situation that our friend Sheiny had experienced, having just also lost her father, rising from Shiva. My father passed away some three years ago, near the time Sheiny’s mother passed away—from the same illness. We had shared sorrow. This sorrow was another level of hell.

Once, Chaim confided to me that he always felt pangs of guilt. He was so proud of his brothers. They were, at the time, wrestling to set up successful Chabad Houses. He and I were sitting at his desk behind his Mac. He was attempting to convince me of the beauty of English classical music through his Bose speakers. English composers did not appeal to me, I insisted. He tried to introduce me to various other composers, but I wasn’t budging. For me, the depressing and haunting sounds of Russian composers, like Rachmaninov, were on a higher plane. He liked those too. Maybe it was my penchant for morbid struggle expressed through classical music.

During Elul, Chaim listened to Chazonus. He said it was important to leave that “other world” and enter the Cantorial world of Kedusha for Tishrei. In those days, I was a regular at his desk. He needed my help with his Mac. He was proud—very proud— and always apologised for calling me out. I, of course, had no problem helping out, in the early days as he set up his familial IT infrastructure. As time marched on, Chaim worked things out for himself and I only got the very occasional call for an opinion. Chaim liked to work things out for himself. It was during those times that he sometimes let down his guard, and said things which he might not normally have done. I know he trusted me, but he kept things very close to his chest, in general. He had inherited some of the traits of “Malchus” that I saw in his grandfather R’ Isser Kluwgant ע’ה. At the same time, unlike R’ Isser, he was earthy and a thrill seeker. Some misunderstood his demeanour. I didn’t.

Most people should exclaim “when will my deeds match or come close to those of my father”. Chaim had another burden. Burden is the wrong word. Responsibility is a more accurate term. Chaim felt that his brothers were the real Chabadniks because they were Shluchim and pioneers. He lived in comparative luxury, and I know that he felt unnecessarily “guilty”. Ironically, he had no reason to feel guilty. I watched as he carefully oversaw the needs of his brothers and then some. I watched as he created movies for special occasions as well as chronicling and restoring pictures. He hated cables. Everything had to be neat and wireless. I too am a voracious picture collector. I knew exactly where he was coming from. He was a kindred spirit. I watched as he tended to his parents’ needs, especially as they got older. I identified with all that. At the same time, I had an army of people to oversee my parents’ needs. I was working long hours, and always knew I wasn’t doing enough. Chaim, however, despite his schedule, dropped everything and was around the corner helping his father with the computer and more, any time. We used to exchange stories of our father’s entanglements with modern technology and laughed together.

We both enjoyed a good scotch or five. He had his Nat Sherman cigarettes, and I sufficed with an e-cig. We’d sometimes meet on the park bench at green meadows park half way between our houses. I urge nobody to put a cigarette in their mouths. It’s a drug.

Chaim loved to read. I think the last book he borrowed from me was Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm’s PhD thesis on Tanya vs Nefesh HaChaim. I warned him that it was a very hard read. That didn’t deter him. A few months later, he was still reading it and mentioned with a smirk that he had a dictionary next to the book, and that it was a masterpiece.

I didn’t share his thrill seeker nature. His motor bike always scared me. I’d tell his wife Sheiny that she had to stop him. She shrugged her shoulders and said she’d tried many times. He’d proudly tell me how he got members of his “ruffian” Jewish bikies group to put on Tefillin. He was performing his duty even as he haired down winding roads at speeds that make me dizzy.

Above all, we enjoyed each others company because of mutual respect. He knew I was remote from Chassidus because I felt it was somewhat abstract for my uber logical disposition. He would retort that it was logical. I would say it was meta-physical. We’d go back and forth. When he and his beautiful family would come for a Shabbos meal or vice versa, Chaim always had a Lubavitch Vort from Chassidus. I, of course, would respond with something from the Rav, Rav Soloveitchik. Chaim would say they were the same thing in the end. Often he was right. Other times, he’d like a different perspective.

There was one memorable occasion, when we lived in Lumeah Road, and he and Sheiny and the kids undertook the long trek to our house. It was also nostalgic for him, because the New family lived directly across the road, bringing back memories in which he regaled. We always had a loooong lunch, with plenty of Tamdhu, Herring and Tzibbeles, and all was good. One Shabbos, it must have been about 5:30pm and I said that we’d better head off to Mincha. I agreed I’d walk with him to Yeshiva rather than Katanga around the corner. We both realised, once the blood was voraciously circulating during our walk, that we were somewhat “light on our feet”. We passed Mizrachi Shule on Balaclava Road. Suddenly Chaim said “stop, I need to go in”. I pleaded with him not to do so. I knew his guard was down, and he’d likely say things that he wouldn’t ordinarily utter. It was to no avail. I waited at the gate of Mizrachi for what must have been 20 minutes before he emerged with a large grin on his face. He said he’d “assailed” two of his father’s long-term friends and told them that compared to Lubavitch they were not doing anything of value for the community. When we caught up later, he told me, with a smile, that one of his father’s friends had rung his father and described him as a drunken Lubavitch lout who had insulted Mizrachi values. Chaim wasn’t perturbed. He had actually said what was on his mind. In life, he kept most if not 99% of things inside. I can’t help but think that this level of concealment had to contribute to stress.

Chaim loved my band Schnapps. He was not a dancer, that is, he wasn’t even a good dancer. He was an awkward shuffler. He’d stand on the side watching Schnapps’ musicians intensely. When he got my attention, I knew exactly what he wanted. He pined for a good solo. It was Chaim, so I always obliged. The joy on his face was palpable. He loved class, and he appreciated excellence. He was also a quintessential feinschmecker. Ironically, last night, we performed some incredible solos with some great Jazz overlays.

I thought of Chaim.

I find it hard to write on this topic. I had three attempts, and could never “finish”. I’ve only scratched the surface. יהי זכרו ברוך and he will be מליץ טוב for his family and כלל ישראל. He will be united with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom he loved so much. The void that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s passing induced, was something that affected Chaim acutely, and in private conversation, he expressed this to me, many a time.

בלע המוות לנצח ומחה ה׳ דמעה מעל כל פנים

What score did your Shule achieve for the Shabbos Project

I was thinking today about the reason(s) the Chief Rabbi of South Africa chose Parshas Noach as the week that Jews consider uniting in keeping Shabbos together. It’s a great concept and I together with many are fully behind it.

No doubt there is a “real reason” and someone from South Africa may be able to advise me. I heard a Rav today suggest that immediately after Bereishis, its is logical to go into action. We’ve just finished The Yomim Noroim, God has created the world, society made errors, and this is a logical Shabbos to commence Shabbos observance.

My mind, however, wandered to Noah’s ark itself. I felt the words, “Go out of the ark” the command to Noach to rebuild a humane society. This was a time of post-destruction, a time of building, a new beginning, and what better way than to observe the idea that we don’t work 7 days a week. We devote one day to the spiritual, to the level above the rat race of the week, and try to share that with others.

To be sure, there are some who have never left the ark nor do they want to. Hungarian ultra orthodox types no doubt are still in the ark. They don’t interact with the Jewish world unless they can make a buck. Accordingly, I wouldn’t have expected much emanating from the likes of some Haredi places. I heard the tired refrain that they didn’t want someone to drive to their house for a meal, but I’d like to suggest that almost all of them who work for a living and interact with such people know some within walking distance whom they could invite. But, they have the problem of not wanting their kids to see “sinful” people, so I imagine (correct me if I’m wrong) they couldn’t take part meaningfully in this exercise (except come and see what this Havdala ceremony was all about at the Park, although they usually keep Rabeinu Tam’s Tzeis Shabbos time. South Africa is void of Hungarian extremists and is Litvak/Chabad focussed so there is no problem of interaction potentially. That’s why they have comparative unity and almost no reform or conservative or conservadox (Shira Chadasha) movements, unlike Melbourne, where I hold Orthodoxy responsible for the existence of these aberrations.

Then there  are  the Shules who in my opinion should re-examine carefully their outreach or general Rabbis and boards if they didn’t take part. I know of one Shule that did zero out of the ordinary. They had their usual kiddies pre-shabbos function, which is nothing out of the ordinary. The Rabbi didn’t even mention the concept in his drosha, not that there was a single person new in attendance at the Shule. There was a “lunch/cholent” in a back room which actually had less people than the usual paltry few (I guess there were better functions at other Shules). What they might have done is find every Jewish person in the area (and there are plenty) and invite them to a free shabbos lunch (even in a marquee at the park if there were many), find a dynamic speaker or three, sing songs, use some ingenuity etc. You don’t have to be Einstein. But, if you are a comparatively disconnected internet Rabbi, many would argue that your days are numbered. Perhaps, get another job and get off the gravy train.

Kudos to the organisers, but next year the men might become more involved as they don’t generally bake challah 🙂

I regret that personally we didn’t invite a few of our neighbours, but my mind has been somewhat not where it should be.

Next year, God willing, hopefully in Yerusholayim Ir HaKodesh.

Statement to clear the air and set the record straight

This may be relevant only to the dwindling number of members at Elwood Shule. Our family has been associated with Elwood for 60+ years. My father ע’’ה was Vice President and a very long-term board member, as well as regular mispallel. I joined the board several years ago, and functioned as the Ba’al Tefilla on Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur for many years. I accepted the role of leading Musaf and Kol Nidrei the year prior to the untimely death of Chazan Levy ע’’ה, the Shule’s last, full-time Chazan, in the year before he passed away. He then passed away on Rosh Hashono itself.

I worked assiduously at Board Level, and oversaw and edited the updated version of the constitution and assisted in the unfortunate but necessary legal fight for survival with our tenant. I was involved at many other levels.

I came to the conclusion, some 6 months ago that my tenure as a board member was no longer tenable. It had preyed on my mind for longer, but only emotional ties kept me going. I will not use this blog to discuss a range of issues that contributed to my decision. I later resigned from the board, as did three other board members, and of course, my father passed away, thereby making the board four fewer people than when it was constituted years earlier. When I informed long-term President Fred Antman that I had finally resigned, his comment was that I should have done so long ago, for reasons I won’t go into. He had encouraged me to resign many times and said my father would have told me the same.

Elwood is at a cross-road, where it says goodbye in the next years to Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, and welcomes a new Rabbi. Rabbi Karnowsky, the outreach Rabbi is assuming some of Rabbi Gutnick’s functions. Rabbi Karnowsky has a documented plan of what he was going to achieve as outreach Rabbi when he joined, and I assume remaining members of the board express a level of confidence in his achievements thus far.

Years ago, It was long-term President Fred Antman, who prevailed upon me, literally tens of times, to assume the function of Ba’al Tefila for Yomim Noroim. I also stepped in as needed on other occasions, willingly. I did not and never wanted to be the Ba’al Tefila. To be honest, I know my personal imperfections, and never felt worthy of representing this (or any) Kehilla. My children know too well, how, after members of the Shule passed away later during the year, that I took it personally. I might arrive home on Shabbos with bloodied knuckles and in tears or sloshed because I considered that Hashem had not listened to my prayers of מי יחיה or מי ימות and that this was due to me not being up to the spiritual level required to be a Ba’al Tefilla (or Chazan). I felt I wasn’t listened to and that my prayers were vacuous.

I was blessed with a good voice. This is not my achievement. My father ע’ה sang in the choir in the Rawa Mazowiecka Shtiebel with the Amshinover, R Zishe Shochet הי’’ד. My mother’s father played violin (as do I). These are not my achievements, they are some of Hashem’s Brachos.

A great source of personal happiness was descending the steps after Mussaf on Yom Kippur and spontaneously dancing with “Gandhi”, R’ Yossel ע’ה, a Buchenwald boy, as he was affectionately known. Of course, there was the scene of some 15+ Balbin offspring males sitting around my father on Kol Nidrei night, after he had carried the Torah during Kol Nidrei which I had intoned, and my father’s occasional glances at me. Upstairs a similar contingent of Balbin female offspring were present. My sons have beautiful life-long memories of walking with me and Zayda through thick and thin on a Shabbos (my father was, together with Rabbi Gutnick and Viggie Aron the only three people who walked a real distance on Shabbos to get to Shule and actually kept Shabbos). Nowadays, on Shabbos, Viggie only comes for layning, and Rabbi Gutnick mainly for Shabbos Shachris.

I vividly recall some feedback one year. I didn’t seek feedback. If proffered feedback I was happy to hear and sometimes listen. One man, whose face I knew, but whose name was not familiar, asked me why I kept stopping and starting during הנני העני ממעש. He sat in the front area, so he could presumably see my face, although I wear a Tallis over my head, as opposed to the more German style ecclesiastical headwear. Returning to the story, I couldn’t believe that this man hadn’t noticed that I was unable to resume my comportment at certain phrases, and often struggled not to weep. I am not talking about the iconic Chazanishe Krechtz or an “Oy yoi yoi” punctuated with a perfectly timed trill as choreographed according to the score (or iPod recording). I am talking about raw emotion.

I was shocked. That year, I decided I needed to “control myself”. I am sure I was wrong, but I consciously stopped myself thinking, perhaps over-thinking, about the meaning of the words I was uttering. At the same time, Rabbi Karnowsky approached me about incorporating his new sons in the service. I agreed (although musically, I felt they were young and raw). Nevertheless, it would be cute and perhaps would appeal to a majority of congregants who cannot follow or read a Machzor (we have 3 versions at Elwood and the Gabbay uses a fourth, and Davening is punctuated by annoyingly constant page call outs of different versions. I hope they have fixed this and settled on the magnificent Soloveitchik Machzorim, but I digress.)

Now, recall that I resigned from the board months before the High Holidays. In my letter of resignation, I also made it clear that the board should not feel encumbered in any way using my services as Ba’al Tefilla. I asked only that they inform me as soon as possible whether they required my services; a reasonable request.

Unfortunately, I was to find out that Mark Oyberman had asked around for people in Melbourne available to replace me, after which they settled on Shimon Wallis. I actually wrote to the board to confirm this as they had not communicated they were even looking let alone that they had already made a decision! Shimon has a fine voice, and his Nusach is derived from his grandfather ע’’ה, whom I enjoyed listening to on his rare visits. He was a Ba’al Tefilla with an authentic Yerushalmi Nusach. I wish him success.

What prompted me to post this article, was an Elwood promotional video I saw yesterday. I genuinely feared that some might assume that my absence from Shule was due to this new appointment.

Nothing could be further than the truth. I kept a seat at Elwood. I will hopefully be able to daven quietly and with some purpose this year. The reasons for my resignation as a board member are seemingly as valid now as they were then, and they will not be discussed in this blog post.

שנה טובה ומתוקה

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