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His Own Man

Yisroel Besser

Why was Rav Zalman Levine — a disciple of European roshei yeshivah, and the only son of the “Malach” who created a spiritual revolution in 1920s America — hiding in Albany?

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

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MAPQUEST The Malach’s printed sefer, Otzar Igros Kodesh, is really just a collection of letters to his son — letters in which the father pours out all his expectations and hopes. So what happened? Why did the Malach’s son fall off the map? Photos: Mordy Gilden, Family archives

I' ve passed by Albany so many times, the midpoint between New York and Montreal. I’ve davened Shacharis there and enjoyed coffee and a good schmooze with the locals after davening.

But always, I missed the real story.

Then, several years ago, I wrote an article about one of the most intriguing figures in American Orthodox life of the last century, the Malach.

His real name was Rav Chaim Avrohom Dov Ber Hakohein Levine: the title referred to his ascetic, otherworldly ways, but what made him unique was what he did in his angel-like state.

He combined the influence of very different mentors: the intensity and depth of Chabad chassidus fueled his davening while the penetratingly analytical method of Rav Chaim Brisker guided him in learning.

In 1927, this saintly figure arrived in America, assuming leadership of a small Bronx shul called Nusach Ari.

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, always eager to expose his American-born talmidim at Torah Vodaath to the great men of Europe, took note of the Malach’s arrival.

These sincere, wholesome young boys met the saintly Jew from Ilya, near Vilna, and they were captivated, pulled in by his personality, his holy intensity, his ideas.

He infused them with his derision and contempt for the American street, endowing them with an appreciation for their sacred legacy: they were no Americans, they were Yidden.

The father had worked all his life to purify himself, reaching the level of angel, the Malach. The son worked hard too, but not to be a Malach. He worked to be human

Their tzitzis blew proudly in the wind as they walked down the street, the beards and peyos they sprouted making them visibly, conspicuously, cheerfully different.

Their parents were worried. The hanhalah of Torah Vodaath was dismayed when these boys announced that they would no longer attend secular classes. Suddenly, the term Malach was no longer just an admiring acknowledgment of the master’s conduct, it was a scornful label for boys who, they felt, didn’t know how to behave like regular people. They were “Malachim.”

Years before the Second World War, the Malach told his chassidim that the skies over Europe were red with blood and that soon, America would be host country to the remnants of Jewry. It was up to them to prepare the ground for the arrivals. Their beards, he assured them, would cleanse the atmosphere, their long coats and Yiddish speech would purify the streets.

The Malachim became a community. They named their Williamsburg shul Nesivos Olam in tribute to the Maharal of Prague, who authored a sefer by that name.

On Shavuos of 1938 the Malach died, and his talmid, Rav Yaakov Schorr, took the helm of the kehillah. Many of the original Malachim were swallowed up into a reborn American chassidus, led by newly arrived rebbes like Satmar and Chabad. Others remained loyal, founding small communiites in Monsey and Williamsburg where they transmitted the Malach’s message and Torah to their own children.

That’s the basic storyline, a dramatic, fascinating backdrop to the rich American chassidic life we see today.

But there is more detail.

The Malach had a son. An only son. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 667)

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