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All for the Boss
The Life and Impact of Reb Yaakov Yosef Herman, a Torah pioneer in America
by Ruchoma Shain
A HEARTWARMING BESTSELLER RETURNS, better than ever! Revised and newly designed, with additional material added by the author, this unique biography continues to inspire readers with the amazing story of Reb Yaakov Yosef Herman, zt"l.
With affection, humor, and awe, his daughter, Ruchoma Shain tells the story of her father's strength and determination to uphold the Torah as he revolutionized Jewish life in the early 1900's in New York.
From those years to the final decades in Jerusalem, R' Yaakov Yosef Herman was known for his love and uncompromising devotion to Hashem and to his fellow Jews?to living a life "all for the Boss."
An affectionate family chronicle ...
This unique biography details the life and impact of R' Yaakov Yosef Herman, zt"l, a Torah pioneer in America. As a child, his parents recognized in him a hechere neshamah, a "higher soul"; and in his 87 years he proved it over and over.
In 1888, at the age of eight, Yaakov Yosef and his family left Eastern Europe for the bustling, teeming Lower East Side of New York ? and found a new world too busy for the "old-fashioned" religion of observant Jewry. It was a world where if one observed the Sabbath and didn't come to work on Saturday, he went looking for a new job on Monday. For five years his father tried to earn a living?and failed. He had to take his family back to Europe ? but didn't have enough money to take Yaakov Yosef along.
At 13, the boy was left to fend for himself. With determination young Yaakov Yosef clung to the Torah that he had learned from his father, as he made his way in business, brought his family back from Europe, married, and began to raise a family of his own.
With a genuine eishes chayil at his side, he took to inviting people home for Shabbos. It was nothing unusual for the family to have 30 guests at one time. Everyone was welcome at his table, from the simplest Jew who needed a meal to the gedolim of Eastern Europe who came to America seeking support for their famed yeshivos. As word of his Shabbos hospitality spread, arriving gedolim sought him out, and his "hachnassas orchim business" prospered.
This is the full story of a man who, in the bewildering night of a new world, chose one fixed point as his polestar: his age-old religion which taught him that the world has one Boss, the Almighty Who created it. For the sake of that Boss's Torah and mitzvos he was ready to act. And act he did.
Out of his love for Torah he became a prime educator who helped to found the two major, pioneering yeshivos of the Lower East Side. With dedication and enthusiasm he inspired devoted talmidim, who went on to accomplish great achievements in Torah education. And he raised a Torah-true family who imparted his teachings to the generations which followed.
Only a child of his could write this story, from the early years in New York to the final decades in Jerusalem. His daughter Ruchoma describes the struggles and triumphs, the heartbreak and happiness, and all the power and glory of a life lived "all for the Boss."
About the Author
Born and raised in New York City, for many years Ruchoma Shain taught English and other subjects in elementary and high school. She has lived in Jerusalem since 1968. Since "All for the Boss", her first book, she has published: Reaching the Stars, Dearest Children, All for the Best, and Shining Lights.
IN LOVING MEMORY
To my beloved husband
Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Shimon
A rebbe for many years, who taught
countless students the way of Torah
and brought them close to "The Boss."
He was always at my side, and gave me help and encouragement
throughout our life together.???????????????????????
IN????? LOVING????? MEMORY
to my beloved grandson
R' Eliezer Yitzchok Isaac Shain ben Rabbi Yisroel Meir
who was already emulating his great-grandfather,
R' Yaakov Yosef Herman, when he passed away
in his twenty-third year.
To my loving children
Yisroel Meir and Chaya
Elimelech and Mashi (Willner)
Rafael Yitzchok Isaac and Yehudis
I REREAD PAPA'S LETTER. The thread of longing to see me that I detected of late in his letters was evident in each line. Since Mama's death, almost ten years earlier, this longing was intensified, even though Papa had remarried.
True, Papa had several loving grandchildren living near him in Yerushalayim, but as Papa once wrote, "Grandchildren are not children."
Fifteen long years had passed since I'd last seen Papa. There were always valid reasons for not being able to make the trip: the Second World War, the births of my two younger children, the War of Independence in Eretz Yisrael. Yet I always had it in mind and kept the hope in my heart: Next year I shall surely visit Papa....
As I held his letter and looked at his handwriting, so dear to me, an overwhelming desire to see Papa engulfed me. I wanted to feel the warm clasp of his hands, see his penetrating steel-gray eyes soften with affection as he gazed at me. I wanted to talk to him, bare my troubled thoughts and questions which his wisdom could clarify and answer...and I wanted to be there for him... I burst into tears.
When my husband, Reb Moshe, came home from yeshivah, he looked at me closely. "Racoma, what's wrong?" he asked anxiously. "Have you been crying?"
"Oh, Moshe, I want to visit Papa!" I burst out. "I can't wait any longer. I long to see him." He saw Papa's letter on the table and immediately understood.
"Then you should go, Racoma."
I called a travel agent immediately. The round-trip fare was $987. Flight time was approximately forty hours, with five stopovers: Labrador, Shannon, Paris, Rome, Athens, and finally Tel Aviv. (There were no jets in the early 1950s.) There was a flight in a few weeks, at the end of June, and
I immediately made reservations to leave on June 29 for a month's stay.
Fortunately, we had United States war bonds,- which we were able to cash in to pay for the plane fare. I notified Papa: "I am flying to Eretz Yisrael to visit you. In six weeks we shall be together. Wait for me.... Love, Ruchoma."
His answer came in record time: "I am waiting. Your 'pinch' awaits you also. Papa."
I touched my cheek ? the "pinch" was an integral part of my childhood. Even when we were very young children, Papa's principles of child-rearing were so firm and unyielding that he subdued his paternal emotions and never kissed us.
However, he showed his approval of me, his youngest, by, every so often, giving me a pinch on the cheek when I was an especially good girl or when he enjoyed a quip of mine. Sometimes, the pinch left a slight black-and-blue mark on my thin cheek, which I wore as a "badge of honor."
I thrust the fleeting memories of childhood out of my mind. I would have enough time to think about them on the long flight.
There was much to be done and I plunged into a whirlwind of activity. Mashi and Yitzchok, our younger children, had to be readied for camp, their first experience away from home. There was shopping, sewing name tapes on their clothes, washing, and ironing. It was the season for moth-proofing the closets. I had to get inoculations before traveling to Israel. I also began to prepare and freeze meals in advance for Moshe and our oldest son, Yisroel Meir, who would fend for themselves during my absence, with our close relatives lending a helping hand.
The phone rang incessantly. Friends and relatives had advice, good wishes to bestow, and an occasional request. "Racoma, how wonderful that you are finally going to see your father after so many years!"
"You must be terribly excited to be flying for the first time!"
"I have a cousin in Tiberias. Can you bring him a small gift from me?"
"Take along suntan lotion. I heard the sun is fiery there during the summer."
"How I envy your going."
The day of my departure arrived. Mashi and Yitzchok had left for their camps the day before in a flurry of hugs, kisses, and tears. I boarded the plane on Tuesday evening with a pounding heart, waving a last farewell to my dear ones.
The announcement came: "Fasten your seat belts." The plane with its fifty-eight passengers flew into the clouds, which parted respectfully to allow the strange metal bird to usurp some of their sky space. The plane gathered momentum. The soothing droning sound of the engines relaxed me for the first time in weeks. I adjusted my seat to a reclining position, and raised my hand to wipe the beads of sweat from my face. I touched my cheek...the pinch!
Vivid memories of my childhood flooded me.
When Mama was expecting me, Papa decided that this time she would present him with a second son. Esther, Frieda, Nochum Dovid, and Bessie had preceded me.
As Papa hurried home from shul, he was greeted at our building's entrance by his sister, Molly. "Mazel tovl Aidel just gave birth to a girl."
What!" Papa stared at her unbelievingly. "Are you absolutely sure?" He rushed up the steps to our apartment two at a time and burst in.
Doctor Bluestone, our family doctor, came out of Mama's bedroom beaming. (In those days, the customary place of birth was in the home.) "Reb Yaakov Yosef, you have a fine, healthy little girl!" He shook Papa's hand warmly.
Papa was crestfallen and speechless.
"Don't worry," the doctor said, chuckling. "In due time your daughter will bring you a son ? her husband!"
It was the eighteenth day of Kislev (December 6,1914). The First World War, which started in August 1914, had all ready unleashed havoc on many European countries. The number of dead and wounded mounted each day.
Papa chose my name, Ruchoma, meaning "pity" ? which he took from the Prophet Hosea (2:3): "Say unto your brethren, Ammi; and to your sisters, Ruchoma...." ? as a symbol for his prayer to our Father in Heaven to have pity on Papa and bless him with more sons! However, it was destined not to be, for I remained the youngest in the family.
Papa showed his partiality for me as a child, which I attributed to his guilty conscience for being so disappointed when I was born. When I was a very young child, he enjoyed holding me on his lap, and he allowed me to stroke his beard, a special privilege given only to me.
When Papa registered me for the first grade in P.S. 42 on the Lower East Side, he showed the registrar my birth certificate, which had my name listed as "Ruchoma." Papa was told that since there is no sound in English corresponding to the Hebrew letter ches, I would have to have a pronounceable name. Then and there, Papa created my English name: Racoma! Papa and Mama always called me by my Hebrew name, but almost everyone else called me Racoma.
During my school years, my English name elicited much curiosity in my teachers and classmates. I proudly gave everyone a lengthy explanation of its origin, stressing that my name was taken from the Bible.
Papa had definite ideas for every aspect of our lives. We lived in an apartment heated only with a coal stove in the kitchen, although Papa could have afforded a much more expensive and warmer home for us. He was convinced that too much artificial heat was unhealthy and that our cooler air would immunize us against respiratory diseases. His theory seems to have worked, as we rarely suffered from colds or the flu.
Castor oil was the medication for a multitude of ills, ranging from headache to stomachache.
There was a battle royal when Papa administered it to me. Mama always hovered nearby with an orange to mask the taste. (To this day the sight of an orange recalls the taste of castor oil!)
Papa could be harsh and strict with us children, but Mama tempered his discipline with her warmth and understanding. However, despite Papa's punitive measures to teach and direct us in the ways of Torah, his intense devotion to our every need took precedence over his fur business or any other activity, except for his religious duties. Thus, though as a young child I feared Papa, he instilled in me the feeling of great emotional security. I knew he could protect me from any harm that loomed ahead.
Once I had a severe earache on Shabbos. When Papa returned from shul, Mama told him worriedly, "Yankev Yosef, I just don't know what to do for Ruchoma. She is in such pain." My sobbing could be heard throughout the house.
Papa came over to me, removed his tallis, and gently placed it under my head. "Ruchoma, keep your ear on my tallis and lie down for a while. Your earache will get all better," he assured me with conviction. Mama tucked me into bed with my ear on Papa's tallis, and I fell asleep. When I awoke, my earache had vanished.
One winter day, when I was six years old, I became feverish. My body was covered with a deep red rash. Dr. Bluestone was called.
Ruchoma has scarlet fever. She will have to be in bed for at least six weeks. It is very contagious, so keep her isolated." The doctor wrote a prescription for medication to lower the fever. (There were no antibiotics in those days.)
The red blotches itched terribly. Mama watched over me with deep concern to prevent me from scratching myself. Papa took over my care for the nights, so Mama could have some rest.
"Yankev Yosef, do not allow Ruchoma to scratch her face. It could leave marks," Mama warned Papa over and over again. I remember that as I lay in a daze of fever and itching, Papa gently held my hands all through the nights, telling me little stories of the Bible while he half-dozed. I recovered without any telltale signs.
Another way in which Papa showed his concern for us was by tenderly ministering to our foot problems all through our childhood. Where he ever acquired the art of chiropody, I never discovered, but the results were excellent.
Papa was in his element. Mama had given birth to "his" son ? the first boy after two girls, Esther and Frieda. Though his joy was boundless, he controlled his emotions with great effort because it was erev Tishah b'Av, a day of sorrow and mourning.
In fact, he did not inform Zeidy and Bubbie Andron, Mama's parents, until after the fast.When they came to visit Mama and the baby, Zeidy said to Papa, "I would very much like to have the baby named after my father."
"I have already chosen his name," Papa replied. Papa had decided to name his son Nochum Dovid, which indicated the period in which he was born. The word Nochum means "consolation."
It turned out that Zeidy's father's name was Nochum Dovid ? in his excitement, Papa had forgotten!
Little Nochum Dovid, or Davie as we called him, received the brunt of Papa's strictness. At the age of four, Papa wrapped him in a large tallis and carried him to Yeshivah Tiferes Yerushalayim to begin his Hebrew studies.
Every morning, I awoke to Davie's cries of protest as Papa pulled him, half-asleep, out of bed and carried him to shul for the morning prayers. Davie had little time for games or other childish pastimes, as a rebbe awaited him daily when he returned from the yeshivah.
Mama, however, was there to cushion the blow. Nochum Dovid was her favorite. In her eyes, he could do no wrong, and she yielded to his whims. Surprisingly enough, though I was the real "baby" of the family, I had no feeling of jealousy where Davie was concerned. It was only natural that the ben yachid should receive extra benefits. I liked the pulke of the chicken; however, throughout my childhood, whenever Davie was home, the pulkes were his. I accepted this as a matter of course.
Papa had no problem with the girls' getting up in time for school, especially on the cold wintry mornings. He would walk into our bedroom, remove our heavy down quilts, and stalk out of our room with them. Four shivering little girls flew into the kitchen to warm themselves by the glowing coal stove Mama had ready for us.
When Papa walked into the house, we always stood up for him as a sign of respect and honor. We were supposed to do the same for Mama, but unless we were prodded by Papa, we tended to forget.
Once, while I was doing my homework, Papa came over to me suddenly and sharply slapped my hand. I cried out in protest. Mama called from the kitchen, "I did not mean Ruchoma!"
Papa was not disconcerted by having given an "unjustified" smack. "Most probably Ruchoma deserved this," he replied, for some wrongdoing or other for which she received no pun-ishment!"
On one hot day during summer vacation, I was outside playing potsy" in the street with my friends. Suddenly I saw Papa hurrying over to me. "Ruchoma, you are has mitzvah already," he said. "Go up to the house and change into long stockings."
I ran up the stairs and into the house. "Mama," I cried out, Papa won't let me wear my knee socks anymore because I'm twelve! But I don't have any light-weight stockings." I searched through my drawer and pulled out my heavy winter hose, looking at them with distaste.
"Wear them in the meantime," Mama told me gently. "I'll buy you summer stockings as soon as I get the chance."
I returned to my potsy game, and all my friends cast pitying glances at my heavy winter hose.
Osna was my best childhood friend. Her father, Alter Winevsky, had arrived in America with very little money, leaving his wife, Chana, and their two sons in Russia until he could send for them.
Papa found him in shul one night, alone and distraught. He had no close relatives or friends to turn to, so Papa invited him to stay at our house. Papa, who was in the fur business, taught him the fur trade and helped him earn enough to bring his family over. When the Winevsky family arrived, Papa rented an apartment for them in the building where we lived. Mama and Chana soon became very close friends.
Mama and Chana were both expecting at the same time. After Osna was born, Chana waited impatiently for Mama to give birth. Three weeks later, Esther ran down to Chana to announce excitedly, "I have a new baby sister. Her name is Ruchoma."
Osna's mother was delighted. She commented, "Now my daughter will have a good friend."
Osna's parents both worked, trying to make ends meet, and Osna spent most of her spare time in our house. Papa and Mama treated her like one of us, and she became like part of our family.
Osna had a great fear of darkness and would tremble if the lights went out for a moment. I remember her fearful words: "The black hand will get you in the dark!"
But because Papa's oft-repeated statement, "You must never fear anyone but the Boss," had engendered in me such a sense of emotional security, Osna's words did not have any effect on me.
Papa sought to cure Osna of her fear with his best childhood psychology. "Ruchoma and Osna, come with me," he told us one Sunday afternoon. We followed Papa dutifully down the steps to our cellar. He unbolted the heavy door and turned on the switch. The cellar was bathed in a yellow light.
There stood all our Pesach appliances and other household equipment, our sukkah boards and ladder. The Pesach gas stove and table occupied one wall. Our Pesach pots, pans, and dishes were packed in different-sized cartons, covered with large sheets. A giant trunk was pushed into an empty corner.
"Osna," Papa instructed her, "touch each thing and tell me exactly what it is." Osna ran around touching the items and calling out their names: "Table, gas stove, cartons, boards, ladder, trunk!" She enjoyed the attention Papa gave her.
Suddenly Papa switched off the lights and the cellar became pitch-black. Osna uttered a desperate cry. Papa held her hand tightly and took her to the different objects, which appeared like grotesque figures in the darkness. "Touch them," he commanded. Osna whimpered. Papa turned on the switch. Once again the cellar was suffused with light. "See, there is nothing to fear." Over and over again, he repeated this procedure until Osna touched everything in the dark.
I don't know if Papa's psychology cured Osna completely of her fear of darkness; but what I do know is that before Pesach, when I went down to the cellar to help bring up our dishes, I knew with my eyes shut where each carton stood!
I was always an avid reader, and books kept me spellbound. However, Papa did not approve of his children reading library books ? from his point of view, they were not kosher and liable to fill our heads with dangerous nonsense. But since he hadn't forbidden them completely, I would hide the books in various places. I had one in the cutlery drawer, and as I dried the spoons I would read it. Under my pillow, I hid another book, which I read whenever Papa was late coming home at night. The bathroom shaft was another good hiding place.
But it didn't always work.
"What are you reading, Ruchoma?" Papa had caught me red-handed.
"Just a...a book," I stammered. He grabbed the book from my hands and glanced at the first and last pages.
"This fills your head with nonsense! Come, I am returning this book to the library."
I dreaded going with Papa, but his word was law. I wept softly as I walked towards my doom, but Papa was never cowed by our tears.
We entered the public library and Papa strode up to the desk. "I do not want my daughter reading this book," Papa told the startled librarian, and he handed her the book. I hid my face in shame.
A few weeks later, I made sure that a different librarian was on duty and I visited the library again.
The year was 1927. Charles Lindbergh was about to make the first non-stop, solo flight from New York to Paris. We anxiously awaited every bit of news, and Papa's excitement was conta?gious.
"He made it!" Papa ran into the house waving the newspaper with the glaring headlines: LINDBERGH LANDS IN FRANCE.
Papa sat down in his armchair, caught his breath and exclaimed, "This is a preview of Mashiach's times when Hashem will gather the Jews from all parts of the world and fly them over the oceans to Eretz Yisrael. Just as it says in the Torah (Shemos 19:4), 'How I bore you on eagles' wings...'"
Papa pointed to the picture of the plane. "Look Ruchoma! Doesn't it resemble a flying bird?"
I peered closely at the photograph, and wondered if I would ever fly into the sky.
One Sunday morning Mama took Davie, Bessie, and me to visit Bubbie Herman (Papa's mother), who lived in Harlem. We loved to go there. She fussed over us and always prepared special treats.
Bubbie and Mama got along very well. Though Mama called Bubbie shviger (mother-in-law), it was more of a mother daughter relationship.
As we left the elevated train on our way home, Davie straggled behind us. Suddenly, we heard his piercing scream ? his jacket had caught on the iron grating of the gate of the moving train, which was dragging him along the platform. In another moment, he would be thrown to the street below.
Mama cried out in great alarm, and Bessie and I wailed loudly. Fortunately, the motorman heard our cries and the trail stopped abruptly. Davie was as white as a sheet. Mama clasped his trembling body in her arms and sat down with him on the nearest bench to catch her breath.
We hurried home and, as we walked in the door, Mama poured out an account of the near-tragic event. Then we noticed that Papa was red-eyed, and was reciting Tehillim. "A short while ago, I felt a terrible premonition of tragedy," Papa said with deep emotion. "I immediately started to pray. The Boss answered my prayers."
Going to the movies was a favorite treat. Papa, of course, discouraged us, but Mama was sympathetic. One Sunday morning, after we had pestered Mama endlessly, she finally yielded to us. "Yankev Yosef, let the children go to the movies. The have nothing else to do today."
Papa glanced at Mama with surprise. She usually went along with his dictates, especially when they concerned a facet of our religious upbringing. Bessie and I awaited Papa' verdict with trepidation.
Did you say your prayers today?" Papa asked us. We nodded our heads. Papa assumed that by reciting our prayers our desire for this necessary evil should automatically vanish. Papa would not give his definite approval. He left the room, which did not mean "No."
Mama hurriedly prepared a large bag of food, handed us five cents ? the price of the movie ? and whispered, ?Stay as long as you can." She wanted peace and quiet for a few hours, and she felt the movies were harmless fun.
We flew on a magic carpet to the movie theater. Bessie and I read the titles out loud (there were only silent movies in those days), and if I could not understand a word, Bessie explained it to me.
Gradually, the seats around us emptied as our fellow movie patrons didn't appreciate the loud chatter of two little girls! However, we were oblivious to all except the movie, which cap?tivated us.
We stayed for a second showing, and a third. By the third time around, we knew all the titles by heart. Several hours later, after we had finished all the food Mama had given us, we reluc?tantly left the dark movie-house, blinking in the bright sunlight.
We rushed home to hug and kiss Mama and tell her all about the wonderful movie we had seen ? three times.
Papa showed his disapproval, however. "No movies for three months."
I carefully made a small notation on our calendar.
Once Mama received a free pass to the movies from our corner candy store ? and it stipulated that it was for use only during school hours. "Mama, go! You'll love it," I encouraged her. Mama agreed.
On the day that Mama was planning to go to the movies, I could not concentrate on my schoolwork. I had only one thought all day: Imagine, Mama going to the movies! I ran home and burst into the house to find Papa and Mama home. "Mama, what movie did you see?" I asked eagerly.
"I saw a cowboy riding on a horse down a dusty road."
"What else?" I prompted.
"Well," Mama reported calmly, "it was so cool and comfortable that I fell asleep right away. When I woke up, I saw the same cowboy on the horse returning. That was the end of the movie!" Mama finished. I was speechless.
Papa had his ears tuned to Mama. "Aidel," he declared, "the movies are good for you! Whenever you get a free pass, you should go." Papa smiled broadly at Mama, who looked wonderfully refreshed and rested.
My sisters and I attended the neighborhood public school, there were no religious schools for girls in those years. In the late afternoon, when we returned from school, we studied Hebrew and Bible at the Talmud Torah. However, when Papa discovered that some of the teachers were not strict Sabbath observers, he withdrew us.
He hired a Hebrew teacher for us, but no teacher lasted very long with the lively Herman girls. So Papa took to teaching us himself.
At public school, we mingled with the other children of diverse nationalities ? Italian, Polish, Russian, Chinese ?we were friendly with all of them.
However, there was a strict, standing rule that we obeyed scrupulously: We were not allowed to visit the home of any our classmates, other than a few very close friends whose parents Papa and Mama knew well.
Still, that never prevented me from having friends. In fact many of my non-Jewish schoolmates came to our house to do their homework with me. Papa and Mama always treated them respectfully. On Shabbos, ten to fifteen Jewish girlfriends usually visited me, and Papa would relate Bible stories. Mama always served her delicious coffee cake and drinks.
When we graduated from elementary school, Papa searched high and low for a girls' high school.
There was an excellent high school in the vicinity, but it was co-educational, and Papa would not hear of it.
He finally found a private girls' high school on East Fourteenth Street, Manhattan, that met his demands. Although tuition was costly, Papa never considered the money when it came to his religious convictions. All our textbooks had to purchased as well.
The high school offered a two-year accelerated program with no vacation during the hot summer months, except for a few days off? here and there. Papa was impressed with the excellent curriculum and the physical fitness course, which included swimming, basketball, tennis, and special physical exercises.
In order to enter the high school, we were required to pass an entrance examination. Esther, Frieda, and Bessie were accepted without any problem. However, when my turn came to register, Papa had difficulty. The required age of entry was fourteen, and I was only thirteen-and-a-half.
Papa did his best to persuade the school administration to accept me. Finally, because the Herman girls had such a good reputation, Papa was told that if I could pass the entrance ex?amination with high marks, they would make an exception in my case.
I tossed and turned the night before the exam, and I struggled with the disturbing thought: "If I fail, or do not receive a high mark, I will bring shame to the Herman family."
Trembling, I went to take the test, with Papa's and Mama's blessings ringing in my ears. My application was approved.
The teachers took a personal interest in their students, and I enjoyed my studies immensely. I loved the school uniform too: We all wore green uniforms over white blouses and gym bloomers.
The physical fitness program enticed me, and Papa was all for it. In no time, I was swimming, diving, and mastering various strokes in the large pool. I was chosen to be "forward" on my basketball team. Every day I hurried home from school to share my experiences with Papa and Mama.
Mama made sure that we took along nutritious lunches to school. Every morning, she prepared them for us painstakingly, not trusting us to do it. Before we left for school, her parting words were, "Don't forget your lunch." But I did forget it one morning.
At recess, I was called to the office. I quickly descended the large stone stairs, wondering why I was being summoned. There was Mama, seated in the office.
She jumped up when I entered. "Ruchoma, you forgot your lunch ? I brought it for you." She uttered not one word of reproach to me.
I discovered later that Mama had walked to and from my high school, a matter of several miles, in order to save the car?fare. Papa was facing difficult financial setbacks in his fur busi?ness, and she had not wanted to spend the extra money.
PAPA OFTEN KEPT US fascinated with stories of his family and childhood. He was eight years old when he emigrated from Slutsk, Russia, with his parents and younger sister, Molly. The year was 1888.
Zeidy Yitzchok Isaac married Bubbie Minna Rivka when he was eighteen years old, and she a year or two older. He was a yeshivah bachur. After their wedding, they lived on Bubble's parents' farm, outside of Slutsk.
Zeidy Herman could not eke out a living sufficient to sustain his growing family, so, like many others, he decided that America was the golden opportunity for him.
When they arrived in the United States, Zeidy first sought employment as a private rebbe and teacher, but he quickly found out that few were interested. Papa remained his only student.
Zeidy tried to obtain work even in menial jobs or in facto?ries, but when he refused to work on Shabbos, the following Monday he would find himself out of work. The fact that he also would not work during chol hamoed of Pesach and Sukkos compounded his difficulties in keeping a job.
He was ridiculed by his fellow Jews for not wanting to shave his beard or lessen his religious principles by one iota. "In America," acquaintances constantly told him, "you cannot be the same as you were in the 'old country,' or you will never make a living for your family."
Immigrants from Eastern Europe on an Atlantic liner, coming into the New York harbor in 1906. When Papa arrived with his family in 1888, it might have been under similar conditions.
After five years of struggle, he realized how correct his friends were. And so, in order not to lower his religious standards, he decided to return to his hometown in Russia.
Zeidy was able to muster enough money to purchase two-and-a-half tickets ? for himself, for Bubbie, and for Molly, who still able to travel on a child's half-fare. However, since Papa was already bar mitzvah, he needed an adult ticket. Zeidy Bubbie had no alternative but to leave him with distant cousins until they could find the means to bring him home. The cousins agreed to provide Papa with room and board for the price of one dollar a week. Papa worked as a handy-boy at the salary of $1.25 a week at a fur shop. It was one of the few ones that was Sabbath-observant.
When Papa returned from the pier after bidding farewell to his parents and sister, he was a forlorn lad. He described to us that he thrust his hands in his pockets and felt his treasured Jack of marbles. Suddenly he squared his frail shoulders, lulled the marbles from their bag, and threw them to the curb. He had discarded the last vestige of his childhood. As he hatched the gaily colored marbles roll down the dusty street, he declared to himself: "No more playing games for me. I have to be a man now."
Though he valiantly tried to become a "man," it was not easy for a lonely thirteen-year-old boy. Pangs of lonesomeness overwhelmed him, and his pillow was often soaked with tears. He had to grow up overnight.
However, he bore no grudge against his parents for leaving him. On the contrary, Papa determined to work with greater effort and save enough money to bring them and his sister Molly back to America, and to help towards their support when they returned.
Several weeks after Papa had started boarding with his cousins, they raised the rent. "If you want to remain with us," they told him, "you must pay $1.25 a week."
Papa felt a terrible sense of betrayal. With choking sobs, he ran from their house. It was erev Shabbos. The sun would soon be setting, and Shabbos was fast approaching.
Papa resolved not to return to his cousins' house even if it meant spending Shabbos in the street.
He hurried to a bakery and bought three little challos.
The sun set. Shabbos came and found a lonely, forsaken boy sitting on a hard bench in deserted Hester Park. There was no place for a young, confused, brokenhearted lad to go in the vast city of New York. Papa made Kiddush over two challos and hungrily gulped down one of them. All through the long night he sat huddled on the hard bench, half-dozing and half-awake.
When dawn finally broke, Papa made a vow: When he would marry and establish a home of his own, he would never sit down at his Shabbos or Yom Tov table without having guests, orchim, gathered around his table. He would even search in the parks for lonely, hungry people to feed.
That Saturday night, Papa withdrew his few belongings from his cousins' house and found different lodgings.
For most of the week, Papa existed on what he could afford buy from the kosher delicatessen for his main meal. However he was physically very strong, and his years of deprivation did not weaken him in the least. In fact, even in the coldest winter weather, he would never wear an overcoat. (After Papa at Mama were married, she complained to him, "Yankev Yosef people will think that you can't afford a winter coat." To appease her, he went out and bought a very expensive one, but seldom wore it.)
Although there was no one to teach or admonish him, Papa scrupulously observed all the mitzvos Zeidy had taught him. During the few times he allowed himself the luxury of playing ball with his friends, when it came time for his afternoon or evening prayers, he dropped the ball in the middle of the game and rushed off to shul.
Papa advanced steadily in the fur shop where he started as handy-boy. He developed from apprentice into an experience worker with furs. His salary grew, and with it his savings which he hoarded carefully.
Four years after Papa had bidden farewell to his parents and little sister, he sent them enough money to purchase tickets. At that time, another ticket was needed for his new little brother Chatzkel, whom he had never met. (His youngest sister, Sara was born in the United States.) It was a joyful day for the family when they were finally reunited.
Papa rented an apartment for them. With his salary, he supported them, so that Zeidy could have the luxury being a rebbe and not have to struggle for his livelihood.
Papa aged 7, with his mother and his sister Molly, in the Old Country.
Papa at 18, in a studio photo with Zeidy Herman (seated).
Zeidy & Bubbie Herman
Zeidy and Bubbie Herman were loving, devoted grandparents, who were very close to us throughout their lifetimes. We adored them. Bubbie Herman's chocolate bars came together with her whenever she visited us. During the summer months, we children took turns staying at Zeidy and Bubble's house for a week at a time. This was the highlight of our vacation. We reveled and basked in the personal attention Bubbie showered on us.
They lived in Harlem, near Central Park, and Bubble took us on picnics in the park. We visited the famous zoo, which fasci?nated us. When Bubbie brought us home, after our week with her, we were washed, combed, and bow-bedecked girls, with bright, rosy cheeks.
Bubble's pride and joy was Papa, her oldest son. He in turn, revered her. Late one night, we were all traveling home by subway from a wedding. As we neared the steep staircase lead?ing up to the street level, Bubbie sighed and said quietly, "I'm so tired."
Suddenly, Papa scooped her up in his arms and raced up the steep flight of steps, with Bubble's little feet kicking back and forth in protest. "Yankev Yosef, put me down!" she cried. But by that time Papa had already safely stood her up at the top of the staircase.
In 1926, Zeidy Herman decided to go to Eretz Yisrael. He had his heart set on settling there, and he wanted to get settled so that Bubbie could join him later. He traveled on a freighter, which took over a month to arrive. His letter describing the harrowing trip brought us to tears and laughter simultaneously.
Papa arranged for Zeidy to live in the Anshei Meimad in Jerusalem, an organization where elderly men boarded and studdied Torah. So Zeidy became a yeshivah bachur once again.
He enjoyed life in Eretz Yisrael and became acquainted with many of the rabbanim living in Meah She'arim. Zeidy became close brilliant Torah student, Reb Yosef Shalom Elyashiv who became a well-known dayan). Zeidy suggested an excellent shidduch for him: the daughter of Reb Aryeh Levin (A Tzaddik in Our Time), who was already known in those days for his righteousness and chesed. Zeidy was very friendly with him, and the shidduch was successfully concluded. The young couple were married, much to Zeidy's satisfaction.
During the time Zeidy was living in Eretz Yisrael, Bubbie came to live with us. We were delighted. When we returned from school, she would hold us spellbound with many tales from her childhood, which came to life with her presentation.
Bubbie pitched in to help Mama with all the household chores. They got along very harmoniously, and she was always trying to ease Mama's burdens. "Aidel, you work too hard. Tell Yankev Yosef to get you help." Or on another occasion, "Why don't you buy yourself some new clothes?"
The standing joke in our home was Papa's calling Bubbie shviger whenever she defended Mama. However, he showed his mother great respect. When she entered the room, he always arose from his chair and remained standing until she sat down.
When Zeidy had been in Jerusalem for over a year, he asked Bubbie to join him. However, by then, Bubbie did not want to part from her children and grandchildren, so a few months later, Zeidy returned to the United States. We were happy to have Zeidy back, but very sad when Bubbie moved out of our house.
Zeidy and Bubbie accepted an offer to manage a hachnasas orchim organization: a free hostel, supported by the Jewish community in Jersey City. Bubbie happily prepared all the meals, baked the challos for Shabbos, and kept the premises clean. Zeidy attended to all the religious needs.
One erev Shabbos, a short while before candle-lighting, as Bubbie was finishing washing the kitchen floor she suffered a fatal heart attack. It was too late for Zeidy to notify Papa.
After Havdalah, Zeidy called to tell Papa that Bubbie had passed away. It was Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av. Papa did not break down and cry then, but Mama and I did. (I was the only one of the children at home, as the others were already married.) We were inconsolable.
Bubbie Herman was gone! Her bright spirit, her wisdom and sage advice, had illuminated our lives. She was gentle, yet firm; she was helpful, but gave us self-reliance. Above all, she was my loving Bubbie.
There was a great deal for Papa to arrange. All the preparations for the funeral and burial had to be taken care of. Papa was a bulwark of strength.
The first day of shivah, right after the morning prayers, Papa was alone in the living room and he closed the door. Suddenly Mama and I heard heartbreaking, anguished sobs coming from the closed room. It was Papa.
Papa, the brave, courageous, dauntless soldier, was crying? a son grieving for his mother.
It was the first time I ever heard Papa cry.
In time, Zeidy Herman remarried. We became attached to his wife, Tante Rivka, who was devoted to us too.
Ten years later, Zeidy passed away on isru chag Pesach. We children took care of the arrangements for his funeral and burial because Papa and Mama were already settled in Eretz Yisrael.
Zeidy Herman left us a rich heritage of good deeds. I remember him as always kind and considerate, with a cheerful word for everyone.
Mix and Match
BY THE TIME PAPA was twenty-one years old, he was a hand?some, dashing, wealthy young man, and the owner of a flourishing fur business. It was time for him to get married. The shadchanim, who were waiting for his cue, descended upon him en masse.
Papa explained to each of the matchmakers that he was interested in a truly Orthodox girl from a family of culture and Torah education. Of course, each of the shadchanim had "The Girl" who met all of his qualifications and, in addition, was extremely wealthy, with many other fine attributes that Papa would surely discover once he met his prospective bride. So he was assured.
Papa soon found out that with all the candidates, there was no exaggeration as to the wealthy home, for no shadchan would dare introduce a girl to Papa who could not offer him the dowry suitable for such a wealthy, handsome young man. However, they definitely magnified "the truly religious girl from a fine Orthodox home."
In order for Papa to be convinced that the girl was a strict Sabbath observer, he would arrange his visits for Friday night, even though it meant walking great distances to the girl's home. (In the early 1900s, formal Jewish education for girls was non-existent. Consequently, the girls' training was a product of the home.) On more than one Friday night Papa kept his appointment only to be disappointed.
On one occasion, Papa noticed the girl placing the tea kettle from the table back onto the stove.
When he saw that, he stood up and announced, "It seems the shadchan gave me the wrong address," and out he stalked.
On another occasion, when it was impossible for Papa to meet the girl on Friday night because the distance to her home was too great to walk, he came during the week. While in her home, she answered a knock at the door. A poor man stood there, and she handed him a large donation.
Although the girl was generous with charity, Papa noticed that her parents were perturbed by what they considered her extravagance. He never returned. He would not consider marrying into a family which did not give charity with an open hand.
At last, one of the matchmakers, who refused to give up, knowing he would receive a substantial fee if he could find the right girl for Papa, came to him and said timidly, "I have just the girl for you. She will meet all your demands ? but I must tell you that she is penniless and has no dowry whatsoever."
Papa was astounded. A girl without a dowry! No reputable young man would consider such a girl for marriage. However, he was intrigued by the shadchan's courage and asked, "Who is she?"
"Her name is Aidel Andron. Her father, Reb Shmuel Yitzchok Andron, is a very learned man, a great talmid chacham," the shadchan concluded bravely.
Papa went to their home on Friday night. The Shabbos candles burned brightly on the table, which was covered with a spotless white cloth. Reb Shmuel Yitzchok, a stately person with a graying beard, and his wife, Fruma Rochel, who was wearing a wig, sat at the head of the table.
Their five sons were gathered around listening to a dvar Torah from their father. Aidel was busy serving everyone tea, cake, and fruit. There was warm Shabbos atmosphere that permeated every corner of their house.
Rabbi Andron was the only one who had not inquired of the Shadchan about Papa's earning?? potential, but instead had dwelled only on his learning capabilities. Papa was immediately captivated by the Androns and their lovely, charming daughter, Aidel.
Papa told Zeidy and Bubbie Herman that he had finally found the girl he was looking for. He added, "She has no dowry, but it really doesn't matter. I don't need any money from her."
"What!" Bubbie exclaimed. "Will you marry a poor girl when you have so many offers to marry fine, rich girls? I refuse to permit you to go through with this shidduch." Bubbie was adamant.
Papa tried every way to convince his mother to change her mind. When he realized he could not, he had no recourse but to tell the matchmaker that he could not marry the Andron girl. He would not disobey his mother's wishes.
Months passed. Papa met other girls, but none could compare with Aidel or her family.
Depressed, he hid his feelings from his parents.
One morning, as he was walking along, he met Yankev Leib Andron, Aidel's oldest brother.
Yankev Leib greeted Papa warmly and asked him frankly, "Tell me, why did you stop seeing my sister? We were all so sure that you were interested in her."
Papa poured out his woes. "I still want to marry your sister, but my mother absolutely refuses to allow me to because there is no suitable dowry."
Yankev Leib thought for a moment and then asked, "Do you have two thousand dollars in the bank?"
"I have even more than that," Papa answered quickly.
"I have an excellent way to solve the problem satisfactorily for all concerned. Give me two thousand dollars as a present. On the night of your engagement I will return it to you as Aidel's dowry," Yankev Leib advised. (Two thousand dollars was considered a very handsome dowry.)
Papa was delighted with the idea. He went to his bank with Yankev Leib, withdrew the money, and gave it to him.
The engagement party was a joyous one. Uncle Yankev Leib spoke a few words, and with a grand flourish, he handed Papa the "dowry."
Zeidy and Bubbie Herman were very happy that Papa was marrying a lovely girl from such a distinguished family. Bubbie was especially happy with the substantial dowry that she felt her son deserved.
Zeidy and Bubbie Andron were pleased that their daughter, Aidel, was marrying a fine, Jewish young man who was willing to accept her without any money. But most radiant were the glowing young couple, Papa and Mama, who had at last found each other.
After the engagement, Papa discovered how very illustrious Mama's family was. Zeidy Shmuel Yitzchok had emigrated from Dvinsk, Latvia, in the year 1892, with his oldest son, Uncle Yankev Leib. Bubbie Fruma Rochel, my other uncles ? Yechiel Michel, Yisroel Isser, Feitel, Feivish ? and Mama, who was the third child and only daughter at that time, had arrived a year later. (Aunt Fannie, the youngest, was born in the U.S.)
In Dvinsk, Zeidy Andron was known for his great erudition. Before his twentieth birthday, he was ordained as rabbi by the great Rabbi Meir Simchah ha-Kohen (known as the Ohr Same'ach, the title of a book which he wrote), who was the rabbi in Dvinsk at that time. Zeidy was renowned as a brilliant Talmudist, and he was a master of eight languages. He occupied an important position in the community, and the Andron family lived comfortably. As my five uncles grew older, Zeidy faced the persistent fear that they would be conscripted into the army, which could endanger not only their Torah studies, but also their future as Orthodox Jews. His only solution was emigration to the "Golden Land" ? free America.
Zeidy soon discovered, much to his dismay, that no yeshivah existed where my uncles could continue their Torah study. He'd sacrificed everything to save his sons from one danger, only to be confronted with another, equal danger in America. He therefore spent much of his time teaching them himself.
He faced the additional problem of acquiring suitable employment, in accord with his status, that would provide adequate support for his large family. Zeidy secured a position as a Hebrew teacher in a Talmud Torah, for two hours daily. After a short while, when it did not meet his lofty expectations of teaching Torah, he decided to leave the position. The only alternative that enabled him to observe the Sabbath and holidays was self-employment, so the honored Rabbi became an insurance agent.
One evening, the Slutsker Rabbi, known as the Ridbaz (an acronym of his name, Rav Yaakov David ben Ze'ev), who had recently arrived in New York from Russia, delivered a stirring speech in the Pike Street Shul on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He drew a very large audience, as he was known as one of the great rabbis of the era. Zeidy Andron was among the audience and listened intently to every word.
The Ridbaz quoted Mishlei 6:23: "'A mitzvah is compared to a candle ? the Torah to a torch.' Both diffuse light in a dark room. However, while the candle will be extinguished in a strong wind, the torch will grow even stronger, with its light spreading over a large area. Unless there will be yeshivos to propagate Torah in America, religion will be buffeted by the strong winds of secularism and disappear altogether," the rabbi warned.
Zeidy Andron was very moved by his talk. He went home to tell Bubbie Andron how troubled he was. However, a few days later, when Uncle Feivish, a young lad, returned home from public school one afternoon in late December, asking Zeidy for money towards a Christmas party, he was electrified.
He immediately withdrew Uncle Feivish from public school and persuaded some of his clients to do the same with their sons. With ten boys at the outset, Zeidy engaged a Hebrew teacher to teach them religious subjects from nine o'clock in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon. Then he hired a school teacher to teach them secular subjects from four to six o?clock. He paid the teachers with his own money.
Zeidy and Bubbie Andron
Zeidy rented space in an Orthodox synagogue on Hester Street, and named the yeshivah in memory of the late Chief Rabbi of New York, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, a personal friend of his.
Each Shabbos, the students came to Zeidy's house so that he could check on their progress. He also interviewed each Hebrew and English teacher he hired to make sure they were ca?pable of imparting true Jewish values to their students. Of course, this meant that Zeidy could not concentrate very well on his insurance business. Instead of canvassing for customers, he and Bubbie Andron spent their time trying to recruit people to help finance the new yeshivah, and to gain new students.
As his insurance business suffered, the family struggled. No wonder there was no dowry for Mama! Trying to interest people in a yeshivah at that time was no easy task. The concept of an all-day Jewish school was unheard of in early twentieth-century America.
However, Zeidy and Bubbie Andron persevered. The yeshivah grew slowly but steadily. In time, "The Mother Yeshivah," as it is known, was relocated to its own building at 156-165 Henry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School grew to great proportions, and came to include a kindergarten, elementary school, high school, and post-high school study toward rabbinical ordination. It had a registration of well over a thousand students. Both Uncle Yankev Leib and Uncle Yisroel Isser served as principal at different times. Through Zeidy's keen foresight, the torch of Torah, as the Ridbaz had described, was kindled in America.
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