By Larry Gordon
Rabbi Ephraim Rubin passed away last week. I suppose that his full name was Ephraim Fishel, as those two names very often go together. Growing up in my parents’ home, I heard the names Fishel and Shoshana Rubin very often. They were good and close friends. They and my parents visited each other often and went places together, and they were always in attendance when my parents hosted those Saturday-night melaveh malkahs in our Crown Heights home.
I must have been a very young kid in those days, because what I remember most about those events was that I was unable to fall asleep because of all the loud talking. They spoke to one another—and over one another—and frequently laughed out loud. I think it was mostly the laughter that kept me awake.
They were such good friends and enjoyed one another’s company so much. My mother, may she live and be well, was also close to Mrs. Rubin, Shoshana. I think that for a time they might have spoken on the phone every day—now that is a good and close friend, in my estimation.
I have this picture on the wall of my office of the Rubins, my parents, and their mutual friends, the Isbees. Since last week’s levayah for Rabbi Rubin, I have been gazing at and contemplating that picture that I feature here. I just love that look in my father’s and Rabbi Rubin’s eyes. My guess is that the photo was taken at a dinner or a wedding sometime during the 1960s. They were in their prime, in their heyday. My guess is that the men were all between the ages of 48 and 52, the women slightly younger.
The thing about this photograph in particular is the look in their eyes, especially the men. Take a look; it looks to me like they are beaming. Sure, it’s only a picture, but to me it portrays much more than just some well-dressed people. To me, the photo communicates happiness and, more importantly, a contentedness with life as it was at that stage.
I don’t know how or under what circumstances they met. Rabbi Rubin lived in Lawrence for 59 years, so he was an old-timer and a pioneer out here. Rabbi Isbee was a rabbi in the Bronx, which in those days was still a growing and integral area for Orthodox Jewish development in New York.
And my dad, as many of you are aware from previous narratives about his life, resided in Crown Heights in Brooklyn (where my mom still resides today) and was an accomplished Yiddish- and Hebrew-language journalist who shared his ideas and his clarity on Jewish life here and in Israel in several weekly columns that he authored for various publications. Someone remarked to me the other day that he is just simply impressed with the mark my father made on Jewish life worldwide in his lifetime with his writings. I responded that it was indeed remarkable, particularly considering that what he accomplished was all done before there was even a hint of anything resembling the Internet.
But then I thought about that remark, and it occurred to me that it was probably because of the lack or the absence of the Internet that he was able to accomplish what he did. There was less clutter and less congestion on the information highways. Today you can ingest all kinds of media, but there is just too much; there is information overload. Back in the ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s, there was a simplicity in media that allowed whatever writers were saying to be read and understood on its own merits, with time for thoughtful discussion on matters.
I think it was my father’s career, his renown in some circles, and his contact with influential figures in Jewish life in those days that cemented his relationship with so many others. But the men pictured here were his personal and intimate friends and confidants. He dealt with many tricky issues and these were the men that he discussed those issues with before writing.
Last Sunday, I attended the Jerusalem Post Conference in Manhattan. Before the program started, I ran into one of my father’s colleagues from the Algemeiner Journal, the writer Shlomo Shamir. I had not seen him in a good many years. We met while making ourselves coffee and, without any preliminaries or the usual niceties, he just looked at me and said, “You know, I was closest to him, more than anyone.” He didn’t say who, but it was obvious, as my father was and still is our only connection.
“He was a brilliant man and a talmid chacham,” Mr. Shamir said. I nodded my head in the affirmative, not knowing what to say. Perhaps I’ve mentioned this in the past, but this kind of scenario with people who knew my father happens relatively often. So, standing there a little pleased and a little stunned, I mentioned that it had already been 24 years since my father’s passing. Then he added, “And I have to tell you that I miss him every day.” He then moved on just as nonchalantly as we met, and that was it.
I saw him later in the day, as the conference was an all-day affair, and he just passed me by, not saying anything. I was amazed and mentioned to my wife that this kind of experience for me is like a message being passed down from above. It’s like a calling card of sorts. She didn’t know what to say either, and just uttered these words: “It’s unbelievable.”
So these are the men in the picture displayed here. These three men were good together, secure and confident in who they were and an even more potent force when they were all together. My father and Rabbi Rubin have these slight, even polite, smiles on their faces. Rabbi Isbee seems more serious or stoic, but I really didn’t know him that well. As a writer in the once-popular Yiddish press, my father, in order to acquire a sense of Jewish life out there, frequently spoke with and befriended rabbis in key communities around the country. Some of the rabbis who would often call my father included people like Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, Rabbi Louis Bernstein, and Rabbi David B. Hollander. Those are names of a previous but pivotal juncture in Jewish life as the transition was made from Europe to what would become flourishing communities in the U.S.
So I look, gaze, and even stare at this picture and I see life in a good, fulfilling, and happy context. This was their kingdom and in a sense they had everything—families, careers, and one another. Rabbi Ephraim Rubin arrived in the U.S. from Israel in 1934. That was the same year that my father arrived in New York from Russia. Chaim Rubin, Rabbi Rubin’s son, tells me that his father came to New York with his parents and siblings because they were living in dire poverty in Jerusalem. He said that his grandmother had a small makolet—a grocery store—but that almost none of the customers were able to pay their bills.
My father arrived here with his mother and three siblings with a berachah from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, who would himself come to live in New York in 1940. My grandfather arrived in the U.S. in 1932 to pave the way for his wife and children, who followed in 1934.
The stories about how the families evolved, got to know one another, and came of age in the new world are endless. The middle of the story is that Rabbi Rubin and my dad became great lifelong friends and my mom and Shoshana Rubin for many years spoke just about every day. They were friendly and engaging people, and though my father passed away more than 24 years ago, up until a few years ago, when I would see Rabbi Rubin in shul he always had a personal tidbit to relate or comment about what my father would say or think about any number of situations, and I found that both comforting and in a way filling that void.
So now, as we head into Pesach, those things that we were once so accustomed to and that are missing from our lives become more pronounced. I loved the Seder with my father at the head of the table saying the Haggadah and explaining the various customs to us, his children. I think I took it for granted until I was about 17 years old, when I started to grapple with the reality that this scenario was not going to last forever. And that was not because anything drastic was going to happen but rather because we were getting older and would be taking our lives in different directions. And, at the beginning, anyway, I found that reality a little bit unsettling.
I think I got past that, but still I miss the excitement and the setup of the chag in my parents’ home—all the matzah, foods, and dips, along with the different amenities associated with Pesach. And then there was always the erev Pesach burning of the chametz, the Jewish version of a pyrotechnic display—always exciting and something to look forward to.
I called Chaim Rubin on Monday to see how he was doing. His father, who was 94 years old, had been ill for quite a while. I wanted to know more about our fathers’ friendship. I found out that they came to this country around the same time, that they both lived in Crown Heights for a while, and that they had a lot of common interests and were just very good friends. Chaim got up from shivah on Sunday and he said that he found it surreal standing at the amud on shul on Monday morning and reciting Kaddish.
I told him that I understand and that I know it is rough. I did not say that he would be okay or that he would get over it. It was too early for that. In fact it was too early in the process to say anything. But as I spoke with him, as well as afterward, the words uttered by the journalist Shlomo Shamir about my father when we met on Sunday kept playing themselves over in my head: “I have to tell you I miss him every day.” How true, I thought. v
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