The indomitable spirit of Benny Fishoff
Photos: Meir Haltovsky, Family archives
If you live in a world with other people, and if you have any sort of interaction with them, you should probably read about Reb Yechiel Benzion (Benny) Fishoff.
When writing a tribute to a niftar, one reaches for those with the closest relationships: family, the talmidim or intimate friends, longtime neighbors who will share cherished memories. When it comes to Benny, there is a confidence that I can speak to anyone and they will have precisely the same reaction.
Because this isn’t about what he did, or where he came from, or even what he was.
This is about what he did to other people: the way he made you feel, the respect he conveyed with just his eyes, the warmth he exuded with his handshake, the appreciation he expressed with his smile.
It wasn’t Dale Carnegie or a LinkedIn seminar on creating connections. That wasn’t the secret of Benny Fishoff’s appeal. It was something much purer, much more holy: the humility and sweet sincerity of one raised on and saturated with the Torah of Gur, the cognizance of the Master of the Universe, of man’s frailty, of the gift of life itself, of the spiritual oxygen that is faith.
It was the genuine sense of wonder at each moment — Why was I fortunate enough to survive? Why have I been blessed with such remarkable children and grandchildren? How could I have been privileged enough to merit closeness with the Rebbes of Gur, friendship with people like Rabbi Sherer and Rabbi Friedenson?
Ahhh, dear Reb Benny, my 99-year-old friend… did you even know what you meant to everyone around you? How wherever you were, that was a delightful place to be? How every conversation with you left us feeling a bit taller, more committed to treating others as you treated them? You laughed when I told you that Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz would say, “When I grow up, I want to be like Benny Fishoff,” thinking it was a cute comment, a compliment, perhaps, but not realizing how profound a statement it was.
People spoke to you and they wanted to be like you, capable of elevating others, your light radiating to whomever you spoke with, in just a few minutes.
It’s almost a puzzle how you did it.
You lost your parents at an early age, yet every time we met you asked, “How are your parents? Please send regards,” capable of investing a person with instant relevance that comes within the context of family, even though yours was gone. You were a survivor who transcended the horror, yet you were able to be generous and accepting of the rough edges in those who’d come of age fighting for every crust of bread, who’d spent their teenage years on the run. You were noble and kind, but you understood those who did not achieve that impossible feat.
I look through notes of our many conversations, now, and in each part of the colorful and intricate narrative that formed your life, there are side-lessons, comments you made that show how you viewed others.
This, Reb Benny, is your legacy.
Reb Yechiel Benzion Fishoff was born in Wloszczowa, Poland, and raised in Lodz when his father, Reb Dov Ber, moved the family there for business reasons. Reb Berish, an importer of dried fruits, was a Gerrer chassid, and his eldest son would sometimes help him at work.
Remembering an incident in the market, Mr. Fishoff made a remark that was uniquely him. I had asked him about the stereotype of “Lodzer ganavim,” and if the city was really filled with frum thieves.
No, he told me, it wasn’t like that, but the poverty was very real and there were those desperate enough to do whatever it took to get some food.
One day, his father asked him to supervise the unloading of a shipment of fresh watermelons.
A group of young men approached, trying to pilfer the precious fruits, and young Benzion reached for a stick to drive them away. “I had to protect my father’s merchandise, but I understood their hunger and felt bad for them,” he recalled.
There you have it. He wasn’t angry at them, just sad for them.
One figure in the Gerrer shtibel at Zachodnia 42 (one of over 50 Gerrer shtiblach in Lodz) would live on in Benny Fishoff’s mind.
One summer Friday at a time and place very far from prewar Poland, we were sitting and talking at a picnic table in Luxor Estates, where Mr. Fishoff had a summer home. The conversation was interrupted every time a child walked by — and there were many, each one approaching Mr. Fishoff to wish him a good Shabbos or simply to smile. Mr. Fishoff kept reaching into his pocket for lollipops as he joked with them.
Then he turned reflective, and told me about Reb Binem Levin, a brother of the Bendiner Rav, Rav Chanoch Tzvi Levin, and a grandson of Reb Henoch of Aleksander.
Back in Lodz, the children in the shtibel would pass Reb Binem each morning. He would greet each one, stroking their cheeks, asking questions on the parshah, and giving them coins. On Shabbos afternoons, the children would visit Reb Binem’s home, enjoying refreshments after they recited brachos out loud.
“So when I give out candies here, and ask the children to make a brachah, I’m thinking of Reb Binem, in the shtibel on Zachodnia Street,” Mr. Fishoff said.
Like most Gerrer children of that era, he learned in the local shtibel, visiting the court of the Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, for the Yamim Noraim and major events.
At one point, the Rebbe directed the bochur to go learn in the Gerrer shtibel in Sosnowiec. There the teenage boy experienced life as a yeshivah bochur, eating at local homes. In 1939, the Rebbe celebrated the bar mitzvah of his ben zekunim, Pinchas Menachem, but it being the summer, the Rebbe’s family was at their summer lodgings in Kehilna, which was too small to accommodate masses of chassidim. Most celebrated the Rebbe’s simchah from afar, but the bochurim learning in Sosnowiec didn’t get the message and they traveled to tiny Kehilna for the bar mitzvah.
On Motzaei Shabbos, the chassidim who’d attended the bar mitzvah headed out — but the Rebbe asked a small group of bochurim to remain, perhaps to ensure he would have a minyan.
Among them was Yechiel Benzion Fishoff.
These bochurim got to spend a full week with the Rebbe, learning and davening in proximity to their master, and at the conclusion of their stay, they went to gezegen zich, to bid farewell.
The Rebbe of tens of thousands gave the bochur from a Lodz a penetrating look and spoke cryptic words. “Ivdi es Hashem b’simchah. Der Eibeshter zohl helfn zolst bleibn a Yid — Serve Hashem in joy. The Eibishter should help that you remain a Jew. Halevai, halevai …”
Benzion Fishoff had his marching orders.
The road ahead would not be easy, but he would follow the Rebbe’s instructions: remaining not just a Yid, but also b’simchah.
World War II broke out a few weeks after that, and as panic set in, Reb Berish Fishoff suggested that his resourceful son go scout out the Russian-controlled part of Poland, which was reportedly safer.
Benzion left home for the last time wearing his father’s warm coat, a parting gift, his only possession the pair of tefillin deep in the coat pocket.
That coat would have to keep him very warm.
Bialystok was Russian-controlled, but the government, concerned about the rising number of refugees in the city, encouraged people to register for passage to go deeper into Russia. Many of the new arrivals hastily married local girls and became legal citizens, moving into Russia proper.
The idea, Mr. Fishoff recalled, was tempting because it assured safety from the approaching Nazis, but it presented an obvious risk to Yiddishkeit, for there was little chance of remaining a committed Jew in an environment so inhospitable to religion.
Mr. Fishoff explained the calculation of those who chose that route. “The fear of the Nazis was all-consuming and it was hard to think clearly. A refugee learns to think only about surviving another day and there is no such thing as a bigger picture — it’s just about staying alive — and that appeared the safest option in a time of literal pikuach nefesh.”
So why didn’t the young refugee from Lodz succumb?
“Because of the Rebbe’s brachah. His zolst bleib’n a Yid filled me with the intense conviction that it wasn’t worth the price of Yiddishkeit.”
Mr. Fishoff laughed when he said this. “I knew I would remain a Jew, but what I didn’t know was if I would remain alive.”
With daring and wits he reached Vilna, where he joined a group of bochurim from various yeshivos who were being sheltered and guided by Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. Benzion learned with the talmidim of Chachmei Lublin, finding warmth during those dark, frightening times in proximity to Rav Chaim Ozer, their spiritual patron, and at the weekly tish of the Amshinover Rebbe, who drew the bochur close. The Modzhitzer Rebbe was also in Vilna at the time, and Benzion Fishoff would not just learn new niggunim at his tish, he would also transcribe the notes of those melodies after Shabbos, a skill he’d learned from a chazzan in Lodz’s Great Synagogue, who’d welcomed little Benzion to his choir and taught him to read music.
(At a different time, Benny Fishoff would join in a yahrtzeit tish for the Rebbe and come bearing a gift: written notes of those niggunim, which he would present to his friend Reb Benzion Shenker, steward of Modzhitzer song.)
After Pesach of 1940, rumors that Vilna would be over-run caused most of the yeshivos to disband, and 18-year-old Benzion went to learn in Telz, one of the few yeshivos still operating.
It was his first experience with a formal Lithuanian yeshivah and he loved it, the learning, the order, and the discipline. The experience would last just three months, until the Russians marched into Lithuania and claimed the yeshivah as their headquarters, but Benny Fishoff would always feel close to Telz after that.
Once Telz was shut down, he headed back to Vilna, where a new plan was being hatched, an ambitious and far-fetched scheme involving a gentleman with the unusual name of Sugihara, whose position at the Japanese consulate allowed him to provide visas to the desperate Jews looking to escape.
The Amshinover Rebbe included the name of Yechiel Benzion Fishoff on the list for transit visas being facilitated by the Japanese consul, and the bochur joined the group traveling through Russia, headed for Japan.
The journey across the Soviet wasteland wasn’t marked by much food or rest, but it was rich in Torah and mussar, groups of bochurim huddled around seforim, fortifying themselves for what lay ahead.
From Vladivostok, they continued to Japan, and were eventually dumped by the German-aligned Japanese in Shanghai, where a new era would begin.
Mr. Fishoff would revel in the fact that there were Lubliner talmidim, Lubavitcher talmidim, and Mirrer talmidim in the crowded streets: He, the bochur from Lodz, would find a common language with each, forming friendships that would last a lifetime. (Years later, when most of his friends had passed away or moved away from Forest Hills, where he lived, and the neighborhood became a stronghold of Bucharian Jews, he told me how delightful it was. “Baruch Hashem, in Shanghai I already learned to appreciate every sort of Yid, so I feel completely at home.”)
In Shanghai he saw mesirus nefesh for learning Torah, and he saw mesirus nefesh of another sort as well.
He recalled how the older talmidim would sit at night with the younger ones, encouraging and reassuring them. The older talmidim were no less worried about the plight of their families trapped back home, but they felt a sense of responsibility to lift the spirits of others.
Still unsure of the fate of his own family, Mr. Fishoff did some business, determined to send funds and supplies to his family via the Red Cross. Well aware of the spiritual dangers of the crowded Shanghai marketplace, the bochur rooted himself in the Chachmei Lublin chaburah, spending Shabbos and Yom Tov with them, learning alongside giants in scholarship and spirit.
He had a natural aptitude not just for finance, but also for languages: He learned English and he learned currency exchange. The local religious families, mainly Sephardic, liked the pleasant Polish boy and they invited him for Shabbos meals. Mr. Fishoff would consult with Rav Meir Ashkenazi, the Shanghaier Rav, before accepting any invitation, and he formed a network of close friends, using that connection to help the yeshivah bochurim.
(Mr. Fishoff told me that he had to learn English because the locals spoke no Yiddish or Polish, so it was the only way he could communicate with them — but he also had to learn something else. “The Sephardim in Shanghai were aristocratic people, and they ate with manners, something that wasn’t so common in Poland. I appreciated it, and tried to emulate it.” He laughed heartily, this man with the manners of one born and bred in Buckingham Palace, with the well-tailored suits and stately bearing and elegant accent, as if letting me know that he was really a child of Lodz and quite proud of it.)
“I realized,” Mr. Fishoff told me with his trademark candor, “that if every single person in Shanghai came out a gaon, learning with supernatural hasmadah over those five years, and I came out as a simple businessman, then clearly I had a shlichus too.”
By 1947, the war had ended and the bnei yeshivah in Shanghai received permits to their next destination — some went to Eretz Yisrael, many chose America.
Benny Fishoff arrived in San Francisco with money in his pocket and a large shipment of hairnets he had purchased before leaving the Far East. In a San Francisco hotel room, he combed the yellow pages for suppliers who might buy the merchandise, and he quickly found a dealer ready to pay one thousand dollars, double what Benny had invested, for the entire lot.
In 1948, he returned to the Far East, bringing American haberdashery items to Hong Kong. He spent several months there and turned a tidy profit.
“Looking back,” he told me, “I don’t know why I didn’t settle in San Francisco, where there was a small Jewish community, and launch an import/export business. I was making money and, as a survivor, completely alone, I needed the security and independence of a steady income. What pulled me to New York? Clearly, it was the second ‘halevai’ of the Imrei Emes — the first saved me in Bialystok, the second in San Francisco.”
He moved to New York, and after establishing himself, he traveled to the Far East with a large shipment of watches. He quickly sold them, and when he returned to New York, he made an investment that would fill him with satisfaction.
“I realized that it was the time of the import/export business, and I counseled many friends from Lublin or the Mir to get into the industry, to find products, and get to work. Several of them did well and were able to support their families, and I’m always grateful I seized the opportunity to help them get started.”
Mr. Fishoff would remember the zechus he had in helping Reb Shmuel Charkover, whom he’d grown to admire in Shanghai. “In America, he helped Reb Leib Malin establish Beis HaTalmud, but in Shanghai, he had also been among those who sat, night after night, lifting the spirits of young bochurim. He wanted not to go into business, but to ship an American refrigerator to his sister in Eretz Yisrael. I was so happy to help this tzaddik, and of course, we didn’t let him pay the shipping fees.”
Marylin (Mindel) Neider came from a home of refinement and warmth, and as a talmidah of Rebbetzin Kaplan, the young woman dreamed of being a partner in a Torah home. Benny would remember the moment of his chuppah. “I raised my foot and brought it down on the glass. There was heartbreak. I had no father or mother. My brothers and sisters had been killed. But I had a wife, and through that, I would rebuild. Mazel tov!”
In 1950, the newlyweds visited Eretz Yisrael, a first for both of them. Benny saw the reemerging Mirrer Yeshivah, reunited with Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz and his family, and he met uncles and aunts who had left Poland before the war. But the most meaningful meeting was with the new Rebbe in Gur, the Beis Yisrael, son of the Imrei Emes.
The Rebbe looked at the visitor from New York, clean-shaven, in a modern suit and light hat, and offered a single sentence. “Hust gehat a Tatte,” he said, “you had a father.”
Mr. Fishoff understood what the Rebbe was saying. Remember where you come from, grasp tightly to the cords that bind you to your past, and build a life on those foundations. Those words would carry Benny Fishoff through “the years of plenty,” nisyonos of a different sort.
Yechiel Benzion Fishoff was back in Gur and that’s how it would remain.
Import, export, textiles, and then real estate.
The emerging postwar American religious community did not count too many religious members, and with real estate opportunities on every corner, there was a small “club” of investors who joined in each other’s deals, collectively amassing wealth.
The nature of a club is that its members wish to keep it exclusive, but Benny Fishoff saw things differently.
“I always thought that we should offer as many people as possible to join a deal — even people who didn’t have much money deserved the chance to turn a profit. But more than that, the more Yidden, the more zechusim, no? Even if I am unworthy in the eyes of Heaven, maybe a different partner has merits, so it’s good for the bottom line too.”
The Fishoff family moved to Queens in the 1950s, joining the beis medrash of Rav Shlomo Leifer of Nadvorna. I once overheard someone ask him if it was hard for him, accustomed as he was to Gur, to get used to a more Hungarian davening. “Hard? It only added warmth! My best friends were all associated with different chassidusen — Yossel Ganger was a Belzer, Mottel Zand was Aleksander, and Joe Wassner was Boyan — we were all rebuilding together.
“Besides,” Mr. Fishoff smiled, “who had time to argue? We were all focused on our new families, trying to build businesses, to maintain times for learning Torah. We didn’t have the luxury of sitting around and fighting about whose Rebbe was greater!”
Gur was his first love, but it shared space in his heart with Agudah. At the behest of the Gerrer Rebbe, famed Agudist Reb Yossel Friedenson drew Benny, a fellow child of Lodz, close and he introduced him to Agudah chairman, Rabbi Moshe Sherer.
In sports, they say that game recognizes game. L’havdil, extraordinary Torah diplomacy and finesse recognized its counterpart, and Rabbi Sherer would welcome Mr. Fishoff to his innermost circle.
The textile business was being phased out and Mr. Fishoff moved into electronics. Not long after the birth of his eldest son, Dovie, an investment turned bad and suddenly, Mr. Fishoff had lost most of his money.
He would recall that day. “Baruch Hashem, perhaps in the zechus of my parents, and certainly because of the calm and reassurance of my wife, I found the strength and faith to accept it. It was a seminal moment, the day I learned that adversity is part of life and that, rather than collapse, I should use it as fuel to move on. I tried not to focus on it any more than necessary, and got back to work. The sun came up the next day too and I looked ahead to bright times.”
And with the clarity of hindsight, he added, “I sometimes joke that if I would write a book of lomdus, it would be short. If I were to write about my business successes, it might be slightly longer than that, but a book about my commercial mistakes and disappointments would be a huge volume! Actually, it would be more beneficial too, so that young people can understand that frustration is unavoidable on the road to financial success.”
The self-deprecating comment conceals just how much he would come to know. Along with his various shiurim, daily and weekly sessions in daf yomi, Minchas Chinuch, Sfas Emes, and other seforim in which he would become proficient, Mr. Fishoff actually authored a sefer called B’Fi Yesharim. While not a classic lomdus sefer, the Torah within is impressive and delightful, original ideas and insight he developed over years of speaking at simchahs and tzedakah events.
In 1988, business success and the ability to really listen when other people talk made Mr. Fishoff a perfect candidate to realize one of Rabbi Sherer’s dreams: a “shalom commission,” where disputes could be resolved by wise, experienced people. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita stood at the head and Mr. Fishoff was the front man, sitting patiently with siblings squabbling over yerushah, partners dissolving businesses, landlords, and their tenants, and trying to get each side to see the view of the other.
Without a trace of irony, Mr. Fishoff — who had lost everyone and everything before he turned 20 — explained to me how the difficult early years of his fellow survivors had made them suspicious and wary, and how these disputes were not their fault. They knew where he came from, so they trusted him. They saw his smile, so they liked him. And they heard wisdom in his advice, so they listened to him.
He exuded the pikchus of old Poland, the acuity and insightfulness of its people, but without any cynicism. He was once in the room with the Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem, while his son waited outside, expecting the meeting to conclude quickly, in keeping with typical Gerrer brevity. Forty-five minutes later, the chassid left the room and the Rebbe apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said, “there aren’t that many people with whom I can talk.”
Rabbi Sherer coined a special title for Mr. Fishoff: the Malach Hashalom, the Angel of Peace. As Rabbi Sherer’s emissary to thorny and delicate meetings between gedolim and representatives of Israel’s political parties, Benny Fishoff was diplomatic enough to present the American Agudah position and respected enough that his word would be heard.
Mr. Fishoff once assured me that though it was a generous title, his contribution wasn’t that impressive. “What really happened is that I was on a family vacation in Switzerland and Rabbi Sherer needed me to go to Eretz Yisrael for a meeting between gedolei Yisrael, effectively ending that vacation for my family. He felt bad about it, so he compensated by making us all feel very good with the fancy title.”
The decades went by and a new generation began to rise. Klal Yisrael now had generous baalei tzedakah and it had smart businessmen.
But Benny Fishoff would fuse the two, creating smart tzedakah.
Year after year, Rabbi Sherer would solicit Benny for an annual donation to Agudah, sometimes trying to raise it by a bit. At the convention one year, Mr. Fishoff had an epiphany, which he once described to me.
“I had been giving five thousand dollars a year to the Agudah, and Rabbi Sherer wanted me to give more. I wrote out a check for $50,000 and handed it to him. ‘This is the start of an endowment fund,’ I told him. ‘I’ll add a little bit each year. You’ll invest it correctly and eventually you’ll reach the amount of my current annual donation — plus the capital remains yours.
“‘This way,’ I joked, ‘you already have the money, and we can just stay friends without the business relationship and really enjoy each other.’”
Rabbi Sherer immediately understood the concept, perceiving the difference in approach and the potential it had to help the organization.
Two weeks after the convention, Rabbi Sherer hosted a private luncheon at the old Lou G. Siegel’s restaurant for a select group of generous donors. He asked Benny to share the vision with them, to explain how creating endowments could bring the maximum benefit to the organization and do good for them as well.
“When a big donor passes way,” Benny told the gathering, “his main recipients suffer, because they’ve lost a steady supporter. Even if his children are generous and committed to his legacy, it isn’t the same thing as when he’s alive, it’s not as personal for them. But if he creates an endowment when he is able, the donor gets to help the mosdos he feels close to without worrying about whether future generations will be so inclined. That’s why the mosad gains — and of course, the donor gains because even in the Next World, where he no longer has the opportunity to give tzedakah, he’s still accruing zechusim each time the fund grows and the mosad benefits.”
In telling me the story, Benny shared a bit more of what motivated him.
“There is one argument I can’t win — and that is with a donor who seeks to make a splash,” he told me. “It’s much more dramatic to give a one-time mega-donation than to be a quiet, reliable friend, but the group Rabbi Sherer assembled was composed of serious people who didn’t need the attention. It’s Hashem’s money. If someone is fortunate enough that the Master of the World trusted him with the role of giver, then he should be humble enough to know that he’s no more than a glorified middle-man. It’s not about you.”
Mr. Fishoff would eventually create similar endowments for Gur and Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, amongst other organizations and causes close to his heart. And his fusion of wisdom, compassion, and generosity would show itself on a very personal level too.
Reb Abba Karmel was a dear friend of Benny, a child of Poland and Gur who had also escaped to Shanghai. That bond was stronger than steel, and when Reb Abba took ill, Benny carried the pain of his friend on his heart. After Reb Abba was niftar, Benny came to be menachem avel his family on the first day of the shivah. He also came on the second day, and then the third. Each day of shivah, Benny came from Queens to Boro Park, telling the children he could not stay away. Finally, at the close of shivah, he sat down with the sons and shared his plans.
“I know I have to do something for your father, and I think I have a plan. Your father was connected heart and soul to Beis HaTalmud, so we will start a gemach for the yungeleit there. I will start it off, and your mother will raise money to increase the capital in the account.”
He took out his checkbook and wrote out a check for $10,000, a very generous amount at that time, and handed it to the sons, who did not yet perceive the wisdom of the idea, wondering how their newly widowed mother would suddenly become a fundraiser.
But the next week, Mrs. Karmel sent out a mailing for her husband’s gemach, and two things happened: One, the envelopes that came back carried not just checks, but personal letters, memories of her husband as a vibrant askan, notes of gratitude and respect for what he’d accomplished. The second is that the cause gave her new energy; the act of perpetuating her husband’s memory gave her life profound meaning.
And Benny had spawned that with his $10,000 check, giving tzedakah and giving new life at once.
Between nine and five he was submerged in the clamor of American business, eventually serving on the board of directors at a prominent bank, yet you looked at him and you saw nothing of the aggressiveness, competition, and chemdas hamamon that surrounded him all day.
If ever he was fierce, it was only in defense of the underdog, speaking for those who had no one else to turn to, but even then, his voice was measured and courteous. Benny would wade into disputes others wouldn’t touch and leave both sides feeling like they had a gifted advocate and friend.
And who knew friendship like Benny Fishoff? He would unabashedly talk not just about the gedolim who had influenced him, but the friends who had so impacted him. He would sign off emails, “B’ahavah, Benny,” and you knew he meant it.
There was another Shanghaier talmid, a blood brother, who developed Alzheimer’s near the end of his life. Back then, the public wasn’t as quietly respectful of the condition as they are now, and the family kept their ailing father and husband at home, out of the public eye.
But there was a chasunah for his youngest daughter, and it was decided that he would attend, if only for a short time. The family looked on with trepidation, encircling their father as he sat at the head table, making sure that no one approached or spoke to him, in order to avoid embarrassment.
But then the music started and the joyous sound summoned the baal simchah, whether or not he knew where he was, and without asking, he headed to the dance floor. The family panicked and stayed close, worried about letting him go out to dance on his own.
And as he stood there, mid-dance floor, the confused older man locked eyes with his old friend, dear, dear Benny: For a moment, they stared at each other and then Benny penetrated the tight family circle and took the hands of his friend.
They danced, and as they did, the children looked on and marveled at how the veil in their father’s gaze seemed to lift, the old clarity and joy returning. Benny danced with his friend and for a few minutes, the children had their beloved father back.
The son told me the story, and I believe it, because something not entirely different happened in my own family.
My grandfather, Rav Chaskel Besser, was a prince. When he came into a meeting, people turned to hear what he had to say, and his wisdom, humor, and graciousness made him the center of any conversation. But then he aged, and in his last years, he was confined to a wheelchair. He didn’t like going out, sensing his dignity was compromised by being pushed around, and his attendance at simchahs and events was limited.
Near the end of his life, he was at a wedding, a man who’d always been instantly noticed now overlooked by people who rushed by the wheelchair to make it to the carving station before the smorgasbord closed for the night or to catch the tail-end of Maariv.
Then he saw Mr. Fishoff and Mr. Fishoff saw him. Mr. Fishoff saw people in the best way, conveying it with his gaze. Two Poilishe Yidden, neither prone to open displays of emotion, preferring to keep substance hidden away, two dear friends, meeting for the last time.
Mr. Fishoff leaned over and took my grandfather’s hands. “Benny, I love you,” my grandfather said — very much not his style — and he kissed Benny’s hands. Benny kissed his hands and bowed. “Reb Chaskel,” he said, “I love you too.”
Music, Mr. Fishoff told me, wasn’t only a source of comfort and joy, it was a means of expressing thanks as well. He felt deeply, and the niggunim he composed allowed him to express that which rested deep in his heart.
He was honored by the fact that his compositions were sung in Gur, formally introduced into the corpus of Gerrer niggunim. In telling me the background to one of his songs, “Umibaladecha” (released on the Solid Gold album produced by his son Avi) he shared a bit of what lay inside him.
His wife was quite ill, and he was spending Shabbos in Manhattan, where she was hospitalized. He davened in one of the shuls near the hospital, and as he recited Nishmas, he was overwhelmed by the realization that there is nothing but He, no other force or power but the Creator. He got lost in this thought and began to hum the words, Umibaladecha, ein lanu Melech… again and again. He was so deeply entranced by the phrase, by the tune that expressed it, that he sang it many times. How long?
At krias haTorah, they called up Yechiel Benzion ben Dov Ber to the Torah, but he was still in the middle of Nishmas.
The Imrei Emes would recall during his final years in Jerusalem, that in Gur, hut gebrent a kessel, there was a boiling cauldron. On that Shabbos morning in a Manhattan synagogue, that cauldron boiled over.
Mrs. Mindel Fishoff would pass away at a relatively young age in 1990, her devoted husband investing time, energy, and resources in creating memorials for her across the globe.
(In time, he would marry Chery Fenster, the couple showing how, with generosity of spirit and warmth, two families can become one. Once, I heard someone tease Mr. Fishoff that his second marriage was better than many people’s first. He smiled, but it was tinged with compassion for the “many people.”)
Each night, he told me, he would close his eyes and see his parents and siblings, the sisters, the younger brothers he barely got a chance to really know. But then in the morning he opened those eyes and beheld the wonder of his extraordinary children. Dovi and Avi, Meryl (Maybruch), Regina (Cukier), and Barbara (Gold), and the marvel of their children.
I sat with him on many Fridays when the gut Shabbos phone calls would start to come in, and each one was a reason to sing shirah, each couple the most wonderful, their children the sweetest, their chosen path precisely what he would have hoped for.
Mr. Fishoff told me how his friend Reb Dovid Mandelbaum obtained access to the Russian archives. There, he found the private files the KGB kept on each refugee, and he made a copy of one paper, with the name of Yechiel Benzion Fishoff on top, featuring his picture and all sorts of information, relevant and obscure.
“I often study that meticulously kept record and muse how the file that they keep in Heaven is far more precise: As much as the KGB knew about me, they know more in Shamayim! Those are the only files that make a difference,” Mr. Fishoff concluded.
The levayah was held Erev Succos, both sons offering remarkable, if brief, tributes to their father. Not much had to be said, because everyone watching, anyone who knew Benny, knew that the man was a gift, and that the gift had been taken. There will never be another quite like him.
Avi looked at his father’s aron. “Rabbi Sherer called you the Malach Hashalom… and now it’s time for us to say, ‘Tzeischem l’shalom, malach hashalom, go in peace, angel of peace.’”
Go, Reb Benny, and tell your parents that you did them proud. Tell the Gerrer Rebbe that his brachah kept you whole, perhaps one “halevai” a prayer for the Yidden you succeeded in raising and the second “halevai” a hope for the masses that they have saved with their holy work, the tzedakah, the chesed, and yes, the relentless faith in the power of a neshamah….
You emerged alone and created an empire, an army united by their reverence for you, so many adoring grandchildren who called you Zaidy and so many others who looked to you as a beloved Zaidy.
Go in peace, man of peace, and tell your father that his coat kept you warm until the very end.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 880)
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