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Sometimes There Are No Words

Yisroel Besser

He couldn’t hear, but that didn’t stop him from the thing he wanted most — to learn Torah. Today Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Kakon, rosh yeshivah of Nefesh Dovid in Toronto, is returning the gift

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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“He couldn’t hear, but that was just a detail, it didn’t define him. What made him unique was his kishron, what made him unique was his desire to learn, and what made him unique was his ability to understand other people” (Photos: Jeremy Melnick, Joely Bernstein)

"B esser, I have a scoop for you.”

The caller was a leading rosh yeshivah — not the sort who shares scoops or calls writers with tips.

Rav Elya Brudny, maggid shiur and rosh yeshivah in Mir-Brooklyn, had been at a wedding where the mesader kiddushin was an out-of-town rosh yeshivah — a tall, distinguished-looking man.

The visiting rosh yeshivah walked up to the chuppah and took his place behind the microphone. When he recited the brachos, it was obvious that he had trouble articulating — his words seemed somewhat garbled.

“But then I saw him by the dancing, leading the chasunah, his talmidim surrounding him,” Rav Elya continued, “and I realized that he was getting through to his talmidim better than many of us do.”

It sounded dreamy — the plot of a kid’s book or maybe an Abie Rotenberg song — a sweet tale of a rosh yeshivah who doesn’t hear, and his devoted talmidim.

But this is the real world, where things aren’t so sweet and neatly packaged.

And so I flew down to Toronto to see. You know how people say “no words”? Like, when they want to convey their astonishment, speechlessness becomes a way of expressing an awe that words would only limit? In a humble trailer just west of Bathurst Street, I found a world where that awe never fades. No words.

Back when Brownsville was the place, when pushcart peddlers along Pitkin Avenue haggled with customers in Yiddish, the Brooklyn neighborhood had a real rebbe.

The Brownsviller-Mezhibuzh Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Avrohom Rabinowitz, was a son of Rav Eliezer Chaim of Yampola, a grandson of the Rebbe of Ropshitz. He was reputed to be a ba’al mofeis, a healer, a writer of kabbalistic amulets. His son, Rav Dovid Eliezer, was born in 1917 — deaf.

Rebbes work with words. A child deprived of words, the building blocks of connection, the invisible ropes with which to draw others close, has no future working with people.

In Ner Israel, with the help of devoted friends, Chaim Tzvi became a yeshivah bochur. The deafness was no longer the story, because there was a Tosafos and a Rashba and a Ketzos to worry about

He can be a craftsman, perhaps, or even a successful peddler, but not a rabbi.

Right? No, not really.

Rabbi Dovid Eliezer Rabinowitz would become an effective and respected shul rabbi, leading a community of deaf and hearing-impaired Jews in Brooklyn. He taught them many things, but perhaps the greatest lesson of all was about perseverance.

His grandson, Chaim Tzvi Kakon, was also born with hearing challenges — and with that very same determination.

The Kakon family lived in Denver, and then in Detroit. The Zeide, Rav Dovid Eliezer, moved away from Brooklyn twice, following his grandchildren so that he could be near them and part of their lives.

Many things were confusing to young Chaim Tzvi. Days were spent in public school, where he mastered sign language as part of his total communication education, while nights were filled with dreams of learning Torah.

Tough as it was, he came home to his parents each evening — to love and warmth and encouragement — but what he really wanted was to go to summer camp.

On the first day of camp, hundreds of boys gathered in the Camp Mogen Av shul as head counselors called out names, assigning a bunk to each camper — but there was one camper who couldn’t hear them. Chaim Tzvi Kakon sat on the bench with no clue where he belonged. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 704)

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