Friday, October 13, 2006

Talmudists from My Youth

Since I have been told more than once I am bordering on senility, I thought it would be useful before all is gone to reminisce a bit about people I knew in my childhood. I’ll talk about four colorful Talmudists from my youth.

The first was a man who was reported to be a Talmudic genius. He was so great that he already had a formal name like the so-and-so ilui, (young genius) where so-and-so was the name of the town from where he came. I remember him already in his sixties. He sat in this iffy institution that said kadish for people who didn’t want to say kadish on their own. He was paid just to sit there and enhance the reputation of the establishment. All my friends were very anxious to talk to him since his reputation was so great; but it wasn’t easy. He would sit all the time and write chidushei Torah, Talmudic commentaries, notebook after notebook in an illegible handwriting. When approached, he would answer but in a barking tone, thus intimidating everyone. If you managed to get a question off, he would say something in Yiddish like “a Ritvaw , Bubba Metziah 74b. What else do you want to know?” Not very encouraging, especially if you didn’t know 74b. I have no idea what happened to the notebooks. I don’t believe they were ever published. For all I know, he was working on a solution in Hebrew to Fermat’s last theorem. I would say just watching this “genius,” even from afar, made a big difference to everyone.

I also remember a man they called him Reb Itche, who was a chicken flicker. He flicked chickens. In those days, they didn’t come pre-packaged. They still had their feathers, and if you had a butcher store, somebody had to take the feathers off the chickens. His brother sold the chickens, he flicked the chickens. When he wasn’t flicking, he was learning, so by the time I got to know him, he knew pretty much everything, at least from the perspective of a 14 year old. Nobody made a big deal out of him since in my neighborhood there were many people who knew a great deal. Ordinary people. He was one of the best. Whenever a question came up in shul, he would know the answer. His children all went on to get PhDs and are successful in various fields. For me, however, none of them surpassed their father. I believe, as Reb Itche did, an ideal life is to have an honest occupation, and the rest of the time learn, without making a big deal either about the occupation or the learning.

The third guy I want to talk about was a Holocaust survivor. He lived for three years in a tiny bunker with a woman and a daughter, underneath the house of a friendly neighbor. When the war was over, he proposed to the much younger daughter. She wouldn’t have him. So he proposed to the mother. She took him. He had a very fast mind and also knew how to learn Talmud very well. I remember how he used to ask me questions always more difficult than my level of competence, and would shake his head and say, “Well, some day.” In all respects he was a pious Jew, except one…he had an insatiable lust for poker. Every week, one or two nights, he would travel on the train for a mid-stakes poker game. His lust for danger satisfied, he would come back home and act like everyone else. The idea of a poker-playing Talmudist appeals to me until today.

My fourth Talmudist, Reb F., was a teacher in a middle school Yeshiva in my neighborhood. He wasn’t my teacher but he was a teacher to many of my friends and was well-known. He used to teach in some miraculous way ninth and tenth grade. He would begin the year by saying “Gut morgen kinderlach” and in Yiddish say “This year we are in ninth grade.” The next year he said, “Gut morgen kinderlach. We have graduated. This year we are in tenth grade.” That was the only frivolous remark he made for the year. The rest of the time, he taught Talmud, Rashi and Tosfoth plus some Rishonim (Medieval commentaries) and a few select eighteeenth and nineteenth century Achronim (later commentaries) up to and including the Ktzoth and the Nesivoth. They covered somewhere between forty and sixty blat (120 pages) a year. Whoever got through those two years had a well-deserved confidence in their Talmudic abilities. I would describe the style of learning as Polish-Galitzianer, which I conceive as a middle way between the Lithuanian analytical method and Hungarian pilpul. In my mind it’s an exceptionally powerful way of teaching young people. I happen to feel it’s important for families that have Chassidic backgrounds to resist in their children’s education, at least initially, the hegemony of the Lithuanian yeshivas. Many of the graduates of this middle school went on to become significant personalities in the Torah world.

The only other place I ever saw the same sort of educational philosophy applied was in Evanston high school. For a variety of reasons, the high school introduced a very advanced science program, two years of difficult physics, one year each of chemistry and biology plus the corresponding mathematics through multivariate calculus. Kids who survived that program were never fearful of another academic course. Having gone through chem.-phys. they were masters of the universe and could do anything.

If I were running a Jewish day school, I’d hire a Reb F. in the morning, and do chem.-phys. plus some writing in the afternoon, call it quits, and cut the tuition by half. For extra curricular activities I would teach the children poker.


At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post immensely. it brought to mind similar experiences in my youth. Maybe i will copy you and write a piece.

Moadim Lesimcha.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh and I forgot to mention - Galitzianer Derech? They ignored the Rambam and you call that learning?

I should correct the Minchas Chinuch i think was a galitzianer and he certainly knew Rambam! He must have converted! :-)

Chag Sameach

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Evanstonienne said...

Wonderful Blog! Slight correction from a fellow Evanstonian and ETHS grad--the Chem-Phys program is an advanced science track where students completed honors high school Chemistry and Physics and AP Physics and Chemistry, in 3 years instead of 4. Everyone in Chem-Phys took biology freshmen year and some ambitious students took AP Biology as well.

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.


There is a sefer (at least one cheilek, I think even more) that was put out with chiddushim of the Visker ilui, R, Safsel z"l.

At 4:05 AM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Great post! couldn't agree more. Getting rid of the Brisker method of learning as well as AP classes in the liberal arts is the only way to 1) reduce tuition bills and 2) have any chance at producing anything more that artscroll reading Hebrew illiterates in the American frum community.

Keep em' coming - even though I don't agree with all of what your write.

At 6:06 AM, Blogger nyfunnyman said...

reb itche was my great great uncle

At 1:07 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Rabbi Marvin Schick was kind enough to inform me, via e-mail, that two volumes of Rav Safsel’s chidushim were published via the assistance of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press.

It pleases me to see that this gaon's work is receiving the recognition that it deserves.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I have three volumes of Chidushim of the Visker Ilui. Mostly on Kodshim.


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