Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Parshas Vayeitzei 5783



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayetzei

8 Kislev 5783/December 2, 2022


In celebration of her Bas Mitzvah last week, my daughter Chayala and I went on a father-daughter outing. No, we didn’t go to Eretz Yisroel, LA or Miami. Far more exciting than that, we went to visit the land of my youth, Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For me it was a walk down memory lane, for Chayala it was a glimpse into a strange and unfamiliar world.

We walked up Grand Street and East Broadway, and I pointed out to her the apartment buildings where both sets of my grandparents had lived. We then went to 550G Grand Street, the building where I had grown up until our family moved to Monsey. We spent a few minutes meeting with Mrs. Pauline Hagler, our beloved neighbor from those years, who still lives next door to the apartment I grew up in.

I noticed that on the front door of our old apartment there was a Puerto Rican flag and a mezuzah. Mrs. Hagler explained that the family currently living there isn’t Jewish but wanted to hang a mezuzah on their door like everyone else on the floor. Unfortunately, no one was home when we knocked so we didn’t have the chance to see my old apartment.

We stopped by a bakery where the cashier told me she remembered my parents and grandparents well. We visited Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, the yeshiva of Rabbi Moshe and then Rabbi Dovid Feinstein zt”l and where I attended through first grade. We drove by the impressive building where my Zaydei had once been the Rabbi but, painfully, has since become a museum.

We were also able to visit the Polisher Shteeble, where not only my family had davened, but my Sabba and Savta davened as well. Walking into the Shteeble was like walking into a time warp. Everything looks exactly as it did thirty years ago.

The highlight of our trip was visiting Rebbitzin Malka Feinstein, wife of the late Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, in her apartment. When I asked the Rebbitzin for a beracha for Chayala she warmly replied that she gives orders, not berachos. She then “ordered” Chayala to keep giving her parents nachas.

It was very nostalgic for me. But there was still one last place we had to visit, because no visit to the Lower East Side is complete without a pickle.

If you’re asking what pickle, you obviously don’t know much about the Lower East Side. Guss’ Pickles was a fixture on the Lower East Side for decades. It began with Izzy Guss, an immigrant who arrived in New York from Russia as a youngster about 1910, sold pickles from a pushcart before he opened a shop on Hester Street in 1920. The shop with its iconic barrels of pickles, outlived dozens of rivals, and eventually became one of the neighborhood’s last pickle stores and a Lower East Side legend. It’s been said if you haven’t eaten a Guss pickle, you haven’t eaten a real pickle in your life.

These days, because of legalities the pickle store is called “The Pickle Guys”. But they pride themselves on having the same quality and taste as Guss’ beloved pickles. When Chayala took a bite into one of their pickles, she confirmed that she had never had such a tasty and crunchy pickle in her life. It’s the type of pickle that inspired Joey Newcomb to sing his song about the “krach” of the pickle. Chayala was surprised to find out that pickles start out as cucumbers. It was a fascinating discovery for her.


After we arrived home that evening, I emailed the Pickle Guys to ask them their secret for getting such a good pickle crunch. They responded that the key was to find a quality cucumber. Smaller ones like Kirby cucumbers are best. Then let them pickle slowly and naturally in the fridge, and not to heat or cook the brine. They allow the pickles to remain bathing in their specially prepared juice and spices for days until they produce their distinctive taste.

There is ongoing discussion in the world of psychology called the nature-nurture debate. Nature refers to one’s innate genetics, while nurture refers to one’s upbringing and life experience. Contemporary experts acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a role in psychological development, but they debate which is more significant.

The Torah outlook is clear that one is influenced and molded by both nature and nurture. The Rambam (hilchos de’os 6:1) famously writes that throughout life a person is heavily impacted and influenced by his social environment.

Munching on a crunchy Lower East Side pickle on Sunday, I reflected on the fact that, on some level, we are all “pickled” by our neighbors, friends, and community. No one lives in a vacuum. Our surroundings mold us and have a profound effect on how we think and behave. If we hang out with people who aren’t scrupulous in their morals it is bound to affect us negatively. On the other hand, when our social circle takes Torah observance seriously, our personal observance will inevitably be enhanced as well.

The Jewish people have always placed a strong emphasis on community life. We celebrate together and mourn together and are there for each other. We influence each other and encourage each other to maintain our faith even in challenging times.

More important than the delicious crunchy taste of a pickle, I hope Chayala will remember the profound truism that the pickle symbolizes: Where we hang out and who we surround ourselves with will have important ramifications on our lives.

Just as the best pickles are created in barrels spiced just right, the best people surround themselves with positive role models, neighbors and friends.

That’s an invaluable lesson for a Bas Mitzvah, and all from a Lower East Side pickle.

Thanks Guss!


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       





Thursday, November 24, 2022

Parshas Toldos 5783


Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Toldos

1 Kislev 5783/November 25, 2022

Rosh Chodesh Kislev


It’s fascinating how something can be so exciting for one person and so anxiety-provoking and upsetting to another person.

During the winter last year, I had the good fortune to spend a week in Eretz Yisroel visiting our son Shalom who was/is learning there. For most of my trip, the weather was very pleasant, particularly for a New Yorker in January.

Then I started hearing murmurings about snow forecasted for Yerushalayim. Still, I was reassured that even if it did snow in Yerushalayim it would likely be gone by late morning the flowing day.

I was slated to return home on the Thursday night red-eye and arrive in New York early Friday morning.

On Wednesday night I heard gleeful shouts of “Sheleg! Sheleg!” from outside my window. For the next few hours there were endless sounds of giggling and carrying on.

When I woke up on Thursday morning, I was stunned to see that the city was blanketed under five or six inches of snow. I hadn’t thought to bring boots with me on my trip, so I trudged through the mostly unplowed streets in my sneakers. It felt like I was walking through snow in slippers.

As I walked home from Shul, I saw that the Jerusalemites were having a great time. There were mini-snowmen everywhere and children (and adults) were having major snowball fights on the still empty roads. Because it was above freezing, as soon as the snow was plowed, slushy water rushed in its place. It was a gloppy, messy, freezing mess. Transportation in the city was mostly nonexistent.

After Shachris, as soon as I arrived home from shul, I began calling taxi services. It wasn’t just a matter of getting to the airport. I first had to get to the vicinity of the central bus station to get a Covid test (remember those?), because it had to be done within 24 hours of the flight. In addition, I was sad to realize that even if I somehow was able to make it to the airport, I wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Shalom in person.

The first three taxi companies I called told me in no uncertain terms that they weren’t running at all. I was becoming despondent. I found one more number to a taxi service and they told me they could send someone to pick me up and bring me to the central bus station. It was a small miracle. As soon as I exited the cab near the central bus station, a crowd of people jumped in front to try to hail it.

So, there I was, almost knee deep in despondency and wet snow, freezing and soaking, when my phone rang. It was my friend from camp, R’ Chaim Itzkowitz. I had spoken to Chaim a few days earlier and he told me he was also going to be visiting Yerushalayim that week and perhaps we would meet. But we were both busy and hadn’t touched base.

When I answered Chaim jovially asked me what I was doing that day. I replied that I was spending the day having heart palpitations trying to figure out how I can possibly make my flight, and not get stuck in Yerushalayim for Shabbos.

Chaim replied that he was thinking of going to B’nei Brak anyway and would be able to drive me if I wanted. He had rented a car and was driving around anyway. I almost dropped the phone. Here was Elijah the prophet himself coming to drive me. Still, I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to see Shalom in Talpiyot, which is located at on the other end of Yerushalayim.

But then Chaim told me that he was actually in Talpiyot taking some of the boys from camp out for lunch, including Shalom Staum. He told me to hail a cab and meet them at the pizza shop in Talpiyot and he would take me from there.

I got my Covid test, finally caught a taxi, and enjoyed lunch together.

On the way out I grabbed my stuff, and we headed off to B’nei Brak. As soon as we were beyond the hills of Yerushalayim, there was no trace of snow.

In B’nei Brak we were able to procure a meeting with Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch and receive a beracha from Rabbi Dov Landau. (We were outside Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s home, but he wasn’t feeling well, and we weren’t able to see him. Sadly, he passed away on Purim a few weeks later.)

After going out to eat together in Bnei Brak, Chaim drove me to the airport before he headed back to Yerushalayim with Shalom.

That day is a reminder to me how quickly things can change. What began as an almost impossible situation, ended up being one of the most memorable parts of my trip. That morning the most I hoped for was to make my flight, even without saying goodbye to Shalom. In the end, not only did I comfortably make my flight, but I was also able to have a particularly enjoyable afternoon including receiving berachos from two gedolim.

Sometimes we find ourselves in challenging situations and we cannot imagine how things can improve. My experience that day reminds me that things can improve on a dime if G-d so wills.

Although more often than not we won’t have such instantaneous turnabouts, we can always maintain hope.

I do have to conclude by sharing that that Shabbos there was a major snowstorm in the New York area. It’s a good thing I made it back in time to catch it.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Parshas Chayei Sara 5783



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Chayei Sarah

24 MarCheshvan 5783/November 18, 2022

Mevorchim Chodesh Kislev


There is something special about sitting on the lap of a grandparent. It’s even more special when that grandparent begins to rub or scratch your back.

I have nostalgic memories sitting on my Bubby’s lap at many a Shabbos seudah while she warmly scratched my back. It would continue until she blurted out, “Alright, my back is hurting!” The key was to try to make sure she was engaged in conversation and was distracted to get a longer back-scratching session.

Even when I was too old to sit on her lap, I would nonchalantly sit next to her, hoping that she would pick up on the hint. The real challenge was when another sibling sat on her other side for the same reason.

One summer when I was working in a camp office, one of the heads of the camp walked into the office and began rubbing his back against the protruding corner of the wall in the office. When I laughed at the unusual scene, he explained that it was obvious that it might have made more sense to make it more circular. He felt that the only plausible reason why it was constructed as a corner was to give people a way to scratch the itch on their back.

There does seem to be some logic to his assertion. After all, when someone has an itch anywhere on his body, he can easily scratch it to relieve the discomfort. But when a person has an itch on his back, it can be maddening trying to relive the itch, especially when it’s just out of reach.

One of the greatest gifts I ever received was a cheap flat wooden stick with bent finger like protrusions at the end. That little backscratcher is one of the greatest inventions ever created. Modern technology at its best!

There is a famous expression, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” I once read that the origin of the expression is from the English Navy during the 17th Century. At the time soldiers who were absent, drunk, or disobedient were tied to the ship’s mast and flogged with lashes by a fellow crew member. Crew members struck deals between themselves that they would deliver only light lashes with the whip (i.e., just "scratching" the offender's back) to ensure they were treated the same if they were on the receiving end at some future time.

Generally, it is understood to mean if you help me, I’ll help you. There are those who feel that this is the idea of friendship - you help me, and I help you.

In megillas Esther when king Achashveirosh cannot fall asleep, he asks that he be read to from his book of chronicles. He assumed that someone must have done him a favor that he didn’t repay and therefore no one wanted to help him. In other words, someone had scratched his back and he hadn’t reciprocated. When he found out that indeed Mordechai had saved his life and he hadn’t done anything in return, he immediately instructed Haman to rectify the situation.

Although that may be common courtesy, it’s a far cry from true friendship.

The Jewish people are instructed to not only perform acts of chesed, but to love chesed (Michah 6:8).

Perhaps part of the reason why we are unable to properly scratch our own backs is so that we can help someone else. Loving chesed entails that we don’t scratch someone else’s back solely so that he will scratch our back too. Rather, we do so because it’s an opportunity to help another feel more comfortable. Everyone needs someone else to comfortably scratch their back.

On a metaphoric level, every Jew should feel an itch in his back. One’s back symbolizes his history. That itch that reminds him that he descends from greatness and has a mission to continue the legacy of his people. That is an itch that should never cease to be felt, because it energizes us to stay the course of our scared mission throughout the millennia.

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often quotes the gemara (Eiruvin 13b) that Rabbeinu Hakadosh was once asked how he became the great Rav Yehuda Hanassi? His terse response was, “I once saw Rabbi Meir from the back”.

            Rabbi Meir was a talmid of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Akiva was a talmid of Rabbi Elazar ben Hurkanus and Rabbi Yehoshua, who themselves were talmidim of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai had seen Hillel. Rabbeinu Hakadosh felt his greatness was the result of having seen Rabbi Meir and thereby having a minimal connection to previous generations. Rabbeinu Hakadosh then added, “And if I would have seen him from the front, I would have been even sharper.”

This week, on 27 Cheshvan, my family marks the yahrtzeit of my beloved Zaydei, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn. Although my Bubby was the best physical back scratcher, I learned from all my grandparents to feel the metaphoric itch in my back that reminds me to look back and recognize the greatness I descend from. Now, my task is to “pay it forward” to try to help my progeny recognize the greatness behind them so that they can continue to pass it on as well.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


Thursday, November 10, 2022

Parshas Vayeira 5783



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayera

17 MarCheshvan 5783/November 11, 2022


Dedicated in loving memory of my Savta, Mrs. Minnie Staum, Shprintza bas Avrohom Yitzchak a”h, whose yahrtzeit is 17 Cheshvan.


Although I have been living in Monsey most of my life, for my first eight years my family lived on the Lower East Side. During those years the fall season meant that the leaves on that one tree on the corner would fall off because winter was coming. For the most part however, things looked the same as always.

When our family moved to Monsey the fall season became a vastly different experience. We had a spacious backyard with more trees than all lower Manhattan. Sunday afternoons in November were spent raking the endless fallen leaves into piles. There isn’t quite anything like jumping into a large pile of leaves and getting buried in them.

These days, I don’t know if my children know what a rake looks like. But I still love the stunning foliage during this season. The different colors of the leaves on the trees have a majestic glow that transforms the whole landscape. The knowledge that in a few weeks the trees will be bare, and all that beauty will be just a memory, forces the viewer to appreciate the moment.

This week our family celebrated the Bas Mitzvah of our daughter Chayala. Such milestones always generate reflection and perspective. Looking at pictures of years past and trying to figure out where they went is also a reminder that we need to appreciate the beauty and gift of the moment.

It’s also incredible how each of our children is so different. Sometimes we wonder how it’s possible that they are all siblings. But such is the wonder of the way we were created. The beauty of a family lies in the synergistic melding of all the divergent colors, producing a most resplendent hue.

This is not only true about families but about the Jewish people generally. Our nation shares the same roots, firm beliefs, and traditions. But from there we branch out in many different directions, producing many offshoots, each with its own unique hue and color.

Around the year 1200, Rabbi Avrohom HaYarchi published his Sefer Hamanhig - The book of customs.

Rabbi Avrohom lived primarily in Provence, Southern France, but he traveled extensively and visited many Jewish communities. During his journeys, Rabbi Avrohom made a point to observe the customs of every community, noting the variances between them. In Sefer Hamanhig he records the different customs of Jews in Northern France, Southern France, Germany, England, and Spain.

The beauty of the sefer is that the author does not state personal opinions about the legitimacy of any particular custom. In fact, he records that his mission is to demonstrate how each custom has a halachic basis.

In a sense our different customs and practices comprise the stunning landscape of our nation.

There is tremendous beauty in diversity of color, as long as the color “remains within the lines” and follows a distinct pattern. Although most people have a favorite color, they can also recognize and appreciate other colors as well.

Allegorically, we need to appreciate the different colors within the Jewish people, within our communities, and, perhaps most significantly, within our own homes.

As long as the leaves remain attached to the tree their magnificent color will radiate and shine.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Parshas Lech Lecha 5783



Erev Shabbos Kodesh parshas Lech Lecha

10 MarCheshvan 5783/November 4, 2022


One morning this week, I opened my email to find the following message: “Good morning. There is an inheritance fund left in your name. Thank you.”

I was very excited. I felt honored that some anonymous person would think to leave me an inheritance. I am expecting the money transfer any day now.  

Although that email was clearly a scam, there is some truth to it.

Rabbi Chaim Kreisworth, Chief Rabbi of Antwerp and Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaTorah in Yerushalayim, related that at the beginning of World War II, a Jew approached him and conifded that he had money in a bank account in Switzerland. He shared the numbers and then asked Rabbi Kreisworth that if Rabbi Kreisworth survived and he died, he please share the bank account numbers with one of his children.

The fellow died during the war and for years afterwards Rabbi Kreisworth searched unsuccessfully for one of his children. Over two decades later, while traveling, Rabbi Kreisworth was sitting in the subway when a clearly impoverished Jewish man sat down next to him. They began to converse, and the man related his financial woes to the Rabbi. He noted that he had arrived in that country as a refugee with nothing. When he told Rabbi Kreisworth his name, the Rabbi immediately recognized it, and excitedly asked him his father’s name and where he was from. It was clear that this was the son of the man who had shared the bank account information years earlier.   

When Rabbi Kreisworth told the man about the inheritance waiting for him in Switzerland, the man sadly replied that he didn’t have money to travel to Switzerland to retrieve the money. Rabbi Kreisworth lent him money for the trip, and he discovered that he was a wealthy man.  

When relating this story, Rabbi Kreisworth would ask, “During the 25 post-war years, before I met this man, was he rich or poor?” Most would argue that he had been rich all along., but Rabbi Kreisworth disagreed. If he didn’t know that he had the money, he was poor. 

Rabbi Krewisorth would conclude that every Jew is extremely wealthy because of his rich heritage. But if one is not aware of it he is, in fact, poor. What can possibly be greater than being considered Hashem’s children? But we have to be aware of it!

Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt’l, the legendary founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, related: “Years ago my father taught me the Mishna in Avos (2:5) which states, “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” In 1966 I opened a yeshiva for kiruv. People would point at me and say, ‘There goes Noach the crack pot, the meshuganah. He thinks he can teach Torah to secular Jews. At that time the concept was so foreign.

“Before I opened the yeshiva, I went to speak with Rabbi Lazer Yudel Finkel zt’l, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. It was common courtesy to ask his permission to start a new yeshiva in Yerushalayim. When he asked me what I wanted to accomplish, I explained that I wanted to teach chilonim (secular Jews) the beauty of Torah. We had a lively debate with him explaining why they would never be interested and me countering with arguments of how it could be accomplished. Finally, he said, “I understand what you want to do. You want to make a factory that produces Baa’lei Teshuva. Du bist meshiguh givurin – You’re crazy!” I replied, “Rebbe, the Torah states, “Torah tzeevah lanu Moshe miorasha kehillas Ya’akov – The Torah was commanded to us by Moshe; an inheritance to the congregation of Ya’akov” (Devorim 33:4) On that pasuk the gemara (Pesachim 49b) states, “Don’t read it miorasha (an inheritance) but miorasa (betrothed).” If I introduce a secular Jew to his fiancé, will he walk away from me?”

“He looked at me and said, “If you really believe that you’ll succeed”.”[1]

No one appreciates when someone pushes their agenda on him. Even if that commodity/program is wonderful and meaningful, when it’s stuffed down someone’s throat, he feels resentful and negative towards it. But everyone appreciates when someone shares something exciting.

If we push our Judaism upon others in an overbearing and insensitive manner (including our own children), it will likely have negative results.

A noted Rav would relate that he had a hard time saying Tehillim all his life because in his youth when he misbehaved, he was forced to say Tehillim for long periods of time.

On the other hand, when we feel Torah living is a treasured privilege and genuinely want to share that gift with others it is far more likely for others to be receptive.

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates that when he was in eighth grade, before opening his Gemara each morning, his rebbe would begin to sing with the students, “ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu – Praiseworthy are we; how good is out portion, how pleasant is our lot and how beautiful is our inheritance.” Only then, with a feeling of privilege and honor to be able to learn Torah and be part of the Chosen Nation, did they delve into the ancient holy words of the gemara.

Rabbi Wein notes that at the time he didn’t understand what the song had to do with the gemara and why they sang it each morning. But now, many decades later, he still remembers it fondly. It made a tremendous impression about the great privilege of being a Torah Jew.   

Perhaps the email I received about the inheritance fund wasn’t referring to it. But the truth is that there is indeed an inheritance fund in my name. All I need to do is realize it and invest the effort to retrieve it.


Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

            R’ Dani and Chani Staum       


[1] The quote from Rabbi Weinberg is from the Project Inspire video “Inspired Too”,