Thirty-seven years ago, on the eve of Sukkot, a drunken driver smashed his car into my father-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Feuerman. His legs were crushed. After the 19th operation, he stopped counting. Unfortunately, the hospital botched up the surgeries, extending his stay there by months. Now my father-in-law was in a position to sue and make millions. He asked an Adam Gadol -- a great man whose identity he always kept a closely guarded secret: “Should I sue these guys or not?”
The Adam Gadol said, “Gezunte gelt is besser.” Healthy money is better. Meaning, money that you earn from when you’re well is preferable.
This struck a deep chord in my father-in-law. His parents were honest Galicianer Jews, people who came from the region of the Baal Shem Tov—the water carriers, the salt miners, the diggers, the baalei agalah. My father-in-law’s grandfather drove a horse and buggy and ran the bath house in Kolomea, a town near Podolia. They were people who didn’t know a pasuk with Rashi but could quote verses from Tehillim and the like. A favorite was: “Yegia kapecha ki socheil ashrecha v’tov lach.” If you will eat from the work of your hands, you will be fortunate and it will be good for you. To my father-in-law’s parents and grandparents, it would’ve been inconceivable to take a short cut and sue.
My father-in-law didn’t sue. Instead, he remained in the saddle for 37 years, working as a principal and later as a school doctor and education consultant. In the latter capacity, he was flown out to Caracas, Zurich, San Francisco, Jerusalem, Montreal, Savannah, Miami, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Atlanta. And, of course, he worked with many schools in the tri-state area.
He was a principal’s principal. Everybody knew it. Roshei Yeshivah would stand for him because of his profound contributions in Jewish education.
As my father-in-law and I were working on his memoir, he wondered, “Was the advice the Adam Gadol gave me good for me?”
He answered his own question.
“Well,” he said, “I’m living the life of Riley now. I’m fortunate and blessed in so many ways. If I had gotten that settlement, I likely would’ve stopped working and stopped teaching. I would’ve missed out on the best years of my life.”
For these past 18 months -- minus the three months when he had laryngitis or when he was hospitalized or out traveling on business -- my father-in-law told me stories about his life. They are his words that I pulled out of him and then wrote down. We had the time of our lives, and then, finally, we were done. I suggested we have a brainstorming session for a title. He said sure. We could talk the next day. That evening, after he finished teaching a graduate course in education, he passed away. He was 88. The story below appeared in Ami Magazine for Sukkot.
Rav Hutner and Me
Memories of a student of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin
as told to Ruchama Feuerman
by her father-in-law, rabbi Chaim Feuerman, zt”
It was the late 1940s and I was a student at City College, heading toward a career in journalism. On a lark, I applied for admission to the Jewish Theological Seminary, never thinking I’d be admitted. After all, I didn’t have a strong Jewish academic background, just afternoon Hebrew school and some Hebrew classes in the Bronx. Not a likely candidate, I thought.
But I applied and they accepted me, with a full scholarship, room and board. They gave me meal tickets. I was fed and housed. Not only that, but if you put your shoes outside your dormitory door, the next morning you found them polished. I never knew who did the polishing. It was part of the service.
So I found myself in the JTS rabbinical school, learning full time.
At that time the Conservative movement was rich and prospering. Here’s what happened: My rabbinical school turned out to be a career mill. It was a place where guys prepared themselves to be the well-compensated rabbis of these congregations, with all the perks that the “calling” entailed.
Many of the professors weren’t much better. They had formidable knowledge, but quite a few were wise guys, cynical scholars with no deep love for Yiddishkeit. They were just busy being professors and making careers, nothing like the dedicated but less-learned teachers from my earlier years in the Bronx, the maskilim—old-time, traditional but not necessarily observant Jews who had learned in Slabodka, Mir and other Lithuanian and Polish citadels of Talmudic study.
The student body was comprised of three categories. The first group consisted of those who just wanted to make a buck and establish a career for themselves, and who had no interest in Torah or spirituality of any kind. Then there were the real bums, who engaged in all kinds of shenanigans. It was disappointing, very disheartening to me, the very opposite of inspiring. The third group were reasonably sincere guys who were searching for something genuine. They did not find it, I did not find it, and it was crushing, terrible for me.
(There did exist, however, an inner circle of four or five young men who were true adherents of Abraham Joshua Heschel. They were dubbed “The Velvet Yarmulka Boys.”)
You see, my whole life I’d believed in the genuineness of Yiddishkeit. Even the maskilim in my Hebrew school had had it—that sincerity. I thought of my various professors, who allegedly represented authentic Yiddishkeit. I kept wondering if all rabbis were the same phonies that my teachers and fellow students appeared to be. It was as though the ground had been whisked away from under me. I was falling into a deep abyss, into nothingness—no parameters, no guidelines, no rules, nothing required, nothing prohibited. Let your imagination roam.
A friend of mine, Richard Rubenstein, started speaking to me about a rabbi he’d come to know and like. He said, “You have to meet Rabbi Hutner.”
I thought to myself: Hey, if Rubenstein is talking to Rabbi Hutner, maybe there’s something there for me. He gave me the number of Rav Hutner, the dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin.
I kept calling, only to be put off. I understood that Rav Hutner was a great man and that it wasn’t so simple to get in to see him. He had to be sure you really wanted to see him. I persisted, and each time I was told to call again. It was part of his shtick, as I’ll explain later.
Finally I was granted an audience. I showed up in a camel-colored sports jacket, blue slacks, a hat of some kind. Yeshivos didn’t look so yeshivish in those days, but still I stood out.
I entered an austere-looking room. Rav Hutner sat behind a bare desk in a solid wood chair. He wore a big black hat and big black-rimmed glasses, and he had a big black beard. I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a beard. Most of the people I knew didn’t have beards at all; those who did had these tiny trimmed things. But this was a full-blown beard. He must’ve been wearing a rabbinic frock. It was all a big black blur to me.
I was struck by his forehead, which was very large. (Years later, whenever he sent a student to buy a hat for him, the talmid would ask what size he should get, and Rav Hutner would say, “The biggest one they have. That’s my size.”)
To me, he looked like Moses.
He said—no, he boomed—“What are you doing here? What do you want?” A cane rested near his chair; I later found out it was mostly for show.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I just told him how disappointed I was by what I had seen and experienced in the seminary.
He asked, “Are you having struggles with faith?” When he spoke, he threw me a piercing look that seemed to uncover things inside me.
I said, “Yes, I’m struggling.”
He leaned closer, looked directly into my eyes. “Do you keep the mitzvos while you’re struggling with matters of faith?” He spoke English with a slight Warsaw accent.
I said, “Yes, I do.”
I heard afterward that this was the main thing that had impressed him about me.
He spoke to me in Yiddish, my native tongue. He said, “An einikel" -- grandchild --
"of Avraham Avinu, whose soul stood at Sinai, comes here and wants to learn Torah?” He paused. “We’ll teach him.”
I stared at him. He no longer seemed like a big black blur. I saw the fierce intelligence in his dark brown eyes, an intensity. He was a man who was willing to sacrifice for Yiddishkeit and Torah. What he said resonated with what my mother and grandmother had shared with me from my earliest infancy, when they put me to bed saying the Shema.
When I stared at him, really, I was seeing my grandmother, a “Tzena U’rena Yiddena,” and my mother, who had slept on a barrel and earned three dollars a week to bring her own mother over from Europe in 1913 and had never stopped davening. I saw my early teachers in the Bronx, maskilim, yes, who had a passion for teaching Torah although they didn’t necessarily observe it. I saw all of this and more in Rav Hutner’s eyes and face and big black beard.
Ah, I felt, here we are at last. This is coming home, what a rabbinical school is supposed to be, the genuine article...what I’d been searching for all these years.
Rav Hutner made it his business to know all of the science, Jewish history, and critical editions of the Talmud and midrashic literature that Conservative Judaism in theory was built on. He made sure so that he could discuss it intelligently with anyone who was intelligent enough to discuss it with him. He was charismatic, loving, caring, sincere.
Yeshiva Chaim Berlin presented itself as mesiras nefesh, great sincerity, willingness to give up things in order to learn, a whole new world.
If you want, you could call it a conversion. And so my association with the yeshivah began in 1950 and lasted for at least three decades.
I mentioned the word “shtick” in connection with Rav Hutner. You see, there was a whole approach, a way he had with his students. He expected reverence. If he walked into a room anywhere, you leapt to your feet.
Everyone smoked then, so you immediately doused the cigarette you were smoking, threw it to the ground and stomped on it. He had a buzzer on the door to his office. You couldn’t enter until he buzzed you in. And when you left his presence, you backed out, not the way you would take leave of a regular person.
When you spoke about him, you referred to him as the “Rosh Yeshivah” or “Rebbe.” Not “your rebbe” or “our rebbe,” but just plain “Rebbe,” as if he were the Rebbe of the whole world. When you addressed him directly, you spoke to him in third person: “How is the Rosh Yeshivah feeling today?” You’re never dream of saying, “How are you feeling today?”
Once we were turning off the lights with a kind of light switch no longer in style. Rav Hutner lifted his cane to push one of the buttons. Like a good talmid, I lunged to turn off the light for him so he wouldn’t have to strain. “Nein, Chaim. Let it be. Everybody has to have his plaything; this one is mine,” and with that he poked his cane at the light switch and turned it off.
In those days we spoke to him in Yiddish. Most of the yeshivah students, the bachurim, spoke Yiddish, although Rav Hutner spoke an impeccable English and prided himself on it. In fact, he had studied a bit at the University of Berlin with Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchick and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Once, Moshe Greenes, my future brother-in law, was talking to someone in Rav Hutner’s presence. Moshe said, “Do you realize that Rebbe is familiar with the writings of Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth?” At that point, Rav Hutner chimed in, “Nu, and Keats not?” (Or, as he phrased it in Yiddish, “Nu, und Keats nit?”)
Of course, this whole experience was a stark contrast to JTS. We were American boys. We were used to speaking to everyone as equals. The rabbis and teachers at JTS got no deference at all, or at least nothing more than you’d give any high school teacher or college professor. Some were ridiculed and disdained, sometimes to their faces. Some of them deserved it, and a lot worse.
But here it was as though I had moved into another world, the unAmerica. Strangely, I was very happy in this world, very comfortable. I was not bothered at all by all the trappings of reverence. I thought of myself as a subject of this royal majesty. An aura of holiness seemed to surround Rav Hutner. I understood he was taking American students who’d never had a taste of the yeshivos of Europe—Telz, Vilna, and others—and trying to recreate that world here, in Flatbush. The idea behind his apparent “shtick” was reverence for Torah—haramas keren haTorah. You see, in the 1940s and ’50s, the yeshivaleit, the ones who devoted themselves to Torah study, were held in very low esteem. They were considered ill-mannered wastrels, schleppers with unpolished shoes and rumpled shirts.
Rav Hutner was generating a culture in which the Torah and yeshivah world were esteemed. He viewed himself as the repository of Torah for that generation. He knew what kavod haTorah truly was, and as a result, he insisted on many demonstrations of respect toward him. Giving Rav Hutner respect had a way of boosting our own self-esteem. And by the way, it was implicit in Chaim Berlin that we dressed well.
Rav Hutner was a powerful leader, and he wanted his students to follow his model: to be tough guys, firm, solid, unflinching, men who couldn’t be bought or bribed or cajoled into something other than Toras emes, the true Torah. Gaavah dikedushah. Holy pride. He discouraged his students from klei kodesh, from becoming teachers or rabbis, whom he viewed as mouthpieces for the laymen.
Kashrus was in a terrible state then. There was no Orthodox Union, no ArtScroll, many women didn’t cover their hair, many danced socially, no one learned Torah. For this reason, he encouraged us to become learned and steadfast baalei batim, laymen of means who would hire the right deans and roshei yeshivah, men who would be incorruptible. Only in this way could they achieve the kind of independence necessary to change the religious landscape in America.
I saw firsthand his genius in inspiring and influencing young men who were seeking Jewish faith, spirituality and Torah learning. He was a builder. He formed Torah leaders. No one could build like he did.
Let me backtrack to JTS for a moment. One of my fellow students at JTS was Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, the son of a Conservative rabbi who was preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps. Pinchas happened to be one of the few sincere guys I’d met at JTS. He was also an adherent of the famed Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an activist for Eretz Yisrael.
In those days, “activist” was not a respectable word. The whole concept of demonstrations didn’t exist. We were a compliant generation that idolized Roosevelt. But Pinchas was a rebel and a Jabotinskyite.
A few short years after the Holocaust, then-Mayor of New York Vincent Impellitteri invited a German soccer team to City Hall and honored them with a reception. As the Netziv Betar of New York, and with the pain of the Holocaust still fresh, Pinchas felt it his duty to stand up and protest what he considered a serious affront to the memories of the six million.
He and 12 other people gathered to distribute leaflets and throw rotten tomatoes at the mayor, his entourage and the German soccer team. The reception was ruined and Pinchas was arrested. Pinchas Stolper’s picture was splashed on the front cover of the Daily Mirror. It was a big embarrassment, a shande for the Jewish people. Jews were mortified.
I was sitting in Rav Hutner’s office and he was holding a copy of the Daily Mirror, a rag akin to the New York Post. Rav Hutner pointed to Pinchas, the guy on the cover. He said, “This fellow has chutzpah. We need him.”
So I got him. I can’t remember what I said to him, only that I introduced him to Rav Hutner. He stayed, one of three JTSniks at Chaim Berlin.
Pinchas Stolper took that chutzpah and used it in all the positive ways chutzpah can be used. But this was quintessential Rav Hutner. He recognized qualities that would normally be considered negative and useless, and he knew what to do with them.
When Pinchas Stolper took over NCSY, he made what was considered an outrageous pronouncement. He declared, “Social dancing is asur min haTorah—forbidden from the Torah.”
This hit everyone like a shock wave. Social dancing was an accepted fact of life. Everyone, and I mean everyone, enjoyed social dancing. At shul dinners, annual yeshivah dinners and fundraisers, everyone got up and danced. No one questioned this. It was similar to women not covering their hair at the time. That was the practice.
You can imagine that Rabbi Stolper caused quite an uproar. Again, people were mortified.
Rav Hutner was proud of his guy, though. He had been chutzpahdik, the way he was supposed to be.•