Rabbi Tzvi Meir Steinmetz, also known by his penname Tzvi Yair, passed away on Friday, Erev Shabbos Parshas Ki Setze 5765, at the age of 90.
He left behind his wife, Devora ob”m, three daughters, and a large family of grandchildren, many engaged in teaching, writing and disseminating the teachings of Chabad Chassidus.
Tzvi Meir grew up in the village of Brister in Carpathian Russia, on the border of Galicia.
He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1915, where the family was living temporarily due to the upheavals caused by the First World War.
Rabbi Tzvi Meir’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Dov, was one of the prosperous merchants in the small village of Brister. Shlomo Dov and his wife, Leah Gittel, had an open house, dispensing hospitality and charity to everyone in need. Rabbi Tzvi Meir recalled how twenty guests would surround the Shabbos table, along with the members of the household.
Tzvi Meir was an only son among seven daughters, and his father took great pains to give him the best education possible. He hired a brilliant and accomplished Rabbi, a refugee from Poland, to teach his son Torah, grammar, the Hebrew language, and “even” astronomy.
At the tender age of eight, Tzvi Meir already demonstrated a love of learning and writing.
He wrote his own original composition about the month of Nisan in which he was born, enumerating the unique characteristics of that month. Tzvi Meir wrote an article, as well, about the meaning of prayer.
Later, his father sent him to learn in the Yeshiva of Gelenta, where he succeeded in the study of “Shas” (Talmud) and its commentators. Tzvi Meir recalled that he was also interested in Jewish thought and philosophy. As a young man, he was drawn to the approach of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, which combined Torah with secular knowledge. But unlike many young students who abandoned traditional Judaism for the ways of “Haskala (enlightenment),” Tzvi Meir continued to wear Chassidic garb and a full beard. Though he was searching for a new path in Yiddishkeit, he also felt a deep loyalty to Chassidism, inherited from both of his parents. He was proud of his family’s distinguished linage, and often mentioned that his family were Chasidim of Sanz, Viznitz Dolin and Riditzov.
In his twenties, Tzvi Meir was the beloved student of the Slotvene Rebbe in Siget. In spite of the dangerous times, the Rebbe traveled by train to officiate at Tzvi Meir’s wedding.
Tzvi Meir later became an enthusiastic admirer of Rabbi Yitzchok Breuer,a student of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. The young poet met Dr. Breuer, a distinguished Torah scholar and lawyer, at the “Knesia Hagedola”, a convention of the distinguished Rabbis of Europe. At the same time, he continued to cherish a strong emotional attachment to the Chassidic Rabbis.
The conflict he felt between the two streams of Yiddishkeit–the traditional Chassidic way–and the path of the German Jewish thinkers–left him feeling intellectually isolated. But the search for a path in Yiddishkeit was interrupted suddenly and tragically with the advent of World War II. Tzvi Meir, the young poet, wrote a haunting and prophetic poem, entitled “Asifas Nemerov (The Gathering of Nemerov)” alluding to the suffering of the Jews of Poland at the hands of the Nazis. The poem caused a stir in the literary circles in Budapest. When it was read in the main synagogue, people cried bitterly, dreading what lay ahead for them as well.
When the Nazis conquered Hungary (1944), Tzvi Meir and his family were forced to go into hiding. He managed to find a safe haven for his daughters and also for several orphaned nieces and nephews. He seldom spoke of those dark days, even to close family and friends.
One harrowing escape was, however, part of family history: Tzvi Meir was hiding in a deserted warehouse with a group of other people who were fugitives in Nazi Hungary. Suddenly, a group of German soldiers burst in and demanded to see their identification papers. After inspecting these, the soldiers ordered the fugitives to come to Nazi headquarters, a certain death sentence for a Jew. Miraculously, three Hungarian officers materialized. They ordered the German soldiers to leave, saying they would take care of the matter. Swiftly looking through the papers, they approved all of them, “even a cleaner’s ticket,” Tzvi Meir used to say. Here he saw an example of the many miracles every survivor experienced.
Tzvi Meir expressed his gratitude for his deliverance in his poetry, as well as his sorrow for those who were not spared. In later years, surrounded by children, grandchildren and great grandchildren during family celebrations, he liked to quote the words of our Father Yaakov, “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have granted me. For with my staff (alone) I crossed this Jordan River.”
After the liberation, Tzvi Meir and his family were reunited. Tzvi Meir’s own parents and six of his sisters, escaped. Grateful villagers, who remembered their kindness and generosity had hidden them in bunkers in the mountains, bringing them bread and milk, until the liberation. “We could not allow Berko, (Tzvi Meir’s father) to perish of hunger,” they said, “after he provided us with our livelihood for so many years.”
The Steinmetz family moved to Vienna, Austria in 1948. In Vienna, Tzvi Meir served as editor , and when necessary ad the sole writer of “Di Stimme Israel,” a journal published by Benjamin Schreiber, who was president of the Agudat Israel of Austria. In Vienna, he also published a volume of Hebrew poetry, dedicated to the martyrs of the holocaust.
Early in 1952, Tzvi Meir and his family came to the United States. Both he and his wife were eager to escape the continent of death and suffering. He was also determined to live in a place where his daughters would receive a Torah-true education.
Arriving in the United States, the Steinmetzes, had to find a means of livelihood. Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, a Chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, offered Tzvi Meir a teaching and administrative position in Bais Rivka, the school he ran in Crown Heights. For the first time, he encountered Chabad Hassidism and he was captivated by it. He watched the Lubavitcher Rebbe at prayer “I had seen the holy Rebbes in Europe,” he explained, “and they pray with a fervor that was apparent to everyone. The Rebbe prayed quietly, without outward demonstrations of feeling. Yet from the moment I saw him, I knew that before me was an Ish Elokim, a G-dly man.”
Prior to assuming his duties as principal of the Lubavitch girls’ school, he had an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Tzvi Meir discussed the challenges in education, and was deeply impressed by the Rebbe’s approach.
Later, he attended ‘Farbrengens.” Tzvi Meir recalled, “I had been used to hearing Rebbes speak of Torah for a quarter or half an hour. But here the Rebbe was holding forth for hours. talmudic reasoning, philosophy and chassidus. He opened up new vistas to me, gave new directions to my thoughts. I was enchanted.”
Tzvi Meir experienced a special joy in his attachment to the Rebbe. From the moment of meeting the Rebbe, in private and when attending farbrengens, he no longer felt lonely in his spiritual quest. The questions and issues that he had struggled with on his own were answered by the Rebbe: “The Rebbe gave me the keys to understanding and faith.”
Tzvi Meir gathered courage to tell the Rebbe that he wrote poetry, and that he also wrote poems about non Chassidic topics. The Rebbe smiled and said, “You can show them to me. They won’t do me any harm.” The Rebbe had great understanding of literature and encouraged him in his literary ventures. When Tzvi Meir wondered if writing poetry was taking away time from learning Toirah, the Rebbe replied. “There will be people who will learn Torah because they were inspired by your poetry. The merit of their learning will be credited to you.” At another time, the Rebbe said, “Many sichos (Chassidic discourses) are incorporated in these poems.”
Year after year, Tzvi Meir gave the Rebbe a unique birthday present: A poem dedicated to the Rebbe and his leadership of his flock. The Rebbe would respond with a warm “thank you for the poem.”At times, the Rebbe critiqued Tzvi Meir’s poems. A poem complained that the Jewish people were using Hashem only to fulfill their needs, crying “give, give,” the Rebbe gently rebuked the poet, explaining that asking for our needs from Hashem is a legitimate and a halachik obligation. He did not tell him to discard the poem but rather “I am sure you can rescue the poem. Write it differently.”
Tzvi Meir’s poems were acclaimed by critics, and teachers in Israel, who marveled how a writer who had never lived in Israel could write such a beautiful, classical Hebrew. He visited Israel several times, speaking about his poetry to the general public and to religious girls’ schools who had incorporated his poems into their curriculum.
Even though poetry was such an important part of his life, Tzvi Meir wrote mostly at night. He was a teacher for many years, and later owned a real estate company. He never stopped teaching, however, giving lectures to groups small and large. He was once invited to speak to a meditation group in Long Island. He transformed the meditation sessions into Torah classes, delving into the inner meaning of the Torah.
“A number of these people are now observant Jews, raising their own Jewish families,” he would say with pleasure. Reaching out to other Jews and teaching Chassidus was one more way to carry out “the shlichus (the mission)” of his Rebbe.
After Gimmel Tammuz, the poet’s pen lay idle. But a while later, Tzvi Meir wrote his final poem—a tribute entitled “Lament and Consolation,” where he reassured the Chassidim, “A faithful shepherd will not abandon his flock.”
Tzvi Meir, too, is very much present in the memory of his family and many friends, and in the poems that continue to teach and to inspire.