Memories of my Grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Green
I am taking a (short) break from my views on the politics and policies of Israel, to talk about my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Green of blessed memory. I just published a book about his life on Amazon called “A Head of Iron: Memories of Rabbi Jacob Green”, in anticipation of his first yartzeit.
From his formative years as a student under the esteemed Rabbi Yitzchak Shmidman at Yeshiva Toras Chaim, his brilliance and destined greatness were recognized early on. Taught by the luminaries of his time, including his Rebbeim, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Dovid Lipchitz (the Suvalker Rav), Rav Weil, and Rav Shmidman, he honed his knowledge and acquired a deep understanding of Jewish traditions and teachings. His unwavering commitment to religious studies and profound intellectual acumen earned him the esteemed accolade of a “true Talmudist” amongst his peers.
Gifted with a commanding oratory skill, he began captivating audiences with his words of inspiration and insight from the tender age of seventeen. While learning in Torah Vodaas high school, a request from his Rebbe Rabbi Shmidman helped ignite in him that fire that so many got to see. Toras Chaim needed to raise funds, and Rabbi Shmidman got permission from the Yiddish Theatre (in those days, it was as big a Broadway) to make an appeal. He tasked my grandfather with doing so. He would often recount this incident, telling me that he stood on stage during intermission, with his eyes closed, looking up at the sky, “just like my rebbe would do when he spoke” and gave a “fiery appeal.” While he did raise a nice sum, for him, although he didn’t know it then, this was the start of his next eighty years.
For over seventy years, my grandfather served as a pillar of wisdom and inspiration, captivating audiences with his commanding presence and captivating teachings. His tenure as the esteemed rabbi of the Rogers Avenue Synagogue in Baltimore, MD, allowed him to touch countless lives with his skillful teachings and compassionate guidance. With an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah, his lectures and sermons resonated deeply, leaving an enduring impact on all who had the privilege to listen. As I discovered while writing the book, dozens of people still fondly remember him doing their bar or bat mitzvahs, as well as weddings.
My grandfather was someone who could connect with, and relate to, anybody, at any level. During my research, I encountered over fifteen letters from various Baltimore organizations thanking him for speaking. He gave the opening prayer in Congress in 1960, spoke at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, and would draw crowds of over 250 people to his lectures.
Rabbi Green was also a staunch ally for the little man. He stood up for what was right, no matter what. As president of the Student Council in Yeshiva College, he pulled his government out of all communication with school leadership. He did this to protest injustices done by the administration. The dean tried to label him a communist (this was during the height of McCarthyism, when such labels had terrifying consequences) because he organized protests against the White Paper of 1939; defending Israel, and her right to exist. Luckily, he had a friend in Rabbi Dr. Belkin, who refused to allow that to happen.
While president of the S.O.Y, he went to synagogues across Brooklyn, making appeals every Shabbos, raising funds for food parcels for the survivors in Europe. He would continue studying in Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and soon received his smicha (rabbinic ordination). The night before the test, the Rav (Rav J.B. Soloveitchik) saw him studying, and called him over. The Rav asked him what tractates of Talmud he had learned in preparation for the next day’s oral examination. When my grandfather listed over 7, he looked at him and said “that’s enough to fail (obviously joking).” That really shook my grandfather’s nerves.
Yet, upon concluding the exam, the Rav did not make him wait for results, as was typically done, instead immediately wishing him Mazel Tov. Rav Dovid Lipshutz (the Suvalker Rav) was very close to my grandfather, and had been waiting outside to hear how he had done. When Rav Soloveitchik came out, he told the Suvalker, “err hub a kup ve eiysen (he has a head of iron).”
When he spoke, you felt the words penetrate you. When he spoke about his rebbeim, you saw the awe in his face. When he prayed, you could tell he was TALKING to G-d. When he folded his tallit, he looked genuinely sad to be parting with it. His words were powerful, but his actions were even greater. He led by example, he showed us all what it meant to be a G-d fearing Jew. More importantly, he taught us what it means to love your fellow Jew.
My Saba was a devoted family man, he cherished his beloved wife Florence and raised their three children (my mother and her two older brothers) with boundless love and devotion. The legacy of their exceptional relationship radiates through generations, with sixteen grandchildren and over forty great-grandchildren, each bearing witness to the enduring impact of their beloved Saba.
This week, as I was putting the finishing touches on the book, I was reminded by a cousin about the Zoom call we had on Chol Hamoed Pesach, 2020. Pulling up the recording, it felt (as my cousin speculated) that he was giving us his final marching orders. A true lover of Eretz Yisrael, he reminded my many cousins there of how special it really is, and not to be jealous of those in America. They are living the true dream, not us. He told us how proud he was of each one of his descendants, each special for being who they are. His words were so powerful then, and looking back now, are electric.
“…We are proud of each and every one of you. Extremely proud of you. Proud that you are what you are, and proud that you’re doing what you’re doing. And when someone is born, we say “one more, Baruch Hashem, they’re all mine.” You may not believe it, but I sit there and say “it’s mine, one more, more, more.” Each one of these, whether boy or girl, smart or average, they’re all a part of it. They’re all beautiful, not only in Hashem’s eyes but in our eyes. Because you don’t have much more to live for than what you bring into the world. They come from you, and they are here after you’re gone back to Hashem. And when you go back to Hashem what you do is, you look down from Hashem’s place, and you point out to Hashem, that’s mine, that’s mine, that’s mine. And you can be mispallel (pray) there, by Hashem, in His olam (world), for everyone that’s here, because you say “those are mine, those are mine.”
This is a man who understood the importance of our time in this world, and of ensuring we leave behind a legacy of which we can be proud. He is undoubtedly doing exactly what he said, standing next to G-d and pointing down. And he has plenty to be proud of, and plenty to point to. But the credit for it all, lies with him and my grandmother. She herself is a tremendous role model for us all, and inspires us to be our best selves every day.
My Saba ended off this final speech to his descendants with the following words. 96 years old, and just as sharp as he was at seventeen.
“Remember one thing. There are a lot of things. I played baseball. Struck out more
than I got hits. In life, I struck out many times. Even in shul as a Rav, not every
speech or Dvar Torah went right, and not every Mishnah I taught went right. But I
said to Hashem “let me stick to it, let me hold on.” You guys, you work, you try, you support the family. Stick with it even when it gets rough! Help each other! Hashem said, “I give you a Torah, as a gift, but it’s mine. As long as you hold it right, you can keep it. The moment you don’t treat it right, the Midrash says, “I’ll take it back.” My family: stick to each other, don’t let anybody fall! In the end, Hashem will say you kept it right. It was tough, whether helping with rent for one month or helping some other way, or just talking to each other. Stick to each other. Be there for each other.”
Last summer the world lost a giant of a man. Our family lost our patriarch, and I lost my biggest fan, and my idol, my Saba, Rabbi Jacob Green.
He is sorely missed by us all, but we know, he is sitting at the feet of Hashem, reaping the benefits of a life well lived, and of a family that will always strive to make him proud.