To get to the shtiebel, you would walk up a narrow flight of stairs, at the bottom of which a bitter Holocaust survivor named Morris sold newspapers. After Shabbos, my father would get an evening paper from him, for which he’d pay later in the week. Whether or not he’d paid, Morris would tell me and my brother during the week that he hadn’t and get us to pay for the same newspaper two or three times.
On entering the shtiebel, the women’s section was off to the left, bounded by partitions at the front and along one side. The benches were old with nailheads sticking up through a succession of paint jobs. The walls were painted white, and there was a ramshackle bookcase up front. Wherever my father went he gravitated toward the back, and so we sat in the back row up against the partition of the women’s section alongside a window looking out onto Broadway.
The aron kodesh was made of imitation wood, with a velvet cover. The men, nearly all survivors, were mainly clean-shaven, spoke Yiddish, and were small-time businessmen—one owned a soda-bottling plant, others were accountants, or had stores—with the occasional landlord at the top of the income scale. They no doubt had their grievances and intrigues—a shul, no matter how pious, is still a shul—but there was a kind of simplicity about them and the place, and they were largely devoid of the posturing and self-righteousness that one found among the denizens of most of the other shtieblach in the neighborhood. At the center of everything was the rabbi.
His name was Moshe Halevi Steinberg. He was immensely learned, with a phenomenal reputation for sheer erudition, particularly in the realm of responsa, the many volumes of rabbinic opinions that make up the lived reality of halakhah. He had a striking bearing, an immaculately kept beard that ran 6 inches below his chin and clear gray eyes. He was a Hasid, though so far as I could tell of no school in particular. He never held himself out as a rebbe, which, my brother once pointed out, made the sheer force of his personality that much more compelling.
He was from Brody in Galicia, where he had been the av bet din, the head of the rabbinical court. The official name of the shul was Machzeh Avraham, Abraham’s Vision, the title (taken from Genesis 15:1) of the responsa collection of the rabbi’s grandfather, Abraham Steinberg, his predecessor in the Rabbinical seat in Brody. The shul and the rabbi quite literally owed their existence to a vision of Abraham. Rabbi Steinberg said that as the Germans approached Brody he had been hesitant to leave until one night his grandfather appeared to him in a dream and told him to go. He did, and the next day the Germans arrived. I believe he spent the war in hiding. One heard in whispers that the malnutrition suffered during the war was the cause of their childlessness.
As I said, we always went to the shtiebel for Minchah and Maariv on Shabbos. Though my mother’s family was Hasidic, my father was a misnagged, literally an anti-Hasid, put somewhat differently and I think a bit more accurately, one who preferred study to rapture. Because my father was a misnagged, we didn’t eat seudah shlishis, the third Shabbos meal favored by Hasidim. Instead, we would sit and learn Gemara in the twilight, to the accompaniment of the zmiros of the old Hasidic men eating seudah shlishis in the women’s section. The women were absent. My mother would sit by the window and wait for us to come home from shul.
Unlike many misnaggedim, my father was an infinitely gentle soul and looked on the down-at-the-heels Hasidim of the shtiebel with a kind of bemused affection. And he deeply respected the rabbi’s erudition and quiet spirituality.
The more I learned, the more I too was awed by Rabbi Steinberg’s erudition. I was, in my adolescence, quite the little misnagged myself, and simply could not understand how Rabbi Steinberg, in good Hasidic fashion, played fast and loose with the halakhically-mandated times for prayer, or let seudah shlishis begin perilously close to sunset. At times he would sense my agitation and assure me with a chuckle that everything was fine.
My halakhic agitation was, at that time, of my essence. As I entered my teens, sex and death hit me like a freight train. The arousal of my body came when I was 12, during the springtime. The familiar park on Riverside Drive that I had known all my life suddenly set me wild with pleasure and longing, the trees and sunlight and smells of wet earth transporting me nearly out of my senses, loosing energies that knew no bounds, delightful and harrowing in equal measure. Death came home with the loss of my aunt Rechel, a sweet and tragic woman, at 48, not long after my bar mitzvah. All of my grandparents had died by my 7th birthday, and the knowledge of absence had long hung in the air, a mist clouding the joking and homework and Shabbos meals of our home. My aunt’s death somehow crystallized the sense of loss that had long rested beneath the surface, shattered every certainty and placed heartbreak at the center.
Olam ha-zeh, this world, had somehow turned against me, and my chief assailant was my body; it drove me to unquenchable desire and one day would kill me. There was, it seemed, no way out, but one—Torah. A life of learning and mitzvot promised a way out of death, a union of spirit and action; if I learned enough Talmud, mastered enough texts, did enough mitzvot, davened with enough kavanah, maybe I would find transformation and connection and peace. Of course, I never did. All the learning, which was never enough, and all the davening, with never enough kavanah, could not ease the burning inadequacy I felt over the queer habitation of my soul in my body, of my self in my self.
Elul, the penitential month preceding the high holidays, was, of course, the cruelest, when my failings were heaped up before me and all I could hope for was pity. During Elul, I would get up early and go to the shtiebel for Selichos. I got so used to getting up in the darkness that one morning I was dressed and nearly out the door before realizing that it was 2 a.m.
In those years I tried to go to shul as often as I could and rarely davened at home. At the Young Israel, I knew I was doing my bit, fulfilling my obligations, keeping the faith. In the beis midrash at yeshiva I was comforted by the books and the aura of learning—however imperfectly my own study was going—and by the camaraderie of it all. Still, I was dissatisfied everywhere, and the shtiebel was no exception. But there, saying Selichos in the semi-darkness of the morning, I felt close to some beating heart, some presence that vibrated with my own pain and longing, something close, breathing gently over me.
One morning after davening, as we were wrapping up our tefillin, I asked Rabbi Steinberg a question about a Talmudic passage I had been studying. He said he recalled that my problem had been discussed by one of the 19th-century commentators, Zvi Hirsh Chajes, whose glosses are reprinted in the back of the standard editions. We looked it up, and indeed, Chajes had discussed that very question. Smiling a little, he said to me: “You know, the last time I saw this line in Chajes was before the war.” I was dumbstruck by his easy recall of this one obscure footnote to the mind-boggling vastness of learning; since the last time he had read it the universe had been ripped apart, his entire civilization had been slaughtered, and still, he remembered it, and it gave him pleasure.
Communication between us was not great, as his English was not the best and my Yiddish was painfully thin. Even so, I went to his two major drashot of the year, on Shabbos Shuva (in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and Shabbos Hagadol (before Passover) and listened as best I could. As he was widely acknowledged as the greatest talmid chakham on the West Side, nearly all the shtiebel-goers in the neighborhood would come, and extra benches had to be set out. I remember one drasha in particular, the last I ever heard from him. As was customary, he began with an hour or so of pilpul, of dialectical back and forth on some aspect of the laws of Passover, starting with an ambiguity in the Talmudic text and associatively moving into a thicket of halakhic issues, asking and answering and asking questions, working his way through citations to medieval and later Talmudists en route to some resolution.
When he was done with his pilpul, Rabbi Steinberg shut his books, smiled and said: “Enough with the Lithuanian scholastics (Litvishe lomdus). Now for some Hasidishe Toyrah.” And then he gave a homily on the meaning of Passover, on slavery and freedom and the way out of Egypt. At one point he began, “I once heard a thought [a vort; literally, a word] from Rabbi Aharon of Karlin.” He stopped, and looked off into the middle distance, into some vanished place, his face a shade of love and awe and sorrow. “Ach, Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, a holy Jew, a heilige yid.” I was somehow captured by that moment; years later I came to understand that it was then that I first sensed that neither I nor any of my contemporaries would ever be a heilige yid, not that kind of heilige yid. With luck and work and mercy, we could learn to be some kind, maybe, but it would have to be another.
Excerpted from “Two Shuls: A Memoir,” which first appeared in Kerem, 1995-1996 and is reprinted with permission.
Yehudah Mirsky is a former US State Department official. He teaches Judaic and Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and is the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution. His twitter feed is @YehudahMirsky.