I tried, I really tried, but in my heart I knew I could only find happiness in Ponevezh
Quite early in my yeshivah career, I dreamed of eventually getting to Ponevezh. The Ponevezher Rav was related to us somehow, and more important, he was a talmid of my great grandfather, Reb Leizer Gordon ztz”l. The saintly Mashgiach, Reb Chatzkel Levenstein, was my sandek in Shanghai. Often my parents would repeat to me his brachah when he spoke at my bris — that I should emulate my namesake, the illustrious Reb Yosef Leib Bloch of Telz. The reputations of the great Ponevezher roshei yeshivah — Reb Leizer Shach and Reb Shmuel Rozovsky — managed to even reach my hometown of Cleveland. When my sister entered shidduchim, she was looking for the the crème de la crème of the yeshivah world. Most of the names mentioned were the top Ponevezher bochurim, spoken of in awe as “the next gadol hador.” This grandeur captured my imagination and cemented my determination to go learn in Ponevezh as soon as I was old enough.
When I was 17, I finally made my trip to Eretz Yisrael.
My first stop was my grandfather, Reb Zalman Sorotzkin, who knew I was coming to learn in Eretz Yisrael, but not that I had chosen my yeshivah. He assumed it was up to him to choose the appropriate yeshivah for me — and informed me of his choice. I was crestfallen and told him of my “Ponevezh dream.” He responded that the small yeshivah he had chosen was more fitting for my age.
And besides being my zeidy, he was the head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, so I was in no position to argue.
With a heavy heart I set off to “that yeshivah.” I was unhappy and let my zeidy know that.
“It’s a big change from America to Eretz Yisrael, you’ll get used to it, just be patient,” he told me.
I tried, I really tried, but in my heart I knew I could only find happiness in Ponevezh. Yet I knew I could only get my zeidy’s agreement after the fact. So at the end of the zeman, when bochurim were making their plans for the next zeman, I made my way to Bnei Brak to get accepted in Ponevezh for the following zeman.
I went straight to the top, our cousin the Ponevezher Rav, who I was certain would welcome me with open arms. Instead he informed me of a promise he had made to the head of the yeshivah I was coming from, that for the coming zeman he wouldn’t accept any of his bochurim. The background for this request, was the fact that many of the good boys in that yeshivah wanted to move up to Ponevezh, and he wanted to stem the tide. Ponevezh didn’t lack top bochurim, so they agreed to help that yeshivah. I explained to the Rav that Israeli boys can wait for another zeman to enter Ponevez. As I was only here for a limited amount of time, I couldn’t wait for another zeman. The Rav stood his ground, however, and refused to make an exception for me.
Now I had no choice. I went to my zeidy and told him I had already burned my bridges at the small yeshivah, so he had to help me get into Ponevezh. Though he was unhappy with the independent path I had undertaken, he realized that at this point, it was Ponevezh or nothing, and very reluctantly he agreed to call the Ponevezher Rav on my behalf. His reluctance was based on his assumption that the Rav wouldn’t be able to refuse him and he didn’t like to push his weight around.
But lo and behold, the Rav refused to budge despite all my zeidy’s pleading. I must tell you that I felt bad for my zeidy, as he was humiliated. “I tried my best, but cross Ponevezh off your list,” he told me. “I’ll help you pick another yeshivah”
My zeidy didn’t fully comprehend that Ponevezh was a lifelong dream for me, which I couldn’t let go of. So the first day of the new zeman, I made my way to Ponevezh. Learning in the beis medrash wasn’t an issue, because anyone can learn there. Of course I wasn’t given a bed in the dorm, so every night I asked around for an empty bed. I also wasn’t allowed to eat in the dining room, so I developed a taste for falafel.
In the morning I learned with a chavrusa, assuring him that in a matter of days I’d be a full- fledged student of the yeshivah. In the afternoon, I would take my Gemara and go to the Rav’s apartment and tell the rebbetzin that I wanted to speak to him, and she’d impress upon me that he was not in. I’d tell her that I’d wait till he came home, and then sit down on the couch and learn. I did this for five afternoons in a row. I knew this was the epitome of chutzpah; she didn’t invite me to sit and wait, and was clearly unhappy with me. I also suspected that the Rav was really in and by sitting there I was not letting him come out. But by then I had acquired some Israeli chutzpah and I also rationalized that it was for a good cause.
On the fifth afternoon, after I had sat down to wait, the Rav came out of his room, walked over to me with a big smile, and while shaking my hand warmly, said, “What I like is someone more stubborn and tenacious than me. Welcome to Ponevezh.” I went on to shteig in Ponevezh for a year, and I can state emphatically — it was well worth the struggle.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 838)
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