By Yossi Toiv
(Country Yossi)

“Thunder rolled across the sky
the rain came down in torrents
and everybody wondered why
the rain came down in torrents . . .”

Country Yossi Toiv and
Rabbi Shmuel “Shmelkie” Brazil

My windshield wipers beat out a hypnotic rhythm as I drove down Rockaway Turnpike. I was heading to a cozy restaurant on Central Avenue where some 40 original talmidim of Reb Shlomo Freifeld’s Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv were gathering for a reunion to celebrate the 50th anniversary since we were chosen to partake in Reb Shlomo’s grand vision.

As the relentless rain flooded the roads, many thoughts and memories from a half-century ago flooded my mind as clear and as sharp as if they happened yesterday.

I recalled that day in the Chaim Berlin beis midrash, when R’ Shlomo, who was the menahel at the time, tapped me on the shoulder, told me he was opening his own yeshiva, and asked if I would be interested in attending.

He didn’t have to ask me twice!

Those first six months were pure bliss. Having R’ Shlomo’s full focus 24/7 was an attention-starved bachur’s dream come true. Sixteen handpicked guys crowded around an old wooden table in the original Agudah building on Balsam Court as R’ Shlomo began his first Mishnayos shiur. I can still recall it was Kol HaZvachim. He asked us to memorize them and I can still knock off a dozen today. (I can’t even remember my frequently used username and password!)

He had pet names for some of us that he used lovingly. One was “the Cincinnati kid,” another was “Turk.” He called me “the klugeh Litvak.” I’m not sure what he meant, but he always said it with a twinkle in his eye. He made learning fun and won us over with his sincerity, passion, and concern.

– - –

My reverie was interrupted.

The Or Chodosh: Country Yossi, R’ Shmelkie, Nachum Deutsch, and R’ Yussie Lieber.

I finally arrived at the front door of the restaurant and peered in. I was immediately taken aback by the sight of a rather thin, elderly-looking gray-haired man. He looked vaguely familiar and I wondered, nebach, which one of my old-time friends he was . . . until I realized I was looking into a mirror–it was me!

I entered the room and it was 1967 all over again. Familiar faces, familiar voices, familiar laughter. Some guys I hadn’t seen for close to 50 years! Imagine the initial shock of seeing long gray beards, wrinkles, and bald pates instead of the vibrant 18-year-old faces I remembered so fondly. We schmoozed, laughed, and reminisced and had a grand time doing it. Each one had an interesting life story to tell. There were triumphs and tragedies, successes and infirmities, losses and victories, but mostly it was reliving the good times and fond memories of our youth.

Then the program started.

A surprise guest speaker was R’ Shimon Susholtz, one of the original rebbeim in the yeshiva. His wise words of chizuk were as insightful and meaningful as ever.

My old roommate, noted rosh yeshiva R’ Shmelkie Brazil, composer of such classic songs as “Bilvavi,” “Shmelkie’s Niggun,” “Modeh Ani,” “Shalom Aleichem,” etc., gave a beautiful dvar Torah.

Between courses, we took turns sharing our private moments with Rebbe.

My good friend Yussie Lieber recounted how Rebbe bought a coffee cup with a realistic-looking frog pasted inside the bottom. On Shavuos night, as we were all staying up all night learning, Rebbe would send a cup of hot coffee to the newest bachur in the yeshiva. As he sipped it, we all watched and waited. Suddenly he took a sip and saw two eyes staring out at him. You can just picture what happened next. As we cleaned up the mess, Rebbe winked at him and said, “Welcome to Sh’or Yoshuv!”

He also recounted how before each yom tov, Rebbe would ask to be driven to Loehmann’s, where he would pick out two new outfits for his wife. He told Yussie to please stay in the car until he came out. He explained he couldn’t bear to have him see the “booshis ich darf leidin” until he found the right ones.

Another bachur told of the time Reb Shlomo went to the bank and the teller looked up at him in awe and said he was the tallest rabbi she had ever seen. Then she asked him to go upstairs because the vice-president wanted to speak to him. When he got up there, the man told him that his account was a little short. Rebbe smiled wryly and said, “It’s funny; down there I’m tall and up here I’m short!” Leave it to Rebbe to find the mussar haskel in every event.

Then it was time for the Or Chodosh reunion. R’ Shmelkie, Yussie Lieber (on guitar), Nachum Deutsch, and I sang together for the first time in 50 years! We sang Eileh Varechev, Bilvavi, and, by special request, Aleh Yidden. We sounded pretty good, considering there was no rehearsal, and I am toying with the idea of taking the show on the road! (For those curious, a video is posted online.)

It was an amazing evening of Torah, fun, laughter, nostalgia, and bittersweet memories as we remembered those of us who are no longer here. While our carefree days in the sun are in the past, let us pray that our einiklach have a yeshiva experience as rich and life-altering as we were privileged to enjoy.

And so it ended.

Forty lucky guys, 50 years later, each having charted his own unique course in life but all having been motivated and empowered by the far-reaching vision, profound wisdom, inspiring spirituality, and boundless love of one very special man.

“Thunder drowned my anguished cry

as the rain came down in torrents

but Reb Shlomo’s gone

and for me that’s why . . .

the rain came down in torrents.”

 

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