Yated: Tell us about the early years of Rav Gifter.
Rav Yaakov Reisman (RYR): My father-in-law did not speak much about himself, so there is only a limited amount that I know from those years. He grew up in Baltimore. His parents were simple, ehrliche Yidden. His father owned a grocery store. During that period in Baltimore, the early 1920s, there was no Jewish day school. All of the Jewish children attended public school and the more religious ones received their Jewish education in Talmud Torah after school and on Sundays.
Even as a young child, my shver was extremely studious. His head was always buried in a book. His sister once recounted how even in the cold weather, he would sit next to the oven and read and read. Still, even then, he displayed a distinct tenacity when it came to learning. That was a harbinger of his unrelenting hasmodohh later in life.
Once, there was a massive snowstorm in Baltimore and the city had basically shut down. Young Mordechai Gifter, however, approached his father and said, “I must go to Talmud Torah (the Sunday school where he was taught Torah).” His father replied, “No one will be there. The school will be closed. It is almost impossible to get around today.” The child was not deterred. He begged and insisted that they try to go. His father finally acquiesced and they walked in the tracks left by the trucks all the way to the Talmud Torah. As his father had assumed, the Talmud Torah was closed and they were forced to turn around and trudge back home.
This thirst for learning and pure Torah study was evident already at that early stage of my shver’s life and remained with him until his passing.
Was there any other notable incident from his youth that you remember him relating?
RYR: Yes. My shver would often recount an incident that occurred when he was a child. At that time, Rav Shimon Shkop, famed rosh yeshiva of Grodno, came to Baltimore and davened at the shul where my shver davened. The rov of the shul, who himself was a talmid of Rav Shimon, brought my shver over to Rav Shimon and introduced him as a “fine boy.” Rav Shimon looked at him and bestowed a special brochoh, saying, “Du zolst vellen lernen – You should want to learn.”
In his deep humility, my shver always attributed any success that he had in learning to that special brochoh from Rav Shimon. In fact, he had such hakoras hatov to Rav Shimon that a grandson of his was named after him. When a boy was born to my brother-in-law, Reb Binyomin Gifter, he named his son Shimon Yehudah after Rav Shimon. Indeed, one of the most outstanding facets of my father-in-law’s personality was his unique geshmak in learning.
If there was no school or yeshiva in Baltimore, where did Rav Gifter go to yeshiva?
RYR: After completing elementary school, my shver and his father were convinced to send him to a yeshiva, to Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, by my shver’s uncle, Dr. Samuel (Yehudah Leib) Sar, who served as the dean of the yeshiva. At the time, Rav Avigdor Miller, also a Baltimore native, was learning in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and my father-in-law joined him there.
When he arrived, his level was not too advanced, but he progressed quickly, until he reached the highest shiur. In addition to being friends with Rav Miller, my shver developed a close relationship with Rav Moshe Bick, who also learned in the yeshiva at the time. He would relate how Rav Bick, who awoke to learn early in the pre-Shacharis hours, was the one who woke him up for Shacharis every day. He would often recount the tremendous hasmodohh of Rav Bick. My shver said that during one winter zman, Rav Bick reviewed Maseches Bava Basra (the longest and one of the hardest masechtos in Shas) eight times! “Azoi vert men ah Rav Bick! That is how someone becomes a Rav Bick!” he would exclaim.
How did Rav Gifter get to Telshe?
RYR: When he finished his high school years, my shver greatly wanted to continue his learning in the great Torah centers of Europe. During that period, the dean of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon was my shver’s uncle, Dr Sar. Dr. Sar had himself learned in Telshe under the Telsher Rov, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, and he therefore encouraged my shver to travel to Telshe. In those days, it was extremely uncommon, to say the least, for an American boy from Baltimore to travel overseas to learn, but my shver had a burning desire to further his Torah learning.
When did he go to Telshe?
RYR: It was towards the end of 1933. He traveled on the same boat as Rav Avigdor Miller. An interesting story took place on that boat that the rosh yeshiva would frequently relate as a mussar lesson. On the large boat, there were hundreds of people. My father-in-law recalled how throughout the journey, the people on the boat were busy partying and, in general, behaving frivolously. In the middle of the trip, it began to get cloudy and a massive thunderstorm erupted. The gigantic boat was tossed around like a bottle cap in the gale force winds and huge waves that threatened to capsize it. The passengers were absolutely panic stricken and frozen in fear, clearly unsure as to whether this would be their final moments on earth. Thankfully, the storm eventually abated, the winds calmed down, and the acute danger passed. My shver was sure that a certain sense of gravity, a sense of the knowledge of the frailty of the human condition and the transient nature of life, would permeate the atmosphere on the boat after such an incident. But no! Nothing of the sort happened. As soon as the sea calmed down, those same people who had been terrified of dying, who had been staring death in the face just moments earlier, returned to their partying with even greater frivolity. He couldn’t believe it!
Later, when he came to Telshe, my shver, still affected by the impact of that story, immediately recounted the entire incident to the Telsher Rov, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, and asked him how such a thing was possible. How could people stare death in the face one moment and then carry on with their lightheartedness in the next moment?
“That is not a question at all!” explained the Telsher Rov. “Dos iz ah mentch!”
My shver and Rav Avigdor Miller first stopped in Slabodka where Rav Miller remained to learn in the Slabodka Yeshiva. My shver eventually continued on to Telshe. He remained very close with Rav Miller and even journeyed from Telshe to attend Rav Miller’s wedding several years later.
What was Rav Gifter’s first impression of Telshe?
RYR: I can’t tell you how many times he would recount the first time he entered the portals of the Telshe Yeshiva. It made a lifelong impression on him and he never tired of repeating that first impression. He would say that as he walked towards the yeshiva, he began to hear a murmur that became louder and louder as he neared the door. It was a thunderous kol Torah that he heard. He entered the yeshiva, opened the door of the bais medrash, and was met with a profound sight that remained forever etched in his memory – the sight of hundreds of bochurim sitting and learning with great hasmodohh. They were so completely absorbed in their Torah, he related, that not even one bochur lifted his head to look and see who had entered the bais medrash!
On a different occasion, he recounted something from his first day in Telshe: “I entered the bais medrash and noticed a bochur exuding such happiness and zest for life that I, being an American with an American mindset, commented, ‘He must be rich.’ I soon discovered that not only was he not rich, but he was among the poorest of the destitute bochurim in the yeshiva! His pure joy came from Torah learning!”
How long did the rosh yeshiva remain in Telshe?
RYR: He learned in Telshe until 1939. There are no words to describe the impact that those six years in Telshe made on him. They shaped him and were the foundation for his entire future. Eventually, he became extremely close with his rebbi, the great Telsher rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch. He would often take walks together with the rov and later in life would always say that there was never a walk that they took together during which he did not learn an important lesson from the rov. For the rest of his life, he would quote insights, divrei Torah and shiurim that he had learned from the rov. When he would talk about the Telsher Rov, it was common for him to burst into tears of emotion and longing.
In Telshe, he became an absolutely unbelievable masmid. He utilized every available minute for learning and soon became known throughout the yeshiva as a phenomenal masmid and lamdan. There was always a tumult in learning around him.
My shver never tired of talking about the ahavas haTorah that he saw in Telshe and how the hasmodohh was a byproduct of their love of Torah. They “lived Torah.” My shver would say that even the baalei batim in Telshe displayed ahavas haTorah that was simply unfathomable.
He would often tell the story that he witnessed with Reb Elya Chaim Helfan, a seemingly simple storekeeper who lived in Telshe. Reb Elya Chaim said a shiur each day for baalei batim in the city’s Chevrah Shas, a group that came together for a daily shiur in Gemara and slowly made their way through Shas. My shver would relate that when they finished Shas, they did not suffice with just a siyum. They celebrated for a whole week of “sheva brochos.” Every night, for a complete week, there was a celebration in honor of their completion of Shas. My shver said that one Shavuos, after a grueling, all-night learning session in the yeshiva followed by Shacharis, a few bochurim, among them my shver, decided to take a short walk and get some fresh air on the outskirts of Telshe. Reb Elya Chaim saw the boys and was flabbergasted. “Bochurim on Shavuos just taking a walk?! Why aren’t you in the bais medrash?!” he asked them.
“Reb Elya Chaim,” the bochurim replied good-naturedly, “we have been learning with great concentration for the entire night!”
Reb Elya Chaim retorted, “Ah shikker zogt keinmohl as ehr hoht tzu fil bronfen getrunken – A drunkard never says that he has had enough whiskey!”
“These baalei batim were shikker for Torah!” my father-in-law would exclaim emotionally.
He would relate how even the gentiles in Telshe understood the importance of Torah. When the yeshiva bochurim would walk in the fields talking in learning, the non-Jews would beg them to “walk on my field” because they believed that the bochurim’s learning of Torah on their fields would bring them blessings!
Rav Gifter married a member of the family of the Telsher roshei yeshiva. How did that come about?
RYR: My shvigger is a daughter of Rav Zalman Bloch Hy”d, who served as the menahel of the yeshiva. In those days, there was no dormitory in Telshe. The bochurim would pay local householders for room and board. My shver boarded at the home of Rav Zalman Bloch, thereby affording Rav Zalman the opportunity to observe the American bochur firsthand. Rav Zalman and his family were extremely impressed with my shver and a shidduch was proposed. They were engaged in 1939. My father-in-law’s goal after his marriage was to become a rov in a ‘kleine shtetale,” a small town in Lita, where he would be free to devote most of his time to learning. First, however, he decided to return home to America to visit his parents once more before his marriage.
So he was in America when World War II broke out?
RYR: Exactly. Initially, the Telsher Yeshiva wanted to do a similar thing to what the Mirrer Yeshiva eventually did, procuring immigration papers for the entire yeshiva so that it could escape Poland. My father-in-law was asked to undertake the task. He invested much effort and procured visas for them, but, tragically, due to the inability to get transit visas that would allow them to travel through the various countries necessary on the way to America, the plan never came to fruition.
He was also very worried about the welfare of his kallah, and since the war precluded him from going to Europe, he desperately tried to obtain the necessary papers for her to leave Europe and join him in America. He sent her a visa, but the problem was that she could not leave Lithuania until the papers were stamped by the American consulate in Kovno. My mother-in-law immediately traveled to Kovno, but by the time she arrived, the consulate was closed. The American envoy was packing his bags and preparing to leave because of the war.
My mother-in-law was crestfallen and did not know what to do. It was then that she met Rav Nochum Zev Dessler, who was a bochur at the time and went on to become a founder of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and one of Cleveland’s Torah builders. Rav Nochum Zev, who spoke English well, as he had lived in England, somehow was able to call the counsel by telephone and, in his well-spoken English, he convinced the counsel that he had to help the girl, despite the fact that he was closing. The counsel told him to send the girl and tell her to knock on the back door of the building and he would stamp the passport. He opened the door and stamped the passport, telling her that this was the last passport stamped in Lithuania.
So it wasmamesh be’eis ne’ilas shaar, at the very last moment before the gates of Europe closed, that she got her papers stamped! She left on the same boat as her two uncles, Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Mottel Katz, who were en route to America to see what they could do to save the yeshiva. They arrived in Seattle, Washington, where my shvigger stayed at the home of the well-known Genauer family until she was able to travel to the East Coast.
When did they marry?
RYR: They got married on the fifth night of Chanukah, 1940. Interestingly enough, their chasunah was perhaps celebrated with greater fanfare in Telshe than it was in the United States! My shver’s parents were not wealthy, so all that was served at the chasunah was fish and kichel. In Telshe, however, the entire extended Telsher family got together on the night of the chasunah and enjoyed a seudah in honor of the weddingthat was taking place overseas.
In Telshe, a beautiful, congratulatory letter was penned and signed by the entire hanhalah and all of the family members and sent to my parents-in-law in honor of their chasunah. Until today, that remains one of the family’s most cherished possessions.
What did Rav Gifter do after his wedding?
RYR: In those days, in the middle of World War II, there was certainly no such thing as kollel. My shver became a rov in the city of Waterbury, Connecticut. There was not even a minyan of shomer Shabbos Jews living there at the time, but my shver spent his entire day and most of his nights deeply immersed in Torah.
Did he have a chavrusah or anyone to talk to in learning?
RYR: No. He was all alone. He would spend hours and hours learning himself. When he came to an impasse and had questions that he could not answer, do you know what he did? He journeyed on a train to Holyoke, Massachusetts.
RYR: Yes. He’d take a ‘business trip’ for a few days and would then travel to Holyoke, where Rav Yehuda Leib Forer served as the rov. Rav Yehuda Leib Forer was a gaon from the old school. He was a talmid of the Volozhiner Yeshiva and a talmid of Rav Chaim Brisker. My shver would go to Rav Forer’s house, spend a few days talking to him in learning and clarifying all of the difficulties he had encountered, and then return to Waterbury.
Actually, I shouldn’t say that he didn’t have a chavrusah, for his pen and paper served as his best chavrusah. My shver was a prolific writer. Whenever he learned, he wrote down his questions and chiddushim. Throughout his life, he always wrote when he learned. He wrote chiddushim in all areas of learning. Some have been published, but most remain unpublished.
In general, the pen and paper were my father-in-law’s best friends. Even in Europe, when he was learning in Telshe, he sent letters to the Rogatchover Gaon and the Kovno Rov, the Devar Avrohom, with questions in learning.
Here in America, he corresponded with numerous gedolei Torah, both from America and Eretz Yisroel. He corresponded extensively with the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky zt”l. The Steipler would write back to my shver,addressing him as “Hagaon” and the like. My father-in-law replied with a request that the Steipler cease bestowing such titles on him. “And besides,” he wrote, “how do you know me?” The Steipler answered, “Just from reading your chiddushim published in various Torah journals, I can see that you are a gaon. However, because you have asked me to desist, the way to honor you is by acquiescing to your wishes.”
My shver stopped sending letters to the Steipler when he heard that the elderly gaon would himself walk to the post office to mail his replies. He felt that he should not impose this on the godol hador.
How did the rosh yeshiva come to Telshe, Cleveland?
RYR: His uncles, Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Mottel Katz, reestablished the yeshiva soon after they arrived in America. In 1943, they invited my shver to join them and thus began the tekufah of more than 50 years of harbotzas haTorah, first as a maggid shiur and then as a rosh yeshiva.
As a talmid, what do you think contributed most to his ability to so profoundly impact thousands of talmidim over three generations?
RYR: His ahavas haTorah and his middas ha’emes, his absolute selflessness and integrity. His ahavas haTorah was something that one had to personally witness to understand. He loved Torah with every fiber of his being. In his shmuessen, he would say, “Men essd ah Rabi Akiva Eiger, mir shloffed mit ah Rashba.” Where does one hear such expressions today? He had a deep attachment to Torah. When he would answer a difficult Ketzos Hachoshen, he was ready to break into a dance of simcha. The only reason he restrained himself was because he said, “People will think I am crazy.”
I will tell you a story that offers insight into his ahavas haTorah and tremendous hasmodohh, and how he tried to impart these attributes to his talmidim.
He once went to Mexico to raise money for the yeshiva. There was a very wealthy man there whom my shver wanted to meet. Hard as he tried, however, he was unable to schedule an appointment with him. The person was apparently too busy to meet with the Telsher rosh yeshiva. Finally, my father-in-law was told that the only time to get him was to go to his office very early in the morning, long before anyone else would even think about coming. The rosh yeshiva went to the office very early and the individual was already on an overseas telephone call doing a deal. When he saw my shver, the man turned and said, “Rebbe, I just don’t have time to talk to you now.” My shver replied, “Let’s not talk about money. I want to ask you a question. I came to your house to try to see you there. I see you have a beautiful mansion with all the amenities. When do you have time to enjoy it if you are always so taken up with your business?”
The Yid looked at Rav Gifter, barely comprehending the question. “Rebbe, the house is not for me. I have nothing from it. As you can see, I spend my time in the business. It is for my wife and children,” he said.
The man then continued: “Rebbe, oib mir vill matzliach zein broch men ligin in gesheft – Rebbe, if one wants to succeed, one must be totally immersed in the business!”
Rav Gifter sprang up from his seat. “You don’t have to give me any money! I have received something much more valuable than money!” he exclaimed. “I have received a lesson that I can convey to my talmidim. If you want to be matzliach, you have to be totally immersed in the business! Our business is Torah!”
My shver returned to Telshe, got up in the yeshiva and said, “I just learned the greatest lesson from a baal habayis in Mexico! Oib mir vill matzliach zein broch men ligin in gesheft!”
This became his mantra.
What was the nature of his relationship with his talmidim?
RYR: If a talmid showed that he wanted to learn, if a talmid invested effort into forging a relationship with him, my shver became his greatest advocate and closest mentor. He guided his talmidim in learning with great love, combined with a generous amount of firmness. He wanted them to learn how to ask a question, how to answer a question and how to approach a question asked by one of the Rishonim or Acharonim.
He abhorred a superficial understanding of a sugyah. When a student would try to answer a question on the Gemara posed by one of the great meforshim, such as Rabi Akiva Eiger or the Ketzos Hachoshen, he would retort, “You think Rabi Akiva Eiger couldn’t think of your approach? You have to toil in order to understand why Rabi Akiva Eiger remained with a question and did not give the answer that you proposed!”
The rosh yeshiva spent four hours with a chavrusah trying to figure out why the answer they had thought of to Rabi Akiva Eiger’s question was not correct. After four hours, they finally figured out that their understanding of the entire sugyah was different than that of Rabi Akiva Eiger. To see the joy on my shver’s face when he finally understood the question of Rabi Akiva Eiger was unreal.
When bochurim or talmidim would send him letters with Torah questions or chiddushim, he would answer each one. Once, a bochur sent him a letter in which he attempted to answer one of the difficult questions posed by the Ketzos Hachoshen. My shver gave a shmuess about this and wrote back to him saying that he was amazed that a bochur would have the chutzpah to think that he could just answer a question of the Ketzos Hachoshen, who learned Torah mitoch hadechak, in great poverty, with no wood to heat his home during the freezing winter, and who had to go under his covers and put the frozen ink from his inkwell under his arm to defrost it so that he would be able to write his sefer, the Ketzos Hachoshen. “And you, a bochur who eats strawberry shortcake, think that you have an answer that the Ketzos didn’t think of?! You should horove – toil – to try to understand why the Ketzos remained with a question and why your answer is not adequate.
You said that Rav Gifter symbolized emes.
RYR: With the rosh yeshiva, there were no chochmos, no diplomatic niceties or obfuscation. He said it the way it was. When it came to issues in the yeshiva or issues relevant to Klal Yisroel, he followed the dictum of “lo saguru bifnei ish – don’t fear any man.” I remember how a certain person was once honored by an institution at their dinner. The person was not a Shabbos observer. My shver was asked to speak at that dinner. He got up and took the man to task, even at the dinner where he was being honored!
As a member of the family, can you give us any insight into the rosh yeshiva’s conduct at home?
RYR: My shver and, ybl”c, my shvigger had remarkable sholom bayis. When my shver would speak at a sheva brochos of his talmidim, he would often discuss matters of sholom bayis. He once said that a person told him that he thinks the reason that the custom of a husband folding up his tallis on Motzoei Shabbos is a segulah for sholom bayis is because he shows that the tallis that his wife gave him is important in his eyes and he is folding it carefully. “I think,” my shver exclaimed, “that instead of folding the tallis on Motzoei Shabbos, he should pick up the vacuum cleaner on Erev Shabbos! That is certainly a segulah for sholom bayis!”
Any closing remarks?
RYR: My shver was Torah, Torah and Torah. He lived Torah. It was infectious, and everyone saw it and felt it.