L ast week, the loss of, zichrono livrachah, was too fresh, with the feelings still swirling, the thoughts disjointed, for me to write about it. And in the short tribute to Reb Nisson that I penned here three years ago, I said that I almost didn’t want to be writing it, lest it be thought that those brief, inadequate paragraphs could somehow substitute for the much fuller written appreciation he so richly deserved.

Like so many other writers, I owe him a personal debt for publishing some of my first writing, and for serving as a role model — a “bona fide literary legend” is how I put it then. I also wrote about the Jewish Observer, describing it as “a critical part of Orthodoxy’s coming-of-age as a confident, contemporary faith community that not only had a coherent and well-considered worldview, but also the ability to articulate it in a sophisticated manner.” And, I continued, 

Reb Nisson was that project’s supervising engineer: discovering and cultivating new talent, and making wise use of that already known, including his own; choosing the battles to fight, mapping out the strategy and commissioning the warriors; charting new territory for intra-communal attention and discussion; putting those, within and without, who would defame us, on notice that we were listening and would respond vigorously; opening up new vistas of thought, biography, history to a broad readership. 

All so true, and just recalling those words makes me miss those days all over again. Now that a beautiful tribute appeared last week, focusing on him not just professionally but personally, too, permit me to add a few strokes to the portrait already painted.

First, there was the willingness to do anything, everything, whatever it took, in order to produce another quality issue and thereby move the Torah community’s agenda forward. No matter how seemingly beneath him, Reb Nisson was prepared to do what needed to done.

I don’t think this stemmed from humility, although Reb Nisson certainly exuded no airs; it was, instead, rooted in the fact that he was in it for the emes, he really believed in the cause. His daughter recalls him running down a Brooklyn street upon spotting an inexperienced writer whose first work he had just published, just to offer his thanks. Who does things like that? Someone who’s lishmah.

Related to this is a seeming contradiction he embodied. On the one hand, he was the ultimate “party man,” a loyal soldier of the Agudah movement, who held the megaphone that broadcast its positions to the world. Cynics might have called him its “minister of information.” At the same time, however, Reb Nisson was a sophisticate, a deep and independent thinker, someone whose witty repartee and worldliness told you he was no one’s fool.

But if he embodied the contrast, he embodied its resolution too: He was sophisticated enough to know that subservience to those wise in Torah is the ultimate sophistication. In Shaarei Teshuvah (3:156), Rabbeinu Yonah writes that reverence of Torah greats leads to fear of Heaven. And it is of such fear that it is said (Iyov 28:28) “Behold, yiras Hashem is wisdom,” meaning that it, and it alone, is true wisdom (see Shabbos 31b on the quoted verse). And so it was that Reb Nisson, because he was intellectually with-it, made it okay to be mevatel daas to gedolei Torah.

Until I became an editor, I never appreciated how difficult some parts of Reb Nisson’s work might have been for him. For a frum publication, there is always going to be a more limited pool of qualified potential writers (although I believe there’s a lot more as-yet untapped talent out there than some think), particularly if the editor is looking for writers to address a specific topic.

The best writers and thinkers, even if they’re not professional writers, are often in huge demand or are too otherwise occupied to write. Meanwhile, the quality of the submissions that come in unsolicited may leave much to be desired. Although the JO in its time had a near-monopoly, I assume there were months when Rabbi Wolpin faced the problem of putting together a creditable issue from the material on hand. And I have no doubt that, as a result, there were many times when he had the unenviable task of doing a deep edit or a complete overhaul of writing specimens that were wholly unworthy of publication as submitted.

As essential a purpose as the JO served, and as much edification, inspiration, and enjoyment as it brought to generations of readers (I’ve never parted with the large stack of issues sitting in a closet at home, although I never seem to get around to going through them), not all of what appeared therein sparkled. The work of some writers, including that of Reb Nisson, surely did, but then there were the pieces he had to print due to necessity, including the aforementioned dearth of alternative material.

And so, Reb Nisson likely had to undertake to rehabilitate weak prose, restring mangled syntax, and replace misused vocabulary in a way that made those articles printable, yet not unrecognizable to their authors. I can only imagine that having to do so was probably neither easy nor enjoyable for him. He was, after all, someone who so obviously loved language and took visceral delight in the well-turned phrase or gainfully employed word. I always fancied him our William Safire.

The most enduring memories, however, will be of the simple, everyday kindnesses that flowed from the elemental dignity bestowed upon one and all. My wife wrote a piece for the Jewish Observer while still in high school, about her experiences volunteering along with her Bais Yaakov classmates at Chronic Disease Hospital. She had natural writing talent even back then, but it was still the work of a teenager. Yet she recalls feeling that Rabbi Wolpin treated her essay like that of an aspiring writer with potential, not the sophomoric first try of, well, a sophomore.

Reb Nisson wouldn’t, couldn’t have it any other way. Yehi zichro baruch.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 659. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com.