Written by Rabbi Moishe Kievman of Chabad of Highland Lakes, FL
Today marks the Shloshim, the thirty-day mourning period after my father’s passing. Many of you remember my father from his visits to our community in Florida over the past twelve and a half years. He was quiet and unassuming. Today I will share with you some of my father’s story, a story that I’m only piecing together now, because we hardly ever discussed his past with him, since he was so humble and didn’t want to burden us with the hardships of his life.
My father came from good stock, and took pride in it. He was born in 5699 (‘39) in Moscow to an illustrious Chabad family. Both of his grandfathers studied in the original Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva in Lubavitch, where each student was handpicked by the Rebbe Rashsab. One of his grandfathers, known as Reb Dovid Hordoker (his family name was Kievman, but he got that nickname, I assume because 1) he was from Hordok and 2) because they associated him with another great & holy Chassid who was also from Hordok and had that same nickname), the Rebbe Rashab said that it was worth making the entire Yeshiva, just for him (he also said it about one other Chossid)! He then called him a Beinoni of Tanya, which is someone who is completely dedicated, with every fiber of their being, to serving Hashem; one who hasn’t committed a single sin or anything close to it. His other grandfather, Reb Shmuel Yitzchak Reices, whom the Rebbe nicknamed Rashi, was referred to by the Rebbe Rashab as a truly G-d fearing Chassid, blessing him with long life. I remember that great-grandfather (as that blessing was clearly fulfilled), since my father would bring me to visit him every Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), until his passing, when I was in 3rd grade. Both his grandmothers were also from illustrious Chassidic families, going back generations.
As the Nazis invaded Moscow in late ‘41, the family fled to Samarkand, a city in south-eastern Uzbekistan and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. It was to Samarkand that many Jews ran away, including Rabbi Korf senior, Rabbi Lipskar’s father and many others, even from our community. They set up Shuls and Yeshivas, to service the thousands of Jews who flocked there for shelter.
Although they were away from the war front, Samarkand came with its own set of difficulties, like famine, which led to people acting barbaric. One of his grandmothers passed away on the train and was thrown out the window, by the conductor and/or passengers. My father as a young boy went with his father to search for her body to be able to give her a proper burial. One of his grandfathers passed away from starvation. People simply had nothing to eat. My father’s youngest brother Baruch was kidnapped by gypsies, who planned on turning him into salami. After a desperate search led by my great uncle R’ Yosef Reices, and his good friend R’ Moshe Levertov, he was, thank G-d, found and rescued.
As soon as the war was over, and Russia made a pact with Poland to allow Polish refugees to return to Poland, my grandmother entered the ‘passport business’, helping many Jews forge documents to prove that they are Polish. It was those Polish documents that helped them and many other Chassidic families escape communist Russia. It was actually a miracle that those papers worked, since they didn’t speak a word of Polish.
The most perilous part of the escape was crossing country borders. My father recalled that the group didn’t have any money to bribe the Czechoslovakia guards, who were going to kill them. That morning, they all davened, proudly donning their Tallis & Tefillin. The guards saw that and somehow got scared and let them go. This made an indelible mark on my father. During their escape, his parents also took him and his 2 younger brothers, Sholom Ber and Boruch, to visit the famous shul of the Maharal in Prague. He never told us though if he got to see the Golem!
I was going to say that they ran around like homeless people, but actually they were homeless. They had absolutely nothing – just a hope to make it to freedom, somewhere, somehow!
In ‘46 the family was in a DP Camp in Pocking, where my father somehow bought a bicycle from a German kid. He was always proud of that bike and used it to help bring food and medicine to people.
Being a strong lover of the people of Israel and the land of Israel, my grandparents were dreaming to reach Palestine, where they would finally build a life for themselves. They heard a rumor that someone was trying to arrange a boat and so they decided to chase that rumor and find that boat. They eventually found it and excitedly signed on to be one of its daring volunteer Chalutzim.
The boat was organized by several American heroes like Sam Zemurray, known as Banana Man, who paid $8,000 for this ready-to-retire boat ‘for scraps’ under a Western Trading Company which was really a front for the Haganah, and Israeli heroes like Captain Ike Aronowicz who bravely steered the ship, ignoring the demands of nearby British bombers to halt the boat and not dare try to take it to Palestine. The boat which became known as Exodus 1947 was eventually rammed into on all sides by British Destroyers. After several hours of gunshots and club beatings, the British killed 3 and wounded several hundred, and finally took all 5,209 passengers captive. They towed them to shore and divided them on to three boats, sending them back to back where they came from. My father and his family were put on the third boat, Empire Rival.
The boat stopped to unload the ‘prisoners’ in France, the country from which it first embarked, but the Jews refused to get off. The Brits had hoped that the French would help force the Jews off, but the French didn’t want to mix in. They finally forced the passengers off, one by one, in Germany, where they were once again placed in DP or Prison camps.
I’m not sure on which part of their journey it was, that the boat (Kedma?) stopped off in Sicily to allow my grandmother to go the hospital, where she suffered a miscarriage and the doctors thought she was dying. There her father came to her in a dream and told her that everything will be alright. The hospital priest came to her to help her with her final prayers and told her that if she only kissed the cross, she would be saved by the son of g-d. My grandmother used to love recounting that story, qiuping how she responded to the priest, “I have the father, who needs the son!” My grandmother, of course, got better and they reunited as a family.
Although the war was over, Germany was still a dangerous place for Jews. My father recounted how the German kids would throw stones at them while they were in the camps. My father spent time between Bergenbelzen and Pocking, where they established a Cheder, Yeshiva & Shuls.
My father never shared these stories with us. Only when visitors who were with him during their escape from Russia, or on the boat, came to visit, were we privileged to hear some bits and pieces of his incredible life.
Eventually they did make it to Israel, sometime in ‘48, but things were not much easier. Israel was a brand-new country and not yet developed, but what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In fact, my father was known in Yeshiva as ‘The Marine’, as he jumped into freezing cold Mikvahs. Even when he took us swimming as kids, he would jump into the cold pool, while we refused to go in.
During the time he was in Israel, my father had the great Chassidic mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Keselman as his Bar Mitzvah teacher. He had classmates like the revered mentor, R’ Meilech Tzvible and the Stropkover Rebbe who comes by every so often. He fondly remembered walking with his family every Shabbos 45 minutes from Nuscha to Nachlat Binyamin, just to daven with a minyan. His father would take them to Tel Aviv to help people don Tefillin or during Sukkos to help people bless the Lulav & Esrog. Many recall the huge Kiddush his parents would throw every Simchas Torah.
Once, when my father was in Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, my grandmother asked him to stay home. He couldn’t understand why, as she never did that before. That day there was an attack in the yeshiva, where Arab terrorists killed a teacher and several students. Thank G-d my father’s life was spared. My grandmother said she just felt that he should stay with her that day.
My father then decided to go back to Europe, to study in Yeshiva in Lucerne. While there, he wound up getting a job teaching in Ascher Institut, a prestigious boarding school in Switzerland. Those were the golden years of his youth. There he had many students who later became famous, like Jackqie Safra & Tommie Moskovitch. Years later he connected them with Rabbi Yossel Weinberg, whom they helped with financing the Lubavitcher Yeshiva and other good causes. He was also involved with starting the first Camp Gan Israel in Europe with Rabbi Garelik in Milan and other efforts throughout Europe. While in France the Rebbe asked him to translate some books to French. Rebbetzin Garelik, who came to the Shiva, together with her husband and son, shared with us some of the amazing times they had together, when they were just starting off their lifelong community work there, as Shluchim of the Rebbe to Italy. She described my father as a caring & kind Chevreman, as someone who got things done, in the most pleasant beautiful way. He was also a counselor at the local Kinderheim (orphanage), where he cooked and took care of the children. Rabbi Gareliks son said he was in the midst of going through letters that went back and forth between his parents and the Rebbe, with many references to my father. He said he would, of course, share them with us.
My father finally came to US soil on his birthday, the 11th of Nissan in 5720 (‘60). He came straight to Brooklyn to be near the Rebbe, who was a father figure to him, since his father had passed away.
When drafted to serve in Vietnam, he was scared to go. The Rebbe told him to join the military, but not to worry, as they wouldn’t send him to actual combat.
While at Ft Jackson, my father made an impact on many people there. He studied with the Jewish doctors (one was even inspired to keep Chalav Yisrael after seeing how stringent my father was in that regard, and how he got shipments of special dairy tubes) and taught Gemara to the son of the reform rabbi at the base. That boy ended up becoming observant, and my father took extra pleasure when years later, that boys’ son would eat Shabbos meals at our home!
Unlike most Chassidim, my father didn’t have a beard. Layah’s theory is a story, we never heard from him (we first heard it from our great uncle), but when we asked him about it, he didn’t deny it. The Rebbe once had something he wanted done in the military, and suggested that they send my father. One of the people involved questioned the Rebbe “but he doesn’t have beard?”, to which the Rebbe responded ehr iz an ehrlichen Yid – he likes him the way he is. My father would often quip, “You can have a beard without a Jew and you can have a Jew without a beard”.
One of my uncles shared with us that he once asked my father why he left the field of education and went into business, to which he responded that he wanted to pay full tuition for his children’s education.
My father manufactured wallets, had a travel agency and an electronics store. By the time I was growing up, he was in the business of refining precious metals. He played with different formulas and liked to say he was a chemist. I loved helping him design Jewelry which he sold, and would often travel with him for work. Everyone loved my father, or Joe, as they called him. He dealt with many kinds of people, non-Jews and Jews – Chassidic, Litvish, Satmar, Sefardic… and had a positive impact on everyone he dealt with. He spoke to everyone their language and knew exactly what to say to make them feel good. Whenever he met with Jewish business associates, he always made a point in sharing a Torah thought, or saying something that would encourage them to upgrade their Jewish observance.
One of my father’s prized treasures was a Talmud that he took with him throughout Europe and his travels. It was a one volume book that had the entire Talmud in it. It’s the same book of Talmud that he would learn from in his store, in between customers. It was the largest book we had a home and I have no idea where he got it from, as I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know if my father knew the entire Talmud by heart, but I do know that any time we quoted a piece of Talmud, he knew it.
My father was also known for his wittiness & Talmudic sense of humor. For example, he would tell us about the Chassid who davened in a Misnagdishe Shul while saying Kaddish. When he was asked what he did when it came to Vyatzmach Purkonei (prayer for Moshiach to come immediately, which is not part of their Kaddish), he said that although they didn’t allow him to say it, he had it in mind. Then there was a Misnaged who davened in a Chassidic Shul. When they asked what he did by Vyatzmach, he said he had no choice and had to say it, but had in mind not to mean it.
My father always had a Chumash or other Jewish books in the car which he would study from at red lights. Many times, he would ask us to read for him while he was driving, and of course correct our mistakes. I think that was his favorite pastime, to correct our mistakes! He often leined from the Torah for his Minyan and knew the entire Torah by heart, with the correct tunes and exact grammar.
My father was brilliant. He spoke 13 languages. In Crown Heights, where I grew up, people from all over the world constantly came to visit, and many of them would come to my father to exchange their money. He communicated with each of them in their own language and loved making them feel at home. He was great at math. He loved to take night time walks or jog, no matter the weather. He was also a licensed pilot and would tell us about the different clouds and what kind of storm was coming.
My father was one of the founding members of the Crown Heights Hatzalah (medical emergency first responders). On one of the websites that announced his passing, someone wrote the impact it made on them as an 11 year old in my father’s store, choosing his first watch, when he witnessed how after getting a Hatzalah call, my father immediately closed his door, leaving his livelihood behind, and ran to help save someone.
During Shiva, a neighbor of ours told us how my father came to their house when his wife was expecting a baby and her water suddenly broke. They were crazy nervous, but my father calmed them down, ensuring them that in the worst-case scenario they’ll deliver the baby at home. He indeed delivered their first child as well as some other community children. We never knew any names, since my father would never divulge private information, but my mother did tell us that after that first delivery, he put up a sign in his store that said ‘we deliver’!
By the time I grew up, my father no longer had the store or worked in the community, and so he was no longer officially part of Hatzlah. However, he was still the go-to guy on the block in case of any medical emergency. I vividly remember his Hatzalah kit & big green oxygen tank, which he kept in the basement. I have to admit that although I was sorry each time he was called, I looked forward to those calls when they were on Shabbos or Yom Tov, so that I could excitingly turn on the basement lights when it’s otherwise forbidden. (Although we don’t turn a light on or off on Shabbos & Yom Tov, to save a life we do anything).
My father took great pleasure in doing a favor for another, without any ear of conceit. He always looked out for people from the community waiting for a bus, stopping to offer them a ride. He also often noticed Jewish people stuck on the highway. I remember once when returning with him from Maryland on business, he found an older woman together with her daughter whose car had broken down on the side of the road. They were crying when we stopped for them and gladly gave them a ride to where they were heading. She was proud to tell us that her son was the great Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, and surprised that we’d never heard of him. He later tracked us down and sent us a letter of gratitude, which my mother kept for years. I, of course, later learned of and got to appreciate his books.
My father answered his store phone with “at your service”, and that’s exactly the best way to describe him. He was always there to be of service to others. Countless people have also shared how they spent hours in his store shmoozing with him and how he made them feel so at home in a foreign country. Because he was so sincere and approachable, people felt comfortable unloading to him.
My father loved sales and good deals. On Friday afternoons he would go to a wholesale specialty bakery called Bergen Street Bakery (now Chantilly) and buy out whatever they had left. He would come home with those huge bakery bags filled with Challas and rolls, as well as the most delicious pastries for the Shabbos table, and often share them with others.
My parents enjoyed a Shabbos table full of guests. There are hundreds of people who over the years ate at our home. My parents were often struggling financially, but they always made do with what they had. Anywhere I’ve been in the world, there were people who told me that they’ve eaten at my parents’ home and of the singing they so enjoyed, that went on for hours. Many known chassidic and other Jewish melodies, but many which were unique to our home. We were recently discussing producing an album for my father of his favorite hits. Though it’s now too late for that, hopefully we’ll get to it soon enough so that others can enjoy it!
I’m not sure I always appreciated him and the love he had for us. Afterall, which kid wants their father to come to school in the middle of the day to bring them rubber boots and make sure they are put on correctly, just because there was a forecast for snow?! Although he worked extremely hard, he would come around each night to make sure we were properly tucked into bed, our Yarmulkas were on our heads and that we had Negel Vasser (a wash cup filled with water to wash our hands upon waking up), and of course a paper towel with which to wipe our hands.
My father was a very eidel and refined person, careful to use clean and positive language. He used many code words for words that had a negative connotation. In recent years he had full time home attendants, and complied with what they asked with “yes boss”. Once in frustration, an attendant said, “Oh J—-”. My father quickly responded “in our house, we don’t say that!”
My father was always super careful with honoring his parents. He would call his mother before and after every Shabbos & holiday. In the later years of her life, when she lived full time in the States, my father would either pick her up to eat supper with us, or if she wasn’t in the mood, he would bring supper to her. Her last few years, my father would make sure to visit his mother, making sure she was comfortable and had all her needs, every single day.
There were so many lessons we learned from my father. Not to be afraid of exploring untrodden territories to build a better life. To always be willing to try something new, as long as it’s allowed. To be an entrepreneur & think out of the box. To work hard and never waste time. Giving & sharing. Hachnasas Archim. Learning with a Kol Torah (sound). The importance of chazarah, reviewing your learning over and over again (when reviewing, he would count with his fingers Yad – 14 times). Modesty, honesty and humility were very important to him.
My father led by example, teaching us to take our time and choose right for ourselves, not necessarily settling on the first person we meet. He taught us that your spouse comes first, must be treated with the highest respect & is the absolute most important person in the world to you.
The last twelve and a half years were extremely difficult for my father. As soon as my mother got sick, he stopped all work and dedicated himself completely to my mother. Perhaps it’s to his credit that although the doctors only gave my mother 2 or 3 weeks to live, she BH was with us for another 4.5 years.
The last weeks in the hospital he was very upset and down. Once my mother passed, my father could no longer handle it, and it was downhill from there.
Some of you remember my father staying with us for periods of time, after my mother’s passing. Things were super tough for him. The Talmud describes someone who loses a spouse as being inconsolable and that was my father. My mother was everything to him, & for good reason of course. Although his passing came completely unexpected, I think he was kind of waiting to once again be reunited with my mother.
My parents were never rich. But my father always told us how rich he was, having the 8 of us. I think it’s no coincidence that my father’s Shloshim fell on 3 of our birthdays – his mizhinik, my youngest brother Itchie, my nephew Gedalia in South Africa, and our Meir all share the 23rd of Tamuz as their birthday.
I will finish off with one anecdote, before concluding a tractate of Talmud in honor of the Shloshim, using the very same All-In-One Talmud that he carried with him all the years.
When I was studying for my Semicha, in the Heichal Menachem – Melbourne Semicha Academy, I remember feeling good after my first exam, knowing that after 11+ hours of writing, I truly felt that I answered everything and did well. I was of course surprised and horrified to learn that I just flunked! I was not the happiest camper and began to ask myself if I had made the right choice to be studying there. After all, I’m just a regular guy, and that program was designed for people who were much smarter than myself. As I was contemplating this, there happened to be a book of letters of the Rebbe on the table, which I for some reason picked up and searched to see if there were any letters to anyone in our family. Sure enough, there was a letter there to my father, which the Rebbe had concluded by asking my father to learn Chitas and ensuring him that Ein lcha dovor haomed lifnei haratzon – There is nothing that will block your way from accomplishing your goals. I, of course, took that as a blessing for myself, to not give up then or ever. I retook the exam and BH succeeded… And with Hashems help, we will always be successful!
May we merit very soon to be reunited with all our loved ones, with the coming of Moshiach, very soon!