Sunday, December 31, 2006

friday night dinner

last friday night i joined a couple i'm friendly with for friday night dinner. the host happened to be isaac herzog, named after his grandfather, rabbi yitzhak halevi herzog. rabbi yitzhak halevi herzog was the first chief rabbi of ireland. subsequently, from 1937 until his death he was the chief rabbi of british mandate palestine and then israel, once it was formed. my friend, isaac herzog, the host, is also the nephew of the late chaim herzog, the sixth president of israel.

to eat a shabbat meal at the table of the grandson of a former chief rabbi of israel and nephew of a president of the state of israel is pretty remarkable. and yet, while this lineage impressed me, these facts did not faze me. in israel, there is a certain accessibility like nowhere else. perhaps because the country is so small, it seems almost commonplace to bump into and break bread with renowned professors, famous politicians and great personalities. isaac briefly mentioned his grandfather and shared a few stories.

as if that were not special enough, a guest knocked on the door during dessert. it was an older couple who live in the building stopping by to wish our host a shabbat shalom. it turns out that the older couple who visited were dr. and mrs. ephraim shach. dr. ephraim shach is the son of rav elazar shach, zecher tzaddik l'vracha, a leading eastern-european born and educated haredi rabbi of the past generation. rav shach was considered a "gadol hador" (supreme leader of the generation) and was the rosh yeshiva of the ponevezh yeshiva in bnei brak, as well as the founder of the degel hatorah political party.

dr. shach regaled us with stories about his father, his education, life in eastern europe, and stories about other gedolim for over an hour. i sat, mouth agape, totally enthralled. as a student of early modern jewish history and someone who is passionate about judaism, i could not believe how fortunate i was to be getting a first-hand lesson in jewish history. dr. shach spared no detail in painting vivid stories and connecting the dots between all of the great jewish personalities of eastern europe.

we learned of rav shach's early yeshiva studies and about how he was one of rav isser zalman meltzer's ( top pupils, along with a handful of other rabbis who went on to be esteemed figures in modern jewish american and israeli life. rav isser zalman meltzer's talmidim (pupils) included rav aharon kotler, who founded the lakewood yeshiva (, rabbi shlomo zalman auerbach (, and rabbi yehuda amital (, among others.

dr. shach explained that his father, while part of the haredi community, was in fact a zionist. he also told us how his family was supported primarily by his mother (who was rav isser zalman meltzer's niece). rav shach's wife had studied medicine for 3 years. she accompanied a prominent doctor when he made rounds to check on the roshei yeshiva of israel. while the doctor would examine the roshei yeshiva, mrs. shach would wait in the other room. the doctor would then share his findings with mrs. shach and she would diagnose the patient and prescribe medication.

dr. shach recounted the details surrounding his family's escape from lithuania shortly before WWII. rav isser zalman meltzer, who was by that point already in palestine, helped rav shach and his family obtain certificates to go to israel. along with several prominent rabbis and many family members, the shach family set sail from odessa to turkey, from where they would continue their journey by train and foot. the turkish authorities refused to let the eastern european jews disembark, leaving them with no option but to return to the increasingly dangerous situation in russia and eastern europe. a wealthy jew named brotzky heard about the plight of this group of jews and took matters into his own hands. he argued with the turkish authorities, bribed them and offered to personally pay all room and board expenses of the stranded jews. the authorities agreed, and this wealthy jew singlehandedly saved the lives of rav shach and his family. dr. shach, with a gleam in his eye, said to us: "imagine that. a jew, who didn't know us, completely secular, insisted on saving us. just like that. he had a 'pintele yid' (a little jewish spark) in him."

dr. shach is himself a fascinating man. he left the haredi world and became a religious zionist. he served in the IDF and received a doctorate in history and philosophy.

above are just a few of the myriad stories dr. shach shared with us. the stories i heard were moving, enlightening and inspiring. how special it is to live in jerusalem. a city where one's neighbors range from taxi drivers to descendants of great torah luminaries and renowned political figures, where one can stumble upon a history lesson at a neighbor's shabbat table. where once again, there is an inextricable connection to one another and to our rich and powerful heritage.

(below left, rabbi yitzhak halevi herzog. below right, rav elazar shach)