Dream Dream Dream (In memoriam, Kalman Krohn, obm)

I first heard the song ‘Dream Dream Dream’ by the Everly Brothers some 55 years ago. It was in a dorm room at Mesivta Torah Vodaath located then on South 2nd Street in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. By then the song was already a slow-dance classic at nearly every high school in America. But this was Torah Vodaath, launch pad of a new rigorous orthodoxy, the by now ubiquitous charedi/black hat yiddishkeit. There were no girls. There was no prom. And in due course hearing a song like ‘Dream Dream Dream’ would become inconceivable in such a yeshiva.

Several boys were gathered in that room as one of them, Kalman Krohn, strummed his guitar and sang the lyrics. He was a couple of years older than me. Kalman was extraordinarily popular and athletic, the second son of a family that could be called yeshiva royalty. He was kind, warm, friendly and accepting. He had many admirers, no enemies.

Guitars were rare back then. To the extent that any instruments breached the walls of the yeshiva they were invariably clarinets, accordions and drums. The religious troubadour who would make the guitar a mainstay of the new Jewish singing, Shlomo Carlebach, had yet to gain traction in the yeshiva world, despite having been a Torah Vodaath alumnus himself.

But Kalman Krohn had a black acoustic guitar, and his repertoire of songs was hardly parochial. And so a handful of Torah Vodaath high school students were gathered in his dorm room singing along to lyrics no one would dare parse. Whatever desires and longings they triggered remained silent in our adolescent yeshiva hearts.

That moment became a memory, an indelible one at that, one fraught with squelched emotions and hopeless fantasies. That was how I would remember Kalman Krohn on the rare occasion when he would come to mind.

It is now over a half century later, and Jerusalem has long been my home. I rarely walk in Meah Shearim, having so little in common with its denizens. Simply put, we live in different realities. I treasure my country, the only Jewish state. They consider it an illegal aberration that presumes to pre-empt the Messiah. Anger simmers just beneath the neighborhood’s surface. Violence is ready to bubble over at the flimsiest excuse. A skirt above the knee, an errant vehicle on Shabbat or, with increasing frequency, a religious soldier in uniform can unleash a fusillade of stones, soiled diapers, and vicious curses.

Tuesday this week I made an exception, as I was showing a Taiwanese friend around town. For a first-time Asian visitor all hyped on Israeli hi-tech, agriculture and scientific prowess, there are few things more exotic than the shock of entering the world’s most anachronistic Orthodox enclave. For, indeed, in Meah Shearim one encounters a hermetic universe of hostility toward everything that surrounds it, yet one totally dependent on its perceived enemies for everything from food, to medicine, to protection, to transportation, telecommunications and, yes, money.

Indeed Jerusalem’s hospitals overflow with patients from this community demanding and expecting the best care, while the streets are swarming with wandering bearded and black hatted young men whose cell phones are virtually glued to their ears. I wonder what they are talking about, what it is that has turned so many of them into chain smokers and chain cellphone addicts.

As we rounded the corner from Rechov Strauss to Rechov Meah Shearim I noticed a change in the wall décor since my last visit. There seemed to be a decrease in the number of pashkevilim (posters vilifying anything and everything from the Israeli Defense Forces to the wigs most ultra-Orthodox women wear as a sign of modesty – apparently not modest enough) with their calls to arms, urging every man and boy to rally for a demonstration against the perceived wickedness du jour. Instead the walls were now plastered with posters no less mammoth informing in the most purple prose of the deaths and funerals arrangement for the newly departed.

One of these posters stopped me in my tracks:

אבד חסיד מן הארץ וישר באדם אין
(The good man has perished from this earth and there
is no upright one among men — Micah 7:2)
The Gaon the Tzaddik Rebbi
of righteous and blessed memory
from the City of Torah, Lakewood

There were many more words mourning the untimely loss of a revered and holy man whose funeral, unfortunately, had already taken place the day before. Indeed. The departed was none other than that wonderful boy Kalman Krohn who knew the songs and knew how to play the guitar back in the Torah Vodaath of the mid 1960s.

Of course I was shocked, not only because Kalman Krohn was barely older than me. But because a flood of memories was suddenly unleashed.

Standing there I was transported back to those less than halcyon days of my adolescence, and the need to somehow make the connection between the Kalman Krohn I remembered and the saintly Rabbi Yisroel Kalman Krohn described in this poster. Of course there was no real conflict between the two. People evolve and grow and change over the course of half a century. Even back then, Kalman took his Torah very seriously, without a scintilla of cynicism, without any whiff of doubt.

I have not given much thought to ‘Dream Dream Dream’ in all that time either, my musical tastes being firmly anchored in classical and jazz. The challenges of being a teenager in a place like Torah Vodaath are not the stuff of my fondest memories. The tortured and conflicted emotions of my adolescent soul are nothing about which I care to reminisce.

When I returned to my apartment in Abu Tor I immediately wrote a condolence email to Kalman’s older brother, Rabbi Paysach Krohn. Paysach is a noted lecturer on the Orthodox circuit, and was the mohel who had circumcised my son. Paysach was also my chavrusah (learning partner) for a while in the Torah Vodaath study hall, having been entrusted with my spiritual well-being. It was a Hail Mary attempt to keep me on the yeshiva’s narrow track. And a failure.

Paysach responded immediately to my email, and urged me to hear his hesped for Kalman which was posted on the web. The eulogy was an eye opener. Because unlike his older brother, Kalman chose to live his life in greater anonymity. Yet clearly his achievements were legion. Over the course of recent years, Kalman had personally raised some $15 million dollars for distribution where it was most acutely needed. He would take nothing for himself or his large family. Yet in this he was hardly unique. There are other honest rabbis who earn the public’s trust, and are asked to handle personal charity funds so that they do the most good. Apparently Kalman’s door was always open to those in emotional need as well.

Yet what set Kalman apart was a project that was uniquely his, and unique in a yeshivish world that is not known for it’s singular appreciation of the soldiers who defend Israel.

What Kalman had done was set up a program whereby, each year on their yahrzeit day, dedicated prayers would be recited for every single one of the more than 23,000 soldiers who perished in the defense of Israel. Needless to say this was a monumental undertaking. Not only are the logistics complex, but the effort to recruit dedicated men to offer these prayers must have been daunting in a community not known for its love of Israel or its military.

That Kalman Krohn made this happen indicates a profound love for his fellow Jew that is a rarity under the best of circumstances. It also demonstrated his recognition of the vital role Israel’s defenders play in making life possible for all those who purport to spend their lives studying Torah while turning their backs on those who make such lives both viable and safe. That Kalman had the courage to do this, and that he had the stamina to follow it through beggars the imagination.

Yesterday in Facebook one of his former students posted the following about him:

He was a Rebbi in Adelphia for a year or so.
On Purim we used to put signs up at each Rebbi’s seat.
By R Kalman Krohn we put. 
הנה בעל החלומות הלזה בא
(Behold this dreamer comes — Genesis 37:19)

May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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