Our holiday. Part 4: Shabbos Leading to a visit to the Tziyun

Dear readers,

In some ways, this part of the trip afforded me with a most significant lesson in morality and middos.

On Friday night we were fortunate to be invited to a family home of the Chosson. The host is well-known to me as a fellow graduate of Yeshivah College in Melbourne. The hostess is a more recent person who I met in Melbourne a few times, and is somewhat more “reserved” but charming. I know many of their children, and with one of the husbands discussed his PhD, and if I can, I am hopeful to help him achieve some of dreams flowing from those ideas. He and his wife represent the essence of values that makes Chabad an attractive proposition to those who are searching and attuned to the spiritual. At subsequent Sheva Brachos my wife also discovered a common educational language. I was thrilled with that outcome.

The Dinner proceeded, and whilst I had been asked to pop in and meet the well-known Rebbetzin Henya Lane (a sister of my Mechuteniste) after Friday Night dinner, that didn’t happen because Friday night’s dinner ended late, partially due to wonderful hostessing and the happy, relaxed ambience. By that stage I wasn’t about to barge into someone’s house late on a Friday Night. Henya’s husband is also related to Avremy Raskin (who isn’t?), and is in need of a Refuah Shelema, since then. I understand he is on the mend, Boruch Hashem, but I don’t think I formally met him. My feeling is that he will return to full activity and vigour, and for whatever my Brocho is worth, R’ Chaim Dovid has it.

The “morning after” was Shabbos and it was time to go to Shule. Again, the combination of a windowless basement, remnants of jet lag, no alarm clock, and good food and drink the night before conspired to make me late to Shule. I’ve never been one to come late to Shule; I abhor it! I have to admit that on this occasion when I arrived at 770 for the aufruf upstairs, I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself for being late. The Aufruf was upstairs in the Yechidus room; the room where I felt very comfortable, and I again met some wonderful Talmidei Chachomim, including Rav Michoel Seligsohn, with whom I discussed various issues, and stay in touch. He is a very quick to respond, and I appreciate his perspicacity and learning. I had wanted to meet R’ Chaim Serebryanski who davens downstairs, and asked someone to see if he was there, but learned later that he finishes his seder learning and davening, early.

As davening came to a close, I initiated the process of remembering where my overcoat and hat were placed and thank God, I was still on the ball and found them. This is another weakness of mine. I’m prone to losing things. To many this is trivial. For me, it’s a major challenge. I still got lost merely negotiating the upper floor.

As I picked up my hat, I noticed the venerable Rav Yoel Kahn שליט’’א giving a shiur in Chassidus to the Bochurim of Tomchei Temimim. I felt I should experience this, as he is considered the doyen. Unfortunately, a combination of his accent, and compromised health, meant that from the distance, there was little chance for me to understand what he was saying. I waited for a moment wherein nobody noticed, and quietly slipped out, not wishing to offend.

My good friend, the Gaon, Rav Shea Hecht also has Yohr Tzeit around this time after his father R’ Peretz, and we shared much of the previous year at Ohel Devora in Melbourne saying Kaddish for our fathers. I had heard that Reb Shea was “around” and wanted to say Good Shabbos to him before I headed off to Getzel’s Shule for the Kiddusha Rabba. Someone advised me that he was in “that room” on the right, just down the hallway, otherwise known as the Cheder Sheni. I popped my head in and saw Shea and he greeted me warmly. As is his ebullient way, he introduced me to a packed room of people in the middle of a Kiddush, packed on benches like sardines.

Suddenly a colourful character named “Pinto” began speaking in a loud and boisterous and voice, challenging aspects of my views on various matters with a smile. This didn’t bother me, of course. Pinto was clearly refreshed and in a happy mood. I like happy people, as long as they haven’t left their brains parked at home, or don’t have any to find.

The next thing I knew, I was “magically” propelled onto one of the benkalach among this group of what I now know to be seasoned kiddush machers. They were generally my age and older and were a jolly group  for whom opinion flowed with un-alarming alacrity. They insisted I should make Kiddush as this was the real Kiddush. Pleas that I needed to go to attend a Kiddush for a Simcha seemed to be irrelevant.

Nu, so you will go after this kiddush.

I didn’t think too much of it, as I have a well known penchant for a drink after davening (I don’t eat before Shacharis which can make this dangerous), so I sat down thinking I’d spend 15 minutes or so and then head over to Getzel’s Shule. I was asked if I wanted wine, and answered that my preference was to make kiddush over mashke every shabbos, in the self-same way I did with my father ע’ה each week, and since. I asked for Scotch, and discovered that this colour didn’t seem to figure in the room at the time. There was herring and all manner of good Kiddush food (farbaysen), but it became obvious that I had stumbled into a Russian-Style Kiddush where everyone quaffed white liquid. At one stage, when I was told

we have everything

I challenged by asking for Galeh (pecha) and in an instant it was in front of me, and was really good (although not as good as my wife’s cuisine, of course 🙂

I don’t dislike white liquid, but suggested that the cup they had given me was three times the Shiur of the Chazon Ish, let alone R’ Chaim Naeh, and a usual 80-100ml cup would be plenty. Plastic sufficed, I didn’t follow Poskim who held you needed a more substantial material for a cup. Immediately, a cup of appropriate size was placed in front of me, brimming with “lighter fluid”, and I made Kiddush.

On my right was a friendly person who engaged in conversation. I was to learn later from R’ Shea that I had engaged anyone who

tried me out

 

and held my own with dignity, giving back anything I was dealt. Much of the conversation was “Have you been to the Ohel”. I explained my general feeling of uncomfortableness and inadequacy at visiting places like that, but this only spurred the crowd (rabble?) on more,  in the sense that they stated

well if that’s how you feel, you davka are the type of person who should go.

I was to discover that the “Vodka” I had consumed a number of subsequent times included the famed “Zeks und Ninetziger”, otherwise known as rocket fuel. My Zeyda Yitzchok after whom I was named, drank Zeks und Ninetziger every Shabbos, and I knew the secret was to pour and not allow it to touch the extremeties of one’s mouth. My father used to mention this to me.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember the details of conversations.

As I was about to leave, the gentleman on my right said to me

Nu, what time tomorrow shall I pick you up to go to the Ohel.

I hadn’t even agreed to do so let alone committed to such after Rabbi Kotlarky’s talk on that topic. By that stage, I felt somewhat “worn down”, and his ehrlichkeit penetrated. Knowing that we had lots to do on Sunday (including catching a flight later to Montreal), I thought I’d say 7am sharp, and this would surely prove to be too early for my interlocutor. He asked me where I was staying, and promised he’d be there at 7am. I had no contact number, and at that stage didn’t even know his surname. I didn’t know whether he was serious or not, but he was rather heartzig (heartfelt) and earnest and seemed to ooze chesed (kindness), so I took him at face value.

As I found out later, he was married to a lady I saw on our first evening in Crown Heights and whom I mistook for our good friend in Melbourne. Her mode of speaking and voice are almost identical and I had met a few years prior in Melbourne on Chanuka.

We left the Kiddush, and he accompanied me. We spiralled into a number of Chabad homes, while people were eating their lunch, and of course “had” to have a L’Chayim and some Gefilte fish at each such place. My “Chavruso” didn’t leave my side and directed me to all places. As we walked in, he was always greeted very warmly with

Good Shabbos Moshe.

Everyone seemed to know him and warmed  to him, seemingly magnetically. Moshe was very kind, and looked after me (I would have been lost without him, having no spatial skills whatsoever. Eventually we both finally made it to Getzel’s Shule for the Kiddush). I sensed the host would would have liked me to have come earlier, and he was very right. I still managed a L’Chaim or two. Thankfully I had davened Mincha at 770 beforehand.

It was really only then, when others asked me “where have you been” and I responded that I had been with Moshe Rubashkin, that I retraced my steps. It didn’t interest me to ask why people said

oooh, with Moshe

as if I had been with the King of England.

I woke on time, and sure enough, Moshe was also there on time. I had my Tallis and Tefillin and didn’t know if we’d daven before or after the visit to the ציון of the Rebbes. On the way we spoke, and although he was rather Russian, and I was an Aussie academic whose מהות (soul) was still planted in Rawa Mazowiecka, Poland, we had a curiously common language and got on very well. He kept saying I was “funny”. I don’t know what that meant, but I assume it meant that I was somewhat more unpredictable with my responses than he was used to.

When we arrived at Montefiore Cemetery, I didn’t know what to expect. We walked through a front door, and were confronted by the video of a past Sicha on a big screen. Somewhat fortuitously, sitting to the right and behind  the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a light suit, was Reb Yisroel New (whom I knew, as a great-grandfather of the Chosson). The topic was “holidays”. and the LR was fulminating that there could not be a holiday from Torah and that he couldn’t understand how Mosdos would close down completely. I was on holiday, but I didn’t feel I had stopped my small engagement with Torah, so took his words in context. Moshe stood there and listened באימה, and I didn’t move until he moved on.

At every stage, everyone seemed to greet him with warmth, and I realised he was a real personality amongst the populace. We moved into a large room where minyanim were taking place (and apparently a Bar Mitzvah was being prepared for) and then suddenly I came to a door.

I opened the door and tentatively entered and was confronted by the scene of two stark Matzeyvos filled with mounds of torn paper. I physically recoiled backwards. This was my natural reaction as a Cohen. Although there was a mechitzah around the Kvorim, it was not natural for me to be so close, and my Cohanic instincts made me take two backward steps.

I had the Maaneh Loshon with me, and after staring at the graves and scrutinising the words, noting the slight difference in language, my mind wandered to the contribution and responsibility these two Rebbes had played in my life, overseeing and supervising the establishment of the School that I was to attend for 12 years. People around me were saying Tehillim, and one lady was weeping audibly. Rain was dripping on my hat and Moshe was saying Tehillim. I didn’t write any note, nor did I take off my shoes or knock at the door. I didn’t feel disrespectful.

Eventually I started saying the Maaneh Loshon, but the words were floating around on the page, and I can’t say that they were at one with my mind and thoughts. I subconsciously decided that silent contemplation with my eyes shut was appropriate. It required great concentration not to commune directly with the Rebbes. I concentrated on asking their Neshomos to join me in beseeching Hashem for various things relating to others. Only at the end, did I venture into a short matter about me. I’m not sure how long I was standing there for, but was to learn that Moshe went 2 or 3 times a week, and normally said the entire Tehillim. I felt a little guilty, when after some time I felt I had ended my experience and tentatively started to leave. Moshe compromised his usual timing and joined me immediately. This was something I learned later.

A minyan was just starting, and I recognised the Ba’al Tefilla from 770 upstairs but had never asked his name (he was a gingy). During davening my mind occasionally wandered back to that sombre scene, and I understood why Chassidim felt drawn to visit their Rebbe’s resting place. Again, there was so much

Hello Moshe, how are you

I was amazed at the “celebrity status”. He asked someone walking along the muddy path if they needed a lift, and we drove back. He had no airs or graces.

When we returned, we sat in the car and continued talking for what seemed ages. Finally, there was this knock on the window, and I saw my wife with her hands up in the air, saying

I’ve tried to contact you for hours. I had no idea what happened to you, we have to go to X, Y and Z

She wasn’t angry, but had that look of “knowing her husband” and my proclivities. She said,

I see you seem to have found a soul mate.

I responded that we had a natural affinity to each other and could have spoken for another two hours without a problem, even though externally we are chalk and cheese.

Later, people told me about amazing acts of Chesed that Moshe was doing for many people, and I was not surprised.

I asked him to apologise to his wife for keeping him out for that long and mentioned that I had met his sister-in-law on the street when we arrived. He said

that was actually my galicianer wife

It was only then that I realised that Moshe and his wife were actually the bookends of our visit to crown heights: His wife when we arrived and Moshe when we left.

On my return, I obtained Moshe’s number and sent him a proper thank you. Should I return to Crown Heights, I will definitely seek him out. He helped make my visit to the ציונים of the Rebbes less stressful and dignified, and without pressure to conform in any way.

ABC Trampling on the rights of Yeshivah Students

[received from various]

SIGN THE PETITION!

ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Remove video and photographic footage taken outside Yeshivah College for the use in Compass’ upcoming documentary ‘The Whistleblowers’ – Sign the Petition!

R’ Nochem Zalman Gurewicz ז’ל

 

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.

Reb Nochem Zalman Gurewicz ז’ל

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