My husband Dovid’s First Yahartzeit
Tomorrow promises to be a day that I will never forget. It is my husband Dovid’s first yahartzeit, the anniversary of his passing.
From the Torah’s perspective a yahrtzeit (which means “a years’ time” in Yiddish) is far more important than a birthday. When you were born, you were all potential as yet unrealized. The joy that people feel when they see a new baby is like the feeling you may recall when you opened that great 64- color pack of Crayolas. The day of your death will be the one in which your choices have made you the person that you became. Your portrait is the one that you painted. A song that the Jews sang in the Bais HaMikdash during the water drawing ritual that was done on Succos gives you a glimpse into what I mean. One of the verses is, “joyous is one whose old age didn’t disgrace his youth.” When you are just starting out there are still unexplored horizons and the will to explore them. For many people this stage ends prematurely. They lose their sense of purpose and spiritual ambition early on. Dovid wasn’t the sort of person who “died” spiritually long before he physically left.
His life had three basic stages. He was born in Boston. His neighborhood was grim working class Irish and on the cusp of falling into the bottomless pit that the inner city often becomes. His best friend invited him to attend church at the age of 7 or so. This was the main reason that his parents decided to send him to Maimonides, the famous modern orthodox day-school. It required him to take a train and a bus. He was a child prodigy-not in the intellectual sense but in the spiritual sense. He gravitated towards anyone who was credible, Rabbi Margolis, Rabbi Heyman, the Bostoner Rebbe and anyone who was a step further than he was. Rabbi Meiselman, Rosh Yeshivah of Toras Moshe was of the same genre; although he is the scion of a renowned rabbinic family, he was completely familiar with the utter spiritual desolation that was the essence of Boston of that era. He recalled Dovid as being unique in his tenacity. He was one of the rare students of the academic day school who didn’t move on to an Ivy League University. Instead, he left Boston for yeshiva, and found himself in Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn.
Frum life in post war Brooklyn was another planet than the placid pre-sixties America he knew. The shomrei mitzvah of the era were pitifully low on money but unbelievably high on passion for Torah. The yeshiva was located on Stone and Pitkin in the heart of Brownsville. They somehow managed to purchase a building that was formally a bank. Its large marble lined interior became a Bais Midrash, but nothing else (tellers cages, upstairs offices) really morphed into becoming a dorm. The only room that the Rosh Yeshiva could offer Dovid was a large closet with the option of lugging a mattress from the storage area to make it homier (of course that was conditional on finding a place to put the debris that carpeted the floor). No one thought he would last. The kitchen was manned by a chef who was a holocaust survivor. He was far beyond letting anything faze him. To him it was “normal” to cook with a large pot on his head to avoid the constant drip of water from the numerous leaks in the floor above. The rabbis were Yiddish speaking scholars with international reputations for erudition. The secular teachers were whoever the yeshiva could convince to work for what they paid. The custodial staff was once found dead on the roof after sampling their own home-brewed liquor. It was a long way from Brookline…
His third stop was Israel. It was extremely unusual in 1965 to get on a plane for Tel Aviv. One of his friends has made the trek before him, and told him that there is nothing like it in the world. That was enough to get him to pack his things and move on. His plans were vague his connections few and far between, but he never looked back. Two years later we got married (a story in itself, but not for today), and after a month in the States returned. He always opened new doors. There were years in high profile yeshivas such as Brisk, followed by a stint in the North, a career in Ohr Sameach, with Rabbi Meiselman as his building/kitchen manager and finally in what to me was the job that most expressed him, in Pachad Yitzchak, the Israeli branch of Chaim Berlin where his learning and spiritual self-definition were solidified. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yonason David shlita, is the son in law of his first Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Hutner zatzal. He took enormous pleasure in serving Torah in every way. He lived at least three lives, with internal changes matching the external ones. Nothing was easy, and nothing of his idealism was abandoned.
All of this is important because you have to build the future using the past. My kids got together every Sunday night this past year to study and to draw close to what he was for them. The boys finished the entire Talmud (we had a rather major celebration of that event) and the girls are operating gemachs and studying kitzur shulchan aruch. The entire family resolved to see that we all do at least one act of kindness a day (above the basic decency that being a Torah Jew requires). The result is that we too discovered more resources than we knew we had, and recognized that the part of us that remains idealistic is more alive.
I’ll give you more of what the day was like next time, but in the meantime, let yourself explore what you really want to be.