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The Hidden Genius

Sarah Pardes

In a simple suit, looking like a “regular guy,” Rav Yitzchak Goldstein managed to hide his brilliance and his major contributions to the Torah world

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

 Mishpacha image

His son, Rav Yaakov, summed up his father’s unique disdain of kavod this way: “If he were alive to hear this, he would get up and run away” (Photos: Mishpacha archives)

M onday, 29 Tishrei 5777/2016, Jerusalem

The day’s early calm was broken by wailing ambulances racing through the quiet streets, pulling in at 2 Machal Street in Maalot Dafna. Paramedics hurried into the building, summoned to the apartment of Rav Yitzchak Goldstein, who had never wakened that morning. After intensive but unavailing resuscitation efforts, the paramedics had no choice but to leave. Rav Goldstein, at a few weeks shy of age 64, had slipped out of the world in the same quiet, unobtrusive manner that typified his life.

Considering the esteem in which his teachers, colleagues, and friends held him, he ought to have been famous. His phenomenal memory and powers of insight qualified him, in their minds, to be one of the gedolei hador. But he hid himself well: Even most of the 40-odd families that lived in his apartment block weren’t aware of his talents. He ran from honor and publicity his entire life. He dressed simply and comported himself with humility. Only upon hearing the hespedim did his neighbors get a small inkling of who this unassuming man really was.

His son, Rav Yaakov, summed up his father’s unique disdain of kavod this way: “If he were alive to hear this, he would get up and run away from here.” The sentence encapsulates the secret of this gaon’s life. 

A Brain for Ten 

The life story of Rav Yitzchak Goldstein began on 5 Teves 5713 (December 23, 1952), when he was born in Kfar Saba to Naftali and Sarah Hinda Goldstein. Acquaintances say his parents were not from a yeshivish background, but they moved to Bnei Brak when Yitzchak was little. He attended a local Talmud Torah there, then Tel Aviv’s Yeshivat Hayishuv Hachadash, before moving on to Jerusalem’s Yeshivas Itri, at that time headed by Rav Shmuel Auerbach.

Very quickly after that, Yitzchak’s incredible talents were uncovered. He had already demonstrated formidable powers of memory and concentration, and had attained mastery in a wide range of subjects. He became the regular chavrusa for Rav Auerbach, and a close friend of Rav Ariav Oizer, current rosh yeshivah of Itri.

When the time came, he married Ester Gross of Teveria. Rav Yitzchak’s father-in-law, a businessman, was wont to remark that his choice of son-in-law demonstrated his acumen for picking good merchandise.

Yeshivas Itri In Jerusalem

The young couple moved into a small apartment in Jerusalem’s Shaarei Chesed neighborhood. The yungerman kept up his chavrusashaft with his rebbi, Rav Shmuel Auerbach. But their growing family necessitated a move, so they decamped to Maalot Dafna, then a mostly secular neighborhood.

The most productive part of Rav Yitzchak’s life began when the wellsprings of his Torah were allowed to burst forth. It soon became clear that his powers of explanation rivaled his memory and intellect. He started his career in Torah literature when he was drafted for the Otzar Meforshei HaTalmud and Otzar Hachochmah projects. He went on to join the Encyclopedia Talmudit project, first as a writer and later as a senior editor, and also the Hebrew staff of the ArtScroll Schottenstein Edition Shas.

Insiders say that Rav Refoel Shmuelevitz, one of the heads of the latter project, was at first hesitant to hire Rav Yitzchak, who showed up dressed very simply. As a test, Rav Refoel gave him a particularly difficult entry on yibum to work on. The finished product left him so impressed that he decided to use it in place of the version that had already been prepared for print.

“Anything I ever asked him, he knew,” recalls Rabbi Yehezkel Danziger, a member of the ArtScroll editorial staff in New York who worked with Rav Goldstein on the Hebrew Schottenstein edition. “He was just amazing. He was knowledgeable in areas outside of Torah that somehow related to Torah. Anything that was nogeia in any way to Gemara — astronomy, mathematics, anything that was in some way relevant to Gemara, he was right at home.”

It seems likely that Rav Goldstein somehow obtained some level of fluency in English, but he only revealed traces of that to his colleagues.

“I only spoke to him in Hebrew,” says Rabbi Danziger. “My Hebrew is not perfect, but I manage. If I got stuck on a word and I said it in English, he knew what I meant. He would actually show me corrections in some of the things we published in English — he was able to read English, but whether he spoke it well, I cannot say.”

Whatever the case, his command of writing was complete. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 682)

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