Monday, February 14, 2011

Rabbi Haskel Besser

Harav Yechezkel (Haskel) Besser is one of three signatures on my first Daf Yomi Teudas Kavod. (I have 2 of these since I completed two cycles.) This is a a certificate sent out by Agudah to all those who completed Shas via learning Daf Yomi. The other two signatures are Harav Moshe Sherer and Harav Shmuel Kaminetsky.

The two latter names are rather famous and need no descriptions. Rabbi Sherer is one of the prime builders of Agudath Israel and until his death was its long time executive director. Rabbi Kaminetasky is the son of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and is the founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva.

But Rabbi Besser is not as well known. I had always wondered who he was and why Agudah gave him so much Kavod. I recall that he spoke at the 10th Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Garden – which I attended. All I remember about him was that he had a relatively long beard and looked like a Chasidic Rebbe.

I hadn’t really thought about him much over the years until I came across a wonderful biography entitled The Rabbi of 84th Street. It is there that I came to see him as quite a remarkable human being. In fact he went quite against the stereotype of the Chasidic Rebbe even though he grew up in a Chasidic home and went to Chasidic Rebbes for Brachos throughout his life.

He was a brilliant man who was very knowledgeable in Torah. He had a small Shteeble in New York but many followers who would seek his advice on all matters – Halachic or otherwise.

The story of Rabbi Besser is a story of a renaissance Jew. A man who fled the Holocaust to live in Israel, got married and for health reasons moved to America. America was a country that he fell in love with even more that Israel itself. He loved the freedom here. He loved the people. He loved the privacy that he was given by his neighbors – unlike what he experienced in Israel where everything was everybody else’s business.

What is interesting is that many of the things he valued were the very things that modern Orthodoxy values. He loved living in neighborhoods that had a cosmopolitan air to them. He preferred that over the more ethnic neighborhoods. He learned that from his parents who were very cultured themselves albeit very religious and very Chasidic. His preference for more cultured venues dates back to his youth in pre-war Poland. He lived in – Katowice - which was more German in culture than Polish. Everyone there spoke German and had secular German names – including Rabbi Besser. His secular name was Oswald. He used to love visiting Germany where the culture was so much more advanced than that of Poland.

His home in Katowice was near the state theater where his mother attended her beloved concerts and Shakespeare. Their front hallways were lined with books by Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe. Rabbi Besser inherited his mother’s love of classical music and had become somewhat of an expert in it. One of his favorite symphonies was Beethoven’s ninth. When he listened to classical music he would often move his arms as though he was conducting the orchestra. None of this should be taken to mean that he was any less devout than his fellow Chasidim. It is only meant to show that he cared and even participated in the surrounding culture.

After immigrating to Israel, his parents chose to live in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. They preferred the more cultured atmosphere there over the more primitive lifestyles of his religious counterparts in Jerusalem.

When he moved to America he chose Manhattan’s Upper West Side preferring its cosmopolitan nature over the epicenter of religious Jewry in Brooklyn.

It is also interesting to note that he did not dismiss movies out of hand. He was quoted as saying that he used to love movies in the era of Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy. He said this once when remarking on the decline of American cultural mores brought about in part by the decline of standards in the entertainment industry.

He fully enjoyed life and participated in many of its non Jewish aspects. There is a picture of Rabbi Besser in St. Moritz holding onto a pair of skis during a skiing trip taken in 1960. There is another picture taken in 1953 of Rabbi Besser, his wife, and 2 young children sitting in the dining area on the Queen Mary. Imagine that. He allowed a picture of his wife to be published in a book about his life!

His views on the German people even after the war were quite different than most of his contemporaries. He had a very positive view of them. He once remarked that all the talk about how evil the Germans were during the war did not match his memory of them. Unlike the innate anti Semitism that existed in Poland, Germans were among the kindest most accepting people who treated him his family and all other Jews as equals. This – all the way up to the time he fled the country to Palestine in 1939. How did he explain the Holocaust? He said that Hitler was a gifted and mesmerizing speaker and able to take the most decent of human beings and turn them around to his way of thinking. He says that could have happened in any country. I’m not sure I fully agree with him. But I certainly give him credit for thinking for himself and not falling prey to conventional wisdom.

Among the most interesting stories of many told in this book is Rabbi Besser’s experience when fleeing Poland. While still on the train in Poland on his way to a neutral country where he would gain passage via a ship to Palestine he encountered a Polish priest. The priest commented to this young Jewish looking boy about how terrible it was that innocent Arabs were killed by a Jews in Haifa as a reprisal for three year of attacks against them unleashed by Arab leaders.

Young Haskel responded to the priest by saying that it is always a tragedy when innocent people are killed.

A while later a group of young Polish soldiers got on board the train. When they saw young Haskel they started murmuring about how this Jew-boy was never going to go to the army and threatened to throw him off the train.

The priest began shouting, “Where’s the conductor?” Soon everyone on the train started shouting “conductor, conductor”! When he arrived the priest said that these soldiers did not belong in his 2nd class section of the train. The conductor begged off saying, “Please - there’s no room.” “They’re going to the Army.” The priest persisted, “Let them go to 3rd class where they belong.” What the priest requested, the conductor agreed to and they were all escorted to the third class section of the train. The priest then looked at young Haskel and said, “Someone who is against the shedding of innocent blood, I will not let his blood be shed.”

There are many other wonderful stories to be found in the remarkable story of Rabbi Besser’s life. Including his truly amazing religious achievements, one of which was significantly contributing to the popularity of Daf Yomi even before ArtScroll’s publication of their translation of Shas. He had been in charge of Agudah’s Daf Yomi program until his death almost exactly one year ago (February 10, 2010) which is why his name is on my certificate.

His work restoring Jewish graves in Poland with a Ronald Lauder, a secular Jew with whom he became close friends is another successful project. As was his restoration of Judaism among the remnants of Jews still living there. This was at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe with whom he was very close. This - even before the fall of communism.

He was as comfortable with Presidents as he was with the common man and through his close friendship with Rabbi Moshe Sherer was invited to the Bush (41) White House in 1990 for their annual Chanukah celebration.

What makes this biography unusual is its candid and truthful nature about an Orthodox religious figure. It does not hide the truth of history by burying things about him that are no longer considered politically correct. Had this biography been published by one of the right wing religious publishing houses, I doubt very much I would know half of the remarkable things I learned about him in this book. In fact I’m surprised it hasn’t been banned. The biographer is Warren Kozak, a secular Jew with no particular agenda. The book is a sheer joy to read and I recommend it to all.