One of the truly ingenious comedy routines of all time was the 2,000-Year-Old Man skit, devised by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (ne Melvyn Kaminsky) during the 50s. In the sketch, Reiner interviews Brooks, who is supposed to be 2,000 years old. Brooks speaks with a heavy Yiddish accent. The two performed this act for a decade before friends and colleagues, but Yiddish was persona non grata in the 1950s. Until 1960, when George Burns (ne Nathan Birnbaum) told them that if they didn’t put in on a record, he would steal it. So, they unleashed this act onto the world to great success.
One of the vignettes is about the American Revolution, and Reiner asks Brooks if he knew Paul Revere. Brooks snorts (like only he can) and exclaims, ‘Terrible Anti-Semite!’ Reiner is taken aback with disbelief. So, Brooks explains, ‘He road through Boston yelling: The Yiddish are coming! The Yiddish are coming!’ Reiner calms him down and explains that he was warning about the English troops and was really saying the ‘British are coming.’ Brooks is desolate, ‘And I didn’t go to his funeral, send his widow a card or anything!’
Well, right after WW2, the Yiddish were indeed coming!
Actually, starting during the war, a number of major Torah scholars and Chasidic leaders came to America. These Torah giants had a large role in the changes to American Orthodoxy in the coming decades.
And the Yiddish? It had been on the wane for decades. These new immigrants put Yiddish back in play.
Before the War, generally speaking, the most religious and talented members of the Eastern European communities didn’t emigrate. As early as 1890s, the greatest Torah authorities came out against emigration to the New World. The most famous was R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, but he was hardly alone in condemning the Treyfe Medina, the negative brother of the Goldiner Medina. Rabbi Yakov Dovid Wilowsky (Radvaz) called those who came to America ‘poshei Yisrael (sinners of Israel), and told a meeting of the Union of Orthodox Congregations in New York that, ‘it was not only home they leave behind in Europe, it was their Torah, their Talmud, their Yeshivot, their Chachomim.’
This is not the forum to discuss the reasons for this position, just to explain why, generally speaking, the newly minted Americans lacked strong rabbinic leadership. However. This changed during and after the Shoah. There was no longer a choice, and the group that did the most to bring over these Torah giants was Va’ad Hatzala.
The list of those who came is impressive: Rav Joseph Breuer, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz of the Mir, Reb Dovid Lifshitz of YU, and a number of Chassideishe Rabbeim whom I will discuss in another blog.
In this edition, though, I want to really discuss one individual, and I’ll let a student of his introduce him. I had a wonderful afternoon in Lakewood talking to Rav Shmuel Blech, and he said:
Lakewood had a lot to do with all of this. R. Aharon Kotler (1891-1962, founder of the Lakewood yeshiva) coming from Europe to Lakewood made a tremendous impact. Because R. Aharon had a shita (philosophic position) which changed everything. First Lakewood, then America. He said that Torah and Mitzvot identify us. Let me a give you an example. Let’s say I’m a doctor. Is that what I do? Or is that who I am? R. Aharon explained that previously Jews in America thought that mitzvot were just what I did. But now R. Aharon was teaching and convincing people that mitzvot and Torah define who I am. This is a tremendous change.
Reb Aharon didn’t make up this position. It already existed in Europe without anyone saying it. There was no identity crisis in Europe. He just formulated for the American scene where it wasn’t recognized or implemented. He articulated this life changing shita.
How did he succeed in spreading this philosophy? Self-Sacrifice! He knew he had to give everything (of himself) to convince American Jews that truly being Jewish wasn’t archaic. And he did!
Rav Aharon was a unique personality, He was, perhaps, the greatest Torah scholar of the generation, but in addition to that he had great organizational skills, and as Rav Blech explained great Self-Sacrifice.
In my interview with Prof. Chaim Waxman, he referred me to a newspaper article from the Lakewood Daily Times on April 19, 1943, it records:
Thru the endeavors of Rabbi Nissan Waxman of Congregation Sons of Israel this city (Lakewood) was chosen for this institute (Beit Midrash HaGadol). Rabbi Waxman was also instrumental in persuading the great Talmudic authority Rabbi Aaron Kotler of Kletzk, Poland to lead and guide the research of the Rabbinical Seminary.
Of course, Rabbi Nissan Waxman was Prof. Waxman’s father, who deserves the credit for bringing him to the small town of Lakewood, NJ. Reb Aharon, at one point, revealed that the Chofetz Chaim had told him many years earlier that it was best to study in a small town.
Reb Aharon also worked tirelessly with Chinuch Atzmoi, and for this cause he brought together all strands of Orthodoxy. Here is an amazing clip from the 1956 dinner, the speakers were Reb Aharon, Irving Bunim and the Rov:
But Reb Aharon’s life work was the Yeshiva in Lakewood. He started the Yeshiva with 15 students. There were 450 when he died in 1962. Today, there are about 7,000. It’s been estimated that the alumni of the Yeshiva have opened over a thousand Torah institutions around the globe.
One of the major factors in the rebirth of Orthodoxy and Torah study in America which blossomed in the 60’s, was the cadre of Torah scholars brought over by Va’ad Hatzala and towering over them all was Rav Aharon Kotler, Z”L. The Yiddish, indeed, had come.
Next: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Difference!