By Michael Keller
There are ghosts in Midwood and to understand the neighborhood it is essential to know them. You can hear their names still spoken in reverent tones, as if the men they referred to were still alive. Or, you can find their faces in picture frames on fireplaces, in modest Orthodox homes off of Ocean Parkway. In the beginning I only knew of their names. But I wanted to know more.
The question was never phrased as, “Have you heard of him ?” or “Do you know of him?” with any of the usual markers to suggest that the person in question was not someone you could walk up to in the flesh and introduce yourself to, but rather had passed into the realm of the un-meetable, and, as I would find out, unknowable. But that wasn’t how it happened. In a voice clear and straightforward I was asked, as I would be asked many times after, “Rabbi Avigdor Miller. Do you know him?”
I was speaking with Chaim Brog, a student in religious school.
He was a great man, Chaim explained, who made people more thankful for God and influenced thousands of lives. If I wanted to know more about him, I should speak with Chaim’s own father, he said. It would be great to talk directly to Rabbi Miller, I reply. And if Chaim weren’t speaking in the past tense, my request to meet Rabbi Miller wouldn’t have confused Chaim like it did. But Chaim spoke about Rabbi Miller as though he were the most important person to know, as if he were present, there in the room. And if you knew him you knew, in essence, the whole neighborhood.
Chaim replied, though, that Rabbi Miller had been dead for nine years.
And Chaim wasn’t alone in thinking of Rabbi Miller like that. Thirty-thousand people attended his funeral when he died. He had taught in the Flatbush Midwood area from 1944 to 2001. He was known for his strict adherence to Jewish law and as a teacher of precise observance, he brought people to a closer awareness of God. As Chaim explains it, Rabbi Miller made people realize “that everything we have is a total gift from God, so we owe God our full devotion.”
How he accomplished this, however, I did not understand. Nor did I understand how in a neighborhood in which there was no shortage of rabbis and scholars, of men of piety and learning, that Rabbi Miller and other rabbis who were also long dead continued to play such a central role in the life of a community whose faith has never included saints and disregards the idea of sainthood as sacrilegious.
Chaim Brog was not the only person in Midwood who spoke to me about Rabbi Miller. I would hear his name whenever I asked about the important people in the neighborhood. And yet, much as I pressed to know more about Rabbi Miller, he remained elusive.
So I took Chaim’s advice and went to see his father, Rabbi Yehuda Brog.
I met him in the basement office of a modest house on East 17th Street. Unframed photos of Rabbi Miller hung from the walls on single pieces of tape. He is a thin man in the photo. He is wearing a black suit, as he always did, with a black tie and a black bowler’s hat. The photographer caught him mid-sentence and the expression on his face is stern. Under the photograph, cardboard boxes filled with books of scripture lined the hallway. Rabbi Yehuda Brog entered the room and asked if I were Jewish. I told him I was and he took out a yarmulke and placed it on my head. “There, now you look better,” he said, and then began to talk with me about Rabbi Miller, who, it turned out, was not only a sage but his grandfather.
But Brog told me little that I had not already heard-that Rabbi Miller was the chief rabbi of the Young Israel of Rugby Yeshiva in Flatbush from 1944 to 1975, that he started his own synagogue, or shul on Ocean Parkway in 1975, and, just as Chaim had told me, he taught his congregants how to live a life in strict observance of Jewish law.
“A man would come in,” Brog explained, “and Rabbi Miller would ask him how he survives. Obviously the man was breathing. So he would ask him where he got the air from. He didn’t have to pay for it. It was from God. Shouldn’t that man be thankful? Without the air he wouldn’t survive. You see? He opened their eyes to things they never even thought of before.”
Brog plays a central role in sustaining Rabbi Miller’s legacy: he manages the sales of the late rabbi’s 1,900 recorded lectures. In late 1960s, Rabbi Miller began making recordings of his teachings. Each is 90 minutes long and together comprise 2,850 hours or about 119 days worth of audio. If you were to listen to them for twelve hours a day every day (save for Saturday) it would take nine months to listen to them all. Brog says that people go through them in a couple of years. The full set costs around $2,000 and, since August, has been available pre-loaded on the Avigdor Miller iPod.
But even with all these many hours of words and teaching, Brog explained, there is a limit as to what the common man can understand about a man such as Rabbi Miller. “Imagine a donkey with a book about a great king,” he said. “This could be the greatest ass that ever lived, but he is only a donkey.”
“Am I the donkey?” I asked, somewhat confused.
“We are all donkeys,” he replied.
He handed me a copy of Rabbi Miller’s 500-page seminal work, Rejoice, O Youth, and tells me that it can answer all of my questions. My search for the mystery of the man who was Rabbi Miller might have ended there, had I not gotten a call from another rabbi, Rabbi Avroham Persky, He wanted to talk. Not just about Rabbi Miller, but about another ghost.
I met Rabbi Perksy at the shul that Rabbi Miller had founded in a small brick house all but impossible to distinguish from the other houses along Ocean Parkway. He had just finished his morning study and we sat down to eat crackers. I asked him who the important people were in the neighborhood, just as I had asked Chaim Brog. We talked briefly before he stopped suddenly, switched from English to Hebrew so that he could recite his after-meal prayer, and quickly led me outside the shul to the corner. There, he pointed across the street to the Mirrer Yeshiva and began to tell me the story of Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz.
Rabbi Kalmanowitz, he explained, had saved the Mirrer Yeshiva. The building he points to is a simple rectangular brick building save for two stories of exposed metal supports that enclose a rooftop basketball court for the adjoining high school. Founded in 1815, it was a world-renowned Torah study center in Mir, Belarus. On the eve of World War II, Rabbi Kalmanowitz, the yeshiva’s president, was responsible for transporting the yeshiva’s collection of books and hundreds of its students from Belarus to neighboring Lithuania. Kalmanowitz himself, as a religious leader, had important connections in the United States with rabbis and political figures. In 1940, he left for the US where he set out to secure entry visas for the hundreds of students back home. The Yeshiva fled Europe also but to the east, 6,300 miles along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean.
From there, the students and the books travelled the short distance by boat to Japan. The Japanese, although fighting with the Axis, took a different approach to Jews in their custody. Having read the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the book that ascribed to Jews the desire for global domination and economic powers to make and steal fortunes, they saw the Jews not as a threat but as an asset. Either as a tool for economic wealth or as a bargaining chip for Roosevelt, the Kalmanwitz’s students and his yeshiva, like thousands of Jews, were to spend the war in Japanese-controlled Shanghai while the rabbi lobbied U.S. Senators and the War Refugee Board to grant them visas. All told, he transported the yeshiva and hundreds of students out of Asia and saved them from the war in Europe.
After the war, Persky continued, Rabbi Kalmanowitz helped bring Jewish communities from North Africa to Brooklyn. Many of those people, Persky says, have since become leaders of the Sephardic Brooklyn community as a direct result of Kalmanowitz’s efforts. And although the story he told me is half a century old, although Rabbi Kalmanowitz died 46 years ago and only lives on in stories told of him, Persky told it with a sense of importance and gravity that when he finished, we realized that we were still standing on a street corner. Another rabbi bade him hello and Rabbi Persky remembered that he had another meeting to go to and said goodbye.
As Persky spoke about Rabbi Kalmanowitz there was a distinct echo of the way Brog spoke of Rabbi Miller-in broad statements of his piety and his sacrifice, in platitudes that leave me wanting to know details-missing out on the story of the simple man. But Brog had also told me “For a great rabbi, the self doesn’t exist.”
Both rabbis were known to have taken only modest salaries. Persky says Kalmanowitz gave roughly 40% of his salary to his three sons who, in turn, devoted their lives to religious study. Like Rabbi Miller, he is described in relation to others-for his selflessness, the wisdom he shared, the pious example he offered to his followers who, in the telling, thus lived as more observant Jews.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the Jewish community in Midwood was observant but you wouldn’t have seen the black suits, black hats, and sidecurls that you see today. The shift towards greater observance of Jewish law and orthodoxy in dress took place gradually after the war. But back then, the neighborhood was predominantly Jews-immigrants and the children of immigrants who settled there.
When the children of that generation began to move away in the late 70s and 80s, more observant Jews began to relocate from communities around Crown Heights and Williamsburg. When they moved they came to stay. They purchased homes and obtained expansion permits-tearing down or adding bedrooms to accommodate large Orthodox families. And there was more than just new homes-Kosher butchers, Kosher bakeries, religious schools like the Mirrer Yeshiva, everything an Orthodox neighborhood needs. But the key to it were the Yeshiva rabbis, whose schools became the focal point around which the community was built.
These rabbis played a strong role in “developing institutions of permanence,” as Professor Jeffrey Gurock at Yeshiva University referred to it as. Leaving their legacy in the buildings and functioning of the community even after their death.
But that, I learned, only explained half of these rabbis’s story. For the rest, I had to learn about Mt. Sinai, visit a home full of rabbis off of Ocean Parkway and the hear the story of a 19th century Kosher butcher in Iraq.
Akiva Fialkoff grew up hearing these dead rabbis’ names. He works at the Heichal Judaica store on Avenue J and told me, one day, that he could show me something to help me understand these rabbis. For him, the Gurock’s “institutions of permanence” explanation is missing one key part of the puzzle, namely that these men hold a connection to the past that modern, living, breathing, rabbis can never in the same way have.
The pivotal moment in the history of the Hebrew people, Fialkoff explains, was when God revealed himself to the people at Mt. Sinai and delivered the Ten Commandments. With each generation, the connect to Sinai dissipates, every so slightly, which means that an older rabbi commands a closer connection to the seminal moment, and therefore embodies a piety that a newer rabbi, pious and learned as he might be, lacks.
Fialkoff led me over to the store’s book aisle. He took out Gedolei Yisroel: Portraits of Greatness, a picture book of famous rabbis and the stories behind them. The book’s introduction reminds me of Rabbi Brog when he tried to explain the unexplainable stature of Rabbi Miller. “If the earlier ones are the children of angels,” the introduction reads, “we are the children of humans, and if the earlier ones are the children of humans we are like donkeys.”
The cover of the book shows roughly two-dozen portraits of men with white beards, many of them leaning over books of scripture. To the untrained eye, the pictures are all but indistinguishable, anodyne portraits. But as Fialkoff turned through the pages, he paused as each one spoke to him.
“These guys, you can tell a lot about them from their picture,” he said. He paused at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan studied at the Mirrer Yeshiva during the mid-20th century. “You see,” he told me, “This guy, he’s going to give you a hug. No matter who you are or what.” He pointed to Rabbi Elazar Shach, born in Lithuania in 1899, “And him, the streets were filled for his funeral.” He flipped the pages again. “Him, inquisitive, a curious man. You see?”
For me, a secular Jew, who grew up far from Brooklyn, I didn’t see, really. Yet in how Fialkoff turned the pages, in the look on his face when he saw someone he recognized, in how he asked his colleague Yossi about names he didn’t know and to hear them exchange stories they had heard I could see a deeper connection.
Off of Ocean Parkway, Rabbi Sason Azar, whose living room walls and fireplace mantle are covered with framed portraits of rabbis in white beards, black hats and wrinkles, led me around his collection. He tried to explain, in terms I could understand, what he sees when he looks at these portraits.
“When you have in your house photos around you of rabbis your spirit goes up,” he told me. “We have a lot of people over, and they say, ‘The atmosphere is so beautiful because you see only rabbis.’ You elevate yourself seeing them.”
Among those portraits is that of the Baba Sali, painted in a white cloak and staff-a Sephardic rabbi whose grandfather was once said to have flown to Damascus on a carpet. Another portrait shows Rabbi Yitzchak Kadouri who lived to be between 106 and 110 years old depending on the accounts. Kadouri was said to have memorized the entirety of the Talmud, a collection of religious commentaries on the Torah. The book takes seven and a half years to read at the normal pace of one chapter a week.
Rabbi Azar tried to explain what men like these meant to him by telling me a family story. His grandfather, Eliyahu Azar, he said, was the slaughterer for the Ben Ish Chai in Baghdad, one of the greatest Sephardic rabbis of the 19th century. On the Azar’s mantelpiece the Ben Ish Chai is pictured with olive skin under a turban and thick black beard. The slaughterer, or shochet as Azar says, was responsible for preparing any meat that the rabbi ate to make sure that it corresponded to strict Kosher laws.
The Ben Ish Chai himself presided over his grandfather’s wedding, Azar told me proudly. When it came time to give the groom a blessing, or bracha in Hebrew, the Ben Ish Chai said that his grandfather would be blessed with not seeing the death of any of his children in his lifetime. Azar’s grandfather had twelve children and lived to be 107 years old. During his lifetime not one of his children died.
“When a great tzadik,” a righteous man, Azar said, “gives a bracha, it happens.” As if that was all I needed to know about the presence of this man’s image in his home.
As if further explanation was not so much unwarranted, but impossible. As Fialkoff told when I pressed him to explain the importance of the sages in the store’s book, “Words cannot describe what these men did.”
Azar’s explanation made sense, the Ben Ish Chai touched Azar’s family. But what of the other 37 portraits? The question remained, if older means holier, according to Fialkoff, why not exclusively pay homage to rabbis of 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago? Why someone who lived nine years ago? Or forty-six?
Azar’s wife, Yehudit, had an answer. This generation of rabbis, she said, was the last generation with a foot in the old country-the old world of Vilnius, and Minsk. The shuls of Mir, of Warsaw, and Lithuania. And not only of the old world but they were the founders of the new world. They walked the same streets of the borough that Brooklyn’s Jews walk now. When Persky says Kalmanowitz was responsible for taking the Yeshiva from Mir, to Lithuania, across Siberia, Japan, across the Pacific and the United States to this corner of Brooklyn that’s a tangible connection to a world long disappeared but also indelibly present.
It is the nature of Jewish thought to be left with questions in the end. It would be hubris to think we could know more than the great men that came before us. We are all donkeys after all.
I like to think of the rabbis’ story, though, as a simple one, in the end, and personal. There is no great mystery behind the rabbis framed photos. No hidden secrets. No dead rabbi society, as it were. They are men who represented an older way of life, yet were present here in Brooklyn to build a new world after the loss of the old one. Men with a will and a purpose to spend their lives in service of something, despite the hardships they had gone through. Some of them are remembered for saving scrolls and for making schools. Some for giving insight on sacred texts or for shielding an old father from feeling the sorrow of great loss. And some of them, no one can really tell you why. And that’s okay. Their followers are not there to convince you. They see a connection to what those men did. And words just can’t describe.