A Tribute to My Namesake
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 has come and passed 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 theMaaneh 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 five brothers—Chaim Zalman, who served as a shochetin Moscow and in whose house the Friediker Rebbe ate while visiting the Capital of Russia. Chaim Zalman was the oldest of the five boys, his life ended prematurely while still in Europe after suffering a burst appendix; Moshe, who tragically passed away in his infancy, and Avraham, Shmuel and Yosef Yitzchak all of whom 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, and, yibadu lechaim tovim, Esther, and Yisrael. My grandfather Nison passed away 24 years ago, on the sixth night of Chanukah. Reb Sholom DovBer, my great-uncle, passed away twelve years ago, on acharon shelPesach, 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. Reb Yochanan was dedicated to carrying over an unyielding observance of Torah and Mitzvos as well as hafatzas maayanos which chassidim in Russia had become accustomed to despite the odds that had remained against them. Although it was well before the Friediker Rebbes clarion call that, “America is nisht anderish” as a close confidant of the Rebbe, Reb Yochanan surely knew his Rebbes most inner thoughts and philosophies – as far as he was concerned, it was not any different. So it was after he settled in New York he became employed by the New York Slaughter house where he would work until he retired. On his way home from work he would always stop off where he had found a group of retirees sitting and playing pinochle, which was a popular game in those days for people who had sometime on their hands. Sensing an opportunity, my elter zeide spent time with them teaching them Ein Yaakov as well as the weekly sidrah and other limudim that did not require the greatest levels of education and intellect. On another occasion, Reb Yochanan was contacted in order to mimic a learning program which had been founded in Russia for the Bnos Chabad, in the U.S. – That too was undertaken by my elter zeide. Learning and teaching Torah were very dear to him
Two years later, in 1934 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 ahavtachah 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. Following the havtachah, my zeide added, “But I want them to remain Chassidim and learn in Lubavitcher mosdos” and the Friediker Rebbe assured him that would happen as well. And so it was, my zeide Nison learned in Otwock while still in Europe, after coming over to these shores my great-uncle Sholom was enrolled in the pioneering class of Tomchei Temimim, and Yisrael too learned in the American Lubavitch Yeshiva system.
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 safely.” 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, where he would participate as ba’al korei and ba’al tefillah in the Rebbe’s minyan. 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, packed him enough food, and made sure he had dressed appropriately to brave the cold. She went to great lengths in order to arrange that the money be made available for my zeide to attend the historicchasunah. It was only after the Friediker Rebbe saw my zeide and Reb Leib walk into the chuppah room that he announced, “All the Rebbes from the Rebbe Rashab to the Alter Rebbe and including the Baal Shem Tov were in attendance.” 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 ran it for decades amidst great self-sacrifice and meticulousness to ensure that it run efficiently—until recently when it became too much for them to tend to at which point it was discontinued. Through my research for this article I recently learned that the idea to establish the Gemach and to call it by the name Shomrei Shabbos was done by the employees of the New York Shlachthois who had realized that people had been losing their jobs regularly for not coming to work on Shabbos and they had committed to doing something to see to it that these people had what to support their families with. 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 thelevayah. [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 although her strength was not fully restored, she did live an additional nine years through which she remained and active member of the community, hosting large numbers of Jews regularly as she had done up until then.
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 thefarbrengen, 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 his 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 Tishrei of the year 5729, 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 beaconing across his face, in order to cover his head. On Rosh Chodesh Elul in that same year my elter zeide 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.
The author would like to acknowledge his uncle Binyomin, Great Aunt Esther Goldman, and cousins Mrs. Rishe Deitsch, Mrs. Yocheved Baitelman 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.