In honor of Yud Shvat, The Avner Institute presents a charming collection of anecdotes from Rabbi Zalman Posner, who was one of the first students of the American-based Lubavitcher Yeshiva established in 1940 by the Previous Rebbe and who for 45 years served as Chabad emissary to Nashville, TN.
“Like a Mother and Father”
Rabbi Zalman Posner relates:
One thing we always knew, and never forgot. The Rebbe—every Rebbe—cared and still cares about everything that happens to every one of us. Nothing trivial ever happens to a Chassid.
When our family moved to the United States at the Rebbe’s instructions, my parents went in for a private audience. I was three years old at the time. I heard later from my mother that Reb Eliya Nachum Schklar, a friend of my father, carried me in (I was probably a bit too obstreperous to navigate my own way). My mother asked, rather pleadingly, how can they raise “good, frum [pious], Chassidishe kids here.” The Rebbe laughed and assured her that she would. I guess his laughter was an answer in itself.
That’s all I can tell about the Rebbe in Israel and America in 1929-1930, and that only by hearsay from my parents. 1940, however, was a different world. Right after my bar mitzvah in Chicago, I went to Mesivta Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, spending Shabbos and Yom Tov at the home of Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson, a Zhuravitzer of my mother’s town and somehow related. (Mrs. Jacobson’s sister married my mother’s brother, Aron Laizer Tsaitlin. In Zhuravitz that’s plenty close.)
Rabbi Jacobson, “founder” of Tomchei Tmimim in America, the one who introduced the finest yeshiva men to Chassidus—now that was a gem of a human being! We learned from him and what a real Chassidic gathering was, what a real mentor was, and soon what a real pupil was.
We knew when the Rebbe’s ship was due to arrive. Rabbi Jacobson told me to go to the mikvah that morning before going to the pier, and I did, possibly the first time in my life.
The pier was crowded. We watched as the passengers disembarked with agonizing slowness. The very last one was the Rebbe. He was in a wheelchair steered by a steward. Over the shouting we could hear the cantor Shmuel Kantaroff with his powerful voice crying out the blessing mechaye hameisim [One who revives the dead]. The Rebbe and the steward came down the gangplank, slowly at first, gaining speed as they went, until they were surrounded by the crowd. The Rebbe spoke in a pierside room, but I couldn’t even hear his voice. Then off to the Greystone Hotel in Manhattan.
Small groups went in and out of the Rebbe’s hotel room, families. Rabbi Elia Simpson of Bobruisk and then of Boro Park saw me standing by myself in the corridor, and when he took his sons in he called me to come in, too.
Rabbi Simpson—that’s what we always called him—introduced me to the Rebbe by my father’s name, “Posner’s son,” and the Rebbe asked, “Sholom’s?” Then he gave us all his blessing, which I wrote to my parents in large lettering, colors, and excitement, that we be studious, G-dfearing Chassidim.
Some Chicago people also came and gave the Rebbe regards from x, y, and z and from “Sholom Posner, if you remember him.”
The Rebbe said, “Sholom? Do I remember Sholom? Sholom is (placing his hand on his heart) mine!”
“I was fourteen when the yeshiva started accepting young boys. We were about a dozen in two groups, my brother’s and mine. We were the only ones from “out-of-town” Chicago. Before going home for Pesach, Label and I had private audience. When the Rebbe asked us how long it took to get home, I told him twenty-four hours.
“Where will you daven?”
“On the bus.”
“And tefillin?” he asked, with a bit of surprise, I think. He also asked if it was warm on the bus.
The following Passover, when we went in again for audience, he asked, “With what are you going home?”
Remembering last year’s question very well, I confidently answered, “With the bus.”
“I’m not asking that. I’m asking with what are you going home? What are you taking with you? What did you add in Torah during the past six months since I saw you last?”
I just stood there for several eternities while the Rebbe stared down at his desk, waiting for me to answer. Label was unperturbed. He was the younger brother, after all, and would never dream of answering in my presence.
Finally, mercifully, the Rebbe spoke. “I am not asking for you to answer. But you must ask yourself from time to time, ‘What have I added in learning, in mitzvoth?”
One Sunday morning, I think it was during the spring, we got a note from the Rebbe. He wanted each of us to write down everything he did from Friday noon, when class ended, until coming back to yeshiva, Sunday morning. The students in the “Zal,” the seniors, turned white when they read the note, but the Rebbe said he meant only us, the younger boys. There were about thirteen of us.
We sweated that out and got our “reports” in that day. A day or two later the Rebbe’s response came: first of all, two reports were missing. Second, the handwritings were all atrocious, practically illegible. Furthermore, “Friday is for them a free day, and the holy Shabbos is a weekday.” He instructed the yeshiva staff to organize Friday and Shabbos afternoon programs for us.
That Friday we started the new program: review the weekly Torah portion, memorize a Mishnah, write in Hebrew for one half-hour, mikvah. Shabbos afternoon, from three to seven p.m., review last week’s Gemara, prepare the next lessons, Chassidus.
Once it was summer, pre-air conditioning, and the Rashag saw us “poor boys working so hard, in such heat,” that he asked the Rebbe to have compassion on us.
The answer was swift and sharp. “Four hours of learning on Shabbos is not a lot. Add Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] to the schedule.”
A cute thing happened once. It was Shabbos, and Rabbi Yitzchak Kolodny, our supervisor-teacher, was teaching us. As we all spoke English a lot better than we did Yiddish, we learned Chassidus in English. Rashag was standing nearby, watching and smiling, and then he asked, in Yiddish of course, “Tell me please, how do you say ‘atzilus’ in English?”
We were very uncomfortable, until Reb Shmuel Levitin, who was sitting at the next table, asked Rashab, “How do you say ‘atzilus’ in Yiddish?”
Hurray for Reb Shmuel. He stood up for us, though he knew even less English than Rashag.
A few weeks later we got another note from the Rebbe for another report. This one was, mercifully, quite acceptable, and we all started breathing again.
Near & Far
Rabbi Posner Concludes:
The “Olam,” the community of Chassidim, was tiny then, literally a very few dozen in all. When the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah, passed away, there was a regular quorum in her room, just next to the Rebbe’s office and meeting room. Weekdays, the “seniors” prayed there while we younger boys prayed earlier and were learning already by prayer time. On Shabbos, whoever came joined the quorum, especially for the afternoon service, which was quite early. We would be twelve, maybe thirteen sometimes—a small group. The Rebbe would get a call to the Torah, be rolled to the lectern in his wheelchair, and had the Torah reading while sitting. We could get unbelievably close to him, inches away. It was frankly scary.
There are two staircases to the second floor where the Rebbe lived, one the wooden in front of 770, the other smaller and concrete, leading to the kitchen. We would be crowded in one or the other, impossible to move. I was once pressed against the doorknob, a bit painfully too, but could not budge, the press of the crowd was so intense. This was for hours.
Once we were bellyaching about the “unfairness” of not getting in at all. Standing with us, Mendel Tenenbaum, an outstanding senior student of the yeshiva of Otwork, Poland, had been thinking, eyes tightly closed, head bent. He muttered out loud, “You can stand inside and be far. You can stand far and be close.”
Years later, long after the Rebbe Rayatz passed away, the current Rebbe would call out names for toasts at Chassidic gatherings. Once, a bit weary of the shoving, I figured I could beat the system by standing in the back near the new loudspeaker and hear in comfort.
Later I learned that at one point the Rebbe turned to my father and asked, “Where is Zalman?”
My father had no idea. The Rebbe turned to my father-in-law, “Where is Zalman?”
Also a shrug.
The next day, I met privately with the Rebbe.
“Where were you yesterday, Reb Zalman? We were looking for you.” (Interestingly, the Rebbe would often call us “Reb,” even when we were students, to our mutual amusement, and he always addressed each of us with the familiar du in Yiddish instead of the respectful ihr.)
I sheepishly explained that I was standing in the back near the loudspeaker.
“Ach,” he answered, “Once a year you can crush the grossness of the body and you stand far?”
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