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Substance over Style: No-Frills Litzman

Yisroel Besser, with Eliezer Shulman

What makes Rabbi Yaakov Litzman Israel’s most popular minister, despite his chassidic garb and lack of breezy finesse?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

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“I’m happy I’m popular,” he shrugged. His English is flawless, as he’s American-born and raised, but he’s picked up an Israeli way of speaking, a certain bluntness. “It feels good to hear that secular Israelis have changed their opinions of chareidim because of me” (Photos: Lior Mizrachi, Shlomi Cohen, Flash 90, AFP/Imagebank)

T he Yaakov Litzman story is one that’s confounded pollsters and political operatives for months now.

The man whose diplomatic skills are more marketplace fish vendor and less polished ambassador has proven not just effective, but very, very popular.

And he seems to know it. The first question I asked him when we met was about his popularity, and he almost — but not quite — smiled. Had he smiled, it might have appeared as if he was enjoying himself, and to Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, it’s all business.

“I’m happy I’m popular,” he shrugged. His English is flawless, as he’s American-born and raised, but he’s picked up an Israeli way of speaking, a certain bluntness. “It feels good to hear that secular Israelis have changed their opinions of chareidim because of me,” he said.

He ends sentences suddenly, not feeling the pressure to pontificate and expound like most politicians do.

It was about a year ago and the health minister was in Montreal as guest speaker at an upscale fundraising event for Magen David Adom. The guests at the party were largely secular Jews, passionately Zionist, and they made small talk and sipped cocktails as they waited for the program — the address by the minister. They expected to meet him as well, to chat informally and, of course, to take pictures with him. None of them had any idea who he was, or how he looked.

The well-heeled emcee made some jokes, speaking in the French to which most of the audience was accustomed, then introduced the keynote speaker.

At a table in the corner, a chassidic Jew with a long coat and hat — looking more like the rabbis from Israel that come collecting on Sunday mornings — stood up and headed toward the round dais, where purple smoke and dancing strobe light beams illuminated the glass lectern.

Yaakov Litzman stood ramrod straight, speaking in a near monotone, as if giving a grocery order over the telephone.

What he didn’t say was how happy he was to be there, how long he’s known the emcee, what an honor it was to address such a special crowd.

Here’s what he did say. How devoted the doctors and nurses are in Israel’s health system, how they see themselves as doing G-d’s work, how foreign doctors are amazed by the sophistication of Israeli equipment, and how badly they need help to keep on doing their thing. He paused and said that it’s specifically generous Jews from abroad who make every ambulance, X-ray machine, and extra hospital room possible.

It took under five minutes. The minister gave an awkward nod and stepped off the stage.

The applause wasn’t raucous, but it was genuine.

“I think Netanyahu really tried to find a solution,” Rabbi Litzman says. “I know he did what he could, but I told him I wasn’t going to tolerate any more work on Shabbos, period”

I met Litzman in his car, just after the speech. He hadn’t stuck around for the rest of the program, forgoing the main course and the mixing with local donors.

He was surrounded by two teams: Israeli security, the Shabak force that travels with a government minister; and his Gerrer assistants, led by chief aide Moti Bobchik, who encircled him as he walked toward the car. Seated next to me in the back of the rented Toyota Sienna, he reflected on his role as a minister.

Polls had shown him to be the most trusted politician in the country, I said. He didn’t seem overwhelmed. “Yes, but polls are like the weather, they change every day,” he responded.

As a minister, did he feel compelled to expand his mandate, to get involved in larger issues, like national security? “I don’t mouth off about Trump or things like that. I focus on my job — the country’s health system — and the issues important to the gedolim who sent me here.

“After all,” Litzman continued, “if any chareidi politician ran on his own, he’d have maybe ten votes, from his family. It’s only the admorim, rabbanim, and roshei yeshivah behind us that bring in votes and put us in office, so we’re really working for them. I do what I’m told. My rebbe, the Gerrer Rebbe, doesn’t get involved in small decisions and trusts me to do my job, but when it’s a bigger issue, I’ll consult with him.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 688)

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