MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN RABBI: THE TROUBLED LIFE OF RABBI TZVI HIRSCH FERBER PART ONE

By
Rabbi Pini Dunner

Rav Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills

Introduction

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber (1883-1966) was a Lithuanian-born Torah scholar who spent most of his adult life as the spiritual leader of a small community in the West End of London. He remained there for over 50 years, struggling to maintain his dignity and his principles in a setting that was completely indifferent to the things he found important. His relationship with the lay-leadership of his community, as well as with his fellow employees, was fraught with difficulty and tension, as all of them were people devoid of any sensitivity to Jewish ritual law and they tended to run the synagogue as a moneymaking operation, without taking Jewish law or the rabbi into consideration.

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Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber of London (1883-1966)

Rabbi Ferber was a no-nonsense strictly observant Orthodox rabbi of the old school, and highly regarded for his Torah scholar in the world beyond his own community. During the many decades he led his community, he took to writing so that he could feel creative and productive, and was also a regular visitor at the nearby reading room of the British Museum, where he became a familiar fixture and was given unfettered access to ancient Hebrew manuscripts and published books that were no longer in print. He began publishing books of Torah commentary before the Second World War and continued to publish books well into  his old age. These books were his outlet, his only source of job satisfaction throughout his ‘exile’, as he referred to his life. They were all very well written, and contained well constructed ideas that demonstrated a wealth and breadth of knowledge, as well as a literary ability that surpassed many contemporary colleagues.

The introductions to his books often contained small anecdotes from his private life, or stories of his youth and his family history. But these were peripheral to the overall book content, which was always Torah oriented, focused on generic and impersonal topics relating to Torah portions, or festivals, or prayer, or other such topics, rather than issues emerging out of his private life. But even these small glimpses were revealing, whetting the appetite for more information about the author of these incredible books.

After his death in 1966, Rabbi Ferber, a marginal figure in his lifetime, receded into the footnotes of orthodox Jewish history in the UK, and might easily have been totally forgotten had it not been for the discovery of his unpublished memoirs at around the turn of the twenty first century. The story of the memoirs is itself fascinating – how did they come to be written, and why did they remain unpublished for so long?

The story of the memoirs’ bizarre compilation and history, as well as the remarkable narrative contained in the memoir itself, is the story that will be exclusively told by Rabbi Pini Dunner in the columns of this newspaper in the weeks and months ahead. It is a story that will reveal the extraordinary life of a devout immigrant rabbi whose origins were in the aristocracy of Lithuanian Jewry, but who became trapped by circumstances in a rabbinic position he despised, and in a world that was changing beyond all recognition.

The name Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber z”l was familiar to me already at a very young age. It was uttered with reverence, with respect, and with incredible admiration. Rabbi Ferber’s books on the shelf at my parents’ home were well used and very tatty. My late father z”l would regularly adorn our Friday night table with Torah ideas drawn from these books, ideas which were insightful, satisfying and original. There was a particular pride in the fact that their author had been a London rabbi, someone who my father and his family had known during his lifetime. Indeed, when my grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dunner z”l, was appointed as the presiding rabbi of London’s Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in 1960, and soon afterwards as a member of the rabbinical executive of the Agudat Israel of Europe, he regularly made the trip to London’s West End, to consult with Rabbi Ferber, and discuss communal issues both at home and with reference to Orthodox Jewry around the world.

There was, however, a curiosity in all this that was not lost on me, even in my youth. How was it possible that this extraordinary man, this revered leader, lived in the West End of London? Strictly Orthodox Jews all knew that the West End was a spiritual desert, a place devoid of Torah, a place where all the resident Jews, besides for a minute number of exceptions, were not Sabbath observant. How could it be that this great man managed to sustain his own status as a leader for, and person who gave advice to, people who lived in the areas of London in which devout Orthodoxy had established itself, areas quite a distance from his home, and in which there were a number of other serious Torah scholars and esteemed rabbis?

It was a puzzle that remained unsolved. We were told that Rabbi Ferber was a man of principle, a man of vision, a man of clarity. That his advice was considered Torah wisdom; the unbiased, untainted view of a man who had his roots in the pre-war world of Lithuanian Jewry. But this only made it all the more curious! What was he doing in the West End? Why had he never moved to the centers of observant Jewish life that had emerged in London during the years between the First World War and the Second World War? And perhaps most importantly how was it possible that he had managed to keep up his level of Judaism, as required of all religious Jews, but in particular to maintain his revered status, in the midst of the spiritual desert in which he lived?

As the years went by Rabbi Ferber slipped away from my consciousness. When I arrived at Gateshead Yeshiva one of my earliest friends there was a boy called Tzvi Gurwitz. As the great-grandson of Rabbi Ferber and born shortly after his death, he was named after him. But no one mentioned Rabbi Ferber. It was his other grandfather, Rabbi Leib Gurwitz z”l, the late esteemed Rosh Yeshiva of Gateshead, who gave him standing with the other boys in the yeshiva. The memory of Rabbi Ferber had faded away, and although many individuals continued to benefit from his numerous published works – especially after they were republished in the mid-1980s – the strictly Orthodox community, and certainly the non-Orthodox community, had forgotten this great man.

The history of his memoirs is therefore of some interest. Their publication will probably propel their author into the public consciousness from which he has been absent for decades. His books are all out of print, and the men who consulted him regularly have all passed on or long retired from their public positions. Those who knew him and appreciated him, or heard his Torah lectures and speeches and appreciated them, are also long departed or very elderly. His children have all died, and just a few years ago the last of his sons-in-law, Mr Chaim Lewis, whom I knew well, died at the age of 98 in London.

So where have these memoirs been since they were written? How did they come to be written? Why were they never published? Were they meant for publication? How did I obtain them? Why am I publishing them and for whom? I will try to answer all these questions in the lines that follow, so that the readers of Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs can fully appreciate what it is that they are reading, and understand how and why the memoirs have come to be published by me after all these years.

mrs-freida-ferber-whose-untimely-passing-at-the-age-of-50-in-1934-prompted-her-grieving-husband-to-begin-writing-his-memoirs

Mrs Freida Ferber, whose untimely passing at the age of 50 in 1934 prompted her grieving husband to begin writing his memoirs

In 1934, after a period of difficult illness, Rabbi Ferber’s beloved wife Freida passed away at the young age of 50. Details of how she died, and the devastation her death caused for her husband and children, are described in detail in the memoirs. What Rabbi Ferber does not describe is how he managed to get on with his life after losing his precious soul mate. In a practical sense he had his daughter Anne, who looked after his every need from that time up until his death. But I am not referring to this. What I am referring to is the fact that he never mentions how he coped with the emotional emptiness. His wife’s death came soon after the death of two of his closest colleagues, Rabbi Avigdor Schonfeld and Rabbi Meir Zimmerman. Only a few years earlier his mentor and friend Rabbi Meir Tzvi Jung had died very suddenly. The members of his West End Synagogue, as is clear from the memoirs, were not only incapable of providing him with emotional support, but in his view were to blame for the death of his dear wife, as he openly suggests.

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The headstone over Mrs Ferber’s grave in Streatham, South London, in which her great-uncle Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s name gets equal billing

In particular, the death of his wife frightened Rabbi Ferber with a terrifying thought. She died so suddenly and unexpectedly that it seemed that the impact of her life on this world was lost, and that she, a niece of the founder of the mussar movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who had given her life over to public service and supported her husband in all his endeavours, was destined to disappear without trace. And the same thing, he suddenly realised, could happen to him! He could also die without warning – as had so many of his colleagues – and all his work for the community, and the efforts of his colleagues, to improve the observance of Jewish law and custom, to enhance the honor of Torah, to make life easier for those who wished to observe Jewish law and custom in England – properly, without compromise, and as it should be observed – would be forgotten forever by those who would later benefit from the bitter battles that had been fought for this cause.

Furthermore, he had lived the life of a rabbi and leader in a community that had rejected the values he stood for, and who had treated the requirements of Jewish law, and him as their champion, with contempt. Who would recall the terrible treatment he was forced to endure, a Torah scholar and deeply religious man, at the hands of those for whom his values and the values of Torah had no meaning? His treatment at their hands, and their immoral behaviour in general, would – unless something was done – be entirely forgotten, making his tough, Torah inspired inflexibility – which in practical terms had brought few if any positive results – a waste of his effort and of unenduring value.

So Rabbi Ferber, as the author of numerous published and unpublished works, did what he knew best – he turned to his pen. His pen became his trusted friend, offering him a way through the difficult questions and depressing conclusions thrown up by the death of so many of those close to him, and in particular his dear wife. With his pen he could record who he was, who his wife had been, who his friends and colleagues were and had been, the battles he had won and the battles he had lost. He could open up about his dreadful existence in the West End, at the mercy of people who did not appreciate him and what he represented, who had persecuted him mercilessly, throughout his years as their rabbi. He could recall the long forgotten events of his youth, many of which would be of profound interest to numerous people far and wide. He could record the opinions and perspectives of the senior rabbinic leaders of his youth and apply them to the unfolding events of the present.

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The handwritten title page of Rabbi Ferber’s first of two volumes of memoirs, which he began writing in 1934

So it seems clear that the memoirs project began in the mid-1930s as a way for Rabbi Ferber to cope with the trauma of the loss of his wife, and as a calculated response to his realisation that life was fragile, and that his own sudden death might mean that much that was important for people to know – that which had happened to him and also that which had happened to others – might be entirely forgotten.

Evidently the earlier part of the memoirs was written in the years immediately following his wife’s death in 1934. The title page of the manuscript is dated 1938, which means that those early sections written straight after her death were later copied out by Rabbi Ferber, probably to correct them into a final form. But the project did not end there. Once Rabbi Ferber had begun writing his memoirs he did not stop. As the years went by, he added in new sections recording all types of incidents, both in relation to his personal life and struggles, and also in relation to the general history of strictly Orthodox Jews in England. He also described, as events unfolded, from the point of view of a devout Orthodox rabbi, the devastation of the Holocaust, the struggle to help those who survived after the war, the conflicts relating to the establishment of the State of Israel, his disgust at the behaviour of the secular Zionist leadership towards Torah observant Jews in the Land of Israel, and his disappointment at the Agudat Israel leadership for having engineered cooperation with the newly established Zionist government despite the opposition of the acknowledged leading rabbis of that era.

It is possible that in his lifetime many of the things Rabbi Ferber describes were well known by those that they had affected. They were the matters of day-to-day life. But in many instances they have long been forgotten. These stories and the facts that surrounded them were not headlines. Rather they were the small print of the life of Orthodox Jews. Especially in relation to the struggles of the strictly Orthodox Jewish community in England, no one recalls the pioneers who lived in poverty and difficulty, and who faced the contempt and active opposition of the leadership – both rabbis and communal leaders – of Britain’s Jews, and the ridicule of many of their fellow immigrant Jews who were only too glad to lower their standards in their new country. In some instances Rabbi Ferber’s colleagues, from the same background as him, who should have joined forces with him in his battles for important matters like ensuring the supply of kosher meat, chose instead to join forces with the enemies of Jewish law, for the sake of honour or money. In one instance he describes how one of these rabbis, well respected and an author of numerous books of insights into the Talmud, who later moved to Jerusalem, tried to bribe him to stay silent on matters relating to the inadequacy of kosher meat arrangements in England. In other cases Rabbi Ferber describes how rabbis whose names are no longer remembered were at the forefront of making sure that Orthodox Jews could be assured of the standards they required in order to live life as fully committed orthodox Jews in England.

In addition to these general facts Rabbi Ferber recorded his own life as rabbi of the West End district of London, Soho. He describes how the committee members at his synagogue mistreated him, how despite the fact that the synagogue owed its financial success to him, they refused to pay him enough money to live on, how the other employees of the synagogue constantly conspired to steal money in a variety of different ways from the unsuspecting synagogue members, with great success. He describes how the elections for the executive of the synagogue were rigged so that the winners would not disturb the ongoing theft. He describes his loneliness and sadness, a sadness that was only lessened by the publication of his books.

Rabbi Ferber was a prolific writer, and a first class composer of homiletic interpretations of the Torah, and over the years he regularly published books on homiletic themes, focusing on the weekly portions of the Torah, on prayer, on festivals, on the Psalms, on the megillot, and much more. His books were very precious to him. But even their publication was not without its own problems. He describes how printers misled him and swindled him, and how after the Holocaust he felt as if the number of people remaining who appreciated his type of books was so drastically reduced that he genuinely worried for the future of the Torah world.

So what had started out as a cathartic project following the death of his wife became a mission to record every fact that Rabbi Ferber believed was important for those who shared his ideals to know and appreciate for posterity. Such was Rabbi Ferber’s determination to fulfil this mission that even as it became difficult for him to write in the years immediately before his death, he nevertheless continued to write, with the last entries dated only a couple of years before he died.