Sunday, May 26, 2024

My Years in Novardok: An Interview with Rav Grainom Lazewnik shlit”a

Although much has been written about the great pre-war European yeshivos, there is a dearth of information and insights regarding the great pre-war network of Novardok yeshivos. Most of those who learned in post-war American yeshivos can relate important ideals espoused in the mussar centers of Kelm, Slabodka and Mir, but little of Novardok. They know about the roshei yeshiva of Kamenitz and Baranovitch but precious little about Novardok. The fact is that the Novardok yeshivos dotted the landscape of Poland and Russia and, as the larger yeshivos of Bialystock, Pinsk and Mezritch, were centers of learning and mussar. Rav Grainom Lazewnik, a longtime rov in Flatbush of Mosad Adar Gbyr, spent his formative years as a bochur in the two Novardok yeshivos of Pinsk and Mezritch. The unassuming Rav Lazewnik, a great talmid chochom and humble baal mussar, is a repository of knowledge about Novardok and his character bears the indelible imprint of Novardok. This fascinating Yated interview with Rav Lazewnik will shed light on the unique approach to mussar that characterized Novardok.

 Yated: Where were you born?


Rav Grainom Lazewnik (RGL): I was born in a small town called Lenin. Lenin was not far from the larger town of Luninetz (a town where Rav Elazar Shach served as rosh yeshiva before the war) in the region of Pinsk. My father, Reb Yaakov, was one of the distinguished baalei batim in town. He was extremely respected and served as a gabbai of the kehillah. He engaged in all areas of tzorchei tzibbur, public service. He was a person who was greatly admired, and even in matters connected with machlokes, all the townspeople regarded my father as trustworthy and impartial.


Are you referring to any specific issue?


RGL: I remember that when our community was choosing a new rov, one of the wealthy members of the community, along with some friends and followers, demanded that a relative should be chosen. Others wanted Rav Moshe Milstein, one of the gedolei Mir, one of the great talmidim of the Mirrer Yeshiva. Rav Moshe was a gaon and tzaddik who learned bechavrusah with Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. Some even said that he was at the level where he was capable of serving as a rosh yeshiva of the Mir. A machlokes ensued, splitting the entire community into two camps.


Either way, when the machlokes erupted, my father was asked to travel to Pinsk to bring Rav Aharon Walkin, famed rov of Pinsk and author of the Bais Aharon, to Lenin to adjudicate the dispute. Despite the fact that it was known that my father approved of the appointment of Rav Milstein, the kehillah trusted him to serve as a worthy emissary, devoted to the task without trying to influence the rov of Pinsk in any way. I was then learning in Pinsk and Pesach was approaching, so my father asked the rosh yeshiva if I could return home with them. I therefore joined my father on that trip and spent a day and night traveling with Rav Aharon Walkin, but that is a fascinating story for another time.


What did you father do for a living?


RGL: When I was growing up, he tried his hand at a number of different things. We were never rich, but we always had what to eat. Later, my father became an agent for Singer, an American company that marketed sewing machines. He would go to nearby towns selling sewing machines and, boruch Hashem, he was successful.


You learned in the Novardok system of yeshivos. How did you get there?


RGL: As a child, I learned in Lenin. After my bar mitzvah, Rav Moshe Milstein, rov of Lenin, tried to establish a yeshiva ketana. I joined that yeshiva, but after about a year, the maggid shiur in that yeshiva ketana was asked to come to the Novardok Yeshiva in Pinsk to give the youngest shiur. Most of the other bochurim went to learn in Kletzk, but I and one other bochur joined him in Pinsk, one of the three main Novardok yeshivos. For the first zeman, we learned under the tutelage of that maggid shiur. When he left due to lack of funds, we remained in the yeshiva.


How many yeshivos were there?


RGL: The Alter of Novardok had a philosophy that small yeshivos should be established in every possible town and thus be mashpiah on the youth. There were tiny Novardok yeshivos dotting the entire landscape of Poland and Russia. In addition, there were three major yeshivos, centers of learning that served as the collective heartbeat of the Novardok network. Those three yeshivos were in Bialystok, headed by Rav Avrohom Yoffen, son-in-law of the Alter; in Mezritch, headed by Rav Dovid Bleicher; and in Pinsk, headed by Rav Shmuel Weintraub. In Pinsk, the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, served as a maggid shiur.


I went to learn in Pinsk when I was 14 years old.


Tell us a bit about Pinsk. What was the yeshiva like? What was the atmosphere like?


RGL: That world was different than the one in which we live today. It is therefore difficult to describe the essence of the yeshiva. The essence of the Novardok yeshivos and the atmosphere that was always felt in Pinsk was that of unswerving devotion to avodas hamiddos, working on oneself, trying to root out the traits of kinah, taavah and kovod – jealousy, lust and honor – that are so hardwired into human nature.


Certainly there were regular sedorim in the yeshiva. In fact, my second maggid shiur in Pinsk was the Steipler. But the most powerful ideal in the yeshiva was that of mussar and avodas hamiddos.


What was the Steipler’s role in the yeshiva?


RGL: The Steipler was the maggid shiur for the younger bochurim. It was the Steipler who actually gave me my farher to enter his shiur.


What was the farher like?


RGL: The Steipler gave me a Gemara and asked me to prepare a specific blatt. I spent some time learning the Gemara and then returned to him to be tested. He asked me a question on the Gemara. The question was actually one that Tosafos asked. Apparently, he found my answers satisfactory, because he accepted me into the yeshiva.


Can you describe the shiur?


RGL: The only shiur was the dailyGemara shiur. Most of the bochurim were about 15 years old; I was a year younger. There were approximately 60 bochurim in the shiur. The Steipler would ask bochurim to say the Gemara. I was always scared that he would call on me, so I tried to stand behind him so that he would not notice me. Nevertheless, he did call on me and, when I was unprepared, he would explain to me how he had understood the Rashi or how he had understood the Tosafos. Most of the bochurim stayed for approximately half a year to a year in the Steipler’s shiur, after which they learned themselves with chavrusos and heard a shiur klali once weekly from the rosh yeshiva. I was in the Steipler’s shiur for one zeman.


You said that the atmosphere of mussar permeated the yeshiva. Who was responsible for that?


RGL: The approach to mussar taught by the Alter of Novardok was very uncompromising. They viewed human nature with brutal honesty and strove to uproot all negative traits. This required much effort and introspection. There were older mashgichim, but to my mind, the person who perhaps more than anyone else set the tone of mussar in the yeshiva was Rav Moshe Ostropoler.


Rav Moshe was a talmid of the Alter and originally came from Ostropol, Russia. With the Communist takeover in Russia, he somehow managed to sneak over the border and ultimately ended up in Pinsk. He was an older bochur, a powerful baal mussar who headed the bais hamussar of the yeshiva.


Bais hamussar?


RGL: Yes. In Novardok, there were two botei medrash. One was the regular bais medrash for learning and the second bais medrash was called the bais hamussar. In the bais hamussar, bochurim would learn mussar or converse with each other about ways to improve in their avodas Hashem. The battle against the guf reigned in the bais hamussar, and the bochurim in Novardok strove for purity of heart in middos and some reached great madreigos.


Was there a special mussar seder in the bais hamussar?


RGL: Yes. But the bais hamussar was open all day. Of course, most of the bochurim spent the main sedorim in the bais medrash, but there were ovdei Hashem who would spend hours learning and toiling in the bais hamussar. Also, some bochurim who were not that proficient in learning or did not have sippuk in learning would spend more time in the bais hamussar.


Who had the most profound influence on you in Pinsk?


RGL: It was undoubtedly Rav Kalman Pinsky. Rav Kalman was an older bochur at the time (later he married the daughter of Rav Elya Lopian) who took a fatherly interest in me. I was very young and alone in the yeshiva. Rav Kalman was truly mekarev me and had a private mussar vaad with me.


Private vaad? Can you explain?


RGL: After night seder and Maariv, he would come over to me and we would talk about avodas Hashem, mussar, tikkun hamiddos and the like. He would do most of the talking and I would listen. These nightly vaadim lasted for about an hour or an hour and a half. They were a phenomenal benefit to my own avodas Hashem, both because of the things that we discussed and because he was an older bochur who took an interest in me.


What was the role of older bochurim in the yeshiva?


RGL: The older bochurim had great influence on the yeshiva. They were devoted talmidei chachomim and baalei mussar. I remember how Rav Kalman would spend most of the day in the front of the bais medrash facing mizrach, totally immersed in learning. He did not take his head out of the Gemara.


Rav Moshe Ostropoler also had a great hashpaah on me in Pinsk. He was the menahel and his shmeussen made a profound impression.


How long did you stay in Pinsk?


RGL: Two and a half years. The story of how I left Pinsk and went to the Mezritcher branch of the yeshiva offers insight into the unique mussar mindset that characterized Novardok.


As I told you, I was close with and in the proximity of real baalei mussar. One day, in about 1930, they came to me and asked me to come along with them to Mezritch. They were going to Mezritch to make a machaah, a protest! I was a young bochur and was not involved in their deliberation before deciding to go. What happened was that the rosh yeshiva in Pinsk, Rav Shmuel Weintraub (one of the most prominent talmdim of the Alter who moved to Eretz Yisroel in his final years) had been offered the position of rov in Karlin (the city neighboring Pinsk) and had agreed to accept the post. Although the reason he accepted the post was in order to use the position to improve the precarious financial situation of the yeshiva, his agreement to assume the position had aroused the ire of the baalei mussar, the great Novardokertalmidim of Pinsk as well as many other Novardoker talmidim in other yeshivas, such as Rav Dovid Bleicher, menahel of Mezritch.


The chinuch that they had received from the Alter was that a person has to give himself over solely to harbotzas haTorah. Rabbonus could only detract from one’s ability to spread Torah. In addition, rabbonus, by definition, was a position that was associated with kovod, honor and possible chanifah. How could a talmid of Novardok, a baal mussar, agree to become a rov and be exposed unnecessarily to such honor?! That was the depth and purity of interest prevalent among the gedolei Novardok. When Rav Shmuel agreed to accept the position of rov and thus hold the dual positions of rov and rosh yeshiva, a group of sharfeh baalei mussar left Pinsk to learn in Mezritch as a form of machaah, protest, against Rav Shmuel assuming the position of rov.


What happened when you came to Mezritch?


RGL: I was the only younger bochur who was asked to come along. I was not involved in the machaah. Interestingly, those who made the machaah remained for a couple of weeks and then returned to Pinsk. I, however, did not return with them. I stayed in Mezritch and remained for several years.


Tell us about the Novardoker Yeshiva in Mezritch. Who was the rosh yeshiva?


RGL: The rosh yeshiva was Rav Dovid Bleicher. Rav Dovid was a tremendous adam godol, one of the earlier talmidim of the Alter. In truth, however, he was not in the yeshiva that much. Aside from Elul and the Yomim Noraim, when he was in the yeshiva the entire time and delivered shmuessen, he was usually out of town. It was said that he was raising funds to support the yeshiva. During his absence, the yeshiva was run by Rav Dovid’s brother-in-law, Rav Shmuel Panitch. Rav Shmuel would say shmuessen throughout the year. Despite the fact that Rav Shmuel ran the yeshiva, everyone knew and understood that Rav Dovid was the real menahel.


How long were you in Mezritch?


RGL: Aside from a year and a half when I was forced into compulsory conscription in the Polish army, I stayed in Mezritch until the outbreak of World War II.


You said that Rav Dovid spent much time raising money for the yeshiva. What was the gashmiyus like in the yeshiva?


RGL: The aniyus, the poverty, both in Mezritch and Pinsk, is something completely incomprehensible to today’s generation that lives in the lap of luxury. Those were times when one hungered for food. We had the bare necessities to live. We had bread without much to accompany it. But for Novardoker bochurim, these things were relatively unimportant.


You spent so many years in Novardok. Did you ever wish to go to learn in any of the other great yeshivos?


RGL: I will tell you two interesting stories about this that will illustrate the unique ideals that permeated Novardok and the bochurim who learned there.


In approximately 1932, on my way back to yeshiva after spending Pesach at home, my father insisted that I go to learn in Baranovitch. He was concerned that the atmosphere of mussar in Novardok was too intense for me. The yeshiva in Baranovitch was one of the prominent yeshivos of that time. In Baranovitch, I immediately went to make the acquaintance of the mashgiach, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, the son-in-law of the Alter of Novardok. Rav Yisroel Yaakov was very mekarev me. At that time, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, was in America. I did not see him. During my talk with Rav Yisroel Yaakov, Rav Yisroel Yaakov mentioned that in the approximately 22 years that he had served as mashgiach in Baranovitch, not one bochur from Baranovitch went to Novardok.


When I heard those words from Rav Yisroel Yaakov, I wondered what they meant. I had two ways to understand them. Either he was telling me that I should not return to Novardok, but rather become a talmid of Baranovitch, or he was possibly telling me that if I don’t immediately return to Novardok, I will never return and therefore I”d better return to Novardok before it was too late.


I opted for the second approach and promptly left Baranovitch to return to Pinsk. You must understand that in Novardok, they were so convinced of the truth of their approach to mussar and avodas Hashem that they looked askance at anyone who left. I remember when I later learned in the Novardok Yeshiva in Mezritch, Rav Shaul Brus learned there at the same time. He was called Shaul Shevershiner, because he came from the town of Shevershin. When Rav Shaul left Novardok to learn in Kaminetz, I remember hearing the bochurim say, Shaul Shevershiner iz tzudreidt gevorin. They viewed someone who left as one who had cut himself off from life-giving oxygen.


You said there was a second story?


RGL: Oh, yes. As I said, I spent the years of 1937-38 in the Polish Army. We were situated in a small shtetel. As Jewish soldiers, we were given permission to have kosher lunch brought to us daily by the Jewish community. The army allotted us 60 groschen each day to pay for the food. Every day, I, together with three other bochurim from the Radiner Yeshiva who had also been drafted and were in my brigade, would go to eat. In that town, there were two Gerer shteiblach. One was for younger chassidim who were true bnei aliyah and spent most of their day learning and demanded high levels of avodas Hashem from themselves. The other shteibel served the general population. Somehow, I became friendly with the son of the baal habayis who provided the kosher food for us and he really took a liking to me. This bochur was a talmid in the famed Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. At that time, my army service was about to end and my young friend begged me to come with him to Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. He promised me that I would be accepted into the yeshiva if I went with him. He also deeply wanted me to accompany him on a trip to the Gerer Rebbe. My army service ended in September and, as soon as I was discharged, I went with him for a Shabbos to Ger. That Shabbos was the Shabbos of the first Selichos in 1938.


What was your experience in Ger like?


RGL: Everything was a chiddush to me. I came from a very different background and thus the entire atmosphere and all that was associated with it was new to me.


Did you see the Gerer Rebbe?


RGL: Yes. On Friday, I went for an audience with him. I remember that they gave me a kapote and a gartel and I went to give him shalom,or take shalom, as the chassidim say. He was standing by the door and I recall him looking at me and saying something very quickly. I only heard the last words, which were ah Yid.The gabbai¸ however, told me that he gave me a bracha that I should be a Yid. At that time, the bracha was a peleh, a wonder, to me. He is blessing me that I should remain a Yid?! You must understand that I did not have any major nisyonos at that time. I had devoted my life to mussar. What kind of bracha was this?


Later on, during the war and its aftermath, I saw how far-reaching the Rebbe’s vision was and how important that bracha was. I was confronted by tremendous nisyonos and I saw so many others who did not maintain their Yiddishkeit. Only then did I recognize the prophetic wisdom of the Rebbe.


Either way, after the Shabbos in Ger, I traveled to Lublin with my friend and spent a few days there.


What was your impression of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin?


RGL: It was an experience. The yeshiva itself was a remarkable place. It was a large, splendid building with all modern amenities, things we could only dream about in Novardok: a large, spacious building; magnificent gardens where bochurim could stroll, talking in learning; a beautifulbais medrash and library. I can never forget sitting down to breakfast in the yeshiva. There was hot cereal, eggs, butter things that were unheard of in Novardok.


My friend wanted me to stay, but the pull of Novardok was far stronger. Novardok did not have gashmiyus, but it had a certain nekudah penimis that pulled me back. The ideals of Novardok spoke so fervently about tikkun hamiddos and seeking shleimus to the extent that it penetrated our psyches and propelled us to understand that the only purpose of life and the only reason for our creation and for the giving of the Torah was to try to attain shleimus. Everything else was hevel, for naught.


Let me jump ahead and offer an example of the special, exalted avodah that Novardok provided. After the war, following much wandering and travail, I ended up joining Rav Gershon Liebman, one of the gedolei Novardok, in a yeshiva for the refugees that had found a hospitable, placid home in the town of Zalsheim. Rav Gershon appointed me as maggid shiur in that yeshiva. One day, we heard that Rav Yitzchok Eizik Herzog and some other prominent rabbonim would be coming to visit the yeshiva to determine the needs of the bochurim. When they arrived, we sought Rav Gershon, but he had disappeared. He was nowhere to be found. Although Rav Gershon had informed me that Rav Herzog would be coming, he did not let me know that he would be absent at the time. As maggid shiur, I was forced to greet Rav Herzog and show him the yeshiva. What had happened to Rav Gershon? He ran away because he thought that perhaps the kovod might bring him to chalilah harbor a momentary thought of gaavah!


This was the Novardok that was in me and from which I could not part. It is important to share this story of Rav Gershon, because although he only passed away a few years ago, I feel that he was not properly eulogized. People did not recognize what an exalted tzaddik and oved Hashem he was.


You said earlier that you had served in the Army. How did that come about? Was there no way you could have avoided duty as some of the bochurim in other yeshivos did?


RGL: First of all, I did not have the wherewithal or the connections to bribe officials to give me a deferment. Secondly, the menahel of our yeshiva, Rav Dovid Bleicher, had a unique attitude towards army service.


All of the other yeshivos in Poland gave their army-aged students permission to transfer to yeshivos in what was then Palestine, or had them emigrate and join yeshivos in the independent countries of Latvia and Lithuania. Rav Dovid felt that this would lead to the yeshiva‘s disintegration. Instead, he suggested that the year and a half of required army service amongst gentiles could help produce a physically stronger, more mature student. The experience could enhance his spiritual growth and ability to be of service to his community. Public service, zikui harabbim, strengthening individuals and communities, was an integral part of the Bais Yosef Novardok philosophy. In this manner, Rav Dovid viewed army service in a different light than others.


Was it difficult to be in the army?


RGL: It was certainly not the place for a yeshiva bochur, to say the least! But I had been prepared by my upbringing in the yeshiva for the nisyonos, the spiritual challenges associated with being in the army, and later, during World War II, the fact that I knew how to fight and shoot a rifle ended up saving my life. It was clearly part of Hashem’s Divine plan, min haShomayim, that contributed to my eventual survival from the Nazis.


So that was the last time you served in the army?


RGL: No. Six weeks before World War II broke out, I received notice that I was being re-inducted because of the impending war.


What happened after that?


RGL: That is a long story full of Hashgacha protis with overt nissim, miracles.


More on that in a future edition of the Yated.



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