Thursday, May 30, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Bechukosai – Shabbos Chazak!
Mevorchim Chodesh Sivan
            26 Iyar 5779/May 31, 2019
Avos perek 5 – 41sh day of the Omer

So what do Yankees games, old time kibbutzim in Eretz Yisroel, and this year’s Lag Baomer medurah (fire) in Nee Square have in common?
You guessed it; they all play hava nagila!
It may sound shocking but it’s true. This past Wednesday evening, on Lag Baomer, I attended the massive fire in New Square. Thousands of chassidim were gathered on bleachers surrounding the constructed stage upon which the rebbe sat. After the rebbe spoke briefly, he lit the fire, and the crowd erupted, jovially singing the famous Lag Baomer classics “Bar Yochai”, “Va’amartem”, and “Amar Rabbi Akiva”. And then the band started playing the tune of hava nagila. The crowd sang along melodiously, albeit to the classic Chassidic niggun (melody without words) lyrics “oy doy doy doy doy”.
All of us non-chassidim shared our astonishment. Were we imagining things or was this fervently chassidic gathering playing perhaps the most secular Zionistic song ever produced?
Someone suggested that either it was actually an ancient chassidic tune that the chassidim were making an effort to reclaim, or they weren’t aware of the history and symbolism of the song, or a combination of both.  
A minute later he added that there’s one other possibility - Moshiach is coming!
The following day, I did some research and discovered that the tune does have a fascinating history. In 1838, the noted chassidic rebbe, Rav Yisrael of Rizhin was imprisoned by the Czar. After two years, he escaped to the village of Sadiger in Austria where he began a new following. It seems that it was at that time that the tune for hava nagila was composed by one of his chassidim, and it became a favorite among the chassidim.
Then, at the beginning of the 1900s, a group of Sadiger chassidim emigrated to Yerushalayim and brought the beloved niggun with them.
There was a famous composer and cantor named Avrohom Zevi Idelsohn who was an avid Zionist and had moved from Germany to Yerushalayim in 1905.
Idelsohn enjoyed learning diverse Jewish musical melodies and traditions of different sects of Jews. One of the tunes he learned was the Sadigerer niggun. After learning the tune, Idelsohn decide to add words to the niggun based on the pasuk in Tehillim (11:24) “this is the day Hashem has made, nagila v’nismicha bo - we will rejoice and be happy on it.”
During a concert in Yerushalayim to celebrate the end of World War I, Idelsohn performed the Sadiger niggun with his new words. It became an instant sensation and subsequently became a standard song in Zionist youth groups and weddings.
In the 1950s the song began to take hold outside the Jewish world. Most famously, the renown American singer Harry Belafonte, would sing it.
During the last few decades, hava nagila has become famous the world over. It’s message about transcending life’s challenges by being happy and rejoicing resonates everywhere. These days it can be heard at weddings and sports events, such as during Yankees games. But the song remains a symbol of the Zionist world and cause. The ironic and little-known origin of the song makes it all the more intriguing.
It turns out that the chassidim are indeed trying to reclaim an ancient niggun that they feel was taken from them. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the current symbolism that the song contains, or perhaps they are aware and don’t care. But the fact is that it is shocking to hear that song being played at such an event.
We often wonder how Moshiach is going to be able to unify all of the diverse factions of the Jewish people. (That itself will be the true test of who the real Moshiach is.) Perhaps when he comes we will all sing hava nagila together. Some may be singing the words of hava nagila and others may be singing oy doy doy doy doy. But if all Jews are singing the same tune - which may not have happened since we stood in perfect unity at Sinai - that itself is a symbol that the messianic era is upon us.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Behar
            24 Iyar 5779/May 24, 2019
Avos perek 4 – 34th day of the Omer


There are certain people whose accomplishments seem to traverse normal human limits. They seem to possess uncanny and selfless devotion to their causes which influence Klal Yisroel and promote Torah. What is the secret to their unmitigated energy?
How did Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman (All for the Boss) continue to devote himself to Torah causes when there were so many odds against him on a constant basis?
How did the Chofetz Chaim infuse hope and instill Torah values in his generation, to such a degree that his influence is still poignantly felt until today?
How did the Ponovetcher Rav build his yeshiva, after escaping the ashes of Europe?
How did Rav Aharon Kotler rebuild Torah in the spiritual desolation of America?
How did Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel promote the greatest Torah institution in the world?
How did the Bluzhever, Bobbover, Belzer, Gerrer, Satmar, Klausenberger, and Kaliver Rebbes rebuild after all of the devastation they endured, and the loss of so many of their chassidim?
On a personal note, I wonder how someone like my Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, continues to travel and teach, and to recently publish another book, after so many years of devotion to education and teaching?  
A few weeks ago, I was in a local seforim store perusing the newest English publications when a book caught my eye. It was about the life of Rav Zusha Wilamowsky, known in the circles of Lubavitch as “the Partisan”. Although it wouldn’t seem that such a book should pique my interest, I was actually very excited and immediately purchased it. Rav Zusha is my great uncle, the brother of my Zaydei, Rav Yaakov Meir Kohn z”l.  
I wish there was such a book about my Zaydei’s life. But my Zaydei didn’t talk much about the painful war years and his experiences, and we only know bits and pieces from the few anecdotes he shared and from stories related by others. But the book about Rav Zusha contains a few quotes and insights that my Zaydei shared about his younger brother who predeceased him.
It may seem strange that they had different last names, but that was a result of the war years. At one point my Zaydei’s passport was taken away and he was thrown into prison. He found a passport with the name Kohn on it (there were no pictures on the passports then). From then on that was his name, despite the fact that he was not a kohain.
The book describes Rav Zusha’s youth which mostly paralleled that of Zaydei. Their father was the Rav of the town, and a saintly Jew, who, along with their mother and only sister, was killed by the Nazis. They learned in the great yeshiva of Baranovich, the yeshiva of Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt’l hy”d. During the war years they were separated. Zushe ended up with Tuvia Bielski’s Partisans in the forests.
In the Displaced Persons camp after the war, Rav Zishe discovered Lubavitch and forged an inextricable lifelong connection with it. For the remainder of his life, Rav Zusha became devoted to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who affectionately referred to Rav Zusha as “my partisan”. In fact, on the monument above his grave it says “R’ Chaim Zusia who was known as the Rebbe’s Partisan”.
On Succos 1986, a weakened Rav Zusha, briefly joined the major Simchas Bais Hashoaivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, the main headquarters of Lubavitch. But after a few minutes he wasn’t feeling well and he entered the succah and laid down on a bench. It was there that he passed away. He died as he had lived his life, as a faithful devotee fulfilling his mission.   
The book describes the incredibly selfless dedication that Rav Zusha had to the Rebbe and his causes. Rav Zusha dedicated his life to fulfilling the word of the Rebbe, and considered any request the Rebbe made of him to be a holy mission. He often spoke of “reporting to duty”, “the battlefront”, and “onward march”.
The common thread between those who persevere beyond all odds and accomplish incredible things is that they have an unyielding sense of mission and responsibility. They aren’t merely doing what they want to do; they are striving to accomplish what they feel needs to be done. They feel the weight upon their shoulders.
The gemara (Shabbos 138b) relates that when the rabbis arrived in the vineyards of Yavneh they related that they feared that Torah would be forgotten from the Jewish people. At that point, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai declared, “Heaven forbid, that Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people, as it says, ‘for it will not be forgotten from the mouths of your progeny’.”
The Bais Yisrael of Ger explained that by declaring that Torah would never be forgotten, Rabbi Shimon was essentially taking responsibility to ensure that it would never happen. It wasn’t just a prediction; it was a commitment.  
That is what we celebrate on Lag Baomer. The fire of Torah was ignited within our souls at Sinai. But a fire will only endure as long as it has fuel. In the time of Rabbi Shimon, it seemed that the fuel source had been depleted. Rabbi Shimon himself fueled the fire with every fiber of his being and reawakened the surging flames.
In the generation following the Holocaust, the flames of Torah again seemed to have been weakened by the nefarious flames of the crematoriums. But then too, there were those who declared that Torah would not be forgotten, and in so doing committed themselves to its preservation, despite impossible odds.    
Those heroic personalities have refueled the fire which continues to burn in the hallowed halls of our shuls, yeshivos, and homes.
The fire of Sinai and the fire of Rabbi Shimon continues to burn within our hearts, ensuring that it will indeed never be forgotten!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, May 16, 2019


It’s that time of year again. It actually happens twice - once in the spring and once in the summer. It’s the periods of national mourning when Jewish barbers are on vacation and many Jewish men’s beards look scruffy and somewhat unkempt.
Between Pesach and Shavuos, the days of Sefiras Ha’omer, we mourn the loss of the twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. Between the fasts of the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha B’av, we observe the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.
For those of us who have the pleasure of working with young adolescents, these two time periods have an added dimension, i.e. that of awkward adolescent facial hair growth.
At their stage, they take pride in their beards, nascent as they might be. The different gradations of facial hair is itself a manifestation of the uniqueness of each individual. Some boys have thick sideburns with nothing beyond, others have hanging mustaches, while others have a patch under their mouths with virtually nothing on the sides of their face. Then there’s the stubble and peach-fuzz which are constantly played with, in an effort to show others that there is indeed facial here there, even though it’s not discernible. Many of these young men insist that they need shavers, in the hope that if they start shaving, their beards will grow in faster (that’s a myth). Some are lucky enough to have a perennial five-o’clock shadow look that seems to stagnate at a perfect size.
The more physically mature, deemed by their peers as being ‘like bears’, walk the halls with confidence, sporting facial hair that looks like it’s going to take over their face. There’s always a few of those guys.
At times, a boy may have a full beard and a decent mustache, but the two don’t yet connect. (I must admit that I had such a “floating mustache” for years...)
A colleague often jokingly suggests to certain students that they apply some fertilizer in certain areas of their beard to make it look more balanced.
In camp last summer we had a contest to decide who had the best “Three Week’s beard.” Papers were disseminated with pictures of various contestants and campers had the opportunity to vote.
It is not coincidental that both national periods of mourning are connected with deficiencies in interpersonal relationships. The students of Rabbi Akiva lacked a modicum of respect for each other, and the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash was the result of baseless hatred.
The Medrash Tanchuma (Pinchos 10) states, “just like people’s faces aren’t alike, so too their opinions aren’t alike.” Based on this Medrash, the Kotzker rebbe quipped that just like one doesn’t hate someone else because they have a different face, so too one should not hate someone else because he has different opinions and viewpoints.
When we see all the various variations of facial hair growth, it is a subtle reminder that our focus during these days is to respect every person for who he is. It’s also a reminder that every person progresses in his own way and on his own level. Some are quicker and some are slower.
Personally, I’m happy to be past that awkward stage. Now the variations in my and my peer’s beards has to do with how many white patches we have.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum