Dr. ‘Shabbos’ Friedman – Fighting for Torah and Mitzvah Observance in the New World

Shabbos Friedman


“Anyone immigrating to America is a sinner, because in America the Talmud is trodden underfoot. It was not only home that many Jews left behind in Europe, it was their Torah, their Talmud, their yeshivos — in a word, their Yiddishkeit, their entire way of Jewish life.

“When the Jews were exiled, some found refuge in America, where they met with affluence. Yet the very essence of this country precludes adherence to the Torah. Laws requiring compulsory education, for example, enforce the co-mingling of all cultures… Furthermore, it is most difficult for one to observe the sanctity of the Sabbath when enticed by the momentary gain of double pay.

“Ultimately, however, one cannot condemn the Jewish people, descendants of the saintly Patriarchs. There are still honest Jews whose religion burns strongly within them, who are untainted and truly deserving of the World to Come.”

(Nimukei Ridbaz, written in 1904, as translated in A Fire in His Soul, Amos Bunim, Feldheim, 1989.)

America Without Torah

It is no secret that during the wave of immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States from 1880 to 1924, many loosened their firm grip on Torah and mitzvah observance.

America was the land of opportunity, and it was those opportunities that caused too many Jewish immigrants to throw their tichels and tefillin overboard even before they reached Ellis Island. It was also those opportunities that forced them to work on Shabbos and encouraged their children to attend and excel in public school and college.

Yet a small percentage of Jews ensured that their souls bonded with Torah and mitzvah observance despite the overwhelming trials they faced.

Dr. Samuel (Isamar) Friedman was one such committed Jew. He emigrated from Hungary to America when he was 7 years old. He grew up to be a handsome, successful, wealthy doctor with a home in the fashionable “uptown” section of New York. But he wasn’t blinded by his triumphant attainment of American “opportunity.” He remained steadfast in his Torah convictions and worked tirelessly to help other Jews maintain their own commitment to their heritage.

Dr. “Shabbos” Friedman, a nickname he earned for his efforts on behalf of Shabbos observance, passed away on Rosh Chodesh Teves, 1947; this Chanukah is his seventieth yahrtzeit.

Dr. Shabbos in the Making

Perhaps Dr. Friedman’s extraordinary devotion to Torah and mitzvos was rooted in the strength of his parents’ convictions. The story is told that when his parents, Mendel and Malke Friedman, did not have children after several years of marriage, they consulted with the Divrei Chaim of Sanz. The Rebbe told them to leave their home and wander in galus for six months, and not to remain in any place for more than one night. The couple followed the tzaddik’s advice and were blessed with three daughters and one son — Isamar.

In 1882, the family moved to America because of the opportunities they heard it offered. But though the material aspects of life in America prompted the move, one of the first things Dr. Friedman’s father did in the New World helped provide for his son’s spiritual future: He enrolled him in the local cheder.

For five years young Isamar studied there, focusing exclusively on Torah studies. During those years, his mother woke him very early each morning singing melodiously, “Shtei oif tzu avodas HaBorei.” It was only when he was 12 that he was caught by a truant officer and forced to attend public school. With his intelligent mind, Isamar finished eight grades of elementary school in just two years and was then ready for City College.

(Incidentally, the clerk who enrolled Isamar in public school didn’t recognize his name and registered him as Samuel. From then on, Dr. Friedman adopted Samuel as his first name.)

To maintain his Torah education once he stopped attending cheder, Samuel studied together with Rabbi Naftali Reiter, a talmid chacham who served on the beis din of the Chief Rabbi of New York, Harav Yaakov Yosef, zt”l. Dr. Friedman credited Rabbi Reiter with molding his Torah perspective and kept a framed photo of the Rabbi hanging on his dining room wall throughout his life.

Observance in College

Each day, including Shabbos and Sunday, Samuel woke at five in the morning to learn with Rabbi Reiter before attending college. Despite this early routine and his afternoon shift helping with deliveries in his father’s butcher shop, Samuel quickly and successfully graduated from City College.

At that point, each member in the family had a different suggestion for what Samuel should do with his life. His father wanted him to help him in his store; his uncles strongly suggested that he be apprenticed to a cigar manufacturer, because in those days cigar manufacturers earned a good, steady income and, most importantly, were able to keep Shabbos without difficulty.

But Samuel had thoughts of his own. He was determined to become a doctor and keep Shabbos.

Samuel needed to pass an entrance exam to be accepted to Bellevue Medical College, but it was scheduled to take place on Shavuos. The college refused to arrange a different date until Samuel turned to his family connections to influence the school to schedule a makeup exam for several boys who wouldn’t take the test on Yom Tov.

When Samuel was accepted to medical school, he continued to scrupulously guard Shabbos. If classes were held on Saturday, Samuel was never mechallel Shabbos. He walked to school and wrote his notes on the lessons learned that day only after Shabbos was over.

Shabbos Friedman
An appointment card for Dr. Friedman’s office.

Der Malach – The Angel

Although its youngest member, at age 21, Samuel graduated at the top of his medical school class. Not one to waste time, he set up an office in a ground-floor apartment in Manhattan. His practice grew quickly and was soon thriving, thanks to his expertise, charismatic personality, sense of humor and empathy for his patients. Eventually, a policeman was stationed in front of his office to keep the waiting patients in line.

Dr. Friedman’s next milestone was his wedding on June 7, 1899, to Annie Brody, the daughter of a wealthy textile merchant who shared his views about the importance of Torah and mitzvah observance.

When he first started his practice, Dr. Friedman charged 50 cents for an office visit and one dollar for a home visit. His diagnostic skills became a byword throughout the East Side, and his patients lovingly called him “Der Malach.” When his carriage drew up in front of a patient’s home and he stepped out with his silk hat and frock coat, those waiting on the building stoop would cry out, “Der Malach kumt!”

In addition to his spot-on diagnoses, Dr. Friedman treated his patients with much heart. He gave each one as much time as he thought necessary for the patient, no matter how many others were waiting outside his office.

It became somewhat of a joke: Patients with morning appointments didn’t get to see him until early afternoon, and those with three o’clock appointments didn’t have a chance to consult with him until as late as ten o’clock at night. The wait was so long that Dr. Friedman fed his patients while they waited; orange juice, boiled eggs, buttered rolls, toast and coffee were always available.

After spending much time with each patient, Dr. Friedman made sure not to pain their pocketbooks, reducing his fees or waiving them entirely when patients couldn’t afford his care. He spent extra time with and expended great sensitivity towards his charity patients, thus convincing them of his care and concern despite their inability to pay for his services.

Sometimes, in place of asking a patient for payment, he would hand him a five-dollar bill and tell him to go buy healthy food. “That,” he would say, “is the best possible medicine for your condition.”

Dr. Friedman’s practice lived up to his ideal. “I’m not doing this for financial rewards,” he often reiterated, “but for the good and happiness that I can spread, and the lives I can save.”

Gedolei Yisrael enjoyed the special care that Dr. Friedman gave them. He treated Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l; Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, during his last visit to the United States before the Holocaust; and the Bobover Rebbe, zy”a, whom he helped rescue from Europe with the Vaad Hatzalah.

Chinuch Habanim

Though he was always very busy with the never-ending needs and demands of his many patients, Dr. Friedman’s heart and mind were still focused on the state of the Jewish community at the time.

He felt that “a body cannot live without a soul,” and that the Jewish community would cease to exist without religion. It followed that it was absolutely essential to maintain and fortify religious education. Most Jewish parents at the time were too busy trying to make a living to worry about their children’s Jewish education, so Dr. Friedman undertook to take care of it for them. He enlisted some of his friends and soon organized Talmud Torah Ohel Torah, one of the pioneer Jewish schools in New York City.

Once it was established, Dr. Friedman maintained his interest in the school and the other Talmudei Torah in the city. He helped fund-raise for the school and would drop by for unexpected visits and farher the boys. At times he distributed prizes and medals to encourage the boys to learn well. While some of his colleagues attended theater and opera for relaxation, Dr. Friedman attended Talmud Torah!

For his own children, neither the Talmud Torah, cheder nor public school were good enough. He therefore hired private tutors to teach his children from when they were 3 years old.

Engaging these tutors was a very serious affair. Dr. Friedman interviewed candidates for hours before selecting those he felt were the most capable of transmitting the material, guiding his children and maintaining discipline.

After the Friday night seudah, Dr. Friedman’s sons would tense up as they readied themselves for their father’s instruction, “Bring out the gemara.” He quizzed them intensively, giving them good reason to make sure they learned the material well during the week.

Fighting for Yiddishkeit

On a personal level, Dr. Friedman was punctilious with his own mitzvah observance. He never wrote a prescription on Shabbos, and instead walked to the pharmacy if medicine was needed. When renting an apartment short-term, he stipulated that he be allowed to build a sukkah on the roof. Once he owned his own home, he added a room with a removable roof to be used as a sukkah.

He never allowed his children to tell him what he called “bubbe maises,” because he refused to listen to lashon hara.

But his personal meticulous mitzvah observance didn’t satisfy him. He wanted American Jewry to morph into a Torah community. He spoke endlessly at meetings, organizations and conventions about the importance of Torah and mitzvah observance. His favorite topics were Shabbos, taharas hamishpachah and religious education.

Dr. Friedman was a successful man and he fraternized with wealthy, successful people. His thoughts were big and grand, and he was willing to work and battle for those things he thought important.

While he understood that Shabbos is the cornerstone of religious observance, he also knew that the American workweek was forcing many to give up their Shabbos. In 1922, his was the first voice to call for a five-day workweek.

Dr. Friedman wrote letters to organizations and officials, called meetings and held conferences to introduce his idea. In addition to promoting Shabbos observance, he believed that a shorter workweek would help protect the health of the workers.

To promote his idea, Dr. Friedman jumped onto the platform of the men’s clothing worker strike at the time. They were striking over general working conditions and low wages; they didn’t dream of a shorter workweek. But Dr. Friedman convinced Herbert Lehman, the governor of New York serving as arbiter in the strike, that offering a shorter workweek would help solve the other problems. Upon the settlement of that strike, the five-day workweek became a reality.

Today, the five-day workweek is par for the course in most industries in the United States. We can thank Dr. Friedman for that!

That same year, the American Humane Association started a movement to prohibit shechitah. The old-new claim that it was painful and inhumane was touted vociferously. A friend of Dr. Friedman, Dr. Moses Hymanson, attended the association’s meeting to refute their contentions.

Dr. Hymanson turned to Dr. Friedman, who then made time to learn about the anatomy of animals just as carefully as he had studied human anatomy back in college. For days, he went to the local “shlachthaus” to observe and take notes. He often brought back animal parts for further study, much to his family’s chagrin.

The paper he prepared for Dr. Hymanson convinced the American Humane Association to drop their claims. Several years later, this same paper was used to combat the criticism of shechitah that arose in Europe.

Time and Interest for Everything

Dr. Friedman involved himself in myriad projects. Employing his creativity and self-confidence, these schemes either promoted Torah and mitzvah observance or helped save lives. When his wife attempted to convince him to relax or go to sleep, his response was, “We shall be a long time sleeping.”

As a young child, Dr. Friedman’s son remembers once hearing bells and whistles while he slept. His father wasn’t playing games with the train set, as he originally thought. Instead, Dr. Friedman was inventing a system of railway signals to prevent train crashes.

His idea of separating a ship’s hull into multiple waterproof compartments to prevent sinking even after it was accidentally penetrated is still in use today and has saved countless lives.

For several years, he probed New York City’s winter snow problem. How could they successfully clear the streets? He spent many days out in the snow trying to figure out what type of shovel would be effective. Then he lugged snow to his bathtub to experiment with different chemicals that would melt it.

After figuring out the type of machine needed, he spent thousands of dollars manufacturing the first prototypes of his snow-clearing machine. After buying two successful models, the city of New York initiated a bill to buy 50 more machines at $25,000 each.

However, the local politicians hinted that they expected some “grease” — about $5,000 per machine — to get the purchase approved. Though they were even willing to up the City’s payment to $30,000 a unit to cover this payback, Dr. Friedman refused to comply. He lost his big order and the city of New York bought a different snow-clearing system, apparently from a manufacturer without Dr. Friedman’s Torah integrity.

Do It Well

Dr. Friedman was strong-minded and spoke with conviction. His words and actions were always motivated by a purpose. A few of his young nephews once came to visit and Dr. Friedman took them outside to play ball. His children were surprised to see how well he played. “Whatever you do, do well,” he told his children. “Even when you play, play well.”

Though Dr. Friedman lived up to his words and accomplished much, he never forgot Who was in charge. His toddler son once tripped and fell when holding a glass cup, cutting a long gash in his cheek.

Later, he told his wife, “B’ezras Hashem, he will be all right. The scar will heal and will not show. I did a good job. I davened, and the Alm-ghty helped me. Don’t worry; leave it in Hashem’s hands.”

Today, 70 years after Dr. Friedman’s death, Torah Jewry thrives in America, and it’s easy to view his life’s work indifferently. When we struggle to keep our Shabbos observance fresh and vibrant, it’s difficult to appreciate that once upon a time in America, in the not-so-distant past, shemiras Shabbos was an act of weekly sacrifice.

But, then again, it is incumbent upon us to forever recall and appreciate the mesirus nefesh of Dr. Friedman and all other American Jews of previous eras who devoted themselves to promoting Torah in the New World. It was, after all, their devotion that created the spiritual groundwork for the Torah communities that we take pride in today. n

Special thanks to Rabbi Isamar Friedman, grandson of Dr. Samuel Friedman, for informing Inyan about the yahrtzeit of his grandfather. The information in this article was taken from “The Angel Cometh,” written by Dr. Friedman’s son Leonard Seymour Friedman in 1966.

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