I was a snoop as a kid. My haven was my father’s library. It wasn’t the books. It was an unlabeled cardboard box with his correspondence and papers.
At 19, my father left Brooklyn for Bialystock, Poland, to study with Rabbi Avrohom Jofen, of blessed memory, at the Novardok Yeshiva. It was 1937.
Novardok was a mussar yeshiva where self-examination and negation of the ego were part of the curriculum. Novardok mussar exercises were extreme. Pairs of yeshiva men, each with his mussar partners, paced in a circle. They attacked each other for their pride and lack of bitachon, trust in God. They shattered personal desires and searched their souls. Loud and intense, they called it “Walking the Bursa.” Bursa means The Stock Exchange.
Novardokers asked to buy a hammer in a bakery and milk from a tailor. They did it for embarrassment; not to feel it, but to beat it. Embarrassment is a barrier to growth.
Hisboddidus means solitude. With no money or food, only bitachon. Novardekers would escape to a remote village. They slept on the synagogue floor, ate the villagers’ scraps and convinced the town to build a yeshiva. Bitochon built more than 80 Beis Yosef schools in Russia and Poland.
They struggled with concepts: The difference between faith and trust. Does love of God precede fear of God? Is there reward and punishment in this world? In the World to Come? How to start the day? How to end it?
Each carried a pinkas, a pocket-sized notebook, logging their daily successes and failures. At night they did a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.
They were named, for their hometowns: Zundel Krakover, Velvel Pinsker, Yankef Varshava. “Everybody got a city,” my father joked. “I got a whole country.” He was Leibel Amerikanski.
As Yom Kippur approached, yeshivas from around Eastern Europe with their prestigious rabbis, flocked to Bialystok. It was Elul at Novardok.
Novardokers trembled as they declared themselves a “gornish,” a nothing. It’s an awesome experience to pray with a roomful of nothings.
A legendary telegram arrived from my grandfather. “War clouds over Europe. Use your head.” My father found his way back home through Sweden and London. A postcard dated Aug. 29, as he boarded a boat, said everything was fine. Three days later, Germany attacked Poland.
Back in America, the box continued to grow. A young Talmid chacham, an erudite scholar, from the Brisk Dynasty, arrived in Boston. My father and his friends who learned in Poland, knew of the Brisker. They started Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichick’s first Talmud class in America.
With bitachon, he moved the family to a seaside community, void of an Orthodox population, but poised for growth. Years later, he spearheaded the Belle Harbor Yeshiva Day School. “Once a Novardoker always a Novardoker,” they say.
Something odd happened. My father tried to rescue his friends from the Germans, but he only knew the guys by their hometowns, not their surnames.
He sent a list to the rosh yeshiva, or dean, to clarify, the Nazis opened it, stamped it with a swastika and returned it to sender.
It’s all in the box. His pinkas, letters, telegrams, pictures, documents, visas and pages of Torah notes.
When my father died, I grabbed the box. It spent 10 years turning brown in my closet.
An archivist at the Jewish Theological Seminary dipped into it and was enthused. We’d love this, he said. But scholars of “yeshiva life before the war” go to Yeshiva University or YIVO’s archives. An email of introduction to Shulamith Berger, curator of special collections and Hebraica-Judaica at YU, declared it a significant find. Yeshiva, my alma mater, wanted the box.
Rabbi Elchonon Katzman, a consultant and appraiser for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, assessed the box for tax purposes. As a Talmid chacham, he understood the nuances of the collection. As an appraiser, he knew its value.
My father bemoaned the failure of Novardoker mussar in America. Jews didn’t care to practice introspection following the Holocaust. But there was enough hubris and hypocrisy in New York to challenge. Novardok criticism, while warranted, often backfired. People become defensive when a mirror is held to their face.
I inherited the Novardok way. I too suffer from the lies, false promises and phony behavior that plague the Jewish world. I stand up to it, but I do it without my father’s credentials. It hurts.
The box will soon leave for the Mendel Gottesman Library at YU. I will miss it as I miss my dad. Wherever life takes me, the box will follow. I will never shake its responsibility nor the memory of my father.
Jesse Cogan, who lives in New York, is a freelance creative director in the Jewish community.