The following are some of memoirs of Rabbi Yossi Goldstein (“Uncle Yossi”), long-time educator and master storyteller who passed away this week. The tales of his life and stories he witnessed were given to publication several years ago and were provided to COLlive.com by his family.
The Rebbe Rayatz arrived in the U.S. on 9 Adar 5700 (1940) and founded Tomchei T’mimim. One of the talmidim of those early years, who slept on the first floor of 770 and witnessed many special events of those times, was Rabbi Goldstein.
“When I was three years old, my parents decided to leave Providence, Rhode Island, where we were the only religious Jews, and to move to New York in order to be able to live Jewish lives. It wasn’t easy, because that year, 5690 (1930), was the height of the Depression. The economy was in bad shape and the currency was severely devalued, so that every businessman tried to protect his business. Yet my father sold his business in Providence and moved to N.Y. without knowing how he would support his family there.
My parents made this decision upon the advice of a number of Admurim who regularly visited our home on their way from N.Y. to Boston (see box), who told my parents that Providence wasn’t a suitable place for frum Jews.
We arrived in N.Y. and settled in Boro Park. In those days, there were only two yeshivos in Boro Park. One was a modern Zionist school called Eitz Chayim, and the other one was Toras Emes. At first, my father wanted to register my older brothers in Eitz Chayim, but it cost too much, so they registered in Toras Emes instead. When I grew older, I too went to Toras Emes.
In those days, Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, one of the distinguished Chabad chassidim in the U.S., ran the yeshiva, and all Chabad chassidim in N.Y., like the Posner, Simpson, Rivkin, and other families, sent their children to this yeshiva. This was the case for about ten years, until 5701 (1941).
That year was very difficult. The administration of the yeshiva couldn’t pay the teachers on time, and when they finally paid it was only eighteen dollars a week. When they weren’t paid for a long time, they left. The high rate of turnover made it difficult for me to connect with my teachers, in addition to the fact that we weren’t on the same wavelength, they being Litvaks, graduates of Mir and Slabodka, while I was all-American.
A TEACHER OF THE PREVIOUS GENERATION
One day everything changed. That morning the classroom door opened and there stood a new teacher. Later on I found out that he was Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanov. There was no comparison between him and the previous teachers. He had the appearance of a Jew from a previous generation. He wore a long coat and a black hat, and he had a long, beautiful beard. He had a hadras panim, the likes of which I had seen only in history books, and as soon as he walked into the room I stood up in awe. I felt myself drawn to him as to a magnet. His manner and speech were friendly and gentle, and I could sense how everything was done out of great love. From day to day my attachment and love for him grew.
During recess I noticed him leaning his head on the table. I didn’t know if he was sleeping or just thinking, but he usually appeared frail. I went over to him and asked whether he felt all right, and he asked me to fetch him something to drink. I ran and got him a cup of water.
The next day I brought him a thermos of coffee and he thanked me a great deal and told me how I had revived him. From time to time I tried to bring him rolls and other food to sustain him. Our relationship was that of teacher and student, but it was a wonderful friendship.
One day he disappeared. I took it very hard since I had become so attached to him, and I began to investigate what had happened to him. I discovered that R’ Shmuel was one of the big chassidim of the Rebbe Rayatz who had been appointed to be secretary in the Rebbe’s yeshiva, Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim. That’s when I heard of Tomchei T’mimim for the first time, and I thought to myself that if this yeshiva was good for my esteemed teacher, then it was certainly good for me!
This resolution, however, remained just a thought, for R’ Shmuel Zalmanov’s replacement was also a Lubavitcher, R’ Yitzchok Dovber Ushpal, and I became friendly with him too, no less and perhaps more than with my previous teacher. I saw this as Divine providence, that Hashem was sending me angels to raise me out of the mud.
R’ Ushpal’s material circumstances were very poor. He came to class with torn pants and shoes, like a war refugee. He was very mesudar (orderly) and clean, but in tatters, since he had nothing else.
I visited him and was shocked to see a house that had no furniture. Instead of chairs he had some crates that also served as a table. I spoke with some friends and we got him a mattress, chairs, and a table.
He greatly befriended me. One day he said to me: “Yossel, you’re a good boy and I have a present for you.” It was a volume of maamarim which he began learning with me. We learned in his home. This was my first connection with Chabad chassidus.
At my bar mitzva my father gave me a gold watch. When I learned with R’ Ushpal, I noticed that when he wanted to know what time it was, he had to ask me for he didn’t have enough money to buy a watch, even a plain one. I thought it wasn’t right for me to have such a nice watch while he had to ask me what time it was. I thought of giving him my watch as a gift, but I was afraid he would be insulted. I finally approached him and begged him to accept the watch, for I was grateful for his learning chassidus with me. He refused to take it, of course, but I insisted until he finally took it.
Thus, a few happy months went by until he left for Tomchei T’mimim, too. At that point I said to myself: and why shouldn’t I go, too?
THE FIRST TRIP TO THE REBBE RAYATZ
My parents didn’t agree, of course. In those years, a trip from Boro Park to Crown Heights wasn’t simple. You had to change a few trains, and it wasn’t the thing for a thirteen-year-old to do every day. And the price was prohibitive too at five cents a ride. It was only after “holy stubbornness” on my part that my parents agreed to let me switch to Tomchei T’mimim, but on condition that I stay in the dormitory so I wouldn’t have to travel every day.
I went to yeshiva. This was the first time I was traveling by train and I went over to ask how to get to Eastern Parkway. The man told me where to get off, at what was the first stop on Eastern Parkway and called the Eastern Parkway stop, which was a half-hour walk from 770!
I left the subway and saw an impressive building and I was thrilled, thinking I was going to attend yeshiva in such a beautiful building. I quickly realized my error, discovering this was the public library. I asked a number of people how to get to 770, and they told me I needed to walk another twenty blocks.
I arrived at 770 and stood in wonder once again. I had expected to see a large shul, yet this was a house! Yes, an ordinary house, like all the houses there. Just as I walked into 770 a large celebration was taking place for a raffle for learning Mishnayos by heart. I later learned that the Rebbe Rayatz wanted to purify the air of America by means of the saying of Mishnayos by heart, and in order to motivate the chassidim they would raffle off Mesechtos of Mishnayos in the Rebbe’s presence.
The Rebbe sat on the dais, the Rebbe on his left, and Rashag on his right. Truly, a sight to behold. Rabbi Zalmanov, my former teacher, noticed me immediately and called me. He introduced me to R’ Eliyahu Simpson, the Rebbe Rayatz’s secretary at that time, and I was registered in the yeshiva. I began learning in R’ Ushpal’s class in 770.
I mentioned Mivtza Mishnayos B’al Peh, and I recall the Rebbe Rayatz sitting on his chair on the small porch on the second floor (above where the large sukka of 770 is) and reviewing Mishnayos.
The Rebbe once said: It’s a kal v’chomer. If the air around the Rebbe is like Gan Eden (like it says about Yaakov, “the scent of my son is like the scent of the field which Hashem blessed”) yet he sees fit to purify the air, then how much more so for us, in the air we find ourselves in, that we need to review Mishnayos.
The sleeping problem was solved unexpectedly. In those years, shortly after they bought 770, the Rebbe Rayatz lived on the second floor, his son-in-law, Rashag, on the third floor, while the first floor remained empty at night (at that time there weren’t bachurim hanging around at night). Being that this was the case, Rabbi Berel Chaskind asked me to sleep in 770. He chose me because I was an American who spoke English well and conducted myself properly, so if a policeman or mailman would come, I’d know how to deal with them. I got the key to one of the rooms on the first floor, a room that later became Rabbi Dovid Raskin‘s office.
That’s how I had the z’chus to sleep in 770 for a long period of time. I brought all my things to my new room. They included my clothes and the maamarim that R’ Avrohom Paris would publish. In those days printing was very expensive, and he would use a copying machine. These maamarim were all I owned, and I didn’t want to leave them at home. At that time, when a maamer came out, it was “bread from the heavens.” Till this day I have a bundle of tzukvetchte maamarim (crumpled maamarim), which is what they were called since they were folded and put in one’s pocket to be learned wherever one found oneself, on the train, on the bus, etc. That was its beauty: the more crumpled it was, the more it showed it had been learned.
The year I came to 770, 5702, it was after the histalkus of Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah, the mother of the Rebbe Rayatz, and I had the z’chus of being part of the minyan that davened upstairs with the Rebbe Rayatz. Aside from myself there were a few other chassidim who davened in the minyan regularly, such as Rabbi Nachum Sklar, Rabbi Avrohom Paris (who came from Boro Park), and Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson. Till this day I treasure the precious moments I merited to have in the presence of the Rebbe Rayatz. I especially recall the sight of the Rebbe standing and taking in every move the Previous Rebbe made.
Those years were really days of light. Those who had the z’chus of being in 770 in those years were able to absorb chayus for a lifetime. Chassidim came from afar in order to eat at the Rebbe’s table on Shabbos and Yom Tov. The Lubavitch k’hilla in Crown Heights numbered a few dozen chassidim, but they came from other neighborhoods, too. Chassidim, like R’ Pariz, R’ Rivkin, and R’ Cunin, ate at home and then walked from Boro Park to farbreng with the Rebbe until the wee hours.
Forty to fifty people attended these farbrengens, but relative to the room in which the Rebbe farbrenged in on the second floor, it was a large group. We once came to the farbrengen only to find the door locked. We learned that the Rebbe’s doctors said that the room shouldn’t be overcrowded, so it wouldn’t get too stuffy (there were no air conditioners then, and when a few dozen people were in the room, it got very warm). They had a system whereby a few chassidim entered, and after some time they left and other chassidim took their place. It often happened that in the middle of a sicha there were knocks at the door. These were chassidim who stood outside who wanted some chassidim to come out so they could go in.
We usually knocked quietly so as not to interrupt the farbrengen. One time, after we knocked a great deal but nobody came out, some of the chassidim began banging on the door. A few seconds later the Rebbe opened the door and said that when they knocked strongly the Rebbe [Rayatz] had stopped speaking, smiled, and said that they knocked with “an emes.” The Rebbe allowed some chassidim to enter, but I, as well as some others, remained outside.
We waited a few minutes and then began knocking again, but nobody responded. There were a few “chachomim” who decided to knock strongly again until the Rebbe Rayatz stopped the sicha again and told the Rebbe : Tell them that the time has already come when they can “take” from the walls there (i.e., the building of 770 was already suffused with chassidus and k’dusha, and even where we stood we were able to take chayus and k’dusha from the walls. When I say this today, I think that if this was the case in 5702-3, how much k’dusha and Elokus are there in 770 today?!).
“A MESSAGE FROM ABOVE”
The phrase “lo raa me’oros mi’yamav” (he never saw any luminaries in his lifetime) is not something I can say about myself, since I did see. In those years it was difficult for the Rebbe Rayatz to walk, and since it was not dignified to see him being wheeled in his wheelchair, the Rebbe would enter the room where the Rebbe Rayatz davened first, before everybody else, and then leave last. When we entered the room, the Rebbe [Rayatz] was already sitting in his place with his face to the wall, so it wasn’t possible to see the Rebbe in a wheelchair.
One day, after davening, the Rebbe asked us to wait, and they turned the chair around so that he could see us. The chassidim were shocked and wondered why the Rebbe was turning to view them. This scene is engraved in my mind till this day. Next to me stood R’ Moshe Yitzchok Konikov, a”h.
The Rebbe Rayatz looked at everybody with a penetrating gaze. This was the first time that I saw the Rebbe in tallis and t’fillin. I suddenly understood what is meant by “light.” I saw an illuminated countenance, a handsome face. The heavens simply opened and I saw a G-dly vision.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Rebbe suddenly began to speak. His face burned like a flame and he began with, “M’hut mir ibergigeben u’modia geven milmala” (they told me from Above). He spoke about a day when you don’t say Tachnun, you must say chapter 20 of Tehillim, not as part of the prayer service but as supplication (see this instruction in the Tehillas Hashem siddur, p. 190). I remember myself standing there, a young boy, like a golem, looking at someone who said he was informed from Above, a man with connections to the upper worlds.
Later on, when I had yechidus with the Rebbe , I wrote up what happened and concluded that to my great sorrow, despite the fact that I had seen the Rebbe in such an exalted state, I didn’t budge…
The Rebbe read the note, gave me a sharp look and said: R’ Yossel af zich tor men oich nisht redden lashon ha’ra (one is not allowed to say lashon ha’ra about oneself).
Another scene which I will never forget happened that same year on Shavuos. The Rebbe Rayatz said we should sing the Niggun of Three Movements, and in the middle of the niggun he suddenly rose from his wheelchair, supported himself with his hands, and stood up!
At that moment everybody rose and stood rooted to their spots. I stood next to the Rebbe’s table, facing the Rebbe. The Rebbe stood with eyes closed and sang along as tears poured down his face. It was an awesome sight that I cannot describe in words. A few minutes later, the Rebbe stopped singing and sat down. Everybody sat and it was absolutely silent. We expected the Rebbe to say something, for we had never seen anything like this before.
The Rebbe opened his eyes, looked at each one of us, and said: I stood up in the middle of the niggun in honor of the three guests [the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid, and the Alter Rebbe].
TIME OF WAR
Between the years of 5700 and 5705, the war years of World War II, the army did practice drills for civilians in the event that New York would be attacked by enemy planes. From time to time they would sound an alarm and everybody had to extinguish all lights and darken their houses [for years afterward you could see the nails in the sides of the windows of the small zal in 770 on which they hung curtains]. Policemen went about the streets during this time and those people who did not darken their homes were heavily fined.
I remember that once, during a siren, the assistants entered the room of the Rebbe Rayatz to shut the light. The Rebbe was in the room at that time and he looked out the window where you could see searchlights checking to see whether any enemy planes were present.
Suddenly the Rebbe Rayatz sighed. The Rebbe turned around immediately to see what had happened, and the Rebbe Rayatz said, “Vos vil men fun main tzeit?” (what do they want from my time?), because this went on sometimes for twenty minutes and the Rebbe was bemoaning the waste of time.
WORKING IN THE REBBE’S ROOM
Being a ben bayis in 770, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina appointed me to bring food from the kitchen to the home of the Rebbe , which was in the building on the corner of President and New York. The house number was 346, and we had a siman for it, “shmo ha’gadol” (“His great name,” with “shmo” being numerically equivalent to 346). In this way a special closeness with the Rebbe was developed.
With the coming of the Rebbe to New York, the Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch was founded, and one of its first projects was printing Talks and Tales. I once heard the Rebbe complain to R’ Sholom Mendel Simpson: “Ich darf alein leigin di Talks und Tales in di envelops un ich darf alein leigin di stemps. Mistama darf ich leigin in post oich…” (I have to put the Talks and Tales into envelopes myself, and stick the stamps on myself. I’ll probably have to take them to the post office, too.)
In those days the Rebbe had no help, because there were very few bachurim and they were tremendous masmidim, and so the Rebbe spoke very sharply.
Since I had heard the Rebbe say that, I approached him and suggested that I do the work, and that I would do it in my room so as not to disturb the Rebbe. The Rebbe said he agreed to my helping him, but he wanted me to work in his room.
I worked in a corner of the room, and as I did so, I observed the Rebbe to see what he was doing. At that time, kuntreisim of the Rebbe Rashab were being published, and the Rebbe edited the material with a pencil. He stood with one leg on a chair and the other leg on the floor, and he worked. In response to my request, the Rebbe gave me some of the galley sheets with his holy handwriting on it, as a gift.
The Rebbe had a typewriter on his desk in the office. When I was older and learned in the beis midrash I would correspond with mekuravim to chassidus, and in the evening I would sit and type on the Rebbe’s typewriter.
In one of my letters to the Rebbe Rayatz, I saw in the answer a hint from him that I should become mekushar to the Rebbe shlita. This is what happened. I was accustomed to asking the Rebbe Rayatz questions in chassidus. One time, when I wrote that it seemed there was a contradiction between two maamarei chassidus, the Rebbe wrote me [see picture]: “I gave your letter with the question to my son-in-law…R’ Menachem Mendel, shlita, and he will certainly answer you, im yirtzeh Hashem.”
Indeed, soon after, I received an answer to my question from the Rebbe , who wrote his answer on the typewriter and gave me the letter. I regarded this as a sign to become mekushar to the Rebbe, shlita, already in 5709, as a horaa from the Rebbe Rayatz.
GROWING UP AMONG ADMURIM
I was born on 24 Iyar 5687 (1927), in Providence, Rhode Island. My father was Moshe Yehuda Goldstein, who was nicknamed “Der Shomer Shabbos,” and my mother was Chaya Malka.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, R’ Yaakov Yitzchok Goldman, a”h, who came from Anipol, was a Jew with a white beard, an outstanding “chassidic prototype.” He owned many sifrei chassidus, among them the Tanya and Kuntres Eitz Chayim of the Rebbe Rashab, and he valued them greatly.
My grandfather came to America in 1900 where he married and settled in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He supported his family by means of a print shop, and when he made enough money he devoted the main part of his earnings and energy to avodas ha’kodesh.
He was a melamed and shochet, and since there was no rav in the city, he responded to the halachic questions that people asked him. The United States at that time was really very far from anything to do with Yiddishkeit, and today it’s clear that any spark of Judaism in his city was mainly thanks to the arduous work he did.
In addition to his work with the community, he devoted a great deal of time to his children, and succeeded in giving them all a chinuch al taharas ha’kodesh despite the difficulties. He merited raising a family of children and grandchildren who were yerei Shamayim, and who remained that way despite the influences and enticements that surrounded them.
An incident that happened with my uncle Yehuda Leib Goldman, a”h (I’m Goldstein from my father’s side and Goldman from my mother’s side), serves as a good example to the strong emuna he implanted in his children. This uncle learned to play the violin, and he eventually became one of the greatest musicians in America. The conductor, Sergei Koussevitzky, took him as first violin in the Boston Philharmonic. My uncle was successful there and everything was fine until the issue of performances on Shabbos came up. They wanted him to play on Shabbos and they offered him all the money in the world so that he’d agree, but my uncle refused. He could have risen to the heights of his profession, but he withstood this test and was not mechalel Shabbos.
My father met my mother in Boston, married her, and moved to Providence. My father was not a Chabad chassid, but he was the first to show the way in Providence since others did not keep Shabbos and even laughed at it. They certainly didn’t have beards, and so my father was a dugma chaya for Yiddishkeit. My father did manual work in the house, which was the source of our income. The work he did was printing small items for customers. He chose to take his chances with a private venture, because in those days if you wanted to work for someone else, you had to be mechalel Shabbos.
In 5680 (1920) the material situation in Poland and Galicia was frightful, and Admurim of various communities left to fundraise in the U.S. They came by ship to New York as their first stop. The next stop was Boston, because both cities had a large Jewish population. The trip from N.Y. to Boston took twelve hours by train, and they had to stop to rest in Providence.
My father, Moshe Goldstein lived in Providence and he was the only one able to host them with kosher food in a true Jewish home. Thus our home was full of these Admurim, who spent Shabbos with us and davened in the little shul in the vicinity.
Those who accompanied the Admurim joined us at the Shabbos table and the tish with singing and divrei Torah. All this greatly strengthened my parents, who were the only religious Jews in the area. Whenever the Admurim came they left a seifer behind and learned a bit of halacha or other things with the family.
My mother, a”h, told me that when I was born (at home with the help of a midwife) she remembered that she gave birth in one room while the Admurim sat in the other room and recited T’hillim out loud. Certainly, my mother concluded, this z’chus enabled me to see children and grandchildren oskim ba’Torah u’b’mitzvos from you.
Providence is close to Newport, which has the first shul built in the U.S. in the time of President George Washington, who visited the shul. The government would renovate it every year and it later became a sort of museum which people visit from all over the world.
“As a bachur in 770, I had the z’chus of becoming close with the well known chassid, R’ Avrohom Paris, a”h, who lived in Rabbi Simpson’s house in Boro Park. On Shabbos he learned Likkutei Torah with me and my friends, Avrohom Weingarten, a”h, and Zalman Shechter. I joined them on those Shabbasos that I was in Boro Park because of kibud av.
At that time it was customary for talmidim in 770 to take turns reviewing maamarim by heart at Shalosh Seudos. Since I spent Shabbasos with my parents in Boro Park, when my turn came, I walked to Crown Heights, which took an hour and a half. I arrived at 770, sat in the small zal and began reviewing the maamer (it was “Ki Chelek Hashem Amo” 5699).
Afterwards, R’ Sholom Ber Eichorn, a”h, told me that as I sat there with eyes closed while reviewing the maamer, the Rebbe entered and immediately left and closed the door so that he wouldn’t be seen, and he stood behind the door while I said the maamer until the end.
THE SECRET OF THE OPEN WINDOW
On Chol HaMoed Sukkos 5706, there was a lot of work done with children. Every so often there were special rallies for children, and the Rebbe would stand and address them. At one of these rallies, a large group – 300 children, which was outstanding in those days – gathered in the yard adjacent to 770. The Rebbe came down, opened a wooden folding chair, stood on it, and began speaking to the children in Yiddish.
The Rebbe stood with his face towards the building (in this spot, many years later, the Rebbe would stand there on Simchas Torah and teach new niggunim, and he would stand on a chair then, too) and I noticed that the Rebbe was staring at the building the entire time.
I looked to see what the Rebbe was staring at, and noticed an open window on the second floor (in the room of Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, past the kitchen, where she had a table and the Rebbetzins would sit there during farbrengens of the Rebbe Rayatz, and farbreng), and the Rebbe Rayatz stood there, dressed in silk, a gartel, and his Shabbos spodik. He held on to the window and bent over to hear how his son-in-law spoke. It was a wondrous sight, and I froze in my spot.
Suddenly I saw that the other window was open too. I looked in the direction of the second window in order to see who was there, but saw no one.
It was so odd, and I knew already that when it came to the Rebbe, there was no such thing as inconsequential details; something unusual was going on.
As soon as the Rebbe finished speaking, R’ Chaim Lieberman, the Rebbe Rayatz’s secretary, came and told the Rebbe that the Rebbe Rayatz wanted him immediately. The Rebbe ran up the steps and went in for yechidus. I heard what took place at that yechidus from R’ Yitzchok Groner, for the Rebbe told him what his father-in-law had said (in a joyous niggun):
The argument between the Alter Rebbe and his mechutan, R’ Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, regarding the saying of “V’Shomru B’nei Yisroel” on Friday night (between Hashkiveinu and Shmoneh Esrei) is known. The Alter Rebbe paskened that it should not be said because of it possibly being an interruption, while R’ Levi Yitzchok strongly argued that it must be said (the Alter Rebbe compromised by including it in his siddur, writing that those who have the custom of saying it have what to rely on, etc.).
R’ Levi Yitzchok said thus to the Alter Rebbe: Imagine what a parade there is up Above as Jews recite “V’Shomru!”
The Alter Rebbe replied: It is true that there is a parade, however, we don’t have to attend every parade!
The Rebbe Rayatz concluded, “But to this parade, he came!” (i.e., that the Alter Rebbe had participated in the children’s rally).
When I heard that, I thought to myself: aha, that was the story with the second window…
I was charged with the responsibility of directing parades for children on Chanuka, Lag B’Omer, etc. But as the years went by, young bachurim came along with fresh strength, and they took over. They did the same thing or even better, but I had the z’chus of being first. So throughout the years, I was the one who opened the kinus with a general introduction about the significance of the day and about the special place we were in.
After a few songs with the children I would give the microphone to Rabbi JJ Hecht, a”h, who continued running the rally. R’ Yankel Hecht was the one who invited the Rebbe to speak, and who had the difficult task of translating what the Rebbe said. It was hard work. At the beginning of the Mem’s, it once happened that he didn’t feel well in the middle of a kinus, and he sat down to rest. The Rebbe began speaking, and I had to take notes and immediately repeat them in English. That’s when I saw how hard it was to do.
WHEN THE REBBE TRAVELED BY TROLLEY
There were times that there was no mikva for men in Crown Heights, just for women, and the Rebbe went to the mikva in Brownsville, which had a large Jewish community at the time. The Rebbe usually got there by trolley early in the morning, and I occasionally had the privilege of meeting the Rebbe on the trolley. The trip took about half an hour, and the Rebbe always had a seifer with him. Since this was in the early years, there were things done then that we were not zocheh to later on.
This story took place on Erev Yom Kippur in 5704 (1944). The Rebbe, R’ Moshe Kazarnovsky, R’ Nissan Mindel, and I crowded into a car and went to the mikva in Brownsville together. When we got there, the Rebbe toiveled numerous times (a bachur once stood near the Rebbe, and counted the t’villos. In the middle, the Rebbe looked at him and said, “Nu, halst cheshbon?” (you’re keeping track?) and the bachur fled).
I didn’t go in to toivel together with the Rebbe, but waited for him to come out, and then I went in. I quickly toiveled and ran out to the car to catch up with the Rebbe. Of course, I didn’t have a chance to dry myself, and the Rebbe commented, “Du host nit gehat tzait tzu oisvishen zich, efshar bistu fun di vus vishen zich nit ois” (You didn’t have time to dry yourself, or maybe you’re one of those who doesn’t dry yourself [for esoteric reasons]).
AN AMAZING SIGHT IN THE REBBE RAYATZ’S ROOM
One year heavy rains fell during the first days of Tishrei, and until Erev Sukkos there was no opportunity to go and cut s’chach. The rain stopped Erev Sukkos and they went immediately to bring s’chach for the Rebbe Rayatz’s sukka. They had managed to put up the walls already and just needed the s’chach.
When the bundles of s’chach arrived, R’ Sholom Chaskind, who was a friend of mine, came over to me and said he had a mitzva for me: to bring the s’chach into the Rebbe Rayatz’s sukka. Naturally, I was thrilled to do so.
Since it was a warm day, I took off my jacket and put a bundle of s’chach on my shoulder. I happily climbed the steps to the second floor, went down the hall, and arrived at the door of the Rebbe’s room from where you went out to the sukka. Since I assumed that while the s’chach would be brought into the sukka, the Rebbe would not be in his room, I opened the door and went in.
To my great surprise the Rebbe Rayatz was there! I stood there in shock. I didn’t dare continue walking, yet I couldn’t leave either. I just stood there, rooted to my spot, with the bundles of s’chach on my shoulder. It was quite a sight: the Rebbe sitting at his desk, wearing only a yarmulke, no hat, and his secretary R’ Chaim Lieberman standing near him. On the desk was a glass jar with some pencils in it, and Lieberman took a pencil and handed it to the Rebbe.
Suddenly the Rebbe looked up, looked at me and the s’chach, and began smiling broadly (there are pictures of the Rebbe Rayatz which remind me of that rare smile). Thus, a number of seconds went by, and then the Rebbe motioned to me to continue my work, i.e., to continue to the sukka. Just for the smile alone it was worth thanking R’ Chaskind for the favor.
Nu, I continued walking, and it was a real kuntz to get from the room out to the sukka, because chassidim don’t turn their back on the Rebbe. I finally managed to exit the room, and I closed the door after me and took a deep breath.
Now I was stuck, for how was I to leave the sukka? Getting in was one thing, it was a mitzva, but now – just for my own needs – was I allowed to disturb the Rebbe? I thought of jumping from the porch (it’s not that bad) but dismissed that idea because I was afraid the Rebbe would worry about where I had disappeared to. In order not to give the Rebbe a moment’s worry, I decided to return the way I had come – through the Rebbe’s room. I carefully opened the door and tiptoed. I was so embarrassed.
I went to R’ Sholom Chaskind and hugged and kissed him, thanking him for the huge favor he did me. Then I told him he deserved some petch, too: How come you didn’t tell me the Rebbe was sitting there?! I would have put on bigdei Shabbos or at least a hat and jacket!
Someone came to 770 for Tishrei 5703 whose name, I think, was Rabbi Weiler. He had bought a large number of siddurim, and had brought them to 770, to the room where the Rebbe Rayatz davened, so the tzibbur would have new siddurim for Rosh HaShana. He sent one of the siddurim in to the Rebbe Rayatz.
Rosh HaShana night I stood in my regular spot, in the north-west corner. I saw the Rebbe standing near the Rebbe Rayatz, who davened with great weeping, enthusiasm, and warmth. After the davening when everybody had left, I remained behind to help arrange the chairs and tables.
Rebbetzin Nechama Dina came in and asked me to help her gather the siddurim from the tables so it shouldn’t be a mess. She herself went around and gathered siddurim. Suddenly I noticed how she went over to the shtender of the Rebbe Rayatz, took the siddur from there, and put it in the pile with the other siddurim. I marked which siddur was the Rebbe’s, and ran over to her and said it was too heavy for her and that I would schlep the pile of siddurim instead of her. I took that opportunity of removing the Rebbe’s siddur from the pile, and as soon as the Rebbetzin left the room I ran to my room with the siddur which the Rebbe Rayatz had just davened from that Rosh HaShana night.
I turned the pages of Maariv and noticed an amazing thing. Under the words, “u’malchuso b’ratzon kiblu aleihem” there was a line written in pencil. I was still new to these things, but I understood that Rosh HaShana is the time for binyan ha’malchus, “malchuso b’ratzon,” and on Erev Rosh HaShana the Rebbe had made a line for reasons of his own.
I was ecstatic with my find. I had a siddur with the Rebbe’s writing in it! I figured I had to show it to the Ramash (i.e., the Rebbe ). I went to him and said: I’ll show you a siddur which the Rebbe davened from.
He looked at it and asked: How do you know it’s the Rebbe’s siddur?
I opened the siddur to Maariv and showed him the line, and said it was the handwriting of the Rebbe Rayatz. The Rebbe looked at it and trembled, and then said: Yes, my father-in-law wrote that, but how do you know that he wrote it (i.e., I recognize it, but what about you?)?
I said that I could see that the line wasn’t straight, and the Rebbe Rayatz’s hand trembled when he wrote. The Rebbe didn’t let up, and he asked: How do you know the Rebbe’s hand trembles when he writes?
I told him that I once sat in the beis midrash, and R’ Chaim Lieberman entered and came over to me and said that it was difficult for the Rebbe to write straight (when he wrote, it went up or down), but he didn’t want to write on (the usual) paper that had printed lines on it. The Rebbe Rayatz had said to take a sheet of paper and to make black lines on it, and that he would take another paper and put it on top of the first one and see the lines through the paper, and would be able to write straight. So R’ Chaim wanted me to have my father print up paper like that. I asked him how far apart to make the lines, and since he didn’t know, he went up to the Rebbe Rayatz and came down a few minutes later with a paper on which the Rebbe had drawn two lines so I would know how wide to space them. That’s how I knew that when the Rebbe Rayatz made lines, it was shaky.
I stood near the Rebbe’s room holding the siddur and said that it was very precious, mamash a treasure. The Rebbe said, “יאָ יאָ” (yes, yes), and took the siddur from my hands, and I never saw it again.
THE FIRST SHLICHUS AND LESSONS
One day, around the week of Parshas Shmos in the year 5705, I sat in the zal at seven in the morning when Rashag entered and told me that Rabbi Tzvi Shusterman from Chicago was opening a yeshiva in Rochester but he had no teachers. “Maybe you can teach there for two weeks?”
I was 18 years old at the time and I didn’t think I was capable of teaching, but then Rashag said: The shver (the Rebbe Rayatz) wants you to go. Naturally, I agreed. I went to my parents’ home in Boro Park to tell them I was going to Rochester, an eight-hour train trip. My mother didn’t like the idea, but my father told me to do what the Rebbe said. I took my few personal belongings which included a few items of clothing and most importantly, all the maamarim I had – that was my great treasure!
I arrived in Rochester where R’ Shusterman had rented an old house, which was freezing. There was no electric boiler, just a wood-burning oven, just like in times of old. R’ Shusterman and I chopped the wood into pieces, and I thought of the hashgacha pratis in the fact that I had lately learned the inyan of “wood which doesn’t burn properly, you break into pieces” (the wording from the Zohar as brought in Tanya) with R’ Shmuel Levitin.
We gathered children and began teaching. When four weeks had passed and I received no instructions from the Rebbe about what to do next, I asked R’ Shusterman what to do. He said: do what you think is right. I decided that since they had sent me for a period of two weeks, which had long since passed, it was okay to return to New York.
Shortly after I arrived, the secretary R’ Chaim Lieberman came to the small zal and gave me a letter from the Rebbe Rayatz full of rebuke for leaving Rochester without permission.
“Why did you leave Rochester without first getting permission from the menahel shlita? Such is not done. A talmid ha’T’mimim must be devoted to the hanhala with the utmost discipline.”
The Rebbe concluded the letter with “From now on you’ll listen to whatever they say and travel wherever they send you, and Hashem will help you materially and spiritually and you’ll succeed in learning and in conduct with fear of Heaven.”
Years later I showed the letter to the Rebbe , and he told me that it was specifically the sharp words that proved how close I was to the Rebbe Rayatz. For who do you slap? The one you love.
So I became the Rebbe’s shliach. Since he had written to me, “and from now on you’ll travel” I began to travel. I joined Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner to start a yeshiva in Providence.
A NICE EXPLANATION
In those years I would write the Rebbe many letters with questions I had in chassidus as well as nice explanations that I thought of. I had the privilege of receiving dozens of letters in response to them, but I remember certain ones in particular.
After the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz and the acceptance of the nesius by the Rebbe, I stopped writing the Rebbe my questions. I figured the Rebbe certainly had more important things to do, and I didn’t want to bother him with my questions.
When I went to the wedding of my brother-in-law, R’ Herschel Feigelstock, I traveled in the same car as the Rebbe (the Rebbe was the mesader kiddushin and they were taking the Rebbe to the wedding). The Rebbe sat in the front, and Rabbi Chadakov and I sat in the back. On the way, the Rebbe turned around and said: How is it that a long time has gone by and I haven’t heard questions in chassidus from you?
I told the Rebbe that I realize that the Rebbe has more important things to do, but the Rebbe said, “Nevertheless: write!”
I wrote a letter to the Rebbe with some questions I had at the time. I did not receive an answer, but faithful to the Rebbe’s request, I sat and wrote another letter. This went on for thirteen weeks. Every Friday I handed in a letter to the Rebbe with the questions that came up that week, but I received no response.
Then I suddenly received a general-personal letter, where the Rebbe added in his own handwriting: “Your letters were received in a timely fashion and when time allows, I will respond, bli neder.” Shortly thereafter a letter arrived with all the answers, and I had to look up the drafts of my letters to remind myself of my questions.
Another story from a later period (the Lamed’s):
In the sicha of 18 Elul 5703, the Rebbe Rayatz began with, “Today marks 50 years since my father said, ‘Gut Yom Tov’ to me on Chai Elul…”
I searched for a connection between Chai Elul and Yom Tov, and found the pasuk, “yodu l’Hashem chasdo, v’niflosav livnei adam,” which alludes to the two eras of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe: The first light of Toras ha’chassidus began in the time of the Baal Shem Tov, but this was limited and only for individuals, for it was still hidden. This is hinted at in the beginning of the pasuk: “yodu” (meaning “concealment”), “l’Hashem” (for Him alone), “chasdo” (His kindness, as it remains up Above). Then began the era of the Alter Rebbe about whom it says, “v’niflosav” – the Alter Rebbe brought the Supernal “wonder” down “livnei adam” (to human beings), so that all would know Hashem, from small to great.
I wrote this idea to the Rebbe and ended the letter by saying that the first letters of the words in this pasuk which hints to the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe spell “Chai Elul” and the last letters spell “Yom Tov” in gematria. The Rebbe commented on a few points in my letter and then added, “Thank you for a nice explanation
Part 4 from the memoirs memoirs memoirs of Rabbi Yosef (Uncle Yossi) Goldstein, who has marvelous stories to tell from the first years of the Rebbe’s nesius.
GET UP, WE NEED A “YISROEL”
When the Rebbe Rayatz lived in the U.S. he was not in the best of health. As I already mentioned, I had the privilege of living on the bottom floor of 770, where the office of the hanhala ruchnis of Tomchei T’mimim-770 is now located. This enabled me to be a witness to various incidents that took place in 770.
One of those incidents took place in the winter of 5705 (1945). I was sleeping in my room when I was suddenly woken up by strong knocks at my door. I opened the door immediately and saw R’ Shmuel Levitin standing there trembling, and he said, “Come upstairs quickly; we need ‘a Yisroel.'”
I realized that something terrible had happened with the Rebbe Rayatz and that they fearfully anticipated his imminent histalkus. In s’farim it says that when the soul leaves the body it’s a segula to have a Kohen, Levi, and Yisroel standing nearby. R’ Levitin was a Levi, R’ Sholom Ber Eichorn was a Kohen, and they woke me up because I am a Yisroel.
In great fright I went up to the second floor. On the way I saw doctors running with their instruments towards the Rebbe’s room. Just as I was about to enter the Rebbe’s room, the Rebbe’s son-in-law (the Rebbe ) arrived. He is a Yisroel and so he motioned to me to go, as he would take my place.
Later on I learned that the Rebbe Rayatz had had a severe heart attack. He ultimately recovered from it, but from that point on, new decrees were enacted which prevented people from approaching the Rebbe at yechiduyos and farbrengens, in order to make things easier for him.
I once heard that the Rebbe’s doctors said that they had no rational explanation as to how the Rebbe continued to live after such a serious heart attack. The Rebbe continued to have yechiduyos and to farbreng, but it was quite limited.
The events surrounding the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz have been written in many places. I will just mention some details which I remember. In general, it is difficult for me to relate the events of those days. It is engraved deep within me and I find it difficult to even speak about it. Our lives were with the Rebbe, with farbrengens, the image of the Rebbe, the spodik, the beard, as well as the face that always appeared aflame. We were as attached to the Rebbe as bees to honey, and suddenly…
I was in Boro Park that Shabbos, at my parents. On Motzaei Shabbos, after Havdala, Rabbi Sholom Mendel Simpson called. He could not say a word except for, “the Rebbe…”
I blanched, and my mother, who got scared, asked me what had happened, but I couldn’t answer her and just said, “the Rebbe…”
I went to Crown Heights, and the atmosphere was horrendous. “Upon whose shoulders has he left us,” bemoaned one of the chassidim. Years later I reminded him of what he had said, and I said, “Now you know upon whose shoulders he left us.”
“GEVALD, YOU ARE A HEAVENLY MAN”
When we got to 770 all the doors were open. One could walk all the way in, and this itself demonstrated what a churban had taken place. I shuddered as I entered “lifnai u’lifnim” (the inner chamber). The holy body of the Rebbe Rayatz, which was covered with a tallis, lay near the door from east to west. The Rebbe stood on the side and said T’hillim. I also began saying T’hillim. When I got to the verse, “the One Who sits in heaven yis’chak – will laugh,” I accidentally said, “Yitzchok,” and the Rebbe gave me a sharp look.
The Rebbe looked tightly constrained. His facial features were extremely severe, but he was on top of things, taking care of every detail. As someone entered, the Rebbe asked whether he had gone to the mikva, and if he hadn’t, he was not allowed to come in.
R’ Mordechai Groner entered the room, and, using his gartel, he measured the length of the Rebbe’s body in order to be able to prepare the aron. Downstairs, carpenters built an aron out of the shtender the Rebbe Rayatz had used for davening. It was a terrifying sight. I remember R’ Yisroel Altein standing and crying bitterly, while in his hand was a piece of wood that the carpenter had left over from the shtender.
All the Rebbe’s relatives were there. They looked positively green in their great pain. In the hallway stood Rabbis Rothstein, Ushpal, and Rivkin. R’ Ushpal said that at the time of the passing of the Rebbe Rashab, one of the chassidim standing there refused to believe what he was seeing and cried bitterly, saying, “Gevald, gevald, Ribono shel olam! Even a murderer in the forest wouldn’t take a Rebbe from his chassidim!”
Rabbi Rivkin, who wrote Ashkavta D’Rebbe in which he describes the passing of the Rebbe Rashab, said, “I saw the first churban, and now I’m seeing the second churban. I am certain that the third ‘bayis’ will last forever!”
When they took the aron down the steps and out of 770, I stood off to the side and watched. My heart cried within me and tears didn’t stop rolling down my cheeks.
I miraculously managed to get a ride to the cemetery, and I arrived there before the funeral procession.
A few minutes later the car with the aron arrived at the cemetery. The Rebbe meticulously oversaw every detail while restraining his emotions. He indicated what had to be done with a motion of his head. I stood very close to the kever. Suddenly, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, the wife of the Rebbe Rayatz, approached, and as the aron was lowered into the ground she cried out, “Gevald, du bist doch a himel mentch, vos lozt men dich arup? Vu firt men dich?” (Gevald, you are a heavenly man! How do you allow them to lower you? Where are they bringing you?) This exclamation is hard to forget and good to remember.
TAPING THE FARBRENGENS
On 11 Shvat 5751 the Rebbe formally accepted the Chabad leadership. The farbrengen in honor of Yud Shvat was held in the small zal upstairs. The Rebbe sat under the window between the small zal and the second room (today the window is covered by the library). In the middle of the farbrengen, R’ Avrohom Sender Nemtzov (the father-in-law of Rabbi Nissan Mangel) stood up and said: Rebbe, chassidim want to hear chassidus!
Everybody was thrilled when the Rebbe acceded and began saying the maamer, “Basi L’Gani.”
Whoever did not witness the joy of the chassidim after the maamer, never saw simcha in his life! Immediately after the farbrengen, the maamer was typed up and sent to all Chabad centers.
In the early years I was one of the few who taped the Rebbe’s farbrengens. The older chassidim who were not used to this, and considered this a dishonor to the Rebbe, were against taping the farbrengens. As a result, I had to hide the tape recorder under the table, or sometimes even outside the room. Of course, back then the tape recorders weren’t as small as they are today, and it wasn’t that easy to hide them.
It reached the point where I was even told by the secretaries that since I had taped without permission, I had to give them the tapes. That’s how it was back then, but with time people got used to the idea and saw how vital it was to make recordings.
Years later, R’ Chaim Boruch Halberstam asked me for my tapes so he could copy them for everyone to hear. Thus, thousands of chassidim have been able to hear sichos from the early years thanks to those tapes.
TASHLICH OVER THE WALL
If Rosh HaShana is a special day for every Jew, how much more so for a chassid! All year long chassidim waited in anticipation for the Rebbe’s t’kiyos, and in the early years of the nesius there was another special event: marching off to Tashlich. Whoever was around in those years will never forget the sight of the Rebbe leading the parade that went from 770 to the Botanical Gardens. Chassidic marches were sung, and chassidim danced in great joy. It was a marvelous sight to behold the Rebbe encouraging the singing with his hand motions while a huge crowd followed behind him.
One year it was pouring at the time for Tashlich. The chassidim waited at 770, hoping the rain would let up when the Rebbe suddenly came out, put his Machzor under his coat, and began walking. Naturally, when they saw the Rebbe leave, everybody left their shelter and began walking in the torrential downpour. Young and old walked in this odd parade, singing all the way. The Rebbe stopped a number of times and turned around to the crowd and strongly encouraged the singing with his hands.
When we arrived at the Gardens, we saw that the guard had been certain that nobody would show up in the pouring rain, and so he had locked the gates. There’s a high fence around the Gardens, but the Rebbe decided he would enter regardless. The Rebbe called over R’ Yisroel Duchman, gave him his Machzor, and climbed the fence.
It was a marvelous sight. The Rebbe was not a young man, and this was after the avoda of the Rosh HaShana davening and the t’kiyos, which took a lot of strength, yet the Rebbe nimbly climbed the fence like a young man who did this every day!
Rashag stood next to the Rebbe and he also tried to climb up. Some chassidim helped him and he also managed to get over to the other side. One by one, everybody climbed the fence. Some needed help while others managed on their own, but everybody entered the Gardens and walked to the pond. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. After Tashlich was recited everybody danced a joyous chassidic dance with great fervor.
Leaving the park was easy, since there was a revolving door that enabled us to exit in the normal fashion. Those with brains, left that way. Others didn’t pay attention and climbed back over the fence. Nu, they’ll probably get s’char for that, too…
When we arrived back at 770, the Rebbe went to his room and a few minutes later went to the beis midrash holding a bottle of mashke. The Rebbe stood on a chair and said that everybody who had gone to Tashlich should come over for some mashke, and they would be fine (i.e., walking in the miserable weather wouldn’t prove harmful to their health).
The Rebbe felt people’s hats to see whether they were soaked or not. Actually, it was quite amazing that nobody got sick as a result of our Tashlich in the rain.
A TIE WITHOUT A KNOT
On Motzoei Shabbos, 5 Elul 5706, I married my wife Chana. The Rebbe Rayatz was informed of every detail of the shidduch, and in his letter to the mother of the kalla, he spoke highly of me, saying, “It’s a good suggestion; you ought to agree to the shidduch happily, for your daughter is selecting one of our best talmidim, who is devoted to proper chinuch with all of his good heart. And her goal is to try and teach Jewish girls with a proper chinuch. May Hashem bless them materially and spiritually, and may you receive nachas from all your children.”
In a letter to me, the Rebbe Rayatz wrote that “in accordance with proper Torah behavior in respect for parents, when it comes to shidduchim you ought to ask their opinion, and with their agreement, I agree to this shidduch for goodness and blessing. May Hashem give you success, both materially and spiritually.”
The wedding took place in Williamsburg and I had the privilege of having the Rebbe be the mesader kiddushin. Before the chuppa the Rebbe told me to open my shoelaces, and he even helped me arrange my tie in a certain way, without the knot.
VIDEO: The Rebbe’s neighbor in the mid-1950s at 346 New York Avenue.
VIDEO: Astronomically Impossible
AUDIO: The Big Barrel of Wine