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Living the Legend

Eytan Kobre

The famous photo graces thousands of homes and his seforim guide us, but what of all those legends of the Chofetz Chaim, told and retold? In a rare departure from a no-publicity policy, Rav Hillel Zaks, rosh yeshivas Knesses Hagedolah and a son of the Chofetz Chaim’s youngest daughter, provides the little known, rarest of glimpses into this “first family” of Klal Yisrael. Along the way, he reflects on his grandfather’s timeless legacy.

Monday, June 02, 2014

The first thing one notices upon entering the living room of Rabbi and Mrs. Yisroel Meir Zaks’s Flatbush home is the framed picture of “der Zeide” on the wall — a photo of Reb Yisroel Meir’s grandfather and namesake, known to all the rest of us as the Chofetz Chaim. But it’s not the picture’s originality that captures one’s attention — this is the classic portrait found on posters and book covers and shemiras halashon calendars, and no image is more ubiquitous in Jewish homes and schools and stores.The very fact that the picture is virtually everywhere makes it so striking to find it here, too; couldn’t theChofetzChaim’s grandchildren come up with a rarely seen portrait of the towering tzaddik? Apparently not, because, according to Reb Yisroel Meir, verifiably authentic pictures — not to mention stories — of his grandfather are in shorter supply than people think. Even this picture, he says, doesn’t capture the ChofetzChaim’s natural facial expression. “My father told me that it’s uncharacteristically severe, unlike his usual smiling countenance. My grandfather was makpid, based on the Zohar, not to leave behind his image upon departing this world, and thus was deeply unhappy to have to take this picture. But he needed it to obtain a passport, perhaps for his planned, but never realized, move to Eretz Yisrael. So he told the photographer that after taking the photo, he should break the plate from which copies could be made. One of the Radiner bochurim who had accompanied him whispered to the fellow, ‘Don’t break the plate, give it to me instead.’ Within a month or so, the image was all over Europe.”

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