The lone member of his family to have survived the Holocaust, a young Chaim Langleben arrived in New York after the war, took his seat in the newly-opened Novardoker yeshivah in Boro Park and opened his gemara. For more than 65 years he stayed at his gemara, keeping his self-imposed sidrei hayeshivah through marriage, fatherhood and grandfatherhood.
His friends went out to work and started careers and he remained at his place at the edge of the table in Beis Yosef. Decades later, his friends retired and returned to full-time learning, and he was still there, bent over his gemara.
The indelible image of a prewar yeshivah bachur was torn from us this past Shabbos, when Reb Chaim was niftar at the age of 88.
Reb Chaim Langlaben had no concept of gashmius, according to Rabbi Chaim Donn, father of this writer, who grew up with Reb Chaim in Beis Yosef.
“He sat at his edge of the table in Bais Yosef for 65 years — he just sat and learned,” Rabbi Donn says. “There was no formal yeshivah in those days, but he kept all three sedarim like a yeshivah bachur. You could set your clock by his coming back and forth to Bais Yosef.”
When construction was going on in Novardok in the 1960s, members of the shul transferred temporarily to the nearby Gerrer shtiebel on 49th Street. The two dissimilar kehillos davened side by side, alternating minyanim with their own nuschaos and way of davening.
Everyone except for Reb Chaim. He remained in Beis Yosef, returning daily to dust off his regular place. He put a plastic over his head to protect himself from falling plaster and remained with his gemara.
Rabbi Naftali Frankel, who currently learns in Beis Yosef, said that observers of Reb Chaim were in awe of him, but had little interaction with him as he swallowed pages of gemara and other sefarim.
“Everyone knew he was a tremendous talmid chacham,” he said, “but nobody was able to draw him into any conversation.”
Born in Vilna in 1929 to Reb Yisroel and Rochel Langleben, Chaim joined the Novardoker yeshivah network as a bar mitzvah bachur when the yeshivah relocated there during the war. He went with them to Siberia, surviving the harsh period of the war with his friends before eventually moving with them to the United States.
He married his wife, the former Yona Volpa of Yerushalayim, and together they built a Yiddishe family of two sons and a daughter. His wife supported the family as he remained one of America’s oldest and most dedicated kollel yungeleit.
“How many times did he learn Shas? How many times did he go through Shulchan Aruch? We’ll never know,” Rabbi Donn wondered aloud in admiration. “Learning to him was an avodah. He was never even a Maggid Shiur. He was a very rare person.”
When his children were younger, Rabbi Donn recalled, they asked why he didn’t take a job like all his friends did.
“I don’t need a job,” he responded.
When his friends retired, he had a ready-to-order quip. “You see I was right?” he said. “Even those who left to work are coming back to learn already.”
The 88 years of incredible limud haTorah came to an end this past week. Reb Chaim is survived by his wife, Mrs. Yona Langleben, children Reb Yisroel Yitzchok, Reb Yaakov Shmuel and Mrs. Rochel Leah Leibersohn, and grandchildren.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Donn, z”l, this writer’s grandfather and a close friend of the niftar, used to hold up Reb Chaim as an example of the prewar yeshivah student.
“Just as he came to America,” he would note, “that’s how he remained his entire life.”
Yehi zichro baruch.