Monday, November 27, 2006

Rabbi Joseph Singer: From Pilzno, Poland to Stanton St. New York

Rabbi Singer: A Poem

Rabbi Singer by Moshe Taub

Rabbi Singer - Stroking his beard
a nab if courage and highly revered
a symbol of sincerity and a model for youth
a believer in justice and also the truth
and when history decides to call it a day
he will be remembered in a very special way

Pilzno Chassidut

Rabbi Joseph Singer, a’h: A Tribute To Humility, An Ode To Greatness By: Toby Moskovits

Rabbi Joseph Singer, a’h:
A Tribute To Humility, An Ode To Greatness
By: Toby Moskovits
Published: Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dearest Zaidy,

How do I describe the holiness and the majesty that was you? Some called you Yossele, others Rabbi Joseph Singer, but to me you were just Zaidy.

From a young age I understood that you were not simply my grandfather; you were grandfather to the world—Jews and non-Jews alike. You were the rav of a shul on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that was on its face as humble as you were. Chipped paint and dusty woodwork did nothing to diminish the warmth that you infused within those walls. Yours was a Yiddishkeit steeped in the mesorah of generations of your rabbinical ancestors combined with a willingness to accept all who cared enough to try. Under your guidance, the Stanton Street Synagogue was a beacon of light for all of those who passed through its doors. You drew people in with a cup of coffee and a piece of potatonick, and kept them close with the concern you showed for the burdens they carried. Whatever their need—material or spiritual—you conjured it up, providing all whom you encountered with whatever they were lacking. Whether an apartment, food, clothes, immigration papers, or a school for their children, you made sure their lives were better for having met you. And when what they were lacking was a caring word or an understanding heart, you stood in and played the role of father, mother, and friend.

As a little girl, I used to accompany you in your work caring for the lonely and the sick, serving meals at the Educational Alliance, and preparing food for the men and women who stopped by for kiddush and for coffee—on Shabbos and throughout the week. Stories were told of your days as a diamond cutter, but in my mind you did not earn a living in the traditional sense. You were a person who wanted nothing of this world, dedicating your life to ensuring that the world be a more hospitable place for the downtrodden and the despondent.

You were not a community leader or elder in the traditional sense. You strove not for position or power, nor did you seek a grand pulpit. To watch you was to witness selfless dedication to all man, to witness a great soul whose only desire was to fulfill the word of G-d and to do good for all people.

In the growing silence of recent years, as your ability to speak diminished, all we could do was look into your clear blue eyes and touch the depth of your righteousness by witnessing and experiencing the serenity of a person at peace with the world.

And now, when I close my eyes and picture you, Zaidy, once more I hear your voice, in crisp, clear tones, and the meaning and message of your life is ever so clear. Each moment, each breath, was focused on making the world a kinder, gentler place for those whose lives you touched. No care was too mundane, no concern was brushed away.

And who but the Al-mighty knows all of what you accomplished in this world? Your heart was always open for the pain and sorrow of all people, wanting to ease their suffering with money, food and shelter, a kind word, and acceptance. And how, with the burdens of so many people on your shoulders, did you maintain the visage of serenity, the spirit of equanimity, that was etched on your soul and which enveloped your very being? As an adult I finally began to understand that this was the vortex that drew people to you—the rich, the poor, the writers and artists, Jews and non-Jews alike, the local drug dealers and police captains.

All of your life your actions spoke louder than words, and when you had no more words to share with us, holiness was still etched on your face, embedded in the depth of your eyes and your soul, and continued to tell your story. For decades the lessons you taught were through actions, and when you were too weak to fulfill your holy mission in the streets of the Lower East Side—to share stories and guidance—your silence taught us the greatest lesson of all.

In my mind’s eye, I see you in your seat in recent months at the head of the table, weak but determined, leaning over the siddur and Tehillim that was never far from you. And I am sure that the angels hovering close heard, with every painstaking word of prayer you whispered, the sweetest song fall from your lips, like the prayer of Hallel you sang on holidays past.

And when your shul as we all knew it was no more, you brought the holiness and warmth with you wherever you were. In your final years, we learned that you did not create a Mikdash me‘at wherever you went; instead it was you who was the Midkash me‘at.

And now, your presence on this earth is no more. But when I close my eyes I still hear your voice. I feel your soft hand on my eyes, splashing my face with water for negel vasser from the worn metal cup in your unadorned kitchen at 540 Grand Street. I feel your hand in mine as we walk through the early morning cold, underneath the train tracks (with a twinge of fear in my heart, but confidence in your stride) through the drug-infested park behind your shul. I feel the warmth of your pillow under my head on those Yom Kippur nights when, as a little girl, I slept in your bed and Bubby was in the bed nearby, while you stayed up all night praying and learning for your community and for your people. And, most vivid of all, I feel the soft felt of your hat and rough wool of your coat in my hands, as Bubby and I stood at the door awaiting your departure from shul on those Shabbos mornings, watching you move around in the shul’s basement preparing countless meals to warm the hearts and minds of those whose lives you touched.

Zaidy, now that you are no longer with us, when I close my eyes once again I conjure up a picture of your present as vivid as my memories of your past. I see you in the Bais Midrash shel Ma‘alah, playing the role you perfected on earth. But now, you are in the most elegant beis midrash, and your congregants are the greatest of tzaddikim. Now, it is no trouble for you to draw a minyan, and the prayers and words that flow from your lips are as crystal clear as the light that shines from your face. And were you to have only nine in your quorum, I am sure the Al-mighty himself would serve in your honor, as did the Torah those times when your entreaties were unsuccessful at pulling in a full ten for a lonely minyan on Stanton Street.

Zaidy, I pray that we find it within ourselves to perpetuate the righteousness and humility that was your life. For you were an angel on earth, while we are of flesh and blood; but we have lived in your shadow, and that has inspired us to try.

Your granddaughter,


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Vayetzei Yaakov Mi'Beer Sheva - The Passing of Rabbi Joseph Singer

'And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba and went to Haran' - וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה

Why, is the age old question asked, do we need to be told that he left Beer Sheva. It would be enough for us to know that he went to Haran. Is it not understood that in going to Haran, he also left Beer Sheva? Yet Rashi says that in telling us that he left Beer Sheva, it is telling us that when a Tzaddik leaves a city, panah hodah, panah zivah, panah hadrah, its crowning glory, its splendor goes out with him leaving the city more empty than ever.

On Erev Yom Kippur Rabbi Joseph Singer left New York City for the last time. Panah Hodah. Panah Zivah. Panah Hadrah.

Lama Neamar Tzaddik Nistar, why do we say a Tzaddik, a righteous man, is hidden. Ki Le'Anshei Haolam Hu Nistar Asher Lo Rotzu Li'Reot Otoi. For he is hidden from the people of the world who do not wish to see him.

Rabbi Joseph Singer was a refugee from Poland, he fled Nazis and Communists and wound up in New York in a narrow crumbling shul crammed between the adjoining buildings. Yet if you stepped inside the shul you found it surprisingly deep stretching far into the heart of the street. Amidst the narrow walls grew a temple of iron and wood, carpets and high walls and above it all shining lights. Of this temple Rabbi Joseph Singer was the High Priest once and his soul passed on before the avodah of Yom Kippur could begin, for surely nothing that he could have asked for on behalf of the Jewish people, could the Lord have denied him.

He rose each morning, early for his service, a stooped small man with traces of red still in his beard you could remember but not see, and descended downstairs to the small cramped basement room of the stanton street synagogue below the street, his frail body stepping down wooden stairs worn and smoothed by the passages of so many decades of feet. Downstairs an old sink stood before the plastered leaded glass door into the synagogue. Inside a thick pipe led to the boiler, hot water for the old men's tea hissed in the percolator, a black rotary dial phone sat beneath taped up scrawled notes of phone numbers of men who might make a minyan and next to it behind glass were the lit up names of the dead.

In time the old men would gather and with them one or two from the village, artists, burnouts, post-hippie hippies; to pray. On the other side of the bridge, the right side of the bridge and the subway tracks, is the Bialystoker Synagogue, grand, ornate and carpeted in red with room for thousands. Its Rabbi, was his third cousin. To Rabbi Yosef Singer though fell a humbler lot. The ancient worn wooden benches once attached to Singer sewing machines, the yellowed telephone pages resting on them, the tangled telephone wires, the old fridge and the massive steel fan spinning on. There was nothing ornate by him, only dignified by the dignity of age and long use. Some Rabbis, Some synagogues are ornamental. There was nothing ornamental about either Rabbi Joseph Singer or his shul. They were both old and worn and used every single day.

Lama Neamar Tzadik Nistar, Lefi She'Yekar Geduloto Nistar Min Haolam - Why do we call a Tzaddik hidden, because his precious worth is hidden from the world

Lama Neamar Tzadik Nistar, Lefi Shescharo Nistar Min Haolman - Why do we call a Tzaddik hidden, for his reward is hidden from the world.

Rabbi Joseph Singer will never be the subject of biographies or hagiographies. Pictures of him will never hang on walls, though they ought to. His Shiva is being held on Long Island far from the community he dedicated his life to. He came to America in the 30's leaving behind his home, leaving behind a world that the Nazis and Communists would soon engulf. He held down a dozen jobs, he rushed back and forth from community centers to his shul to his home. He worked to the bone for people who never gratefull for it, yet this did not trouble him in the least. He obtained donations of clothing for them, donations of food, he blessed them, he pleaded with them to come for a Minyan. He was angry at no man. He never said a cross word to anyone in his life.

The hippies and aging activists and yuppies he worked with found him charming, an aging artifact of Eastern Europe in a synagogue authentic to its aged bones. Some even wrote about him. They found the dimunitive man rushing about to serve them charming, they found his views less so. Woody Allen came to shoot a movie and wound up arguing with Rabbi Singer over the rights of Palestinian Arabs and Judaism. Woody Allen told Rabbi Singer that Judaism was a worn out fossil. Rabbi Singer told him that the Torah was eternal and without it the world count not endure and that it would endure forever.

Finally the yuppies and aging activists whom he could occasionally convince to come to shul and who thought he was a funny old fossil, drove him out of his own shul, slandered him, smeared his reputation in the hatefull organs of the initerant left, like the Village Voice. They drove out half the membership, repainted the inside, replaced some of the fixtures, threw a benefit concert with Neshama Carlebach, obtained trainee Rabbis from Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, leaning just this side of Reform Judaism, and still have trouble gathering a Minyan. They can be seen sometimes in the trendy rebranded Stanton Street Shul, hipsters with bow ties and checkered suits, a handfull of joking young men idling in front of the ancient building with the door open. The master has gone and the house is empty.

Lomo Tzaddik Nikra Nistar, Ki Hevlei Haolam Nistar Me'einav - Why is a Tzaddik called hidden, for the good things of the world are hidden from his eyes.

Rabbi Joseph Singer never saw much in the way of a reward from this world. His children became succesfull and married well but they all moved away from the old neighborhood. Though he helped tens of thousands, he was never considered a community leader in the way that the men whose hands were always greedily grasping were. A small thin man in a community whose leaders ran to fat. A man whose charity was not to be expressed in chinese auctions, fundraisers, dinners or social events but in the way he day after day spent his life working to help others without asking for anything in return.

Rabbi Singer sat humbly at the tables of great Rabbis never desiring anything more for himself. The man who worked all his life for others desired nothing more than to continue that labor and even that was denied him by the smug self-righteous yuppies who took over his shul and all the credit for the decades of work he had put into it. The man who had never taken anything for himself wound up smeared as a greedy thief and dragged into court by trust fund babies, directionless activists, children in their 30's and 40's still engaged in perpetual rebellion against whatever father figures they could find. They found one in Rabbi Joseph Singer.

I remember a poem taped to a wall in the Educational Alliance, where Rabbi Singer spent many hours, that ancient institution where Sholom Aleichem had once met Mark Twain, through which generations of immigrants had passed. It was typewritten but not remotely well written. The rhyme was crude and the style was childish and so was the love that seeped from it. But it had not been written by a child. Like Paul Cowan's, An Orphan in History, a book filled with warm rememberances of Rabbi Singer, it was a poem of love. I remember it as it hangs there taped with a single strip of scotch tape to a peeling wall. I remembered the browned paper, the newsprint, almost everything but the words. All but the last couplet. "When history finally calls it a day, Rabbi Singer will surely be remembered in a special way."

Some Rabbis give speeches, some deliver lectures. Many sit in offices all day. Rabbi Singer had no true office. His office was his community and he used no desk chair but his feet. There will be no biographies of him, nothing but the memory of those who knew him. Some Rabbis deliver lectures on casettes and write books, Rabbi Yosef Singer's life was the lecture. To see him was to understand how a righteous man lives, not in the sun of glory but in the quiet shade of the moon. Not to do for oneself but to do for others. To live humbly and to serve the Almighty and walk in his ways all the days of your life.

I have not been much to the Lower East Side in a long time and the poem is likely gone. Walls are repainted and old things regularly tossed out. Rabbi Joseph Singer was tossed out, forgotten but never by Him who decides the truth of history and spanned the orbit of the world. There are funerals to whom hundreds of thousands gather. To Rabbi Singer's funeral, at least one will come and as for Moshe our teacher, the Lord will gather him in.

Lama Tzaddik Nikra Nistar, Ki Hu Nistar Min Ha'Ayin Ve'Mevin La'Lev - Why is a Tzaddik called hidden for he is hidden eye from the eye yet known to the heart

Rabbi Yosef Singer's appeal was hidden like that of his shul. It was not the appeal of the senses, of the visually grand, the ostentatious, the outwardly respected. It was the appeal of the heart. The appeal of the nistar min ha'ayin, what is hidden from the eye, was Mevin La'Lev, revealed to the heart, to those who had a heart.

His appeal was not limited to Jews. He was stopped and greeted on the street by people from the neighborhood, blacks, puetro ricans and local artists. He would stop by for a few minutes of friendly conversation with the local priest. If you had a question he would answer it. If you needed help he would give it. If you wanted to know his beliefs, he would never be ashamed of them.

Often described as elfin by writers, he was never a plaster saint. He always had a ready joke, a laugh. His face was set not in stone but in a sort of dignified warmth always ready to spill over. He was quick to help and quick to smile, to offer encouragement, to share the comfort of his soul.
Succos is coming again and I remember him in the Succah, his wife Rebbetzin Singer bringing out the dishes she had cooked and the very Italian Chief of Detectives for the local precinct praising her cooking, saying that he had never encountered cooking like hers in any community. I remember the concentration on his face as he recited the bracha over the Lulav and Esrog, his entire body tightening like a spring aimed in the direction of his Creator.

I remember sunlight on an old man's face who somewhere never seemed old.

Lama Neamar Tzadik Nistar, Lefi She'Bizman Petiroto, Hodo Nistar Mimanu Ve'Nigleh Rak Le'Hakadosh Baruch Hu - Why is a Tzaddik called hidden, for on the hour of his death his glory is hidden from us and revealed only to the Holy One Blessed Be He

Like Moshe our teacher, Rabbi Joseph Singer suffered from a speech impediment. It was difficult to understand what he was saying much of the time. His speech sounded mumbled, he whispered, he pleaded when speaking.

Why was the speech of Moshe our teacher impeded, for had his speech been unimpeded then when he had pleaded for Israel his people, his request would have been so pure, God would have been unable to refuse him anything.

Another answer. Why was the speech of Moshe our teacher impeded, so that men might pay attention to his deeds not his words and to his words because of his deeds, rather than his deeds because of his words.

Rabbi Joseph Singer was not a speaker, he was a doer. He spoke much but he did far more. He was not to be seen delivering speeches but delivering packages. He was not to be seen accepting honors but honoring others with his presence. Va'yetzei, he has left us now, but the preciousness of the legacy he has left in the hearts of many, in the families he preserved, in the comfort he provided, in the basic necesitties he aided with, in the lives he changed is beyond the measure of any but He who dwells in the highest of heavens.

Let us but be remembered that we knew him.

Lama Tzaddik Nikra Nistar, Ki Im Tzidkato Nistar Min Ha'Anashim, Ein Davar Nistar Min Ha'Elohim - Why is a Tzaddik called hidden for though his righteousness may be hidden from men, nothing is hidden from God...

From Vayetzei Yaakov Mi'Beer Sheva - The Passing of Rabbi Yosef Singer

---------------Two more narratives of Rabbi Yosef Singer-------------------

* This one is from a visitor to his shul, at the Stanton Street Synagogue, Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan.

* This is from a man who encounted Rabbi Joseph on a visit to Poland