Giggling and Other Life Lessons from Rabbi Lamm
By Paulette Ruth Fein Lieberman
When I was a pre-teen in the 1950s, our Congregation Kodimoh in Springfield, Massachusetts, welcomed Rabbi Norman Lamm and his family with open arms. The decorum in the shul was excellent. No one socialized or talked throughout the davening, Torah reading or during Rabbi Lamm’s brilliant sermons.
Occasionally, a few silly friends and I would sit in the front balcony aisle seats right above Rabbi Lamm’s pulpit. We would chat and giggle together—even during sermons. Rabbi Lamm would stop in the middle of a sentence and look up at us. Silence.
“Shh!” the women in shul would whisper. After a few weeks of these episodes, it was decided that my friends and I should sit apart. That is when I began to listen and appreciate much of what Rabbi Lamm was saying.
Throughout my teen years, never did I miss shul on Shabbos and holidays during the time Rabbi Lamm was our rabbi.
Many of my close friends belonged to the nearby Conservative and Reform temples, which caused social problems for me. I couldn’t participate in my friends’ Friday night or Saturday activities and parties.
My friends and their well-meaning parents would often challenge me, especially when we went to restaurants where I would only order ice cream or a Coke. On Shabbos, they would ask: “Why can’t you ride back and forth to shul like they we do?”
“It is work on Shabbos,” I would reply as they snickered at my calling traveling “work.” “It’s harder to walk in snow and ice like you do,” they would say. “Are you trying to be more religious than us?”
I had no intelligent answers. Neither did my younger brother.
There were no Jewish schools in the area at the time, and my brother and I encountered bullying and hurtful remarks in public school as well. Because we didn’t eat lunch with our classmates or participate in sports competitions on Saturdays, we were always trying to explain why, beyond the “because our parents said so.”
I was a teenager searching for answers and support, and it was Rabbi Lamm’s sermons that gave me the courage and ammunition to hold my own. Rabbi Lamm, in his thoughtful and witty ways, empowered me, fortifying my commitment as an Orthodox Jew.
I went to shul in freezing weather, even when I had a raging fever. I would trudge through Forest Park in deep New England snowstorms holding tightly onto my father’s hand. I couldn’t bear to miss even one of Rabbi Lamm’s sermons. His sermons helped me answer my peers in an intelligent, insightful way.
Rabbi Lamm used to describe life as a ship navigating through rough seas. To avoid hitting rocks and boulders and to weather storms, we needed a compass and a map. The Torah’s laws, he said, were given to us by God to serve as those navigation tools.
Then there was the “slave or servant” sermon. Why, he would ask, should we be a slave to whatever is going on in the world, or to people’s whims, when we ourselves could choose to be a free servant only to God, living by the ways of the Torah, which are good and meant for us?
Though the level of observance in Springfield was diverse, the Jewish community members of all streams bonded with one other. My non-Orthodox friends and their parents all liked Rabbi Lamm.
It was known that some members of our Orthodox shul drove on Shabbos morning and played golf in the afternoon. But in his sermons, Rabbi Lamm never disparaged them. Instead, he encouraged us to bring ourselves up to the Torah, not to try to bring the Torah down to us.
It was not just what Rabbi Lamm said, but his style of speaking and sincere way of expressing it that made him (and his Rebbetzin Mindy, who often advised him) so very beloved.
To us, Rebbetzin Lamm was the epitome of a rebbetzin—in the dignified way she acted and carried herself.
Perhaps Rabbi Lamm most influenced me through the Pirkei Avos classes he held for teenagers every Shabbos afternoon. Before that, I would usually spend Shabbos afternoons visiting the horses and ponies near my home that I used to groom for payment in riding lessons during the week.
One Shabbos afternoon while walking to shul, my father saw me sitting in the saddle of a big white horse. I will always remember the look on my father’s face, and his gentle voice as he said to me just said one word: “Shabbos.” I quickly alighted, and never went there on Shabbos again.
Soon thereafter, Rabbi Lamm started his Shabbos afternoon classes for teenagers. We were the children and grandchildren of European shtetl dwellers—Jews who were traditional but not well-versed in halachah.
There was no electricity back in the shtetl so to many of these Jews, turning a light switch on on Shabbos was, to them, not considered work. During those Pirkei Avos classes, many such questions came up. Rabbi Lamm explained exactly how electricity works, and how the electric spark or fire is created when turning on a light switch, or starting up a car, which is forbidden on Shabbos. Many of us repeated these ideas to our parents, helping our families grow in their religious observance.
We were public school teens searching for our Jewish souls during those crucial years that Rabbi Lamm was at Kodimoh. Quite a few of us were “truth-seekers” like me, and Rabbi Lamm helped many of our dreams come true. He emphasized to us that the Torah wasn’t given to be kept in “an ivory tower.” He encouraged us, saying: “Go out into the world and use your talents.” “Study, learn and excel in what you choose to do.” “Meet the challenges you face, and be guided by the Torah’s teachings, so that you can overcome them, making a meaningful life for yourself.”
Years later, when Rabbi Lamm left Springfield to become rabbi of The Jewish Center in Manhattan, I kept in touch, and went to hear him speak when I began attending Stern College nearby.
At one point during my college years, while quietly listening to Rabbi Lamm deliver a sermon, I was transported right back to my silly pre-teen years when my friends and I would be chatting and giggling during his sermons. How sorry I felt at that moment. I felt the urge to write him a letter of appreciation. Which I did.
Not long after, Rabbi Lamm wrote a letter to me expressing how touched he was by my letter, where I told him how his teachings had influenced me. I still treasure his reply.
Paulette Ruth Fein Lieberman, who lives in New York, is a creative artist and author.
Obtaining a YU Graduate Degree
By Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Ever since my adolescence I have admired Rabbi Norman Lamm for his wise leadership, eloquence and erudition. It was only after I began my career in the rabbinate that I became familiar with other facets of his personality, especially his humane dignity and generosity of spirit.
The first face to face encounter that I had with him was in the summer of 1989. I was then a candidate for the rabbinic position at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland. My eligibility for the position was questioned by several members of the election committee who were alumni of Yeshiva University and preferred a YU alumnus for the position. The chairman of the committee suggested that I be interviewed by Rabbi Lamm so that the committee could be guided by his opinion about my suitability for the position.
I agreed to meet with Rabbi Lamm who surprised me with a telephone call, apologizing that since he was spending the summer in Sackett Lake, New York, I would have to suffer the inconvenience of traveling to the Catskill Mountains to see him. He said that he would compensate for my inconvenience with a hearty breakfast.
We met several days afterwards, and he greeted me warmly, but profusely apologized that since Mrs. Lamm had to return to the city that day I would have to settle for bagels and lox and coffee.
We then began to schmooze about current events, individuals with whom we were both acquainted, our Eastern European roots, and our favorite sefarim. We were struck by how much we had in common. At some point, I mentioned to him that my wife, Chavi Taub, is a granddaughter of the Modzitzer Rebbe. He informed me that he was the one who wrote the notes that were published on the cover of the Modzitzer Melava Malka record, the first professionally produced record of Chassidic music. The conversation flowed, interspersed with snatches of old Chassidic melodies that we softly sang to each other.
The meeting went on for several hours, after which Rabbi Lamm extracted a piece of stationery from his briefcase and scribbled a note which read, To Whom It May Concern (to them who have concerns): I hereby award the bearer of this note the honor and distinction of a Yeshiva University graduate degree.
He quickly added, “This note is just between us. I’ll get back to your committee and assure them that you are a chaver tov.”
I can only assume that he kept his word because my candidacy was approved soon thereafter.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus, of the OU.
A True Mensch
By Leah R. Lightman
I had already accepted the position of director of development at Yeshiva University and set a start date. Then a call came. My soon-to-be new boss informed me that protocol included meeting with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm prior to beginning the job: would I please call Dr. Lamm’s executive assistant and schedule an appointment?
Meeting Dr. Lamm one-on-one in his office was inconceivable to me. Having watched him daven on several occasions, he personified to me yiras Shamayim; nothing came between him and his relationship with the Almighty. His speeches were replete with wisdom and salient messages that resonated and reverberated for a long time after. And his vocabulary. Dr. Lamm was a wordsmith par excellence.
What could he and I ever possibly talk about?
Surprisingly, at our meeting, conversation flowed and a relationship was formed. This man of ideas who brought a university out of bankruptcy and into solvency and built an internationally renowned institution was a people person. He never once forgot to thank me for my work, and always had a specific compliment, which meant he noticed details.
One time, we had several meetings in the Palm Beach/Boca Raton areas with YU supporters and potential supporters. Almost all of them called him “Rabbi Lamm.” No matter where each individual stood religiously, Dr. Lamm was their rabbi. Each conversation was replete with words of Torah. These supporters were thrilled to learn from him. He never set out to teach them; he just was.
One year the guest speaker at a dinner for the Wurzweiler School of Social Work was a teenaged girl who was HIV positive because she had received a blood transfusion shortly after her mother delivered her. This took place during a time prior to blood banks becoming vigilant about HIV screenings. The young girl described how, even though she was not “contagious,” she had been shunned by people throughout her short life. She and her family only began to experience community when the local Chabad rabbi and his family knocked on their door. During the dinner, Dr. Lamm walked over to her table and sat down next to her. They spoke. That week, Dr. Lamm reached out to the Chabad rabbi to compliment him on his sensitivity, compassion and menschlichkeit.
At the time I joined YU’s development staff, I was a not-young single. Never condescending or judgmental, Dr. Lamm made himself available to speak with me and offer advice, if that’s what I wanted. He was thrilled when I told him that I was getting married and rearranged his schedule so that he could recite the berachah acharita under the chuppah. When my husband and I left the yichud room, the Lamms were there waiting so they could be among the first to wish us mazel tov as a couple.
As happy as Dr. Lamm was for me when I got married, it paled in comparison when I informed him that I was pregnant with my first child. His response: a handwritten letter in which he wrote “Leah—Great Expectations and it will be bigger and more important than Charles Dickens!” Months later, I left Dr. Lamm a message that Hashem had blessed us with a daughter. Another epistle arrived in which he showered us and our bundle of joy with many blessings.
Every Elul, I wrote Dr. Lamm a brief letter updating him about our growing family and included a recent photo. He and his wife thanked us for the update. Mrs. Lamm told me she kept the notes in her personal correspondence pile because our family brought them “tremendous nachas.”
When working at YU, I was tasked one year with running the Chanukah Dinner, a highlight on the YU calendar. At the dinner, I noticed the Lamm children and their spouses at their table engrossed in their own world, talking and laughing and enjoying one another’s company. It was a happy picture of adult siblings who were friends. I regret never asking Dr. Lamm what he and his wife did to affect this.
I have shared with my children stories about Dr. Lamm’s generous, caring nature and the positive difference he made in my life. One of the messages I have relayed to my children is that Hashem gifted Dr. Lamm in many ways. Always humble, Dr. Lamm made himself into a conduit for Hashem to shine in this world.
Leah Lightman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action. She lives in Lawrence, New York.
Reb Chaim Lives
By Menachem Genack
Rabbi Norman Lamm was fond of telling me about an episode that took place in Finland where he had been invited to an academic conference. There he met Uri Avnery, the publisher of the Israeli magazine HaOlam HaZeh, who informed Rabbi Lamm that he identified not as a Jew or as an Israeli, but as a “Hebrew national.” Rabbi Lamm responded that where he comes from, Hebrew National is just a kind of baloney. This is classic Rabbi Lamm. He always had the perfect response for every occasion, and he knew how to use his sharp wit to defend Jewish values. His ability to always find the right words is also what makes Rabbi Lamm’s derashot the masterpieces that they are; but more than his verbal felicity, it is the message of these derashot which has made them timeless. Others have observed how these sermons remain just as relevant today as when they were delivered more than half a century ago. Despite all that has changed, Rabbi Lamm understood the fundamental challenges confronting modern Jews, which still remain.
In his hesped for Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav), Rabbi Lamm recounted a story “of something that happened some years ago at the Brisker Yeshiva in Jerusalem led by Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik, son of Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik, z”tl.”
The details may be fuzzy, but the essential story, I am told, is true. An elderly bent-over man wandered into the yeshivah one day, sat down and began to learn by himself. Reb Dovid came over and greeted him. The old man asked, “Is this the Hebron Yeshiva?” “No,” answered Reb Dovid, “this is the Brisker Yeshiva.” At which the old man opened his eyes wide and, in disbelief, asked, “Reb Chaim lebt noch? Is then Reb Chaim still alive?”
Apparently, this elderly Jew had studied with Reb Chaim in Brisk. Shortly afterward, he was exiled by the Communists and lost touch with other Jews for seventy-five years. Told that he was learning in the Brisker Yeshiva, he therefore thought it was still headed by Reb Chaim whom he remembered from his youth. Rabbi Lamm continued, “And indeed, Reb Chaim still lives.” That mesorah which Reb Chaim transmitted, and which the Rav transmitted after him, found one of its finest champions in Rabbi Lamm.
Rabbi Genack is CEO of OU Kosher.
A Fundraiser Par Excellence
By Joel Schreiber
With the passing of Rabbi Norman Lamm, we have lost a giant, one who represented the intellectual core of Centrist Judaism. He was a rav, a teacher, a brilliant speaker and a darshan. His sermons were works of art. He literally saved Yeshiva University, all the while teaching, learning and administering.
About fifteen or twenty years ago, The Jewish Center in Manhattan conducted an open forum on emunah prior to Rosh Hashanah. A conversation took place between Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic at the time, and Rabbi Lamm. At the end of the conversation, when the floor opened up to the public, I raised my hand and asked both men: “At this stage of your life, having experienced so much, has your emunah been challenged? Is your emunah more certain or less certain?
Rabbi Lamm did not hesitate. “Yes, my emunah is still strong. I have made peace with life,” he said. He then added: “But the issue of tzaddik vera lo [why the righteous suffer] still bothers me.” Rabbi Lamm was a man of consummate emunah.
His power of persuasion was forceful. It was simply difficult to refuse his requests. Close to forty years ago I received a call. Rabbi Lamm said he wanted to have dinner with me. One does not easily turn down such an invitation! His gravitas, personality and dedication to a cause made it impossible to decline his request. And yes, I agreed to all that he asked for during the dinner.
Finally, Rabbi Lamm had a sharp wit that was not only quick but inventive.
I had the pleasure of sitting in the row just ahead of him at The Jewish Center (he continued to daven there long after he served as rav in the shul). One Shabbos Mevarchim after davening I asked him a question that had always puzzled me. In the Yehi Ratzon prayer for the new month, we ask God for so many blessings—for life, health, happiness, et cetera, all of which seem to be reasonable requests. But I asked, how can we have the temerity to ask God for osher vekavod, great wealth and the trappings of importance? Wasn’t this a bit much to ask for? Without missing a beat, he answered, “You do not understand the request.” He continued: “That request was put there for the benefit of Yeshiva University. We ask that Hashem grant great osher to many people. Yeshiva will supply the kavod and relieve them of the osher!”
What a man. What a personality. What a loss.
Chaval al deavdin velo mishtakchin.
Joel Schreiber is chairman emeritus of Jewish Action, chairman emeritus of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University, and a past member of the Board of Yeshiva University.
By Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Dr. Shalom Kelman, an outstanding talmid chacham and a prestigious physician, is a nephew of Rabbi Lamm, and a prominent member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland, where I served as rav. In the spring of 1995, Dr. Kelman concluded his study of the entire Talmud Bavli and hosted a siyum banquet at a Baltimore restaurant. “Uncle Norman” came down from New York and participated in the siyum, along with Rav Hershel Schachter and other dignitaries.
Rabbi Lamm was the first to speak. He began by politely acknowledging my presence, but mistakenly referred to me as “Rabbi Weinberg.” Dr. Kelman corrected him. Rabbi Lamm excused himself but after speaking for a few minutes, he again referred to me as “Rabbi Weinberg.” This time several people in the audience called out “his name is Rabbi Weinreb.” Again, Rabbi Lamm excused himself and continued with his inspiring words. As he was about to conclude, he thanked his host, and turned towards me. Once again, he said, “Thank you, Rabbi Weinberg, for your role in Shalom’s accomplishments.” This time he caught himself, and said, “Rabbi Weinreb! Rabbi Weinreb! I am so sorry. I guess I ‘owe you one’!”
I was asked to speak toward the end of the siyum program. I discarded my prepared remarks and instead thanked Rabbi Lamm for honoring us with his presence. I told him that now that he had publicly proclaimed that he “owed me one,” I intended to take him up upon his offer, and invited him to visit our community again as the guest speaker at the congregation’s annual dinner.
At that moment, Rabbi Lamm made no commitment. But soon afterwards he contacted me to determine the date of the annual dinner in order to clear his calendar and be sure to attend the event. True to his word, he did grace Shomrei Emunah with his attendance at the dinner and delivered one of his classic and most memorable speeches.
A Modzitzer Davening
By Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Rabbi Lamm and I met several times when we both spent yamim tovim in Israel. The very last time that we conversed was when we sat next to each other in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. We shared our impressions of the cantorial renditions of the guest chazzan. We agreed that the davening was aesthetically pleasing and spiritually uplifting. But then he added, “aber tzu a Modzitzer davenin’ kumt dus nisht!—But it cannot compare to a Modzitzer davening.”
We will yet hear eloquent sermons and read erudite essays, but they will not compare to the sermons and essays of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm.
Transcending the Generation Gap
By Steven Weil
If I had to sum up my impressions of Rabbi Norman Lamm, I would borrow the words of Dovid HaMelech, “You have made him little less than Divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty” (Tehillim 8:6).
Rabbi Lamm was above all a man of great dignity and grace; truly his presence was nothing short of majestic. He was the living embodiment of what Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch called the “Yisrael mentsch”—the Jew who is a learned scholar engaged in Torah thoughts, but is also able to transform and elevate the secular world around him with his erudition and his ability to convey how Jewish ideals speak to all of mankind. As an orator, he intuitively knew how to captivate his audience and include the layman in the thought process of the masters of the mesorah. He could deliver sagacious ideas about virtually any body of knowledge in a way that was both easily understood and profoundly transformative. You were a better person and a more thoughtful Jew after listening to him lecture.
Rabbi Lamm seemed to have more time in a day than the typical person. Every Friday, he spent hours calling board members and supporters of YU to wish them a “Good Shabbos.” I have heard from many of the recipients of those calls how substantive and impactful those conversations were, and how Rabbi Lamm was not merely the president of the university they supported, but a cherished rabbi, mentor and friend.
One of my early experiences with Rabbi Lamm made a tremendous impression on me. I was chosen to represent the semichah students at a dedication ceremony attended by the then Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef and the philanthropist Robert Beren and his family. I was privileged to join this illustrious but diverse group for a private lunch with Rabbi Lamm in his office. The conversation around the table jumped from an analysis of the petroleum market to the challenges of the rabbinate, and the future of education in America. Rabbi Lamm was as artful as the conductor of a symphony, hearing the value of each individual topic yet seamlessly weaving all the conversations together in a way that everyone participated and felt included.
More recently, Rabbi Lamm invited me to speak to students in the Kollel Elyon, a group that comprises some of the greatest young scholars and future leaders of our generation. I was fascinated by the dynamic that existed between this group of mid-twenty somethings and their more senior statesman. On the one hand, they saw him as a beloved grandfather who bestowed warmth and love, but at the same time, they saw him as a mentor whose skills and life experience they strove to absorb and emulate. Rabbi Lamm transcended the generation gap, always with his signature dignity and grace. I experienced this as well on several visits to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Lamm’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where we would discuss some of the challenges and trends of the Jewish community. The issues facing our community have evolved over the decades, but Rabbi Lamm was always insightful during those conversations, and more importantly, supportive and encouraging. Age was never a barrier, and Rabbi Lamm, despite his elegance and status, did not live in an ivory tower. He cared deeply about the Jewish people and had volumes of wisdom to generously offer those serving on the front lines.
Rabbi Lamm was a regal man, refined and perfected morally and intellectually. Anyone who was fortunate enough to know him understood that merely standing in his presence elevated and inspired. He brought dignity to every arena he entered, and I consider myself blessed to have had personal interactions where I was touched and transformed by his greatness.
Rabbi Steven Weil is the former senior managing director of the OU.