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ר' אהרן בנציון Shurin

ר' אהרן בנציון Shurin

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Published by: Hirshel Tzig on Jun 25, 2012
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DEFENDING THE
 
“A religious voice in a secular forest” was howthe
New York Times
described Lithuanian-born Rabbi Aaron Benzion Shurin, whois currently nearing the end of his tenthdecade. During his long and blessed yearsin print, Rabbi Shurin was a rarity on the pages of the
Forward
 , the famous Yiddish-language daily newspaper: a passionate advocate for the valuesof Torah and tradition in an era when most Yiddish-speaking immigrants aimed to escape their heritage and embrace the American dream. In a rare conversation, the veteran journalisopens a window to the life experiences and values that shaped 
his prolifc writing career 
 
Rabbi Aaron Benzion Shurin’s Six Decades of Journalism
Forward
IN THE PAGES OF THE
 
Voice of tradition in asecular stronghold. RabbiShurin peruses photosof the many Torahgiants and personalitiesthat have dotted hisclose to ten decades
   P   h  o   t  o  s  :   M  e  n  a  c   h  e  m   K  o  z   l  o  v  s   k  y
26
13 Sivan 57705.26.10
27
 
Yisroel Besser 
T
he humble Flatbush home gives no indication of the richesthat lie within it. So many great men and great momentsconverge here: The day that young Mordechai Gifter, anAmerican native, arrived in Lithuania’s Telshe Yeshivah, and theday Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch arrived at America’s Penn Station,
intent on keeping the name of Telshe alive. The day Israel’s rst
 prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, traveled to thehumble home of the Chazon Ish, wearing a whitefedora in his honor, and the day that Rav Shneur Kotler assumed the leadership of the then-smallLakewood yeshivah.This parlor saw the formation of more than sixdecades of eloquent Orthodox expression. In an eralong predating today’s kiruv web sites and impressive books articulating the Orthodox position, a lonevoice sounded in the progressive wilderness,decrying the notion that Orthodox Judaism wasdying, a laughable relic of the old country.The crucial detail, though — that little twistthat makes this story all the more intriguing — isthat this voice of tradition found its expression in,of all places, that citadel of socialist secularism:the
 Forverts
, a Yiddish-language dailynewspaper also known as the
 Jewish Daily Forward 
. Among the false gods of America,the newspaper — with its power, prestige and
inuence — was seen by the many Yiddish-
speaking immigrants as the key to success.In an era when the thousands of immigrantswho snapped up the newspaper wanted nothing but to assimilate into the American melting pot,who wanted religion? Who wanted to hear aboutthe great men of Israel and their perspectives?Who wanted to be lectured, albeit gently, almostlovingly, by a
litvishe
Yid, a rabbi descendedfrom over thirty generations of rabbis?The answer to that question is part of the fascinating story, thelife of Rabbi Aaron Benzion Shurin.
Sixty-Six Years at the Forward
Rabbi Aaron BenzionShurin welcomes me to his home with the type of formality that onerarely sees anymore. Despite his advanced age, he sits straight and
dignied, his necktie knotted neatly. “Forgive me, my hearing isn’t
what it used to be,” he apologizes.
“He’s ninety-seven years old,” his wife informs me.“Ninety-seven and a half,” he corrects her with a smile.Those ninety-seven and a half years have been spent “in thethick of things”; there is hardly a major Jewish event or gure of the last century unconnected to Rabbi Shurin. He remembers WorldWars I and II, and studied in Eretz Yisrael’s rst
litvishe
yeshivah,
Lomza in Petach Tikvah. His pen related the horric tales coming
from Eastern Europe in the early forties, and brought the excitingnews of a new state in the late forties. In his personal life, he wassurrounded by the prominent leaders of American Jewish life: RavMoshe Feinstein (his neighbor on the Lower East Side) and Rav
Yaakov Kamenetsky (the father-in-law of his brother). He was
connected to Chabad — Rav Moshe Dov Ber Rivkin, a prominentLubavitcher chassid and
rosh yeshivah
of Torah Vodaath, was hisfather-in-law — and Yeshiva University’s Rav Ahron Soloveichik was his brother-in-law.Israeli politicians beat a steady path to his door, many of them perceiving that his gifted pen was the path to the collective heartof the Jewish American public, while innovators and activists vied by this time had received
 smichah
from Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer,Rav Reuven Katz, and others, came along. Reb Aaron Benzion wasimmediately offered a position teaching Tanach at Yeshiva College,and he threw himself into teaching and writing.
“Anywhere I could write, I did,” he says. “I enjoyed it, and I
compiled a portfolio of articles on a wide range of subjects. One day,a friend said to me, ‘You should write for the
 Forward 
.’ I laughed.”In a 2004 interview with the
 New York Times
, Rabbi Shurinexplained why the idea of a loyal yeshivah student writing for the
 Forward 
seemed almost ludicrous. The
 Forward 
was a vastly popular Yiddish newspaper that ran as a daily from 1897 to 1983,when it transitioned to a weekly. Managed by Abraham Cahan, it wasa pronouncedly secularist paper with a socialist bent, and featuredwriters such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel.
“The
 Forward 
was very secular,” Rabbi Shurin explained to AlexMindlin of the
Times
. “In the beginning, they published Saturdays
and holidays and everything. That’s why people were wondering,how come the
 Forward 
invited a rabbi to write there? These peoplewere Yiddish-speaking but not religious. They were all laborers,and they were all socialists. So when I came, it was a very funnysituation…
“At that time, the
 Forward 
was a big newspaper. Busy? It wasa chicken coop! It had a quarter of a million readers. And not onlythat, but anybody who had any problems whatsoever wrote to the
 Forward 
. The
 Forward 
had all the answers.
“Most of the Jews who came at that time, the immigrants, they
knew only Yiddish. Whatever a Jew needed, he’d come to the
 Forward 
, and the
 Forward 
would help him. For example, he wantsto become a citizen. But to become a citizen, he has to know whatday he came, what time he came, what ship. But the Jews at that
for his attention, knowing that from his “pulpit,” he
reached a quarter of a million interested readers.It is likely that, with an uninterrupted career of sixty-six yearsat the Yiddish-language
 Forward 
, Rabbi Shurin is a record-holder among journalists for the longest time at the same paper. For six
lively decades, Rabbi Shurin was, as they say, “the man.” Both sides
of the spectrum relied on him for intelligent, insightful perspectiveson debates that divided the nation:
 giyus banos
, feminism and
halachah, the state of the American rabbinate. He was a
maggid 
 of old, gently mocking trends in American Jewish life, even as hewas an astute politician, hammering out the differences between thedifferent political parties in Israel and explaining the subtle issuesthat divided the various factions within each party. And he did it allin elegant yet easily understandable Yiddish, the common languageuniting the varied strands of Jewish immigrants to America.
The Writer from Ritova
The story of Reb Aaron BenzionShurin begins in another world, at another time: the Lithuanianyeshivah world of the early twentieth century.Ritova, a typical Lithuanian hamlet, boasted little save a fewramshackle homes, some horses, and a yeshivah. The
rosh yeshivah
 
was Rav Moshe Shurin. His son, Aaron Benzion, studied in the
town’s cheder before traveling to the great yeshivah in Telshe, led by the Telshe Rav, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, a
talmid 
of Rav YisraelSalanter.
“Everyone, the editors, the readersand the respondents, thoughtthat ‘Rav Shurin’ was a grownman. Years later, when my familymoved to Eretz Yisrael and Iintroduced myself to the editorsof 
 HaPardes
, they were stunned”
Rabbi Shurin bringsthe past back to lifefor his son DavidRabbi Rivkin, the father-in-law of Rabbi Shurin, shakes handswith Shai Agnon as his son-in-law looks onAstute political skills. Rabbi Shurin with a group of activistsand New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Also visible isRabbi Moshe Sherer
Many decades later, Rabbi Shurin still recalls the day the future
rosh yeshivah
, Rav Mordechai Gifter, arrived in Lithuania as a
young boy from Baltimore. He recalls the dark day that the Telshe
rosh yeshivah
and
rav
passed away, when his three great sons,Reb Zalman, Reb Avraham Yitzchak, and Reb Elya Meir rose to prominence.When Rabbi Shurin was still a youngster, his father was invited toAmerica, to serve as rabbi in the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He made the trip alone. During his tenure as Cambridge’s rabbi, he
was asked by his
kehillah
to attend classes at Harvard — which he
did. In time, however, the elder Rabbi Shurin decided that his familywould do better elsewhere, and in 1935 the family left Lithuania for Eretz Yisrael.Rav Moshe Shurin was then offered a position at the Lomzayeshivah in Petach Tikvah and his teenage son was enrolled thereas a
talmid 
, joining a
chabura
that included many young prodigies.As he remembers those years, he indicates a black and white photodepicting a group of dapper young men, their gray fedoras tilted at a
rakish angle. “My best friends were Rav Shmuel Rozovsky and Rav
Moshe Shmuel Shapiro. They became
roshei yeshivos
; I became awriter,” he laughs.When did that writing begin?
“Telshe was different from other yeshivos,” Rabbi Shurin recalls,“in that we the students were inculcated with a global conscience,
and we knew ‘what was going on’ outside of the yeshivah. Wefollowed political developments, and we knew how to read and
write Hebrew.”
From his early teens Aaron Benzion steadily submitted essaysto the great periodicals of the day, such as
 HaMao
,
 HaMesilah
and
others; the submissions were always accepted. “It wasn’t just thatthey were accepted,” he claries; “they would generate responses.
Everyone, the editors, the readers and the respondents, thought that‘Rav Shurin’ was a grown man. Years later, when my family movedto Eretz Yisrael and I introduced myself to the editors of 
 HaPardes
,they were stunned.”
Religious Voice in a Secular Wilderness
In thelate thirties, the elder Rabbi Shurin returned to America, where he became
rav
of the Slutzker shul on the East Side, and his son, who
28
13 Sivan 57705.26.10
29
 
 After reading his “
kinnah
” on American Jewry, I wondered,of which rabbis does he speak? Who is responsible for the situation? Is his prognosis really accurate? Rabbi Herzberg concludes that today’s rabbi must be an“entertainer” for his congregants if he hopes to succeed. I wish to add to the list some of what I think a rabbi must be. He must be a
yarei shamayim
. He must believe that the Torahcomes from Heaven. He must believe in the thirteen principlesof faith. I wonder which rabbis Herzberg refers to when he says thathey are no longer? He certainly doesn’t mean the Orthodox
rabbinate, since the rabbis in Orthodox shuls are doing a ne
 job of maintaining tradition. Might he just be referring to theConservative and Reform rabbis?
(1966)In a painfully satirical piece, he introduces his readership to a
new, purely American, enterprise: “The Kaddish Industry.”
The industry leaders appear to be rabbis, and they takethe liberty of rendering halachic decisions for newly orphaned children. They succeed in convincing them that there is no need to“get up early and hurry to shul each day”in order to say Kaddish. For just a few dollars, they promise, you can sleep in peace and the Kaddish-sayer will worry about everything for you ... But as a sharp Jew pointed out; the Kaddish-sayers will proveto be their own undoing. Since, eventually, there will be no moreminyan at shul, for without the mourners observing their year of  Kaddish, there will be no more business! In truth, though, this isnot a joking matter.
(1959)The week after the article appeared, the letters came from allover; the subject had clearly struck a chord in the hearts of elderly parents, justifying their worst fears.
In a piece on the American xation on secular names, Rabbi
Shurin points out the non-Jews seem to have an appreciation for Biblical names.
  And thus, a wise
rav
observed that we will be able todistinguish between Jews and Gentiles quite easily. The Patriciasand Kenneths are ours, while the Benjamins and Daniels aretheirs ... And if you will ask, why the opposition to Jews that choosenames that represent the culture of exile, I will ask you: Why is such an integral part of our 
mesorah
the necessity of maintaining  Jewish names?
(1960)
The Insider’s View
When Rabbi Shurin joined the
 Forward 
,the Torah world found itself at a critical juncture. Long regarded asa sickly weed that would soon fade away from the American scene,the religious community shocked everyone and reorganized itself into a force. That transformation was not limited to America. InIsrael, where Ben-Gurion predicted that he was seeing the last of theEuropean yeshivah world, and patronizingly allowed them to havetheir way as a farewell gift to the demographic that would soon be nomore, the chareidi public exploded, astounding the establishment.It was perhaps only natural that the
 Forward 
’s readers turnedto Rabbi Shurin, asking him to clarify, explain, and put things in
 perspective. As the editor asked him, “Who is the Chazon Ish that
Ben-Gurion came to visit him?”So the writer penned a piece introducing the humble man fromBnei Brak, Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, to the readership of the
 Forward 
.In fact, Rabbi Shurin knew and appreciated the Chazon Ishwell before the rest of the nation. After his marriage the Chazon Ishlived in Khvaidan, Lithuania, where despite his efforts to concealhimself he caught the attention of Rav Moshe Rosen, author of 
 Nezer HaKodesh
. Rav Rosen took the young man as his
chavrusa
,and when he traveled, he referred all
 sheilos
to the edgling Torah
giant.
“As such, the Chazon Ish would often accompany Rav Rosen
from Khvaidan to Ritova, which were near each other, like Boro
Park and Flatbush,” recounts Rabbi Shurin, a Ritova native. “So we
locals knew Reb Avraham Yeshaya.
“Later, in the thirties, he was relatively unknown in Eretz Yisrael,
 but when my family moved there, my brothers and I would comefrom Petach Tikvah to speak with him in learning, knowing full well just how unique he was.”In his
 Forward 
article, Rabbi Shurin explains Ben-Gurion’smotivation for visiting the Chazon Ish in his characteristically
succinct way: “Ben-Gurion saw that the Mizrachi was ‘scared’ of Agudah, and Agudah was ‘scared’ of the Chazon Ish, so he gured,
‘Why negotiate will all the others? I’ll go straight to the top!’
In the Presence of Greatness
The Chazon Ish was notthe only Torah giant who came to life through Rabbi Shurin’s pen. Acommon thread that runs through many of the articles are vignettesand personal anecdotes about the great men of Israel, many of themexperienced by Rabbi Shurin himself.
He shares some of them with me as well, and it’s clear that, from
among the many
 gedolim
he knew, he has a particular afnity for 
Rav Elya Meir Bloch, the
rosh yeshivah
of Telshe.During our conversation, he recalls an incident from pre-war Telshe that, according to him, is a perfect illustration of who RebElya Meir was.
“In Eretz Yisrael, the Arabs attacked the Jews of the
 yishuv
,causing great damage and harm. Reb Elya Meir, a master orator,was asked to travel to the Lithuanian town of Ponovezh and appeal
to the locals there for funds. He acquiesced, leaving Telshe on the
early train, and thus missing minyan in yeshivah. It was his mother’s
 yahrtzeit 
, and he missed saying Kaddish for her, a fact that manyfound curious.”They asked him about it.time, they didn’t know. They knew one thing: ‘I came seven days before Pesach. I came seven days after Pesach.’ They didn’t knowthe English date, they didn’t know the
 goyishe
date, and they didn’teven know the boat. But they knew one thing: the
 Forward 
knowseverything.
“After the Second World War, a lot of people used to come tond out what happened to their relatives. So the
 Forward 
used to print full pages. With names. This man is looking for this, and thisman, for his father, his mother, his cousin. And it gave his address. Ithad a column called ‘relatives
 gezucht 
’ — searching for relatives.”Why would such a successful, strongly secular paper beinterested in the writings of an avowed traditionalist? It seemed alost cause from the very start. Still, despite his initial misgivings,
Rabbi Shurin decided to pursue the idea. He went to meet the person
he considers the greatest Orthodox writer of the century, ChaimLieberman. Lieberman was a bibliophile, researcher, and historian,who suggested that young Shurin leave him some writings to peruse.It was Lieberman who told him,
“Zitst in eich a shreiber,
there is
a writer in you,” and recommended him to Harry Lang, a managing
editor at the
 Forward 
.
“In the early part of the century, the
 Forward 
was bigger thanthe
Times
, with bigger circulation and inuence, and I didn’t think 
it possible that they would hire me. Everyone knew that they wereno friends of the religious public, and the newspaper was printed onShabbos, just as on every other day.”But times were changing and the
 Forward 
management perceivedthat they had to provide their Orthodox readership — which wasimmense — with a column geared to their needs, coverage and perspective of the issues that concerned them.
So Aaron Shurin joined the enemy, entering a newsroom lled
with socialists who regarded him with wariness, and not a wee bit of scorn. Who needs a
 frum
writer? they wondered.
It was a question that went from HarryLang to editor Hillel Rogov to the publisher himself, AbrahamCahan. “Abe Cahan asked to see a sample of my writing, feeling
uncomfortable with the idea of giving space to a religious writer, butthen he had a stroke,
nebach
, and was incapacitated. The decisionwent to Rogov, who hired me.”It didn’t take long before Rabbi Shurin’s contribution madeits mark. The letters from the readers came pouring in. IrreligiousJews have never been indifferent to their religious brothers, and the
reaction was fast and furious. “What are you doing to the
 Forward 
?”cried the readers. But the management saw past the passion and protest: they saw that people were reading young Aaron BenzionShurin.From one column a week, he went to two.
Passion and Poignancy
If Rabbi Shurin faced any
“enemy,” it was his readership’s smug comfort with their own
limited knowledge. In one series of pieces, he demonstrated littletolerance for the evolution of the Jew from shy, frightened greenhorn
to afuent, condent American.
Throughout his sixty-plus years of writing, his heroes are the
rabbanim
, and in an article about the ndings of a study that showeda decline in the numbers of qualied students seeking careers in the
rabbinate, the writer doesn’t mince words.
Why should a bright 
yeshivah bochur 
— who could indeed be a dynamic
rav
— opt for that career when he can become a professional, where his knowledge and gifts will be appreciated and rewarded?
 
Why shouldn’t he choose a career where he won’t have to worry, every Monday and Thursday, about his contract not being renewed?
(1960)
In another essay, he quotes Conservative rabbi Arthur Herzberg,
who bemoaned the fact that the role of the rabbi has been changed,and he is no longer a spiritual leader, but a showman.
“In the early part of the century, the
Forward 
was bigger than the
Times
, with
bigger circulation and infuence, and I didn’t think it possible that they would
hire me. Everyone knew that they were no friends of the religious public”
Connected to greatness.Rabbi Rivkin with his
mechutan 
Rav YaakovKamenetsky,
ztz”l,
inthe bungalow colony
 
The memories of Telshe still inspire emotion.Prewar Telshe, where Rabbi Shurin receivedmuch of his formative education
30
13 Sivan 57705.26.10
31

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