The opening sentence of a column I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Reb Yitzchak (Isaac) Gross (“The Road [Thankfully] not Taken”) was “The genesis of this column was a Facebook post about the yahrtzeit of Grand Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rav.” It was immediately followed by “Raise your hands if you ever thought you’d see a sentence like that beginning one of my columns. Just as I thought, not too many hands.” That sentiment probably applies to the title of this column as well. Please keep reading; all will be made clear.
This column is about my other grandfather, Rav Zvi Hirsch Kaplan, whom I called Zayde. He emigrated to the United States with his family from Mir, Russia, the original home of the famous yeshiva in 1924. For 25 years he was the sixth grade rebbe at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath (YTV), where he was well known for his vast erudition, innovative teaching skills, and deep love of his students.
Many years ago, my father told me the following story about his father. A pedagogical method of discipline in those days that Zayde followed was to write on the blackboard the names of students whose behavior could benefit from improvement — a practice acceptable then but not now. I note, however, that Zayde also wrote another list on the blackboard of boys who were doing especially well.
One day, the school principal unexpectedly came to speak to the students. Zayde carefully backed up to the blackboard to block the names of the boys on the first list from the principal’s view, and using his long black rabbinic coat, he surreptitiously erased them. When the principal left, the back of Zayde’s jacket was white from chalk. He then gently explained his behavior, noting that he wrote the names on the board for the students to see and help improve themselves, not to embarrass them in front of the principal.
This was quite remarkable. While Zayde’s wardrobe was, on a rebbe’s salary, meager, he was always impeccably dressed, with an immaculately clean shirt and jacket, and nary a speck or stain on any item of clothing. He took seriously (though obviously not literally) the Talmudic dictum (Shabbat 114a) that “a Torah scholar whose clothes are stained is liable to receive the death penalty.” Just imagine how important he considered his students’ emotional well-being for him to sully his jacket to protect them from embarrassment.
When I first heard this bit of family lore, I assumed it contained some truth heavily embellished over time. That is, until Mishpacha Magazine published a collection of memories, shared by a number of prominent figures, that described “those special moments with their teachers and mentors that have stayed with them always.” One memory was from Rabbi Nosson Scherman, the general editor of Artscroll/Mesorah Publications. It was about Zayde, his sixth grade rebbe, erasing the blackboard list — told exactly as my father told it.
Rabbi Scherman ended this way: “Rabbeinu HaKadosh, the redactor of the Mishna, said that he was so great because when he was young he merited to see Rabi Meir’s back — and if he had seen Rabi Meir’s face he would have even been greater. That day we saw Rav Kaplan’s back.”
I was touched, and as is my wont, I wrote an email to Rabbi Scherman: “I very much enjoyed your remembrance of R. Hirsch Kaplan in Mishpacha magazine. Or let me say that another way: I loved your remembrance of my zayde, Rav Zvi Kaplan.” Rabbi Scherman graciously responded: “Your email means much to me. That an elderly (at least we, as 10- and 11-year-olds thought so) Yiddish-speaking European Jew could have such an impact on young boys is phenomenal. Given today’s philosophy of chinuch [education], he did everything wrong, but the results were superlative. Yehi zichro Baruch. [May his memory be for a blessing.]” Indeed, I later heard that Rabbi Scherman, when telling this story, adds that while he doesn’t remember much of his sixth-grade studies, he vividly remembers that his rebbe loved him.
“What does this have to do with Hamodia?” you ask. Please bear with me just a little longer, while I tell three more stories about Zayde, who, in addition to being a serious talmid chacham and student of Talmud, was a proficient Hebrew speaker and writer, expert ba’al dikduk (Hebrew grammar authority), and student of Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), which he knew by heart.
1. There was an observant family in Mir who were also Zionists and thus wanted their sons to know how to speak Hebrew. They therefore hired Zayde, who was unmarried, to teach them Ivrit. Zayde, while I’m sure performing his teaching duties diligently, found the time to notice Yehudis, the boys’ beautiful red-headed sister. I knew her as Bobbie, and she became the namesake of many descendants, including my youngest daughter, Gabrielle — Yehudit Yifah.
2. Much of Zayde’s teaching career took place during the Depression, when teachers’ salaries in yeshivot were often paid late if at all. But Zayde’s reputation as a Hebraist and excellent and innovative pedagogue (he was the first to use a blackboard when teaching Talmud) became so well known that Dr. Joel Braverman, founder and head of Flatbush Yeshiva, a much more modern school than YTV and one that paid its teachers well, on time, and in full, offered Zayde a job. Though times were tough, Zayde declined out of devotion to YTV as well as being personally uncomfortable teaching in a coed environment. While I might have given Zayde different career advice, I admire his loyalty and respect his decision.
3. Many well-known Torah leaders, including Zayde, would go to a certain hotel in the Catskills for summer vacations. These scholars, like all vacationers, spent a bit of their time playing games. Theirs was called Tanach, in which someone would begin a verse from the Hebrew Bible, and the others had to finish it and name the book and chapter where it could be found. But they stopped playing after a relatively short time because, as one complained, “Kaplan always wins.” (I’m sure Zayde would be especially proud of his great-great-grandson, my grandson Ezra, who was the winner of the Chidon Tanach in Canada and will be one of Canada’s representatives in Israel this coming Yom HaAtzma’ut.)
And now to Hamodia. I recently received an email from my cousin David and then a telephone call from my cousin Shimon, that the Binyan children’s section of Hamodia had a graphic story (cartoon) about Zayde. Yup, the blackboard story.
I’m not a reader or subscriber (duh), so I tried to buy a copy. On Friday I scoured Jewish, and even non-Jewish, stores in Teaneck for one — no luck. I called Hamodia’s office — no response. So, moving from 19th-century retailing to 21st-century social media, I posted a request for help on TeaneckShuls and my Facebook page. While many made suggestions, I had already tried them unsuccessfully.
After Shabbat, I used a different approach and asked if someone who gets Hamodia would please give or lend me their copy. A number of generous offers ensued, and by Monday I had my own copy, given by a friend from long ago. The story was exactly as my father and Rabbi Scherman told it, the graphics much better than I imagined (the bottommost picture of Zayde is actually quite accurate), and there was a short but detailed biography that hit all the right spots about Zayde’s life.
Almost, that is. The biography’s last line mentions that his three sons-in-law, Rabbis Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky, Usher Katzman, and Baruch Kahn, were all rabbanim and teachers of Torah. True, though the first tragically died young (before I was born), and his widow, my Aunt Hadassah, later married another beloved uncle, Rabbi Eli Moshe Liss, also a rabbi and teacher of Torah.
In mentioning only these uncles, though, Hamodia buried the lede by failing to recognize the three unmentioned sons. All, though not becoming rabbis or teachers of Torah, were YTV alumni who remained committed to Orthodoxy throughout their lives, devoting time to Torah study, with my father becoming an outstanding, though non-ordained, talmid chacham and communal leader. And even more significant is that these sons, together with their wives, raised children who followed in their footsteps, as did their three sisters with their husbands.
Indeed, all of Zayde and Bobbie’s numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren remain committed to the Orthodox traditions, tailored to time and place, that Zayde and Bobbie brought with them from Mir almost 100 years ago. That wasn’t always the case for that generation of immigrants who endured the Depression, World War II, the Shoah, and a new country not conducive to Orthodox practice. Many of that generation, for entirely understandable reasons, shed their Orthodox practices while remaining committed Jews. But Zayde and Bobbie’s family’s loyalty to Orthodox tradition was equal to Zayde’s loyalty to YTV.
The blackboard story is a lovely one, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Scherman, Mishpacha, Hamodia, and now the Jewish Standard for bringing it to people’s attention. But in its sweetness, we should not miss the iron determination of some from that generation to retain, under difficult circumstances, the millennia-old traditions that were passed down to them and that they passed down to us. It is they who are “the Greatest Generation.”