Yakub the Singer, the learning that binds us to our nation

Reb Yom Tov Ehrlich’s son just passed away and the family needs funding desperately.  You can donate here: http://www.gofundme.com/w4g8h5w

And here is another story that Reb Yom Tov Ehrlich ZT”L sang.

Once, during WW II, far off in a remote province of the former Soviet Union, a Yeshiva bochur named Yaakov found refuge.  His family had met the fate of so many others, shipped off to the horrors of concentration camps.  Yaakov somehow managed to run, far beyond the Nazis, far beyond the border and boundaries of countries he was familiar with, all the way to the isolated and remote area of Uzbekistan that abutted against India and Afghanistan.

Strange was the language, the culture, even the facial features of the residents.  Yakov was not about to explain his Judaism to a nation and people that was far from the shtetls and metropolis that had housed Jews.  He kept his identity close to him.  His hands were golden and he was assigned tractor-duties for the Kolkhoz, the Soviet collective to which he was assigned.  He knew how to navigate that tractor like a pro, but more important, he knew how to tinker and grease it, fix it and nurture it so that is stayed in tip-top running shape.  Yakub, as he was known to his fellow Kolkhoz members, was a hard worker.  He kept to himself, not one to imbibe in the vodka and ribald jokes that marked every end of the day.

Pale white was his skin, in contract to the darker, swarthy complexion of those around him.  His Russian was the common denominator, but often his fellow workers heard him singing a haunting tune that was clearly not Russian.  It was something else, a song that never stopped from his lips.  As he drove his tractor, as he took it apart and greased it, as he put it back away at night, and even over his hot cup of tea, Yakub was signing.  “Amar Rav Huna…” the words of the Gemorah, the stayed with Yakub and helped Yakub stay aware of who he was, even when he was the lone Jew.  When Yakub would be silent, when images of his past came to him, most often he would see the image of his mother, as she lit her Shabbos candles.  Her words of prayer right before he had to run for his life were, “watch my son, oh G-d, so that he can stay a Jew there!”  Yakub knew a prayer helps, but man must do his own in watching the sanctity of his own soul.  And, so, Yakub did not stop learning.  With the sing-song of generations of Talmud learners, Yakub kept the song of his soul alive.

The head of the Kolkhoz then was a Tajik, an important man in the area and a bit more well-to-do then the poorer folks around.  And this Tajik took a fancy to Yakub.  In him, he figured, he’d found a husband for his daughter – a man that did not drink and swear, a man who didn’t chase after every pretty girl, a man focused on work, with a beautiful voice that sang non-stop.  He offered Yakub riches and connections, if only Yakub would consider the match.  The daughter was no slouch.  Exotic and beautiful she was, with her Tajik shiny hair and shy, demure features.

But Yakub reacted, strongly.  “I can’t.  I’m a Jew.  My Torah doesn’t let me marry someone who doesn’t think and act like me.”

Yakub thought the matter was done with – until he realized there was a plot afoot.  The Tajiki’s decided they would trick this Yeshiva boy.  They would ply him with heavy liquor, get him drunk beyond reason and then dump him, against his will, into closed quarters with the bride.

Yakub took off, into the wilderness.  There were crags and mountains and cliffs and gorges.  There was rough terrain and wild animals.  There were all kinds of perils.  But Yakub was not afraid.  As Yom Tov Ehliche tells the story (told to him by Yakub, himself), Yakub decided, “better here to be smashed and battered” but to have triumphed in “never leaving the sanctity of Torah life.”

Yakub arrived in Tashkent, where many Jewish refugees had found safe haven.  Here he was reunited with his people.  Folks who saw him coming, saw this wild looking young man, hair unkempt, years of not cutting it, looking like some outlaw with Tajik clothes.  But as soon as they heard his sweet voice, the tune he never let go of, the melody of Gemorah studies he had kept alive, they knew they had found one of their own.

Yakub was afforded refugee status and eventually was transferred back to Poland after the war, and thereafter managed to emigrate to the USA.  The night of his wedding, at the pinnacle of his triumph, after he had stood under the Chuppah b’kdusha with a woman who was fit to be the mate of a Yeshiva man, Reb Yom Tov Ehrliche, who had met him in Tashket, arrived.  And sang the song of Yakub, outlining the greatness of the Chasan’s character and sacrifice.    There was no dry eye that night in the wedding hall.  For the song of Yakub is the song of our nation’s triumph over exile.  A pure soul that clung to G-d with the song of age-old Jewish learning.  Another member of our nation not lost to assimilation.  For Torah is the glue that binds us, that keeps us steady (and that ensures, as it did for Yakub, that another generation of our family can learn in Lakewood!)

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About jewishspectacles

Jewish Spectacles-the kind you look through, not the kind you create!
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