By Yochanan Gordon
If you’ve been following this newspaper over the last couple of weeks you may have noted that this is a particularly yahrzeit-heavy time of year for our family. Just two weeks ago we observed the yahrzeit of our dear Moshe Hirsch, and I reflected, within my allotted column space, on my perception of who he was and the great legacy he left during his short sojourn on this earth.
Last week, in one of his columns, my father reflected on the four years since the passing of his mother, my grandmother, Sora Roza bas Reb Aharon. So at some point toward the end of last week it occurred to me that the yahrzeit of our maternal grandfather was upon us, and, having never used this space to commemorate his life, I resolved that this would be the appropriate time to do that.
My father mentioned last week (and a number of times over the past few years) about the seeming incongruity in the manner in which some of the life cycle events were situated. Indeed, the wedding of my brother Nison and his wife, Shayna, was sandwiched between the passing of our paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather. It was a surreal couple of weeks. I distinctly remember the Misaskim crew coming to pick up the chairs, Siddurim, and aron kodesh at the conclusion of the shivah for my grandmother and informing them that we’d need it for another week to observe the shivah for my maternal grandfather.
It has been expressed—and we certainly thought and felt it initially—that there was something about the way all this occurred that just felt out of sequence. Watching my father march my brother down to the chuppah on the fourth day of shivah, we were experiencing the loss of Jerusalem at the height of our simcha without even having to sing the words—which I believe they did anyway. So before I reflect on the life of my Zaide, Reb Aharon Tzvi ben Reb Moshe Asher, I wanted to reflect on the uniqueness of the manner in which all these events played out.
The Yismach Moshe, who was the progenitor of what would later become known as the Satmar Chassidus, was so deeply affected by the notion of churban HaBayis and galus HaShechinah that he felt it very difficult to be able to fill his heart with joy. He once entered into the court of his Rebbe, the Chozeh of Lublin, and his Rebbe, seeing that his student had trouble balancing these two seemingly oppositional emotions, cited a famous passage in the Zohar: “Joy wedged into the heart on this side and sadness wedged into the heart from this side.” What the Zohar is teaching and what the Chozeh was imparting to his student is that the coexistence of sadness and joy is germane to the life of a Jew in exile. They are not contradictions, and although they may temper each other, it is important for us to be able to balance the two simultaneously.
Unfortunately, sadness and destruction was very much a part of the reality that my maternal grandparents grew up with. Although my grandfather was not affected by the war in the same manner that my grandmother was, still, his yeshiva, Beis Yosef, under the tutelage of the famed Rav Avraham Jaffen, was exiled from Bialystok to Siberia, where my grandfather lived for about four years before escaping towards the end of the war. He made his way to France where he ultimately met my grandmother, his distant cousin, orphaned from both her parents, and the two shortly thereafter married and became the progenitors of beautiful families in the U.S. and in Israel.
My zaide was born on November 20, 1920 to his parents, Moshe Asher and Esther Nudell, in the Polish town of Tishevitz. He was the sole surviving member of his immediate family, with the exception of an uncle who made it to Eretz Yisrael, where he lived in Kibbutz Ayn Carmel for many years until his passing. Although he would later adapt to the traditions of the yeshiva in which he learned, his parents led a Chassidic home, followers of the Chernobyl Chassidic dynasty. Interestingly, the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Ger, spent three weeks during the summers in Tishevitz where my zaide as a young boy would participate in his tischen, arriving early in order to get a seat as close to the Rebbe as possible, which was an experience that he said remained with him throughout his life.
In fact, at my sister Malkie’s l’chaim about 15 years ago, my grandfather told me about a six-year correspondence that he maintained with the Frierdiker Lubavitcher Rebbe that he had to bury and leave behind lest the Russians discover it, which would have placed him in a position of peril. The letters that he had written to the Rebbe, he said, were centered on the distinctions between the paths of Mussar and Chassidus—a topic that particularly interested me at the time, having balanced a Chabad pedigree with enrollment in Litvisher institutions of learning.
At 12 years of age, he was the youngest student to be accepted into the Beis Yosef yeshiva. I heard during the shivah that the people of his hometown pooled their money in order to pay his tuition as he had a reputation as a prodigy even at that young age. In order to gain acceptance into the yeshiva he prepared the first perek in Masechta Kiddushin—Gemara, Rashi, Tosafos, and Maharsha ba’al peh. Rav Aharon Kotler had heard about my zaide and tried attracting him to join his yeshiva in Slutzk, but my Zaide had to decline, having already committed to Rav Jaffen at the Beis Yosef Yeshiva.
My zaide was an introspective person of very few words. His whole life revolved around mesirus nefesh, Torah, and gedolei Yisrael, all of which would generate this childlike excitement that would make his heart pulsate and his body jump. He spoke so little about the hardships that would color his and, yibadlu bein chaim l’chaim, my grandmother’s life. Like many people who lived through the terror and tyranny of those times, although it wasn’t possible to forget, he really had no interest in actively bringing it back within his realm of consciousness if he didn’t have to.
His life was dedicated to fulfilling the ratzon Hashem in its most genuine form and he eschewed attention and notoriety like the plague. His love for Torah and those who taught him Torah was so great that he was prepared to give his life for them and almost did a number of times. During the years that the Beis Yosef Yeshiva was exiled in Siberia, anyone who would not complete the work that was given to them would not be given any food to eat on that day.
With Pesach upon us, it is known that the tribe of Levi was absolved of the labor that the Jews in Mitzrayim had to endure. In Siberia, nobody was that lucky; even the roshei yeshiva were responsible to work. However, it was unconscionable to my grandfather that his rebbe, Rabbi Nekritz, should work. They didn’t care who did the work as long as it got done. So my zaide, who had to literally chop trees and use the wood for all sorts of tasks, endured a double or perhaps even triple workload to spare his rebbe and children the humiliation and risk to life that the work and malnutrition would have undoubtedly caused.
Rabbi Nekritz was a son-in-law of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Avraham Jaffen. He and his wife had two daughters, one of whom is Rebbetzin Shani Perr, the wife of Rav Yechiel Perr, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Derech Ayson in Far Rockaway. Tangentially, “Ayson” is an acronym of Avraham Yaffen Talmid Novardok. Rebbetzin Perr’s sister is the mother of Rav Nissan Kaplan, who is one of the roshei yeshiva in the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. In my conversation with Rabbi Perr, the rosh yeshiva told me that his wife was a baby of just one-and-a-half years of age, and her sister, the mother of Rav Kaplan, was three years of age when the yeshiva was exiled in Siberia.
Just to give you a sense of the abject poverty that existed during those times, Rav Perr related that his mother-in-law had crocheted a tablecloth that they used for many years for Shabbos. At the time, they pawned the tablecloth for six potatoes, small enough to be used for karpas at the Pesach Seder. A short time later, the husband of the woman to whom they had traded the tablecloth returned, asking for the potatoes back.
This story will serve as context to the following episode in which my zaide, who worked daily to earn a ration of bread, gave away the bread that he had earned so that Rebbetzin Perr and her sister would have what to eat on a daily basis. I asked Rebbetzin Perr if this was a one-time occurrence or of a recurring nature, and she confirmed that he did this as often as he was able to get ahold of the bread. As a result of the self-sacrifice that my grandfather exhibited on their behalf, Rav Nissan Kaplan visited family both in Israel and in Chicago in order to pay his last respects to my grandfather as an expression of gratitude for most probably saving the lives of these two young children.
These stories have been safeguarded within our family for quite some time. My grandfather, like I wrote earlier, was a simple, unpretentious person who tried at all costs to avoid the limelight and, therefore, although the anecdotes were known they were not particularly discussed.
The only thing that truly mattered to my zaide was learning Torah, the mesorah of Torah, and that his children and grandchildren follow in the path that he paved, literally, through blood, sweat, and tears. As such, my grandfather considered it a privilege to be able to play an integral part in our upbringing, learning with us as kids when we’d visit his house in Boro Park, or he would visit ours, first in Flatbush and later in the Five Towns. However, even today, I recall my restless and easily distracted young self, interested in just about anything other than sitting beside my grandfather who only wanted to impart to me the words and wisdom that he received from his father and a long, illustrious line of teachers.
He would often tell me of the time that he spent alongside the Steipler Gaon in Bialystok, or the time that Rav Dessler visited his yeshiva to give a shiur. But the memory that perhaps left the greatest impact upon him was the time that he visited Vilna for a Shabbos as a sixteen-year-old bachur and Rav Chaim Ozer gave him an affectionate pinch on his cheek. You could sense, as he was retelling this story, that he could feel the pinch on his cheek at that very moment, decades later. If I remember correctly, the encounter with Rav Chaim Ozer occurred at an advanced stage in the Dayan from Vilna’s life, at a time when he was battling an illness. My zaide recalls Rav Chaim Ozer giving a kvittel at the time to a much younger Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, who would later go on to become the chief rabbi of Montreal.
With maturity, I overcame the restlessness that would compel me to flee from him every time he would seek to sit with me and review what I was learning in yeshiva. I began to understand how privileged I was to have a grandfather who spent years immersed in Torah that he learned through extreme dochek and mesirus nefesh under the towering shadows of these world-class personalities, and I tried as best as I could to avail myself of the impact that these great leaders and teachers left on his life. As I grew into my teenage years and even young twenties we’d sit for hours on end—he would learn Gemara with me and I would study a Chassidic discourse with him. These are memories that will surely stick with me for the rest of my life.
My father discovered a letter that must have been unearthed in the recent move of my grandmother to her new apartment. I had written to my zaide back in 2006 during my kollel year living in Waterbury, CT. I wrote to express my gratitude to him for all the time we learned together, for his relentlessness during my young formative years, and for not giving up on me when it seemed that I was not interested. In the letter, I lamented the physical space that divided us, resulting in our inability to visit each other as frequently as we had in the past, and I concluded it with my own novel thoughts, which I attributed to the great efforts that he expended on my behalf all those years ago.
As I held that letter once again and read through it, it raised the thought of how history repeats itself, with our own children running away from their maternal grandfather who seeks more than anything else to spend his time learning with them, giving them the tools necessary to excel in yeshiva in these most crucial years of their lives.
On an almost-nightly basis, my father-in-law calls my kids or asks that they call him in order to review the Gemara of that day and to prepare for the bechinahs that they are given on a weekly basis. While they ultimately do sit down to learn, it is often accompanied by a round of complaints and protests, which brings me back to the days of my youth when I did the same thing. I look at them with a sense of understanding compassion, relating to the struggles that they are experiencing but at the same time hoping that the day will come when they, too, will look back and realize the great privilege they were afforded in having grandparents who love nothing more than being able to impart to them the timeless wisdom from people who had to walk a similar path of self-sacrifice to ultimately becoming who they became.
As I write these words on the second day in the month of Nissan, just shy of two weeks before the yom tov of Pesach, which is designed to engender multigenerational conversation, there is no timelier message in preparation for this holiday of redemption. There is nothing that Pharaoh wanted more than to separate the old and new generations because he understood that was the key to Jewish continuity.
May the neshamah of R’ Aharon Tzvi ben R’ Moshe Asher serve as an intercessor on behalf of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and all of Klal Yisrael, and may we all merit to be redeemed yet again in this month of redemption.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.