From 5700 to 5778, at 770

It’s like this: R. Kalonymos Kalman Epstein of Krakow, who was born in 1753, the same year King’s College (later to be renamed Columbia) was founded in New York City, wrote a Hasidic Torah commentary, Maor va-Shemesh. It was published shortly after his passing, and has remained in print. His male descendants, because of his merit and that of his book, may bear the epithet “blessed” after their names. My father, thus Yosef Boruch (the latter was anglicized to Brooke later on), was born in Brooklyn in 1927. He grew up in a family committed to fighting fascism, with friends who went off to the Spanish Civil War and never returned. When he was still very young, maybe just a little too young but somebody at the recruiting office maybe charitably looked the other way, he enlisted in the United States Navy. After the war, he met the beautiful girl who was to be my mother on a sunny day on Brighton Beach, they married in 1947, and the rest, as they say, is history.

History had been churning on, across the sea, where we still had family. R. Epstein had a descendant, the Piaseczner Rebbe, R. Kalonymos Kalman Shapira. In the 1930s, he published innovative, brilliant work on pedagogy. His wife was his soul mate: if he went off to get a glass tea (I intentionally omit the word “of”), he’d return to his study to find his half-finished sermon or treatise completed just as he would have wanted it. His son was by all accounts a sweet boy, an ilui— a Torah genius. R. Shapira’s wife passed away young before the war, leaving her grieving husband to raise their child. Then the Nazis invaded Poland and the youth was injured in an air raid on Warsaw, and died, along with many relatives, when another enemy bomb fell on the hospital. (The Germans targeted real hospitals: they refitted their own as killing factories to eliminate the disabled and the mentally ill.)

Then the Rebbe and his followers were confined in the Ghetto. Some Hasidic dynasties, like Chabad, managed to spirit out their leaders to safety— without this their teachings and communities might have perished. R. Shapira, like some other Rebbes, preferred to remain with his Hasidim and share their fate. Defying the Germans and their anti-Semite collaborators and confederates, may their names and memory be blotted out, he continued to lead prayers, teach Torah, and write. The manuscript of his remarkable commentary, Esh Kodesh, was buried for safety. Most of his congregation were murdered in Treblinka. He was taken to Trawniki and died in Majdanek. The manuscript was unearthed, unscathed after the war. It is perhaps the last book of Torah that was written before the light of the thousand-year Jewish civilization of Europe went out. You can even get a facsimile edition. It is studied widely in Israel and is the subject of scholarly conferences and publications. The grave of R. Epstein in Krakow is still a place of pilgrimage and a friend sent me a photograph a week ago of the tombstone, with an acrostic poem in Hebrew engraved on it. So the Nazis did not succeed. Their spiritual heirs, from Jeremy Corbyn to Ayatollah Khamenei, will also, God willing, fail as well.

A fortnight ago, I went to New York to celebrate Dad’s 91st birthday. I stayed with my brother Josh, who lives just across the road from our parents’ home in upper Manhattan, and we spent a wonderful week together with his cats, his library, his many friends in our old neighborhood. His hospitality sets a very high standard to aspire to. I belong to Chabad of the Central Valley in Fresno. Rabbi Zirkind and his family built it all out of nothing, like true pioneers. We’re a small community here in the sunny heart of California, but vibrant and warm, and active, and growing. (Come and spend Shabbat with us next time you go to see Yosemite or the Sequoias!) So of course I wanted to go to 770 Eastern Parkway, and though I was quite prepared to take the No. 3 train, Dad insisted on driving.

On that nice Sunday morning a week ago yesterday, he and Mom and I got into the car and off we went, getting lost only once. We parked a block or two away, and walked to the world center of Chabad Lubavitch. They talk about ground zero — this was ground infinity. Probably there’s always a crowd outside: on that sunny, pleasant day many Hasidim were observing city workers cutting down a diseased sycamore tree, and others were rushing to the beit midrash, socializing. A happy, energetic atmosphere. In the secular world it is youth that receives admiration and attention; but in the Torah world one honors age. So my parents became a kind of celebrities. A courtly gentleman, a rosh yeshiva, as we learned, engaged Dad in pleasant conversation about Brighton Beach, and Brooklyn, and life in general, and asked the inevitable question, “Did you put on tefillin this morning?”

Dad is, to put it mildly, not religious. So he replied cheerfully, “Not since my bar mitzvah in 1940!” Maybe, his interlocutor ventured, it’s time? So Dad put on tefillin then and there, and I took a picture on my phone of him reciting the Kriyas Shema, right there in front of 770. People smiled. A young woman with a stroller paused to chat with us and say Mazel tov. Myself, I felt there was light in the air and the law of gravity was slightly suspended. To tell you the truth, what I truly felt, and kept feeling, and feel now, is that we had been granted the blessing to be at the Beit ha-Mikdash, that we were there. Not metaphorically, not as if, not almost. But for real.

Afterwards we went to do errands: to Judaica World and Merkaz Stam for Havdalah candles (not easily obtainable in Fresno) and seforim and maybe a souvenir or two. Or three. And to Ess & Bentsh (Yiddish: “Eat and then say grace”) for some tasty falafels. Two without kharif, one with harbe, and khamutsim also be-vakasha. Chips? Betakh! And just in time, too, for the lunchtime crowd soon were lining up almost into the street: families with strollers, the latter with cabin baggage tags labeled SU, that is Aeroflot, the Russian airline. When we had got out of our car, I’d inadvertently dropped the embroidered bag that holds my reading glasses. When we returned, there it was, untouched.

History continues to churn uneasily in its bed of fever. Israel left Gaza, after taking it in a defensive war. Hamas took over and is teaching children to send balloons that set fire to forests and crops. Just this past Shabbos, Parashat Shoftim commanded us not to cut down enemy fruit trees. So if you want to observe a living example of the exact antithesis to Torah, to everything that is sacred and true, you don’t have to look far. That rabid Jew-hater may become Britain’s prime minister, and BDS is the common currency of the anti-Semitic left-fascists of America’s campuses. Meantime in Israel there is polarization, sinat khinam (baseless hatred) of the kind that lost us the Second Temple. As they say, Save me from my friends, my enemies I can take care of myself. And I’ll bet many of you, my friends, just like me, employ the miracle of email to exchange worries about the Jewish future with fellow cranky old pals wondering how the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket. Oy! And I mean old: your reporter is due to turn the magic number 65 this fall. As the Rosh Yeshiva said, turning to me with a smile from talking to my folks, “You’re no spring chicken yourself!” (Except from him it sounded like a compliment.)

But the main thing, as R. Nachman of Breslov said, and his followers never tire of saying, is not to despair! Because we’ve got Hashem going into battle for us (see Shoftim on that, too), and we’ve got not one, but two armies, whose acronyms are Tsahal and Chabad.

Don’t despair. Because on Rosh Chodesh Elul, for the first time in 78 years (it’s 5778 now: 1940 was 5700, the turn of the century!), Yosef Boruch ben Asher Zelig put on tefillin and recited the Shema, on a beautiful morning in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. May the merit of R. Epstein, R. Shapira, and their descendants continue. A little light drives away a lot of darkness! May all of us be imbued with Ahavas Yisroel and Mesiras Nefesh — the love of Israel and of all Jews everywhere, without exception, and dedication of our whole selves — and…

She-yevaneh Bet ha-Mikdash bi-mheyra be-yomeinu, ve-ten chelkenu be-Toratekha. May the Temple be rebuilt speedily, in our days, and grant us a portion in Your Torah. Amen!

Happy Birthday Dad!

Love from your son, Yaakov

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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