By Irwin Benjamin
Generally speaking, the path to teshuvah is a relatively easy one; if one really and truly wants to repent, Hashem will surely help him. However, sometimes it is not so easy. This is the story of someone’s difficult return . . .
Any reference to the year 1935 immediately arouses my interest. I was born in that year, and the mere mention of it evokes my excitement and curiosity. That happened last year on erev Shabbos when I picked up one of the Torah-sheet giveaways that were piled high on the bima of my shul. Included among interesting vertlach on the week’s parashah were the yahrzeits of the past greats in Torah Jewry. One of them was a Reb Yechezkel Bachur, who died on the 15th of Shevat in the year 1935.
What further spiked my interest was the name. “Bachur” means an unmarried man or bachelor, and to have it used as a surname was odd.
Another anomaly occurred when I researched that date. On that day, in 1935, there was an unusual blizzard in Jerusalem, covering the entire city with snow. It was interesting that last year, at that time, in the year 2013, Jerusalem was also unusually blanketed with snow.
Aside from the date and the few coincidences, my research led me to a most fascinating story that I thought was worthy of sharing during the month of Elul.
• • •
On the frigid night on the 15th of Shevat, when venturing outdoors was deemed foolish or even outright dangerous, R’ Yechiel Eckstein, the night watchman of the Batei Ungarin section of Jerusalem, could not imagine who would be knocking on his guard door.
To his surprise, it was R’ Yechezkel Bachur, the old bachelor who lived off the hallway in one of the Batei Ungarin homes. R’ Yechezkel stood in his ragged clothing with snow covering his beard. When the watchman inquired what it was that he wanted so late and on such a frigid night, he was surprised to learn that R’ Yechezkel was looking for people to make a minyan in his room.
R’ Yechezkel had always been considered a bit eccentric, but this was a little too much. However, when the watchman looked at R’ Yechezkel’s sincerity and the tears in his eyes, he reluctantly agreed to gather a minyan and go with him.
All the ten men who had gathered in his cold, meager room were about to express regret for listening to the pleas of this apparent meshuggener. But as soon as that thought crossed their minds, R’ Yechezkel washed his hands and made a berachah on a freezing glass of water, to which the minyan answered “Amen.” He then lay down on his wooden bed, straightened out his body, and attempted to smooth out his straggly beard. Then the shocker came. With deep sincerity and flowing tears he recited the viduy, the prayer for someone who is about to die. He said “Shema Yisrael,” motioning to the minyan to join him. When they finished davening, all eyes turned to R’ Yechezkel, who was now lying motionless on his bed. After observing him for a few minutes, they all gasped, because it was then that they realized that he had breathed his last. Reb Yechezkel Bachur was dead.
The village was in shock. As the events of the night before became known, the entire city tried to make sense of it. The fact that R’ Yechezkel was able to predict his own petirah, even gathering a minyan for that event, had transformed him overnight from a “meshuggener” to the status of someone very special; some went so far as to assume he could very well have been one of the 36 hidden tzaddikim.
As a result, almost all of Yerushalayim attended his funeral. The minyan stayed in his room during the shivah period as hundreds learned mishnayos in his memory.
Stories abound in Jewish folklore about such unusual happenings. Someone who seemed to be a mean or unkind individual his entire life is revealed to be a real tzaddik, or a person who was a stingy miser all his life is surprisingly given tremendous honor normally afforded to a great philanthropist and tzaddik, with people later discovering that during his lifetime he had quietly distributed enormous sums of money to the poor without letting anyone know. Similar stories are told of selflessness and kindness that no one knew about until the very end of the person’s life.
What was it that made this poor, odd bachelor so highly honored? Aside from predicting his own demise and fortuitously gathering a minyan at the time of his death, what supposed greatness did this seemingly strange, unassuming person possess that propelled him into the hierarchy of Jewish prominence?
You will discover, as the story unfolds, that the appellation “Bachur” was a misnomer. Not only had he been married, but he had children as well. However, to fully understand who Yechezkel Bachur was and how he came to this end we must start at the beginning. We must begin with his father.
• • •
Among the many talmidim of R’ Yisroel Salanter was a poor orphan boy named Efraim Nachman Radiner. Early on, R’ Salanter noticed Efraim Nachman was blessed with exceptional talent. He had several unusual gifts. He had an extraordinarily beautiful handwriting, which unquestioningly qualified him to become an excellent sofer. In addition, his steady hand and discerning eye for detail gave him the credentials and ability to become a top-flight shochet or mohel.
On a visit to Kovna one spring, he met a girl whom he eventually married. His wife’s family was from America, and her father happened to be one of America’s leading industrialists.
Eventually, Efraim Nachman joined his father-in-law’s company and worked in his plant in America. Because of his exceptional natural gifts he not only advanced quickly, but through his involvement with the products that his father-in-law’s company produced, he invented a considerable number of tools and industrial equipment, for which many patents were taken in his name. It is even reported that the famous Thomas Edison consulted with him prior to his invention of the light bulb! (Wikipedia)
Several years later, Efraim Nachman moved to Toronto to establish his own company. Enormously successful, he became one of the few Jewish multimillionaires at the time.
Despite his great wealth and prominence, he still adhered to a strict learning schedule, continued doing mitzvos, and distributed enormous amounts of money for tzedakah, including large monthly sums to the rabbanim of Yerushalayim to be distributed to the city’s institutions and poor talmidei chachamim.
R’ Efraim Nachman visited Yerushalayim many times and formed close ties with many of the Torah luminaries like R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin, the Gaon of Brisk, and R’ Akiva Yosef Schlesinger.
On Tu B’Shevat of 1899, R’ Efraim Nachman became ill and died.
• • •
Efraim Nachman’s son, Yechezkel, followed in his father’s footsteps. He was just like his father: devout, G-d fearing, and sending huge sums of tzedakah to Yerushalayim. Yechezkel married a girl who was also wealthy who bore him two sons and two daughters.
At that time, the Reform movement in America and Canada was on a non-stop campaign of luring Orthodox Jews away from the Torah. Their PR was daunting. They went into areas where frum Yidden lived, inundating them with their distorted literature, attempting to show the archaic nature of Orthodoxy as well as the supposed or perceived cruelty and barbaric laws that are found in the Talmud. They were well-skilled in ignoring all of the great benefits that the purity and beauty of adherence to a Torah life yields, and focused instead on points they thought they could distort and disparage.
One method of entrapment was to produce cleverly arranged theatrical productions ostensibly to raise money for charity, while their true intention was to mock and disparage traditional Judaism and to encourage adapting the Reform way of life.
At first R’ Yechezkel maintained a firm vigil over his household and refused to allow his family to attend these places. One evening, however, his wife and daughters convinced him that there certainly would be no harm in attending an opera that had a nice Jewish theme. The opera was titled “The Sale of Joseph,” which was sponsored by a charitable institution that had all the trappings of Orthodoxy.
Being well-known and extremely wealthy, they were excited to have the opportunity to wear their fancy clothing and to bedeck themselves with expensive jewelry, so they could properly fit in with the recently established enclave of the up-and-coming religious elite. That turned out to be the first step that led to their steep spiritual decline.
From then on they always found some excuse to attend performances such as the Chanukah play of “Judith” and the Purim performance of “Queen Esther.” Soon no excuses were necessary as they attended the more lurid plays as a matter of course.
Yechezkel made peace with this because he did not want to be thought of among his associates as a fanatic who would not allow his family to mingle with their friends. The matter, after all, did not affect his own shiurim, davening, and giving of tzedakah.
Little by little, though, the Yiddishkeit and the morality of the Radiner household began to deteriorate. His wife and daughters began to dress more liberally to fit in with the circles they now mingled in. Off-color literature, which had heretofore been absent from his home, was now common reading. The literature at first was only allowed in the house to inform them of the upcoming performances, but then it became open season—every type of paper was allowed, perverting the sanctity of their once hallowed home.
When the boys returned from yeshiva for Pesach, they joined their mother and sisters at the theater. As an afikoman present, one son asked for a movie camera so he could capture the thrilling stage life. Like a good and kind father that he thought he was, Yechezkel consented. (My mother, a’h, used to say, “Ah gutta Tatta iz ah shlechter Tatta.)
Finally, on Chol HaMoed Pesach, Yechezkel’s defenses broke down and he joined his family at a satirical performance named “The Jerusalem Jews and the Monthly Stipend.”
It was so critical of people learning Torah and being supported by others that most of the theater even booed during the performance itself. The vicious satire had such a profound and deleterious effect on Yechezkel that he returned home a changed man. Eventually, he stopped his Torah learning, his davening, and giving tzedakah. His sons were removed from yeshiva and enrolled in the university. His wife removed her sheitel and bared her head in order to resemble other contemporary women.
Yechezkel had to transfer to a Reform temple, as he was too embarrassed to appear in the same shul he had always belonged to. Soon he began driving to his new temple on Shabbos, adorned in his silver-collared tallis.
As the years passed by he forgot his past, he forgot his father’s home, and he forgot his origins.
• • •
During World War I, the Jews of Yerushalayim suffered terribly from hunger and privation, as the income from abroad on which they so sorely depended was cut off. The leaders established a communal kitchen, but that, too, ran dry. Desperate and not knowing where to turn, they rummaged through their old receipt books in the hope of renewing ties with former benefactors who might be able to help them financially and to especially help them to fund the kitchen. In the process they came across the name of one of their old benefactors, R’ Yechezkel Radiner of Toronto. They had wondered what had happened to him; had he died? Was he sick? They blamed themselves for not keeping in touch with this big tzaddik.
They composed a beautiful letter, which had flowery and laudatory titles: “To the Honorable, Rabbinic, Philanthropic Reb Yechezkel, shlita, son of our dear friend, the Munificent, Gracious, True Supporter of Yerushalayim, R’ Efraim Nachman of blessed memory.”
The letter reached Yechezkel on a Shabbos morning. He was by now accustomed to opening his mail on Shabbos, as he was an open violator of Shabbos. When he saw the names of the senders, he gasped. It triggered something within him, taking him by surprise. All of a sudden it seemed he could not get enough air into his lungs. For some unexplainable reason, the letter shook him to the core. He hid the letter until after Shabbos, but remained fitful and restless the entire day.
His family asked him why his sudden and extreme change, but he would not reveal the reason behind it. They wanted to summon a doctor, but he refused. The doctor arrived despite his refusal, having been summoned by his wife. The doctor said all his vital signs were normal, but was seemingly suffering from an inexplicable bout of depression, which Yechezkel laughed off.
After canceling his evening business appointments, Yechezkel secluded himself in his private office and only then opened the letter. His hands shook as he began reading. A stream of tears cascaded down his cheeks. He felt enormous pain. He could not believe how such a drastic change occurred in his life. He felt that he had fallen from a once beautiful, clean, fine life of goodness, simcha and kedushah, to what he now perceived himself to be: a no-good, pretentious, boastful, irresponsible, and vacuous individual. How could he have allowed himself to fall so far? He was so utterly devastated as the reality set in that he even begged Hashem to take his life. He wailed like a baby, feeling deeply remorseful for his sins, and for the undeserved righteous impression which the Yerushalayim rabbanim still had of him.
He heard his wife and children on the other side of the door. They had apparently heard his moaning and were further convinced that he needed serious psychological help. Like the doctor said, he was extremely depressed. They then left to attend another theatrical performance.
After they left, Yechezkel put on his hat and jacket, found a Siddur, and after a silence of 15 years, davened a heartfelt and emotional two-hour Ma’ariv.
That was the beginning of his long and difficult road of return to Yiddishkeit. Yechezkel Radiner became a true ba’al teshuvah, changing his mode of dress, and asking his family to do likewise. However, it all fell on deaf ears. His family tried to influence him to enter a hospital, while he tried to convince them to change their ways. It appeared that there was no resolution in sight.
To make matters worse, as far as his family was concerned, he neglected his business to spend his days learning Torah. He slowly sold off his vast assets, and transferred them to the rabbanim of Yerushalayim for distribution. Naturally, this move greatly worsened his family situation.
But the simcha that was felt in Yerushalayim was indescribable! The money he sent literally breathed life into thousands of Yidden. On the other hand, the Reform movement was struck a severe blow that took them a long time to recover from, because for years Yechezkel was their major benefactor.
Obviously, Yechezkel’s transformation created a great deal of friction in the Radiner household, especially with his wife. The irreconcilable nature of his marital situation finally ended in his divorcing his wife.
In the year 1918, four years after receiving the fateful letter from Yerushalayim, Yechezkel left the Diaspora for Eretz Yisrael. None of the communal leaders in Yerushalayim knew anything of Yechezkel’s former life.
During the first few weeks in Yerushalayim, Yechezkel slept in a hostel, visiting the Kotel each day to pour out his heart to Hashem—begging forgiveness and offering thanks for having enlightened his eyes before his death. He davened to Hashem mainly that He instill the spirit of teshuvah in his family.
On the first night of Sukkos, Yechezkel’s father appeared to him in a dream for the first time since his death. R’ Efraim Nachman informed him that his teshuvah had been accepted and told Yechezkel that he should make himself known to the rabbanim of Yerushalayim, especially to his good friend, R’ Akiva Yosef Schlesinger. R’ Yechezkel did so, but begged R’ Schlesinger not to reveal who he was, nor reveal his past history, as he wanted to live in obscurity like one of Yerushalayim’s poor people without anyone knowing of his former wealth and status. R’ Akiva Yosef did not convince him otherwise, and even helped him find a small room off a corridor in one of the rows of three houses of Batei Ungarin. Here Yechezkel spent his last years alone and unknown. The neighbors took to calling him “Yechezkel Bachur.”
Two years before his death, Yechezkel heard of his children’s return to Yiddishkeit from one of the Yerushalayim meshulachim who was in Toronto collecting for the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva. As a result, he died a happy man.
R’ Yechezkel’s grave still stands near the section of Nevi’im on Har HaZeitim. The engraved letters have become rubbed out with the passage of years. But if someone strains himself, he can still make out the words.
“HERE LIES BURIED THE RIGHTEOUS RAV WHO GAVE BOUNTIFULLY TO THE POOR, REB YECHEZKEL RADINER, A’H (KNOWN HERE IN YERUSHALAYIM AS YECHEZKEL BACHUR)” Died on the 15th of Shevat 5695 (1935). v
The story of the Radiner family was printed many years ago in another Jewish publication, and the author has used that as a basis for this version.
Irwin Benjamin can be reached at Irwin.firstname.lastname@example.org. Irwin Benjamin’s new book, To Climb the Mountain, can be purchased at Z. Berman’s or other fine local Jewish bookstores.
By Irwin Benjamin