I was transformed from being a baal agalah to being the “good friend of the Rebbe”
Much has been written about Rav Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe ztz”l. Much more needs to be said, but I never learned in his yeshivah, and I never visited his home.
So what additional perspective can I offer? The one period in my life when I was privileged to spend time with the Rebbe almost weekly.
During the early 1980s, when the Rebbe was already living in Boro Park, he would still come to Washington Heights to deliver a Chumash shiur on Thursday nights.
There weren’t many volunteers to drive the Rebbe back to Boro Park as that meant returning to the Heights around midnight, when the prospects of finding a parking spot were bleak. But I jumped at any opportunity to drive the Rebbe home.
He always sat next to me in the passenger seat. “You are not my chauffeur,” he told me. And he would always ask me if I was in a rush.
I’d always reply, “I’m in no hurry.”
The reason for this question were the countless times we made stops on the way home.
Sometimes he would ask me to stop on the West Side so he could visit someone.
Other times we would stop at the hospital for him to do bikur cholim.
When I asked if I could ask a question, he would say, “It’s always a pleasure a speak to you in learning.”
Although I am a Litvak, I soon caught on that there were cultural differences between the Heights and Boro Park.
In the Heights, he was Rav Perlow; once we crossed into Brooklyn, he became the Novominsker Rebbe.
For stops in Manhattan, I stayed in the car; this was not the case in Brooklyn.
Often we would stop in Boro Park at a vort or a l’chayim or a chasunah to say mazel tov. The Rebbe never said a word; somehow, however, I knew that at these times, I should accompany the Rebbe inside. Well-wishers would surround him, and after a few minutes, he would look in my direction, and I knew that meant I should walk over to him and begin to escort him out.
The one special memory I have of these precious rides occurred 38 years ago.
We stopped at a l’chayim, and as usual, I accompanied him into the room. I stood to the side, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible. After a few minutes, he glanced in my direction, and I began to walk toward him.
One of the baalei simchah understood what was going to happen and said, “The Rebbe doesn’t have to leave now. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of your baal agalah. He then pressed $20 into my hand and said, “A gutte nacht, you can leave now, and take a piece of cake with you for the car.”
The Rebbe saw everything. And everyone around him sensed that something was awry.
Without fanfare, the Rebbe walked over to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and said with a smile, “This is not my baal agalah, this is my Thursday night chavrusa. Without him, I would sleep the whole way home. He’s my good friend and a baal chesed.”
Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed, the man who had pressed the $20 bill into my hand, quickly apologized. I was transformed from being a baal agalah to being the “good friend of the Rebbe.”
The disparity between us was striking.
The Rebbe was 30 years my senior, a rosh yeshivah, a world-renowned gadol b’Yisrael, and a recognized leader of Klal Yisrael.
I was a kollel yungerman driving a 1976 Caprice Classic.
Yet none of that mattered on that Thursday evening in Boro Park.
On that I night, I became the “good friend” of the Novominsker Rebbe.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 819)
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