This week marks the shloshim commemorating the passing of one of our community’s leading scholars of the Jewish literary tradition, and one of the leading Jewish book dealers in New York, Rabbi Yecheskel Kaminsky, of blessed memory.
We are known as the people of the book, and Rabbi Kaminsky was among the leaders of that legacy — not a teacher, but a seller of high-quality Jewish books in a small store on Mott Avenue called KITOV, for over 35 years.
KITOV served our community in an era when such literary facilities were rare. All who came into the store — rabbis, teachers, and students — were served to perfection by his devotion and knowledge of the latest books, the sacred writ, as well as biographies and books on Jewish history.
In memory of Rabbi Kaminsky, I asked three distinguished rabbis and educators in our community to share their impressions of his contribution to our community.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Darchei Yeshiva writes, “Rabbi Kaminsky was not just a bookseller. He became personally involved with most of the customers and knew which sefarim would interest them most, and he delivered them personally to their homes.
“In order to sell sefarim properly, one should be a talmid chacham … and that he was. He loved learning the Torah. He may have spent more time learning than in the store.
“His wonderful wife, Chani, was always standing by his side, and, together they built a magnificent family; children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren who should live and be well.”
The next tribute was written by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky of South Shore, a longtime colleague of Rabbi Bender in the enhancement of Jewish education and religious observance in our community. He wrote the following tribute to his dear friend:
“Reb Chezkel was not just a lover of Jewish books, he was a lover of every volume of the people of the book.
“As a native of the Five Towns that was barren of any real Jewish bookstore, or sefarim gesheft in the yeshiva vernacular, Rabbi Kaminsky’s maverick establishment of a store whose main focus was not menorahs and Judaic baubles but rather geared to scholarly tomes that analyzed the complex Talmudic tractates was indeed quite a gamble.
“But as he lived the messages contained within those sacred volumes, his infectious personality enlivened the young yeshiva students who entered the old portals of the KITOV bookstore on Mott Avenue.
“As a yeshiva boy in the early 1970’s, I had to shlep into Brooklyn to obtain just about every essential sefer that contained insights into the Chumash and Talmud. It was not until Rav Chezkel opened his store was it then, here on Long Island, possible to buy a Ketzos HaChoshen, one of the most basic commentators on the Shulchan Aruch.
“But walking into that small, inconspicuous storefront at 1847 Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway was not only about finding the latest volumes to hit the Torah world market. It was about spending an evening with Reb Chezkel, simply shooting the breeze, discussing the latest on-goings in the vernacular of the yeshiva world. ‘Nu? So what are they learning in Philly? What about Long Beach? What did your Rosh Yeshiva say about the recent attack in Israel?’ And so on.
“Whether it was a good vort, a good kashya, or even a great story, every sefer was sold with a story. Esrogim and lulavim were not just laid out to be scanned like pairs of shoes, he would tell you the history of the orchard and its cultivator.
“Like the contents of the sefarim he sold, he always had a great story … and it is extremely sad to have read of his final chapter.”
Finally, Rav Yaakov Feitman of Cedarhurst’s famed Red Shul writes, “My first memories of Rabbi Yecheskel Kaminsky zt”l are from the time that I was a young principal attending and speaking at Torah Umesorah conventions.
“Rabbi Kaminsky was called the ‘sefarim guy,’ who set up thousands of sefarim for the many rebbeim and menahalim to peruse. He immediately drew my attention because I drew his.
“‘Shalom Aleichem,’ he bellowed. ‘What is your name? What do you do? What are you interested in and what can I do for you?’
“And he actually meant it. He was perhaps the first businessman I had ever met who did not seem in it for the money or the business. In fact, he undercut his profit by offering to loan me [and many others] sefarim to learn from. If I liked it, I could pay him later. If I didn’t, just return the sefer, no questions asked.
“But more importantly, he took my number, later called me, and none of the conversation was about sefarim sales. In fact, his first call to me, since I was a bachur, was to suggest a shidduch. That led to a long discussion about me, my background, and what I was looking for … I made a mental note that this was a person who was not judgmental at all. In fact, I suddenly realized, the conversation was totally about me, not him.
“As I shared with his sons at the shiva, he literally had no ego at all. He lived for his wonderful family, for others, for Hashem. His own needs, interests or proclivities took a back seat to all others. That is what I call a tzaddik and a true ba’al mussar.
“Many years later, when I visited his magical KITOV store, a name that embodied that man as much as the store itself, he would ask about my children, discuss their shidduch situations and always make practical suggestions. Sometimes, he was on the phone calling a potential mechutan before I could even think about the idea. That was Reb Yecheskel, an ish emes, an ish hama’aseh and an incredible ba’al middos.”
Rabbi Feitman concludes his heartfelt tribute:
“Some teach by speaking, some by writing. Rabbi Kaminsky zt”l taught by being. He will be sorely missed. I can only hope to try to emulate, to some small extent, his selflessness and his wonderful neshama. Yehi zichro baruch.”
To which we all join with a heartfelt Amen.