To me, he was always, Rebbi Eliezer. Over the years, we talked Torah frequently, and he never made me feel embarrassed that whatever I offered was superficial or silly. Looking back, it feels like he knew me better than I knew myself.
It was the late Sixties, the War in Vietnam was at its height. I needed a 4-D (divinity student) deferment from my draft board, so I was in rabbinical school. But it wasn’t a good fit, and when my lottery number came up too high to be drafted, I began thinking about leaving. I finally went to Rebbi Eliezer at his home. I told him I thought it was time to leave, and his answer was “Yes, it’s time”, and that clinched my decision.
A year or two before, despite the fact that I was not a senior, I “snuck into” the class of the Talmudic giant, Professor Saul Lieberman. I would sit in the back row next to Rebbi Eliezer. I lasted only 2 or 3 classes before I was caught, but once, I had brought him several pages of my poetry. By chance I had begun to write and already had published one book. I asked him whether it was worthwhile to pursue my writing. His encouragement so early on in my career made all the difference. With every subsequent book I wrote and sent him I got a personal, lyrically-phrased reply.
I occasionally asked him about Sighet, and what it was like to be in cheder with his life-long friend and my Talmud teacher Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni, known as the illui (prodigy) of Sighet. His face lit up, and you could see all his years of study of Torah and Talmud and Chassidut shine in his eyes. I am still shocked at myself for prying when I asked did he and Rabbi Weiss-Halivni see each other in Auschwitz. I never, never touched that subject when I was with him.
I think the one mistake he made about me, which he most certainly understood afterwards was when he suggested I come to Boston to get a PhD under his guidance. I am sure he understood that I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t have the tenacity (Yiddish: zitzfleisch) and that I would never finish.
And as with the many others who have written of their contact — casual or consistent — with Rebbi Eliezer, there is so much more to share. And if anyone has taught us how important stories are in Life, it was Rebbi Eliezer, and that, perhaps, is our task now – to keep telling stories of this unforgettable Jew and human being.
In memory of my teacher, on this the 30th day – the Shloshim – of his passing.