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A Gadol Called Tatty

Elky Pascal

The sight of HaRav Shmuel Berenbaum, rosh yeshivah of the Mirrer Yeshivah, bent over his Gemara with a look of ecstasy on his face, is etched into the collective memory of the thousands of talmidim who loved him and learned from him. As Jews the world over mark the fourth yahrtzeit of this towering personality, his daughter, Rebbetzin Goldy Sorotzkin, shares cherished memories of life as his child.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

rav giving a bracha“When my father was niftar, we lost a Sefer Torah,” says Rebbetzin Sorotzkin, her voice a blend of love and awe. “My father and the Gemara were one. Learning is what gave my father chiyus. My father’s learning was such an integral part of my childhood. In my parents’ home, we did not hear the theory of learning Torah — we saw it, and we lived it.”


Torah — Vocation and Vacation

There was a small grocery store near the Berenbaum home. The Jewish owner kept the store open from early morning until late at night, seven days a week. “My father would always step in and talk to him about closing the store on Shabbos,” says Rebbetzin Sorotzkin. The store owner insisted on keeping his store open. In the summer, when everyone went to the country, there were few customers. HaRav Berenbaum went into the store to talk to him again.

“ ‘It’s so quiet now,’ my father said to him. ‘Why don’t you close up and take a vacation?’ The man opened the cash register, took out a pile of bills, and showed them to my father. ‘This is my vacation!’ he said.”

“When my father repeated the story to us,” Rebbetzin Sorotzkin continues, “he said, ‘We should love our learning like that! For us, learning should be the same; we should never need a break from learning. The learning should be our vacation.’ The constant focus in my parents’ home was learning Torah. My brothers knew that if we wanted to make my father happy, they would have to come home with chiddushei Torah to say.”

The bochurim — a constant presence in the Berenbaum house — knew that too. “On Purim, my father’s talmidim would cry and beg my father for a brachah: that they should always have a geshmak in their learning.”

HaRav Berenbaum’s own legendary ahavas HaTorah can be traced in turn back to his childhood home. During World War II, when the Mirrer Yeshivah fled to the Soviet Union and eventually settled in Shanghai, conditions were very difficult. There was only one set of Ketzos HaChoshen for the entire yeshivah to share. There was an around-the-clock sign-in sheet, on which boys would book a slot with the seforim. Some of the bochurim wondered who owned the Ketzos, assuming that it belonged to a very wealthy boy.

The set of seforim did not belong to a boy from a wealthy home; it belonged to a bochur by the name of Shmuel Berenbaum. His mother had sold her Shabbos dress and used the money to buy her son the set of seforim.

Rebbetzin Sorotzkin recalls her siblings discussing this story with their father. They expressed their amazement for their grandmother’s tremendous mesirus nefesh.

“ ‘Mesirus nefesh? No,’ said my father,” says Rebbetzin Sorotzkin. HaRav Shmuel Berenbaum gave his children a parable to explain his mother’s actions. If a person who lives in a hut is given the opportunity to move to a palace, would he complain that it was difficult to move his things?

“My father compared the selling of his mother’s dress to buy a Ketzos to moving from a hut to a palace. For my grandmother, this was not mesirus nefesh — it was a privilege, a source of joy, that she was thereby enabling her son to learn.”

In 1948, HaRav Shmuel Berenbaum traveled to America with the Mirrer Yeshivah. “My father was on a ship from Shanghai. At one point the ship sailed past a very famous landmark and all the passengers ran to the deck to catch a glimpse. My father was learning, and he did not join them. The other bochurim called him. ‘You can always learn,’ they advised my father, ‘but this is probably your only opportunity to see this famous sight, which is one of the niflaos haBorei.’ My father was very curious to see it, but he did not interrupt his learning. ‘This is the only opportunity I will ever have to learn at a time when I could be seeing that famous sight,’ was his answer.”

HaRav Berenbaum had a very close relationship with the balabatim of the neighborhood. “They all loved my father,” Rebbetzin Sorotzkin recalls. “When he went to their homes to raise money for the yeshivah, he would say to them, ‘Come! Let’s learn.’

“My father would learn with the balabatim,” continues Rebbetzin Sorotzkin. “He had chavrusas in the morning, before davening, and chavrusas again in the evenings. He gave up his time because of his strong ahavas Yisrael, and because of the need to spread Torah. He understood the business world, and he knew it didn’t, couldn’t compare to a life of Torah.”

In fact, limousines were a common sight outside the Berenbaums’ modest home. “The wealthy laymen would sit and learn with my father in their broken English. And this was one of their greatest pleasures in life.”

Rebbetzin Sorotzkin fondly remembers her father’s visits to Yeshivas Tiferes Baruch (the Springfield Yeshivah), which her husband, HaRav Eliyahu Meir Sorotzkin, leads. “My father had such an ayin tovah [good eye]. When he came to the yeshivah he would constantly say how impressed he was with the boys. My father’s visits elevated the atmosphere to greater heights and gave the bochurim such chizuk. They saw how my father and Gemara were inseparable. And it left such a strong impression to see how much he loved learning. They didn’t hear about ahavas haTorah; they saw it.”


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