Bridging the Generation Gap: An Interview with Reb Pinye Korf

In this rare interview, the legendary mashpia Reb Pinye Korf a”h outlines the Lubavitch tradition of learning from “eltere chassidim,” shares his own experience as a young bochur, and offers an important message for us today.

Anyone who knows Kingston Avenue knows Reb Pinye Korf. You can find him any day – walking an elder chossid, listening to a person in need, or simply walking deep in thought, as one would imagine a chossid walks.

A legend in his lifetime, this exemplary masmid and mekushar has served as the mashpia of the Oholei Torah Yeshiva for the past forty years, and in that capacity has taught most American Lubavitcher bochurim. He is widely revered for his davenen and yiras Shamayim – and envied for the fact that he was once actually beaten for teaching Chassidus….

Chassidim relate that when he was a bochur, he once approached his mashpia, Reb Peretz Motchkin of Montreal, to ask him for advice on a personal matter in avodas HaShem. Reb Peretz later exclaimed to his friends: “His questions remind me of the sincerity of the bochurim in Lubavitch in the good old days….” Indeed, Reb Pinye’s own live memories of pre-war chassidim make him a rare baal mesora, a blast from the past.

To watch Reb Pinye daven is not something I can transmit on paper. To hear him farbreng, you’ve also got to be present to experience. However, one thing I believe can be encapsulated in print – his advice.

His acute intuition, his pure chassidisher chinuch, and his earnest dedication to darchei haChassidus, all blend to create a towering personality – a genuine chossid whose lifetime of intense avoda has produced a sharp perception that is cloaked in an unassuming, even simple, personality. Hundreds flock to him, not only for his wellspring of chassidishe mayses, ideas and feelings, but also for practical guidance on dealing with contemporary realities. And despite his humble demeanor, his opinions on these challenges ring loud and clear.

To interview Reb Pinye sounded like a wild idea. Though certain that he would refuse, I decided to give it a shot anyways. What did I have to lose…?

So one fine Tuesday morning I go to 770 in search of the mashpia. There I see him, stooped over a Likkutei Torah, teaching a group of focused baalei batim. As he leaves to go home, he is stopped by former talmidim, by recent baalei teshuva, and by old friends – his first fans from his yeshiva days.

Patiently, I await my turn. To my surprise, as soon as I approach him with my request, he peers up, and says in his thick Russian accent: Farvos nit? (“Why not?”)

Here we have our first insight into Reb Pinye. He doesn’t shy away from media and doesn’t flee from kovod. It is simply insignificant to him. So, if it’s something worthwhile, something someone can gain from, then farvos nit?

And so there we were, at the back of 770, deep in conversation, me asking and Reb Pinye answering. As I spoke, his head was bent, his snow-white beard spread over his chest, listening carefully. Each time, as soon as I finished, he looked up and shared his measured words.

Here they are, as he said them.

Q: Why must the way of life, ideals and values of Chassidus be transmitted davka through living chassidim? Isn’t studying Chassidus and getting hadracha from a sefer enough?  Why is there a need to farbreng with and listen to eltere chassidim, and to spend time in the company of chassidim?

A: It is true that one can receive guidance and inspiration through learning the maamorim, sichos, igros etc.; in fact, those are the primary source. In the Frierdiker Rebbe’s sichos and letters in particular, the reader will find a treasury of chassidishe stories, anecdotes, and history, that will inspire him, change his outlook and imbue him with true chassidishe values.

However, even once inspired, translating those words into practical application – especially when that involves changing one’s entire lifestyle and value system – is often very difficult. A person may feel that he needs proof that it is actually possible to live a chassidishe lifestyle in the “real” world.

So as a first answer to your question: when one sees a living individual who in his day-to-day life personifies all that Chassidus stands for, this changes his perspective. He begins to view Chassidus as something practical and relevant.

Q. In other words, an elderchossid serves as a dugma chaya, a living example, for younger chassidim. Why is the Rebbe not enough of a living example?

A. There is a story told about Reb Abba Pliskin. The Rebbe had once instructed this chossid “to instill in the bochurim a warm relish for Chassidus(arain-gebben a lachluchis in di bochurim).

Some time later, at a yechidus, he asked the Rebbe how he was to go about doing this. The Rebbe replied that he should tell them stories about chassidim. The Rebbe emphasized that he meant specifically those about chassidim, for when hearing sipurei tzaddikim, people can think that it is too far removed from them.

Stories of the Rebbeim are certainly of utmost importance: they instill in us emunas tzaddikim, teach us vital lessons and so on, but that’s not to say that we can compare ourselves to the Rebbe, or that we can attain the Rebbe’s level and emulate his accomplishments (although we certainly can, and should, strive to attain at the very least a minute resemblance). The Rebbe’s levels and accomplishments can hardly serve as a practical and relevant example for the average person to live up to in his day-to-day life.

With regard to chassidim, on the other hand, one feels that there is some relevance, and that with effort and persistence, he can succeed in attaining their level and living up to their example.       

Q. I’m under the impression that in years gone by there was more of a stress placed on observing older chassidim, listening to them and watching them daven. What was your experience in this area?

A. After we ourselves finished our own davening, there was always plenty of time left to observe the elder chassidim as they continued davening in their own unhurried and deliberate style. The deep impression these men made upon us is immeasurable. In the letters of the Frierdiker Rebbe we find a vivid description of davening the way it was in the chassidishe shuls in the Old Country, and the effect it had on the youth:

How good and how pleasant was the house of HaShem in the chassidishe communities! Even during weekdays, and how much more so on Shabbos and yom-tov, one could find a number of people davening with such dveikus and intensity, that upon entering the shul, one was taken aback or even overawed by the G-dly scene that met his eyes…

In various corners of the shul, both in the mizrach side and in the maarav side, these lamps of HaShem, these mortal souls, stood burning with the holy anointing oil, as the spirit within them dominated the matter. Some wept from the depths of their heart and the innermost recesses of their soul; others stood in a state of delight, with a voice that aroused true intention, a feeling of attachment and love of HaShem, culminating in an all-encompassing outpouring of the very soul; while yet others were engrossed in an other-worldly contemplation of abstract concepts of G-dliness, yearning in silence, in a bond of essence to Essence.

Each individual on his own level knew that the study of Chassidus was his cherished portion in life, and that avodas hatefilla was the gate to the higher realms – to perceive G-dliness and to behold the glory of HaShem. He was well aware that his first priority in life was the refinement of his natural and materialistic middos, and the predominance of the soul and the spiritual over the body and the material.

Even the little children and the youth found a nest or a perch behind the doorposts, from which they could warm their hearts next to the fire of these chassidim, where they could sit at the feet of these anshei maaseh. And at other times they would wait around with an inner bittul, hungry and thirsty to hear at least a word, a mere droplet, from the mouths of the wise and elderly chassidim who had come to the house of learning, whose lips were uttering truly great words.… This thirst served as a salvation for these youngsters, enabling them to proceed along the true derech….”

Indeed, observing chassidim and watching their davening has always been a great thing. But still, in my day, the primary time for guiding and inspiring chassidim of all ages was always a farbrengen. There, an elder chossid would open up and share his own feelings and thoughts, and would often talk about chassidim of earlier generations. The focus in all of this, the main reason for our desire to come to a farbrengen, was to receive instruction and guidance.   

Q. How did this eagerness to hear from older chassidim express itself

A. True, some were the prying and inquisitive type (krichers). They would try probing and asking questions, hoping to hear stories and recollections, and indeed from time to time they did succeed in “squeezing” tidbits to nourish the soul. But I wasn’t that type. My friends and I would go and seek out farbrengens simply because we wanted to hear from chassidim, to be around chassidim.  Whether it was this chossid or the other, was irrelevant; we just wanted to be at a farbrengen, to hear chassidim.

Q. But why did you have to go listen to many different chassidim? Why wasn’t one moreh derech (mentor) enough?

A. For a mashpia, everyone had one chossid whom they looked up to in particular, and from him they primarily received guidance. But they would still be open to absorbing good things from a variety of chassidim. After all, from every chossid, each according to his distinctive soul-root, one can learn something valuable – whether it is the depth of his meditation, the warmth of his spiritual emotions, the spontaneity of his ahavas Yisroel, or the sheer power of his mesirus nefesh. 

 Q. It sounds as if in your times there was a thirst to listen to from elder chassidim. Today that doesn’t seem to be the case. Many of today’s youth don’t even aspire to reach the levels of the elder chassidim they do know, let alone chassidim of previous generations. The prevalent feeling is that the elder chassidim are products of a bygone era from a totally different society, making them impractical to emulate.

A. I see this “generation gap” perspective as one of the challenges of this generation. When I was young, we didn’t view the eltere chassidim that way; we most certainly had derech eretz towards them and recognized that they were on a much higher level than we were, but we didn’t see them as hailing from another planet. There wasn’t this “mechitza” separating the generations. The way we saw it, they were once young people like us, who lived in the same world and had the same struggles, and through working on themselves and receiving guidance from their mashpi’im, they eventually became who they are. So if we worked on ourselves, we could also become like them. It’s not that we thought that we actually resembled those elder chassidim, but why not at least try to be like them?

Q. Where does the current attitude stem from?

A. In my opinion it comes from the secular culture around us, where the youth feel they are more advanced and knowledgeable than their parents and grandparents, and than anyone or anything that is associated with the previous generation. Not too long ago, the prevailing opinion was that the older a person was, the wiser and more knowledgeable he became, but today, the prevailing attitude is quite the opposite. Unfortunately, this view has crept into our circles as well.

Q. In fact, it seems that today people are more critical and less forgiving of faults: “this mashpia has this fault, that mashpia has another fault.” Why didn’t this problem exist back then?

A. This response might surprise you, but people were critical then as well. There were always critics – “chachomim” who thought they knew better; big chachomim, little chachomim

Those, however, who were not as hot-headed; they still had some bittul, and didn’t see it as their “holy duty” to find faults in all of the mashpi’im and rabbonim….

Q. But what is so wrong with being reasonable? Isn’t it true that mashpi’im have faults?

A. First of all, it is not our task to judge others. We often don’t know the full story about any set of circumstances or about another’s motivations. And if this is true regarding any fellow Jew, then surely an older person, and in particular a true chassid, is entitled to receive the same tolerant and unjudgmental attitude.

And even if one is convinced that he is indeed qualified to stand in judgment, why must he busy himself with such foolish endeavors? What benefit will be derived?

There is a story about a famous chossid called Reb Abba Persson. Reb Abba was a wealthy businessman, and notwithstanding his stature, his conduct in certain matters was such that, at least from a chassidic perspective, it may have been considered questionable.

Another prominent chossid of that time, Reb Chonye Morozov, is remembered as a personal secretary to the Frierdiker Rebbe and one of his closest confidants. In his youth, however, he had a wild side to him: he could be even seen jumping on to a trolley while it was in motion. Anyway, one day this young bochur was sent to stay with Reb Abba for a while in order to learn and receive guidance from him.

Reb Abba once chastised him regarding a certain matter, and without skipping a beat Reb Chonye responded, “But you too have many faults!”

“True,” Reb Abba replied, “but if you focus on other people’s faults, you will never become a mensch….”

One must focus on his own shortcomings, not on someone else’s. One ought to learn and grow from the positive qualities of those who can be emulated, instead of trying to justify one’s lack of avoda by proving that no one is perfect….

Q. Were you ever critical of certain eltere chassidim? Did you admire some more than others?

A. Most definitely. It’s not that we were in denial! And it is obvious that even the greatest chassidim aren’t perfect. So there were certainly differences: some chassidim we admired more, and others, not as much. But we were always eager to listen to every chossid. As I mentioned earlier, from every chossid there is what to hear and what to learn.

The problem with some critics nowadays is that they aren’t willing to look up to anybody! This mashpia has too much gayva, and that one is too bittuldik; this one is not inspirational enough, and the other, albeit very inspirational, is not as knowledgeable as I am….

It is certainly in order that one should admire one chossid more than another, and to appoint as his personal mashpia the chossid whom he regards most highly. The problem begins when one doesn’t admire anyone, and no one is considered worthy of being listened to.

I remember when I was very young, I already had a leaning as to whom I would like to learn from and emulate. In my eyes, my opinion already carried considerable weight.

When I was around the age of bar mitzva, we were living in the Displaced Persons camp in Poking, Germany. Reb Yisroel Neveler was my top role model, and until today I hold his memory in the highest regard. He was a fiery chossid, full of joy and warmth. His yiras Shamayim was remarkable. He exuded an inner strength, and was unusually passionate and expressive.

In addition to Reb Yisroel, I decided at that time that I saw a certain emeskeit in two particular Chassidim, who, in comparison to others, weren’t considered to be outstanding. I couldn’t help but admire their sincerity, their emes, their yiras Shamayim and straightforwardness. For them it was a fact of life that what Chassidus demands must be carried out without excuses or shortcuts. There were other chassidim who were more widely respected, but I appreciated these two more.

Later, when I moved to France, there were also many chassidishe Yidden, including Reb Nissan Nemenov, who was the official mashpia, and of course I participated in his farbrengens and so on. But there, too, certain chassidim stood out whom I really looked up to and admired. And when I came to New York, this sequence repeated itself; I took well to some and had less admiration for others.

For broad guidance as to the most appropriate path to follow in one’s avoda, one needs a particular mashpia. But to supplement that with all the other good things that can be heard at a farbrengen, there is always something to hear from everyone – maybe it’s not always 100% to the point, but there is always something to receive. So as a rule, I went to all the farbrengens of every mashpia.

To summarize:

  1. Everyone has faults and shortcomings. Period.
  2. It is not unreasonable to have tremendous respect for someone and consider him worthy to be listened to and learned from, even if he isn’t perfect.
  3. It is okay and natural to admire certain eltere chassidim more than others. Those whom you look up to and feel you have the most to gain from, are the main ones you should be observing and listening to.
  4. Even after you have your mashpia and elterer chossid, you should listen to other chassidishe Yidden as well, since every chossid has something unique to offer.

Q. How does this all relate to the members of the Anash community?

A. Firstly, to ensure that there are mashpi’im who match the above-mentioned description. There must be general mashpi’im, mashpi’im for every shul, for every block, and so on etc. This must be implemented regardless of the time, effort and money it might call for. Once this is in place, people need to show an interest. This can be expressed in a number of ways: attending the farbrengens and shiurim and being attentive, pleading with the mashpi’im to give more shiurim and farbreng more often, and so on.

All of this will nurture healthy relationships between the mashpi’im and the yungeleit, ultimately bringing about inestimable good for the entire community.

Q. And how can the mashpi’im, for their part, help to improve the situation, and in particular to inspire the younger generation to become more involved in Chassidus, Torah and yiras Shamayim, at a time when there are so many distractions and challenges?  

A. It goes without saying that the mashpi’im need to be devoted, to feel a sense of responsibility. They need to invest effort and time in the yungeleit and in the younger generation – to farbreng with them, to arrange shiurim, to listen to them, to encourage them, to show them that they truly care and that they are there to help them out. They need to be involved.

When this is in place, the younger generation too will respond with eagerness and enthusiasm. If they feel that someone is truly devoted and sincerely cares about them, they will receive what is being said with open arms. Only when they sense that their concerns and issues really matter to someone, will it be possible for mashpi’im to speak of expectations or even offer criticism; only then, instead of confronting indifference or negativity, will the mashpi’im reap the desired results.

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