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Personal Recollections of my Great-Uncle, Rav Abba Zalke Gewirtz Z”L Upon his Shloshim – 28 o

With the passing of my Great-Uncle, Rav Abba Zalke Gewirtz Z”L, a terrible sadness came over me. Aside from the myriad memories that continue to flood in – as a child seeing my uncle and Tante Libby A”H when they would visit my home every year on Acharon Shel Pesach; as a teenager when I ate many many Shabbos meals at their home in Bishop Park while learning in Telshe Yeshivah; as a married Kolel man who would bring my children to the Gewirtz’s on Purim and other holidays – one thought pervasively occupies my mind about my dear Great-Uncle. In truth, this was my first reaction the moment I heard of his passing: “Who can possibly be maspid Uncle Zalke in today’s day and age? Who can do him proper justice? Who really knows him? He has no contemporaries!”

            That statement hit me like a ton of bricks! Recently, Klal Yisroel has lost many Gedolim, including my own Rosh Yeshivah, HaRav Chaim Stein ZT”L. He was universally renowned as a link to a previous world, an earlier generation, the life of European Torah Jewry. When he passed away, we felt as if it was the end of an era. And it was! But my dear Uncle Zalke was still connected to another previous generation – not the European bastions of Torah, but the era of early American Jewry. A time when Yiddishkeit was struggling to take hold in America, when the term “Yeshivah Bochur” was looked upon – at best with dubious admiration, at worst with derision and scorn. Religious observance needed a push; Yeshivos and Torah learning needed a push; American Jewry needed a wake-up call. My uncle, a man of formidable talents and capabilities, Rav Abba Zalka Gewirtz, provided that push and that wake-up call! And now that he’s gone, that era is over as well.

            At the funeral, much ado was made about my uncle and his connection to his Rebbi, Rav Dovid Lebowitz ZT”L. Interestingly enough, I, too, have a connection to Rav Dovid; I am named after him. The reason is because my grandfather, Rav Yitzchok Hoffman ZT”L, was also a close talmid of Rav Dovid, and he asked my father to give the name after his Rosh Yeshivah, just as Uncle Zalke named his son, Dovid Gewirtz, after his Rebbi and Rosh Yeshivah. In fact, my zaida met my uncle when they were both talmidim in the early years in Williamsburg and they became fast and lifelong friends. I recall once how Uncle Zalke was regaling me with tales of how he was my grandparents’ shadchan (four other people also take credit for that honor!) and how he made the initial introduction for my grandfather to meet my grandmother. He used to say, “I had an ‘in’ with the Kamin (my Bubby’s maiden name) family – I married their daughter!” He did, indeed: my grandmother Rose and Tante Libby were sisters!

            It was many years later that I learned from another family member that the three-way connection between Uncle Zalke, my zaida and their Rebbe, was not just a spiritual bond, but in fact, one that was contingent on matters of life and death. In 1938, soon after their wedding, my grandparents traveled to Slabodka where they lived, as my zaida learned there in the kolel. When the war broke out in September 1939, many people urged them to escape but my grandfather refused to leave his yeshivah behind. Thus, they stayed on throughout most of 1940. Unfortunately, this made it infinitely harder for them to get out of Lithuania when they were urged by family and the Roshei Yeshivah in Slabodka to do so. At this point, what they needed were special documents proving their American citizenship, and there was only one place to get them: Washington, DC.

            It was in the fall of 1940, when Rav Dovid called his prize talmid, Abba Zalke Gewirtz, and explained that there was only one way for his brother-in-law and sister-in-law to be rescued. He bade my uncle to travel to the State Department in Washington to retrieve the precious documents. That very day, Uncle Zalke hopped a train to Washington, and through his great gift of gab and his tremendous powers of persuasion, he secured the papers. By December 1940, my grandparents were on the last military transport ship out of Lithuania and Uncle Zalke and Tante Libby were the first ones at the pier in New York harbor, welcoming my grandparents in March of 1941. What is equally amazing about this story, is that when I mentioned it at the shivah, nobody from the family recalled hearing it from their father or mother. It was all done under the radar – “shtiller-heit”!

            When the news of Rabbi Gewirtz’s petirah broke, I received a phone call that same day from a close friend of mine from Cleveland. He called me because he “needed to talk to someone.” All those years that Rabbi Gewirtz was a mainstay in Telshe Yeshivah, my friend said, we kind of took him for granted. But what, in fact, was the “roshem” – the imprint that he left for us to learn and gain from? My friend felt that now that he was looking back on Rav Abba Zalke’s life, it came to him loud and clear: He taught us how a true ben Torah, one who served his entire life for the furtherance and ideals of authentic religious Judaism, could also walk through the “halls of American society” with the ease and grace of a skilled and polished politician. Nobody knew how to “work” a crowd, or a potential donor, or even a young and brash “whippersnapper” better than Rav Abba Zalke Gewirtz. He always knew just what to say, how to say it and at exactly the most appropriate time. He was a true statesman, a man who spoke with the eloquence of an English barrister, while promoting Torah ideals to even non-religious Jews and non-Jews alike. His goal was to envelop them in his wit and his verbiage and allow them to glimpse and appreciate what a person who lived by his morals and ideals could accomplish, even while maintaining a comfort of ease in the secular world. It was because he maintained so many contacts in those “worlds” that he was able to reach across the proverbial aisle and leave a wonderful impression on all those he came in contact with.

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            On a personal level, during the many years that I learned in Cleveland in Telshe Yeshivah, the Gewirtzes were less like an uncle and aunt to me, and more like a grandfather and grandmother. In fact, they were most instrumental – as was my cousin Dovid Gewirtz – in getting me to come to the yeshivah. It was at Dovid’s Aufruf in Cleveland, that I first stepped foot in the yeshivah, and after meeting the Roshei Yeshivah and seeing the yeshivah in progress, I had my heart set on going there. Less than one week later, at Dovid’s wedding, I took my bechina by saying over a “shtikel Torah” to Rav Chaim ZT”L, in the chupah room at Marina Del Ray. And close to five years later, amongst the various Roshei Yeshivah and Rabbanim that were in attendance at my own wedding, I insisted that I wanted my very own Uncle Zalke to get “Bracha Acharita” under the chupah. I will never forget how he walked up to the platform, looked at me during that very joyous but very solemn moment, and with that trademark twinkle in his eye, smiled and said, “Good choice!”

            Some of my fondest memories are from those days in Telshe Yeshivah. Nary a morning would go by when I would not receive the widest smile and warmest “Good Morning” from my uncle after davening in the Beis Medrash or in the dining room. If I was lucky, I would meet him in the “Veep” room – a side room off the main yeshivah office, where he would eat and conduct his business. He treasured this room for he would say it was only for VIPs – Very Important Persons, hence, in his joking way, he referred to it as the “Veep” room. This was the special room that the entire Gewirtz family would have their meals in – myself included –  when they would all come for Rosh Hashana, Shavuos and other important occasions. The picture of Uncle Zalke sitting at the head of the long table – beaming from ear to ear – as his family noisily sat around him chatting, walking, talking, coming and going, is so vivid in my mind, as if it was branded there. Come to think of it, he was not simply a VIP – he looked more like Nelson Rockefeller, the richest man in the world – or the man who had everything!

            Ahhh …. those Shabbos meals. For close to three years, myself, Jonathan Gewirtz and Moshe Cheplowitz – two Gewirtz grandchildren who were studying in Telshe at the time – would all walk each and every Shabbos morning from the yeshivah to the Gewirtz apartment in Bishop Park, in Wickliffe, Ohio. It was a fifteen minute walk – in good weather (in a February blizzard it once took us a lot longer) – and we did it happily and willingly, with the Patriarch himself at our side. Those Shabbos meals were peppered with great food, challenging conversation, and what can only be referred to as a “Wit-fest”! Jonathan and I would work above and beyond to come up with witty comments, jokes and other asides, to make Uncle Zalke and Tante Libby laugh. Of course, Rav Abba Zalka was incomparable in this area – as he was in so many others – and in the end, we would usually go down in defeat. But then, the cholent would be served and the one comment that could never be outdone always came from my dear old Tante Libby. She would put a helping of cholent on her plate and very innocently and sincerely say, “I really don’t eat cholent – I just want a little taste!” Every single Shabbos for three years straight, the one person who insisted she never ate cholent, would always “taste” a nice helping. We would laugh and laugh – and right then and there – the contest was over!

            It is true – Uncle Zalke has no contemporaries left. His two closest friends in the world, Harav Mordechai Gifter ZT”L, the Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe, and Harav Henach Lebowitz ZT”L, the Rosh Yeshivah of Chofetz Chaim, were the people who knew him best. They were fully cognizant of his capabilities, as well as his abilities, because they were like him and possessed those same abilities as well. The hanhalos of both great yeshivos knew and appreciated him for his many undertakings and how he made their job easy for them – and he always did it with such charm, grace and aplomb.

            And we, the students and talmidim, who knew him as the kind old gentleman, with that effervescent twinkle in his eye – we will miss him but we will never forget him. For which person, who has ever had the pleasure of hearing a speech from Rav Abba Zalke, can ever look at the words of the Seporno without remembering an explanation from Rabbi Gewirtz? Of course, his introduction may have taken longer than the entire speech, but how he managed to find the undiluted emes – truth, in those few sparing words of the Seporno, was a wonder to behold! I can say with a certainty that almost none of us will ever look at the Seporno the same way again! And for that matter, none of us will ever forget Rav Abba Zalke – my Uncle Zalke – who left such an indelible impression on thousands of people over the course of his lifetime.

            Yehi Zichro Boruch.


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