It sounds simplistic to describe them this way, but it’s the truth. There is nothing in Jewish life which closely approaches the charm of the Jews who have been living in Yerushalayim for several generations, hailing from the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov. These noble souls, seeking to increase Torah and holiness in their lives and to hasten the redemption, abandoned all their worldly possessions and comforts in moving to Eretz Yisroel. Their descendants, the Yerushalayimer Yidden, reflect their passion for Torah and kedusha.
Their chein is hard to define and to quantify in words. But the old Yerushalmi Jews are ‘the real thing’. They are pure. Their lives are not tainted by all the nonsense that contaminates and corrupts us. They are so welcoming to everyone and so full of love, not because anyone told them to be nice to all, but because being good and kind is their essence. They are naturally good, without any manufactured additives to make them that way.
They are unfailingly humble, seeking for themselves neither honor nor glory. They are only concerned with fulfilling the wishes of Hashem and finding favor in His eyes. They are benevolent people. Jealousy of others is foreign to them.
They really live the lives that everyone preaches but few are able to fulfill. They are good, honest, happy, humble, sweet Yidden. They are what we would all be if we were on the level demanded of us. They are what we should be trying to be.
Many of us have read stories about Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rav Shmuel Salant, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and others like them, who established the Yishuv Hayoshon in Yerushalayim. The stories of the poverty and deprivation that they and their followers contended with as they pursued a life of Torah are the stuff of legend.
Kollel members in those days survived on the generosity of people back in the alter heim, who would send a portion of their meager incomes so that their brethren wouldn’t freeze or starve to death. In those days, many were lost to these and other misfortunes. Most survived only with difficulty. There were tradesmen who earned a few pounds here and there fixing shoes, tailoring, delivering water and milk, and engaging in other menial occupations. And when they weren’t working, they were plumbing the depths of Torah shebiksav andb’al peh; niglah andnistar.
These were the people who established the community inside the ancient walls of Yerushalayim and then, as the community grew, built the new neighborhoods of Meah Shearim and Shaarei Chesed. Their descendants are the people we know today as Yerushalayimers, who dress with the distinctive levush and display the old-time ingenuity and practical wisdom built on Torah and years of deprivation, independence and fortitude. They have a different value system that sets them apart from everyone else, and enables them to maintain their equilibrium in a turbulent, ever-changing world.
A few weeks ago, I was introduced to one such person, Rav Gershon Sirota. He was speaking about his grandfather who eked out a living as a carpenter. Building bookcases in a community where most of the people barely had enough income to feed their hungry children meant that his business made little money.
One day, an American immigrant walked into his shop and expressed interest in having a beautiful bookcase designed and built. After taking down the order, the carpenter asked the man who the fancy furniture was for. The man explained that he had just retired and now lived in Yerushalayim. He desired the type of furniture he was accustomed to back home.
The carpenter refused the order. Though he was desperate for the business, he couldn’t bring himself to complete the order. He explained to the would-be customer, “If a young couple comes to me and asks for a strong, sturdy, beautiful piece of furniture, I look at them and think that this young, happy couple is just starting out, with many years ahead of them. I am thus more than happy to build them the stuff of their dreams. But you are already older. You ought to know by now how temporary life is. How can you build yourself furniture like what you’re describing to me?”
Thus, although times were so hard in the depression years, and every drop of income was precious, this Yid obeyed a higher order that told him that this was not a job for him to do. Nobody told him how to react. He didn’t run to his rov to ask a shailah. His own spiritual sensitivity led this simple son of Yerushalayimer perushim, as desperate as he was for income, to turn down a profitable business opportunity.
These people appeared as simple craftsmen to the outer eye, but their inner refinement and sensitivity betrayed their true spiritual status. They were steeped in Torah and it permeated every aspect of their lives.
Another such person was Rav Hirsh Kroizer, a talmid of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and a great gaon, who learned in the Eitz Chaim Kollel while his wife supported him. A glimpse of the level attained by the chaburah of Rav Hirsh can be gleaned from what Rav Kroizer told a dear friend of mine. He said that talmidim of Rav Yosef Chaim who had no money at all, would leave their homes not knowing where they would find the means to buy food. While walking about, they would invariably find a coin on the ground.
This friend remembers Rav Hirsh walking to the neighboring Machaneh Yehuda shuk in the mornings and giving the chickens that were scheduled to be shechted, water to drink. He would explain that since they were soon going to be slaughtered, nobody bothered feeding them and they were doubtlessly thirsty. To relieve their suffering, this gaon would bend down and give them water to quench their thirst.
The stories told and retold about the secret tzaddikim and ga’onim of Yerushalayim are not fiction. They are not exaggerations. They are true.
Rav Hirsh Kroizer’s son today lives in Yerushalayim as he approaches his ninetieth year. He has written and published seforim on all of Shas, Chumash, Tanach and Tehillim. He even published a siddur with his own peirush. Yet most people have never heard of him.
His name is Rav Zundel. Rav Chaim Brim, a Yerushalayimer giant who was steeped in Torah and all its secrets, is quoted as saying that if there are two people in this world in whose merit the world stands, they are Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Zundel Kroizer.
If so, you will ask, how can it be that a man of such caliber remains unknown in a generation in which giants are so needed and so venerated?
It is actually a gift from Hashem, says Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He remarked that it must be that Hashem loves Rav Zundel more than he loves Rav Chaim, because He keeps Rav Zundel hidden, and people don’t bother him with shailos; for brachos and tzorchei tzibbur the way they bother Rav Chaim. Since he did not become famous, he is able to learn Torah uninterrupted, day and night.
And he does. He wakes up around chatzos every night to learn until daybreak, at which time he davens Shacharis kevosikin. He has been doing so for as long as anyone can remember. Every Shabbos morning, after davening, the bochurim in his presence are treated to the special zechus of being able to ask him any question on any sugyah in Shas and receiving his answers.
The learning didn’t always come easy. There was a manuscript of his chidushim on Maseches Kesubos which Rav Zundel uncharacteristically wouldn’t lend out. Finally, a young talmid chochom who was learned in that mesichtah pestered him to the point where Rav Zundel loaned it to him. The fellow took it with him to Meah Shearim and lost it. He was shattered and couldn’t conceive of returning to Rav Zundel without the manuscript. Finally, he mustered up the courage and told Rav Zundel the truth: the manuscript was gone.
Rav Zundel consoled him over the loss of the “hefteleh.” The fellow walked away regretfully, assuming that was the end of the story and those chiddushim.
Several months later, a man came to Rav Zundel with the booklet of his writings and asked if they were his. The man was a collector of antique seforim. One day as he was trying his luck, going through piles of sheimos before they were buried, a handwritten pamphlet grabbed his eye. He took it home, miraculously saving it from burial. He later showed it to someone who recognized that the handwriting to be Rav Zundel’s. And so, the precious manuscript was returned to its owner.
Rav Zundel thanked the man and shared with him a remarkable story. He said the booklet of chiddushim was written with tremendous mesirus nefesh in 1948 as Yerushalayim was being bombed. While everyone huddled in the dark, cramped bomb shelter, he found it impossible to learn there, so he returned to his home.
“Bombs were exploding, the windows were shattering,” related Rav Zundel, “but I didn’t move from that room. It was under those harrowing conditions that I learned Kesubos and was mechadeish the Torah that is written there. I knew it couldn’t be permanently lost. I knew it would come back.”
Rav Zundel rarely talks about himself, but sometimes the truth escapes and people get a glimpse of his spiritual stature. A story went around Yerushalayim about an incident that took place when Rav Zundel was already older and learned by himself at home. People would come by to check up on him, and make sure that all was in order. One day, Rav Yaakov Trietsky arrived at Rav Zundel’s apartment and found him lying in his bed, badly bruised and unable to move. Alarmed, Rav Trietsky asked Rav Zundel what happened. Rav Zundel told him that he had collapsed and fallen on the floor.
“But how did you get up on to the bed?” asked Rav Trietsky.
The response floored him. “Der chavrusah hut mir oifgeheiben un geleikt oif der bet – My chavrusah picked me up and put me on my bed.”
“But you don’t have a chavrusah,” wondered Rav Trietsky.
“That’s all I’m telling you,” said Rav Zundel. “No further questions.”
Everyone who knew Rav Zundel was certain Eliyahu Hanovi had picked him up off the floor and put him on his bed. That’s the type of Yid he is.
Until a few years ago, Rav Zundel refused to give brachos. Then he became very ill. His talmidim approached him and told him that when Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach was approximately 75 years old, he became very ill. He felt that Hashem had kept him alive so that he could help people. Until that time he was well known to talmidei chachomim but generally did not involve himself in public matters. After he recuperated, though, he overcame his previous reluctance, and involved himself in all communal affairs. Rav Shach lived for another 30 years.
The talmidim proposed to Rav Zundel that if he would undertake to give brachos to people in need of yeshuos, in that zechus he would recover from his grave illness. Until that time, Rav Zundel had been reticent to give brachos and engage in activities that would take him away from his learning. When convinced that people would derive chizuk from his brachos and that through them, Jews would strengthen their emunah and bitachon, he agreed.
Since then, his fame has slowly spread beyond the parameters of Yerushalayimers and talmidei chachomim; many people seek his brachos and receive chizuk from them.
Rav Gedaliah Sheinen, who heads a yeshiva in Yerushalayim, tells of the time he brought a wealthy American to Rav Zundel for a bracha. The man wished to express his gratitude with a gift of money. Rav Zundel refused to accept it. “Ich tor nisht nemen gelt far mir. Ich bin a gevir. Ich hob ah dirah. Ich hob vos tzu esen. Ich bin a gevir.”
He told the man that he couldn’t accept anything for himself because he’s a wealthy person. “I have a house. I have what to eat. I am a rich man,” he said. He wasn’t saying it to be cute. He meant it. And hearing him say it, you knew it was true.
But now that has changed, and this is the reason I am writing about Rav Zundel. Recently, his youngest son suddenly passed away, leaving behind a widow and six children. This tzaddik in our times, who has never asked anyone for anything and never accepted anyone’s help, is now crying out for us to come to his aid.
He recently wrote a letter expressing his profound pain. He literally begged people to help him, as he must support the penniless family.
This mitzvah represents a rare opportunity to rush to the aid of a holy and pure person. When giving tzedakah, we often wish we could know for sure that the money is really needed. We look for guarantees that our hard-earned money is going toward a worthy cause. All who seek out special mitzvos will want to donate to this cause.
An additional benefit to helping Rav Zundel in his time of need is the power of his brachos. He writes in his letter that he davens that all those who help alleviate his immense burden and assist him in supporting the grieving family, should be spared from any tzarah and should merit to see nachas from all their children, for long healthy years.
If anyone needs an inducement to help Rav Zundel in rescuing a family of yesomim, could there possibly be a better one?
Please make out your check to Congregation Ateres Yeshaya and mail it to Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, 53 Olympia Lane, Monsey, NY 10952.