It was another Shavuot morning, over seventy years ago, in the Polish town of Levertov, and the Levertover Chassidim waited. Nine o'clock, ten o'clock, but the Rebbe, Rav Moshe Yechiel Elimelech Rabinowitz did not emerge from his room to daven. Finally a delegation of Chassidim gathered the courage to seek the reason for the delay. "The final niggun we sang last night was a depressing one," explained the Rebbe. Before we can start this morning we need a new melody - an uplifting one, to set the mood for receiving the Torah. Call in Srul Duvid, di Kleineh Itcheh Motteh." And so astonished Chassidim found themselves approaching thirteen year old Yisroel Dovid, son of the Rebbe's assistant Yitzchok Mordechai, with instructions to extemporaneously compose a Niggun Shel Simcha. Only once the boy had composed that niggun, taught it to the assembled Chassidim and led them in dance, did the Rebbe begin the Tefillah. Israel David Rosenberg has been weaving melodies into the fabric of Jewish life ever since.
His melodic interpretation of a poetic letter written by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe is still sung by Chassidim; the niggun he wrote for my mother when they were engaged is a family treasure, the prelude to a duet of nearly fifty years. It played at my wedding, testimony to undiminished love and devotion.
Drinking deeply at the Chassidic founts of his youth: Levertov, Lubavitch, Amshenov, Modzitz, he imbibed their Torah, spirit and music. He had the uncanny knack of hearing a melody once and remembering it exactly as sung. Sadly, yet proudly, that was to become his life's work.
When the institutions and individuals that peopled his youth in pre-war Poland became memories reflected only in the tears he shed secretly, his job became recreating them from the wisp of a melody recalled. From what he had seen "in der heim" my father brought a sense of "heimishness" to these shores. Not heimish in the sense used to promote hotels or brands of gefilte fish, but in the feeling of rootedness, of connection to truths of an ancient tradition as practiced by one who saw firsthand how it all was done. Small wonder that one current member, descended of Gerer Chassidim, ended her search for a synagogue when she heard a Kriyat HaTorah and Havdallah that transported her back to the time when nusach was an art.
If Neginah is the language of the soul, perhaps that explains why this Ba'al Menagen was uniquely able to touch the souls of others. Many are the forms of uneasiness that can afflict the shul goer, and each found a perceptive diagnostician and skilled therapist in the Ritual Director of KJ. Successful executives, at home in any boardroom, can feel totally lost in the unfamiliar routines of shul life. The road from door to seat is serpentine and the windings of tefillin labyrinthine. Enter Mr. Rosenberg: First experience of the Jew-off-the street, tour guide, shoulder, teacher, friend, diplomat, peacemaker, keeper of the arena in which any Jewish soul can find its creator.
The mourner, coming to services to recite Kaddish for a loved one, seeks G-d out of pain , bitterness and despair, and needs a roadmap toward hope. Enter the master cartographer. When the brother of a well known Jewish scholar and author concluded kaddish for his wife, he told his brother, "this man saved my life!" How? By sitting next to him, day after dreary day. No one will ever know the words that passed between the two, of if any passed at all; healing is communicated on many levels whose common denominator is Chesed.
It was never enough for my father that his Ramaz and KJ Bar Mitzvah students be proficient; it was a given that every accent would be in place, every sheva properly pronounced, with no mercha-tipcha combos allowed to masquerade as tipcha-merchas. But he wanted more. Every boy had to be a favorite, with his own inside jokes, his own special relationship, even his own pet name of endearment. I believe not even Matot-Massei well read gave him as much satisfaction as the time a timid student approached with hurt in his eyes because "you have a nickname for everyone else in the class except me!" Wherever I go in communal life I find his students, expert Torah readers and teachers who still recall most his warmth, his love and his pedagogy. Doctors will forget their stethoscopes and lawyers their briefs (oops!) before one of my father's students forgets his Chinese Munach.
Sometimes he had done the near impossible. How do you tell an indignant Board member, just arrived in shul from the airport, that he cannot lead services for his father's yahrzeit...unless he puts on a tie? Whom do you send to the Amud when three people have yahrzeit the same evening...? How do you shoehorn three services of people into two High Holidays services, and manage still to please those who "must have seventeen consecutive women's seats in the main shul overlooking their husbands at an angle, degrees of which to be specified"? For some twenty years, after the bookkeeper who had done it left, my father managed to pull off the miracle year after year. The year he gave it up, the third service was founded.
I am convinced that, in view of the delicate diplomacy for which he was called upon, G-d provided him with one supernatural ability. On occasion, the most prudent course of action for him would be to absent himself, and then - poof - like the haunting strains of a forgotten song, he would disappear. This sense of timing was finely honed. My brother calls it the best imitation of a water - cooler this side of Deer Park. Rabbi Joseph Lookstein A"H, described it differently. "Your father doesn't disappear, heh, heh, heh, he evaporates!"
It's not surprising that when my father began his class in the Chassidic philosophy of the Tanya, most of his students were psychiatrists. Somehow, these surgeons of the soul found common ground in the analysis of the Jewish Neshamah and its potential. What nobody knew was that this class was an echo of another, much earlier one, begun one Elul way back when Rabbi Joseph Lookstein asked if they could schedule a steady chavrusa in the study of Tanya. The volume with the Rabbi's notations still can be found in the shul.
To have given all he has, is admirable. To have done so without seeking credit is rare. (How many people know that he earned Semicha before coming to KJ, yet never used the title Rabbi?) To have done it without neglecting his family is nothing short of remarkable. Only someone blessed with an understanding and equal partner like my mother could aspire to hit the high notes my father has.
Niggunim don't end; they permeate secret places of the heart long after their actual chords are hushed. What next? Certainly not rest-tzaddikim ein lahem menucha - the righteous, says the Talmud, are not entitled to rest when there is so much to be done: the nusach and melodies of Modzitz, personally witnessed, still unredeemed; the tales of Vilna, Japan, Shanghai waiting to be told; generations of descendants reaching for the Torah and love they no longer have to share. Ma, put me down for a chavrusa in Tanya; I couldn't be in better company.