Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

The Road (Thankfully) Not Taken

The genesis of this column was a Facebook post about the yahrtzeit of Grand Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (Reb Yoelish), the Satmar Rav (SR), who died in 1979. (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.) And it’s based on the relationship between my maternal grandfather, Reb Yitzchak (Isaac) Gross, and the SR, which I noted in a comment to that post and which, in turn, engendered a thread of its own.

First, some family background. My grandmother, Mrs. Regina (Rochel) Gross (“Our Most Precious Right”) and her children (my mother and her three brothers) immigrated to the United States in 1933 from Nagyszollos (or Soilish as it was pronounced in my home), my grandmother’s birthplace. Our family’s roots in Soilish date back to her great-grandfather, Rav Shmuel Shmelke Klein, known as the Tzror HaChaim, my (and Yair Lapid’s – yup, that one) great-great-great grandfather, who was its Av Beit Din in the nineteenth century.

My grandfather had come to America a few years earlier to earn enough money to make his family’s immigration possible. Before he left Europe, the family had lived in his hometown, Nagykaroly (known to the Jewish community as Kroly). In my grandfather’s absence, however, my grandmother moved the family back to Soilish to be close to her parents. (I would have added the countries for my grandparents’ hometowns but, depending on the era, war, and ever moving boundaries, they were in Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, or Ukraine.)

Zayde and his father were very close to the SR in Europe. In fact, in 1925 when the SR was offered the position of head rabbi of Kroly, they went to his home to convince him to accept that position, which he eventually did. (The SR mentions this visit in the preface to one of his books, “Divrei Yoel.”)

Because of this close relationship, in the late ’20s my grandfather discussed his emigration plans with the SR. He was looking for advice, not a psak (religious determination). The SR’s position was clear and strong: “Don’t leave.” My being here to write this story is a testament that the advice wasn’t taken.

Fast forward to 1946 and the SR’s arrival in America. Zayde, notwithstanding his close relationship with the SR in Europe, was not a classic Satmar Hassid; he lived in the Bronx, not Williamsburg; dressed in Western garb, not Hassidic; and didn’t follow many of the SR’s edicts and teachings – for example, my grandfather was a staunch Zionist. As he once told my brother, he thought the SR was a great man, but he couldn’t be a follower because the SR was, using Zayde’s pronunciation, a big ba’al machloykes (a controversialist).

Nonetheless, their past relationship and my grandfather’s strong belief in kavod harav – the need to show respect to people of stature – impelled him to travel to Williamsburg specifically to welcome the SR to America. The SR’s reaction to Zayde’s thoughtfulness and expression of esteem was a sharp rebuke: (I paraphrase the conversation as told to me by my grandfather in his usual mixture of English and Yiddish): “In Europe you ignored what I told you, and now you come to pay me kavod (honor)?” My grandfather, no shrinking violet, responded in kind: “Had I listened to the Rebbe (even now using the third person as a sign of deference), I and my family would all be ash in bluta (smoke and ashes).” (Unmentioned was the fact, which the SR probably knew, that all of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s many siblings and most of their children who remained in Europe were among Eichmann’s victims.)

Perhaps the SR silently acknowledged the justice and truth embedded in my grandfather’s retort. Or perhaps, as a master of wit and sharpness, the SR recognized and appreciated those traits in others. But for whatever reason, this exchange did not sever their relationship. Rather, it became even warmer and more respectful after this meeting.

I remember one motza’ei Shabbat when I was a teenager and Zayde wanted to take my father, my brother, and me to see a Satmar shalashudis (third Shabbat meal) in Williamsburg. No, we weren’t going to violate Shabbat by driving there before it ended. Rather, shalashudis in Satmar didn’t even begin until long after the Shabbat Queen had departed Far Rockaway, leaving us enough time to make the long trek to Brooklyn.

And so we did, entering the large ballroom even before the SR arrived. Hundreds if not more of his Hassidim were milling about when he suddenly appeared, causing an aisle to miraculously appear, reminding me of the splitting of the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:20 or, perhaps more vividly, “The Ten Commandments”).

As the SR walked to his table, acknowledging various Hassidim on his right and left with a nod of his head, he suddenly came across the four of us who had been caught in the middle of the room on the edge of the aisle. We certainly stood out, like a female rabbi at an RCA convention, in our Modern Orthodox dress and mostly clean-shaven faces (my grandfather sported a small goatee). The SR suddenly stopped, holding out his hand to my grandfather who kissed it. Zayde then introduced us to the SR who welcomed us personally and warmly. The Hassidim seeing this exchange looked, not surprisingly, stunned.

End of story.

There was some discussion about this tale in the post’s comments section . One FB friend, a well-regarded Jewish Studies professor with whom I both strongly agree and disagree depending on the issue, commented: “One really has to understand the context here. Many in that world through 1938 and even to 1940 had no idea what was coming. And [the SR] did help Jews escape to America after the Nazis invaded Hungry. . . . Hindsight here misses a lot.”

I responded: “You’re right that context is important. But I think you actually missed the most important context. The essence of [my] story is not the advice the SR gave my grandfather… before the war. It was his disparaging comment made AFTER the war when he had the necessary 20-20 hindsight and still implied that my grandfather erred in not following that advice.”

Context. Nuance. Shades of gray vs. white/black. Taking the time to listen to opposing views for their substance rather than using that time to draft a rebuttal. Putting ourselves in our adversaries’ shoes. Understanding that even if we’re wise, we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom. These and similar aspects of communication are sorely missing from much of the discourse, discussion, and debate in today’s so very complex, cacophonous, and contentious world.

Let me hasten to add that if I appear to be pointing a condemnatory index finger at others (which I admit I’m doing), three other fingers are pointing back at me. While I spend a good deal of time while drafting columns trying to be fair and consider the other side’s positions and arguments, in rereading some older ones I realize that even when I’m right (as I still think I usually am), I’m sometimes too dogmatic on my side and dismissive of the other. Hopefully in the New Year I’ll do better. I hope I can; I think we all can.

Zayde taught me many things. His encounters with the Satmar Rav taught me about the difficulty of predicting the future, the value of standing your ground with a mixture of respect and strength, and the idea that relationships are not always what they seem on the outside. Beyond that, though, the effects of these encounters ripple down to the present time, sending different messages and teaching new lessons to later generations as long as our ears, our minds, and our hearts remain open to accept them.

May the New Year bring us good health and peace. Ketiva V’Chatima Tova.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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