The stories below are ones that my grandfather enjoyed telling. They are taken from a collection that I assembled, wrote up, and showed to him for his approval while he was still alive.
"When I come to the future world,'' said Rav Yitzchak, ``the Nodah BiY'hudah will ask me why I disagreed with his ruling. So we'll argue it out, and he'll win or I'll win. If I had declared the ox treif, then, when I came to the future world, I would have to argue it out with the ox. Maybe I'd win, but I don't like arguing with an ox.''
A few days later, there was a bris and the Rav was there and also the rich man. The Rav was shaking hands all round, and he also shook hands with the rich man. The people, who all knew the story, were appalled. ``You are מוחל על כבוד התורה , (letting the honor of the Torah lapse)'' they objected. ``It will be useful,'' the Rav replied.
Some years later, a Jew who had worked on the fortifications of Kovno was accused of selling the plans to the Germans. Under the Tsars, as under their successors, a man accused and arrested for a crime was as good as convicted, unless some powerful influence could be worked on his behalf. The only man in the Jewish community with that kind of influence was this same rich man, who was a close personal friend of the governor. So Rav Yitchak went to see the rich man, to ask him to ask the governor to make sure that the accused got a fair trial.
The rich man was very reluctant. ``You're asking a hard thing,'' he said. ``To interfere in a case of treason is very difficult. After all, I'm also a Jew.''
``There are times when one has to do dangerous things,'' replied the Rav.
``Well, I'll do it,'' answered the rich man. ``But you should know I'm only doing it because I remember that handshake.''
The rich man's efforts were successful. The case was fairly investigated, and the guilt turned out to lie with two Russian soldiers.
This story is also told in my great-grandfather's edition of the siddur שיח יצחק (p. 261). There is one significant difference; as told in שיח יצחק , the original controversy had to do with a plan to build a new synagogue with a tower. Rab Yitchak Elchanan objected, because it would look too much like a church.
One day I was walking down the street, when I heard the sound of crying! It was coming from one of the houses. The door was open, and I went in, but no one was at home. But still I heard the crying. So I looked around, and I saw that the crying was coming from a drawer in a bureau. I opened the drawer, and I saw there a tallis crying and crying. So I said to it, ``Tallis why do you cry? Tallis why do you cry?''
The tallis said to me: ``My owner has gone on a journey, and he has taken his wife, and he has taken his children, and he has taken his possessions, and he has left behind only me.''
I answered the tallis: ``Tallis, don't cry. Tallis, don't cry. Some day your owner will go on a journey, and he will leave his wife, and he will leave his children, and he will leave his possessions, and he will take only you.''
One day, Grandpa was packing his suitcase for a trip and ran out of space, so he left out his tallis. My mother started crying, ``Don't leave the tallis!'' Grandpa thought, ``The Kelmer Maggid still lives!'' So he left something else behind and took his tallis.
When Grandpa's father was in his last illness at the hospital, Grandpa was visiting him and thought to cheer him up by asking him to tell a story of Rav Israel Salanter. He told the following story: ``Once Rav Israel Salanter was in the middle of giving a talk when his favorite student Rav Isaac walked in. Salanter said to him, `Rav Iz'l, you're late,' and then continued with his talk.''
Shortly after, Grandpa's father died. That Shabbas, Grandpa was with Prof. Lieberman and Prof. Ginzberg, and after talking to them for a while, he fell into thought. Ginzberg said to him, ``You are pensive. Remember, it's Shabbas and forbidden to mourn.'' Grandpa answered, ``It's not that. I'm puzzled by a story.'' He told the story of Israel Salanter, and asked, ``Why did Israel Salanter insult his student that way?''
Ginzberg and Lieberman both answered, ``It was a compliment! He called him Rav Iz'l to show him honor. It was understood that if Rav Iz'l came late, there was some good reason. Israel Salanter was saying, `You're late, Rav Iz'l. I missed you.' ''
Grandpa used to say of this story, ``If it is so easy to misunderstand the actions of people of two generations earlier, in the community of one's own family and friends, how hard must it be to understand the actions of people two thousand years ago?''
Meanwhile, the Jew had gone over to the Chofetz Chaim and asked his blessing. The Chofetz Chaim shook his head. ``Why do you want a blessing from me?'' he asked. ``I'm nobody, I'm nothing at all. If you want a blessing, it is enough that you keep Shabbas. As it says in L'chah Dodi, לקראת שבת לכו ונלכה כי היא מקור הברכה (Let us go to greet the Sabbath, for she is the source of blessing.)''
``Young man,'' replied Ginzberg, ``When you've been here longer, you will know not to ask such a question of an old man whose memory may be failing. Now look up Kiddushin 66a.''
This citation, I am delighted to say, is correct, despite the two transmissions and sixty years that have passed since the incident.
Shortly after Prof. Lieberman came to the Seminary, two Hasidic rabbis came to visit him. They rebuked him for accepting a place at the Seminary. ``How can you work under Finkelstein?'' they challenged him. ``What he writes is complete apikorsus!''
Lieberman told them that he had read Finkelstein's work and hadn't seen any apikorsus.
``Well, you can take it from us, his work is full of it,'' they replied.
``I can't judge a man on the basis of lashon hara,'' he objected.
``Look here, we'll show you, we brought the books with us,'' they responded, shoving some choice quotations under his nose.
``I have to be careful,'' he told them. ``You say that this is apikorsus. You may well be right, and I don't read apikorsus. So I really can't look at these quotations.''
The rabbis had no choice but to leave. As they went, one of them said to the other, `` Oy, azah tam! (What a simpleton!)''
``Professor Lieberman is a late sleeper,'' answered Grandpa. ``He studies until 2 in the morning. I am an early riser. I start studying at 4 in the morning. So whoever told you that must have meant between 2 and 4 in the morning.''
After the dinner, someone objected to this as hyperbole. Grandpa answered, ``Read the book, and then you tell me.''
``When is an introduction not an introduction?'' began Kaplan. ``When Finkelstein gives it.''
Grandpa asked him, ``Do you keep kosher?''
``It's too expensive,'' he answered.
``Do you keep Shabbas?''
``I'm a business man, it's not really possible.''
``Do you put on tfillin every morning?''
``Who has the time?''
``Well then,'' said Grandpa, ``How do you object to Kaplan, who keeps kosher and keeps Shabbas and puts on tfillin every morning?''
``Don't be silly, Rabbi,'' he answered. ``I'm a Republican and I believe in a high tariff. Does that mean I declare everything each time I go through customs?''
Some years later, Grandpa decided he should get this Sefer Torah back for the Seminary. After all, it was now a historic object. So he went to see Truman, and told him the story, which Truman enjoyed. Truman asked how many people would see it if it were at the Jewish Museum.
``Seventy thousand a year,'' was the answer.
``Where it is, in Independence,'' Truman rejoined, ``half a million people see it a year.''
Article from the
Truman Museum web site, with picture of
Truman, Weizmann, and the Sefer Torah
A much more detailed account of this is in Tales of the Fathers of the Conservative Movement by Bernard Mandelbaum, New York: Sheingold Press, 1989.
"So what?" Grandpa answered.
This was not the reaction he expected. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"We all have ruach hakodesh," Grandpa explained. `` ורוח קדשך אל תקח ממנו (do not take your divine inspiration from us), we pray. How could God take it away if we didn't have it?"
The man was not happy. "Well, I want to tell people about it," he said.
"There," said Grandpa, "you would be making a mistake. After all, you might be one of the 36 hidden Tzaddikim. If you tell people, where will you be?"
"That's true," said the man, now satisfied, and he kept it to himself. But whenever he saw Grandpa in shul after that, he would wink to him.
At the graveside, the rabbi began as follows: "A man is like a knight on horseback. The soul is the rider; the body is the horse. Reb Yank'l, the soul, is in Gan Eden. What we've buried today is a horse!''
``Now what can I tell you about Reb Yank'l'', he continued. ``He was a good Jew, but no great lamdan. When I used to teach, he would sometimes follow what I was saying, but usually he was a little at sea. But certainly a very good pious Jew. There was only one thing he did that I told him not to. I used to tell him not to eat at his children's houses, because it was as treif as hazzir. But, then, they were his children, and he felt he had to."
At this point, the son came up to Grandpa. ``If he doesn't shut up, I'll punch him in the nose!'' he said. ``He's done. What more can he say?'' answered Grandpa.
``Of course I remember you,'' answered Grandpa. ``Your birthday is May 8.''
The man was awestruck. ``What a memory!'' he exclaimed.
``What a memory,'' thought Grandpa.