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Our Landlord, the Rabbi

June 28, 2015 | by Alissa Paige Joseph

Renting Rabbi Shmuel Orenstein's NYC apartment changed our lives.

My husband and I were newly married and more than annoyed with our new nest. Aryeh’s bachelor pad was just too small for the two of us. Like the couple, the place had quirks. Everything was up high: all the closets, all the grooved in bookcases. If you wanted to read or get warm with a basic, like a sweater, you had to get on Aryeh’s only chair, which was wobbly, and reach. I am grateful he had that one chair or else all my sweaters might still be there.

My husband's friend Phillip knew a Rabbi Shmuel Orenstein who had a large one bedroom apartment for rent, and he recommended us. The appointment was set for six in the evening and, apartments being what they were in New York City in the 90’s, we got there on time.

When we arrived, unknown to us, but characteristic of him, the rabbi was waiting for us at the door of his brownstone. He looked just like a typical Brooklyn rabbi to me, in his mid 70s, with a white beard. I did look twice at his large blue eyes because there was something different about them. Most people have a secret in their eyes; a hiding place or two in their face. This rabbi appeared to have none.

He showed us the apartment with the air of a salesman to him. “Look at this closet! You could park a Buick in it.”

After perusing the apartment, the rabbi suggested we all go up to his shul, the next floor up, to talk a little. I think he wanted to see if he could discern something for himself about us. The recommendation from Phillip was good, but we weren’t Phillip. I think he wanted to see what we felt like as people.

We acted as miniature as possible, hoping he would like us. Sometimes acting nice feels like acting meek. We were real tiny. We wanted the place. The rabbi told us his rule, “Please, you’ll pay the check at the beginning of the month. Don’t make me come for it.” In less than a year he would say back to me: “You know, Mrs. Joseph, you’re like a bank.” It’s odd to think of that first day when the Rabbi was just a stranger to us.

Our new apartment was much larger than Aryeh’s, but it still had the drawbacks that all Manhattan apartments have, the drawbacks that you would never put up with anywhere else.

For example, the door next to our apartment was the door to a bathroom that was used by the rabbi’s shul, the floor above. When people walked towards our apartment it was always with some urgency and the accompanying apologetic nod. I was always grateful for the nod because it gave the illusion that we were all on equal footing, them having to go to the bathroom and us living next to it.

Will he always greet me like this? Will I have to come up with this exuberance every time I see my new neighbor?

A day or so after we moved in I went to the market to pick up all the odds and ends a new apartment might need: salt, pepper, garlic powder, eggs, olive oil, etc.

When I got back to the brownstone the rabbi was at the door holding it open for me. As I sidled in with my mound of plastic bags, he said, “Oh Mrs. Joseph, you’re back!” It was such a hearty and heartfelt salutation. The kind of hello that not only greeted you, but welcomed you and made you feel special. Quite frankly, I didn’t get it. I mean, what was he up to? Would he always greet me like this or was this just the first hello in the new house after the settling in day so this was the big one? Scarier still for me was the notion that I might have to come up with this exuberance every time I saw my new neighbor which could be three times daily, maybe more.

Not that I like to admit this to a group of strangers, but I can be grumpy at times, especially in the mornings. Would it be okay for us, for me and my new neighbor, to just grunt at each other if the day called for it? Was he going to keep this up or not was the question I couldn’t ask.

The next time I saw the rabbi gave me my answer. “Mrs. Joseph, you’re home! Was it cold out? It looks cold.” I managed to greet him back with a reciprocal hearty hello but my intonation may have sounded more like, “Oy vey, no kidding?”

I skulked back to my apartment, my shoulders folded over, wondering why I was so challenged by the Rabbi’s innocent and small requirement. I felt like a loser. Why can’t I just come up with a big hello daily? What am I hoarding here?

Then a thought occurred to me, a thought that for the moment saved me. I was by profession an actress. I wasn’t acting professionally anymore, but I still had a good performance or two in me. It wasn’t so long ago that I had performed in an Off-Broadway show or a soap opera. I could do this; in fact, this was me. I could dupe the rabbi daily and exercise my acting muscles all at the same time. Everything was right again.

In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the great poet Walt Whitman writes, “The performance reflects back on the actor.” In more ways than I can describe I was changed by my daily “Hellos.” Over time I didn’t recognize myself; his “Aliza, you’re home!” would be met back with an over the top “Rabbi!” The voice sounded more like a teenager’s than my own because with enthusiasm comes youth. Looking back, what was he? He was normal, and I wasn’t, and he changed me forever with a simple hello. This is how I learned the mitzvah of greeting every Jew with a happy countenance. I didn’t learn it; I was shown it.

A year later Aryeh and I made the investment for a new dining room table with six Shaker chairs. The rabbi, as always, was there for the delivery. I don’t recall a thing that was ever delivered to the house that the rabbi didn’t greet first. Maybe he’d hold the door, or watch the truck, figure the door width. He was always there, not in a meddling way, but in a way that made you have hope for the human race. Hope because he seemed to care for your stuff as if it was his stuff. Anybody the rabbi knew he watched out for. All you had to be was decent and known by him and you would qualify for the treatment.

We had been married well over a year now and had not been lucky in the area of children. As the table was being hoisted into the apartment the rabbi pleaded at me with his hands held up towards the sky: “Oy, Aliza, this table should be used for a simcha!” We were neighbors, good neighbors, and therefore our problems became his.

A few days later, I got a knock at my door at 10 a.m. I opened it to find the rabbi peeking out left from behind a huge plant.

“Aliza, here, you’ll take this plant. I have the mother plant upstairs and I cut some off for you. People have had very good luck with this plant.”

I looked back at the rabbi like a drunk deer. “What kind of luck?” I asked.

“Children, kinderlach,” he replied.

“The tenants before you, the Marks, had three kinderlach from it, all born here,” said the rabbi with a triumphant kind of a smile. I thanked him and took his plant shaking my head secretly as I shut the door. I hale from an upper middle class, cultured, Bostonian family and here was my nice rabbi from Europe who was giving me his plant. Isn’t he quaint, I thought, in my best erudite Bostonian sensibility. Isn’t that cute.

After 36 months of combined bedrest and four beautiful babies later, I no longer think the rabbi or his plant are merely cute.

I knew enough of my pathology, in terms of fertility, to know it wasn’t likely I would be lucky. Just a few weeks earlier, my husband and I had been in to see the “top guy” who told us that my having a baby was as likely as finding a needle in a haystack. After 36 months of combined bedrest and four, crying, beautiful, 6 pound babies later, I no longer think the rabbi or his plant are cute.

Look at this man. He trudged out in the middle of winter, got a pot and soil, cut the leaves off, and repotted the thing. Carried it down two flights of stairs, at age 75, with a heart condition to boot. "Loving your neighbor like yourself" I learned from the rabbi. I didn’t learn it, I saw it. He was it. A person could teach themselves to love people they didn’t naturally love by doing things for them as if they did. The rent was starting to seem real cheap when you factored in the add-ons.

On Our Shoulders

Rabbi Orenstein’s life started in Poland. He was a teenager when the war broke out, and when he came home from Yeshiva his family was gone; the house was empty. One could only imagine the scene through squinted eyes. Many of the rabbi's grandchildren are now named for his holy family who were murdered by the Nazis.

Before the war he attended Yeshiva in Kamenitz under the famed Rav Boruch Ber Leibovitz. The war years were spent in Buchara (currently Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) together with a group of Kamenitzer students. They formed an underground study group which included such luminaries as Rabbis Sholem Leibovitz, Shaul Brus, Noach and Hershel Feldman and Avraham and Moishe Aaron Brody. It should be noted that these young men kept a full day's study schedule despite their ever watchful, dangerous new neighbors.

The rabbi came to America afterwards with an accent and some usually unseen scars. “You know Mrs. Joseph it’s a funny thing,” he’d say to me from time to time, a little smile on his face, a comical tone in his voice, as if he were being childish. “You know, it’s a funny thing, but I don’t like basements. I don’t like going into them alone. Could you or your husband come with me?”

I came to learn that the rabbi had been singled out by the KGB as the organizer of his underground study group. He was then taken to a basement-like cell where he was held for six weeks. Many times during his stay in prison, he was beaten in order to give over the names of the students. The KGB singled out the wrong guy. Beating after beating, the rabbi repeatedly gave them nothing. “Mordechai would not bow or prostrate himself.” ( Esther 3:2)

I should say we'll accompany you to the basement, Rabbi Orenstein, along with all of Klal Yisrael and we will sit in the corner of your shade, twiddling our thumbs in grateful reflection, doing whatever it is that a generation does who is embarrassed about how good they’ve had it. Yes, I’ll go to the basement with you, while you putter with the pipes, look through old papers, and do what ever a righteous man does in a basement. And while we're there, we'll think about those men that beat you and we'll know that you were the best thing their ruddy stained hands ever touched.

When the time is right, and you want to go upstairs again, we’ll take you up on our shoulders like the great sports heroes of our day. For who is it that gets hoisted up on shoulders high? It’s the guys who came early and stayed late and left everything out on the field. It’s the ones that saved the day so that the team could live to see tomorrow. It’s the guys that made the play even against the harshest of odds. Rabbi, isn’t that who you were? It’s the men and women like you who lived, and the ones that didn’t, that saved the day. You saved our people, and you are our heroes.

We couldn’t have known how this gentle man would manage to melt into our lives and guide us long after he was gone.

When the Mashiach comes, I like to think that there might be a video that starts to circulate of all the moments that helped bring the redemption. In it will be all the selfless acts and important teachings. Look carefully for the part where an elderly rabbi, medium height and build, stands davening mincha by the shtender in his shul. You’ll see a regular man, who appears like everyone else, but his connection to God, when no one is looking, will let you know he earned his place. In the video, scratchy at first, you might notice in the lower right hand corner of this beautiful scene a strange little woman peeking in through the crack in the large metal door. She’ll be holding a first of the month check to her chest, wondering who in the world will believe her when she tells them her neighbor is a tzaddik, a righteous man.

Of course, we couldn’t have known any of this on the day we first met the rabbi. We couldn’t have known about his kind tone or the smell of the house on Friday afternoons when the rebbitzen’s kugel filled us with anticipation for the coming Shabbos. We couldn’t have known who would be born to us, or the way the rabbi’s feet would scuff across the floor telling me, a lawyer's wife, nightly, that I was not alone. Not only that I was not alone, but that there was a kind of spiritual safety just above. A metaphor for the life of this world.

We couldn’t have known how this gentle man would manage to melt into our lives and guide us long after he was gone, on the day the old apartment was made to look new, and the walls were freshly painted, and the rabbi was just a stranger to us.

This article originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine and is reprinted with their permission.

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