A Trip Down Memory Lane

It was a sheva brachos in honor of Meir Simcha, a chosson who happens to be this writer’s son. But with Rav Uri Zohar as the host, and with a guest list that included Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, Rav Avrohom Zeivald, and Rav Natan Cheifetz of Lev L’Achim, as well as Rabbi Aryeh Deri, it should come as no surprise that the event turned into a nostalgic review of the incredible events of 35 years ago.

It seemed to be a fairly typical sheva brachos. The mechutanim were there, as were the chosson and kallah, of course, and there were plenty of speeches replete with praise for “our chosson.” At the same time, there was something a bit different about it, since the participants were people who worked together closely 30 years ago, but haven’t had many chances to converse at length over the intervening decades. It was a fascinating experience for those guests, and for anyone else who listened to the constant flow of fascinating stories.

The sheva brachos was held in honor of my son, Meir Simcha, who celebrated his marriage last week. The host and organizer was Rav Uri Zohar.

Perhaps I should add another piece of background information: For many years, Rav Uri Zohar has maintained a daily learning seder with his colleagues in the upper echelons of Lev L’Achim, Rav Avrohom Zeivald and Rav Natan Cheifetz. The group meets every morning to learn Gemara. It is quite possible that they have already completed Shas. I joined the group quite a number of years ago.

The sheva brachos afforded us an excellent opportunity to reminisce together. Rav Zeivald and Rav Cheifetz recalled their efforts as young married men over three decades ago to arrange for the newly founded Lev to be registered as an official organization. They contacted another former talmid of the Chevron yeshiva to seek his help in arranging for Lev L’Achim to be recognized as a nonprofit (a process that can take up to a year). This man “happened” to be the Minister of the Interior, Aryeh Deri – who was the youngest director-general of the Interior Ministry and the youngest government minister in the history of the State of Israel.

Deri himself, in fact, was another guest at the sheva brachos. After all, Rav Uri Zohar had invited him, and he could not turn down such an invitation from a close friend. When Rav Ovadiah Yosef asked Reb Uri to be responsible for the Shas party’s election broadcasts, he agreed (only after he consulted with Rav Shach). Deri and Rav Zohar have also worked together in other areas, particularly with regard to kiruv; for several years, they collaborated to produce a radio program with the goal of having young Israelis register in Torah schools.

Rav Ovadiah Sponsors the Cigarettes

Another guest was Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin. Rav Sorotzkin is the director-general of Lev L’Achim and Chinuch Atzmai, rov of a shul and community in Netanya, a close confidant of gedolei Yisroel, the son-in-law of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau – and a friend of Deri from his days in Chevron. Deri and Rav Sorotzkin shared a room in the yeshiva and were members of the same chaburah. And rounding out the occupants of the dais at the sheva brachos were Rav Boruch Shapira, the chosson’s rebbi; my new mechutan, Rav Yaakov Romm, who is a rosh kollel in Yerushalayim, and the chosson.

The first story was shared by Rav Sorotzkin. “I remember Aryeh’s eirusin. I think it was held in the Merkaz Hotel. Rav Ovadiah Yosef was so enthusiastic, it was as if he was marrying off his own daughter. Aryeh was very close to him. Even when he was single, he used to bring a group of us from the Chevron yeshiva to meet the rov. We saw that the rov and his rebbetzin cared deeply for Aryeh…. I remember that after those meetings, we used to go to speak in learning with Rav Shalom Mashash, the rov of Yerushalayim at the time, who had immigrated from Morocco on the recommendation of Rav Ovadiah. He lived nearby, and Rav Ovadiah was concerned that there weren’t enough people visiting him, so he urged us to visit his home. We actually became very close to Rav Mashash, who was a world-class gadol but wasn’t sufficiently recognized by the public.

“But let us return to the subject of Aryeh’s engagement,” Rav Sorotzkin continued. “Rav Ovadiah was very happy during the festivities. He embraced Aryeh repeatedly. Finally, the event came to an end, and Aryeh, like any other chosson, prepared to take a short walk with his kallah and then to return to yeshiva. Of course, all his friends were waiting to celebrate with him once again in the yeshiva; this was the standard practice in yeshivos at the time. It was late; the rov had already taken his leave of Aryeh, and he gave a brocha to Yaffa [the kallah, who was the daughter of the late Rav Yehuda Cohen, a dayan and rov of the Jewish community in Casablanca] and shook hands with Reb Eliyahu Deri, Aryeh’s father. Then he turned and left.

“Suddenly, Rav Ovadiah came back. We were all surprised; what had happened? At the time, it was customary for chassanim to give out cigarettes to others upon their engagement. The rov walked over to Aryeh and said to him, ‘Aryeh, do you know it is customary for a chosson to distribute cigarettes to his friends in yeshiva after his engagement?’ Aryeh replied that he was aware of it. ‘Did you buy cigarettes?’ the rov asked, and Aryeh replied that he hadn’t yet done so. ‘Do you have money?’ Rav Ovadiah pressed.

“Aryeh blushed and began stammering uncomfortably, ‘Harav … it will be all right.’

“Rav Ovadiah immediately withdrew a sum of money from his pocket and handed it to Aryeh. ‘Take this and buy a pack of Marlboros,’ he said.”

The story alone was remarkable, but Rav Sorotzkin wanted to make sure that we understood the message. “Do you know what everyone found so incredible about this?” he asked. “It wasn’t just the rov’s affection for Aryeh or his concern for him. It was the fact that he did this in such a simple, unassuming way. It was as if his own son had become engaged; after all, a father takes care of all of his son’s needs – even a package of cigarettes for his friends in yeshiva. That is why he didn’t allow the chosson to argue that it was unnecessary. When a father gives money to his son for cigarettes for his friends, the son should accept the money.”

Tears at the Camp

During his first stint in the government, Aryeh Deri once walked into the Knesset, moving at his usual brisk pace. He entered the building through the Knesset members’ entrance on the third floor and made a left turn, while a woman named Dalia Itzik was coming from the opposite direction. Itzik was a former deputy mayor of Yerushalayim under Teddy Kollek and had held the education portfolio in the city; she later became a member of the Knesset and eventually was promoted to the position of Knesset speaker. Aryeh Deri knew her very well; she and Teddy Kollek had been involved in the construction of many school and yeshiva buildings in Yerushalayim. But when Deri passed her in the corridor, he didn’t even nod in her direction; he ignored her presence completely.

Dalia Itzik was shocked and offended. She approached the official in the Ministry of the Interior who was responsible for receiving complaints, and complained, “Why did the minister ignore me? Am I invisible?”

Yossi Schwinger, who today serves as director-general of the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites, was Aryeh Deri’s aide at the time. It was he who shared this story at the sheva brachos, and he recalled, “I told Dalia Itzik that Deri simply hadn’t seen her. She stared at me in disbelief, and I told her that I was prepared to guarantee that it was true. We had all grown accustomed to the phenomenon; when Deri is focused on something, he simply doesn’t look around him. People become offended by this, without realizing that there is no reason for them to feel insulted.

“She didn’t believe me,” Schwinger continued, “and we approached Aryeh together. I asked him if he had anything against Dalia Itzik, and he immediately exclaimed, ‘Of course not! Chas veshalom!’ Itzik then demanded, ‘Then why did you pass me without saying a word?’

“Deri was shocked. ‘When did this happen?’ he asked.”

The stories continued to flow, as Schwinger related another telling anecdote. “Ezer Mitzion was running a camp for children suffering from cancer, and they wanted Aryeh Deri to visit the camp. He refused, claiming that he couldn’t come, but they were insistent. They knew that the people who visited the camp were invariably transformed by the experience, and it was also known that Deri made a powerful impression on every place he visited. They pressured me to arrange for him to visit, and I pressured him in return, but he insisted that he couldn’t do it. I couldn’t understand the reason for his refusal, but I also couldn’t give up. I told him that I had capitulated to their pressure and had promised that he would come, and it would be very bad for me if he didn’t do so.

“Ultimately, Deri gave in. He arrived at the camp in the company of two aides, Eli Suissa and Eli Yishai. He smiled at the children, most of whom were in wheelchairs and some of whom were bald as a result of their chemotherapy treatments. He embraced the children and allowed himself to be photographed with anyone who asked. I watched him throughout his visit, and it seemed to me as if he was in a different world. I couldn’t understand why he had been so adamant about not making this visit.

“When it was finally over, we returned to the car. Deri sat in the back seat, closed the curtains – and burst into tears! He sobbed uncontrollably. The driver, his bodyguard, and I were all stunned. We didn’t know how to react. When he finally calmed down, he said to me, ‘Now you understand why I didn’t want to come. I simply can’t maintain my composure at the sight of a sick child.’”

Rav Uri Zohar’s Warning

All of the guests had one question for me: How did I become a member of Rav Uri Zohar’s learning group? I explained that it began with one of Reb Uri’s visits to the Ministry of the Interior.

At that time, around 1990, the Interior Ministry was one of the most tightly guarded government offices in the country. Everyone wanted to meet with the Interior Minister, and there was enormous pressure to permit visitors to enter the premises. One day, Rav Uri Zohar appeared at the ministry’s offices. His arrival was a surprise; he was known to lead a reclusive life, closeting himself in his home on Rechov Ponim Meiros. It was highly unusual for him to appear at any government office.

Shmulik, the elderly security guard who sat at the entrance to the building, informed the visitor at first that no one was permitted to enter without express permission from the minister’s office. After a moment, though, he recognized the visitor and apologized. “Rav Uri Zohar?” he exclaimed. “What an honor!” With that, Rav Zohar entered the building.

When Rav Zohar asked to be allowed to meet with the minister, he was told by the office manager – Yaffa, the daughter of Rav Ovadiah Yosef – that he would have to wait, since Deri was in the middle of a meeting. But Reb Uri did not have time to wait; he pressed the buzzer and entered the room. As soon as he had crossed the threshold, he shouted, “Aryeh, my friend, do not let them influence you. They flatter you because they need you!”

At that time, Aryeh Deri was at the height of his influence. No one would be appointed as a general in the army or commissioner in the police force unless Aryeh Deri was consulted. Amnon Abramowitz, who was (and still is) considered the top political commentator in the country, published an article titled “Shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,” wryly indicating that every decision in the country was made by Aryeh Deri. Nachum Barnea (the top journalist in Israel) was in the habit of calling Deri’s office constantly to hear his analysis of every situation. But Rav Uri Zohar warned Deri to beware of these people, for they did not have his best interests in mind.

As soon as Rav Uri barged into Deri’s meeting, the Interior Minister interrupted his conversation to stand up and embrace his friend. Everyone was in shock at the intrusion. The chilonim in the room gaped in astonishment. Aryeh himself, however, calmly replied to his visitor, “All right, Uri, so what do you want me to do?”

The answer came just as quickly: “Start a shiur here!”

“That Friday,” I related to the guests at the sheva brachos, “we began having a regular shiur in halacha. Rav Yoram Aberjil of Netivot would come every Friday….”

Aryeh Deri was listening raptly to my account, but at this point he interrupted me. “You are mistaken,” he said. “At that time, it was Rav Yissochor Meir who came every week. Rav Yoram came later.”

Rav Zohar, for his part, didn’t remember that incident very well. What he did recall was his learning seder with Deri when they both lived in Maaleh Amos. “I don’t know what he is like as a politician,” he said about Deri, “but I can definitely speak about the way he learns.”

At that point, I resumed my narrative. “When Reb Uri left the room, I accompanied him. ‘I am willing to learn for an hour every day,’ I said, ‘but on one condition.’

“‘What is your condition?’ he asked.

“I replied, ‘I want to learn with you. You will be my chavrusah.’

“He agreed to learn with me the very next day, and he told me to meet him at the Ohr Hatzafon shul on Rechov Bar Ilan. Before long, I discovered that I wouldn’t be learning with Reb Uri alone; rather, there was a group of elderly men who attended a daily shiur delivered by Rav Yedidya Manat. I was the youngest member of the group. Every afternoon, I set aside everything else in order to attend the shiur.”

Reb Uri eventually left the chaburah, when he decided to begin learning exclusively at home. He set up a daily schedule of sedorim with one chavrusa after another, beginning with Rav Sholom Wilensky, which was followed by Shacharis at neitz at the Kosel. “When Reb Uri withdrew from the chaburah,” I revealed to the guests, “I told him that I was leaving as well. And then he invited me to join his daily seder with Rav Avrohom Zeivald and Rav Natan Cheifetz. I have been part of that group since that time, for the past twenty years or so.”

An Accident in Tel Aviv

Yossi Schwinger had chuckled at the mention of Shmulik, the elderly security guard at the Interior Ministry. When I concluded my account, he shared a story of his own: There was a certain man in Yerushalayim – a “nudnik,” in Schwinger’s words – who made a habit of showing up at the ministry’s offices every Friday and demanding to be admitted to see the minister. The ministry was not open to the public on Fridays, and the office was locked; only Deri and his staff were present at the time. But this man discovered that Aryeh Deri was in his office on Friday mornings, and he showed up at the ministry’s doorstep like clockwork every week. The guard, of course, drove him away each time, but the man did not give up. One week, Deri heard that he was trying to enter the building and was not being permitted to do so. The minister immediately went downstairs and sat down on the steps to listen to his visitor. Shmulik was shocked – and that was the last time that that man was barred from the ministry’s office.

Schwinger also revealed to Uri Zohar that the two had first met under circumstances that were less than auspicious. “When I was a child in Tel Aviv,” he related, “I was playing ball with some friends, when an unfortunate mishap occurred. I wasn’t very good at soccer, and I managed to kick the ball into the street, where it struck the head of someone who was driving a Vespa scooter. That young man stopped, climbed down from his vehicle, and treated me to a withering diatribe.” Schwinger then looked directly at Reb Uri and asked, “Do you remember that boy with the ball? I was that boy….”

This led to another story, recounted by Rav Zohar himself. Before he became religious, Rav Uri once struck a pedestrian with his Vespa. The victim wasn’t seriously injured, but he decided to try to exploit the incident in order to extort some money from the scooter’s operator. The case reached the court, where the judge ruled in favor of the celebrity Uri Zohar. Ten years later, Uri Zohar became Rav Uri Zohar. Another ten years passed, and he was known as Harav Hagaon Uri Zohar. And then he remembered that incident in Tel Aviv.

Rav Uri Zohar is not a man who cuts corners. He became concerned that he might have some sort of halachic obligation to compensate the victim. He approached Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher and asked him to issue a psak. Ultimately, he donated a hot water tank to the holy site in Meron.

“Today, there are entire organizations dedicated to kiruv,” Schwinger said. “At that time, there was a room and a half in the Interior Ministry where people worked to register hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of bochurim in yeshivos and girls in seminaries. And there wasn’t a single institution that suffered a loss when it acceded to Aryeh Deri’s request to enroll more students. Today, there are large organizations that deal with the draft and with all sorts of other problems. At that time, there was a single small room in the ministry where every problem was solved. Tzvika [i.e., yours truly] befriended an eccentric army general in the draft department, and every single problem was solved through that friendship.”

Aryeh Deri laughed. “He even went to jail for it,” he added.

With that, Avrohom Zeivald began to laugh uproariously.

“What happened, Avrohom?” Deri asked.

“I just remembered how you got me out of jail,” Zeivald replied.

“I remember that I had you released,” Deri said, “but I don’t remember why you were arrested.”

Rav Zeivald related that he was arrested for “kidnapping” a child in the course of his work on behalf of Lev L’Achim. Avrohom Zeivald, a fearless Yerushalmi, managed to infiltrate a monastery and rescue a child. The boy’s father was a non-Jew, but his mother was Jewish. Avrohom entered the monastery, which was located on Har Hazeisim, in the middle of the night under cover of darkness. He was accompanied by two or three other young men, along with the boy’s mother, who was the only person who would be able to identify her child. They searched the monastery, room by room, until they found her son. They wrapped him in a warm blanket and spirited him away to their waiting car.

This is a story that sounds difficult to believe, but is absolutely true. Nowadays, it would become the subject of a film…. Rav Zeivald was completely oblivious to the fact that there were security cameras in the monastery. He was quickly identified and arrested by the police, but they found it impossible to induce him to divulge the child’s whereabouts. And it was Aryeh Deri who worked to have him released from jail.

Rav Natan Cheifetz remarked to Deri, “If they knew that you had helped us with Lev L’Achim’s registration as a nonprofit, bypassing all the usual procedures, they would have indicted you for that!”