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

"Autumn In New York"