Thursday, April 06, 2006

It seems that Gedolim are all European, which makes it a bit difficult for those born in America to fully appreciate the nuances of their biographies. Conveniently, America is now producing its own gedolim, whose biographies might sound a bit more, well, familiar to the modern ear. Here are some previews from a soon to be released biography of a contemporary Yankee godol. (Hat Tip: RF)

The Making of an American Iluy: The Life and Times of The Tusconer Gaon
by Ben Chorin
Volume 1 – The Early Years

Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak Ferdshventzel was born in great poverty on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On both his father’s and mother’s side, he was descended from Torah giants.

His father, Reb Shraga Feivel Meir zt"l, was the seventh of thirteen children of the great Springfielder Gaon and by the age of six was already a recognized iluy in his shtetl, Brownsville. Shortly before his bar-mitzvah, he journeyed to Eretz Yisrael to learn with the great gedolim of Yerushalayim. He is reported to have been somewhat miffed that his father did not notice his absence until six months after he left. In the Holy City of Yerushalayim, the young Shraga Feivel Meir quickly developed a reputation for astonishing cleverness and wit. It is said that one year on Purim he put a cat on his head and caused great mirth. There are reports that Shraga Feivel Meir once caused the great Brisker Rov to smile, but this has been hotly denied by members of the Soloveichik family with whom this writer has spoken.

At the age of 18, Reb Shraga Feivel Meir was married off to Bayla Hinda, the daughter of a prosperous merchant from the town of Lower East Side, which – as this writer has verified through painstaking archival research – is said to have been a great center of commerce due to its proximity to the mighty Hudson River. Despite having been born to great wealth, Baila Hinda is said to have had little interest in modern superficial conceptions of aesthetics and fashion and such shallowness. Instead she quickly developed the girth necessary to intimidate unruly children and gave the money she saved on cosmetics to the poor. She is said to have had very high standards for her husband and frequently and vociferously encouraged Reb Shraga Feivel Meir to become a famous Rosh Yeshiva, even after Reb Shraga Feivel Meir had resigned himself to remaining executive director of the small mesivta his father had established for his benefit. Reb Shraga Feivel Meir was so dedicated to his work that he would often travel to raise money for the Yeshiva for weeks at a time, only reluctantly returning home.

It was in such a model home that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was born. By the time Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was 5, his family had moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side as a chessed to a local gvir who needed help in deregulating the apartment. Early on, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak showed signs of exceptional yiras shamayim and concern for klal yisroel. Even at the end of a long day in cheder, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak would go to the home of a classmate in order to be mashpia on the classmate’s family, which – rachmona litzlan – is said to have owned a television. So tireless were his efforts to be mekarev this family that years later he would refer in his famous shmuessen to a certain Gilligan, who was apparently a friend of that family.

Eventually, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak began traveling in search of a derech in learning. Always the perfectionist, it was hard for Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak to settle in a single yeshiva and he spent his teen years in the famous yeshivos of Monsey, St. Louis, Denver and several others. Often his fiery personality and exacting standards in Torah were not appreciated by others who were not on his spiritual madregah and it was suggested to him that he should find a different yeshiva more suited to his level.

This is said to have been a difficult time in Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak’s life. One of his classmates recalls that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was often depressed about certain “aveiros” that he didn’t want to discuss and that caused him great guilt. He began washing netillas yadayim with great care and frequency, sometimes as many as twenty times a day. This was the first indication to his peers that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was destined to be a great tzaddik.

It was during this time that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak also began to establish himself in learning. So makpid was he in understanding the full amkus of a sugya that he spent an entire zman learning the first tosfos in Bechoros. It was at this point that the Roshei Yeshiva realized what immense disabilities Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak had overcome to get as far as he’d gotten, as the rest of the yeshiva was learning Brachos. Nevertheless, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak persevered and eventually became an acknowledged expert on that particular tosfos. His chaveirim began referring to him as “the blitz”, which he never really appreciated since he was afraid such approbation could, chas vesholom, lead to gaiva.

Of course, it was not long before Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak, at this point universally acknowledged as an “iluy she-be-iluyim” (in the words of one chaver who shall remain nameless but whose identity is known to this author), found his way to the great Lakewood yeshiva. It was here where he first met many of today’s leading gedolim. Often Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak and Reb Motel F., then known as the Pittsburgher Iluy, could be seen walking around the lake discussing fine points of the first tosfos in Bekhoros. Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak would later say that it was during those discussions with the Pittsburgher Iluy that he realized that he “didn’t understand the tosfos at all and that much could be learned by also reading the letters from right to left”.

It was during this time that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak had a great revelation. One of the great challenges of his youth was the “pasach genuvah”, which Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak believed was of suspect maskilish origin. He would insist on reading “reicha nechocha” which caused much consternation and often earned him petch from frustrated rebbies. It was in his fourth year in Lakewood that he discovered that it was minhag haGr”a to read “reiach nichoach” and he began working on himself to be mekabel this minhag of the Gr”a, despite great difficulty.

It was around this time that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak’s mother began seeking a shidduch for him. She insisted that any prospective kallah for her Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak share her own aesthetic sensibility. As fate would have it, she was shopping on 13th Avenue (reportedly for a snood) when she chanced upon a young woman whom she would later describe as “of epic proportions both spiritually and physically”. It could only have been hashgacha that this young woman’s father was a photographer for a leading series of gedolim cards.

Coming Soon: Volume 2 – The Middle Years: A Godol Emerges from the Shadows


Anonymous Russ said...

Absolutely priceless :)

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was one of the greatest pieces of serious writing I have ever read. You've outdone yourself.
I can't wait for the next installment. :-)

4:27 PM  
Blogger MoChassid said...


4:31 PM  
Blogger westbankmama said...

Purim came a bit late in your neck of the woods? LOL! (your reference to Giligan is priceless!)

5:12 PM  
Blogger mnuez said...


Now I've gotta find a gemara to look upsaid toisfes.


7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best godol bio ever!!! Please continue with the second part of his life!

8:47 PM  
Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

This article is fit for a column
that appeared in the unforgettable
"Not The Jewish Press" that came
out in 1982. The column
is called:
"Meet our Ketanim (our lesser sages)".

It also makes me glad that my
ancestors who came to America didn't settle in New York.

9:19 PM  
Blogger The Hedyot said...

It's all true and I can vouch for it. I spent one summer with YYY, when he spent a few months in the catskills, where he felt he'd be able to devote some time to hisbodedus, away from the distractions of the city. It was on our many travels through those picturesque villlges that I learnt of his true greatness.

10:34 PM  
Anonymous d.b. said...


YYY had a rebel of a Chavrusa, Yosef Freimacher they used to call him, who has been lost in the shadows of time. The Chavrusa could say the whole first Ammud of any Massechto BeAl Peh. "Behotozoas HaAchim Rom". This was borderline heresy in those days, as this was a historical fact, and as such, Yeshiva Bochurim were banned from being allowed to know this. He was ultimately expelled from the Yeshiva. I am certain YYY asked the author not to include this fact in the biography, as it would be quite dangerous for the Tzeirei HaTzoin, not to mention a shande to YYY that he had such a Chavrusa, (in fact there is a picture that has YYY learning with Yosef Freimacher, but it was cropped in the biography to look as if YYY was alone), but I feel I had to set the record straight.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

Great post!

6:17 AM  
Anonymous Bar Qatala said...

Now one may wonder why those who believe in that a single specific Godol's pronouncements must be followed by all of Kelal Yisrael are not interested in formalizing this power in a Sanhedrin, and thus having a halakhically-ratified framework for this power to be exercised (the body that calls itself a Sanhedrin is clearly not). Could this have to do with the fact that a Sanhedrin's deliberations would be (more or less) open and transparent, and that multiple viewpoints would be considered (and perhaps the most mahmir position would lose)? Naaahh...

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... And the great iluy went on in life to live in a dorf in eretz yisroel and wrote a grand sefer on the nature of halacha
however he omitted the name of the admor due to great humility

He saw himself as the higayon himself ....
to be continued

12:17 AM  

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