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Zeideh Made Me Who I Am Today

C.B. Gavant

He was known to the world as one of the mussar giants of the past century. But to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Rav Elya Lopian was Zeideh. They share their memories of Yamim Noraim in the presence of greatness

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rav Eliyahu Lopian was born in the 1870s in Poland. When his family moved to the goldene medinah for parnassah reasons, he refused to go along; he understood intuitively, even at the tender age of ten, what the atmosphere in America would do to his neshamah.

His chinuch came from the Lomza Yeshivah, where he learned under Rav Eliezer Shulevitz, a talmid of Rav Yisrael Salanter ztz”l. Later, he learned at the Kelm Talmud Torah, where he was educated under the famed Rav Simchah Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm. He spent his teenage years internalizing the Kelm approach to mussar — an approach that remained an integral part of his persona for the rest of his life.

“You could feel Elul in the atmosphere of our home,” relates one grandson. “That was the chinuch from Kelm. My uncle Rav Bentzion z”l told us that he once witnessed a pashute Yid in Kelm haggling in the marketplace with one of the local non-Jews. Another non-Jew passed by and whispered, ‘Watch it — you don’t want to be swindled.’ The first retorted, ‘Don’t you know it’s Elul? The Jews will never say a lie during Elul.’”

Rav Elya married his righteous rebbetzin, Sara Leah, in 1895. At first, he learned in the kollel in Kelm. Later he founded a yeshivah ketanah there, but during the difficult years between the World Wars he saw that supporting the yeshivah was increasingly pulling him away from his seforim. He therefore accepted the position of rosh yeshivah of Eitz Chaim Yeshiva inLondon, despite the spiritual dangers stalking the British streets at the time.

This fateful move ultimately resulted in the sparing of his entire family, with the exception of one son, from the horrors of the Holocaust. Many years later, Rav Elya shared with Rav Yechiel Michel Gordon, the rosh yeshivah of Lomza Yeshivah in Petach Tikvah, that looking back he could not fathom his decision to move toLondon. He concluded that he must have been pushed by a Divine hand so his family could survive.

Although the family enjoyed a regular Yom Tovdig seudah on other Yamim Tovim, Rosh HaShanah was different. “My grandmother prepared dozens of small challos, a pot of meat, a pot of fish, a kugel,” says Rav Yitzchok Dovid, a grandson. “Each family member came in and took what he needed, made Kiddush on his own, ate, bentsched, and went straight back to the yeshivah; there was no family gathering. They were in the middle of a court case — that was the ruach in the house. Every minute on Rosh HaShanah was precious.” However, he notes, when the children were young, Rav Elya was careful to eat a seudah together with them; it was only when they grew older and understood the seriousness of the day that he adopted this practice.

After Rav Elya’s rebbetzin passed away in 1932, his daughters attended to his needs. One of Rebbetzin Vilenski’s sons shares that their mother had the mitzvah and responsibility of attending to Rav Elya’s clothing on Rosh HaShanah. “After davening, she brought him a whole set of clothes, — frock, shirt, tallis katan — everything was soaked with perspiration due to his intense tefillah.”

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