Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind: Master of Many Trades

The 25th of Sivan marks the yartzeit of Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind. An article by Mrs. Tzippy Clapman shares the uniqueness of Rabbi Zirkind, not only as the Rebbe’s personal sofer, but also his unblemished avodas Hashem between man and Hashem and between man and man. 

By Mrs. Tzippy Clapman for Nshei Chabad Newsletter

I was newly engaged to my husband, Rabbi Yehuda Clapman, and our shadchan was my very close friend Adina Brand. Adina’s cousin, Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind, had taught my husband safrus starting from when Yehuda was a young teenager, and I was immediately taken in by the Zirkinds like a daughter-in-law since my husband was always treated like their oldest son. It was not like they needed more children, as the Zirkinds had no shortage of sons and daughters, but their warmth and hospitality knew no bounds. I will never forget meeting Rabbi Zirkind and his wife Raizel and their children for the first time during our engagement. I had never seen so many friendly, happy, welcoming faces in one small home.

The Zirkinds were very particular about their dress code and all the sons had long payos and wore long jackets. The girls always wore very tzniusdik clothing from a very young age, around three years old, and their hair was never worn loose. They all looked very different from the typical Lubavitcher kids but they did have a very large family of siblings who all dressed that way. The parents of this remarkable family tried to give them a sense of pride about their different appearance.

It did not take long for me to realize that Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind was a master of all that he would undertake. He was a shochet by profession, he was a mohel with much experience, and he was a sofer who wrote mezuzos, tefillin, megillos and sifrei Torah. His wife was a college graduatewith a degree in chemistry and worked as an assistant chemist to help support their large family at Kings County Medical Center, a few blocks from their home in East Flatbush. He would start his job as a shochet in the wee hours of the morning and return with ample time for his wife to leave for her job at the hospital. He would then be home with the small children and take charge of cooking and baking, while doing safrus work and making time for learning too.

All home repairs and maintenance were done solely by him and his sons. He put down new floors, he tiled his walls, he broke down walls and put up new sheet rock, all with a do-it-yourself book of instructions in hand. He of course painted, and put in cabinets and kitchen appliances, and all plumbing, but he did this only for his own family’s needs.

After purchasing his home on Eastern Parkway, Rabbi Zirkind first redid the ground floor for his mother, Mrs. Aidela (Ada) Zirkind, a”h. He had a tremendous amount of kibud av va’em and made his mothera palace to live in. I used to visit her after she moved in, and she was very happy and comfortable in her newly renovated apartment. She used to call it her doll house, and as a beloved retired principal of Bais Rivkah, she would sit like a queen and greet her former students with much grace and appreciation for their visits.

There was nothing that Rabbi Zirkind could not do. He had great patience, and was not afraid of any new challenge. Safrus wasn’t enough of a challenge; he undertook learning how to make his own parchment, and in his basement he would soak kosher calf hides, remove the hair, and hang them up on frames to stretch the skins into parchment and to sand them smooth. He tried to do all his work by himself without hiring help. He also liked doing things on his own to ensure that no unkosher ingredients were used in the process.

Do not think that this was an easy and inexpensive way of doing things. I remember Rabbi Zirkind always ordering all kinds of major machinery to try out in order to get his work done. Half the time, the machines were inadequate and he would do major research again and buy another bigger and better machine! He used to joke that he had an entire basement filled with machines that he had bought to try to do his work to perfection. Most of his machines were just taking up space. He would tell us that he would know when it was time to move, when there was no more room in the basement and his machinery could not get down his basement steps!

Rabbi Zirkind would shecht his own chickens and kasher them himself. All his children acquired much experience in soaking and salting meat and chicken. How many of our children have ever learned this process in the last 50 years? How many have even seen it done once?

Rabbi Zirkind built his own brick oven in the basement, and every year he, his wife and children baked their own hand-made matzos before Pesach. The matzas mitzvah was baked in his basement on Erev Pesach. Almost everything they used on Pesach was homemade, except for milk and eggs. They even made their own wine.

Around a month prior to Pesach, Rabbi Zirkind would sit at his huge dining room table making his family new clothing for Yom Tov. He would make his own kapotas, vests, pants and long jackets; vests, pants and long jackets for his sons; and dresses for his daughters. When you would walk into the dining room you would feel like you were in a clothing factory, with sewing machines humming, materials laid out on the table being cut from patterns, made by Rabbi Zirkind himself, ironing board out and all hands involved. Rabbi Zirkind loved doing things himself and showing his family how to be self-sufficient.

He never imposed any of his hobbies or do-it-yourself activities on his wife. He put her on a very high pedestal and respected and appreciated the hard brainwork that she did full time at the chemistry lab at the hospital. My husband learned safrus with Rabbi Zirkind for years in the middle part of the afternoon, and while he would be seated with him, Rabbi Zirkind was always in and out of the kitchen baking breads and preparing dinners from scratch. He often used cookbooks for the best recipes.

Erev Shabbos and Erev Yom Tov, he and his wife baked all the challahs and pastries, never entering a bakery most of their lives. Every simchah that they made (except weddings) was made exclusively by him and his wife in their own kitchen, and he would bring the food to the hall to serve his very large family and many friends. I use to look forward to his simchas, as their food was very delicious, very plentiful and also pretty to look at! He and his wife even cooked for two of their daughters’ weddings from soup to nuts.

Rabbi Zirkind had major expenses with such a large family and lots of bills and tuitions but he still gave his children extras sometimes. He would often appoint one child to be the distributor to the others, and he told my husband that if that child would learn to be generous with the prize, then when the next child would hand it out to him, he would probably receive a very generous amount as well. He taught his children this lesson through action and experience, the same way he taught them most other lessons.

If you would walk into their home Motzoei Shabbos or Motzoei Yom Tov during the late 1960s, which we did many times, you would see him and his wife together washing and drying the pots, pans and multitudes of china and cutlery and serving dishes. As the children got older they became more involved in all the chores in an age-appropriate manner, and their household ran very smoothly.

Hachnasas orchim was veryimportant to the Zirkinds. Their dining room resembled a catering hall, overflowing with guests of every type. There would be Jews there from every walk of life, with every kind of background. Everyone (including the young bride Tzippy Clapman) was welcomed warmly, fed generously, and made to feel at home.

When living in East Flatbush they lived literally around the corner from Downstate Medical Center and many times there were people who stayed in the house for Shabbosos for weeks on end until their relative left the hospital. Many of them wanted to remain with their family member for as long as they could in the evenings, until the hospital would throw them out around 11 p.m. Only then would they come to the Zirkinds to eat and sleep.

I remember some of the boys staying up learning Friday nights to wait for the knock on the door. Amongst the Zirkinds’ guests was the Spinka Rebbe, shlita, Rabbi Nafali Tzvi Weisz, son of the previous Spinka Rebbe, zy”a, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Weiss (1916-1988), author of Siach Yaakov. When the previous Spinka Rebbe was in the hospital over Pesach one year, the Spinka Rebbe stayed at the Zirkinds’ home.

On Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah nights many people went on tahaluchah to the shul in which RabbiZirkind davened. After hakafos, they were all invited to a lavish kiddush at his house (and anyone who wanted to stay for the entire meal was fully welcome).

Rabbi Zirkind had an elderly disabled great-aunt who lived in Brighton Beach with no family near her, so he or his boys used to go to Brighton Beach to bring her to their home often for Shabbos and Yom Tov. I can’t forget when Rabbi Zirkind went out and bought her a special armchair to cater to her physical needs and ensure her comfort. Eventually she moved in permanently with them and stayed there until her passing. How many people would do this for a great-aunt? This is just one of the magnificent lessons to learn from this very unusual couple.

Rabbi Zirkind would not spare any expenses when it came to honoring Shabbos and Yom Tov, and he would buy the best china, silver cutlery and crystal serving pieces to use only on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Despite all the work he was doing during the day and getting up so early in the morning, Rabbi Zirkind was always learning Torah as well and completed Shas many times.

His children’s chinuch was a priority for him and in his trademark fashion, he didn’t leave it to the schools; he made sure himself that his childrenwere learning well. In addition to his own numerous children, there were nephews, cousins and even strangers living in the house for months, and even years, so they could go to yeshiva.

The Zirkinds had an aquarium filled with beautiful fish which the children were taught to keep clean and to maintain. They had an appreciation for flowers and their Shabbos table was adorned with beautiful bouquets.

Rabbi Zirkind was always ready, willing and able to keep the highest standards of safrus and he was the Rebbe’s personal scribe. This fact alone speaks volumes about him, his principles, and his way of life.

He taught countless men shechitah, safrus, and milah and did not charge for his dedicated teaching. He would have weekly safrus classes where they would learn and review the halachos and they would go over any interesting shaalos that any of them were experiencing. This class is now over 50 years old and it still continues on a weekly basis to this day, in our home, under a rotation of different teachers.

Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind was very concerned about the education of a sofer and he deeply believed that one cannot become a good sofer in some crash course. It takes years of learning under the supervision of a very experienced sofer, and anything less is unacceptable. He well understood the responsibility of providing kosher sifrei Torah, mezuzos and tefillin for Yidden and didn’t take it lightly. He wanted all his students to fully appreciate the awesome responsibility they had, similar to a surgeon holding a knife over an unconscious patient. The patient just trusts the surgeon, who is supposed to have many years of experience and knowledge before he takes someone’s life and well-being in his hands.

Even after one of his students “graduated” and began doing business on his own, Rabbi Zirkind didn’t ever dismiss a student. He was always there for all his students to answer questions and even more than that, he would recheck anything of concern. My husband Yehuda Clapman, an older scribe with many decades of experience, still misses his teacher.

Rabbi Zirkind was known in many countries for his extreme honesty, and his honest work ethic. He was a partner in a business before he moved to New York, and unfortunately the business closed. He paid up all his debts to all the people he owed money to without filing for bankruptcy. Chapter 11 is what people do in order not to pay up their debts, he said.

Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind was that rare mix: an outstanding talmid chacham yet worldly and knowledgeable about mundane matters as well. With this valuable blend he was able to help countless people who would come to him for help, in many different areas of life. He gave Torah-true and also practical guidance.

Rabbi Zirkind was born to Reb Mordechai Shachna and Mrs. Aidela (Ada) Zirkind, both of whom immigrated to America with their parents in the early 1900’s. Reb Mordechai’s grandparents were Lubavitcher chassidim dating back to the Tzemach Tzedek. Reb Mordechai and Aidela lived in Williamsburg with their three sons and two daughters. Eliezer first attended Yeshivah RJJ on the Lower East Side, then Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, and then he went with his two brothers to the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva.

At the same time that Rabbi Zirkind became engaged to his wife Raizel Landy, l’arichus yamim v’shanim tovos, a fine girl from avery frum large family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was drafted into the United States Army to fight in the Korean War. They got married and very soon afterward he was sent overseas.

He was told to shave his beard but since he was already then a highly principled person, he refused. For this he was put into solitary confinement where he was shaven by force! Soon after, he faced court-martial. His case went to trial and he won the case.

In the 1950’s communication with soldiers on the front was haphazard at best. Months later, while he was fighting the Korean War on the dangerous front lines, he found out that his wife had given birth to his first child, a son. Others can take care of a child’s bris but the pidyon haben is the father’s responsibility. He had no money and no kohen to be able to redeem his firstborn. And then he won a silver watch in a raffle held amongst his entire platoon and he found a Jewish fellow soldier who just happened to be a kohen.

All this happened on the day that he was supposed to make his son’s pidyon haben, and he was able to use the watch to redeem his son on the proper day. The kohen accepted the watch but then later gave it back to Rabbi Zirkind, telling him to give it to his little son when he gets back to his family. The watch was given to his eldest son, and I am sure it is still in the family!

On the 25th of Sivan 5774, Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind returned his neshamah to Hashem, leaving not just his family but the entire Lubavitch shocked and bereft. We lost an irreplaceable dugma chaya, a living example of what a chossid, a head of household, a sofer, a teacher and an askan should be. He is survived by his wife, Raizel and many sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who strive to learn from him.

To this day you can identify his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren by the way they dress. This shows that his children are following the path that Rabbi Zirkind showed them. Perhaps we too can take some lessons from this lofty neshamah who never took the easy way out in life. That was my purpose in writing this article, to share some of the lessons of his life so that we may follow his example.

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