MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN RABBI:
THE TROUBLED LIFE OF RABBI TZVI HIRSCH FERBER
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber (1883-1966) was a Lithuanian-born Torah scholar who spent fifty years as the spiritual leader of a small community in the West End district of London.
In several previous articles Rabbi Dunner has introduced us to Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs, allowing us to glimpse the life of this revered rabbi for the very first time since he began recording it in vivid detail in 1938. This is the fourth excerpt from the memoirs, and continues with the story of Rabbi Ferber’s family and early life experiences.
The translation is not a word-for-word rendition of the original Hebrew. Rabbi Dunner has stuck as closely as possible to the original, except where the Rabbinic Hebrew makes an exact translation difficult, or where ambiguities need to be corrected. The material has also been abridged where necessary, or expanded where more details are required.
PART 4: MORE MEMORIES OF MY FAMILY AND TEACHERS
My late brother’s children
After my brother, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman, passed away, his four younger children – Dovber, Moshe, Eidel, and Yaakov – moved in with my parents so that they could receive a proper Jewish upbringing, and my father fully supported them, even though he was experiencing financial difficulties in his old age. The children moved in after my sister-in-law, Chaya Gitel, married again on the advice of her brother-in-law, Rabbi Yitzchak Sapir, who had replaced my brother as the rabbi of Koznitza after he passed away.
My brother’s eldest son, David, was a wonderful boy – bright and sharp, a Torah scholar, and so polite and well behaved. He did not move in with my parents. His mother sent him to Volkovisk, in the Suwalk region, to study at the yeshiva there. One day, as he was sitting at the table of the shochet with whom he ate his meals, he suddenly keeled over and died. It was just before the month of Kislev, in 1896.
Everyone assumed David’s passing was caused by the pain and depression he suffered after his father’s death, compounded by the anguish he felt at the sale of his father’s precious library, and the loss of his father’s manuscripts, which were neglected by people who were unaware of their true value. David was treated very respectfully after his passing; Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ma-Yofis, the distinguished rabbi of Volkovisk, personally delivered a stirring eulogy at his funeral.
When we eventually heard the terrible news of young David’s death, we were all overcome with grief. What a tragedy! He was definitely the finest of all my brother’s children – such a magnificent boy in every way. He was only 18 when he died, and I always make a point of mentioning his name together with the names of my parents and other family members when reciting memorial prayers.
Meanwhile, after spending some time at my parents’ home, the other children were sent to Texas. It was all the fault of my sister-in-law, who was the source of much family anguish. She had married a wealthy, respectable man from Grodno called Isaac Present, but as a result of the marriage her children were all sent away. The new husband inverted the verse (Devarim 22:7) “send the mother away, and take the children” – instead, he sent the children away, and took their mother.
At the time, I was still young and foolish, and I wrote him an extremely rude letter in which I indelicately quoted the verse from Bereishit (20:3) that records G-d saying to the King of the Philistines “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken…” It was a terrible thing to have done, particularly because – to my great embarrassment – he died shortly afterwards.
In any event, my sister-in-law married a third time – but soon afterwards her third husband also died, so she went off to join her children in Texas. It was too late, and she derived no joy whatsoever from her children. They had grown up without a father and mother, and had consequently drifted very far away from their late father’s ways.
After some time in Texas my sister-in-law also passed away. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Orlianski – a remarkable public speaker and noted author, who as a young man had been a student of my late brother and a frequent guest at my sister-in-law’s table – traveled all the way from New York to deliver a eulogy. After she died, the children sent me some money to publish a small selection of my late brother’s writings that I had managed to rescue with the help of his brother-in-law, Rabbi Sapir.
Meanwhile, I am glad to say that my brother has not been forgotten. After his death, some members of his community paid to have a small tomb structure built over his grave, and whenever something bad happens in Koznitza they visit his graveside and pray there. Even all these years later they still sing his praises, referring to him as the “tzaddik” (righteous one), and they continue to revere his memory.
Life at home after my brother’s passing
My brother’s death at the prime of his life took a terrible toll on our family. We felt his absence with every step we took. We had lost our pride and glory. Only my brother David and I remained at home with our parents, and we were filled with sorrow and sadness. My father was physically weakened by our brother’s death – firstly, because he had lost his son, but also because he initially had to take care of the young orphans, and he was no youngster. He was also short of money, as he was no longer able to work and earn as much money as he had when he was younger.
Despite all these problems, my parents continued to host Torah scholars for all the meals at our home, and labored unbelievably hard to raise my older brother, David, and me, in the proper Torah way. My mother personally took me to yeshiva each day, and from one yeshiva to another, and I can remember her taking me to study with a teacher called Rabbi Avremchik, and another one called Rabbi Leibchik Cherness, who was an incredible Torah scholar, the father of Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Luria, the current rabbi of Glasgow, Scotland.
My mother also took me to study at the private yeshiva of a great rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi Hirschel Levitan. At Rabbi Levitan’s yeshiva there was a fantastic teacher, a devout and saintly man called Rabbi Shaul Porush, who had a profound impact on me, and particularly on my public speaking ability. He was a first-class preacher, effortlessly fluent in scripture and Midrashic narratives, and with an encyclopedic knowledge of the great homiletic rabbinic works. He literally had a sermon ready to deliver for every occasion.
Rabbi Shaul was a fiery opponent of Jews who had abandoned their faith, against whom he would rail mercilessly in his public speeches. But on every other subject Rabbi Shaul was an uplifting, inspirational speaker. He recognized my unique homiletic talent, and he even included some of my ideas in his writings, as I discovered after he died, when the manuscripts came into the possession of Rabbi Joseph Levitan, Rabbi Tzvi Hirschel’s son.
Rabbi Shaul was a tall man with a long flowing beard, and he had a very strong presence. He was totally destitute, and apparently nobody had ever bothered to concern themselves with his material needs, until one day he unexpectedly became ill, and died shortly afterwards. It was the Summer of 1896, and I don’t think he was even sixty years old, despite the fact that his beard was more white than black.
Rabbi Shaul’s death really upset me – he had loved and favored me so much as his student. We had often taken long walks together, and I had so enjoyed listening to him share his wonderful Torah ideas while we walked.
He had a large, respectable funeral, and was eulogized by the rabbi of Slabodka, Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky. I distinctly remember what Rabbi Danishevsky said that day. He began by quoting the verse in Kohelet (7:2): “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.”
“Does that mean visiting a house of mourning is a good thing?” he asked, rhetorically. “How would that make any sense?”
Suddenly he cried out: “We have had more than enough of the ‘good’ of visiting mourning houses! We can’t handle this abundance of ‘good’ anymore! We recently lost the patriarch of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, and we visited his house of mourning. Then we lost Rabbi Menachem Shraga, the rabbi of Ferman, who came to Kovno for medical treatment and ended up dying here, and we had to visit his mourning house. Then there was Rabbi Yehoshua Yosef Preil, also here for medical treatment, and he died too – and we went to visit his mourning house. And now this! Enough with the mourning houses; we simply can’t handle so much ‘good’!”
Kovno’s itinerant preacher, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Hacohen, gave the next eulogy, and then it was the turn of Rabbi Shabbetai Marim, the community rabbi in Slabodka, who based his eulogy on the verse from Isaiah (57:1) “the righteous are taken away because of the bad.”
“This verse,” he began, “can either be interpreted to mean that the righteous are spared from seeing evil in the future, or that they are taken from us as penance for evil in the world.”
Rabbi Marim paused and looked around, and then began sobbing uncontrollably, finally crying out: “I say that in this case it means that the righteous man died to be spared from his dreadful situation, from his poverty and destitution.”
He compared the loss of Rabbi Shaul to a rich man who has lost his wealth and is forced sell everything – his home, his land, his furniture – until eventually he has nothing left to sell besides for his Torah scroll. Rabbi Marim was crying bitterly. “We have lost everything,” he wailed, “we have descended to the depths, and now we have been forced to sell our Torah scroll, the righteous Rabbi Shaul – woe is to us!”
My greatest regret of all is that I failed to honor my parents properly with financial support. When I was young and single, I was totally immersed in my Torah studies, and was fully supported by them; I had nothing of my own. Afterwards, when I was newly married, I was not able to support them either.
Seven months after our wedding my mother arrived at our house. She was already widowed, as my father had died, and it quickly became clear that she wanted to move in and live with us permanently. I was very concerned that if she did move in, conflict would inevitably erupt between her and my wife, and so, despite her reluctance to go, she left and went back home to Slabodka.
Only after arriving in London in 1911 was I finally able to support my mother properly. But it was too late. She died in December that year, and was buried in Slabodka cemetery. The only one in our family who was able to take care of our mother in those final years was my righteous sister, Feiga Beila, and she dutifully fulfilled the Jewish obligation of honoring a parent. My father predeceased my mother after suffering from debilitating diabetes. In those days the medical profession did not know too much about diabetes, and he died on 12 Adar, 1906.
May G-d in His compassion take care of their souls under the shadow of His wings, and may they find tranquility in Heaven, together with the souls of all righteous men and women, until the end of days. And may G-d forgive me for not having honored my parents properly, and give me the opportunity to atone.
My parents’ graves were tragically lost in the aftermath of the Great War, when the local government destroyed part of the cemetery in Slabodka, which means that I am not even able to visit their graves to seek their forgiveness.
My brother David
We also had another tragedy at my parents’ home, and it still haunts me. It totally devastated my parents, and caused them enormous grief in their old age. Soon after the passing of my illustrious brother Rabbi Eliezer Lipman, my brother David became unwell. He was two years older than me – a fine young man and a diligent Torah student, very sincere and devout, and extremely kind hearted. But at the age of about twenty years old he suddenly went into a severe depression. Despite the efforts of numerous doctors, and the prescription of countless medications, there seemed to be no way to cure him. This new tragedy completely shattered my father.
Everybody said that David’s depression had been triggered by the death of our older brother, and it got progressively worse. At first he said he was troubled because he could not find a suitable study partner. Then he was unable to get any satisfaction from his Talmud studies — he constantly felt that he was missing something, and that his learning wasn’t good enough. After that he became very anxious about getting married, and that he would need to find a wife before he had finished his rabbinic studies. And he was constantly worried that nothing he was doing had any purpose.
He was totally consumed by all of these anxieties, and ended up becoming a complete recluse, laid up at our parents home for five years in a very agitated state, until, after my father died, he was forcibly removed to a mental hospital in Nowowiejska near Vilna, where he died in 1907, after having endured his dreadful illness for many years. What a waste of a precious soul – he was such a fine character, so G-d-fearing, a lover of Torah, and even an author of Torah homilies – I even found a short manuscript of his that he had wanted to publish.
David was the first person to encourage me to publish my commentary on the Torah, and to call it “Kerem Hatzvi”. When I was just a boy he would urge me to record all the Torah ideas I heard in writing, so that in the future I could include them in my publications. He was such a diligent Talmud student – if only someone could have cured him, he would certainly have developed into a very great scholar. What a terrible tragedy that he was taken before his time – an irreplaceable loss. I still have a set of ten Torah books that he bought with his own hard-earned money, and he wrote his name in them, and I have made sure to mention him a few times in my books, so that his memory will never be forgotten.
My sister Rivka; my brother Pesach
My beloved sister Rivka was a very distinguished woman. Her husband died young, and left her with a family of young children. She brought them up on her own. After I moved to London in 1911, I supported her financially to the best of my ability. She lived in a place called Aleksotas, near Kovno. Then she became sick with typhus, after which the war broke out, and even though she was extremely sick, they evacuated her deep into Russia and she died on the journey. Her children were scattered all over the place, with neither a mother nor father, and I tried my best to support them with my limited resources.
One of her daughters still lives in Kovno. She was widowed at a young age, and I send her money. Another one of her daughters married the son of my relative Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Bukantz, the chief rabbi of Helsinki, Finland, who later moved to Jerusalem, where he died in 1935. That daughter now lives in New York. Two of Rivka’s children live in Paris, and from time to time they send me letters. One of them, a daughter, is married to a man with the last name Rudnick. His brother, Rabbi Yitzchak Rudnick, lives in London, and is married to the daughter of my friend Rabbi Pinchas Yaakov Gerber. In fact, I was the one who suggested the match that resulted in their marriage. Sadly neither of the Rudnick brothers has had any children.
Another one of my siblings, Pesach Ferber, died in New York in 1936, at the age of 75. He was the next one in the family after my oldest brother, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman. He had a dye business, which suited our surname “Ferber”, which means “dyer” in Yiddish. For many years he lived at my parents home together with his family. When he became much older he moved to New York to be together with his children who had moved there. His son, Maurice Ferber, is a silversmith living in Paris, and he has a store there that sells silver objects. The rest of his children live in America. Pesach’s wife was Chaya Rivka. Her father was a G-d-fearing man called Reb Yisrael, whom I knew very well – he was a gravestone engraver by profession. Remarkably, he had engraved the text on his own gravestone, only leaving out the day, the month, and the year – and I actually saw it while he was still alive.
My brother Rabbi Mordechai Ferber
My other brother, Rabbi Mordechai Ferber from Shavel, was a great rabbi, famous for his Torah scholarship and piety. In his youth he studied at “Reb Abba Chatzkel’s” private school in Slabodka, the same as me. He became an expert on the “Yoreh Deah” section of “Shulchan Aruch”. My father fully supported him through his studies, and when he was old enough the great rabbinic luminary, Rabbi Yoizel Horowitz, founder and leader of the Novardok yeshiva network, set my brother up with the daughter of the renowned Kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Eliashiv.
Although my father did not seek any promises of financial support for his son, as he was delighted for my brother to be marrying into such a distinguished family, Rabbi Eliashiv insisted on giving my brother a dowry of 500 rubles. Most of the money came from one of his wealthy supporters, a man from Berlin called Obadiah (Emil) Lachman, who gifted 450 rubles to every one of the rabbi’s children when they got married.
Because he had enough money to support himself after the wedding, my brother continued his studies at the Kelm yeshiva for a few years, under the guidance of Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, its founder, who was known as the “Alter (Elder) of Kelm”. While he was in Kelm my brother also became acquainted with Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ziegler, a man renowned for his piety and saintliness. Rabbi Ziegler never took a paid public position in Kelm, but he was nonetheless highly revered, known to all as Reb Leib “Hasid” (the pious), despite insisting that he was plain “Mr Ziegler”. He formed a very strong bond with my brother, and when his wife died asked my brother to deliver the eulogy at the funeral.
My brother was ordained by Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov Oppenheim of Kelm, and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapira of Kurshan. He also received ordination from Rabbi Shimon Shaima Luria, the rabbi of Shavel. But he was not interested in securing a rabbinic position, preferring to remain a businessman and support himself with the profits. My father helped him get started, and he quickly became very successful.
Despite the fact that he was running a profitable business, he regularly gave well-attended community Torah classes and public discourses, and devoted a lot of his time to Torah study. He also married off all his daughters to Torah scholars.
After the Great War my brother fell on hard times. His son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef, together with my brother’s daughter and grandchildren, were stuck in Russia at the mercy of the awful Soviet government and unable to leave. My brother’s only son was unable to communicate by speech, only in writing, which was a tremendous strain on his financial resources, and very draining emotionally. On a number of occasions my brother reached out to me for help, and I helped him as best I could.
During the war my brother also lost his wife, a woman of exceptional intelligence and wisdom – if anything, she was even brighter than he was. My brother remarried, but his luck seems to have run out. He lost the money he had saved for his youngest daughter’s dowry, after having invested it with a wealthy man called Mr Nurik, who turned out to be a swindler. My brother asked me for financial help, but with my limited resources there was only so much I could do. My sister, Feiga Beila Flaum from Jerusalem, helped him marry off his daughter, providing him with hundreds of British pounds for her dowry.
My sister, Feiga Beila Flaum
My sister Feiga Beila Flaum was older than me by a few years, and far greater than me in righteousness and piety. Initially she endured tremendous poverty and hardship, as her husband was a simpleton, unable to support them both. My father helped them out for years by providing them with a rent-free house to live in. When her children reached adulthood they immigrated to the United States, and after a few years she followed them there, with the intention of strengthening Torah and Judaism in America.
She was a very persuasive woman, and influenced many of the women she got to know to set up organizations that would focus on strengthening commitment to Torah and Jewish life. But ultimately she realized that her own children were too set in their ways, and were never going to be fully observant Jews – so she left them and went to the Holy Land, where she worked with everything she had, and convinced others to do everything they could, to support Torah and those who studied it.
My sister was particularly supportive of the “Beis Yosef” Novardok yeshivas, as she knew Novardok Yeshiva’s founder, the illustrious Rabbi Yoizel Horowitz, who was a close family friend. She became like a mother to the boys studying at the Novardok yeshiva in Israel, looking after their every need.
Pinchas Grayevski, who published numerous works about modern settlers in the Land of Israel, published a photo of my sister together with details about her life in one of his books, and described her many great deeds and achievements supporting Torah in the Holy Land.
When she became widowed, I advised her to marry Rabbi Yosef Sharshevski of Slonim, who had moved to the Holy Land. She married him, and takes care of his financial needs, allowing him to sit and study Torah full time in peace and tranquility.