Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Bobover Rebbe (1907 - 2000)

Tonight is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, the third rebbe of Bobov. The rebbe was a holocaust survivor; after witnessing the death of his first wife and several of their children, he and his surviving son came to America to rebuild their dynasty. The Rebbe's wartime efforts and subsequent relocation to the States are chronicled in the book Nor The Moon By Night.

The Bobov community in New York, under the rebbe's tutelage, is also featured prominently in the 1987 documentary A Life Apart - Hasidism in America, narrated by Leonard Nimoy.

A regal figure with a shining countenance, the rebbe had a dazzling smile for everyone and piercing eyes that could barely be contained behind a pair of glasses. He exuded joy, and did everything with vigor and exuberance.

He was also extremely sensitive to people's needs, especially when it came to holocaust survivors. It goes without saying that the Shoah had a profound impact on his life; the rebbe composed a kinah (elegy) for the holocaust that has been accepted by all into the canon of the kinot of the Ninth of Av.

As I have mentioned earlier, I had the special z'chus (merit) to lay tefillin for the first time with the rebbe. Unfortunately, I didn't quite appreciate the significance of that event until later; at that point, I was more enamored by the fact that Mr. Spock was doing the voice-over in a movie about Chassidim than the rebbe actually featured in that movie. Still, the memory of that day is fresh in my mind, because of what happened after we prayed.

It was a cold, wintry morning, and I was nervous that I was going to get sick from my still-damp hair from the mikvah. I was all dressed up in a suit, and my father showed me how to button my jacket in a way that allowed me to have my shirtsleeve exposed to accommodate the tefillin. We were waiting for the rebbe to arrive in shul; the rebbe was still making his special preparations for the morning prayer. My father stressed the fact that the rebbe was a very holy man, and that I shouldn't be frightened by his intensity. Within a few minutes, the rebbe swept into the shul with a small entourage. He was already unwell at the time, so he had several people helping him move about. Even so, he carried himself with a certain dignity that I have not witnessed since.

While my father stood by proudly, and my grandfather (he should live and be well), stoic as ever, looked on, the rebbe took my hand in his, and helped me roll up my sleeve. He made sure that I knew the berachot on the tefillin, and the proceeded to show me how to wrap them, binding them to my head and arm in the tradition of our ancestors. My tefillin have never been wrapped as tightly around my arm as that first time when the rebbe helped me with them. When I close my eyes, I can still remember how it felt...

After shacharis, the rebbe's assistant informed us that we could have an audience with the rebbe in his study, but for only a few short minutes; the rebbe had many duties, as well as health concerns, and we could not expect to take up too much of his time. After receiving us, the rebbe gave me a large walnut covered in glitter.  He explained that it was used as an ornament in his father's succah, and that it had certain esoteric significance. After another minute or so of pleasantries, we rose to leave, when the rebbe suddenly put out his hand to stop us. My grandfather had been rolling down his sleeve when the rebbe noticed the familiar tattoo on his left arm. The rebbe signaled to his assistant to escort my father and I out of the office, and motioned my grandfather to sit back down.

We waited outside for an hour, while my grandfather and the rebbe spoke. When they came out, they were arm in arm, the two of them weeping together. I had never seen my grandfather so emotive; I don't believe my father ever had, either. Although my grandfather refused to reveal exactly what they had spoken about, it was pretty obvious, and that is where part of the rebbe's greatness lay: despite myriads of obligations, with all sorts of issues jockeying for the rebbe's attention, the rebbe could not let a Jew who had gone through the holocaust leave him without sharing his story. It's almost as if the rebbe needed to hear every testimony, every trial, every tale of hope and sorrow. His empathy was boundless; it enabled him - racked with illness and fatigue - to lend an ear to a Jew he had never met before in his life, and share in his pain.

What a tzaddik.

Z'chuso yagein aleinu (may his merit shield us all).


Moe said...


redsneakz said...

This is as beautiful a miracle tale as any told about any tzaddikim of the 5500's or 5600's. Thank you.

Reb Y. said...

As a Bobover myself im touched by this story thanks for sharing it (why didnt you ever tell it to me before??) I remember as a kid going into the ruv, you had this feeling that the ruv was giving you 100% undivided attention- nothing else in the world mattered, except for the people standing in front of him. Yehai Zichro Buruch

Reb Y. said...

Btw it was a nut covered in glitter from his own succah.

Moriah said...

In the summer of 2007 I went to Poland and while there I went to Bobowa. I went to the cemetery. I have photos. How do I send them to you?