Reb Hershel Berger, z”l
The end of a generation.
I can hardly recall how often I heard that claim made at the levayos (funerals) of various Torah personalities. No one in my generation saw the great yeshivos and communities of pre-war Europe. Our rabbeim were from the she’eiris hapletah, the small number of those who survived. Each one who passed away was the end of a generation, the last who personally experienced some aspect of what had taken eight hundred years to build in Europe. This one was the last who studied with the Chofetz Chaim, or who had seen R’ Chaim Brisker, or remembered R’ Chaim Ozer on the Vilna beis din.
The end of a generation.
So time-worn is the phrase, that I could not believe that I heard myself using it, even in the privacy of my own thoughts. It was, though, the first thought that entered my mind when I heard of the petirah on Hoshanah Rabbah of Reb Hershel Berger, z”l.
Reb Hershel was not the last who had studied at the feet of some great Torah luminary. I don’t know where he went to cheder, someplace near the Hungarian – Rumanian border. I do know that he graduated, with honors, two institutions he had no choice about enrolling in: Dachau and Auschwitz. For decades, he was a butcher in Los Angeles, but very much the end of a generation for myself and my children.
Rav Soloveitchik zt”l once said that Jews succeeded in rescuing Shabbos, and bringing it to American shores. After decades of early Saturday minyanim which permitted people to go to shul and still open their stores on time, Shabbos came back to her full glory, with hundreds of thousands fully committed to her every scruple. Erev Shabbos, said Rav Soloveitchik, did not fare so well. We do not see the hours upon hours of slow, deliberate preparation in mind and body for the approaching Shabbos that were common in Europe. The multifaceted steps that brought the holiness of Shabbos closer with each passing Friday hour gave way to a mad dash for the shower twenty minutes before candle-lighting after a road-warrior battle during the commute home.
Until Reb Hershel closed his butcher shop less than a decade ago, we still experienced some of the magic and beauty of the hachanah (preparation) for Shabbos. My youngest children think that meat is something that comes wrapped in plastic that you take off a shelf in the kosher supermarket. My older children remember the trip to Reb Hershel’s shop on Erev Shabbos. You could smell Shabbos within twenty feet of the store. Reb Hershel stood behind the case, while (lehavdil bein chaim le-chaim) his wife stood over a stove in the makeshift kitchen she set up in the back. You did not leave with just your cholent meat. Mrs. Berger would talk about the simcha she was making some contribution for, and insisted that you take some of her kugel home with you. As Reb Hershel sliced and weighed the meat, he would ask about the older children, how they were learning, while giving candy or cookies to the little ones. (I knew about the candy man in shul, who passes out sweets to make coming to shul more attractive. Why did Reb Hershel pass out the treats, other than just liking to give to people? It was only later that I understood that he was sweetening a different mitzvah – the mitzvah of preparing for Shabbos.) He would talk lovingly about his own children, especially about his pride in his son in learning, today Rabbi Benny Berger.
We didn’t see his other contributions towards Shabbos, like the woman who came in and so much wanted a brisket, while not having anything close to what it cost. He sized her up, put the brisket in front of her, and took her nine dollars. “That can’t be,” she gasped. “You are right! Let me weight it again. Here – a few more slices will make it equal the nine dollars.”
He worked hard, and never was seen without a smile. I think that for him, his labor could not be called parnasah, as much as avodah. Parnasha can be grueling work; Hashem’s avodah we do with a smile.
After he retired and closed the store (many years after his family would have wanted him to), Erev Shabbos was never the same. For mokrei Shabbos (those who cherish Shabbos) of Los Angeles, his passing was indeed the end of a generation.
Yehi zichro baruch.