Thursday, Jul 11, 2024

My Grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l; A Personal Remembrance upon His 19th Yahrtzeit

Rav Eliezer Levin, the rov of Detroit for many decades until his passing 19 years ago, was from a different world. He was from a different era. It sounds like a cliché to say this, but it is true. Rav Levin was born in a tiny shtetel named Hanisheeshuk, in Lita, where his father served as rov. As a young boy, he left home to learn in yeshiva. He learned for seven years in the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva in Radin and for seven years in the yeshiva of Kelm. He received semicha from the heads of the Kelmer Talmud Torah, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz and Rav Gershon Miadnik as well as from the rov of Kelm, Rav Kalman Beinishevitz. He was a rebbi in the high-school-level yeshiva that Rav Elya Lopian founded in Kelm. Upon the passing of his father-in-law, Rav Avrohom Hoffenberg, he left to Vashki to assume his rabbinic position as rov of Vashki. Why do I say that Rav Levin was from a different world? Let me share with you two stories about his rabbeim.

Rav Levin very rarely spoke about himself. He never talked about what it was like in the “alter heim,” like many other people did. Either it was in keeping with the posuk in Mishlei which states that one should not say that the days which passed were better days, for it is not wise to speak that way, or because it was too painful.


I once asked him why he never spoke about Lita. At the time, I thought that perhaps it was too painful to recall all his friends and family members who perished. Perhaps it was too painful to think of the life that could have been and compare it to what it was. But when I asked him why he didn’t tell tales from the olden days, he told me that it was because I would never be able to understand what he was saying anyway.


That was strange. He wasn’t one to put people down. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. Anyone at all. He obviously didn’t mean it in a bad way. He meant it as a statement of fact. You, as an American born-and-bred young man won’t be able to understand what I am saying, so what is the point? He didn’t just speak for the sake of speaking. He spoke to educate you, to influence you, and to make a point.


But I was brazen that day, so I asked him two questions about his two primary rabbeim. I said, “Zaidy, tell me, what was Rav Doniel like?”


Rav Doniel Movoshovitz was one of the heads of the yeshiva during the period that Rav Levin learned in Kelm, and had a profound influence upon him.


He answered me in six words: “Reb Doniel iz geven ah malach.He didn’t repeat any stories. No tales, no Torahs, no shmuessen. He didn’t look me in the eye as was his habit when he spoke to someone. We were sitting in his study. He looked down at his well-worn desk. I still remember it like today. “Ehr iz geven ah malach,he repeated.


I suppose he didn’t think I could handle what he meant when he said that Rav Doniel was a malach. It was several decades later that I understood when he said that, and why he didn’t go into detail.


Many years later, I read a story about Rav Doniel and finally understood what Rav Levin had meant when he told me that his rebbi was a malach. The book, which recounts heroic tales of the Holocaust, wrote of when the Nazis came to Kelm and the Yidden knew their end was near. They were being rounded up and marched out to their certain deaths. Rav Doniel asked for permission to return home one last time for something. Permission was granted. He went home, brushed his teeth and then returned to the lineup.


Calmly and softly, Rav Doniel explained that the Yidden were going now to be offered up as korbonos tzibbur. A korbon tzibbur is described as bearing a rei’ach nicho’ach, a pleasant smell. “I wanted to be sure that as a korbon, I will have that rei’ach nicho’ach, so I went home to brush my teeth,” said Rav Doniel.


No tears. No extraneous emotion. Just what was required of him to be the perfect korbon tzibbur. Is that man not a malach? Is there a way to explain this to an American twenty-something who never knew deprivation? How can one even fathom the gevurah and kedushah that this act required?


Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, Rav Gershon Miadnik and Rav Kalman Beinishevitz led the talmidei hayeshiva and residents of Kelm in the singing of Adon Olam and Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu as they returned their holy souls to their maker.


That was Rav Levin’s rebbi. That was the world in which Rav Levin lived. He was on a different plane than the rest of us, though he made sure that it wasn’t obvious.


This brings us to the second half of that conversation, which lasted about five minutes but remains seared in my memory.


I asked him what the Chofetz Chaim looked like. I meant to ask if he looked like the famous picture of him. Some people say that he didn’t look like that at all. Rav Levin didn’t understand what I was asking. Again he looked down at his desk and said, in Yiddish, that the Chofetz Chaim looked like a poshuter Yid. “If you didn’t know who he was, you thought he was a simple person. Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen – If you didn’t know, you didn’t see anything. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen – But if you knew who he was, then you saw everything,” said Rav Levin.


If you knew you were looking at the Chofetz Chaim, and you watched him carefully, you could see in his every move that he was a very holy person.


I never did get the answer to my question about the picture that day, but I got a much better picture of the Chofetz Chaim and of Rav Levin. Rav Levin was like his rebbi, never making a big deal out of himself. But if you watched him, you saw that every move, every action and every word was calculated and al pi Shulchan Aruch and the teachings of mussar which he embodied.


I never saw him angry. I never heard him raise his voice at baalei batim who acted improperly or even at us kids when we were little and ran around the house. He always radiated a super-natural calm. He was never flustered, never rushed, always on time, and always in perfect control of himself.


It was not normal. How could a person be so in control of himself? How could a person never be nervous, never be angry, never be rushed? Things happen. People upset you. How could one possess such perfection of character?


Rav Levin didn’t drive. He depended on people to pick him up and take him to where he had to go. He never knew if people would be on time, and if they were late, he never got fidgety waiting for them to show up. His patience and calmness were simply extraordinary


So I asked him, “Zaidy, please tell me the secret of how you always stay so calm. How do you do it?”


He looked at me and smiled.


“Pinchos’l,” he said, “vos ken ich eich zogen. Every boy who came to Kelm was examined by the Alter and the people who came after him and given a middah, a trait, which he was to work on during his period in the Kelmer yeshiva. Mein middah iz geven savlonus. To me, they gave the trait of savlonus, remaining calm. Ziben yohr hob ich ge’arbet oif der middah. Du meinst ich ken dos ibergeben tzu eich azoi?I worked on this middah for seven years, during my entire time in Kelm.”


If you looked at Rav Levin, he appeared like a nice old man who wasn’t in a rush, but if you knew that for seven years in Kelm he worked on the middah of savlonus, then every time you watched him, every time you went somewhere with him, every time you observed him interact with other people, you saw the greatness of Kelm, and of Rav Levin, and of the middah of savlonus.


As a bochur in Radin, Rav Levin learned with the Chofetz Chaim’s son Aron. As payment for that, he was given room-and-board in the Chofetz Chaim’s home. That must have been something. But do you know what I find even greater? That he never spoke about it. He never said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know how great I am? Who are you to tell me anything? When I was a bochur, I stayed in the Chofetz Chaim’s house for a year and a half.”


Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen


That was him. That was how he lived his life. And that was why he was so successful and respected and able to accomplish so much.


It was also what saved his life. When he left Lita to be brought to America, his relatives arranged a shteller for him in Erie, PA. They feared for his life and forced him to come here and try it out. Needless to say, he missed home and wanted to return to his beloved Vashki, despite the winds of war that were blowing. His wife and children were left behind, while he tried to acclimate to America. He wasn’t about to bring them to Erie to die a spiritual death.


But he had a friend who was holding his rabbinic position in Vashki, and when he wrote to his friend that he was coming home and would be reassuming the position, the man was devastated. He said that he would never get another job and pleaded with Rav Levin to let him stay there and asked Rav Levin to find himself a different shteller.


Though it was his father-in-law’s position and he had occupied it for a number of years, Rav Levin didn’t have the heart to unseat the man from the job. Meanwhile, his family members secured for him a rabbinic position in Detroit and, having no choice, he moved there and sent for his family. With their meager possessions and several of Rav Levin’s seforim along with kisvei yad of his father-in-law, the family set sail on one of the last boats leaving Europe before the war broke out. They arrived here just ahead of the destruction of Lithuania. That man and the entire town of Vashki were wiped out. No one survived.


It wasn’t easy in Detroit. There were 32 rabbonim in the city at that time. Imagine that. That’s how many Jews there were in Detroit. The rabbis weren’t happy with Rav Levin. He was what they called “ah greener.They said, “Vos darf men huben noch a rov? Nisht nor dem, ehr iz a greener, noch tzoo der tzoo.


Though he never bragged, he would say, “Fun zei alleh iz gornit gebliben. Es iz nit gebliben kein zeicher. All those rabbis who fought against me were not able to hold on to their children. I was the only one. Because I sent my son away to learn in Telz.”


He had one son. He lost everything and everyone he held dear in the war. He had three daughters and one son. His pride and joy. Yet, he sent him away to learn in Cleveland. Can you imagine how much strength that required? A lot more than most people at that time had. Yet, he knew that if he was going to hold on to that son, the only way he could accomplish that was by sending him away, seeing him just a couple of times a year.


He was quiet and determined, and he possessed an iron will and super-human spiritual strength, typical of Litvaks. But he wasn’t the stereotypical Litvak. He was full of love for all types of Jews and he was warm and caring. Litvaks suffer from the stereotype that they are cold, uncaring, and only fond of their own kind. Whenever someone repeats that stereotype to me, I say to them, “You didn’t know my grandfather. He was warm and tolerant, and he wasn’t a Litvak because he learned in a yeshiva named after a Lithuanian town. He was a true Litvak. He was born there. He was raised there. He went to yeshiva there. He was a rov there. And he embodied the true greatness of Lithuanian Jewry.”


I wear an atorah on my tallis. It is a yerushah from my grandfather. His second wife was a rebbishe tochter, and when they married, she gave him a tallis with an atorah as a gift. She probably didn’t know that Litvkas don’t have the custom of wearing a silver atorah on their tallis. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so for the rest of his life he wore the atorah. And every time I put on my tallis, I am reminded of that lesson.


His middah of savlonus wasn’t limited. He was a tremendous savlon and he was able to handle people of all types. He was able to be sovel other people. He wasn’t negative. He wasn’t cynical. He didn’t ostracize people who had different beliefs than he. He didn’t look down with disdain upon people who weren’t brought up the way he was. He could sit with simple Yiddelach and talk to them and make them feel that he had all the time in the world and the only thing he wanted to do was sit and farbreng with them. He could maintain friendly relations with people who had entirely different theologies than he. He treated everyone with respect.


It wasn’t because he wasn’t smart, or because he was naive, but because he was a gentleman, a Torah aristocrat. He was a savlon, in every sense of the word.


There was a man in Detroit who was a butcher for many decades. He was found to be engaging in actions which required the Vaad Harabbonim to remove their hechsher from his establishment.


He was called to a meeting of the rabbonim. While there, he began to scream at the rabbis, cursing and threatening them.


The rabbis looked to the yoshev rosh, Rav Levin, for him to respond. Yet, he just sat there, quietly absorbing the man’s abuse.


He turned to Rav Shmuel Irons, rosh kollel of the Detroit Kollel, who was sitting next to him, and said very softly in Yiddish, “Ich hub a klal – I have a rule: the vulture should be satiated, uber der shepsel zol leben — but the sheep should live.”


Der vultoor iz gevurin zat. The vulture was finally satiated and ended his tirade. The Vaad Harabbonim removed their hechsher. A few weeks later, the store closed down. Der shepsel hut gelebt.


When there was a time to be tough, he was tough. There was once a butcher who was caught doing certain things that Rav Levin felt warranted the removal of the hechsher from his business. There was a meeting of the Vaad Harabbonim of Detroit and some of the people felt bad for the butcher and wondered what he would do for parnossah if he would lose the hechsher. Rav Levin banged on the table and said, “We are here to discuss his transgression. Someone who did what he did cannot have a hechsher. Today, we are here to talk about kashrus. If he needs help with parnossah, we can discuss that tomorrow. But first we must ensure that people will not end up eating non-kosher meat because of him.”


That same strength of purpose found him facing a gun one day. While administering a get, the husband jumped up and pulled out a gun, aiming to shoot his wife. Everyone froze, except for Rav Levin, who stood up and got between husband and wife. “The bullet will have to go through me,” he said to the husband. Calmly, he talked the man out of it and took the gun and buried it in his backyard.


He had such a love for mitzvos. Shabbos was so special to him. He was never late for Shabbos. He would sit in his study, all ready, hunched over a sefer, ready to welcome the Shabbos Queen. He would spend Friday afternoon preparing for the “groiseh gast” who was about to arrive. He would grate the liver, slice the meat, and make sure everything was just so. Lekavod Shabbos, he would water the plants. Several times, I saw him pouring tea into the planters. I asked him, “Zaidy, what are doing?” He looked at me, with all seriousness – with a look on his face like, “What don’t you understand? – and he said, “Ich geb zei tei lekavod Shabbos.”


And Yom Tov was even more special. He was in charge of decorating the sukkah. He would stand and pick out the decorations to hang. As he handed them to the grandchild who was there that year, he would say, “Lesheim mitzvas sukkah.And when Sukkos arrived, there was nothing that could stop him from running into the sukkah to make Kiddush and eat the meal lekavod Yom Tov.


After the meal, Rav Levin would sing songs about the Ushpizin and dance. There was so much kedushah in that little blue and gold canvas sukkah on the driveway of George Washington Street. The holiness was such that there’s no doubt that the Ushpizin were there in the sukkah with him. In fact, and I’m not making this up, one of the grandchildren who was with him one year, said that he sensed the Ushpizin in the sukkah. The ainikel said that there was so much kedushah, he couldn’t handle it and he ran out of the sukkah.


As much as he loved being in his sukkah, the next morning, after davening, at a Kiddush in the shul sukkah, he would sit and talk with the Yiddelach who didn’t have their own sukkah. He lingered with them to try to give them a geshmack in the mitzvah, so that they could be mekayeim mitzvas sukkah.


To be a leader, you have to be loved and respected. He was. You have to love and respect people. He did. You have to care about people. He did. They have to care about you. They did. You have to be able to not only speak to people, but to connect with them. He did. At age 85, as he aged, the shul’s membership was changing. The older people were moving on and younger people were moving in, so he stopped speaking in Yiddish and spoke in English. He wanted to impact people. He wanted to uplift them. He wanted to improve them. He wanted to be sure that they could follow him. And they did.


The Chofetz Chaim told Rav Levin when he left Radin that he should use his talents and “Gei redd mit Yidden.” That mission is one he spent his whole life fulfilling. But that may be the most amazing part of it. What I find ever more remarkable is that no one ever knew that the Chofetz Chaim gave him that charge until he was 87 years old and was sitting at his kitchen table eating supper with Rav Shea Fishman and Pinny Lipschutz.


I don’t remember what prompted him to repeat the story, but as soon as he said it, Rabbi Fishman and I looked at each other and said, “It was worth coming to Detroit just to hear that.” Rabbi Fishman repeated the story in one of his speeches at a Torah Umesorah convention. That story hit the spot and had everyone buzzing. It was written up and became a classic tale. It so defined Rav Levin and his mission in life.


In this week’s parsha, Parshas Yisro, the posuk states, “Vayikach Yisro…es Tziporah…ve’es shnei boneha, asher sheim ho’echod Gershom, ki omar ger hayisi b’eretz nochriyah. Vesheim ho’echod Eliezer, ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.”


The Torah tells us that Yisro took his daughter, Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife Tziporah, and their two children, Gershom and Eliezer, and left Midyan for Mitzrayim. Why does the Torah repeat the reasons they were given their names? When the Torah tells us of their birth, it related us why Moshe named them as he did. What is the significance of telling this to us again now?


Perhaps we can answer as follows. We are all familiar with the Medrash in Parshas Shemos which states that the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim because“lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es malbusham, velo shinu es leshonam.”One of the primary merits in which the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim was the fact that they didn’t change their names.


What is the big deal about a person not changing his name? How many people do you know anywhere who change their names? It is a very uncommon action to undertake. Perhaps the explanation is that every person’s name hints to their abilities and shlichus in this world. When the Medrash teaches that the Jews in Mitzrayim didn’t change their names, it means that they didn’t betray their shlichus and missions in life.


They could have said that since there are enslaved in a foreign land, they cannot be expected to realize their potential. They could have said that it is impossible for us to accomplish anything here. We are so different, we don’t speak the language, we stand out, and we are mocked and vilified by many. Who can expect anything from us? Thus, the Medrash tells us that they kept to their missions and did what was expected of them despite the difficulties they faced.


When the Torah reports that Yisro and Tziporah were going from Midyan to Mitzrayim, it relates that Moshe Rabbeinu’s sons were also not negligent in their shlichus. Though they were brought up in a strange land, Midyan, without the presence of their father, they remained loyal to the missions he charged them with when he named them. There the Torah repeats not only their names, but also the reasoning for those names.


“Vesheim ho’echod Eliezer, ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.” How appropriate to recognize that as we commemorate the yarhtzeit of Rav Levin, we can say the same of him. He never forgot where he came from. He never forgot his mission in life and never betrayed it. He always carried within his soul the message of “ki Elokei ovi be’ezri vayatzileini meicherev Paroh.”


Hashem helped him and saved him from the sword which devastated everyone and everything he had known. And although he arrived in a strange country with a different language and different customs, he stayed the same “Eliezer”in Hanisheeshuk, in Radin, in Kelm, in Vashki and in Detroit until his last day on this earth.




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