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Missives from a Lost World

Refoel Pride

In 1932, 18-year-old American bochur Yehudah Leib Gordon left for a world now lost to the mists of memory. Drawn by the light of Mir and Kamenitz, Yehudah would stay for seven years, basking in the radiance of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, and Rav Yerucham Levovitz, and returning to the US the same year the iron gates slammed shut. His letters home conveyed his excitement to parents and siblings who eagerly awaited every word. Today those letters are a precious family legacy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

old photo of posekWhen 18-year-old Yehuda Leib Gordon boarded the ocean liner Berengaria bound for Europe in 1932, he was going in the opposite direction of most Jews at the time. They had fled to the goldeneh medinah in droves; he was returning to the alter heim. They had shucked off Torah observance to try to make it in America; he was going to Yeshivas Mir in Poland, to burrow deeper into the traditions that had sustained Jewish life for millennia.

Young Yehuda Leib left with the hopes invested in him by his parents, Yitzchak Dov and Pesha Gordon. Reb Yitzchak Dov, originally from Myadel, Russia, had come to the US in 1905 as a teenager to avoid being conscripted into the Czar’s army. Pesha’s family had come from Volozhin; her father had been a fundraiser for the yeshivah there. The Gordons instilled in their children a keen desire to uphold Torah observance in the face of the stiff winds of assimilation buffeting American Jewry.

The Gordon children’s enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit exceeded even their parents’ aspirations. The three sons — Eliyahu Moshe, Yehuda Leib, and the youngest, Shlomo Zalman — all yearned to immerse themselves in the yam of Torah, which in those times was still to be found in Europe. Their parents might have preferred that they remain in America; nevertheless, Eliyahu Moshe led the way in 1929, crossing the ocean to go to Mir, and Yehuda followed three years later. Shlomo Zalman also came, in due course.

While in our day traveling from America to Eastern Europe is stressful enough — long lines at check-in, overnight flights, customs and passport control — in those days the journey involved a six-day voyage by ship, with the family back home waiting for weeks by the mailbox for the first sign of contact from the distant land.

Almost as soon as Yehuda arrived in Mir, he found himself in the presence of the rosh yeshivah, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, and the mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz. He would encounter future gedolim as well: Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, Rav Dovid Bender, and Rabbi Moshe Shain, zichron tzaddikim livrachah. Yehuda’s own older brother, Eliyahu Moshe, who had preceded him to the Mir, would himself go on to a distinguished career in the American rabbinate. Yehuda and Eliyahu Moshe — “Moish,” as the family called him — would together transfer to the yeshivah in Kamenitz for a year and bask in the radiance of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz.

Throughout Yehuda’s seven-year stay in Europe, he attempted to convey his enthusiasm and emotions to his family through his frequent letters home. The letters he wrote in his youth, which are today family heirlooms, were made available to Mishpacha by his son Rabbi Noam Gordon of Yerushalayim. Reb Noam invested great care in compiling this part of his father’s life, translating into English the letters that had been penned in Yiddish or Hebrew. 

When the Gordon family presented these letters to Rav Zelik Epstein ztz”l, he remarked that they presented the most accurate depiction of prewar Mir he had yet seen. Although Yehuda Leib Gordon has since gone on to the Olam HaEmes, his letters bequeathed a legacy to future generations.


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