Life is so different here. As we park our car and walk a half-block to the edifice that houses one of the so-called minyan factories, we sense a specialness that is part of the routine. It is Thursday night and Shabbos is very much in evidence. It has not arrived on the calendar or the clock yet, but Shabbos is in the air.
I’m in Bnai Brak standing on the corner of Rechov Rabbi Akiva and Rechov Rashi. It occurs, as we wait for the traffic light to change, that these are not just street names but rather the personalities that express an essence and a history of the people of Israel — including those darting hurriedly back and forth on the streets on this night looking for the right price on fish and, of course, fresh challah.
Just about an hour prior, we made one of our regularly unscheduled trips to Rechov Rashbam and the residence of the leading sage of our time and age, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. These visits came to fruition by chance, but not by coincidence, about 15 years ago.
Back then, we just wanted to daven k’Vasikin, with the sunrise, in the Lederman shul, an iconic station in this city and where Rav Chaim davened most mornings back in those days. The word was that if we could daven with that minyan, we might have a chance to spend a few seconds with Rav Chaim and receive a berachah.
In those days, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky was active with her own program, which also served as the inspiration and catalyst for launching the recitation of berachos and davening each morning at women’s groups around the world, including those here in the New York area.
That morning as we davened Shacharis with Rav Chaim, we were novices and did not realize that on most mornings — in those days anyway — he is usually quickly ushered out of the shul to attend a nearby bris milah where he customarily served as sandek.
As we stood bewildered in the Bnei Brak shul, with Rav Chaim quickly leaving, unbeknownst to us our future bond was being forged outside on the streets near the shul.
You see, the young man who picked us up early in Jerusalem was idling his van outside in the cool wintry rain while we davened inside the Lederman shul. When we finally emerged from the shul, there was the large white van off to the right with a man leaning inside the window, inquiring of the driver, Elyakam, what he was doing there.
Lo and behold, that is when I met Rav Matisyahu Lessman. Many of you might know him from his visits to the Five Towns and surrounding areas where you can find him several times a year working to generate funding for his Kollel Ameilei Torah in Bnei Brak. Fortunately, the van was parked in front of the building he and his family live in. That day he invited me, my wife, and our children up to his apartment on Rashbam Street, and now all these years later, after our sit-down with Rav Chaim, we always stop at that apartment for a cup of coffee and a schmooze.
Last Thursday afternoon, there were a few things going on at that usually busy corner on Rashbam. The sun was setting and people were racing into shuls for Minchah. Unlike in Jerusalem where the temperature hovered at about 50 degrees, my phone said that here in Bnei Brak it was a very mild 72 degrees.
Women were beginning to gather on the street, awaiting the arrival of Rav Chaim’s daughter, Rebbetzin Leah Kolodetzky, who is mafrish challah every Thursday evening as a preparatory act for the arrival of Shabbos. The gathering usually draws as many as 500 women, and this week’s session was not any different. Prior to actually “taking the challah,” the rebbetzin addresses the women on any number of subjects.
I was not allowed entry into the pre-challah event, but I was told that part of her 20-minute address was on the topic of the length of sheitels and how the women in Bnei Brak should not emulate the custom that is taking hold in the United States with women wearing long sheitels.
This is not the time or place to pontificate on the essence of the message on the length of sheitel hair, as the purview of this writer does not extend in that direction, but I guess we all know what she was driving at.
As the women’s session was getting started, I was just coming out of a brief encounter with Rav Chaim. This time, along with Rabbi Lessman I was there with my two 12-year-old grandsons. As you can see pictured here, I was sitting to Rav Kanievsky’s right, Rav Lessman stood next to him, and the two boys stood between us.
Rav Chaim was studying Masechta Zevachim when we walked in, with a folded sheet of white paper being used as an indicator of sorts, revealing which line of the Gemara he was studying at that moment. Rav Lessman began speaking to him, but Rav Chaim kept his eyes on the page of Talmud until he heard the boys’ names. He then looked up and over at them and gave both of them berachos.
We left the names of all the family members, which he seemed to be momentarily scanning, on Rav Chaim’s study table. We left after about ten minutes, part of which time we were just sitting there and watching him learn. The rather nondescript room lined with bookshelves full of worn sefarim is an austere place. In a sense, I suppose you can say that its simplicity is part of its greatness.
Afterward, we stood outside the Lederman shul on a balmy early evening waiting for the women to leave their session with the Rebbetzin. We then drove over a few blocks to the Itzkowitz shul where there are minyanim around the clock, and that is where we davened Ma’ariv.
Since it was Thursday night, many of the food stores were selling and serving cholent and kugel. If ever there was an appropriate venue for these dishes this was it.
We also wanted to show the kids traveling with us the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. We had hoped to go there mid-week because that’s when it is not so crowded. As it happened that did not work out, and we ended up there at the busiest time on Friday — mid-morning. This is the most exciting time to visit and shop in the market. It was so crowded that we could only take small steps as we navigated our way through this Jerusalem shopper’s paradise. Yes, we bought a few things for Shabbos just to have them, most of which we did not end up eating anyway. The kids bought bags of candy to take home to their siblings.
On the morning of the trip to Bnei Brak we first visited Hebron, which I will tell you about next week. In the meantime, Friday at this time of year is a short day so we had to get moving, because this time it really was almost Shabbos.