“Ah Vort is Ah Vort”

Rosenzweig Family 1914

Anyone who ever invited Reb Shlomo (ZTz”L) to a gathering, concert, retreat or any other event knows that Reb Shlomo was almost always late. Shlomo lived in a different time zone than the rest of the world and in his world – Shlomo was always on time. This battle of the time zones was often annoying for many people, but Shlomo wouldn’t let anything add to his stress level, no matter what time was advertised, as far as Shlomo was concerned, it always started when it was supposed to start.

On Selichot night 1970 at the Khan theatre in Jerusalem and in the middle of his concert, Shlomo performed a Tena’im ceremony declaring my intentions to marry my dear wife Kathy (A”L). The night was magical, all our friends and some family were in attendance at the Khan and Shlomo was as always extraordinary. After joining Shlomo for Selichot prayers we all gathered at someone’s home for study and singing and as a couple we met with Shlomo regarding our wedding plans.

Shlomo informed us that he would next be in Israel in December for a series of Chanukah concerts and that the first night of Chanukah was free for the wedding. So it was settled. We would get married on the first night of Chanukah on Mt. Zion in the inner courtyard facing the entrance to King David’s tomb and our teacher and friend Reb Shlomo Carlebach would perform the ceremony.

Our parents wanted us to marry in North America. However, we were experiencing and participating in a Jewish renaissance in Jerusalem and wanted nothing to hamper the “moment.” We planned for a small wedding (knowing that this would change the moment word got out that Shlomo was going to be there) and arranged with friends to prepare food for one hundred people.

When our parents arrived the day before the wedding they were appalled that everything was so informal. We wanted to emphasize the Ruchani’ut – the ceremony and the spiritual aspects of the wedding, they wanted the “Gashmi’ut – the material emphasis” to be reflected in the hall, the food and the comfort available to the guests. We decided to the leave the Gashmi’ut to our parents so as to avoid any conflict.

The day of the wedding arrived. It was the custom at the Mt. Zion Yeshivat HaTefutzot that the Chatan (groom) would spend the day in meditation with his Shomrim (guards). We would pray Mincha at the Cave of Machpelah (burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs) in Chevron, go for a Shvitz at the Turkish baths and then proceed to the Chupah.

It was a brisk December evening and I had retired to a private area with my Shomrim. Guests were arriving. Kathy was setup for the Badeking and receiving guests in the small chapel near King David’s Tomb. The wedding was supposed to begin at 4:30 pm and Shlomo had not yet arrived. Time was ticking down and my parents were getting very antsy and kept inquiring when we would begin and I kept replying, “Shlomo’s plane is late and we’ll start when Shlomo gets here.” This went on for a few hours until my father came and “emphasized” that my mother’s family were elderly and very cold and we needed to begin immediately. I tried explaining to him that we couldn’t begin until Shlomo arrived, but to no avail. Finally, I agreed to begin the wedding at 7:30 pm. My father looked me in the eye and said in Yiddish that now I was becoming a man and “Ah Vort is ah Vort – a word (oath) was a word.” At 7:30 we began the procession from the Yeshiva area to the Badeking area when six or seven tour buses arrived. Shlomo hopped off one of the buses and came over to me and said that he was sorry but his plane was delayed and also that he had invited everyone on the plane to join us for the Chupah.

My father saw that I arrived promptly to the Badeking ceremony and said with a twinkle in his eye “Ah Vort is ah Vort.” Shlomo did a superb Chupah, my parents were delighted, and Kathy and I lived happily together for 27 years and brought up 5 children on 3 continents. I’ve gone through many different challenges and have concluded that Shlomo was correct, things happen when they are supposed to.

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120814 – The 1st Yahrtzeit of My Mother

Mom & Ida Mechanic planning a community event

Tomorrow, August 14th will be the first anniversary (in the secular solar calendar) of my mother Helen Rosenzweig’s death. Mom was a woman who came from a Jewish world that was lost to most of us who grew up in the post-WW2 era. She grew up in a family about whom stories and legends were written about and yet she wore her humility with dignity and grace. Like her maternal grandfather who provided Shaleh Shudis (the third Shabbos meal) for the poor of Sighet. The Zemiros – Shabbos songs were so beautiful that gypsies would sit outside the dining room window and listen to the singing. His hospitality was so great that the community insisted on burying him in a coffin made out of planks taken from his dining room table.

My mother was born in 1916 in the Transylvanian mountain village of Visu, affectionately known as “the Vishuvis.” Her Shmu’el father was a Kohen and the local butcher. Her mother Gitel came from an esteemed family from the city of Sighet, but she died young and the 5 daughters of the family took up her duties. My mother was taught to cook and to sew, eventually becoming a professional seamstress, but her cooking and baking made her legendary to her family, friends, community, even the friends of her children.

Though Romania entered the war in 1944, she, her father, three sisters and two cousins were transported to Auschwitz where her father and one sister perished. On a death march to another camp, refugees from Dresden passed by on the same road. My mother heard some refugee women speaking Hungarian and she signaled to the two sisters and her two cousins to inch over to the middle of the roadway and when they practically rubbed shoulders with the refugees, they all did an about-face and blended in quickly with the other refugee women.

Eventually, my mother a sister and a brother ended up in a DP camp in Weissenhopf, Austria, outside of Innsbruck where she met my father Jacob. They soon married to start life over again and nine months later I was born in the camp. When I was 2 years old, my parents immigrated to Canada and for a short time resided in Hamilton, Ontario where my brother Harry was born, eventually moving to Windsor, Ontario where my 2 sisters Grace and Ruthy were born.

Like other holocaust survivors who lost entire families or who were separated from them, my parents gravitated to other survivor families who shared similar backgrounds and whose Jewish lives tended towards traditional practices. We had no family in Windsor, but we shared times of joy and sorrow with other survivor families eventually integrating into the general Jewish community.

Our first Shul was the Tifferes Israel or more commonly known as the “East-Windsor Shul.” I remember the weekly Shabbos and Yom Tov services very well but when we moved to Dougall Ave. we inevitably joined the Sha’ar Hashomayim. While there was still a social barrier between the ‘greeners” and the “gailers” (the recent green immigrants and the older more faded yellow immigrants), life at the Shaar became a focal point of our lives.

My father’s day was split between his work and his participation in community service: the daily Minyan; general upkeep of the synagogue property; and the Chevra Kaddisha among others activities. My mother, while raising a family was active in the Shaar sisterhood, Mizrachi women and Hadassah WIZO, although her real strengths were in the kitchen. My mother created a home where hospitality and graciousness were a regular experience. Our home was the address for travellers, people in need and members of the community. I remember many Passover Seders with 10 -15 non-family members in attendance. I remember our Sukkah always filled with guests enjoying the décor and the atmosphere of the festival. And she would add a song that was sung in her home or a story about her life that always fascinated us. Beyond the camaraderie and the joy of celebration there was one common denominator that drew so many people to our home and that was mom’s cooking.

My mother’s home made dishes were always outstanding. Her plain old roasted chicken was unique, her nokolach were superb, her Cholent was delicious, and her rogoh kumpli was absolutely unbelievable. Mom’s culinary expertise did not end there, her baking was famous. All the amazing baked goods that she made were mouth-watering but the only regret is that while we learned many of her recipes, so many of them are lost to us because she never measured or worked from a recipe. I once asked her to teach me to make Kishka. Mom showed me how to mix the ingredients together all the while kneading them with a mixture of water and oil. I was perplexed at getting the proportions of the two liquids and asked her, “How do I know when the Kishka is properly mixed?” She looked at me with a smile and said, “When it feels like a baby’s tuchas, you’ll have it right.

When my father organized the weekly after service Kiddush, my mother and her “Hungarian Mafia” (this was a play on words because Ma’afia means bakery in Hebrew) made coming to Shul a delight.

Last year, my mother passed from this world on the 14th of Av, the day before Tu B’Av – the 15th of Av – the Jewish love day. She was a woman who was filled with love, undamaged by one of the most horrific events in Jewish history, but a woman who loved her husband, her children, her grand and great grandchildren, she loved her community, her people and a brought a world and a culture that has virtually disappeared, to the hearts of all who met her.

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120627 – Inspiration Comes In The Strangest Places

Having just returned home from weeks of rehab, with more out-patient rehab in the future, I have been pondering my experiences and needed to get it down on paper. I have always considered myself an “open minded” person. During the course of my life I have met many Jews and Gentiles of different persuasions and have tried to model myself after a great mentor – Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ZTz”L, who loved everybody from every religion and strata of life that he ever met. I couldn’t be further from that level.

Being in a Canadian rehab hospital, that benefits everyone regardless of financial ability, I got to meet all kinds of people including those from the lower income population of society. While I thought myself open to all people, I began to realize that I had prejudices about them. In my unconscious mind they were white trash. I believed that they were crass and uncultured; they appeared to not care for themselves or anyone else. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Frank is a blind stroke victim who lives in the city and comes to the rehab hospital three times a week for out-patients therapy and is about 50 years old. Instead of spend one to two hours for each session, he and his wife Sharon always arrive at 10:00 AM and stay to 3:00 PM. Frank is tattooed all over his body, he has hair down to his waist and is a former “biker.” The two of them chat with the patients who spend long hours outside the building, some smokers and some just getting away from the sterile hospital environment. They enter the hospital and go around to different rooms and encourage bed-ridden and severely disabled patients that there is hope and through hard work, anything is possible. They act as a conduit to the outside world for many patients who are not mobile and who rarely receive family visits. They shop for them, do banking for them and act as if each patient is family. They are true Tzaddikim (righteous ones).

Albert is a sixty-five year old (though he doesn’t look younger than eighty) who comes to visit his daughter Mary every day. Albert is immobile he also had a stroke a few years back and rides around on a red scooter. He is paralyzed on his right side and has a severe speech impediment. He’s a jokester and keeps Mary and the rest of us laughing.

Mary has been a patient for seven and a half months and will soon move into low-income handicapped housing. She is toothless, crass (I once heard her say to her son, “Take your dick out of your mouth) and doesn’t take care of herself. She’s the bank, or rather the ITM machine. She lends money (interest free) to patients who run out of funds until a family member or friends can bring in some cash. She’s been burned by some but would rather help out and lose a few dollars than silently watch someone not be able to buy a coffee or a snack during the day.

Sue is another person entirely. She’s 62 years old and when I first met her she had been in the hospital for a year and a half with an ailment in her legs that make it hard to walk. She’s full of self-pity and always complaining about anything and everything. She’s tolerated by most even when she appears to push them away. She became my project and in just a few weeks she began smiling and acting positively towards her fellow patients. She’s still a liar and unreliable but she is beginning to see the good in others and her need to literally pick herself up and bring about her own recovery.

AJ is a 35 year old Jamaican leg amputee (almost to his groin) who will never walk unaided and is a most talented wanna be rapper and spends most of his day sitting outside smoking dope. On a number of occasions I asked him to sing some of his compositions and he shyly refused. One evening I convinced him to let me hear some of his work after revealing to him that I was also a musician. I found him to be a very spiritual man whose poetry is amazing, very syncopated and extremely articulate. He first sang me a piece called “God’s Love” and his universal message show’s true sensitivity and sophistication. He has enough material to come out with a CD but doesn’t have enough confidence to expose himself to the music scene. Though I encouraged him by my genuine enthusiasm (he can’t believe that a Jewish white boy could be accepting of his music), he still wants to be discovered but is afraid to take the first step in exposing himself to such an endeavor.

Now Mike is another case. He’s an affluent, articulate individual who came into rehab because his spine was severed during an operation on his back. He was in the plastics industry and invented the pool-noodle, a long foam tube used by weak swimmers and often seen in swimming pools and therapy facilities. He marketed his invention around the world and became a millionaire. Mike was in the room next to me and we spent a lot of time together discussing life, people and the human spirit. He is coping with his disability and spends a lot of time doing research for his lawyer in an upcoming lawsuit against his former surgeon and the hospital. Like me, Mike spends a lot of time outside, encouraging other patients even though he himself will probably not get better.

One day between therapy exercises, I looked around at the various patients in this large physio-therapy room: one person was a stroke victim learning to walk; another had a heart condition and was building enough strength to function outside the facility; there were many amputees with different prosthetics undergoing therapy to make use of their disabled limbs; others were being encourage by the staff just to try a little harder and gain the confidence to go on; each of the 20 or so patients had his own therapist aiding and encouraging them to take that extra step. As I sat there I realized that I was living in a country that made all this possible for people who would never be able to afford this type of treatment in such a modern and well equipped facility.

Between the patients and the staff I met people who I never had had contact with in my insular Jewish world. I found out that many of the people who I previously and unconsciously looked down upon were in fact men and women of integrity and who were caring of their fellow man. One day I too, will walk again, I just hope that I can keep the spirit of Reb Shlomo alive and love my fellow man without boundaries.

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The 14th Yahrtzeit of My Father

Today is my father Jacob (Ya’akov ben Yosef V’Mari’om) Rosenzweig’s 14th Yahrtzeit. He was a very unique man who lived Bitochon (steadfastness) in HaShem. Though he rarely praised us directly, he always directed love and respect to us just the same. I would like to relate two incidents we had together that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Growing up in Windsor, Ontario I went to Yeshivah Beth Yehudah in Detroit. My 7th grade Rebbi was Jerry Werner and he assigned a certain classmate who I didn’t get along with as my Chavrusa (study partner). During the first few weeks of the term, every day I begged Rabbi Werner to change my Chavrusa and every day he refused. One day in frustration after he again refused my request, I said, “but Rebbi he’s retarded.” Rabbi Werner appalled at my outburst smacked me in the face and not thinking I smacked him right back. I was immediately sent to the principal’s office and was suspended from Yeshivah until my father would come to the Yeshivah.

Living in Windsor, getting my father to Detroit was a big deal since he hadn’t yet gotten his driver’s license. I remember us walking down the hall of the Yeshivah after our meeting with the principal and he said to me, “Du host mir basheimpt – you’ve shamed me.” Totally embarrassed I looked up at him and saw a tear fall from his eye, I was totally humiliated for causing the “strongest man in the world” to cry, it was a pain that has never left me.

Thirty-five years later, I was the Rabbi in my hometown synagogue, the Sha’ar HaShamayim (from December 1989 – June 1996). Every day between Mincha and Ma’ariv (afternoon and evening prayers) I would teach a few laws from the Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law, this day we were studying the laws of the festival of Purim.

One of the worshipers asked me a question about the purpose of certain Mitzvot that we observe and I entered into quite a lengthy explanation to his satisfaction. After the evening service ended, I usually drove my father home. As we were walking down the hallway, my father took hold of my hand and said, “Du host em ge’enfirt vie a chochom – you answered him wisely.” It was the first time he praised me directly and I felt like I had atoned for the shame I had brought him so many years past.

His memory lingers with me daily though I feel he is still looking over my shoulder. “Thei Nishmato Baruch – may his soul be blessed.

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120329 – Eliyahu HaNavi

My father on the extreme right

Pesach is almost upon us. My family always tell a story towards the end of the Passover Seder, when we open the door for Eliyahu HaNavi – Elijah the prophet. This story’s focus is about a personal and miraculous encounter with the prophet Eliyahu.

A few years back my brother Harry found the records of my father Jacob Rosenzweig A”H from the Auschwitz concentration camp (inmate number 50314, who was incarcerated on July 19, 1942 and freed in May, 1945. He was a jobnick -German for worker – who worked distributing food to the barracks that housed Jewish inmates.). My father’s experience there was guided by his absolute Bitachon – trust in God. He related a number of miraculous and amazing stories that happened to him during the holocaust and I would like to tell one about how his life was saved by Eliyahu HaNavi.

In the summer of 1944, there were too many workers in the camp population. It was decided to exterminate a certain number of them by having them appear before the infamous butcher Dr. Josef Mengele. On a given morning, the inmates were to line up before a platform and stand naked before Mengele. They would approach him in single file and he would signal with his hand to either go to the left towards the gas chambers or to the right and return to the camp.

When my father’s turn came, Mengele pointed towards the left, to certain death. Suddenly, a colonel in the SS jumped up onto the platform and told Mengele that this Jew was his personal secretary and should be immediately released. Mengele with proud authority told him to find a new secretary.

The colonel replied that a very important mission was given to him by Hitler himself and this Jew had all the classified information in his head and couldn’t be replaced. Again Mengele refused to release my father. An argument ensued between the colonel and Mengele over who had jurisdiction over this Jew. Finally, the colonel won out and Mengele announced to the colonel, “take that Jewish swine away from here.” My father was released and the colonel grabbed my father by the neck and shoved him down the ramp.

My father told us that never before that encounter with certain death did he ever see that colonel and never afterwards did he ever see him again. As far as he was concerned, the colonel was Eliyahu HaNavi, who according to Jewish lore appeared at times in disguise to save Jews.

Was he actually Eliyahu HaNavi? We’ll never know, but my father’s Bitachon was not only strengthened, but his experience was a sign for him to do great things for the Jewish inmates. He made sure that children arriving in the camp had proper shoes and hats in order not to get sick – which was a death sentence in Auschwitz. He was part of the camp’s underground and because he moved freely around the camp, would smuggle armaments from disabled military vehicles that were brought to Auschwitz for spare parts. Towards the end of their stay, two crematoriums were bombed and the death of many Jews was impeded because of the bombing. He was able to provide additional food to many sick inmates.

He even celebrated Chanukah by skimming and collecting the fat off his meager portions of soup. On Chanukah a few inmates poured tiny amounts of oil into a makeshift candle hollowed out of a carrot. This of course was forbidden and an automatic death sentence was decreed and carried out by the guards if anyone was discovered lighting candles during Chanukah. One evening after lighting their makeshift candle, while reciting the blessing, a Nazi guard entered the barracks and stood directly in front of them and the lit candle. For some unfathomable reason he wasn’t able to see the flame. He stood right in front of the burning candle and told them to stop singing. Again, a miraculous event saved his life and inspired the lives of those around him.

Over the years I have spoken to survivors who verified these stories. At various Bar Mitzvot celebrations and weddings, out of town guests would come over to my father and overcome with emotion, would tell us how my father had given them an extra loaf of bread, a word of encouragement or just the inspiration to survive another day.

In 1983, my mother called us from Canada and told us that she had made an appointment with a man we should meet. This man was a spokesman for Israel Bonds, who traveled the world speaking of his unique experiences with Mengele in Auschwitz who had done sadistic experiments on groups of Jewish twins. My brother Harry, my sister Gracie and I met one of the twins in the Holyland Hotel in Jerusalem (if I remember correctly his name was Mark Berkowitz). Berkowitz had recently been a keynote speaker in Windsor and had presented my father with an award as an outstanding contributor to Israel Bonds and the local Jewish community.

Being observant of Kashrut and Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) he spent the Shabbat before the Sunday event in my parent’s home. He told us that though he was a boy and my father a grown man when he arrived in Auschwitz, he recognized my father as someone who helped arriving children to survive their horrific ordeal. He told us that whenever he spoke he would start his talk with a story about his arrival and of an encounter with an anonymous Jew he called “Der Giteh Yid” (the good Jew). Over that Shabbat, while discussing their experiences, he recognized my father as this “Giteh Yid.”

Like survivors of Auschwitz and other camps, many Jews were delivered from slavery from Egypt and complained and showed a lack of faith in God and in His servant Moshe. Then and now, it took a very special people to rise above their horrific experiences and see God’s master plan. We observe the commandments and rituals of Pesach in honor of our ancestors who had that Bitachon and could see His miracles during such profound darkness. How blessed my family is to have had a personal relationship with such a “Giteh Yid.”

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Hans and Franz

Originally published September 13, 2010 

"Before and After"Sometime in the mid 1990’s my parents, my wife Kathy, me and a few of the kids were sitting around the kitchen table in Windsor, Ontario and grumbling over some forgotten subject. Kathy said: “It’s the worst thing that could possibly have happened.”

My father, a holocaust survivor, looked up at us and said, “Never say that, you never know what’s truly bad. When they sent me to Auschwitz, I thought that was the worst thing that could happen to me. In fact, that’s what saved my life.”

Everyone stopped talking and we knew we were about to hear one of my father’s amazing stories of the holocaust. He had already once told us the remarkable story of the invisible Chanukah candles and also the one that I repeat at every Passover Seder about how Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet) had saved his life from Mengele’s horrifying selection. But how could going to Auschwitz be a lifesaver? Of course we encouraged him to continue.

He told us that in the winter of 1940 a terrible blizzard hit my father’s hometown of Radom, Poland. My father was married and had 3 children and owned a small grocery store with living quarters in the rear of the store. During this blizzard, they suddenly heard pounding on the front door of the store. My father went into the front section to inspect the sound – when he saw two German police officers seeking shelter.

You have to realize two things: first, after the occupation, German police controlled the Ghetto, later they were replaced by the second, any Jew taken into police headquarters was never seen again. Whether they were beaten, murdered, sent off to another location, or, any of the above, the fact remained – they were never seen again.

So seeing German police was a very dreadful prospect. Having been seen by them, my father had no choice but to let them in, to offer them shelter, warmth, hot tea and to wait out the storm together. Finally, after the blizzard abated, the German police officers (who I call Hans and Franz) were about to leave and turned to my father and said that if ever he needed help, please seek them out and they would reciprocate in kind.

Months after this incident, my father’s mother-in-law came to the store in hysterics. Her husband had been arrest and taken to police headquarters. My father’s wife and her mother began to shriek and mourn their loss, since everyone knew that his return home was unlikely if not without question impossible. To the great dismay and horror of the women, my dad grabbed his hat and coat and was courageously determined to bring his father-in-law home.

Dad entered the police station and immediately Hans and Franz noticed him and inquired about his purpose for being there. My father told them that his father-in-law was taken away by the police; he was a Nebbish and could not possibly be involved in any subversive activity.

Hans and Franz told him to be seated and to wait for them. Some two hours later they returned with the commandant who thanked my father for helping his officers and then told him that his father-in-law would be released and they should leave.

Dad took him home and he described the scene as being like “Simchas Torah in Shul.” While his wife and mother-in-law were rejoicing my father grabbed two boxes, filled them with delicacies, brought them to the police headquarters and gave one to Hans and Franz and the other to the commandant.

Word got out in the ghetto that Yankel Rosenzweig could get you out of the police’s clutches. Soon it became a regular practice. My father would go to the police headquarters with two boxes of delicacies and have the Jewish detainees released.

After about a year the police came for my father. He of course was sure of his release and assured his panic-stricken wife that he would soon return. This was not to be and he never saw his family again. He was brought to a cubicle in the basement of the police station. No one came to my father’s aid. Hans and Franz were nowhere to be seen, the commandant had been replaced (probably for helping Jews) and my father was severely beaten. After a few days he was transported to Auschwitz (which at the time was a work camp). Months later the Rodomer Ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were sent to Treblinka, already a death camp – very few survived. And that’s why you should never think that the worst is happening because that’s what he thought when he was sent to Auschwitz and that’s exactly what saved his life.

This was his story and we were speechless. Sometime after that we moved away from Windsor and though I often told over the story, something always bothered me – where did my father get delicacies in the Ghetto, during the war?

I spent this Rosh Hashanah with my mother in a retirement facility in Toronto. Bubby, as we call her, mentioned that a certain woman who usually sat at her table at meal times was from Radom. As Ida passed our table I said, “I hear you’re a Rodomer, my father was also a Rodomer.”

She answered affirmatively and said: “Oh yes, I knew his family well, they used to make different kinds of “Vursht” (sausage) and he sold it in his store.”

Suddenly it all made sense. The delicacies were the product of his family business. This chance meeting with Ida my father’s “Landsman” provided me with answers when there was no one to get answers from.

Truth be told, I dreaded spending Rosh Hashanah with my mother. She is slowly losing touch with reality and my being in her retirement home this first Rosh Hashanah that I was not “Rabbi-ing” in thirty years was a disappointment because among other reasons, I was planning to be with my sons, their wives and my grandchildren. After my sister Ruthy urged me to be with Bubby, which was the right thing to do, I thought this was going to be the worst Rosh Hashanah of my life. In fact, it was fairly enjoyable, I found answers that enriched me and I understood my father’s wise words: “Never say that, you never know what’s truly bad.”

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Camp, Vodka And A Song

"Rabbi Akiva Greenberg (with beard) at camp"

"Rabbi Akiva Greenberg (with beard) at camp"

When I was a teenager I spent most summers working at Camp Gan Yisroel in Fenton, Michigan. Rabbi Berel Shem-Tov the Detroit, Michigan Lubavitcher Shali’ach (emissary) purchased the site to establish the Michigan branch of the chain of Lubavitcher summer camps. However there weren’t enough local Lubavitchers to staff the camp so he hired many of the rabbis and older students of Detroit’s Yeshivah Beth Yehudah and other Yeshivahs to staff the camp.

It was a great camp. Rabbi Sholom Goldstein ZTz”L, who brought me into the Yeshivah world was camp director, Rabbi Shne’ur Weinberg who has been a mentor and friend to me ever since was the head counselor and Rabbi Yankel Krantz ZTz”L and his wife Fay were a major influences on me.

In 1964 I was 17 years old and was hired by Rabbi Shem-Tov to be the camp driver. My job description was to make pick-ups of food and supplies and occasionally take staff on their days off to the Flint bus station and pick them up on their return. Life was great, I was outdoors, independent, among good friends and I had enough responsibility to satisfy me without being overbearing, Chasdei HaShem – God is kind.

Two of my closest friends were also on staff, Dave Berg a counselor from New York and the arts and crafts director, Rabbi Akiva Greenberg. Dave was the hippest guy in camp, his New York personality combined with his talent as a counselor and ability as a troubadour reflected his very outgoing and strong personality. Rabbi Greenberg was larger than life. He was a Vishnitzer Chassid married to a Lubavitcher woman. He was one of the most talented men I have ever met. He was a great Rebbe (teacher), a carpenter and an artist, he could captivate you with his wit and his chuckle. He brought his Spike Jones and Mickey Katz record collection to camp and we would howl at the absurdity of the songs, he was so cool.

Rabbi Greenberg had relocated to Windsor from Toronto. He was hired by Yeshivah Beth Yehudah to teach and influence his students. Since he had 11 or 12 children he decided to reside in Windsor because the Canadian government provided baby bonus cheques to supplement a working family’s income.

Being an orthodox jewish camp we observed all the Jewish observances. Between the fasts of the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av there is a 3 week mourning period for the destruction of both the first (586 B.C.E.) and second Temples (70 C.E.) and includes a restriction on bathing. Needless to say programming for a camp without a swim period causes a great need for imagination, it is also a time of stress for the program staff.

It was the Saturday night after the fast of the 9th of Av which traditionally is a period of merriment and I was itchin’ to do something absurd. Rabbi Greenberg, Dave Berg and I took out a small boat on the lake. Dave brought his guitar, Rabbi Greenberg brought a bottle of Vodka and I brought the muscle. We rowed out to the middle of the lake began to pass the bottle and Akiva (as we often called him) began telling stories of his youth (before he discovered orthodox Judaism). After a few more shlugs of vodka, Dave picked up his guitar and began playing Achas Sho’alti. This song, today a classic, was very popular at the time and I loved it. The moon was full, the lake was calm and we drifted and sang this one song over and over again for about 45 minutes. During this time I couldn’t take my eyes of Dave’s fingers. Every combination of chords he played I put to memory, I so wanted to play that song. When we finished singing I asked Dave for his guitar and very crudely and with many mistakes, I played the song.

Monday morning on my Detroit run to pick-up food I stopped at a guitar store and bought an Epiphone nylon-string guitar, a chord book and the rest is history. I started practicing on my own with just the chord book and Dave Berg to help me. Rabbi Greenberg encouraged me and that summer I composed my first song.

My travels and experiences have taken me to many different locations but always with a guitar at my side. I played guitar with hippies around the camp fire or in living rooms. I’ve played concerts, hooked up with friends and started small bands. I accompanied Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ZTz”L at many of his concerts in North America and in Israel and traveled with him for over a month. I have composed songs that won first prize in major Jewish song festivals, have had my music recorded by others and even produced a CD at one of my live concerts (with the direction of my son Benji) with my band, the Kosher Gravy Company.

All this happened because Dave Berg, Rabbi Akiva Greenberg and I got into a small row boat and howled at the moon.

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The Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoel Teitelbaum ZTz”L

Among all of the Chassidim, the most despised are the Satmar Chassidim. Their anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli government position make most Jews cringe. Having spent time with this sect, I have a very different opinion of them.

Stemming from the city of Satu Mare, the capital of Satu Mare County, Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains, they became known as very extreme in their ultra-orthodox observance of Judaism. Their Rebbe, Reb Yoelish Teitelbaum (as he was known) became the Rebbe of Satmar in 1934 and reigned until his death in 1979, he was 92 years old.

In 1960 I went to study in Yeshivah Torah Vodaas in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. My day consisted of Judaic studies in the mornings, a lunch break, more Judaic studies in the early afternoon, the rest of the afternoon we had secular High School, supper and then more Judaic studies in the evening. My mother had a sister in New York and I didn’t call her upon my arrival. A few days after my arrival I was in night Seder (studies) and suddenly my aunt Blimchu burst into the class room, came over to my seat and pulled me out of class. She was livid.

Aunt Blimchu took me by the hand and began walking through Williamsburg. We arrived on Bedford Avenue to a large brownstone building and entered a large reception area that was filled with about 30 people all waiting for an audience with the Rebbe. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and having gone to Yeshivah Beth Yehudah in Detroit, I really didn’t know Chassidim. I saw pictures of them but other than a few teachers, I hadn’t had any contact with them. Williamsburg was the seat of many Chassidic sects and I was enthralled by their very presence.

We entered the reception area and my aunt went to the Rebbe’s Shamas (aid) spoke to him briefly and we took our seats. After ten minutes or so, a couple came out of the Rebbe’s library and the Shamas immediately ushered us in. My aunt took me by the arm, we entered into the room and she spoke briefly to the Satmar Rebbe. She told him that I was the eldest son of her younger sister Chaichu, that I was learning in Yeshivah Torah Vodaas and she then asked the Rebbe to give me a blessing. I didn’t understand what she meant but I couldn’t take my eyes off the Rebbe. He was sitting behind his desk, was dressed in a black satin kaftan and wore a wide brimmed black beaver hat. What grabbed my attention was his face, it was aglow and he looked utterly angelic. He asked me how my studies were going, took hold of my hand and then proceeded to give me a Beracha (blessing). He asked God to aid me in my studies and that I should grow-up to be a Talmid Chacham (scholar) and a Yorei Shomayim (one with the fear of God in his heart). I felt like I was in the presence of holiness and left there with a very strong sense of dedication.

The Yeshivah fed us three meals a day, six days a week. For the Shabbat Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch meals we were farmed out to eat within the community. If a boy had family or friends in the area he could have his meals with them provided that they met the religious standards of the Yeshivah. Those of us who didn’t have personal connections to families in Williamsburg were assigned families to eat by. Since I didn’t have anyone close by, I requested that I eat by a Satmar family. Shabbat morning I would walk to the Satmar Shul (synagogue) for my prayers and then go home with my host for the Shabbat lunch meal. One Shabbat while walking to Shul, I passed the Rebbe’s house as he was being escorted to Shul and I began joining this procession every Shabbat.

In the three years in Williamsburg I spent almost every week with Satmar Chassidim and only when I was 19 years old did I find out that they were anti-Zionist, it was not number one on their agenda. Though I had very strong feelings for Israel, they were not politically motivated. The remaining living kin on my mother’s side of the family lived in Israel. My father bought Israeli Bonds, our synagogue celebrated Israel Independence Day every year and I remember that the day before the 1967 Six Day War, when it looked like Israel was about to be destroyed, I saw my father cry for the first time.

When I found out about the Rebbe’s stand against Zionism I decided that I must try to understand his position. Quoting Wikipedia, The core citations from classical Judaic sources cited by [Rabbi] Teitelbaum in his arguments against modern Zionism are based on a passage in the Talmud, Rabbi Yosi b’Rebbi Chanina explains (Ketubot 111a) that the Lord imposed “Three Oaths” on the nation of Israel: a) Israel should not return to the Land together, by force; b) Israel should not rebel against the other nations; and c) The nations should not subjugate Israel too harshly.

According to [Rabbi] Teitelbaum, the second oath is relevant concerning the subsequent wars fought between Israel and Arab nations. He views the Zionist State of Israel as a form of “impatience” and in keeping with the Talmud’s warnings that being impatient for God’s love leads to “grave danger”. Satmar explains that the constant wars in Israel are a fulfillment of ignoring this oath.

[Rabbi] Teitelbaum saw his opposition to Zionism as a way of protecting Jewish lives and preventing bloodshed.” 

Let me explain. Our Torah states that when the Israelites left Egypt, God took them on a roundabout route through the Sinai desert rather than the direct route by following the coastline directly to Canaan. “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even on that very day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:41). “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people regret when they see war, and they return to Egypt (Exodus  13:17).”

Our Midrash explains that 30 years before the exodus, members of the tribe of Ephraim calculated that the 400 years that was prophesized to Abraham had ended and the exodus must begin. They escaped from Egypt and proceeded to Canaan where they were slaughtered, their bodies were never buried and their bones remained visible as a warning for all to see. This place was called the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-4) and the death of the tribe of Ephraim was caused because they tried to preempt the actual exodus with their false belief that the exile had ended.

Whether you accept the Satmar Rebbe’s belief that attempting to settle the Land of Israel on mass, before the actual redemption begins, is not irrelevant. His motivation was because of his love for the Jewish people and his belief that tens of thousands of Jews will die unnecessarily if they too attempt to preempt the redemption.

In my many years as a congregational Rabbi and as a Jewish Chaplain in the New York Department of Corrections, I have seen that Satmar Chassidim (also ChaBaD) devote much time, effort and funds to aid Jewish prisoners, provide for Jewish orphans around the world and alleviate the suffering of Jews wherever they may be. They do not promote their work to the public, look for no recognition by the organized Jewish establishment and try to help Jews by reaching out and helping where they can. Their position against Zionism is most familiar to us, but their efforts in other areas far outweigh that position. It should be noted that there are many ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist sects and often because most Jews cannot distinguish between one sect and another, they are all lumped together and identified as “Satmars.”

I do see myself as a Zionist, I lived in Israel for 13 years and served in the Israeli Armed Forces, but I understand the Rebbe’s motivation, it was and remains an act of love, not an act of hate. He was a saint of a man and made the world a better place.

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Reb Yankev Kamenetsky

I come from Windsor, a small town in southern Ontario, Canada. Everyday a group of us would board a school-bus or a taxi and across the border into the USA to go to Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit, MI. The semester after my Bar Mitzvah (1960) I chose to go to Yeshiva Torah Vodaas for grade 8 and high school. This was an amazing experience for me. Torah Vodaas was located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY and was in the midst of a very Chareidi enclave. Coming from a small Canadian town, I never saw anything like it. Chassidim and Misnagedim all over the place, strange clothes, Jewish shops and restaurants everywhere, for me, it was the beginning of an adventure that would continue my whole life.

The Yeshiva was located on So. Third St. with it’s the dormitory on So. Second and annex buildings on Wilson St. and Bedford Ave. Besides classes during the week, Shabbat and holidays gave me the opportunity to explore the various Chassidic communities. I spent a lot of Shabbatot among Stoliners, Satmars, Viznitzers and they and their culture opened my eyes to a whole new world. I started to learn and take on more rituals and practices and even started to change my garb so as to fit in with the others. In a nutshell, I got more and more Frum.

The Rosh HaYeshiva (dean) of the school was world renowned Reb Yankev Kamenetsky, a scholar of great magnitude and a very saintly individual. I would often watch him Daven (pray) with amazing intensity. He was totally focused on his prayers and the sing-song of his gravelly voice encouraged me to emulate him and learn how to pray better myself.

I arrived in Torah Vodaas in the fall of 1960 and was going to go home for the first time for Pesach in the spring of 1961. By then I was very devout and realized that I had a problem. Windsor had 2 synagogues; my family was members of the Sha’ar HaShamayim, a very large and ornate cathedral type of synagogue with a questionable Mechitzah (the barrier between the men and women). Then there was the Sha’arei Tzedek, it was not a fancy Shul but it filled all the requirements that a good Frum boy like me would need to pray properly. One night in our evening studies I told the older Bochur that I was studying with that I planned not to Daven with my family at “the Sha’ar” but go to the Sha’arei Tzedek where a Yeshiva Bochur could Daven properly. The older Bocher asked me if I spoke to the Rosh Yeshiva about my plans. I replied that I didn’t think it was necessary as I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I? He reiterated that before I go off and make a drastic change to my home life I should speak to the Rosh Yeshiva.

I made an appointment and prior to going into his office I reviewed what I would say to him. I felt good about it, he would be proud of me, a young boy who was doing the right thing.

I entered his study and he greeted me warmly and after questioning me about my studies and activities, he asked me how he could help me. I told him my plan and he sat behind his desk and paused for a few seconds – for me it was an eternity. Finally, he motioned for me to come around to his side of the desk and took both my hands in his and told me how proud he was of me that I cared so much to do the right thing and Daven in a proper Shul.

To my surprise though (and I never found out how he knew this), he told me that my father lost his family in the Churban – the destruction of European Jewry. He continued about how my father started all over again, meeting and marrying my mother in a DP camp and finally having a son and starting a family again. How my father came to Canada with nothing and raised his family as Jews and at great expense he sent his children daily to another country for their Jewish education. And now, his oldest son is in one of the most prestigious Yeshivas in the world, in faraway New York, and how he longs to see me again. Reb Yankev then dropped the bombshell. He asked me how could I not allow my father to have his Bechor – his oldest son sit next to him in Shul? How could I deprive him of the Naches – the happiness that comes when the community can see a child return to his home full of the spirit and the way of life that a great Yeshiva produces? Reb Yankev then offered me his solution (it was really an order). Get up every morning very early and Daven privately in your room. Go to Shul with your father, sit next to him and go through the motions of Davening. If I am called to the Torah, accept the honor and he would take the responsibility for my actions upon himself. Go home, make your father proud and come back after the break knowing that you made your father a very wealthy man.

Reb Yankev taught me a very important lesson; don’t act righteous at person’s expense. I had an opportunity to give back to my father the value of all the hardships that he and my mother endured to produce a Ben Torah – the child of the Torah. I will never forget it and I’ll never forget that private audience with greatness.

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We’re Missing The Point

Before I begin my remarks I wish to say that I have spent most of my spiritual life nurtured by Chareidi teachers, mentors and friends. I have sat at their feet and studied their teachings. I have eaten at their tables and experienced the Sabbath and the holidays with them. I have lived among them and together we have shared happiness and joy, tears and sorrow. I will say emphatically that they are the most gentle and caring community of Jews that I have ever met. Their concern for their fellow Jew cannot be appreciated by most. They have saved more Jewish souls, fed more Jewish patients and inmates; they have reached out to small enclaves of Jews and provided Rabbis, teachers, books and pamphlets to Jews in obscure and isolated communities and campuses. And in relationship to their size, a handful of misguided zealots have undone so much of the ongoing good that they practice.

A few weeks ago, 7 year old Na’ama Margolis while walking to her MaMlachti-Dati – National Religious School – was yelled at and spit upon by an extremist Chareidi (ultra-orthodox) boor, for not dressing in a Tzni’us (modest) manner. A Tzni’us dress-code is a foundation stone of a Torah lifestyle for both men and women. While we supposedly live in a free society and people have freedom of choice, certain behaviors set off highly volatile emotions in sects who live by other standards.

When these outbursts and acts of violence over infractions of the Tzni’us dress-code occurred in Mea She’arim, it was foreseeable, wrong though it may be. This neighborhood was exclusively Chareidi and though it may have been seen as a quaint peek into nineteenth century Shteitel life, entering the neighborhood while dressed inappropriately was an intrusion on their lifestyle and values. However Beit Shemesh is not a Shteitel, and until recently it was a homogenous community consisting of all spectrums of Israeli society.

In recent years, with the cost of apartments in the Jerusalem corridor skyrocketing in price, Chareidi families have found a number of housing alternatives outside of Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh is one of them. The massive influx of Chareidi families in recent years has placed a strain on the Beit Shemesh infrastructure. Chareidim (plural of Chareidi) tend to live separately, they have separate schools and live by separate rules. There are enough articles, blogs and video interviews available for the reader to become better acquainted with the many reasons for “the problem.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish and international press can’t seem to let go of the incident. Everyone is talking about the “big picture,” the overall affect this will have on Jewish and Israeli society, we even have both sides of the argument – the ultra-orthodox and the general Beit Shemesh community – claiming discrimination.

I very much believe that the real issue is not being addressed in these op-ed articles and interviews. It is clear to the leaders of all streams of Judaism, even the general Chareidi stream, that this type of behavior is abhorrently wrong and anti-Halachic. The demographics of Beit Shemesh are rapidly changing and will continue to become more Chareidi as time goes on. It is clear that the municipality and the State cannot keep up with the needs of this community now coming into the forefront. While we are presently focused only on Beit Shemesh, there are other small communities outside of Jerusalem that are experiencing or about to experience a similar phenomenon. The Chareidi community is the fastest growing Jewish community in Israel. A large percentage of immigration to the State of Israel comes from this community and it also has the highest birthrate in Jewish Israel. Israel will become a Chareidi society in 2 to 3 decades unless a large influx of non-Chareidi Jews move to Israel and begin having 5, 6 and 7 children (how it will manage the day to day issues of physical, political and economic survival in the middle-east is a separate issue).

My problem with this whole debate is on its focus. Everyone is fixated on blaming the other side over this affair. The secular and non-Chareidi religious world are all pointing fingers at the Chareidim and crying “Gevalt,” don’t you realize that you have stepped over very significant boundaries? The Chareidi world defends itself by pointing their fingers at the rest of the Jews and cry, “Gevalt,” how are you any different from the gentiles? You dress as them, you eat like them, and you live by their moral standards. What do you want from us, we just want to be Jewish?

What everyone has lost sight of is their own behavior. While we take sides and begin blaming each other for intolerance, our own intolerances are left by the wayside unchecked. The Sinat Chinam (free-flowing hatred) is moving so rapidly between the camps that it has become invisible. This is the issue that I wish to address.

As a “religious” Jew, I try to view issues through the eyes of the Torah. I am not a sociologist, nor a politician, I don’t focus only on the specific issue at hand, I try to view the problem from a Torah perspective. The entire Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is devoted to how we can live successfully in the Land of Israel. Over and over again Moshe tells, cajoles and threatens the Israelites with a single message, your future and well-being upon the land depends on your behavior. Proper behavior will lead to the blessings of prosperity, equality, contentment, peace with our neighbors and social tranquility. Improper behavior will lead to the curses of poverty, disparity, disgruntlement, tension on our borders and inner turmoil and exile.

Whether we are speaking about the misguided super-religiosity of the Chareidim or the lax adherence to Jewish principles by others, a tension has been created that will not allow a peaceful solution to ease these already strained relations. If we don’t find a solution, then the social, political and economic disintegration will continue that will ultimately lead to exile. To look at social instability, religious coercion or economic disparity as sources of the problem is to miss the point; these flaws in our society are a result of our own misbehavior. This may not be true in Australia or Belgium, but it is historically true for the Jewish people and all we have to do is look back at what lead up to the various exiles of our people to see this actuality.

Let me give you an example. When a Jew helps a little old lady across the street because it is a Mitzvah (it is the will of HaShem), rather than just being a good person, then HaShem has helped her across the street. When you see your enemy’s donkey carrying an overbearing load and you help your enemy because it is a “command,” then HaShem has brought equity between people. The function of doing positive Mitzvot (thou shalt) and not transgressing negative Mitzvot (thou shalt not) is to manifest HaShem’s presence in the world – “so that all will know that I am HaShem Elokim in the heavens above and the earth below.” This is called Kiddush HaShem – sanctifying HaShem’s Name. The opposite is true, when we live by standards that may be “good” but are not according to our mandate, then we create a Chillul HaShem – a desecration of HaShem’s Name. Even the great Moshe and his brother Aaron could not escape the reality of exile as a result of not sanctifying His Name. When Moshe struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it, HaShem responded with one sentence: “HaShem said to Moshe and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in Me enough to sanctify Me before the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land that I give them’.”

This is what we are experiencing today on many fronts. “V’Ahavta L’Rei’acha Kamocha – And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” has been forgotten. Neighbors, literally neighbors are being spat upon, accused of terrible crimes, not given respect and are discounted as being irrelevant. Altruistic slogans may be used to prove points but both sides are creating a Chillul HaShem which will lead to a devastating reality.

Enough of the rhetoric, enough of the position taking, enough of justifying one’s own lifestyle by showing the inconsistencies of anothers. If we truly wish to live in a Jewish State side by side with Jews of all streams and customs then we must be able to sit at one table and hear and digest criticism and make the amends necessary to achieve our goal, to create a heavenly society.

Henai MaTov U’Mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How good and pleasant it is when we can sit together in brotherhood” is more than a song, it is the key to our very existence.

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