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The Way We Were

Rabbi Berel Wein left a burgeoning career as a corporate lawyer for a more fulfilling path as a synagogue rabbi and educator. Now, in a new book, “Teach Them Diligently,” the internationally-renowned scholar, historian, and lecturer reflects on the formative events of his life, including his early years spent in Chicago. In the following excerpt, he describes being a high school student at the Hebrew Theological College, then on Chicago’s West Side, and his time at DePaul University College of Law.

Toward the end of ninth grade, I was placed in Reb Mendel Kaplan’s class. Reb Mendel was a disciple of both Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the famed mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, and Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, rosh yeshiva of Baranovitch. I remember the first day he began to teach us. I loved him at first sight, captivated by his blue eyes and reddish beard, great sense of humor, masterful pedagogic techniques, and warm personality. He loved all human beings. Full of understanding, broad-minded and tolerant, he crushed all our childish prejudices against others. He understood the psyche of his young American students, and opened a window to the rich Jewish life of Eastern Europe without denigrating us or our American mores.

Best of all were Reb Mendel’s digressions in the midst of teaching Talmud. They touched on all aspects of life and helped shape me as a Jew and a person. Once you studied with Reb Mendel, your outlook on life deepened; your understanding of Jewish values and Torah observance expanded exponentially.

His love and respect for his brother, Rabbi Herzl Kaplan, was palpable and helped teach me an important lesson about family loyalty and harmony. If you asked Reb Mendel a particularly difficult question on the Talmudic text, he would refer you to his brother.

On the frosty Friday nights of the winter, he conducted a class on the weekly parshah. Attendance was voluntary, but he purposely limited the roster of who had the right to attend. This tactic naturally made it the most sought-after class in the yeshiva. He would begin at 10 p.m. and  lock the door at 10:01. The room was always filled, and many times the class didn’t end until 1 am. It was (as my father always said of Rabbi Kook’s Shabbat discourses) “a taste of the World to Come,” replete with the warmth and holiness of Shabbat that flooded the crowded room with spirit. My mother was not always so happy about my coming home late at night, but my father rejoiced at my spiritual growth under Reb Mendel’s tutelage. I had now become not only my father’s son, but his learning partner as well, so to speak, sharing with him Reb Mendel’s wisdom.

Reb Mendel’s aphorisms have remained with me. I can still hear him say, “Frum iz a galach (Only a monk is pious!)” or “Life is like chewing gum – a little flavor, and the rest is chew, chew, chew.” He taught me how to really read a newspaper, spotting its unintended lessons in life. And he was a shrewd judge of character, yet never overly cynical or depressing. He seemed to have the right answer for all situations, and his advice was unerringly cogent.

I viewed Reb Mendel as a holy Jew with downright supernatural powers. I always marveled at his ability to leaf through books at random on his desk without missing a beat in teaching Talmud. One such book, an Israeli Jewish history text, accepted as fact that there were two Isaiahs (a favorite gambit of Bible critics and maskilim). It not only recorded this “fact” but actually featured a portrait – an artist’s rendition of a wild-eyed, bearded, bareheaded Jew of ancient visage – of this “second” Isaiah. So while teaching us a complicated subject in Talmud, Reb Men- del happened to be flipping through this book. He spied the picture of the “second Isaiah,” and we all held our breath. Without interrupting his explanation of the Talmud, he calmly flung the volume across our sizable classroom. We watched transfixed as the book shot directly into the wastebasket at the far end of the room. I never again had any doubts about the unity of the book of Isaiah. Reb Mendel had convinced me.

Reb Mendel paid special attention to me. At least, that was how I felt. I now realize that everyone in his class felt that way. I spent two and a half years in his class and never lost contact with him for the rest of his life.

Chicago’s Jewish youth groups were connected to Hapoel Hamizrachi, the largest and most active Orthodox organization in the city. I attended the Shabbat afternoon groups for several years, but when I was fourteen, Reb Mendel gently weaned me away from them. I began spending my Shabbat afternoons in the yeshiva and at home studying with my father.

I spent two summers at Camp Moshava, located in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. I didn’t really enjoy camping; the lack of privacy made me uncomfortable. So when Reb Mendel recommended summer school instead, and learning with older students in the yeshiva, I happily took him up on it.

Yet the Hapoel Hamizrachi  experience provided me with friends and an opportunity to socialize in a religious atmosphere, which helped ameliorate my inherent shyness. (I’m told that social reticence is part of the “only child” syndrome.) It also implanted knowledge and love of the Land of Israel. It nurtured within me a yearning for aliyah, which would come to fruition fifty years later.

Letters from my Israeli relatives and Hapoel Hamizrachi sensitized me to the turbulent historical drama unfolding in the newborn State of Israel. All the struggles were real and heartrending, yet despite everything the Jews were returning to their homeland!

I’ll never forget the speech delivered by the great Rav of Ponivezh, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, in the Chicago yeshiva. He stated that a number of Jews in Palestine were determined to drive the British out of the country, and had now been imprisoned. And he said with great conviction (and, I thought, prophecy) that these few Jews would undoubtedly succeed. Then he added: “If I had a cadre of Jews who were equally determined to build a Torah state in the Land of Israel, such a Torah state would undoubtedly arise.” I have remembered his words all my life. That cadre of idealists has not yet fully arrived – though the State of Israel is decidedly more Torah-oriented  today than ever.

I spent eleventh and twelfth grades in the class of Rabbi Rogow, a true tzaddik. He was modest, courteous, soft-spoken, and gentle, and his entire being was dedicated to Torah study and teaching. Before fleeing to Shanghai, he had served as a rabbi in the Lithuanian town of Sinaii, known for its meritorious  rabbinic figures. He and my father were good friends, and I often eavesdropped on their reminiscences of Lithuania and was amazed by their knowledge of works of Torah that I had never heard of, let alone studied.

Rabbi Rogow taught one class in the morning and one in the evening, and for a while I attended both. Since all the yeshiva rebbeim taught in Yiddish, eventually I became proficient in that language, so much so that I felt it was constructed purely for expressing the nuances of Talmud study. Rabbi Rogow taught in the classical Lithuanian analytical style, interspersing the insights of centuries of commentators. We nevertheless completed at least fifty folios of Talmud every year. He urged us to compose short essays in Hebrew on the Talmudic topics of the week. There was a bulletin board outside the main study hall, and there he posted the best essay of the week for the entire yeshiva – faculty and students – to see and study. A number of my essays were posted, beginning my lifelong interest in writing words of Torah.

Every Friday morning, Rabbi Rogow would deliver a pilpul shiur – a long, detailed analysis of a subject we had studied (and supposedly mastered) that week. He would also offer a ten-minute homiletical insight into the parshah of the week. Ah, he was a master at that. I gained a great deal from him: how to see Midrash and use its insights for sermons and discussions. On Shabbat afternoons, a number of us would walk over to his apartment and study with him. His wife, a niece of the great Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz and an outstanding personality in her own right, would stuff us with her cookies. The warmth and radiance of Shabbat and Torah in that home permeated  all our beings, and I believe it helped shape many of us into rabbis, teachers, and Jewish leaders the world over.

I’ve always felt especially blessed that I had such marvelous Torah teachers. I was the youngest in the yeshiva and many other students were already past high school. Nevertheless, I had good friends and great social interactions with everyone.

After high school, I was awarded a full scholarship to Roosevelt College, based on my entrance exam and high school record. Since I was in the yeshiva all day until 5:30 pm, I attended only night school and summer sessions. Roosevelt College was a very liberal, left-wing institution, and a number of my teachers were avowed Communists and atheists who looked askance at yeshiva students. I had many a sharp debate with some of these professors on matters of religion and differing value systems. To their credit, they never punished me for my “reactionary views” when it came to grading me at the end of the semester. I was pretty much an A student in college, but no subject captivated me. I majored in education by default, but my heart and mind were really in my Torah studies. Though my day was long – starting yeshiva at 7 a.m., and returning home from college at 10:30 p.m. to begin my homework – I was quite happy.

Rabbi Kreiswirth, the rosh yeshiva, fostered my commitment to Torah study. In his early thirties, handsome – with a small, French-style, trimmed beard – and dressed in bright, modern suits and colorful ties, he was charismatic and dynamic. He was also a Talmudic genius, possessed of a photographic memory, who inspired devotion and emulation among his students. He was a world-class orator as well, and from listening to him I gained many insights into the art of public speaking and the use of Talmudic anecdotes in lectures and sermons.

Rabbi Kreiswirth became my mentor, trusted adviser, and role model. He played a constant, significant role in my life until his death. In my opinion, his interpersonal skills and innate abilities influenced his students more than his Talmudic lectures, in which his soaring genius – expressed in a Polish Yiddish dialect – was often over our heads. A powerful personality, he shaped the lives and ideals of his students.  He demanded that we help rebuild the Jewish world – especially the Torah world – after the terrible events of World War II.

Rabbi Kreiswirth introduced us to towering Torah personalities passing through Chicago. Somehow he corralled them all to come speak to us on Friday mornings. Thus, I met and heard Rabbis Eliyahu Kitov (Monktofsky), Binyamin Mintz (of Poalei Agudat Yisrael), Meir Karelitz (secretary to the Chofetz Chaim), and Yaakov Kamenetsky (Rabbi Kreiswirth’s wife’s uncle and rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn), among a host of other fascinating people. Rabbi Kreiswirth knew everyone there was to know in the Torah world. And we, his stu- dents, benefited from his superb networking.

At age nineteen, finishing my second year in college, I was accepted into the semichah program in the yeshiva. Not everyone was. According to an anecdote that made the rounds in the yeshiva for decades, a young man was refused, and his mother personally appealed the decision to the dean of the yeshiva. She maintained that her son was the most pious student in the yeshiva. How could he be excluded from the program? The dean told her: “Madam, for piety one merits the

World to Come, but not semichah!”

The program required two years of intensive study of Shulchan Aruch – mainly Yoreh Deah (laws of kashrut, family purity, and mourning) and Orach Chaim (laws of prayer, Shabbat, holidays, daily ritual, and synagogue practice) – plus some homiletics, speech training and practical rabbinics, philosophy, and history. The main teacher was Rabbi David Kaganoff, an outstanding Talmudic scholar from the Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, and a pulpit rabbi on the northwest side of Chicago. He was a demanding teacher, yet very kind and caring.

Rabbi Kaganoff was very kind to me. When I was about  to become engaged, I had no money to buy an engagement ring. My jeweler neighbor assured me that I could get a suitable ring for $300. Rabbi Kaganoff came to the rescue. He invited me to speak to his congregation over the High Holidays of 5715/1954. My pay would be exactly $300. Naturally, I accepted the offer. In addition to the fee, I wanted the experience of addressing a sizable congregation on the High Holidays. It was perfect. The gracious hospitality of Rabbi Kaganoff and his wife over the holidays was a memorable bonus.

During my yeshiva years, I spent many a lunch hour in the yeshiva library. The library was a magnificent room and had a librarian on duty, Mrs. Leah Mishkin, who was the daughter of Rabbi Nissan Yablonsky, the first rosh yeshiva. It was there I began reading books on Jewish his- tory, in English and Hebrew, and Mrs. Mishkin always found interesting journals and articles on Judaic studies for me. I did not realize what an effect those hours in the yeshiva library would have upon me in later life.

The younger students in the yeshiva were close to my age, and I made every effort to maintain contact with them, though the semichah students were somewhat cut off from the rest. Many of my friends from those years later became luminaries in the Jewish world. The list reads like a Who’s Who of Jewish leadership: Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, head of the famed Mir Yeshiva of Jerusalem; Dr. Avigdor (Victor) Bonchek, noted therapist and expert on Rashi’s Bible commentary;  Dr. Aron Twerski, a dean at Hofstra Law School in New York; Dr. Twerski’s twin brother, Rabbi Michel Twerski, a Hasidic rebbe in Milwaukee and an out- standing force in the kiruv movement in America; Rabbi Dr. Abraham

(Shiya) Twerski, the famed author, lecturer, psychiatrist, and addiction expert; Rabbi Reuven Aberman, dean of students at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (part of Yeshiva University  in New York) and later a prominent educator in Israel; Rabbi Shlomo Merzel, head of the Horev education network in Jerusalem; Rabbi Milton Polin, well-known pulpit rabbi and president of the Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Yehuda Copperman, founder and longtime head of the Michlala women’s college in Jerusalem; Rabbi Aryeh Rottman, founder and head of Yeshiva Mercaz HaTorah in Jerusalem; Rabbi David Kalefski, rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore; Rabbis Gershon and Mordechai Swimmer, both renowned Torah educators in Israel; Rabbi David Lehrfield of Miami, one of the world’s foremost experts in gittin; Rabbi David Fox, a rosh kollel and educator in Israel; and Rabbi Moshe Litoff, a rabbi in Chicago and later dean of students at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

As you can see, the yeshiva in Chicago possessed an extra- ordinarily outstanding, individualistic, and varied student body. Through these students, the yeshiva contributed greatly to the rebirth of Ortho- doxy and Torah study throughout the Jewish world. I have always felt most fortunate to have been in the right place – Beis Medrash L’Torah in Chicago, at the right time – 1944 to 1955.

Surrounded by the intellectual ferment of my fellow students and outstanding rebbeim, I studied Yoreh Deah very thoroughly and passed the difficult oral, closed-book exams. At age twenty-one, I received my semichah, becoming the seventh consecutive generation in my family to be ordained.

I applied to the University of Chicago Law School, a very prestigious place indeed. Not only was I accepted, I was awarded a full scholar- ship. But the rub was that I would no longer be able to attend the yeshiva, since there were no night classes at the law school. So I applied to the DePaul University College of Law and was accepted. DePaul had a full night school schedule, which would allow me to remain in the yeshiva until 5:30 p.m. The difference between the University of Chicago and DePaul was explained to me by the dean of the latter: “The University of Chicago accepts only seventy-five students into its first-year law school class, but expects all seventy-five to complete the program and pass the bar. DePaul accepts three hundred students into its first-year law school class, but expects only seventy-five to complete their studies and pass the bar.” The DePaul night school classes were taught by excellent professors – some became federal judges – and the students were serious, older, and committed. However, true to the dean’s prediction, most of my classmates dropped out.

DePaul is a Roman Catholic institution, and its atmosphere and faculty provided a stark contrast with the liberal, progressive, and relaxed atmosphere at Roosevelt College. Paradoxically, I felt much more at home in the Catholic school than in the atheistic/agnostic, hedonistic liberal arts college.

Yet DePaul exposed me to the real world, to non-Jews who dis- liked me simply because I was Jewish. Roosevelt College had many Jewish students, so to a certain extent I never felt strange there. At DePaul, the overwhelming majority of law students were Roman Catholic and somewhat bigoted. There were only two black students and one woman in our very large class, and they were pretty much as isolated as I was.

Nevertheless, law school was, all in all, a positive experience for me. I did fairly well there, even winning a prize for the best fresh- man grades. And I’m grateful for my law education. It helped train me in analysis and research, and greatly improved my writing. Because of my double schedule with the yeshiva, I learned to multitask before the word was invented.

When it came to graduation, the two other Orthodox Jews and I faced a dilemma. The school was celebrating a special anniversary that year, so the graduation would be held in the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Chicago, with the cardinal of Chicago himself handing out the diplomas. Courtesy and tradition dictated that each recipient kiss the cardinal’s ring, or perform some other act of servitude. And in order to sit for the Illinois bar exam and gain a license to practice law, one had to bring a document from law school stating that he had attended his graduation ceremony, or been lawfully excused from attending.

We discussed how to resolve the dilemma. One of my colleagues suggested that we each obtain doctor’s notes stating that we were ill on graduation day. I rejected the idea as untruthful and impractical. I recommended that we go to the dean of the law school and simply tell him the truth. When we did finally go, he was most understanding and issued us the necessary documents to sit for the bar exam. He explained that barely a month earlier his predecessor, a nephew and namesake of president and former chief justice William Howard Taft, had died. Dean Taft had built the law school and nurtured it for decades, and he was its original claim to fame. Yet he was not a Roman Catholic, so his funeral did not conform to Catholic rituals and sensitivity. Therefore, none of the Catholic professors at the law school attended. So the current dean understood our position and was most accommodating.

And I learned an important, lifelong lesson: The most successful lie is always the truth.

“Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi is published by Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem. It is available online and from authorized Koren booksellers.



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