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 they were all 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.
In the first article of this series, Rabbi Dunner began to tell the story of Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs, which he began writing as a cathartic literary project following the death of his wife in 1934. For reasons that remain to be revealed, the memoirs were not published during Rabbi Ferber’s lifetime, despite the publication of numerous other books he had authored, and despite the great effort he put into compiling them over many years.
In this second article Rabbi Dunner reveals what happened to the memoirs manuscript after Rabbi Ferber died, and why it took almost 50 years for them to come to light. The fate of the memoirs seems to mirror the fateful life of their author, and the manuscript might easily have been lost forever, had it not been for an unexpected turn of events.
Rabbi Ferber passed away on 20 Cheshvan, 5727 (November 3, 1966). His daughter, Anne Ferber, who was never married, and had looked after her father until his last day, was forced to sell a large portion of her father’s library and papers. Part of the library was sold to Mr Abraham “Adi” Schischa, a friend of her late father, and a well-known Judaica and Hebraica collector who lived in Letchworth, near London, and later in Golders Green, a suburban neighborhood in North West London.
The remainder of the library was passed onto Rabbi Ferber’s only son, Rabbi Eliezer Yaakov “Jack” Ferber, who was the rabbi of Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue in East London. Rabbi Jack Ferber was a shy individual, and somewhat reclusive, and he had very little to do with the rest of the extended Ferber family. Together with his wife Sylvia, and their only daughter Joy, he lived quite a distance from the centers of Orthodox Jewish life in London, as the rabbi of a community which was not that different from his late father’s – nominally Orthodox, but in reality dominated by non-observant Jews with little regard for leading a halachically oriented life.
But whereas the senior Rabbi Ferber was an outspoken advocate for the values he held dear, his son did not have the personality to combat the creeping deterioration of Jewish life that was affecting his community. Whatever he thought of his community’s less-than satisfactory standards, and the fate that had led him to become their rabbi, he simply discharged his basic duties as a religious functionary and kept his head down, using all of his spare time for Torah study.
Among the literally thousands of his father’s books that he inherited after his father’s death were two inconspicuous looking exercise books. These two exercise books, written in a neat and easily deciphered handwriting, in a Hebrew that befitted an author of such stature, were the product of thirty years labour – the precious memoirs written by Rabbi Ferber. There is no question that the author’s son read them and appreciated them – he was himself a scholar, as his one published book can testify. But for reasons we shall never know he chose not to publish the memoirs – nor any of his father’s other unpublished manuscripts – during the many years during which he had the opportunity to do so.
Rabbi Jack Ferber died on 7 Nisan, 5758 (April 3, 1998), and a couple of years later his wife moved into a nursing home. Their family home, where they had lived together with their only daughter for decades, was not owned by them – it belonged to the synagogue Rabbi Jack Ferber had served for so many years. And now that he had passed away and his wife no longer resided there, the synagogue board served notice that they wished to take possession of the house immediately. Their daughter, Joy Ferber, unmarried, and in a situation uncannily similar to that of her late aunt Anne, was suddenly faced with the task of disposing of a large library of books and papers, the importance of which, it is clear, she neither understood nor appreciated. Hoping that the books and papers were worth a lot of money, Joy Ferber contacted an auction house that specialized in Hebrew books and manuscripts, who in turn put her in touch with a well known antiquarian Hebrew book dealer in New York, a man called Yossel Goldman.
Goldman was someone with tremendous experience and expertise in his field, and after traveling to London to survey the collection, he offered Joy a fixed sum of money for everything, including the papers, which consisted mainly of correspondence received by the senior Rabbi Ferber from rabbis across the Jewish world during the fifty years he was a rabbi in England. Goldman made his offer conditional on nothing at all being removed from the collection. With seemingly no choice, and in a hurry to vacate her parents’ house under pressure from the synagogue board, Joy hastily accepted the offer, and Goldman took possession of the entire Ferber library.
Several years passed, and the memoirs were forgotten. Then, while on a visit to New York, a friend of mine mentioned in passing that Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs were in Goldman’s possession, and he had once seen them.
“The memoirs are fascinating,” he told me, “full of candid revelations of the kind you never see in history books published about rabbis.”
My interest was immediately aroused. I knew exactly what he meant. Most of the biographies published about rabbis are hagiographies – idealized portraits of saintly leaders whose shining example are meant to inspire the reader. Any controversies or less flattering aspects of their careers and personal lives are airbrushed out, or sanitized so as not to detract from the greatness of the subject. The thought that Rabbi Ferber, whose credentials were of the highest quality, had written a candid account of his life, including his observations of colleagues and situations in the Jewish world, was something that piqued my interest enormously.
I had no thoughts at that stage of publishing the memoirs – I just wanted to have the opportunity to read what was written, so that once and for all I would learn about this man of whom I had heard so much but knew so little. I decided to make discreet inquiries through a third party to see if I might be able to obtain them from Goldman. Thankfully, we hit it off very well on that first call, and it was a friendship that would endure until his untimely and sudden death in 2015.
Goldman was renowned for his interest in and knowledge of any Jewish related or Hebrew books that had been published in America. His “Hebrew Printing in America 1735-1926”, published in 2006, has become the standard reference work for this bibliographic interest, and his collection of published material and photographs encompassing this genre and anything related to it was and remains the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world.
Goldman asked me why I was calling, and I inquired whether he was familiar with a particular Hebrew book published in the United States during the nineteenth century. He told me he would check and get back to me. A couple of days later he called me back, and informed me that he had never come across this particular book before.
“Oh, how interesting,” I replied. “I bought it as part of an estate sale some months ago.”
“How much do you want for it?” he asked, trying desperately not to sound too eager.
“Oh no,” I said, “I never sell anything. I just wanted to have any background information that might have helped me write a description.”
A few weeks later I called Goldman again, this time with an inquiry about another American item in my collection. Once again, he revealed that he didn’t have a copy, although he had once seen one at the New York Public Library. When he pressed me to sell it to him, I gently declined, even when he promised to pay me “a very good price – you’ll be very happy!”
And so the pattern continued over the next few months. I would call him about some seemingly random American Jewish piece, and he would discover that he didn’t have it, and that I was not going to sell it to him. Eventually he asked me if there was anything that I was interested in buying from him, and perhaps we could “make a deal”. I told him that I had a strong interest in the rabbinic history of British Jewry, and proceeded to tell him about some of the unique items in my collection that related to this interest, including the personally owned set of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber’s commentary on the Torah, with his signature on the inside cover of each one.
There was a long pause at the other end of the line.
“I think I may have something of interest to you,” Goldman said quietly.
And so, on a subsequent trip to New York, I went to Goldman’s home in Flatbush, the deal was done, and the two exercise books containing Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs were in my hands.
I cannot describe the feeling. For weeks I hardly slept. Every spare minute was spent eagerly reading through the closely written lined pages of the two volumes. Line after line, page after page, chapter after chapter – I drank it all in. Through the author’s eyes I lived through the era of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor in Kovno and Slabodka. I got to know the author’s parents, his siblings, his teachers, the daily routine of his youth. Later I travelled with the author as he journeyed through England raising money for the recently founded Etz Chaim Yeshiva of London. I marvelled at the author as he launched a new yeshiva in Manchester, the first one in the city. I entered into the dilemma presented to the author as job opportunities were offered to him in both Leeds and London. I rejoiced for him as he made his mark on his new community in the West End of London. I cried for him as things began to go wrong. I grew angry at the scoundrels who made his life a misery. I suffered with him when his wife died.
And as the pages, and the years, rolled by, I realised that this great man was the embodiment of all those distinguished Torah scholars, trained and ordained by the most respected rabbinic greats of their era, who through no fault of their own found themselves displaced in a foreign country, where their skills were unappreciated, and their convictions and integrity held them back from achieving the greatness and acclaim that would surely have been theirs in their home countries had circumstances in the world been different.
Remarkably, while Rabbi Ferber would remain steadfast in his integrity and convictions throughout his difficult life, so many others in his position compromised their principles in one way or another, letting their standards slip, and turning a blind eye to others who had no standards at all, neither religious nor moral. Rabbi Ferber, and others like him whose names are long forgotten, were beacons of uncompromising tradition in surroundings where such perfection was scorned and rejected. And whilst their less principled colleagues eagerly joined with the establishment in the countries to which they had moved, blinded by honor and money, or sometimes simply because they had to provide a livelihood for their families, are remembered as the great rabbinic leaders and pioneers, even, in many cases, within the strictly Orthodox world of today, the voices of those who suffered to preserve the tough standards with which we are familiar, and to which we adhere, were lost, it would seem, forever.
But they came alive for me in the pages of Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs. Their pain, their dejection, their integrity, their important victories, however tiny, shone through with the description by Rabbi Ferber of his own eventful life, a life which he knew only too well was similar to the lives of so many of his colleagues who he mentions, and the many more he does not mention.
What also shone through was Rabbi Ferber’s absolute determination that the trials and tribulations of his life, and by reflection, the lives of all those who suffered similarly to him, should be read by those who could learn from what they had been through, and who had somehow benefited from the things which they had stood for and fought over. Here he crossed out a word; there he added a sentence. Some names were deliberately obscured; others forcefully recorded. Certain incidents were entirely omitted; others repeated twice or even several times. And on more than one occasion Rabbi Ferber noted that he hoped those who read his memoirs would learn important lessons for themselves from the things he had achieved, from how he had achieved them, and also from the mistakes which he readily admits to having made throughout his life, causing him untold suffering.
And so, as I reached the end of the memoirs, I decided I would make every effort to fulfil Rabbi Ferber’s mission. Not only would I publish the memoirs, but I would publish them in such a way that they would be read by the widest possible circle of readers, adorned with numerous illustrative photographs, and enhanced with well researched footnotes.
It is over eighty years after Rabbi Ferber began writing the memoirs, and fifty years since he passed away, and now you will have the privilege of benefiting from the memoirs, as was Rabbi Ferber’s expressed intention when he wrote them. No doubt you will be as mesmerised as I was. Perhaps you will be struck by aspects of his memoirs that I did not notice. Or maybe you will be equally excited just by the opportunity to glimpse through a window into Rabbi Ferber’s life. Whatever it is, you will not be disappointed.