Living with Reb Yaakov, zt"l
All the articles on Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt"l, in honor of his 25th anniversary yahrtzeit, triggered a flood of nostalgia for one of the happiest periods of my life: the nine months I lived with Reb Yaakov. No, I didn't live in Reb Yaakov's home; indeed Reb Yaakov was no longer alive. But for the nine months that I spent writing Reb Yaakov, I thought about little else besides him: How would Reb Yaakov have acted in this situation?; Why did he do that? (Today, the same project would take me closer to nine years, and I would be too distracted to completely immerse myself in my subject.)
Given the frailties of human memory, I can't be sure that every story in the biography took place exactly as written. But, as Reb Yaakov's grandson Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky told me after reading the manuscript, "Every story in the book could be true." Reb Yaakov was a person of unusual consistency, and so it is possible for anyone who knew him well to say, "That was not Reb Yaakov's shprach (way of speaking)."
He had a worked out approach in every area of life. Perhaps a former house haus bochur captured it best, when I asked him what he had seen living in Reb Yaakov's house. "Nothing, absolutely nothing," he replied. Every single hanhaga had been thought through so long ago and so precisely followed since that it seemed completely natural. "Being in his presence was like riding in a luxury car. You did not know you were moving," is how Dr. Yaakov Greenwald described the experience.
Above all, Reb Yaakov was known as the pikeach hador (clever one of the generation). Rabbi Aharon Kotler would consult with him whenever he felt the need to clarify a particular situation before ruling. Reb Yaakov's acuity, judgment, and vast knowledge of the world and its inhabitants cannot be taught. Perhaps something of it can be absorbed over decades of personal interaction, but I remain as naïve today as when I first started researching Reb Yaakov's life.
Early in the writing of Reb Yaakov, I did, however, have occasion to experience a true pikeach's capacity to provide a perspective that no one else would have thought of. A close family member of Reb Yaakov's had expressed concern about the ability of someone who did not know Reb Yaakov to capture him. Rabbi Nosson Scherman brought me to discuss the issue with Rabbi Zelik Epstein, zt"l, probably Reb Yaakov's closest friend and someone who shared his talent for sharp insight.
Reb Zelik turned the issue on its head. "What they perceive as something lacking is actually a great advantage," he told me. "If you had known Reb Yaakov personally, you would have your own point of view, and everything you heard from others would inevitably be filtered through the prism of your own perspective," Reb Zelik explained. Precisely because I lacked any previous relationship with Reb Yaakov, Reb Zelik assured me, would I be able to absorb everything I learned with an open mind and fashion a far more accurate composite portrait.
Extraordinary middos, like pikchus, cannot be attained through stories. Only one's own efforts will suffice. Reb Yaakov once asked someone who he knew was traveling to Eretz Yisrael to go to the Steipler Gaon for a blessing for his rebbitzen, who was about to undergo open heart surgery. That person forgot that America is seven hours behind Eretz Yisrael, and called Reb Yaakov in the middle of the night, just after the rebbetzin's surgery. He immediately recognized his mistake, but Reb Yaakov was already on the line. Though the latter must have been terrified to receive a late call just after his wife's surgery, he immediately understood his caller's error, and kept him on the line discussing a number of mundane subjects, as if the middle of the night call had been the most natural thing in the world. When he related this story to me, the caller added, "If you haven't been working on your middos for eighty years, you could not possibly react like that."
So what did I gain from my immersion in Reb Yaakov, if his pikchus and middos eluded me? I learned from him how much care each one of us must take with respect to the image of a Torah Jew that we project to the world. The awareness that he represented a Torah Jew for the entire world was always with him. Whether bouncing a ball with a five-year old in a doctor's office or smiling every time he passed a group of nuns on his walks in Monsey, he made sure that anyone who met him would always carry positive associations of an old Jew, with a white beard.
And I learned that erlichkeit (honesty) is not just another ma'alah (positive trait) that a person can attain. But that without it, every other positive trait is of questionable value.
The final lesson I learned from Reb Yaakov is that one of the most noble uses of our intelligence is to make others happy or to relieve their burdens. Who but Reb Yaakov could have come up with the kuntz of introducing his middle-aged son as "my bebele Avraham" as a means of reconciling a teenage daughter to her father, who had inadvertently insulted her by calling her "my baby"? And who else would have thought of looking up in the Monsey phone book all the numbers of his wife's closest friends, the day before she was to undergo surgery, so that they would not have to wait an extra moment to hear that the surgery had gone well?
That wonderful time in my life, when I spent my days and nights thinking about Reb Yaakov, came to a fitting end, when my wife gave birth to our son Yaakov the day after the manuscript was completed.
Religion Increases Well-Being
A friend of mine received a call the other night for a telephone survey of senior citizens. The interviewer wanted to know about his physical and emotional health – "Do you have any trouble picking up objects off the floor?"; "Do you suffer from depression?"; "Do you find yourself frequently bored?" The last question asked him to categorize himself according to religious observance.
Instead of answering, my friend asked the interviewer to guess. Until that point there had been nothing in the interview relating directly to religion. The survey focused exclusively on questions about the interviewee's general state of heath. And my friend had not peppered his answers with "Baruch Hashem". Nevertheless, the interviewer guessed correctly that he was religiously observant.
My friend asked the interviewer how he had known. "Well, you seem like a pretty optimistic fellow," the interviewer said. "And I find religious people are generally more optimistic." The interviewer's response turns out to be based on solid empirical evidence. A recent Gallup-Healthways survey of 372,000 people found that American Jews ranked highest of any religious group on the well-being index, based on such factors as health, happiness, and access to basic needs. And among American Jews, the most religious rank the highest on the well-being scale. (A strong positive relationship between religiosity and well-being is found in all religious groups.)
By the age when getting up from a chair becomes an issue, most people are winding down. Not frum Jews. They are still living lives of constant anticipation (like the rabbi's late wife Eva in Dov Haller's "Waiting for the Rabbi"). My friend is busy with grandchildren's weddings, his own chavrusos from 6:30 a.m. on, and learning with boys from broken homes at night. Why not be optimistic?
The Other Side of Bullying
Two weeks ago, I wrote about bullying, mostly from the point of the view of the bully and his or her parents. But there is another party to the bullying: the victim. Often the victim has means at his or her disposal to improve the situation.
My previous piece began with the description of a young boy who was a victim in cheder. That story has a happy ending. Working together with my therapist friend, the boy gained awareness of the ways in which his body language conveyed messages that made him stick out a bit. Because he was so smart, he immediately grasped every suggestion and was able to implement it immediately. At the same time, he worked hard to improve his physical coordination.
After a few months, the bullying stopped. I mention this story because it is important for parents of children who are picked upon in school to know that there are techniques that can be of great benefit to the victims. One of the most basic is not showing the bully or bullies that you care. One of my high school friends invariably responded to any teasing remark by stroking his chin, sitting pensively for a moment, and then saying, "You may be right." It soon became clear that there was no fun to be had in teasing him, and no one did.
Just like those who are bullied don't have to remain patsies for life, some bullies can also grow up to be perfectly decent people. I recently stumbled upon a long article about female relationships and what becomes of the class "queen bees." Apparently as "queen bees" get older, they find that the rewards of winning through intimidation are less and less, and that their attempts to impose their will on all around them are not tolerated. If they learn the lessons early enough, they can turn out to be fine adults, suitably appalled at the youngsters or the teenagers they once were.