Reb Lazer Elya’s Eyes

Reb Lazer Elya Der Melamed (“the cheder teacher”) was born in the late 1850s, lived in Ostrolenka, Poland, and died shortly before the Germans invaded in 1939. I arrived in this world about a century after he did and on a continent he never saw, so I never met him. But I was introduced to him all the same, by my father, may he be well. Reb Lazer Elya was his grandfather.

My father lived for a time with his grandparents while attending a branch of the Novardhok yeshiva in Ostrolenka. He recalls his bar mitzvah there. His parents, living in a town called Ruzhan, had no money for the trip. My father read the Torah and his impoverished grandfather brought some kichel and a small bottle of schnapps to the shul to mark the occasion.

Recently, a Shabbos Sheva Brachos for my niece took place at Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, where the father of the bride, Reb Lazer Elya’s great-grandson—my dear brother—is a rebbe. Our great-grandfather was present in a way, through a letter he had written, read by my father at one of the meals.

My father is the administrator of the Baltimore Bais Din and, having served a congregation for more than a half-century, he is the oldest rov in the city. (I like to imagine that health, vigor and mental acuity into one’s 80s is in the family genes, although I suspect that my father’s daily brisk 3-mile walk and responsible diet may have something to do with it.) He is also an incredibly loving grandfather and great-grandfather. And he has adopted a custom: when one of his grandchildren marries, he presents the new couple with a handwritten, framed blessing-poem, the first letters of whose lines spell out the names of the newlyweds.

His inspiration was a similar gift his grandfather sent in the 1930s to a newlywed grandson of his – my father’s cousin— in America. On the other side of the poem-page was a letter, the one my father read aloud at the Sheva Brachos.

In it, Reb Lazer Elya acknowledges a gift that his American grandson had apparently sent him on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He then laments how he searched in vain for some meaningful physical gift to send his grandson and so is sending instead the gift of a poem.
(Unlike his grandfather, my father is able to, and does, send his newlywed grandchildren generous gifts. But his poems are the more cherished presents.)

Reb Lazer Elya also expresses his happy surprise that his grandson’s wife had included with the couple’s birthday gift a note in Hebrew. It made him happy and proud, he wrote, to know that his granddaughter-in-law—in America!—had retained that connection to her religious background.

When the letter was read, it felt as if my great-grandfather were somehow present. What would he think, I pondered, if he were in fact here, if he could survey America today.

To be sure, tragically many European-rooted Jews disappeared into American society, their Jewish identities crumbled into dust that wafted across the fruited plain. But Reb Lazer Elya would surely be wide-eyed at the sight of the “treifeh medina” today.

I imagined him surveying the land he had thought so hopeless a place for Jews that a Hebrew note from its shores gladdened his heart. Seeing Shabbos in the yeshiva, the beautiful children playing underfoot, boys with payos and yarmulkes, girls in modest dresses. The men “speaking in learning” on the lawn. The beis medrash filled with hundreds of others swaying over texts he would immediately recognize. The apartments and houses, and the women inside them tending to their young and saying Tehillim. And I imagined him able to gaze beyond Baltimore, to see not only similar scenes in yeshivos across the continent but other fantasies come to life, entire communities of dedicated, observant Jews in cities large and small across the continent.

We American Orthodox Jews tend to focus our attention, as well we should, on the many problems and challenges we face. Every so often, though, we do well to stop and take stock of all we have. Stop, that is, and try to see our collective community through Reb Lazer Elya’s eyes.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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