MEMORIES OF LUBAVITCH
October 31, 2012
Shneur Zalman Berger in #854, 20 Mar-Cheshvan, Memoirs, Rebbe Rashab

By Mordechai Lazar
Prepared for publication by Shneur Zalman Berger

Mr. Mordechai Lazar learned for a brief period in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch.  He later made aliya and was a member of Mapai (Labor Party), but his nostalgia for Lubavitch compelled him to devote a chapter in his book to the Rebbe Rashab and the yeshiva in Lubavitch. * Presented for 20 Cheshvan, the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab.

BRIEF BIO

Mr. Mordechai Lazar learned in a yeshiva in Kremenchug where he was hosted by the Chassid R’ Yitzchok Yoel Rafaelowitz, a great Chabad rabbi.  Thanks to the latter, Lazar took an increasing interest in Chabad until he went to Lubavitch to learn in Tomchei T’mimim. 

Upon being accepted, he began learning in the branch of the yeshiva in Szedrin and then learned for several months in Lubavitch.  From there, he went further in his search for a path in life.

He later made aliya and lived in Haifa.  He ran a leather and shoe business.  He became a member of the left wing Mapai party and became active in that movement.

He wrote his memoir over fifty years after the events occurred.

***

RABBI SHOLOM BER

“I remember the Rebbe Sholom Ber (Rashab) enough to say a few words about him.  He had red hair; his head and beard were fiery [when he said a maamer].  He was of moderate height and of broad shoulders.  His talks made an impression, as though they were formulated in his deep thoughts as he said them.  He would begin in a low voice, which even those standing near him found it hard to hear, but then his voice grew stronger and everyone could hear him.  He always spoke sparingly and was always serious.”

He goes on to explain that sometimes the Rebbe joked and he brought a story to illustrate this:

It is told that representatives of the G’dolei Yisroel were selected to meet with Minister Stolypin (1862-1911), who was the minister of internal affairs, in order to ask him to cancel some laws against the Jews.  The representatives were R’ Chaim Soloveitchik (R’ Chaim Brisker), who was world renowned as a Torah scholar, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the well known government appointed rabbi, Vladimir Tyomkin of Elisavetgrad (now Kirovograd), who was not a big scholar but was one of the most famous speakers in the Jewish world and was also an ardent Zionist.

It was Erev Pesach and rumors abounded about Jews using Christian blood in their matza.  The three men also wanted to take the opportunity to explain to the minister and convince him that there was no basis for these spurious claims.

The meeting took place in Petersburg and lasted half an hour.  Stolypin wanted to end the meeting earlier.  He gave his hand to Tyomkin and then to the Rebbe and seemed to ignore R’ Chaim.  When the three men left Stolypin, the Rebbe wanted to console him for the slight and he said jokingly, “Brisker Rav, don’t be upset that the minister did not put out his hand to you too.  Pesach is approaching and in the Hagada it says explicitly, “Davar Acher – B’yad Chazaka Shtayim,” i.e. when a “davar acher” (a euphemism for a pig) puts out its strong hand, it does so only for two men and not for three.” The three men laughed and continued on their way.

The Rebbe, R’ Sholom Ber … was constantly immersed in the four cubits of the study of Nistar.  Faithful to his role, he would prepare for his maamer on Friday night or would correspond with the heads of Lubavitcher communities as well as with those who were not Chabad Chassidim, regarding various communal matters.  He would encourage them to influence those Jews who were in direct contact with enlightened gentiles and the czar’s ministers so that the czar would cancel restrictions or lighten the evil decrees against us.

He was beloved by the simple folk.  The court of the Rebbe Rashab was not interested in petty things such as decorating the house with expensive items of silver and gold, or a carriage and horses and expensive clothing, silk clothes, or appearing like a Jewish king, which is what other Rebbes did in Poland, Galicia and southern Russia, especially in later years.

R’ Sholom Ber was fully immersed in important matters, in spreading the Chabad philosophy, in expanding the houses of study and yeshivos whose crowning glory was the yeshiva in Lubavitch, which produced scholars and men knowledgeable in Nigleh and Nistar.  He provided rabbanim, shochtim, baalei kria, chazanim, and teachers for communities, who had good reputations in the Jewish world.  Those sent by the Rebbe were fully cognizant of their role in life and their responsibility to their k’hillos.

All these filled an important role, perhaps the most important in community life in Russia while hardships multiplied every day.  The main source of hope was belief in the future of the people and the imminent Geula.  The [Lubavitcher] bachurim and men were outstanding in their love for the Jewish people, in their integrity, their dignified behavior, their nice manners, their devotion to spreading Torah … and there is no wonder that from this family came forth a president of Israel, R’ Zalman Shazar, who was also a scion of the Schneersohn line, in whom Torah, greatness and nobility of an authentic Jew blended in wondrous harmony, and in whom we all take pride.

“TYPICAL SCHNEERSOHN”

In concluding his description of the Rebbe Rashab, Lazar wrote that the Rebbe had an only son, R’ Yosef Yitzchok who in turn, had daughters.  He says that after the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz, “the Chabad leadership was transferred to a relative, a very talented man, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, but he has no sons or daughters.  I met him in New York, in Brooklyn.  He is a pleasant person whose manner is typical of the Schneersohns. He continues, with great success, in developing the Chabad network … according to the approach and tradition of the Chabad movement.

WONDERFULLY IDYLLIC

Let us go back to Mr. Lazar’s youth, to what motivated him to go to Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim:

While I was in Kremenchug, I often heard conversations about the famous yeshivos in Lithuania and Reisin such as those in Volozhin and Telz.  However, among the more pious bachurim, among those who never davened hastily and never missed immersing in a mikva before davening, they did not stop praising the yeshiva in Lubavitch where, they opined, Nigleh and Nistar were combined and it produced impeccable, accomplished men.  They would say that any yeshiva where they did not learn Tanya and Toras HaNistar, they only partook of half of the Torah.

In general, how could a lamdan fill up on Shas and poskim while knowing nothing of Toras HaNistar? It just wasn’t possible.  Therefore, every good Jew had to go to the yeshiva in Lubavitch, which was the center for Chabad Chassidus, and fill in what he lacked.

Not surprisingly, I decided to head for Lubavitch.  When I recall those days that I learned in Lubavitch, I include them amongst the nicest and most interesting periods of my youth and even many years after that.  That town always appeared in my mind’s eye as wonderfully idyllic.

In my time, the Lubavitcher yeshiva was located in a small town called Lubavitch.  Every boy who wanted to enjoy the hidden Chabad light within the walls of the yeshiva would go there.  If they said “Lubavitch,” they meant this town.  One exception was the town of Szedrin where a few dozen boys learned, guided by select teachers until they reached the level of independent learning in the large hall in the yeshiva in Lubavitch under the supervision and guidance of the mashgiach (in my time it was Yoske Rogatchover).  The mashgiach Yoske would walk here and there on the platform that was built on the eastern side of the room, and he watched over the hundreds of boys, each of who sat in his usual place, humming some niggun to himself, learning a daf Gemara.  Only with a difficult sugya, when he could not figure something out, did he turn to Yoske.

***

After a lengthy explanation about the founding of Chassidus, he goes back to Lubavitch:

What is this Chassidus Lubavitch that remains till this day [the book was written in 1973] as a self perpetuating entity that is active and inspires activity, builds and influences in many places, even in those that we never heard of before like in North Africa, the United States, South American and African countries? An outstanding example of this is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who lives in Brooklyn.  He leads an empire and his influence reaches all parts of the globe where there are Jewish communities.  His decisions are accepted by his Chassidim and admirers like the word of the living G-d.  What is the reason for this?

There are many reasons, but the main one is the philosophy of this Chassidus that speaks straight to the heart, and especially to the heart of the young generation, which causes a Jew to come under its wings.

HOSPITALITY

As mentioned before, the name Lubavitch was always a mystic lighthouse that shone from afar and provided an unceasing attracting force.  When I was still a boy, my father would often tell me of the amazing yeshiva there.  My friend Zalman Klampert, who lived in a village near the train station in Dolinsk, which was only a few kilometers away from Sahaydak, also told me wonderful things about the yeshiva in Lubavitch.  His father was very close to the Rebbe.

The town of Lubavitch, which was well-known throughout the Jewish world in Russia and outside of it, was nothing but a small town with a few narrow muddy streets.  During the rainy season, they were impassable.  It was settled mostly by Jews who were supported through the yeshiva or the Rebbe’s court.  Every Jewish home hosted boys and young men.  The wealthier Chassidim would often be charged exorbitant prices for every little service or cup of tea.  It should be mentioned that only some of the Jews of the town were supported easily by hosting boys …

I remember that when I learned in Lubavitch, right after a boy or man came to the Rebbe’s office, R’ Yehuda “the hosting arranger” would conduct a hurried talk with the guest, check him out, and know where to bring him.

In my lifetime, I have visited many yeshivos aside from the ones that I learned in and I never found one where the authentic Jewish spirit like love for others, good middos, relating to people as people, the willingness to help others at any time, making peace among people, were as developed as they were in the yeshiva in Lubavitch during the period that I learned there.

The curriculum and ways of learning that led to the main goal were completely different than in other yeshivos.  In other yeshivos, the talmidim’s ambition was to master learning the Talmud in order to be a rav or scholar.  In Lubavitch, they devoted many hours to both Nistar and Nigleh.  Along with learning Talmud, they learned chapters of Nistar or from Tanya and other maamarei Chassidus from the manuscripts belonging to the greats of Chabad Chassidus such as the Rav of Liadi, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Maharash.

When I would ask one of the talmidim why he came to Lubavitch, he would say, “First of all, I want to be a good person and a Chabadnik.”  A Chabadnik means not only chochma, bina and daas.  The real meaning is a good Jew and person with good Jewish middos who is imbued with Ahavas Yisroel.  Most of the talmidim wanted to be businessmen and disseminators of the teachings of Chabad.  Few wanted to serve as functionaries in communities such as shochtim etc. They received encouragement from the Rebbe who saw a need to raise a generation of teachers, counselors and communal leaders faithful to Chabad.

The teachers were also more accommodating than teachers and counselors in other yeshivos.  Every now and then they would hold gatherings [farbrengens] to mark a Chassidic event like Yud-Tes Kislev, which is the day the Alter Rebbe was released from jail in Petersburg, or the yahrtzait of the Baal Shem Tov, the Hilula of Rashbi, etc.

Everyone participated in these gatherings, small and big, rav and talmid, poor and rich.  All sat down around the tables, drank some wine and ate cake.  The refreshments weren’t lavish or especially varied, but there was always enough wine and cake for everyone.  All ate slowly; there was no grabbing and the young ones did not touch the refreshments before the older ones began eating.

At these festivities [the mashpia and mashgiach] R’ Gronem was in charge.  He was around 65, a little taller than average, broad shouldered and with a long, silvery beard.  He had piercing eyes, one of which was much larger than the other.  The talmidim suspected it was a fake one since they never saw it blink.  He always spoke gently.  We never saw him emotional with raised voice.  He always began his talk or Chassidic story in a low voice.  When someone would comment on his low voice which made him inaudible, he would quote the verse that says, “The words of the wise are heard b’nachas,” and he would explain it thus: if Torah scholars express what they have to say gently, then they are “heard.” Everyone sit quietly and you will hear me.

He would tell miracle stories that happened to the Mitteler Rebbe, to the Baal Shem Tov, and the Maggid of Mezritch, how they had k’fitzas HaDerech on their way to save critically ill people, how R’ Leib Sarah’s saved the child of the innkeeper from the Satan who had ambushed him, and how a short Friday became lengthened for the Rebbe Maharash so the sun wouldn’t set while he was on his way to a town. 

He spoke convincingly with deep conviction and complete faith.

Between stories, R’ Gronem would stop, take a little sip, eat some lekach, swallow, and continue talking.  He always finished a story with a Chassidic saying from one of the G’dolei Chabad and at the end, everyone would dance joyously.  These celebrations fused us, young and old, into one unified family.

R’ MOSHE THE CHOZER

Among the people who stood out was R’ Moshe the chozer.  He was very old, close to 80, and had an extraordinary memory.  [SZB: R’ Moshe Rosenblatt of Zembin, who was known as R’ Moshe the chozer, was a Chassid of the Rebbe Maharash and Rebbe Rashab, a talmid of the Chassid R’ Avrohom of Zembin.  He was a mashpia in Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch and the Rebbe Rashab’s chozer.  He passed away in 5675 in Lubavitch.]

When the Rebbe would enter the yeshiva on Friday nights … they would take four long tables and put them in the shape of a final Mem, leaving only a small opening through which the Rebbe could enter and sit in his special chair.  All the bachurim and Chassidim who came to spend the weekend with the Rebbe would stand, ready to receive the “Divrei Elokim Chayim” from the Rebbe. 

In the first row around the tables, which were in the center of the large room, were R’ Moshe the chozer and a group of bachurim with excellent memories around him, who made their ears like funnels.  The Rebbe would take out his red handkerchief, wrap it around his hand and say a Chassidic maamer.  This would take about an hour or an hour and a half.  All stood and listened without moving from their place as though rooted to the floor.

When the Rebbe finished the maamer, they opened the “gate” again and when the Rebbe turned towards the exit, all those present stood in his honor and remained standing and watching him.  Then the bachurim would surround the elderly, delightful and thin Moshe – he was literally skin and bones – and he would repeat what the Rebbe said, just like a recording.  He would repeat not just the idea but the sentences as they were said.  Every so often one of the outstanding bachurim who stood there would interrupt and say, “The Rebbe didn’t say it like that but like this.”  If R’ Moshe agreed with him, he would say, “Right,” and if he did not agree he would say, “You don’t remember correctly,” and then other bachurim would weigh in.  Regardless, all the bachurim around R’ Moshe had outstanding memories.  R’ Moshe, however, remembered better than all of them, including the style and construction of sentences.

Shabbos afternoon, after sleeping, some bachurim would daven a hasty Mincha and convene once again in a special room with R’ Moshe and review the maamer once again.  Of course, now it was easier than the first time.

R’ AVROHOM OF LIADI

R’ Avrohom of Liadi [SZB: R’ Avrohom Fradkin] I mention here not because of his personality or spiritual stature, but because of another reason altogether.  He was the most outstanding dancer among the Chassidim in the town.  He was an impassioned Chassid, very thin, of average height, with a willowy beard that was not very long and half gray.  He would live, enjoy, and be nourished by Chassidic holidays that had passed or by upcoming holidays.  Weekdays to him were a break from holidays, either from the days saturated with delight that had passed or a preparation and yearning for upcoming holidays.

When the holidays came around and Chabad Chassidim were jolly after having drunk wine after the evening meal [on Friday nights and holiday nights], they would gather in the large room and start by singing and end by dancing.  Then it was Avrohom of Liadi’s turn.  He would dance alone or with the bachurim with an incomparable elevation of spirit. 

There was enthusiasm, d’veikus, and hispaalus all mixed together.  He would dance for hours to the singing of the bachurim and to their rhythmic clapping.  I remember him jumping with sweat pouring down his face and body.  His black clothing was drenched as though he had just emerged from a stream of water.  His eyes were partially closed and he whispered some words from the Gemara or Chassidus to himself, dancing and whispering.  He would dance endlessly.

When the bachurim saw that he was growing bored of the niggunim, they would start a new niggun called “four worlds.”  Chassidim believe there are four worlds ABY”A which stand for: Asiya, Beria, Yetzira, Atzilus.  Man must climb a ladder.  This ladder has Asiya as the lowest rung and Atzilus as the highest rung.

This song, with four words, had a certain niggun that fit the words and the content.  I don’t know whether this niggun is known today because starting at the beginning of the First World War and ending with the Holocaust of the last World War, Chabad underwent many incarnations and it is possible that many things were lost.  Therefore, I provide the niggun here [in the book, there is a photocopy of the notes].

There was another niggun that we, the b’nei yeshiva, would sing while learning Gemara, especially when we reached the end of some sugya that wasn’t easily understood and we had plumbed its depths and emerged victorious.  We would finish with this niggun [which Mr. Lazar called “Sugya Niggun”].

There was another song taken from Koheles, “Ma Yisron L’Adam B’Chol Amalo SheYaamol Tachas HaShemesh.”  The song or niggun would be explained as follows: What advantage does man have in all his work? The answer was that he should work under the sun.  Obviously, this is not just any work but the toil of Torah.

[These three niggunim were so important to the author that he worked with composer Moshe Bick to write the notes for them.]

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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