Saved from the Clutches of Haskalla
Yated: Rav Binyomin, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Did your father ever talk about his own past, about his youth, and what his primary influence was then?
Rav Binyomin Kamenetsky (RBK): My father did not talk much about his early youth unless there was a particular story which he wanted to use to illustrate a lesson. He did, however, frequently discuss his deep sense of gratitude to those whom he credited for inspiring him to devote his life to Torah learning in a yeshiva.
Who was that?
RBK: My father would consistently mention Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, later Rosh Yeshiva of Kaminetz, Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and Bais Medrash Elyon. For the first part of his life as a bochur, my father grew up in the city of Minsk. At that time, Minsk was a hotbed of haskallah. My father was a bright young bochur, exactly the type of boy whom the haskallah was trying to lure into its clutches. Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, despite being just a few years older than my father, was already a staunch fighter against the haskallah. It was in his chaburah, held in one of the local shuls that my father learned. Eventually, it was Rav Reuvein who sent him to learn in Slabodka, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I. Of course, the Alter had an absolutely profound hashpaah on him and became his rebbi muvhak in avodas Hashem.
I will tell you an interesting story about how my father viewed the Alter. When he came to Toronto in 1938 to serve as Rov, the community there was primarily comprised of Yidden who hailed from Poland and were Chassidically inclined. One of the first things that the community members asked of him was whether he was a chossid of any rebbe. Father, in his wisdom, replied, “Yes, I am a Chossid of a Rebbe (the Alter of Slabodka), but my Rebbe is a misnaged.”
Can you tell us a bit about Slabodka?
RBK: The truth is there is not much that I can say firsthand about Slabodka, because my father left the Slabodka Kollel to assume the rabbonus of the small, Lithuanian town of Tzitavian when I was just three years old. My grandfather, my mother’s father, Rav Dov Tzvi Heller was the Mashgiach of the yeshiva, but I did not have much firsthand knowledge of the yeshiva.
Growing Up in Rav Yaakov’s House
Please tell us what it was like growing up as a child in your father’s home in Tzitavian?
RBK: It is difficult to depict the standard of living in Tzitavian in those days to those who have been raised in affluent America, but I will try. We lived in an apartment, if you could call it that, in the back of the shul. The entire apartment was comprised of one large room with different areas separated by curtains. There was a curtain separating the sleeping area from the living area, which also housed all of my father’s seforim. Within the sleeping area there was another curtain partitioning the bedrooms from each other. We lived very frugally because the community really did not have enough money to support a Rov.
How then did your father sustain his family?
RBK: It wasn’t easy. I remember the shul’s gabbai periodically coming and placing a bag of coins and money on our table. When I would ask where the money had come from, I was told that it had been collected from the kehillah’s members. I later realized that this wasn’t true. By and large, the kehillah members were themselves destitute and the gabbai, who had a relatively successful business, would give from his own money.
I can tell you a related story that took place in America not long after my marriage. We lived in Brooklyn, and there was a grocery store owned by a certain Mr. Epstein near our home. It was a shomer Shabbos grocery, so we were able to patronize it and bought most of our groceries from him. One day, my Rebbetzin went to buy something when she heard an elderly woman in the store talking Yiddish with the identifiable accent of a Tzitavianer pronunciation. Upon approaching the woman and asking who she was, it became clear that she was the mother of Mrs. Epstein, the mother-in-law of the store owner. My Rebbetzin then asked her from where she hailed and, sure enough, she answered, “Tzitavian.” When my wife informed her that I too was from Tzitavian and that I was the Rov’s son, she exclaimed, “Voz redt ihr (what are you saying)?!” She was so excited, that she came by later with an entire stack of letters and notes that she had received from my father. Looking through the letters, I noticed that they were thank you notes written by my father in appreciation for small donations to various communal institutions that she had made, such as the mikvah, the shul or for the upkeep of the Rov’s home. There was one particularly fascinating letter that I must share with you. Apparently, the woman had once come to my father to inform him that parnasah was slower than usual and therefore she was unable to donate her regular sums of money. My father replied in a letter with a mashol from the Dubno Maggid.
“There was once a wagon driver who lived in a small town. He would frequently travel to the big city to purchase staple food supplies such as flour and sugar. Once, before Pesach, he was transporting a particularly large shipment and the wagon got stuck. All efforts to extricate the wagon from the mud were for naught. It simply would not budge. There was no choice but to lighten the load. The simple wagon driver, however, did not want to sacrifice the precious food cargo. Instead, he decided to remove the heavy iron wheels from the carriage. Some people who saw, came over and incredulously asked, “How can you be so foolish?! The first thing you remove is the wheels?! The wagon cannot move without the wheels!” Rav Yaakov concluded the letter saying, “When times become difficult, the first budget cuts people feel compelled to make is to their tzedakah giving. Do they not realize that it is the tzedakah that is the most integral component to their success?!”
Did your father give mussar to the kehillah?
RBK: In general, my father’s mussar was always that of diracheha darchei noam. Even when he criticized, he criticized with chochma, with wisdom and pikchus — cleverness. But there were occasions when he felt he had to take a stand. Actually, the previous story reminded me of another story that I think will clarify this point.
It was Simchas Torah in Tzitavian. The gabbai was making a mishebeirach for one of the individuals who had gotten an aliyah. When it came to the part in the mishebeirach where the person receiving the aliyah donates money, the person, who was obviously inclined towards Zionism, said that he would give a certain amount of money to the Keren Kayemes Fund, the fund of the Zionists that was ostensibly used to build yishuvim in Eretz Yisroel. Traditionally, the money donated during a mishebeirach goes to the shul or a local organization.
Upon hearing this individual’s donation, my father rose from his seat and said, “Rabbosai! The Gemara says that an ox is not born with horns. The word for horns in Hebrew is ‘keren’. Why is an ox not born with horns? The Gemara answers that first the feet have to grow properly and healthily. Only after the young ox has utilized its nutrients to grow healthy feet does it then grow a keren as well… We can’t give to Keren Kayemes because there is no keren (we do not have horns here, because our feet have not sufficiently grown yet) here in Tzitavian!”
In truth, my father was very wary of Zionism and viewed it as he viewed the haskallah, as a danger to the observance of Yiddishkeit, something that would be seen by people as a substitute for Yiddishkeit, r”l.
Did you realize that your father was a godol b’Yisroel when you were growing up?
RBK: To be honest, it was only from the perspective of a young child that I initially had a chance to observe my father, because I left home at the young age of 8 years old. There was minimal chinuch in Tzitavian and by the time I was eight years old, the local cheder was finished. My parents had to send my out of town to learn — when I was only eight! At that time, I went to the town of Shavel to learn. In Shavel, I stayed at the home of the dayan of Shavel, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Nochumofsky, hy”d. The Rov of Shavel was Rav Archik Bakst, and I would eat every Sunday in his home. It was from the way that these rabbonim spoke with such kovod for my father and treated me with such love, that I began to understand that not all rabbonim were like my father and that he was in a unique class. From Shavel, I continued my learning in the Yeshiva Ketana of Kelm, after which I learned in a yeshiva in the city of Rakishok.
So your bar mitzvah was celebrated away from home?
RBK: I was learning in Rakishok at the time of my bar mitzvah, but I traveled home to Tzitavian for Shabbos to have my aliyah. Rakishok was not far from Tzitavian. I recall the baal koreh in the shul in Tzitavian, who was a tailor, asking me if I had a new suit for my bar mitzvah. We were certainly unable to afford a new suit, so I truthfully responded negatively. The baal koreh then asked me to bring him one of my father’s old kapotes, which he then took and fashioned into a “new” suit for me.
From what you said, it seems that Rav Yaakov was close with the rabbonim in the area
RBK: Yes. He was very respected. As I told you, Rav Archik Baskt, Rov of Shavel who was one of the senior rabbonim at that time, had great respect for my father. Undoubtedly, the Rov with whom my father was the closest at that time was the Kovno Rov, Rav Avrohom Kahana-Shapiro, author of the sefer Dvar Avrohom. My father availed himself of every possible opportunity to travel to Kovno to talk in learning with the Dvar Avrohom. He would arrive in Kovno, put his things down at the home where he would be sleeping, and go straight to the Dvar Avrohom’s house where he would spend the entire day and well into the night learning. He would spend several days with the Rov, talking in learning and observing how he ruled on the myriad shailos that came to him, and then he would return to Tzitavian infused with chizuk.
What did your father do in Tzitavian? Was there anyone with whom he could learn?
RBK: Initially, there was no one with whom he could learn, and he spent virtually the entire day learning by himself and writing his chiddushim. A bit later, the gabbai of the shul had a daughter who was of marriageable age and sought a ben Torah for her. He went to Slabodka, where he found an excellent bochur named Rav Leib Berenstein. Reb Leib married the gabbai’s daughter and moved to Tzitavian. My father learned with him for many hours each day for seven years! This Reb Leib was an erudite talmid chochom who I think wrote a sefer. He escaped Lita before the war, and the first time that I went to Eretz Yisroel with Torah Umesorah, I went to Tel Aviv to visit him in his apartment. When he saw me, he jumped up, exclaiming, “Binyomin’ke!” as he hugged me like a brother. He told me how much he had gained from those years of learning with my father and receiving guidance in learning from him.
Did your father ever see him in Eretz Yisroel?
RBK: No. By the time my father made his first trip to Eretz Yisroel in the 1960’s, Reb Leib had already passed away.
What was your father’s relationship with the Tzitavian community?
RBK: He was very beloved. Although they could not properly appreciate his stature in learning, my father had the unique ability to understand people on their own level. He cared for them, he felt for them, he listened to their problems and gave them eitzos. They were amazed at his chochmoh, not only in Torah, which was expected of him as a Rov, but in all types of worldly matters as well. He understood health and was knowledgeable about world events, history and the like. His uncle was a pharmacist, and he learned much about medicine and drugs from him.
I remember one incident that took place when we lived in Tzitavian. My sister became very ill and needed immediate medical treatment and medicine. However, there was no doctor in Tzitavian. My father had to take her to a doctor in the nearby town of Shidlova. As my father was talking to the doctor about the sickness and the medication that she needed, the doctor asked my father, “So, why don’t you prescribe and give her the medicine?” My father answered, “Because I am not a doctor!” This doctor, a non-Jew, was so impressed with my father, with his knowledge and wisdom, that he moved from Shidlova to Tzitavian. From then on we had a doctor in town. The doctor was so enamored with my father that he asked if he could be invited for the seder night on Pesach. My father was unable to say no, so he joined us for one seder.
Rav Yaakov’s Chinuch
Tell us something about the way that your father was mechanech you?
RBK: My father was primarily mechanech us by example. We looked up to him, we watched what he did, and we had such natural kovod for him that it is hard to describe. Nevertheless, I will highlight several things that come to mind. First of all, he did not let any of us, not the boys or the girls, attend cheder or school until he personally had taught us how to read Ivreh. He was very adamant that we should learn how to read correctly without “greizen” (errors) and that we should understand all of the nekudos and basic dikduk of kriah.
Did he ever get upset at you or potch you?
RBK: I remember once, as a boy, I ran, without permission to Shidloveh, a neighboring town a few miles away. My father was very upset that I went without permission, alone, which was a dangerous thing to do. He gave me a potch for that and made me stay in my room for the entire day.
RBK: He rarely gave us a potch, but if we told a lie, that was a sufficient reason to justify a potch. Sheker was abhorrent to him and was treated with utmost severity.
Our chinuch was foremost in his mind. He would teach my sisters and help them with their school work both in limudei kodesh and limudei chol. There was little that was as important in his eyes as our being matzliach in learning. That is why he sent us away to learn at such a young age.
I remember another important incident from when we arrived in Toronto from Lita in the late 1930s. My father was already the Rov in Toronto when we arrived because he had come over earlier. Obviously, we were excited to be reunited as a family again after a long separation, and I was reveling in his attentive presence. How surprised I was when, two days after I arrived, my father informed me that it was time for me to go Williamsburg to learn in the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva headed by my father’s long-time friend, Rav Dovid Leibowitz. When I asked my father why I had to leave so quickly, he told me, “Even if we lived in Europe, it would be worth it to send you all the way to American just to learn by a person of Rav Dovid’s stature. Now that you are already in North America, how can I keep you here when you have the opportunity to learn under Rav Dovid?”
How did Rav Yaakov know Rav Dovid?
RBK: They were close friends from Slabodka and from the famed Kovno Kollel when a group of elite talmidei chachomim learned after their marriage. My father once said that one of the prime purposes of the kollel was for the chaveirim in the kollel to direct each other in learning and to tell each other when a sevarah was not good! Rav Dovid was extremely sharp and incisive. When the yungeleit gave chaburos, they knew that they had to truly probe the depths of the sugya and come out with the absolute truth, or Rav Dovid would not let them through. He was a true amkan and a very close friend of my father.
A Godol Arrives in America
You spoke about your arrival in Toronto — how did your father leave Europe and end up there?
RBK: It was a combination of factors. I remember when my father said he was going to America, there were those who asked, “How can you go to America? America is the ‘treife medinah’” My father pointed to his shirt and said, “You see this shirt? My Rebbetzin has to wash this shirt every Friday, and I stay in the house then because I do not even have another shirt to wear!” So the terrible poverty and the inability to support a large growing family was certainly a factor.
My uncle, Rav Avrohom Grodzensky, who was the Mashgiach of Slabodka, also expressed his surprise and displeasure, but my father told him that after the Nazis annexed the Sudetenland, he sees the situation of the Yidden in Europe to be very precarious. He was afraid that there would be a bloodbath in Europe, and that is what he told my uncle. My father, with his far reaching vision, saw the rise of Hitler and was sufficiently concerned, to the extent that he felt uprooting his family to another continent was warranted. So without a doubt that too was a factor. Also, the Kovno Rov agreed with my father and sanctioned his journey to America.
When my father was gone, it was my uncle who was in charge of our chinuch. It was he who sent me from Rakishok to Telshe, where I learned until we joined my father in North America. He also sent my brother, Rav Shmuel, who was then a boy of approximately 12 or 13, from Vilkomir to a different yeshiva whose name escapes me now.
So Rav Yaakov came to America to Assume a Position in Rabbonus?
RBK: Initially he came as a shaliach to collect funds for a certain yeshiva. However, shortly after had assumed his position, he discovered that there were certain business practices that were being conducted by that yeshiva’s office that did not correspond with his idea of integrity. My father’s outstanding midas ha’Emes simply would not allow him to continue representing the yeshiva, even though by relinquishing his position, he was subjecting himself and his family to the rigors of abject poverty!
It was then that he decided to seek a Rabbinic post. It was not so simple. He was a relatively unknown person, and in order to be accepted as a Rov, you had to have name recognition. My father’s close chaveirim from Slabodka who were in America tried to help him and suggested that he publish a sefer. My father had thousands of pages of written chiddushim but he had never been able to publish them. His friends felt that if he would be a mechaber seforim, he would have the recognition necessary to become a Rov.
My father sent us a letter asking us to mail some of his kesovim, his manuscripts, to America. The sefer that he was to publish was on mekoros and sources from the Rambam’s rulings that are sourced in Tanach. I remember being entrusted with the task of going to the post office to mail the coveted kesovim. Alas, the box of those kesovim never reached their destination. They seem to have gotten lost in Germany. My father was greatly pained over that loss, but later, he said that perhaps it was from shomayim that they prevented the kesovim from reaching their destination, because the motivation for publishing them was flawed. One should not publish a sefer to gain publicity. Rather, one must have pure motivations. My father felt that this might have been the Divine message being sent to him when they were lost in transit.
During the course of our conversation, Rav Binyomin takes me to a room in his house in Woodmere, NY, which contains boxes of pages with Rav Yaakov’s distinct, small-lettered handwriting.
RBK: Look at all of these. There is still so much more of my father’s Kesovim to be printed. At the end of his life, his einikel, my brother Rav Avrohom’s son-in-law, Rav Doniel Neustadt, published some of his divrei Torah on the parshas hashavua. Later, some of his writings were published in the seforim Emes L’Yaakov, but there are still so many portions of his writings that remain unpublished.
The Toronto Years
What happened when Rav Yaakov came to America?
RBK: After the job in the Yeshiva did not work out, he eventually ended up in Seattle, where the Rov of the Bikur Cholim shul there, Rav Shlomo Wohgelernter, was on a temporary leave of absence. His friend from Slabodka, Rav Alter Poplack, proposed to the community that my father temporarily serve as Rov there. While he was away, Rav Wohgelernter went to visit family in Toronto. In Toronto, he met with Reb Itche Meir Korolnek, a leader of the Toronto community which was in the process of seeking a Rov, since their Rov had recently passed away. Rav Wohgelernter told Rav Itche Meir that, “I have a candidate for you — a person who is a Torah giant and would make an excellent Rov.”
Laughing, Rav Binyomin continues, “The community was a wonderful community, but, the following anecdote offers you a glimpse into the level of erudition prevalent there. When my father’s name was proposed to the community as a candidate, one of the community leaders said, “Let’s take out the Rabbinic cylinder (the special cylinder hat that rabbonim wore at the time) — if it fits his head, he’s got the job!”
Can you tell us a bit about your father’s years as Rov in Toronto?
RBK: I must tell that I cannot even enumerate for you the number of times I heard my father express his hakoras hatov to the Toronto community for saving him and his family. Until his last years, he would often express his appreciation and relate, how, when he initially arrived in Toronto, Reb Itche Meir Korolnek, the leader of the community, told him that a Rov must have his Rebbetzin and family with him! Despite the very steep cost of bringing my mother and family of children to Toronto, the Toronto kehillah undertook to pay for everything, arranging all of the requisite legal papers to permit our entry. My father would always credit the good-heartedness of the Toras Emes Kehillah of Toronto for having saved his family. Without them, he would not have been able to afford to bring us over.
In Toronto, my father formed a lifelong bond with members of the community that continued even decades after he left. I remember how the young people became attached to him and were amazed not only at his Torah knowledge from when he taught them, but at the way he was able to answer any of the general knowledge questions on subjects that they were studying in school or college!
What to Look for in a Shidduch
Rav Yaakov was a classical Litvishe Rov and the community in Toronto was primarily from Polish Chassidishe yichus. How did it work?
RBK: My father was able to appreciate the maalos of every Yid, and he acclimated himself to the situation. When he became a Rav in Toronto, one of the members of the kehillah discreetly placed a gartel by his seat. He understood that they wanted him to wear the gartel, as was the shul’s custom, and he wore it.
Although my father very clearly followed the path of his rebbeim and his forefathers from Lita, he understood and appreciated the maalos of all the varied communities amongst Klal Yisroel. For example, with regard to shidduchim, my father did not specifically look for those with the same background as he had. My father-in-law, Rav Pinchos Eliyohu Spiegel, was a Chassidishe Rebbe, the Ostrove-Kalishiner Rebbe. My father would always say, “When it comes to shidduchim, there are three integral prerequisites that one should seek in a wife — on everything else one can be flexible. In order of importance, the first one is that the girl should be a baalas chessed with a generous, giving nature. The second is that she should come from fine, ehrliche parents and the third is that she should be healthy.” I remember asking him, “How can you know if a girl is healthy?” He replied, “I will tell you what I did. When the shidduch with you mother was proposed in Slabodka, we meet and took a walk up a steep hill at the outskirts of Slabodka. The fact that she was able to scale the hill relatively easily proved to me that she was healthy!”
He often praised the good heartedness of the Toronto community and the respect for rabbonim that they displayed. In general, my father felt it his duty to raise the level of observance in the community. Although there were a number of erudite Yidden there, by and large, the community was not one that was learned or well versed in Torah and halacha.
I will give you one example that will demonstrate what things were like back then. Every single year, during the Shabbos Hagodol drasha, my father would say, “Remember, one only makes the brocha of “al achilas matzah” on the Seder night, not every time one eats matzah.” People just didn’t know, and many would recite the bracha every time they ate matzos. I remember my father showing Yidden how to properly don the tefillin shel rosh because many would put it on almost between their eyes. As I said earlier, during his years in Toronto he put special emphasis and focus on reaching out to the youth.
During those difficult early years in America, did Rav Yaakov ever dream that Yiddishkeit would blossom and flourish here; that there would be yeshivos in every city and thousands of kollel yungeleit?
RBK: I will answer your question with an anecdote. When my father first arrived in America all alone, he met with his old chaver, Rav Dovid Leibowitz, in New York. Rav Dovid told him, “If you came to America to make money, you might as well return to Lita. There is no money for Torah in America. If, however,” Rav Dovid continued, “You came here to make talmidim, than there is no better place in the entire world!”
Indeed, Rav Dovid and later his son, Rav Henoch, personified this ideal by building yeshivos all over America. My father, too, came to understand at an early stage that young American bochurim were idealists with an almost temimus, simplicity with regard to growth in Torah that could be harnessed to build a new generation of talmidei chachomim and bnei Torah.
The short answer is that yes, my father realized that there was great hope for ruchniyus in America, despite the poor state of Yiddishkeit that he encountered upon his arrival there.
Again, I want to say thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
RBK: I hope these words provide light on aspects of my father’s personality that are not as known to the wider public, and how his greatness, even in his early years, were the stepping stones to the greatness that he later achieved as one of the einei ha’eidah of Klal Yisroel!