Sunday, Aug 1, 2021

The Master of Mimicry

“Nu,” he prods me. “What did the rov say?”

To him, it isn’t merely a joke. It’s his parnassah. I will be providing him with a new item for his rich repertoire.

“Rav Ovadiah once asked why we read the names of the ten sons of Haman in one breath,” I reveal. “And he answered: So that they won’t have time to run to the Supreme Court and have it issue an order that they shouldn’t be hanged.”

Rabbi Turetzky laughs, and when he laughs, it is with a loud voice. He is so sweet and endearing that people are incapable of feeling angry at him, even when he makes jokes at their expense. There isn’t a single person in the State of Israel – in our circles, of course – who doesn’t know him. He has become a brand name, “Abbeh.” The mere mention of the name “Abbeh” causes people to laugh. Even seeing him can elicit a few chuckles.

In all honesty, I must reveal that I have known Reb Abba for many years. We are good friends and neighbors, and we see each other every day. Unlike others who know him, I am also familiar with his serious side and with the issues he faces on a daily basis. He seems to be comfortable saying things to me that he wouldn’t dare say to others. We went together to the sheva brachos of an orphaned chosson. I had been a close friend of the chosson’s father zt”l, who was a rosh yeshiva, and the chosson had asked me to attend and to bring Abbeh along in order to liven up the festivities. As could be expected, the atmosphere at the sheva brachos was somber, despite the joy of the chosson and kallah, until we arrived. The only problem was that while Abbeh managed to keep everyone laughing and entertained for a full two hours, it came at my expense. When we returned, he apologized over and over, practically in tears.

Not only is he “all heart,” a man whose greatest love is doing good for others, he is also a deeply emotional person. He was once told about a close friend who seemed to have lost his vision in one eye due to a clogged artery. He immediately began crying like a baby. He also wept during the course of our interview, since I received a telephone call from someone informing me that Rav Yitzchok Finkel’s family had been called to his bedside, as his hours were numbered. As soon as Abbeh heard that, he stopped speaking and began to cry. And when I showed him the pictures I had taken with my cell phone that very morning at a bris where Rav Yitzchok had served as sandek, his eyes filled with tears again.

Our conversation was divided into three parts, each focusing on one of his many roles: Aside from being an incredible comedic speaker and impressionist, he works as a mashgiach at the Shaarei Yerushalayim Hotel, at the entrance to Yerushalayim, and he also works at the Merkaz Rabbanei Europe.

What do you do at Merkaz Rabbanei Europe?

“I am in charge of the geirus division.”

You conduct conversions?

“No. We fight unqualified ‘rabbonim’ who hand out conversions without even blinking. We have brought the subject of fictitious conversions to the attention of Jewish communities outside Eretz Yisroel on many occasions. I call it the ‘revolving door’: People walk in as non-Jews and walk out Jewish. There is no Torah and no need to accept the mitzvos. Our people are standing watch everywhere. These fictitious conversions have had devastating effects in Europe.”

Does the Israeli Rabbinate recognize these conversions?

“No. But these ersatz rabbonim don’t tell that to their ‘converts.’”

Then what’s the problem if they offer false conversions? When the “converts” come to Eretz Yisroel, the Rabbinate will simply reject their conversions.

“And what if they don’t come to Eretz Yisroel? What if they remain in their communities abroad? They will be registered in their communities as Jews, and then they will have children who will attend Jewish schools, and after a generation there will be supposed Jews who are completely non-Jewish and no one will know about it.”

So what is your solution? You maintain a “blacklist”?

“I don’t like using that term, but that is essentially what we do. I am in charge of the list. We literally hunt down the purveyors of false conversions. As soon as we receive information about conversions that have taken place, we investigate them immediately to find out if they were done properly. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. If the president of a community asks for a conversion for his kallah, it is almost certain that he will be given easier terms. We try to always be on guard.”

What does that involve in practice?

“When I hear about a rov who does conversions, and there is reason to suspect the validity of his conversions, I send a letter to the Chief Rabbinate asking if his conversions are approved. Naturally, they respond that the rov is neither recognized nor approved by them, because that is the truth. I then send their letter to our representative in that country, and he tries to publicize it in order to torpedo the rov’s conversions. We had a case like that in Romania not long ago. There was a rov who would meet twice with his clients, and after the second meeting, he would declare them Jewish. He explained that they all promised to keep the traditions.”

There are rabbonim in those communities who have the audacity to conduct conversions?

“No. These are rabbonim who come from Eretz Yisroel. They make money off every conversion. The communities themselves pay for the conversions, because these ‘geirim’ are their way of contending with the intermarriages of all of their members, and the addition of geirim helps the communities boost their numbers.”

—–

Reb Abba learned at Yeshivas Maor Hatalmud in Rechovot. He considers himself a talmid muvhak of both of its illustrious roshei yeshiva, Rav Chaim Zelvenski zt”l and ybl”c Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook. During his yeshiva ketanah years, he learned at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon. He began doing impressions while he was still in yeshiva. He was able to imitate Rav Moshe Chodosh so perfectly that he sounded exactly like the original.

But you also have a rebbi from elsewhere, as I understand.

“Yes, that is true. A person is not defined. The most undefined person in the world is a person who thinks he is defined.”

What does that mean?

“Never mind. It’s not important. Seriously, now: I have been fortunate enough to develop a close connection with one of the most prominent admorim of our day, the Spinka Rebbe of Bnei Brak. He has had a major influence on me, in chassidus, in emunah, and in general. He has a profound level of understanding. He also has tremendous appreciation for the gedolei Yisroel. In his view, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is the foremost authority; he considers him the most virtuous person in the world. He has inculcated the warmth of chassidus in me.”

Do you speak to him as an equal?

“Yes. Sometimes I am afraid that I am being too comfortable, but he is an incredible person. You must go meet him sometime.”

Do you discuss personal issues with him as well?

“I ask him everything.”

Did you talk to him about where to send your son to yeshiva? Does he know about chinuch?

“Yes. Listen, take my advice: Go meet him before Pesach or Sukkos. If he agrees to an interview, you won’t regret it. He is a giant among men.”

Abbeh has great respect for the gedolei Yisroel. He practically grovels before them. He has often been asked to speak at events where the gedolim would be present, and he has declined to do so. “I am fearful of them,” he invariably explains, “and I will not feel free.” He is close with many gedolim, roshei yeshivas and rabbonim, not to mention all the politicians.

He once went to Rav Shteinman’s house, and Rav Shteinman’s grandson reported to his grandfather, “Rosh yeshiva, this is Abba Turetzky. He makes people happy at chasunos.” Rav Shteinman looked up and asked, “What is the great simcha that he brings to people? What does he do – does he eat two portions of kugel?”

Reb Abba often publishes articles in various forums in Eretz Yisroel and speaks on chareidi radio stations. He used to have a regular radio call-in program and frequently airs his political views.

Is there anyone who isn’t a “very good friend” of yours?

“There are some people who might not be the greatest of friends to me.”

But everyone loves you.

“I hope so. I am happy to hear you say that. But I also think you have an ayin tovah and that is why you are saying that.”

I was once with you when you tried calling Rabbi Meir Porush. He returned your call within seconds.

“Do you think that this shows that he is my good friend? I wouldn’t agree.”

Then what does it show?

“It shows that he returned my call. In general, that means that I am needed.”

He needed you?

“Yes. I am a public entertainer, and it is worthwhile for everyone to be on good terms with me. He knows that I can praise him or mock him, so it benefits him to stay in my good graces. I use this leverage to help others. Our askanim are good people, but they are also selective about whom they help. After all, how many people can they assist? I get through their screening process and help many people who come to me for assistance.”

It seems to me that it pays for a person to be your friend so that when you do an impression of them, it will be complimentary.

“There is something to be said for that idea… Imitating others can be very limited. I can take a person and cast him down to the dirt; I can cause him tremendous shame. But I can also take a person and perhaps not honor him, but use him to make other people happy without harming him. I try to take the latter approach.”

Meaning what?

“I try not to denigrate people through my impressions. I try to let the imitation bring out a certain side of someone’s personality, but not to degrade him. I want you to know that people need to get into the code of life, and through that to understand the essence of life. Chazal say that during Adar, we must increase our simcha. What is simcha?”

His cell phone rings and he becomes oblivious to my existence. By the end of his conversation, he forgets what we were talking about. This is probably the point at which I should mention that Reb Abba has another talent: He is capable of delivering an entire drashah, with the most powerful words and statements, but without any content. When he begins speaking, it is impossible to tell whether he is going to say something meaningful or he is simply planning to ramble. He can deliver an entire speech without saying anything. He sprinkles irrelevant words between his sentences, and his listeners are enraptured, waiting for the “punch line” – but there is none. There is nothing but a speech filled with rhetoric, but lacking a beginning, a middle or an end. And when you realize that, you are in complete shock – shock that leads to tremendous laughter.

Reb Abba can pull off the same feat in English, even though he is not quite as comfortable in the language. And the same is true of Russian. Sometimes, when he is speaking seriously, it can take time before one realizes that he is being serious. Take these two statements from the previous two paragraphs: “Imitating others can be very limited” and “I want you to know that people need to get into the code of life, and through that to understand the essence of life.” Did you understand a word?

Back to the subject of imitation: When you imitate someone, you can show that he speaks nonsense, but you can also mimic his voice while saying sensible things. Then the impression that will be left is that this person speaks sensibly.

“But in general, the imitation itself dictates the style and mode of speech.”

Someone from America said to me when I mentioned your name, “Turetzky with the ‘Az’? I remember when he did an impression of Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi on ‘az yibaka kashachar arecha.’” 

“The foundation of simcha for me – what I attempt to do and what really powers my act – is breaking out of routine. A person feels happy when there is a change from the routine. That is why we drink wine: It takes us out of the norm and lifts us above nature. Anything that has the power of renewal, like a beautiful landscape, creates joy. When you come to a sheva brachos and everyone is happy, when they are singing all the regular songs and everything is normal, and you can do something unusual to create simcha, then that means that you have done something that no one else is capable of doing. No one else can get up and put on this type of show, but I can. It certainly detracts from me in a way – and I know it. But if you do something unusual, something that is not standard, then you break away from the norm, and that takes other people out of the norm as well. It is entertaining, but it doesn’t bring me any great honor.”

Why not? You make people happy.

“Of course I do. Do you think I would do this for no reason? My rebbe once told me something very meaningful: Sometimes, when a person receives money for something, he thinks of it as work. And when he thinks of it as work, he becomes worn out. Our job is to do these things happily and for the sake of a goal, even when we are paid to do them. The goal should be to make other people happy, not simply to receive money.”

Have you ever gone to someone who was sad and made him happy?

“Happiness is a relative thing. Not long ago, Zevy Freund of Ezer Mizion took me to see someone in Bnei Brak who had just been diagnosed with cancer. He was very sad, and he was also a foreigner – he was American – so I didn’t feel that I had a connection with him. I said, ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, I want to make this Jew happy!’ I talked and talked, but nothing worked. Suddenly, I remembered that on my way back from shul on the previous Shabbos, I had met Mordechai Ohev Tzion, as I always do.”

Mordechai Ohev Tzion, another resident of Givat Shaul, is a Sephardic avreich who travels every day to the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, with whom he has a very close connection.

“I was coming back from davening, and he was on his way to davening. In general, we simply exchange greetings and continue on our respective ways. But this time, he stopped me. ‘Abba, I have to tell you a story!’ he said. ‘You must listen!’

“I stopped to listen to what he had to say, and he told me that someone had sent a letter to Rav Chaim with shailos. Rav Chaim wrote a series of letters at the bottom of the page – lamid nun alef vov lamod bais nun alef – and then placed it in the stamped envelope that came with it, and he sent it back to the sender. Upon receiving Rav Chaim’s reply, the bochur was stumped. What could that string of letters possibly represent? Since he knew Rav Mordechai Ohev Tzion, he asked him, as a favor, to ask Rav Chaim to decipher what he had written. Rav Chaim took one look at the page and said, ‘It’s simple. It stands for lo novi ani velo ben novi ani – I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I couldn’t read his handwriting! Did he think that I am a novi and that I could figure out through ruach hakodesh what he had written?’

“‘But why did the rov write his answer in an abbreviation, instead of spelling out the words?’ Ohev Tzion asked.

“Rav Chaim replied, ‘He wrote to me in a way that couldn’t be deciphered, so I responded to him in the same way!’”

What’s the punch line, Abbeh?

“Wait a minute. Let me finish my story. I was sitting with that cancer patient in Bnei Brak while he was receiving chemotherapy intravenously, and I couldn’t even wring a smile out of him. Suddenly, I remembered this story. Tzvika, the man erupted into gales of laughter. It was simply unbelievable. He sat and laughed uproariously at Rav Chaim’s idea. Do you see the point? You can never predict what will amuse people. The only problem I have is that people never know, at any time of the day, if I am being flippant. If I simply go to the store to buy a sack of potatoes and the proprietor recently saw one of my clips, he will begin to laugh as soon as he sees me.”

Is that so terrible?

“No, it isn’t terrible at all. Except for the fact that I end up without any potatoes.”

Back to the famous “az yibaka” impression. How did it come about?

“I was invited to speak at a certain event, and they asked me to continue speaking after my address had ended. I said, ‘My friends, all I have is a lengthy shtickel Torah. Do you want to hear it?’ They said, ‘Yes! The main thing is for you to keep speaking until our guest of honor arrives.’ The posuk ‘Az yibaka kashachar arecha’ came into my mind, so I began pretending to analyze it. Someone recorded my speech and passed it on, and now the whole world knows about it. I once went into a shtiebel in Flatbush and someone started shouting in English. I don’t know English, but the word az is a Hebrew word. He was shouting something to his friend about ‘az’ and he was pointing at me, and people started running after me and demanding, ‘Are you the one from az yibaka?’”

Why were you in America?

“I went to visit my father-in-law. He lives in Flatbush. He is a professor of Talmud in a university.”

I cannot tell whether he is serious or joking. Then he says, “He is a talmid chochom.”

Do people walk up to you in the street and say, “Abba, tell us a joke”?

“It’s terrible. People lose all sense of proportion. They think I am some sort of joker.”

But you aren’t really a man of jokes. You’re a man of deep ideas. When you do an impression of someone….

“I penetrate the depths of his soul.”

And you portray how he acts.

“You’re about to make me into a mekubal. It’s not a bad way to make a living, that’s all.”

I mention the names of some of the subjects of his impressions, and I observe that his imitations strip them of all seriousness.

When you imitate them, you demonstrate that they themselves don’t actually say anything when they speak. You show that their speeches are devoid of meaning and content. Abba, you take away their facades.

“It’s called taking things to an extreme. Every impression is about taking things to an extreme. When people listen to Meir Porush, they don’t laugh. Why not? Because they know that he is talking sense.”

But people eventually realize that the subjects of your impressions sometimes speak nonsense themselves.

“That isn’t true. I create an amusing script in order to make people laugh. If I were to say serious things, people would prefer to hear the original. I create light-hearted monologues.”

But perhaps it’s true that the others – such as Meir Porush, for instance – occasionally speak without saying anything.

“No, it isn’t true. People are captivated when he speaks. Do you see his audiences laughing? No! I am the only one who takes it to an extreme, and the purpose is to break out of the routine.”

Where does your talent come from?

“I don’t view it as a major talent. I see it as a special type of perception that I have. I wish I could imitate Rav Shteinman.”

You do a pretty good impression of Rav Shach.

“I meant that I wish I could imitate his deeds, not simply perform an impression.”

What troubles you about it?

“You didn’t call me for this interview because I act like Rav Shteinman.”

Maybe you’re a tzaddik nistar.

“Yes,” he says flippantly. “I truly think that.”

As we speak, snow begins to fall in Yerushalayim, just as the weather forecasters predicted, albeit not with the same intensity they anticipated.

Abba, do you have a joke about snow?

“No, but do you know why people like snow?”

I have no idea. Is it because it’s white and pure?

“No. It’s because it’s something out of the ordinary. In America, are people impressed by the snow the way they are here? No. And do you know why not? Because it isn’t so unusual there. That is the same reason people like elections. It is a change from the ordinary.”

Let’s speak about your job at the hotel. What are the responsibilities of a mashgiach at a hotel? Is it a job that must be taken seriously?

“Absolutely! The hotel is glatt. That means mehadrin. That is a major responsibility.”

Have you had any surprising experiences, such as a chiloni who wanted glatt kosher or a chareidi who didn’t insist on it?

“When people come to a hotel, most of their questions about kashrus are asked only after they have filled their stomachs. Once, a woman came to ask about the kashrus of the meat the hotel was serving. I was in the middle of dinner, so she asked the Arab in charge of the drinks to find out for her. Of course, he asked me. I answered him, and he relayed my answer to her. She came back a few minutes later with another question: Her husband is very particular about kashrus, she said, and he wanted to know about the kashrus of the fish. I told the Arab to tell her that the fish were shechted according to the view of the Bais Yosef. The Arab went back to the woman and said, ‘The rov said that the fish are glatt. They are shechitas Bais Yosef.’ Do you think she then said to him, ‘Since when are fish shechted?’ Not at all. She was overjoyed, and she came back later to thank me on behalf of her husband and herself. ‘My husband is so thankful. He enjoyed the kashrus so much,’ she said effusively. This shows you that people sometimes ask questions for no reason or they simply want to make themselves feel better.”

Your job involves great responsibility, then.

“Absolutely. Over the years, I have learned what to focus on – bishul akum, for instance. I learned to be familiar with all the merchandise being brought into the kitchen and to get to know the facility. It is vital to have experience and to do everything possible to make the work easy. There is no reason to work like a beast of burden, to start every day from the same place where you began the day before, and to keep toiling without making any progress. A mashgiach has to be efficient and to limit the problems that might arise. In a hotel that is mehadrin, there are always problems that have to be prevented.”

Do they try to trick you? Do they try to sneak in meat that is less expensive and less kosher?

“No, they don’t try to trick me. Woe to the mashgiach who has to deal with deception. If you have to deal with someone who plays tricks, then it is impossible for the place to be mehadrin. You have to set boundaries. I used to be a mechanech and I told my students, ‘You all know that you aren’t allowed to eat in the middle of class. Your rebbi has a new rule: You aren’t even allowed to have food on your desk.’ That is how you make safeguards, to prevent the more important rules from being violated. If the boys don’t have food on their desks, it’s guaranteed that they won’t eat in class.”

Is there good reason for the respect enjoyed by the hechsher of Mehadrin Yerushalayim?

“Yes. They work very seriously there. Rav Shmuel Bornstein, who is responsible for the kashrus certification of the Rabbinate of Yerushalayim, including its mehadrin certification, has a very deep understanding of kashrus. The chief rabbi, Rav Amar, was here two weeks ago and was very impressed by the kashrus.”

You mean he was impressed by the supervision.

“Yes.”

In other words, he was impressed by you.

“I usually like to mention that, but I left it to you to figure out this time.”

Did meeting Rav Amar give you material for an impression?

“What does that have to do with the subject at hand? We’re talking about something else now.”

I would like to know anyway. Does he have a special way of speaking or does he speak like everyone else?

“Every person has their own individual way of speaking. The question is whether you catch on to it. If you are thinking about other things, you won’t notice.”

Everyone agrees that Arik Sharon had a unique style of speaking.

“That’s because you have heard people doing impressions of him. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have noticed.”

Does Rav Ullman have a special way of speaking? I haven’t noticed!

Rav Ullman is a member of the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis of Yerushalayim and a fellow resident of Givat Shaul. Abba laughs loudly at my question. He begins performing an impression of Rav Ullman, and both the imitation and the words are hilarious. He seems to have entered the mind and soul of the rov. Everyone in the room begins laughing uproariously. Then Abba says, “Everyone has something unique about them. You do, too. You are always hoarse.”

I imagine that imitating people is a skill that can’t be learned. Either you have the talent or you don’t.

“Definitely. Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi once told me that he thinks the skill comes from the soul. It’s like the special perception of an artist. As we have been saying all along, it has to do with creating a change, deviating from the norm. It is a talent that Hashem gives a person, to see past the surface.”

Do you have a repertoire of jokes?

“No.”

Then you make them up while you are speaking?

“It’s impossible to have jokes prepared. That’s why, when we went to sheva brachos together, I took a jab at you. You put me under pressure, and when a person feels closed up, he can’t speak or tell jokes.”

Has anyone ever gotten angry at you?

“No one has been angry, but people have failed to understand me.”

Did you then appease the offended parties?

“Yes. Whenever you break from routine and move into areas where people aren’t used to going, they can get hurt. You have to be on guard.”

I don’t really understand that, but it doesn’t matter. I once commented to Rav Lau that he speaks better than you do in your impressions of him.

“He must have been offended!”

No. He laughed.

“I’m not so sure he wasn’t insulted. What did you think he would do? Did you expect him to cry?”

People laugh when you imitate them.

“They laugh, but they don’t always enjoy it.”

Well, you wouldn’t do an impression of someone who isn’t important for some reason. If you do an impression of someone, that must show that they are something…

“Yes, that is true. But do you plan to waste my entire evening with these ridiculous questions?”

All right, so tell me a joke.

“I don’t have one.”

You don’t have one?

“That’s the joke! ‘I don’t have one’!”

Tell me a joke about Americans.

“There are no jokes about Americans. The essence of an American is one big joke.”

Why?

“Because no American lives with routine. They are always looking to get away from their routine.”

Try a joke about Obama.

“Who is that?”

What about Bibi?

“Ever since he began collecting bottles, I have gained much esteem for him. A person who pays attention to the small details is a great person.”

I hope you are saying that in jest.

“Of course. What else would I be doing?”

Abba suggests that I find a joke on my own and attribute it to him. “Maybe you should try the famous joke about the man who was sad and was advised to go to a circus and see the clowns. The sad man told the people who gave him that advice, ‘That’s me! I’m the clown!’”

I respond in kind, with a similar joke. “Someone once saw a clown crying, and he went over to him and said, ‘How can you be crying? You’re a clown!’ The clown replied, ‘I’m on break right now.’”

Is Purim your big day?

“It’s everyone’s big day, and that includes me.”

I understand that you are really a very serious person.

“Many people say that.”

Even your jokes sometimes have powerful messages.

“I must admit that you are now talking sense.”

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