By Yochanan Gordon
Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul will mark the 44th anniversary of the passing of my great-grandfather, Hachassid HaTamim Reb Yochanan ben Reb Yisrael Gordon, zt’l. For the longest time, this date came and went rather unceremoniously on my end, without memorializing him. It struck me rather odd that this idea has weighed so strongly on my mind of late, compelling me to write when so many years have gone by without as much as a word or even a thought.
The following idea occurred to me: For nearly a year now, it has been my practice to visit the ohel of the Lubavitcher Rebbes on Sundays. My great-grandfather is interred at arm’s length from the ohel of the Rebbe and the Friediker Rebbe. As a matter of course, after finishing the traditional recital of the Maaneh Lashon that is said in the presence of the rebbeim, I pause for a moment or two to pay my respects to my elter zeide, read the inscription on his tombstone, and reflect on the great responsibility that has been placed on my shoulders and enter a prayer that I succeed in filling the void that has been left in his absence these last 44 years.
Reb Yochanan ben Reb Yisrael Gordon, zt’l, was born in Dokshitz to his parents, Reb Yisrael and Esther Gordon in 1894. Dokshitz was a Polish town until the Polish partition of 1783, which made it a part of the Russian Empire. Reb Yochanan had four brothers—Moshe, who was killed in Europe; and Avraham, Yosef, and Shmuel, who all worked as shochtim after settling in the U.S. At the age of 22, in approximately 1916, Reb Yochanan married Zishe, who was then 29 years of age. My elter zeide and his wife had four children—Nison, Sholom DovBer, Esther, and Yisrael. My grandfather Nison passed away almost 24 years ago, on the sixth night of Chanukah. Reb Sholom DovBer, my great-uncle, passed away about ten years ago, on Acharon shel Pesach, and the surviving members of that illustrious Chassidic family are Esther and Yisrael, both of whom reside in Crown Heights and have produced stellar Chassidic families with children spreading the Rebbe’s vision the world over, they should all live and be well.
Reb Yochanan succeeded in obtaining an exit visa to leave Dokshitz in 1932 for New York, where he would work to support his family that remained overseas. Two years later, he succeeded in bringing the rest of his family to New York, where they would be reunited. Their decision to leave Dokshitz for New York was not made before conferring with Reb Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Friediker Rebbe, with whom my elter zeide enjoyed a uniquely warm relationship. The Rebbe encouraged him to ultimately make the move with his family, blessing them that all would turn out fine.
Reb Yochanan’s brothers had immigrated to the U.S. long before, without conferring with the Rebbe or requesting his blessing. Worried about the lack of an established Yiddishe environment in the U.S., my elter bubbe, Zishe, informed my zeide that she valued the Rebbe’s berachah but would need a havtachah that the family would remain unwavering in their Chassidishkeit before leaving Dokshitz for New York. The Rebbe thought for a moment and then gave him a guarantee that his offspring would remain steadfast to the ideals of Torah, mitzvos, and chassidus throughout the generations in New York despite the raging waves of modernity and the new life that awaited them on U.S. soil.
Tragically, in the year 1943, just 13 years after the family had left for Brooklyn, the Nazis invaded Dokshitz and claimed the lives of 3,000 of its members, including the esteemed rav of Dokshitz and a dear friend of my elter zeide’s, Rav Aryeh Leib Sheinin, whom my father is named after.
The best way to impart to you the irreplaceable impact that my elter zeide left in Lubavitch and as a way of relating to him would be through telling some anecdotes that have been retold over time—some which have been compiled in a new sefer called Otzar Hachassidim (New York edition), serving as a window into the lives of 24 legendary mashpi’im who succeeded in carrying over a little of the Old World religious zeal and enthusiasm to an otherwise modern, apathetic, and indifferent lifestyle here in America.
The following incident will succeed in highlighting the unique relationship that Reb Yochanan enjoyed with the Friediker Rebbe. After much valiant effort, the Friediker Rebbe succeeded in obtaining exit visas for his son-in-law and daughter to leave war-torn Europe. When the Friediker Rebbe received the word that his son-in-law and daughter had arrived safely on these shores, out of utter excitement he called over a chassid, instructing him, “Go tell my friends that my son-in-law and daughter have arrived.” The chassid asked, “Who does the Rebbe mean by ‘my friends’?” The Rebbe responded: “Berel Chaskind and Yochanan Gordon.”
I mentioned the rav of Dokshitz, Reb Leib Sheinin, who died al Kiddush Hashem together with the Jews of Dokshitz, so I’ll retell an incident that occurred between my zeide and Rav Sheinin. In Tishrei of 1929, my great-grandfather spent the Yomim Noraim in the presence of the Friediker Rebbe in Riga, Latvia. Despite his rather meager means, as a close chassid of the Rebbe he could not entertain spending the Yomim Noraim away from his Rebbe. With his wife’s encouragement, he borrowed money to make the trip to Riga. In Kislev of that year, he received the notice informing him of the forthcoming marriage of the Friediker Rebbe’s daughter, Chaya Mushka, to Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson, son of Chana and Reb Levi Yitzchak—the rav of Yeketrinaslav.
Reb Yochanan knew that the only way he could attend these historic nuptials would be to borrow more money, but he was apprehensive to do so before he had repaid the first loan. In addition, in the time leading up to the wedding, he was bedridden with a vicious cold and sore throat, which the arduous journey to Warsaw would not succeed in rehabilitating. The Dokshitzer Rav came to pay a visit to my elter zeide. Amidst the course of conversation, the wedding came up and the rav mentioned that he was looking forward to attending the chasunah.
Reb Yochanan asked in wonderment, “Didn’t you just borrow money to spend Yomim Noraim by the Friediker Rebbe in Warsaw? You’re going to borrow more money before repaying the initial loan?” The rav responded, “Imagine, a wedding in which the Rebbe Rashab, Maharash, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Mitteler Rebbe, and the Alter Rebbe and perhaps the Baal Shem Tov are in attendance. Do you think I’m prepared to bypass this opportunity?”
Seeing how badly my elter zeide wanted to go, my bubbe Zishe rehabilitated him to health and made sure he had dressed appropriately to brave the cold, and he set out on his way with Reb Leib to the historic chasunah. Later, in a letter that my elter zeide wrote to the Friediker Rebbe, he describes the impact of Reb Sheinin’s conversation with him, convincing him to borrow more money to attend the chasunah. He wrote, “When I realized that the rav was serious about going, I immediately arranged with the gemilus chesed an additional loan of 100 gold coins to cover the cost of the trip. What I saw, heard, and the emotions that pervaded me while at the chasunah I hope will remain with me forever.”
It’s interesting to note that for many years my zeide ran the free-loan society in Crown Heights that went under the name “Gemilas Chesed Shomrei Shabbos.” After the passing of my great-grandfather, his children Esther and Shimon Goldman continued the free-loan society until recently, when it has changed hands. I recently learned that it was called by the name Shomrei Shabbos since its initial objective was to help out new immigrants who had to leave their jobs to uphold the honor and sanctity of Shabbos. We all hear stories of self-sacrifice, how our forebears had given up everything to keep Torah and mitzvos after coming over to America, without looking into those organizations that helped in whatever way possible to get them through these trying times.
The following incident was retold by my great-uncle, Reb Sholom DovBer Gordon, z’l:
When the Friediker Rebbe passed away, in arranging the taharah prior to the funeral, a lottery was held to determine who would participate. Reb Yochanan was awarded with attending to the head of the Friediker Rebbe. Towards the conclusion of the levayah, Reb Sholom Ber relates that his father whispered into his ear that he is concerned for an evil eye as a result of the great merit he was given with the preparing the Friediker Rebbe for the levayah. [The Alter Rebbe was appointed to the head of the Maggid of Mezeritch and it is related that he too felt a similar omen upon receiving the honor.]
After the funeral had concluded, it became known to us that my grandmother was suffering from a dreadful illness and that for a while she had not been feeling all that well. Although my elter zeide concealed the news from the Ramash (who at that time had not yet assumed leadership of Chabad) during a conversation they had a few days later, the Rebbe leaned over and remarked, “I hear that your mother is not well.” My elter zeide replied, “The doctors are not sure whether to operate or not.” The Rebbe replied, “Ask the Friediker Rebbe; he will surely find a way to answer you.” Upon hearing the directive, they began to implore in the Friediker Rebbe’s merit for an answer to this difficult situation. The operation was performed successfully and our grandmother regained her health and lived for many more years.
My great-grandfather was known for his keen sense of humor. One year during the Rebbe’s farbrengen, he was feeling quite weak, and he passed out. After he had been awakened and escorted out of the main room in 770, he remained sitting on the steps leading up to the Rebbe’s room. After the farbrengen, the Rebbe exited the shul, encountered my elter zeide, and asked what had happened and how he was feeling. Zeide replied, “I had passed away and was brought to heaven, Gehinnom was closed, and they didn’t allow me into Gan Eden, so they sent me back down.” Upon hearing that humorous account, the Rebbe laughed.
One year on Simchas Torah, the Rebbe instructed Reb Yochanan to remove his hat and put on a shtreimel prior to selling the mitzvos. In 1969, the year in which my elter zeide passed away, they could not locate a shtreimel, so instead the Rebbe grabbed a handkerchief and tossed it in Reb Yochanan’s direction, with a wide smile on his face, in order to cover his head.
This incident gained much more significance when on Simchas Torah 1989, the Rebbe again grabbed a handkerchief and tossed it towards Reb Yisrael Duchman so he could use it to relieve his perspired face. In that same year he passed away.
The last incident associated with the aforementioned anecdotes took place on Simchas Torah 1990, when the Rebbe during a farbrengen blew a kiss to Reb JJ Hecht who later that year passed away.
Stories such as these and especially Chassidic stories involving the Baal Shem Tov and his students are made to seem juvenile or shrouded in mystery and are met with skepticism in some circles. Yet stories such as these allow us to keep the departed rooted in our world and can succeed in instilling within us the seriousness and self-sacrifice that they had for Torah, mitzvos, and Yiddishkeit. Today’s world looks on the outside very different than it did back then. We are united through the Torah and our strength to persevere through hard times is made so much easier when we can recall the manner in which our forebears persisted and succeeded in raising beautiful Torahdike and Chassidic families despite the odds that remained against them.
The word ma’aseh, which in Hebrew means story, also is used in the context “Ma’asin al hatzedakah,” which means to force someone to give charity. The implication here is that it compels us to do something that we otherwise would find difficulty in doing. For me, this article has been long overdue, and I hope you find something from among these stories to relate to and keep with you for the times when they will be most useful.
The memory of Reb Yochanan ben Reb Yisrael should be blessed and he should represent us all in heaven and beseech G‑d to take us out of galus. v
The author would like to acknowledge his uncle Binyomin and Rabbi Yehoshua Binyomin Gordon, regional director of Chabad of the Valley, for providing the biographical sketches making this article possible.
Comments for Yochanan Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.