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When Zeidy Was Gone: The Magic of Rabbi Shmuel Kunda

Rabbi Yosef Karmel

Rabbi Shmuel Kunda z’l, who passed away on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, was a talmid chacham, master educator, talented artist, spellbinding story-teller, and the composer of many popular songs. And yet, instead of pursuing fortune and fame, he utilized his gifts to inspire Jewish children. But behind that smiling façade and ever cheerful countenance there existed a serious rebbi who was a bridge between two very different worlds.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

childrens storiesSpellbinding Stories

Shmuel Kunda was born in Shanghai, Chinain 1945. His mother was a Podrabinik whose parents had settled in Shanghaias refugees from Russiabefore the war. There she married Rav Zalman Kunda, who had arrived as part of the Mirrer Yeshiva, which had miraculously escaped the churban of Europe. The Kundas immigrated to America in 1947, eventually settling in Boro Park. While Rav Zalman was successful in imbuing his son with a lifelong love for learning and with the hashkafos of a European ben Torah, the young Shmuel simultaneously absorbed the nuances ofAmerica and developed a singular sense of humor and a warm, open personality.

At that time, the Pirchei of 14th Avenue was a melting pot where European-born immigrants melded with their American peers and united under the Agudah banner of allegiance to Torah, gedolei Torah, and whatever it took to keep kids off the streets. With his keen perception, Shmuel saw that the older generation — hardened by the suffering of WWII and skeptical about their future in America — had little patience for the pastimes and interests of their children. He saw the tragic drift as sons of Torah-true families were taken in by the lure of the streets. In response, he began to hone the message he would deliver for the rest of his days: There is nothing more geshmak than Torah and Torah life!

As the Pirchei leader of a small group of boys, Shmuel developed his talent for holding an audience spellbound. He would tell time-honored tales of tzaddikim of yore with an infusion of newly created characters. The Torah outlook would be held high while foreign ideals were ridiculed. As they roared in laughter at the ever-changing array of voices Shmuel made up as he went along, the children absorbed solid hashkafos.

His cast of characters came alive in print as well. A self-taught artist, Shmuel could draw the funniest cartoons or the most breathtaking scenes of nature. Using pen or pencil, water paint or oil — on canvas, poster board, or simply sheets of butcher paper tacked up on the wall — Shmuel would magically fill the space with the exact images he saw in his mind. In fact, he was completely ambidextrous and could be seen wielding a brush in either hand, continuing with his left when he tired with his right.


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