Fuhren Oif Dacha — How Gedolim Spent their Vacations
Shady Brook Bungalows in the Catskill Mountains hosted the families of some of the great talmidei chachamim of the time, among them Harav Leib Malin, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Beis Hatalmud in East New York and Harav Yisrael Chaim Kaplan, zt”l, Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey. The bungalow colony was a ‘beis vaad lachachamim,’ where the Torah leaders spent their bein hazmanim rejuvenating with their families.
A young [Harav] Naftali Kaplan, shlita, today a Rosh Yeshivah in Beis Hatalmud, sat reclining in a chair, his gemara propped in his hands as he learned in a relaxed position. As Harav Leib Malin passed by, he gazed at the young bachur with a look of dismay and chastised him for what he perceived as a lack of kvod haTorah. “Azoi lernt men? — Is that how one learns?” he asked.
“Nein, azoi dachet men — No, this is how one vacations,” the young bachur countered.
Fuhren oif dacha, or the time Gedolim spent in an environment where they could breathe crisp air, take a refreshing walk and relax a bit was not seen as taking a break from their limud haTorah or avodas Hashem, but rather as a means to revitalize their bodies and invigorate their spirit in preparation and anticipation of the upcoming months.
In Line With Their Inclination
“When my father was learning in the Mir during the 1930s, he traveled with several other American boys to a resort area in the mountains for a bit of a vacation,” Harav Moshe Yosef Scheinerman, shlita, said about his father, Harav Elchanan, zt”l. “As American boys, they exercised and spent their time enjoying the fresh air. One day, Harav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, the Mashgiach of the Mir, came to visit them. Rav Yerucham was very attached to them and said special mussar vaadim for the Americans. When he arrived, the bachurim quickly grabbed their hats and jackets, and surrounded the improvised stage that they’d set up for the Mashgiach to address them. Before he began, Rav Yerucham instructed the bachurim to make themselves comfortable by removing their hats and jackets, and insisted they sit down as well. He understood that they were there to relax, and he did not want to interrupt it by imposing a serious atmosphere.”
* * *
“Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l, who became Mashgiach after Rav Yerucham’s passing, was unique,” Harav Simcha Sheps, zt”l, once told his talmidim. “Ehr iz kein mohl nisht gefuhren oif dacha — he never went on vacation.” Rav Chatzkel’s avodas Hashem entailed maintaining uninterrupted complete devotion.
Yet when it came to guiding his talmidim, Rav Chatzkel insisted they take their requisite breaks. “When we were in Shanghai during WWII, the heat was oppressive and the humidity was unbearable,” said Harav Reuven Fain, zt”l. “Nevertheless, the talmidim learned with unimaginable hasmadah. When bein hazmanim arrived, the Mashgiach sent us out of the beis medrash to take walks and get some air and exercise.”
Harav Eliezer Silver, zt”l, a talmid of Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt”l, came to America in 1907 and served as the Rav in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the president of the Agudas Harabbanim, he was one of the most respected Gedolim in America.
Each summer in his later years, Rav Silver would spend some time in Camp Agudah, where he would regale the campers and staff with stories of Gedolim whom he had known in Europe and encourage them to grow in their Torah and Yiddishkeit. He loved to sing with them, and taught them Litvishe niggunim that he’d picked up in his own youth.
One such niggun, “Tannu Rabbanan,” followed the pattern of “Echad mi yodei’a,” which is sung at the conclusion of the Pesach Seder, with its lyrics using words of Chazal in each ascending stich. As he proceeded, he chose words of a Mishnah or Braisa, beginning with Echad hachofer bor shiach ume’arah (Bava Kamma 5:5) for the number one, Shnayim ochazim b’tallis (Bava Metzia 2a) for the number two, and so on. “I can continue finding appropriate Mishnayos to use until I reach Chamesh-esrei nashim potros tzaroseihen (Yevamos 2a) for the number 15,” he would say.
“Rav Silver loved his vacation in Camp Agudah,” Harav Yisroel Belsky recalled, “and in a way he was ‘the life of the party.’” Each year, as Rav Silver departed camp after his stay, he would hand Mike Tress, the president of the Agudah, a hefty check to support the works of the Agudah. Many were under the impression that the size of the check was dependent on the degree that Rav Silver enjoyed his stay.
Rav Silver once taught a Litvishe niggun to the words, “V’chi lamah yardah neshamah l’matah,” pronouncing it neSamah as the Litvishe did (with a shin pronounced as a sin). The next year, on the day that Rav Silver arrived, the campers, staff and administration lined up along the road to greet this unique Gadol. As Rav Silver emerged from his car, the sound of a song wafted throughout the camp over the PA system. Lo and behold, a counselor had sneaked into the office and begun singing “V’chi lamah yardah neSamah l’matah,” imitating the way Rav Silver had sung the niggun.
Rabbi Baruch Borchardt, the camp director, and Mike Tress turned white, as they felt it was demeaning to the honor of Rav Silver. Although they immediately sent a messenger to remove this counselor from the office and the microphone, the “damage” was already done.
As the singer finished, Rav Silver, who had listened intently, inquired about the singer. When someone pointed out who it was, Rav Silver called him over and with a friendly smile said, “Ihr hut farfelt a kneitch! Gei tzurick uhn zing nuch a mohl — You left out an inflection in the tune! [Which he promptly taught him.] Go back and sing it again!”
Harav Yehudah Zev Segal, zt”l, the great Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, would spend a few weeks each summer in Semmering in the Austrian Alps, during which period he spent his free time, unencumbered by his duties in yeshivah, doing what he enjoyed most: relaxing with his gemara and sefarim.
The Rosh Yeshivah usually had a bachur accompany him, who would care for him as well as learn with him during his stay. Each morning, he would prepare breakfast for him, which was porridge (oatmeal). One morning, the bachur decided try to sneak a spoon of sugar into the Rosh Yeshivah’s breakfast cereal.
“Why was sugar added?” he asked.
Seeing that he was caught, the bachur replied, “I thought because it is bein hazmanim, the Rosh Yeshivah can indulge in something extra.”
“True, it is bein hazmanim, but that does not permit holelos [frivolity],” he replied.
While convalescing in Nice, France, from a medical issue, Rav Segal wished to repay the bachur who looked after his welfare and asked if there was anything he could do for him.
“I would like to know what the Rosh Yeshivah thinks about when he is tending to his personal needs and finds himself in a place where he cannot learn,” the bachur asked earnestly.
“In such circumstances,” the Rosh Yeshivah replied, “I contemplate ways that I can perform chessed with others.
Built on Chessed
Mr. Leopold Lederer was a baker who escaped from Vienna with nine children. With the help of a generous individual, he was able to open a small store on Avenue B on the Lower East Side, where he sold baked goods as well as some chocolates and confections.
One day, a distraught Mr. Lederer came to the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, zy”a. Barton’s, the chocolate conglomerate, planned to open a store nearby, and it would put Mr. Lederer out of business.
The Rebbe called Mr. Stephen Klein, the owner of Barton’s, to discuss the situation with him.
“I have an eitzah,” the Rebbe told Mr. Klein. “We will put [Mr. Lederer] in another business.”
The Rebbe suggested that the Lederers purchase a small hotel in Fleischmanns, N.Y. Mr. Lederer did not have the money to purchase it, and Mr. Klein supplied him with the funds.
Although the purchase was made possible, Mr. Lederer was apprehensive and later asked the Rebbe, “Who will come [to stay in the hotel]?”
“I will come,” the Rebbe replied.
The Rebbe came, and so did the Rebbe’s close friend, Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, among others. (Rav Aharon would spend his “free” time writing the shiurim he had said during the year and had not had time to commit to writing.) With two such Yidden there, it soon became the choice retreat for many others. Indeed, the Rebbe and Rav Aharon used their fuhren oif dacha as a means to perform chessed with a fellow Yid.
As told to Rabbi Avraham Heschel by Rabbi Yaakov Greenwald, zt”l.
Rapport of Rabbanim
After his mother passed away in 5759/1999, my father-in-law, Reb Pesach Nagel, emptied the contents of her apartment and brought them into his house. Boxes of sefarim were stacked on the table, and he offered his children and their spouses to choose anything they wanted. An ancient Chovos Halevavos with German translation caught my eye, and he promptly handed me the sefer as a keepsake. As we perused the boxes, I discovered another sefer that piqued my interest. Sefer Avodas Levi, authored by Harav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, zt”l, in 5690/1930, seemed oddly out of place in Opapa’s collection. As a product of Oberland, the highlands of Czechoslovakia, it seemed odd that he would posses this sefer written by a Litvishe Gadol.
“This sefer has quite a story behind it,” my shver said. “But first, let me show you a piece in the sefer that will surprise you as well.” He turned to Siman 23, which was a letter written in 5688/1928 to Harav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, zt”l, Hy”d, who was then the Rav in Pishtian (Piešťany), Czechoslovakia, which happened to be the hometown of my shver. Rav Teichtal had sent his sefarim, Mishnas Sachir and Tov Yigal, to Rav Ruderman, and as was customary, Rav Ruderman reviewed them and responded with his thoughts on some subjects in the sefarim.
“You are probably surprised why Rav Teichtal sent his sefarim to Rav Ruderman, and why he responded,” my shver said. “Well, Pishtian was a resort town which had wonderful hot springs, and many people visited there during the summer months, especially those who sought relief from their pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Rebbetzin Ruderman suffered greatly from this malady, and they stayed in Pishtian for a while and boarded by my parents. While the Rebbetzin utilized the therapeutic baths of the hot springs, Rav Ruderman headed to the home of the Rav and they spent hours speaking in learning. Later, they continued their discussion through correspondence.
“How my father received Rav Ruderman’s sefer is connected with one of these visits to Pishtian. One day, Rav Ruderman’s only child, Chana, wandered off, nowhere to be found. The townspeople combed the entire neighborhood, but she seemed to have disappeared. My father refused to give up, and he scoured every nook and cranny, and finally found her in a cellar, where she had fallen through a trap door which opened to the street. The Rudermans couldn’t stop thanking my father, and insisted that if he was ever in their area, he must come and visit them in their home.
“In 5790/1930, Rav Ruderman moved to America, and in 5693/1933 he opened Yeshivah Ner Yisrael in Baltimore. After my parents immigrated in the early 1950s, they decided to pay a visit. Rav Ruderman welcomed them warmly, and as they reminisced, he gave my father a copy of his wonderful sefer, which contained his thoughts on the sefarim of Rav Teichtal.”
“It’s interesting that you mention how Rav Ruderman spent his vacation to speak in learning with the Rav of the city,” I said. “I remember how a bit over a decade ago, I saw him in Camp Agudah as he spoke in learning for hours with Harav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe in Cleveland. Although the camp had one guest suite for their ‘Shabbos Gadol,’ they were forced to refurbish a second one because Rav Gifter insisted that he wanted to spend his vacation speaking in learning with Rav Ruderman.”
Rav Gifter had another distinctive practice during his annual stay in Camp Agudah. Unlike others, he insisted on davening each morning together with the “Junior Minyan,” where the youngest bunks davened each day. The innocence of the tefillos of these youngsters brought special satisfaction to the Telshe Rosh Yeshivah. “Perhaps if we had something like this in Europe, which infuses the young children with such joy for Yiddishkeit, we would not have lost so many of them to the various ideologies of the times,” Rav Gifter once remarked.
* * *
The Brisker Rav, Harav Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik, zt”l, suffered from asthma, and would spend several weeks each summer convalescing in Krinitza (Krynica-Zdrój), Poland, a town where the fresh mountain air and the mineral spa made the resort a favorite of many Gedolim.
One summer, the Brisker Rav met Harav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, zt”l, the Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshivah and a prime talmid of the Rav’s father, Harav Chaim Brisker, zt”l. When Rav Baruch Ber told the Rav that he felt the air in Krinitza was extremely good, the Rav expressed his surprise. “I suffer from asthma, so I can judge the quality of the air. But how do you know that the air is so good here?” he asked.
“Es trachts zich besser — I can think better [in learning],” was Rav Baruch Ber’s reply. “Certainly, if I can think better while I’m learning, the quality of the air must be good.”
* * *
Before the talmidim of Telshe Yeshivah would leave for their summer break, Rav Gifter would tell them, “Bein hazmanim iz far di kleine masechtelach — the intersession is best used to learn some of the small masechtos [on your own].”
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