On most Saturday Nights in the late sixties and seventies, from September until June, some two to three hundred people from all over New England, representing very different sectors of the Boston Jewish Community would gather in the cafeteria of the Maimonides School in Brookline in order to hear Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל’s weekly Humash shiur. Generally, people started filing in around 730 PM in order to make sure they get a good seat at one of the forward tables. By 8PM the room was packed and the heightened sense of expectation was tangible. Then, at precisely 815, the Rov would walk in briskly (no pun intended). The crowd would rise in tribute, while the Rov was seated and had his microphone affixed to his lapel. He opened a manilla envelope and extracted a sheaf of hand written papers (for some reason, I think they were written in blue pencil or ink). Then he and his audience would settle in as he held forth for two, three or sometimes four hours. No one really ever checked the time. We were riveted by the exalted, charismatic brilliance of our Master and Teacher. So exhilarating was the experience that a lot of us (we were still students) woould go out, despite the hour, to rehash and discuss the myriad points the Rov had raised in his lecture. This was no mean feat, especially in the early seventies, when the only Kosher restaurant that was open on מוצאי שבת was a pathetic Pizza place called Café Tel Aviv. [I guess I should add that the shiur served an important social service, as well.]
From the start, I was always struck by the contrast between the weekly scene at Maimonides and the Saturday Night action that took place in the rest of Boston’s student community. Saturday Night, as we all know, is party night. Yet here were hundreds of intelligent, largely academic, types who forwent the movie/party/date in order to sit at the feet of a seventy-year old rabbi. I used to wonder if anyone would ever believe it. (A lot of people I met did not.)
Jerusalem has been and continues to be blessed with many such hidden gems, of all sorts, that have never been listed in any tourist brochure or posted on some hotel bulletin board. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, though, I am referring specifically to gems of learning.
How many people who were frequent visitors to Yerushalayim in the sixties, seventies and eighties (or residents, for that matter) knew about Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach זצ"ל’s shi’ur for ‘baalebatim’? Can you imagine what it was to have a semi-private lesson with one of the greatest posqim of the century? [Actually, I can because the Rov’s Sunday morning shi’ur for ‘baalebatim’ was one of the best kept secrets in the community. It was also the best place to learn how to learn in the world. That’s why I so much regret not knowing about Reb Shlomo Zalman’s shi’ur when I lived in Jerusalem from 1983-1984 (not that I’m positive I would have had the zekhus of being allowed to attend.)]
This brings me to Thursday Nights with Rabbi Asher Zelig Weiss (universally referred to as ‘Reb Usher’). Reb Usher is a Chechanover Hassid, and a phenomenal Talmid Hakham and maggid shi’ur. His grasp of the full gamut of Rabbinic Literature (Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim, Aharonim, Posqim, ShuT, and everything else) is nothing less than stunning. The way he just sachets across the ocean of Torah in an hour is nothing less than intoxicating. He is always interesting, insightful and thought-provoking. His independence of thought is incredibly refreshing. [Though, I have to admit that for someone raised and bred on the Brisker derekh, I find that his method sometimes makes me uncomfortable.] No less interesting is the level of many of the participants. This shi’ur for ‘baalebatim’ draws rabbis, well known rashe yeshiva, the leading lights of Mishpat Ivri, a former Treasury Minister, professors, teachers as well as amkha.
For me, at least, the attraction is not confined to the intellectual content of the shi’ur (though that would certainly be sufficient). Though Reb Usher speaks in a first rate Hebrew, his intonation (and often his pronunciation) is haimish. He invokes and creates a modality of Eastern European spirituality that I sorely love and all too often miss. The atmosphere in the Chachanover Bes Medrash pulsates with sanctity for a full hour or so, every Thursday night.
All of this takes place, while most of the country goes about its business unaware of the drama unfolding in an obscure side street in Jerusalem.