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Not Just a Malach, But a Saraf

Eytan Kobre

Rav Aharon Kotler built a foundation for the future of American Torah Jewry through a relationship with his talmidim of mutual esteem. He appreciated their desire to learn Torah amid a spiritual wilderness, and they in turn were awed by his greatness and moved by his love for them. Rav Yechiel Perr, a close talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah, shares his memories of the early days ofLakewood, and of the Rosh Yeshivah’s concern for a public that extended beyond the walls of the study hall.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

rav kotlerIn Yiddish, ah yohr mit ah yoiveil connotes a very long period of time. But a literal yoveil — 50 years — is long enough in itself, and this year, on the second of Kislev, it will indeed be the proverbial yoveil shanim since that giant of American Torah Jewry, Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l, left the world.

I’ve come to speak with Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, a close talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah from Lakewood’s early days, who himself went on to teach countless talmidim at Yeshivah Derech Ayson, which he founded many decades ago in Far Rockaway, New York. Rabbi Perr arrived at the Lakewood yeshivah as a 21-year-old in 1956 and remained there for seven and a half years. During those years, its student body was comprised of only 70 to 80 bochurim, enabling him to take full advantage of the opportunity to draw close to the gadol hador.

By the time Rav Aharon arrived on these shores in 1941, he had already gained renown as a leading figure of the Torah world, first in Slutsk where his father-in-law, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer headed a major yeshivah, and later heading his own yeshivah in Kletzk. After his frenetic wartime efforts with the Vaad Hatzalah to rescue Jews from Nazi Europe, Rav Aharon focused his brilliant mind and boundless energies on building Torah in the country to which Divine Providence had seen fit to send him.

Rabbi Perr sits with a small blue loose-leaf notebook containing hundreds of entries, all of them stories involving, or conversations with, Rav Aharon that he personally witnessed or that he heard from someone else who did. And that, too, is something he learned from his rebbi. “The Rosh Yeshivah was known as a very big baki in stories about the Vilna Gaon. He once told me that everything he knows about the Gaon he received personally from the Chofetz Chaim, who first came to Vilna as a 17-year-old bochur. This was only 47 years after the Gaon was niftar. Everything the Chofetz Chaim knew about the Gaon, he heard from someone who knew it first-hand from the Gaon, or from someone who heard it from someone who knew it first-hand. I once told this to Rabbi Shamshon Rafael Weiss, who said it can’t be because the numbers don’t add up. After he said that, I stopped quoting the number ‘47 years’ when telling this over.”

But one day, Rabbi Yehoshua Kalish, a rebbi in the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, showed Rabbi Perr a copy of the New York Times story of September 16, 1933 on the Chofetz Chain’s petirah, which reported that the family said he was 105 years old. Based on that, he would indeed have been 17 years old exactly 47 years after the Gaon’s petirah. The Rosh Yeshivah, as usual, had been exactly correct.

It’s not only the veracity of specific stories that matter deeply to Rabbi Perr, but also a correct understanding of what made Rav Aharon such a larger-than-life presence and enabled him to chart the direction of the American frum community for generations to come. “The most amazing thing about him was that he was not an orator. He spoke a very difficult-to-understand Yiddish, ah Russishe Yiddish. His talmidim, most of whom were native English-speaking boys, would teach each other that, for example, the word ‘geconchet’ that he used, meant ‘ge’endigkt’ [finished].

“Furthermore, when he spoke before a microphone, he would shuckle to and fro, so that half the word would be picked up by the mike and half of it would fade out. And with a lot of words, it was very hard to pick up altogether; it took me many years to figure out that when he said ‘stayt, stayt,’ he meant ‘ihr farshtayt.’

“And when he’d say a vort, he didn’t elaborate or illustrate it, as others would have done. He said his vort, and that was it. So we wonder: How is it that his ideas came to wield such influence?  Now, it’s true that those people who could understand him were so impressed that it created a widening circle of reverence that, in turn, impressed still others. A person like Irving Bunim, for example, was very deeply impressed by him and was able to convey that to others.

“Still, what was the essence of his power, his chiddush? People say ‘Torah lishmah.’ But that’s not true, because all the gedolim who came over from Europe were lishmah Yidden, and yet they didn’t have the impact he had.”

For one thing, Rav Aharon was on fire for Torah; he was, as Rabbi Perr puts it, “not just a malach, but a saraf.” That fire burned brightest when Rav Aharon gave shiur, during which his face literally shone. And when he finally came to the point he wished to make, he was suffused with excitement and joy.

In the summer, the first part of the shiur would be on Shabbos afternoon and in the winter on Motzaei Shabbos at 8 p.m., with a continuation on Monday morning. Then he would travel intoBrooklyn, where he and the Rebbetzin lived, until Thursday or Friday, when he would return to the yeshivah for Shabbos.

The shiur was famously complex, an exquisite, multi-stranded intellectual structure, that dazzled the listener as much with its impeccable logic as with its breadth. But who understood it? “The problem,” says Rabbi Perr, “wasn’t understanding the shiur, but following it through all its twists and turns,” and being able to absorb all the information that, in the course of just an hour and a quarter, Rav Aharon would deliver rapid-fire “like a machine gun.” Many bochurim could follow generally where Rav Aharon was going with the shiur, but it was only the select few who grasped it completely. But whether or not a bochur was in the first group or the second, he came away with an understanding of how much one has to know, “that it’s not enough to throw out a few sevaros and you’ve done for the seder.” 

Who followed the shiur in its entirety? Rabbi Perr says that Rav Meir Hershkowitz surely did. And once, when the Rosh Yeshivah had learned that a certain rav refused to make an appeal for the Lakewood yeshivah, he wondered aloud “Who has talmidim like ours?” and he began listing off his best talmidim, Rabbi Perr remembers. “The first name he mentioned was Rav Yosef Rosenblum. I don’t recall the whole list he made, but I’m sure Rav Yitzchok Feigelstock and Rav Shmuel Feivelson were on it too.”

And then there were the “chozrim,” those bochurim who didn’t take notes at the shiur, since it was on Shabbos afternoon, yet stood up after Shabbos and said over the shiur with precision. Rabbi Perr recalls one of them, Reb Meir Hartstein, as a “quiet person who is still sitting and learning, and who used to say over the shiur as if he were a tape recorder.” 


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