By Rabbi Moishe Kievman – Chabad of Highland Lakes, FL
My father came from good stock and took pride in it. He was born in 5699/1939 in Moscow to an illustrious Chabad family. Both of his grandfathers studied in the original Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva in Lubavitch, where each student was handpicked by the Rebbe Rashsab.
One of his grandfathers was known as Reb Dovid Hordoker. (His family name was Kievman, but he got that nickname, I assume because of 1) he was from Hordok and 2) because they associated him with another great and holy Chossid who was also from Hordok and had that same nickname.) The Rebbe Rashab said that it was worth making the entire Yeshiva, just for him! (He said it about one other Chossid as well.) He then called him a Beinoni of Tanya, which is someone who is completely dedicated, with every fiber of their being, to serving Hashem; one who hasn’t committed a single sin or anything close to it.
His other grandfather, Reb Shmuel Yitzchak Reices, whom the Rebbe nicknamed “Rashi,” was referred to by the Rebbe Rashab as a truly G-d fearing Chossid, blessing him with long life. I remember that great-grandfather (as that blessing was clearly fulfilled), since my father would bring me to visit him every Motzei Shabbos, until his passing, when I was in 3rd grade. Both his grandmothers were also from illustrious Chassidic families, going back generations.
As the Nazis invaded Moscow in late ‘41, the family fled to Samarkand, a city in south-eastern Uzbekistan and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. It was to Samarkand that many Jews ran away, including Rabbi Korf senior, Rabbi Lipskar’s father, and many others, even from our community. They set up Shuls and Yeshivas, to service the thousands of Jews who flocked there for shelter.
Although they were away from the war front, Samarkand came with its own set of difficulties, like famine, which led to people acting barbaric. One of his grandmothers passed away on the train and was thrown out the window, by the conductor and/or passengers. My father as a young boy went with his father to search for her body to be able to give her a proper burial. One of his grandfathers passed away from starvation. People simply had nothing to eat. My father’s youngest brother Baruch was kidnapped by gypsies, who planned on turning him into salami. After a desperate search led by my great uncle R’ Yosef Reices, and his good friend R’ Moshe Levertov, he was, thank G-d, found and rescued.
As soon as the war was over, and Russia made a pact with Poland to allow Polish refugees to return to Poland, my grandmother entered the ‘passport business’, helping many Jews forge documents to prove that they are Polish. It was those Polish documents that helped them and many other Chassidic families escape communist Russia. It was actually a miracle that those papers worked since they didn’t speak a word of Polish. (For more on my grandmother, see https://bit.ly/2YGiQTc)
The most perilous part of the escape was crossing country borders. My father recalled that the group didn’t have any money to bribe the Czechoslovakia guards, who were going to kill them. That morning, they all davened, proudly donning their Tallis & Tefillin. The guards saw that and somehow got scared and let them go. This made an indelible mark on my father. During their escape, his parents also took him and his 2 younger brothers, Sholom Ber and Boruch, to visit the famous shul of the Maharal in Prague.
In ‘46 the family was in a DP Camp in Pocking, where my father somehow bought a bicycle from a German kid. He was always proud of that bike and used it to help bring food and medicine to people.
Being a strong lover of the people of Israel and the land of Israel, my grandparents were dreaming to reach Palestine, where they would finally build a life for themselves. They heard a rumor that someone was trying to arrange a boat and so they decided to chase that rumor and find that boat. They eventually found it and excitedly signed on to be one of its daring volunteer Chalutzim.
The boat was organized by several American heroes like Sam Zemurray, known as Banana Man, who paid $8,000 for this ready-to-retire boat ‘for scraps’ under a Western Trading Company which was really a front for the Haganah, and Israeli heroes like Captain Ike Aronowicz who bravely steered the ship, ignoring the demands of nearby British bombers to halt the boat and not dare try to take it to Palestine. The boat which became known as Exodus 1947 was eventually rammed into on all sides by British Destroyers. After several hours of gunshots and club beatings, the British killed 3 and wounded several hundred, and finally took all 5,209 passengers captive. They then divided them on a third boat, the Empire Rival.
The boat stopped to unload the ‘prisoners’ in France, the country from which it first embarked, but the Jews refused to get off. The Brits had hoped that the French would help force the Jews off, but the French didn’t want to mix in. They finally forced the passengers off, one by one, in Germany, where they were once again placed in DP or Prison camps.
I’m not sure on which part of their journey it was, that the boat (Kedma?) stopped off in Sicily to allow my grandmother to go to the hospital, where she suffered a miscarriage and the doctors thought she was dying. There her father came to her in a dream and told her that everything will be alright. The hospital priest came to her to help her with her final prayers and told her that if she only kissed the cross, she would be saved by the “son of g-d.” My grandmother used to love recounting that story, quipping how she responded to the priest, “I have the father, who needs the son!” My grandmother, of course, got better and they reunited as a family.
Although the war was over, Germany was still a dangerous place for Jews. My father recounted how the German kids would throw stones at them while they were in the camps. My father spent time between Bergen-Belsen and Pocking, where they established a Cheder, Yeshiva and Shuls.
My father never shared these stories with us. Only when visitors who were with him during their escape from Russia, or on the boat, came to visit, were we privileged to hear some bits and pieces of his incredible life.
Eventually, they did make it to Eretz Yisroel, sometime in ‘48, but things were not much easier. Israel was a brand new country and not yet developed, but what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In fact, my father was known in Yeshiva as ‘The Marine’, as he jumped into freezing cold Mikvahs. Even when he took us swimming as kids, he would jump into the cold pool, while we refused to go in.
During the time he was in Israel, my father had the great Chassidic mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Keselman as his Bar Mitzvah teacher. He had classmates like the revered mentor, R’ Meilech Tzvibel and the Stropkover Rebbe who comes by every so often. He fondly remembered walking with his family every Shabbos 45 minutes from Nuscha to Nachlat Binyamin, just to daven with a minyan. His father would take them to Tel Aviv to help people don Tefillin or during Sukkos to help people bless the Lulav and Esrog. Many recall the huge Kiddush his parents would throw every Simchas Torah.
Once, when my father was in Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, my grandmother asked him to stay home. He couldn’t understand why, as she never did that before. That day there was an attack in the yeshiva, where Arab terrorists killed a teacher and several students. Thank G-d my father’s life was spared. My grandmother said she just felt that he should stay with her that day.
My father then decided to go back to Europe, to study in Yeshiva in Lucerne. While there, he wound up getting a job teaching in Institut Ascher, a prestigious boarding school in Switzerland, where many wealthy parents would drop off their children while spending time in Europe. Those were the golden years of his youth.
While there he had many students who later became famous, like Jackie Safra and Tommie Moskovitch. Years later, he connected them with Rabbi Yossel Weinberg, whom they helped with financing the Lubavitcher Yeshiva and other worthy causes.
He was also involved with starting the first Camp Gan Israel in Europe with Rabbi Garelik in Milan, and other efforts throughout Europe. Rebbetzin Garelik, who came to the Shiva, together with her husband and son, shared with us some of the amazing times they had together when they were just starting off their lifelong community work there, as Shluchim of the Rebbe to Italy. She described my father as a caring and kind Chevreman, as someone who got things done, in the most pleasant beautiful way. He was also a counselor at the local Kinderheim (orphanage), where he cooked and took care of the children. Rabbi Garelik’s son said he was in the midst of going through letters that went back and forth between his parents and the Rebbe, with many references to my father. He said he would, of course, share them with us.
While in France, the Rebbe asked him to translate some books to French.
My father finally came to the US on his birthday, the 11th of Nissan in 5720 (‘60). He came straight to Brooklyn to be near the Rebbe, who was a father figure to him since his father had passed away.
When drafted to serve in Vietnam, he was scared to go. The Rebbe told him to join the military, but not to worry, as they wouldn’t send him to actual combat.
While at Fort Jackson, my father made an impact on many people there. He studied with the Jewish doctors (one was even inspired to keep Chalav Yisrael after seeing how stringent my father was in that regard, and how he got shipments of special dairy tubes) and taught Gemara to the son of the reform rabbi at the base. That boy ended up becoming observant, and my father took extra pleasure when years later, that boy’s son would eat Shabbos meals at our home!
Unlike most Chassidim, my father didn’t have a beard. Perhaps it is connected to a story that we never heard from him (we first heard it from our great uncle), but when we asked him about it, he didn’t deny it.
The Rebbe once had something he wanted to be done in the military and suggested that they send my father. One of the people involved questioned the Rebbe “but he doesn’t have a beard?”, to which the Rebbe responded ehr iz an ehrlicher Yid – he is a genuine Jew. My father would often quip, “You can have a beard without a Jew, and you can have a Jew without a beard.”
One of my uncles shared with us that he once asked my father why he left the field of education and went into business, to which he responded that he wanted to pay full tuition for his children’s education.
My father manufactured wallets, had a travel agency and an electronics store. By the time I was growing up, he was in the business of refining precious metals. He played with different formulas and liked to say he was a chemist. I loved helping him design Jewelry which he sold, and would often travel with him for work. Everyone loved my father, or Joe, as they called him. He dealt with many kinds of people, non-Jews and Jews – Chassidic, Litvish, Satmar, Sefardic… and had a positive impact on everyone he dealt with. He spoke to everyone in their language and knew exactly what to say to make them feel good. Whenever he met with Jewish business associates, he always made a point in sharing a Torah thought, or saying something that would encourage them to upgrade their Jewish observance.
One of my father’s prized treasures was a Gemoroh that he took with him throughout Europe and his travels. It was a one-volume book that had the entire Talmud in it. It’s the same Gemoroh that he would learn from in his store, in between customers. It was the largest book we had a home and I have no idea where he got it from, as I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know if my father knew the entire Talmud by heart, but I do know that any time we quoted a piece of Talmud, he knew it.
My father was also known for his wittiness and Talmudic sense of humor. For example, he would tell us about the Chossid who davened in a Misnagdishe Shul while saying Kaddish. When he was asked what he did when it came to “Vyatzmach Purkonei,” he said that although they didn’t allow him to say it, he had it in mind. Then there was a Misnaged who davened in a Chassidic Shul. When asked what he did by “Vyatzmach Purkonei,” he replied that he said it, but had in mind not to mean it…
My father always had a Chumash or other Jewish books in the car which he would study from at red lights. Many times he would ask us to read for him while he was driving, and of course, correct our mistakes. I think that was his favorite pastime, to correct our mistakes! He often leined from the Torah for his Minyan and knew the entire Torah by heart, with the correct tunes and exact grammar.
My father was brilliant. He spoke 13 languages. In Crown Heights, where I grew up, people from all over the world constantly came to visit, and many of them would come to my father to exchange their money. He communicated with each of them in their own language and loved making them feel at home. He was great at math. He loved to take nighttime walks or jog, no matter the weather. He was also a licensed pilot and would tell us about the different clouds and what kind of storm was coming.
My father was one of the founding members of the Crown Heights Hatzalah (medical emergency first responders). After his passing one person wrote of the impact it made on him as an 11-year-old in my father’s store, choosing his first watch, when he witnessed how after getting a Hatzalah call, my father immediately closed his door, leaving his livelihood behind, and ran to help save someone.
During Shiva, a neighbor of ours told us how my father came to their house when his wife was expecting a baby. They were crazy nervous, but my father calmed them down, ensuring them that in the worse case scenario they’ll deliver the baby at home. He indeed delivered their first child as well as some other community children. We never knew any names, since my father would never divulge private information, but my mother did tell us that after that first delivery, he put up a sign in his store that said ‘we deliver’!
By the time I grew up, my father no longer had the store or worked in the community, and so he was no longer officially part of Hatzlah. However, he was still the go-to guy on the block in case of any medical emergency. I vividly remember his Hatzalah kit and big green oxygen tank, which he kept in the basement.
My father took great pleasure in doing a favor for another, without any air of conceit. He always looked out for people from the community waiting for a bus, stopping to offer them a ride. He also often noticed Jewish people stuck on the highway.
I remember once when returning with him from Maryland on business, he found an older woman together with her daughter whose car had broken down on the side of the road. They were crying when we stopped for them and gladly gave them a ride to where they were heading. She was proud to tell us that her son was the great Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, and surprised that we’d never heard of him. He later tracked us down and sent us a letter of gratitude, which my mother kept for years. I, of course, later learned of and got to appreciate his books.
My father answered his store phone with “at your service,” and that’s exactly the best way to describe him. He was always there to be of service to others. Countless people have also shared how they spent hours in his store shmoozing with him and how he made them feel so at home in a foreign country. Because he was so sincere and approachable, people felt comfortable unloading to him.
My father loved sales and good deals. On Friday afternoons he would go to a wholesale specialty bakery called Bergen Street Bakery (now Chantilly) and buy out whatever they had left. He would come home with those huge bakery bags filled with Challas and rolls, as well as the most delicious pastries for the Shabbos table, and often share them with others.
My parents enjoyed a Shabbos table full of guests. There are hundreds of people who over the years ate at our home. My parents were often struggling financially, but they always made do with what they had. Anywhere I’ve been in the world, there were people who told me that they’ve eaten at my parents’ home and of the singing they so enjoyed, that went on for hours. Many known chassidic and other Jewish melodies, but many which were unique to our home. We were recently discussing producing an album for my father of his favorite hits. Though it’s now too late for that, hopefully, we’ll get to it soon enough so that others can enjoy it!
I’m not sure I always appreciated him and the love he had for us. After all, which kid wants their father to come to school in the middle of the day to bring them rubber boots and make sure they are put on correctly, just because there was a forecast for snow?! Although he worked extremely hard, he would come around each night to make sure we were properly tucked into bed, our Yarmulkas were on our heads and that we had Negel Vasser, and of course a paper towel with which to wipe our hands.
My father was a very eidel and refined person, careful to use clean and positive language. He used many code words for words that had a negative connotation. In recent years, he had full-time home attendants, and complied with what they asked with “yes, boss.” But when once in frustration, an attendant said, “Oh J—-”, my father quickly responded “in our house, we don’t say that!”
My father was always super careful with honoring his parents. He would call his mother before and after every Shabbos and Yomtov. In the later years of her life, when she lived full time in the States, my father would either pick her up to eat supper with us or if she wasn’t in the mood, he would bring supper to her. In her last few years, my father would make sure to visit his mother, making sure she was comfortable and had all her needs, every single day.
There were so many lessons we learned from my father: Not to be afraid of exploring untrodden territories to build a better life. To always be willing to try something new, as long as it’s allowed. To be an entrepreneur and think out of the box. To work hard and never waste time. Giving and sharing. Hachnasas Orchim. Learning with a Kol Torah (out loud). The importance of chazarah, reviewing your learning over and over again (when reviewing, he would count with his fingers Yad – 14 times). Modesty, honesty, and humility were very important to him.
My father led by example, teaching us to take our time and choose right for ourselves, not necessarily settling on the first person we meet. He taught us that your spouse comes first, must be treated with the highest respect and is the absolute most important person in the world to you.
May we merit very soon to be reunited with all our loved ones, with the coming of Moshiach, very soon!