The Kosher Bookworm From Portsmouth Virginia to Telz The Legacy of Rabbi Mordechai Gifter


In 1916, in Portsmouth, Virginia, a little boy named Max was born.

In two years his family, the Gifters, moved to Baltimore and when little Max was old enough he was sent to receive a full public school education. What was to follow in Max’s, now Mordechai’s, life was the legacy of one of America’s first native born sages who was to help redefine the status of Jewish religious learning both here in the United States and the world.

Earlier this year a 400 page book was published, titled, “Rav Gifter: The Vision, Fire, and Impact of an American-born Gadol” [Mesorah, 2011] by Rabbi Yechiel Spero.

Within its pages are detailed the life and times, the teachings and communal achievements of Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, zt’’l, whose yahrtzeit was commemorated this past Wednesday, the 23rd of Teves.

From his humble beginnings, young Mordechai was to get his first real taste of Torah learning at Yeshiva College where he came under the influence of its rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Poleyeff, zt’’l. From this auspicious start evolved the development of a gadol hador whose legacy was to influence generations of American Jewish youth for the rest of the 20th century.

Rabbi Spero goes into great detail in describing Rabbi Gifter’s achievements with a comprehensive index and numerous pictures to further assist readers in their journey into Rabbi Gifter’s biography.

This week’s review will focus on those aspects of Rabbi Gifter’s life that impacted upon several South Shore personalities, family members and friends, who witnessed first hand the greatness of this Torah giant.

I will briefly begin with his son-in-law, the long time rabbi of the Agudath Israel of Long Island, Rabbi Yaakov Reisman. Rabbi Gifter came to Far Rockaway for Shabbos to participate in the installation of Rabbi Reisman as rabbi of his new shul. During that visit over three decades ago Rabbi Gifter spoke to the children at Yeshiva Toras Chaim of South Shore in Hewlett on a Sunday morning.

“Rabbi Gifter shared an experience that he had together with Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky when they learned in Telz in Europe before the war,” recounted Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, the current dean of the yeshiva and son of the founding dean, Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky.

‘ I used to eat on Shabbos with Rabbi Kamenetzky. I was served p’tcha. I was an American boy and I did not like p’tcha. I did not know what it was.’

The yeshiva boys listened intently for here was an adult, no less

a great rabbi, who admitted that he didn’t like a particular food. Rabbi Gifter then continued. ‘But I had to eat it. I did not want to embarrass my host.

They served it again next week, and I ate it again. And you know what, boys, I began liking it!’”

Rabbi Kamenetzky concluded with the following observation made by Rabbi Gifter.

“He told the children that once they started learning they will find that what they thought was difficult or even distasteful would soon be found to be delicious.”

According to Rabbi Kamenetzky, these words were to resonate with these boys for many years to come, a living memory to the greatness of a simple message by a great man.

The warmth, humility and respect that Rabbi Gifter demonstrated toward “amcha” was further illustrated below by Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, now of Cedarhurst, who served for over seventeen years as rabbi of the Young Israel of Cleveland and who came to know and work with Rabbi Gifter on numerous communal projects.

“A glimpse into greatness.”

“Rabbi Gifter is about to leave the house of mourning. The mourners are mostly not Telzers. Some are even antagonistic toward the yeshiva…. The rosh yeshiva begins to recite the time-honored words, indeed for most others just words. He says, ‘HaMakom yenachem eschem besoch’ – and his voice begins to break. ‘She’ar aveilei’… tears begin to flow. ‘Tzion viYerushalayim’….and he is sobbing uncontrollably. He leaves, I stay behind, and it is obvious that something important has happened. An attitude has changed. People have witnessed emes, truth. True emotion, true yearning, true sadness. Truth itself.

They may not yet be Telzers, but, they will never again be anti-Telzers.”

One name that comes up several times in this biography is that of Rabbi Gifter’s beloved grandson, Rabbi Eliezer Feuer.

As fate would have it, this grandson, who was so devoted to his zeide is now the distinguished rav at the Young Israel of Bayswater here on the South Shore and is a leading teacher of our tradition for a whole new generation of our youth.

I conclude this week’s essay with a heartfelt tribute written by Rabbi Feuer for this week’s yahrtzeit tribute to his beloved zeide of blessed memory:

“When I think of my grandfather, Rabbi Gifter, the words of the Ohr Hachaim come to mind. The Ohr Hachaim asks how is it possible for words which one individual speaks to make an impression on another when, after all, we are all so different ?

“It must be, says the Ohr Hachaim , that words that make an impression come from the heart. Although in body we may be different, in soul we are one. Indeed, words that are spoken from the heart enter into the hearts of others.

“Indeed, this is what our rabbis teach us: d’vorim ha’yotzim min ha’lev nichnosin el ha’lev. Rabbi Gifter was not just a fantastic orator, rather he spoke truth and always from the heart. Yes, he was a lion who was a guardian of the Torah and Judaism. However, he was both kind and gentle, always aware of the emotional needs of both his family and his students.

“For this we will remember our great zeide forever.”