From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
Over the years, my wife and I have merited to have some very special people grace our home. Each person, in his own right, has added volumes to our Shabbos atmosphere. We consider it part of educating our children, to expose them to all kinds of interesting people who have made an impression on this world.
I believe we reached a new apex this past Shabbos when we hosted the Jewish hero of our lifetime, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich. Yes, the very gentleman whose bracelets we wore around our wrists in the 1970s; the prisoner of conscience; the prisoner of Zion: the young man who, together with his comrades, dared to seek religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, dreaming of a life of freedom in Israel.
From the moment he walked into our home on Friday afternoon until he left at around 1 a.m. on Sunday, we and all of our guests were mesmerized. I can’t—I simply don’t have sufficient space or command of the English language—to describe to you the journey Rabbi Mendelevich sent me on this past weekend.
And it was not just me, my wife, our children, and the guests we invited for the Sabbath meals and for dessert that were transported. He spoke Friday night at the home of my friends Ushi and Esti Stahler, to a crowd of about 75. And that was just the beginning. Shabbos morning, Rabbi Mendelevich spoke to a crowd of about 300 at my shul, Shaaray Tefila. Grown men and women were crying. I saw it with my own eyes, crying as the dissident now turned Talmud teacher chronicled his life in the Soviet Union, from planning the escape, to his arrest, trial, death sentence, prison life, religious observance while in the gulag, and subsequent release from prison and flight to Israel. I will not recount those details. Buy his book; read and cry for yourself.
I will utilize my remaining allocated space to share with you what I witnessed this past Shabbos as he spoke Shabbos morning at my shul, Shabbos afternoon at Beth Sholom, and Saturday night at a book signing at Central Perk.
Our shul has served as host to many world-renowned Torah scholars. When these guests are introduced by our rav, the congregants usually halfway stand out of their seats. Our rabbi, Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, in introducing Rabbi Mendelevich instructed our congregation that they were in the presence of greatness and asked everyone to rise to their feet, not a half squat, not a three-quarter squat. Everyone rose, because everyone understood the magnitude of the man who was about to address us. As I wrote before, people were literally in tears.
Shabbos afternoon I walked with Rabbi Mendelevich to Beth Sholom. Once again, the shul rav, my friend Rabbi Hain, instructed the entire congregation to rise fully because they were in the presence of greatness. The entire crowd rose in a hush and remained spellbound for 45 minutes. Again I scanned the crowd and saw many men and women, their cheeks drenched in tears.
The shul set up 100 chairs for Rabbi Mendelevich’s presentation in a back room adjacent to the main sanctuary. The plan was for those assembled to eat the third Shabbos meal in that back room while listening to the inspiring words of this hero.
Those plans were scrapped by Rabbi Hain, as not 100 but 500 people showed up. The event was moved to the main sanctuary and those assembled heard Rabbi Mendelevich thank us for demonstrating on his behalf in the 1970s, telling us that it was our voices that saved his life and set him free. By that time I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. But there was more to come.
We had planned a book signing for 10 p.m. that night at Central Perk Café. We were running late and by 10:10 had still not arrived. At that time I received a frantic call from the restaurant’s owner, Moishe Hirsch, that there was a line out the door already and we had better get there soon.
In less than two hours, Rabbi Mendelevich had sold every one of his books he had brought with him that night. He autographed each one with a personal message and gave berachos, blessings, to those on line.
One young woman approached Rabbi Mendelevich and thanked him for being arrested by the KGB in 1968 and imprisoned. She told Rabbi Mendelevich that she was born in the Soviet Union on the very day he was arrested and that it was because of his ordeal that her parents decided it was time to get out. Eighteen years later, they received their papers of freedom. She said she had been waiting her entire life to thank him for his blood, sweat, and tears that led to her flight to freedom.
So let’s talk about blood. We have already referenced the tears that flowed last Shabbos here in Lawrence. A few minutes after the woman who was born the day Rabbi Mendelevich was arrested finished speaking with the rabbi and having her copy of the book signed, another middle-aged woman approached with her book seeking a message of inspiration and a signature. And what a message of inspiration she received.
Somehow, while signing her copy or maybe right before signing her book, Rabbi Mendelevich cut his finger. It was not a deep cut, but was one that caused blood to drip on to the inner page of the book that our nation’s hero was about to autograph. Rabbi Mendelevich noticed the blood and tried to wipe it off. When it would not disappear, he offered the woman a different copy of his book instead.
The woman realized the treasure she now had in her possession. “No way,” she said. “I want the copy with your holy blood in it so I will always remember the sacrifices you made.” Rabbi Mendelevich took a pen, circled the blood, and wrote the words “Am Yisrael Chai” over the blood-stained page.
There is more. So much more. For those of you that decided not to hear him in shul Friday night, Shabbos morning, or Shabbos afternoon, you missed the chance of a lifetime. For those of you that decided to sleep Shabbos afternoon instead of coming to our house for dessert at 2 p.m., you traded a nap for a dream.
For those of you who went to the movies Saturday night instead of receiving a book and a berachah from a true Jewish hero, you traded fantasy for an incredible reality which will probably never be duplicated in our lifetime.
And if you really want to cry, ask your children to name a Jewish hero who is alive today and mourn, yes mourn, when they name a Jewish movie star or sports figure.
As the Soviet KGB officers drove him to the airport 12 years after his arrest and incarceration; after 12 years of torture and interrogation; after 12 years of defiance and spiritual growth, responding to each punishment with the acceptance of an additional mitzvah, the KGB agent turned to Rabbi Mendelevich and said two simple words that will ring in Rabbi Mendelevich’s ears forever. The agent turned to Rabbi Mendelevich and said, “You won.” v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.