| Family First Feature |

The Rabbi’s Daughter 

When you’re the Rabbi’s daughter, your father doesn’t just belong to you, he belongs to the whole community

Chapter 1

Back home in New York, dusk is when the kids scurry inside with their ball and the women on the block retreat to their houses, when the fireflies light up the backyard, and bats swoop down to snatch mosquitoes from the air.

Here, in Yerushalayim, I breathe in the cooling air and lift my head to the clear, inky blue sky.

What does that mean, Yerushalayim-blue skies? My son Yeshaya had asked me before we flew out. Is it really so much bluer than in New York?

His last trip to Israel had been seven years ago, as an inquisitive six-year-old who had vowed then to return for his bar mitzvah. Other boys in his class had asked for parties. Yeshaya had been insistent that this was what he’d wanted, and we’d been glad to oblige and travel to Israel and have a small family-only affair there.

After all, this is where Abba and Ema were.

When your parents live close by, you never fully break out of childhood. There was always the security of Ema will be here. I can ask Abba. In a pinch, I had emergency babysitting or a Shabbos without cooking and another place that always felt like home.

But now, there is a continental divide between us. My parents have made aliyah, and we have come to visit. Every moment is precious, sacred.

The girls all clamber over Ema, sharing a spill of stories all at once, and Ema gamely keeps up. Abba steps outside for air, and I follow him into the dusk. He watches the boys climb the stairs and call to each other, tumbling over uncles and laughing. I wonder if he imagined a Shabbos bar mitzvah like this one for his grandkids, back when he was growing up.

Maybe he did. Abba has always aspired to more — to struggle more, to push himself harder, to be better. I ask him what he thinks was his greatest act of mesirus nefesh, and he laughs. “Hashem knows that I can’t handle too much. I had a charmed life.”

But I know that he downplays his own past. He became frum on his own as a child, and his parents had regarded that with dubious amusement. At 12, he decided to be strictly shomer Shabbos, even with some pushback from his parents. When he turned 13, his parents planned for a small celebration with family. Abba’s parents might not have been frum, but they held a certain reverence for the religious. They walked to shul on Yom Kippur (even if they did put on a movie after Kol Nidrei), and they didn’t eat or smoke on the day itself (though Abba’s father did leave a cigar at shul for the instant the shofar sounded). On the morning he turned 13, when Abba said that he was leaving for shul, his father said, “Well, it’s your bar mitzvah. I’m going with you.”

“I’m walking,” Abba pointed out.

His father scoffed. “It’s your bar mitzvah,” he said. “I’m walking with you.”

His father wasn’t religious — he could barely read Hebrew — but after his father’s passing, he had sent Abba to a yeshivah for first grade to learn Hebrew. “So that one day, you can say Kaddish for me,” he said.

For a full year, Abba’s father went to shul three times a day to say Kaddish for his father. On Friday nights, he and Abba would stop in at a traditional Jewish deli afterward. One night a week, the owner of the deli would wear a suit and tie and the waitress would wear a Shabbos dress, and they would host a Shabbos meal for the elderly Jews in the neighborhood — many of whom were Holocaust survivors, many without family. Abba, still a first grader and the only child there, would lead the bentshing for them.

Eventually, the deli stopped hosting these weekly dinners, but they brought it back in honor of Abba’s bar mitzvah, and Abba walked there with his family on that Friday night.

“Not much of a story,” he says when I prod him for more. “That was the event. I leined in the frum shul the next day, which was a whole controversy, because my parents had arranged that I would lein in the local temple instead. The people at the temple were excited — they didn’t get a lot of bar mitzvah boys — but I’d already started davening at the frum shul and wanted to lein there.”

The traditional temple, which held an appeal each year for the yeshivah Abba attended, protested the plan. The principal brought Abba into the office. “Did any of your rebbeim tell you that they wouldn’t attend if it were at the temple?” he asked. Abba shook his head. That had never occurred to him as a possibility. The principal let it go, satisfied.

He leined at the frum shul, and the temple still held an appeal for the yeshivah the next year. They even sent him a bar mitzvah gift.

“The thing I remember most wasn’t my bar mitzvah,” he tells me now, and we watch the flickering candlelight in a nearby window. “It was a year later, when I leined my parshah again. I came into shul Shabbos morning and sat down next to the rav, like I always did.”

He pauses. “Five minutes later, my father walked in.” For the first time in a year, Abba’s father had taken Saturday off from work and gone to shul. Abba still speaks about it with a shadow of wonder, describes his father putting on that tallis with the same sacred air as we hold on to our moments with him now.

Mesirus nefesh….” Abba muses when I prod him, as though it still remains an unattainable answer. Finally, he shakes his head. “Even if I could think of something, I wouldn’t tell it to you.”

That’s fine. I can fill in the blanks.

Chapter 2

WEhadn’t hired waiters to serve our son’s bar mitzvah seudah, not when it had been such a small, family affair. That leaves the cleanup to us, too, once the night begins to wane and the aunts and uncles disperse. I ask my husband to take the kids home. This bar mitzvah is my project, and I’m my father’s daughter; I like to see it through.

In the end, it’s just Abba and me putting away the last of the food and taking out the garbage. “I’ll walk you back to your dirah,” he offers, and I agree. Although this isn’t my New York neighborhood, where I wouldn’t walk more than a few blocks on my own at night, still, there’s an instinctive tension that comes with being a woman alone in the dark.

We fall into comfortable step, and Abba falls into a story, as he so often does. It’s about my brother’s bar mitzvah, over two decades ago, and his late menahel. But abruptly, he pauses. “Do you remember what he did while I was sitting shivah for my mother?”

I know exactly what he’s talking about. I have a terrible memory, but this story has stayed with me for a long time.

Gedalya, a balabos in Abba’s shul, had previously divorced and remarried. He had several children from his second marriage, and one ten-year-old son from his first marriage. His ex-wife, Aliza, had custody of the older son, Yitzy, who was having a very difficult time. He’d been asked to leave one yeshivah and was on the verge of being ejected from a second one — and this was his mother’s uncle’s yeshivah! He was in fifth grade and already deemed at risk.

His mother was at her wit’s end. She didn’t know what to do. There was one other option, but it was a fraught choice. “He could move here and go to a yeshivah in my neighborhood,” Gedalya suggested.

Aliza was taken aback. “He’s supposed to live with me,” she objected, and they argued back and forth about it for many months. Finally, summer came, and it became clear that Yitzy wouldn’t make it through another school year where he was. She felt that living with his father might be an opportunity for Yitzy to do well. But she’d have to sacrifice him living with her.

Aliza gave Gedalya an ultimatum. If he could get Yitzy into a yeshivah in the next 24 hours, she’d sign the papers to allow him to move. This seemed like an impossible task. Getting a kid into a new yeshivah is never easy, and this was a child who had a history and a reputation.

Abba had lost his mother at this time, and I’d postponed my trip to camp for a week for shivah. I remember the crowds coming and going, the hub of activity in the house. My grandmother, with her big personality and delighted bewilderment at Abba’s rabbinic position, would have loved it. Abba’s visitors orbited him like planets caught in the gravitational pull of need.

Everyone always needed Abba.

Gedalya was one of the last visitors on that Monday, and the story emerged then, on folding chairs in the living room while my sisters and I tidied up the kitchen. “Okay,” Abba said simply. “We’ll have to get him into a yeshivah.”

My brother’s yeshivah was his first choice. The menahel would be open to this boy, though he was already upstate in the mountains for the summer. Abba gave him a call. “I have two mitzvos for you to do,” he said.

The menahel laughed. “Two mitzvos,” he repeated. “Let’s hear them.”

Abba explained the situation. The menahel was apologetic. “I’ve already gotten a call about this kid. But I can’t accept a boy I haven’t met, and I’m already away for the summer.”

Abba understood the rule, but this was an extenuating circumstance. They were down to 12 hours. “We’re either going to save this kid, or we’re not,” he pointed out.

But the menahel was adamant. “I can’t, in good conscience, take a kid without meeting him. I wish I could, but I have to put the good of the entire school first.” He sighed. “What’s the other mitzvah?”

“Ah,” Abba said. “I just lost my mother, and I’m sitting shivah. You could be menachem avel.”

The menahel laughed. “That’s dirty pool,” he said. But he returned to the neighborhood that night. Yitzy and the menahel met in our chair-packed living room. Gedalya, his wife, and Aliza came, and we opened up a folding table so that the papers could be signed, and Yitzy was accepted to the school.

“It was so much more than just that moment,” Abba says now. “His mother sacrificed her custody for him. She did remarry later, but at the time, he was all she had. And his stepmother raised him like her own son, which was a whole different sacrifice, and not necessarily in the ways that you’d realize. She had an issur yichud with him, couldn’t uncover her hair in her own house, and still, she took him in. All three parents did everything in their power to straighten this kid out.”

Their tireless efforts paid off. Yitzy got back on track, and he finished elementary school in the neighborhood and continued on to high school. He graduated as a member of the National Honors Society and is now a doctor. He’s married and had his first child recently. “The happiest, most gentle neshamah,” Abba tells me. “Always smiling, never angry, and all because of what these women gave up for him.”

At Yitzy’s graduation, his stepmother received a bouquet of a dozen roses. They were from his mother, Aliza.

Chapter 3

Yeshaya has been learning to lein for nearly two years, since he wandered into Abba’s succah and begged to begin. He’s one of the youngest in his class, and he’s watched with envy as his classmates reach this milestone.

Today, he leins beautifully, and I have to blink away a few tears when I hug him after shul. He’s full of energy, chattering about the experience to his uncles and cousins, and I fall back and let myself glow with nachas. “All thanks to you,” my nonmusically inclined husband tells Abba, and we all laugh, giddy with relief. Yeshaya has put so much of himself into today, and I so badly want it to be a good experience for him.

“You can celebrate by fasting twice,” I tease Yeshaya. It’s nearly Rosh Hashanah.

Yeshaya immediately postures in that way all young boys do, insisting he can handle it. And suddenly, I think of a girl I’d vaguely known from the shul, just a few years older than Yeshaya.

Rachel had struggled for years with an eating disorder. She was doing well, but it was a constant process for her. Sometimes she would backslide, and she still had a shaky relationship with food. Before her first Yom Kippur in this situation, Abba spent weeks on the phone with her, explaining why she couldn’t fast. She wanted to learn the sugya and understand all the aspects of the halachah and the rulings from poskim. Eventually, Rachel conceded.

The next year, it looked like she might be able to fast. But she had backslid a bit at the end of the summer, and her doctors and parents had to reconsider. Rachel was bitterly disappointed. “How can I have a Yom Hadin without some kind of pain? What, that I won’t wear leather shoes? That’s going to be a big deal for me?”

In that moment, Abba thought of me. Before I was married, I would take upon myself a taanis dibbur every year on Yom Kippur. For the full night and day, I didn’t speak outside of davening. I found that it made me more focused, more aware of the day’s holiness — and much less likely to fight with my siblings, though I still managed it sometimes!

He suggested that she do a taanis dibbur (bli neder) as a zechus that she’d be well enough to fast the next year. She was able to pull it off, thanks to supportive family, and she had a very positive Yom Kippur with it.

“People really want to give,” Abba says when I bring up the story now. “They even want to give to the One to Whom you can’t give anything.” He reminds me of the four people who are considered by Chazal as though they’re a meis: the blind, the poor, the childless, and someone with tzaraas. “All those conditions impair a person’s ability to give. They make a person dependent on other people. When a person is told that something is their avodah and then they can’t do it, it’s very crippling.”

He reminds me of a single mother who had once sent the shul a check for $161.83 just before Pesach one year. She had been in dire straits, struggling desperately to feed her children, and Abba had sent her a generous sum of money for Pesach from the shul. “She enclosed a note with thanks and an explanation. She said that she had purchased all the wines and matzos and everything else that she needed for Pesach, but the check was a little more than she needed, and she was sure that others could use it more.”

There’s a perception that people will be happy to take these maos chittim checks, but Abba doesn’t agree. “It pains many people to take the money. I get notes from people each year with apologies. I’m so sorry. I was so hopeful that this was the year I could be a giver. And this woman decided to turn around and give where she could.”

With Rachel, a taanis dibbur had been her spiritual gift. “It’s easy to tell someone before Yom Kippur, ‘Look, for you, the mitzvah is to eat,’” Abba says. “But everyone wants to feel like they’re giving something up.”

We like to poke gentle fun at Abba sometimes, call him a martyr for all the ways that he’s surrendered parts of himself to his kehillah and his children. But I know what he means here, the innate need that we all feel to give as a spiritual connection. My older sister once totaled her car the day before she was meant to give someone a ride to the airport; she rented a car to complete the commitment. My youngest sister, while in the middle of several expensive and emotionally exhausting medical procedures, still gives up her home and time on a regular basis to a single mother in need.

Ema never signed up for any of the duties that came with being a rebbetzin, never even liked to be called by the title. But I remember, throughout my childhood, listening to her as she reached out to women in need, as she endured abuse and insults from the more difficult ones, as she gave and gave of herself and never once complained about it.

I have a friend going through a tough time right now, and she’s told me that the hardest part of it all is not being able to host families for Shabbos meals. There is a power to having enough of ourselves to surrender a piece to someone else, whatever form that piece might take.

Chapter 4

Abba’s kehillah was mostly well-off; still, it’s a surprise to see that a few of them have flown in to be around for Yeshaya’s kiddush. Many of them watched me grow up, then Yeshaya, and there’s a connection there even after Abba had moved on.

I know all of the women, and my husband schmoozes with the men, but there’s a man engrossed in conversation with Abba whom I don’t recognize. He’s tall and dark-haired, narrow in build, and he looks like he must be only a few years younger than me. That’s unusual for the kehillah — most of them were young adults when I was a teen, and their kids are now in their early twenties.

My husband doesn’t know this man, either, so I shift over to Abba when he departs and inquire about him.

Abba looks startled. “You didn’t recognize him? That was Eitan Fruchter.”

Eitan Fruchter! I’d been at his bar mitzvah. It had been one for the ages.

Abba had mediated the Fruchter divorce over the course of several months. I remember slipping into the shul one evening for help with a Ramban, overhearing raised voices, and ducking away. I could get homework help later.

The Fruchters had gone through four rabbanim before they’d settled on Abba. Lucky him. They had five children, and Abba and Ema both did what they could to get the couple to an agreement and then a get. And those two hated each other. Once, Abba was giving a shiur while they were finalizing the last tweaks to the arrangement, and both were sitting at the table, waiting for him to finish. When Abba said the word “rude,” Mr. Fruchter gestured to his wife. When something came up about gaavah, Mrs. Fruchter gestured back. Really not a great post-marriage relationship!

But they had five kids, and Eitan’s bar mitzvah was scheduled a few months later. The exes had big plans to make separate bar mitzvahs, and they met with Abba to coordinate — they couldn’t communicate without a rav present.

Abba listened to their ideas, and then he spoke. “We’re going to do something unusual,” he said. “We’re going to put Eitan first.”

He outlined his plan. There would be one bar mitzvah, not two. It would be at the shul, and both parents and their families would attend. “And you’re not going to coexist,” he said. “You’re going to pretend that you still love each other. You’re not just going to participate. You’re going to enjoy yourselves.”

The Fruchters were startled. And then, against all their inclinations and resentments, they decided to run with it. They were still competitive, but now they were both bent on outdoing the other on normalizing the whole thing. She arranged for a place for his parents to stay for Shabbos. He consulted with her on the color of the tefillin bag.

At the bar mitzvah, the entire shul — aware of the situation — threw themselves into the celebration. Mrs. Fruchter danced with her ex-mother-in-law. Mr. Fruchter danced with his ex-father-in-law. It was a beautiful event, full of simchah and energy. Things were never good between them after that, but they were definitely better.

“Deep down, I think people really just want to be decent,” Abba says, lifting a hand in farewell to an adult Eitan Fruchter. “If you force them into a position where they have the chance to do good, they’ll surprise you.”

He brings up another bitter divorce story, a young couple who had been married a year with many issues and very little support from their parents. Abba had sent them to a therapist, but ultimately, there really was no future in the relationship.

From then on, the accounting began. There were no children in the marriage, but the couple broke down every single item that they shared and demanded equity. They divided all their possessions in half — everything, coats and clothing and linen and more — and sent them through the shul, unwilling to see each other during the proceedings. I remember the strange day that a bed was delivered to the shul for the other to pick up.

Neither would give an inch on anything. Abba played along, but he had one condition: They would see each other at the get giving, of course, but he wanted them to meet again with him on the night after getting the get.

Abba was waiting for them in his office. He reminded them, “I put a lot of time and energy into this for nothing, and I have only one request. I want you to take each other’s Tehillim names and daven for the other person to be matzliach.” They made faces, but Abba pressed the point. “It’s important — not for the other person, but for each of you.”

I’m a strong believer in the idea of forgiveness being more for the victim’s closure than the aggressor’s happiness. But Abba has another take on it. “It’s hard to forgive people. Sometimes, they’re involved in your misfortune and it’s easy to blame them instead of looking at your own faults. It’s easy to forget who they are beyond that misfortune.”

This couple might not have been ready for it right then, but Abba felt that they would grow into it. Over the next year and a half, he spoke to many prospective shidduchim for both, and he maintained a relationship with both of them.

One day, Abba got a call from the ex-wife. She was seeing someone seriously, and she wanted him to meet with them. The next evening, Abba got a call from the ex-husband, whom he’d also been speaking to about a shidduch. His engagement was official.

While Abba was on the phone, he got a second call. It was the ex-wife, also reporting her engagement. Abba conferenced them both onto the call. “For the second time in your life, you’re getting engaged on the same night,” he told them.

A year and a half before, these two couldn’t even be in the same building together. That night, they gave each other brachos for the future and spoke without any resentment.

“That’s how people are,” Abba says with satisfaction. “Only when you push them to understand others’ struggles can they maintain their own humanity.”

Chapter 5

Shabbos afternoon sprawls out in front of us. This is the end of our trip, not the beginning. The kids can only miss so much of the start of the school year, and we’re due to get back onto a plane tonight. But we savor this final Shabbos, the reason why we’re here right now.

Yeshaya is learning with my husband on a bench at the playground, and Ema is helping my youngest down a slide. The cousins are all tumbling over each other, joyful as they capture every last minute of the trip.

I sit beside Abba, who’d definitely prefer to be learning than hanging out at the park. But I’m grateful that he’s here. I don’t think I appreciated my parents as much when I was younger. Oh, I knew that they fed and clothed me, and I thanked them for that and all the kindnesses that they bestowed upon us, as parents do. But the extraordinary happened around me every day, my parents at the center of so much of it, and I was oblivious to most of it.

“The worlds contained within each person — each story, each difficulty — it’s more than anyone else would expect. I’m just fortunate — or unfortunate, sometimes,” Abba amends wryly, “to witness so many people’s stories.”

Abba used to hold court at the Shabbos table, sharing careful excerpts of some of what he’d witnessed over the years. I’d already be gone, vanished to the couch or downstairs, my mind miles away. I was never very good at listening, but it feels more vital now, as the sun continues its eternal descent across the sky, and I long to remain here forever.

“Do you remember my old friend, Levi Perlstein?” Abba asks me now.

I vaguely recall him, Abba’s childhood classmate who’d lived across town. Sometimes, I’d be brought there for awkward playdates with his daughter, who was older than me and had little interest in entertaining. But there is one fact about Levi Perlstein that has always stood out. “He was the one who went to prison, right?”

“He got into a little bit of trouble,” Abba agrees. “He pled guilty to a financial crime, and he wound up serving six months at Rikers Island.” It was a heartbreaking ordeal for the family, and for him. He was placed in a facility that was for men aged 50 and up.

It wasn’t like the prison cells that one might imagine. Instead, it was one gigantic room with about 80 inmates inside. They each got a cot and not much else. The open room meant that the guards could keep an eye on things easily, but Levi was nervous about the whole situation. Not everyone was there for the same kind of crime, and there could be real danger inside.

Levi brought in only a few possessions, including his tefillin. “I spoke to him on the phone a few times, and I went to see him the second week that he was there,” Abba recalls. He waited for three hours before he was finally allowed to cross the bridge and enter the prison. Finally, Levi was brought out, and Abba asked him how things were going, and how he was managing his tefillin.

“Levi told me an incredible story,” Abba says. A few of my nieces drift over, as hungry for time with Abba as I am. They gather around, sitting on the bench and in front of it. My seven-year-old climbs onto Abba’s lap, and Abba clears his throat and recounts Levi’s story.

“On his first day, he washed negel vasser with the water he’d been allowed to keep by his bunk, and then he wanted to daven. But when he looked around, he realized that there was nowhere to hide. There was no spot for him to safely daven in peace.”

“Or put on tefillin?” My seven-year-old is wide-eyed, already dreaming of his tefillin after seeing Yeshaya don his own on Friday.

Abba runs a hand through his hair. “Exactly. He finally found a little area right between two guards. He put his tefillin on and davened as quickly as he could manage. It was maybe ten minutes, and he was deeply stressed by the end. He had no idea how he’d be able to do that every day for months.”

But when he turned around, he was face-to-face with an enormous, hulking man, broad-shouldered with bulging muscles, tattoos across his brown skin, and a Muslim knit cap on his head. “Hey!” he said, and Levi tensed, sure that this was about to be a confrontation.

“He said, ‘You do the straps, right?’ Levi stopped, baffled and a little afraid,” Abba tells us. The kids lean in, enthralled, the playground equipment forgotten. I’m reminded of my own childhood, listening to Abba’s stories about Eliyahu Hanavi and King Achav with the same fascination. Navi was interesting. Abba was boring, I was sure.

A few kids near the slide get louder. Abba leans in to be heard better. “The man said, ‘I saw you doing the straps when you prayed. You’re, like, embarrassed by it, huh? Afraid someone was going to catch you?’”

Levi assured him that he was allowed to use his tefillin in prison.

The man cut him off. “I know that you’re allowed. You put your straps on right here every day,” he said, thrusting out his chest. “And I’m gonna watch your back.”

Every morning before breakfast, this man would come to Levi and stand beside him while Levi took out his tallis and tefillin and davened. The rest of the day, the man didn’t look twice at Levi. But in the morning, he was his protector.

The kids love the story. “Do you think he was Eliyahu Hanavi in disguise?” my seven-year-old asks.

Abba runs a hand through his hair, setting his yarmulke askew. “Quite a disguise! But I think it’s just as likely that he was one of the countless messengers that Hashem sends us to help us get the job done. The man didn’t care who Levi was praying to or which religion he belonged to. But he felt that there were certain values that they had to maintain even in prison.”

The kids listen, wide-eyed, and I am hit with a sudden pang of sadness. Zoom and phone calls will never quite match this moment, all of these children who understand that their Zaidy has a plethora of wisdom to dispense.

The sun continues its inexorable descent across the sky. It’s beginning to get cold, and it’s time to go inside.

Chapter  6

Night breaks. A multi-wicked candle flickers, and the scent of besamim lingers in the air. We gather our bags, peering under beds and throwing clothing into suitcases, and then we’re off to the train and back home.

I don’t want to go. There is always a part of me that feels bound to Eretz Yisrael, that aches for it when the plane takes off. I have a home in New York, a job and friends and schools that I love for my children, but I dream of flying here one day and never leaving. My siblings and my parents have done it. Someday, it’ll be me.

Abba and Ema join us on the train, all of us a little sleepy-eyed and worn out from a long, busy Shabbos. Yeshaya sits beside Abba, speaking about the sugya he’s learning in school. Abba delights in it, asks him more questions and pushes him a little further. When Yeshaya is finally satisfied, he sits back and takes a breath. “Sorry,” he says. “You probably have other things to learn right now.”

“Never be sorry for learning,” Abba says, and I recognize the intonation of his voice now, the way that it shifts to storytelling mode. “Let me tell you about one of my good friends. Do you remember Moshe Levine?” Yeshaya shrugs. He’s an intense kid. He’s never kept track of the kehillah, not with the same casual friendliness that my brother had when he was young.

I remember Moshe. He’d known Abba even longer than I had, even before we moved down the block from the shul. When Abba had been a young man in law school, Moshe asked him to give a Shabbos afternoon shiur at a local shul where he was the president. It was for local guys who weren’t learning much during the week, and Moshe recruited more attendees, and kept the shiur running for years.

When we moved closer to the shul, the shiur continued as a Monday night staple. It was in our house for years. I have early memories of bringing my dinner downstairs, sitting with a flimsy paper plate and watching as strange men gathered around a table and learned concepts I couldn’t follow. We would sit on the couch and under Abba’s feet, pleased just to be a part of this shiur in our childlike, intrusive ways.

For many years, we knew that Monday night was for Moshe’s shiur. If I needed help with a Chumash test, I scheduled it around the Monday night shiur. No one in the family called Abba on Monday nights. When the sugya was done, they continued with another, and another, and nothing got in the way of the Monday night shiur. There were shiurim most other nights, too, but the Monday night shiur was sacred in a way that had been driven into us at a very young age, and we attended the siyumim for it in matching dresses and chattering to now-familiar faces.

“Moshe was someone who lived for learning,” Abba tells Yeshaya now. “He learned plenty the rest of the week, but he never missed this shiur. Even when his kids got married, he’d schedule the weddings around the shiur. ‘No Monday night,’ he’d say. ‘I have a shiur Monday night.’ I’d tell him that we could move the shiur. ‘No. I learn Torah Monday night.’”

Eventually, Moshe moved to the neighborhood and joined the shul, and he set out to learn at the shul every night. He came to every shiur. He loved it. But at the same time, he also became very sick. He was diagnosed with various illnesses, each worse than the next. Throughout it all, he was a super opinionated member of the shiur with a lot to say.

He had been a healthy, robust individual for most of the time that Abba knew him. But toward the end of Moshe’s life, it could take him ten minutes just to walk across the room to the shiur. He was on dialysis and had endured chemotherapy. He couldn’t drive or sit up without support. He was dizzy and nauseous, and still, he lived for the shiur. It took him hours to work up the strength to stand up and function, but he geared his entire life toward being able to come to shiurim every night and participate.

“Other members of the shiur would fight over who would get the opportunity to take him home,” Abba tells Yeshaya. “They all felt like it was such a huge zechus because Moshe was so moser nefesh to be there. He fainted a few times during the shiur — an EMT at the shiur revived him and took his vitals. He wouldn’t leave, and he wouldn’t let his sickness disturb the shiur.”

Once, Moshe slipped down under the table during the shiur. Other men caught him and they tried to help him get seated again. “Keep going,” he ordered. “I’m not here to watch you guys look at me. We’re here to learn.”

“He was also a rav,” Yeshaya guesses, his brow furrowed. “A rebbi?”

“A balabos,” Abba corrects him. “Stam a balabos.” Moshe was also a person of incredible integrity. When he got a tuition break one year, he spent the next few years driving for a car service on his off hours to pay back the difference to a school that his child had already graduated from.

He passed away during shloshes yemei hagbalah one year. “It’s unusual to meet someone who gave up his life to learn Torah,” Abba tells Yeshaya. “And you’d think it would be a rosh yeshivah. You’d think it would be a gadol. And it was stam a balabos, a man who sold food most of his life, a simple guy who didn’t go to yeshivah after high school or have that opportunity. Everything he was, he made himself and he had tremendous devotion. He understood something that most people don’t understand, Yeshaya.”

Yeshaya is listening, his eyes tracking Abba’s every move. And I know in that moment that Yeshaya has, at 13, understood what it took me until my thirties to grasp, the strength that we have in our connections to the people who have walked before us. Abba and Moshe alike, both of them men who have devoted so much of themselves to Torah and mitzvos.

Abba says, “Moshe understood that his learning mattered. That his davening matters. People start to think, eh, what does my learning matter? What does my davening matter? What does my chesed matter? And it’s so easy not to bother when you believe that. Moshe believed that his learning was essential, and it was his lifeline. He was so grateful each time a shiur ended, always with the same hope that he would wake up in the morning to experience the next one.”

Yeshaya frowns, turning over this story in his mind before he speaks. “Do you think that everyone can be like that? Or was Moshe special?”

Abba considers. “I think that every Jew has a tremendous capacity for mesirus nefesh. We don’t always believe in ourselves. We don’t always understand that we have it. But I’ve seen so many people sacrifice of themselves for what they know is necessary.”

I think of Abba’s father, taking off work one Saturday to see his son lein. Of a girl who didn’t speak one Yom Kippur, and divorced couples who found it in themselves to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Of countless people throughout my childhood as a rav’s daughter whom I’ve seen pushed outside of their comfort zones to make the best, most difficult decisions.

“You remember Moshe Levine,” Abba repeats. “Maybe not in life, but after, when his wife and children dedicated a sefer Torah to the shul in his memory. We brought it from the house, where the shiur really began, to the shul where it continued, don’t you remember?”

Yeshaya nods. I remember the dancing, the joy, the most fitting legacy of all for someone like Moshe. I remember snapping a picture of Abba, framed in our house, holding that sefer Torah like a father might cradle his child.

Abba leans over, wraps an arm around Yeshaya as the train pulls into the station. “And you, Yeshaya, danced with Moshe’s Torah and me.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 897)

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