I was privileged recently to hear a lecture by the incomparable Rabbi Berel Wein at Bais Torah, the synagogue that he founded before making aliyah. Rabbi Wein returned to Monsey, NY, to promote The Legacy: Teaching for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, which he wrote in collaboration with South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. As a proud Litvak myself, I was eager to attend and hear his thoughts.
When I arrived at Bais Torah, the parking lot was already full. While I had to park some distance away and walk back to the shul, it was gratifying to see so many people at the event. In fact, before Rabbi Wein could start speaking we were asked to move from the auditorium to the shul, as there was not enough room for the overflow crowd.
Rabbi Wein began by speaking in glowing terms about the South African Jewish community, the vast majority of which is of Lithuanian descent. He quoted the late Ponevezher Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who lauded their good character traits and pleasant ways. Rabbi Wein contrasted that with American Jews, who, when they arrived here from Europe, were so determined to give their children what they themselves did not have, that they forget to pass along the good things that they did possess.
Rabbi Wein spoke about the honesty of Lithuanian Jews, their good humor and their attitude that living a Torah life was an honor and privilege. He discussed the mussar movement that arose in Lithuania as the natural outgrowth of the intense focus on personal growth that characterized Lithuanian Jewry. He also emphasized that, even while embroiled in the various disputes that engulfed European Jewry during the 19th and 20th centuries, Litvaks managed to not lose their attitude of pleasantness toward one another. Despite the turbulence that characterized much of that period, and the various religious and political groups that were at odds with one another, there was still collaboration between the groups when possible, and the discussions were more scholarly and less acrimonious than in other places.
Throughout his speech, Rabbi Wein kept the audience entertained with his trademark dry wit and captivating anecdotes about his father and father-in-law, his teachers, and other rabbinic personalities. He spoke of a Pesach seder that Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski organized for the Socialist university students in Vilna, and described his shock at first hearing his father-in-law’s heavy Lithuanian accent and lisp – “He began kiddush with “Yom Hasisi” and I almost fell off my chair”. He described how Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, his school rebbe in Chicago, came to the US without speaking a word of English and yet was able to keep a classroom of boys spellbound by teaching them how to interpret newspaper articles in return for the boys teaching him English. At one point during his speech, Rabbi Wein’s cell phone rang. Slightly embarrassed, he quipped “if it’s not the Pope, I’m not answering” while silencing the ringer.
Rabbi Wein then began speaking about the intense love of Lithuanian Jews for the land of Israel. He spoke of the aliyah of the students of the Vilna Gaon, and of the strong push within Lithuanian Jewry for a return to Israel. He recalled the immense pride that Jews in Chicago felt upon the announcement of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the tears of his father when he heard the news. He described the heavy emotion that was felt when the Israeli flag was raised at the Chicago rally in support of the newly-formed State.
It was at this point that I started to cry.
At the beginning of this past week’s parsha, we find Yaakov Avinu leaving his parents’ house for Haran. The Torah tells us וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה – “and Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and traveled toward Haran”. The Beis HaLevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, is bothered by the seeming redundancy in the verse. The Torah could have simply said that Yaakov traveled toward Haran, and it would be obvious to us that he left Be’er Sheva. What message is the Torah telling us by including the “extra” piece of information?
The Beis HaLevi answers that there are two reasons for people to travel from one place to another. In some cases, a person is forced to leave his place, and his ultimate destination is only a secondary concern. In other cases, a person sees an opportunity that is only available in a new place, and leaves his current location only a means to that end. In Yaakov’s case, both aspects are true. Yaakov was forced to leave Be’er Sheva to escape the wrath of his brother Eisav, and travelled specifically to Haran to find a wife. Therefore, the Torah included both statements.
The night before Rabbi Wein’s speech, my wife and I spoke, yet again, of leaving Monsey. There are a number of reasons for us to move – we are dissatisfied with the education that our children currently receive, we are tired of the “me-first” New York attitude that so many people here seem to exhibit, and we are disgusted by the stories of corruption and law-breaking that often dominate the local headlines. While we are happy to be close to family, we are in agreement that we would be better off elsewhere.
But while there are many things pushing us away from Monsey, there is no place in the US that pulls us, that tells us “move here, this is the place for you!” Boston and Baltimore, Philly and Phoenix, Dallas and Denver, Cleveland and Chicago. All are fine communities, and all have much to offer. But like my ancestors hundreds of years ago, I know where I truly belong.
And so I cried. I cried for the circumstances that have kept me from Israel for the past fifteen years, and for the circumstances that continue to keep me from returning. I cried because I know that my immediate future is still in the United States, either in Monsey or somewhere else. But mostly, I cried because I miss the alleys of Jerusalem and the hills of Tzfat, the smell of the sea and the sights of the shuk. In the poetic words of Yehuda HeLevi, לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב. “my heart is in the East, but I am in the utter West.”
I want to come home.