From the modest yeshivah he founded in 1967 and in the brotherhood that from there evolved, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld "revived the spirits of the lowly and the hearts of those contrite." These words from Isaiah appear on his tombstone and in that way I experienced him in life. As a tower of passion and sincerity, Rabbi Freifeld influenced countless students throughout the 70s and 80s, religious from birth and baalei teshuva alike. Under his leadership, Shor Yoshuv became a haven for idealistic young men who found in him their mentor, model, and cornerstone for living.
My father was among those initially attracted to their rebbe’s vibrant manner, and with my mother, toiled to develop the yeshivah into a community. For as long as I can remember Rabbi Freifeld was our master and Shor Yoshuv was our muse. There was never uncoupling the two. Our teacher’s scheme was not aimed at scholarship nor was it limited to scholars. His surprising coalition of styles met a startling combination of needs. We trusted in our master because he believed in everyone first. In our rebbe we found incentive. In his yeshivah we discovered our worth.
Long before “at risk” was cliche, Rabbi Freifeld won the affection of uninspired youth from ordinary, Orthodox homes with his smile, honesty, common sense, and concern. Never a pioneer of any movement, the New York-born son of immigrant parents attended first to others like him, capturing the attention of unresolved yeshivah students who had nowhere else to go. In his rebbe, my wary father discovered a figure he could trust; and in Shor Yoshuv, a faith he could esteem. If you are an Orthodox Jew in America, you conceivably have experienced effects of Rabbi Freifeld’s magnanimity. In Far Rockaway, Rabbi Freifeld made possible a generation of families living inspired, inventive lives. In the hearts of his talmidim and in the methods of modern educators, my rebbe’s original influence endures.
|With the author's father, Purim 1968|
Many were tended to in Shor Yoshuv by Reb Shloima – as he was reverently called in my home – but few, like myself, were with him from birth through young adulthood. When Shor Yoshuv flickers within me I am touched, in the words of Longfellow, by “a feeling of sadness and longing that is not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain.” Yomim Tovim affect me most, when torrents of memories wash over me. I am amazed at the depths of recollection that can be woken by a niggun, a cookie, or a herring. When my senses are tickled and I am pulled involuntarily into the past the environment is heartening and familiar. I am suddenly there.
He grasps the gloved hands of his small children and trudges unhurriedly through snow-dusted streets. Their cheeks sting from biting winds, their feet frozen in bulky cotton cocoons. The air smells cold. With each frigid blast he draws primary-colored scarves tightly around petite, chattering jaws. Their huffing releases tiny heat clouds that dissipate way too fast. Approaching 1526, he stomps on freshly-salted concrete and holds open the weighty, metal doors. The hallway is warm and wonderful.
|1526 Central Avenue, Purim 1989, ©Avie Cohen|
More than a place to daven or learn, Shor Yoshuv was where I came to know my own father. Inaccessible throughout the work week, on weekends my father was readily available and spent much of those hours involving me in his routines. In a way, Shor Yoshuv was more a shul than a yeshivah, more a space to nurture heritage than an institute to investigate belief. My teacher was partial to the rhythms of old-world Judaism and created a homey setting for us to engage ancestral faith. Tradition was our primary guide. The trivialities of Shor Yoshuv and of its founder are significant because they are inseparable from the essentials of my own father and mother. Like religion itself, Shor Yoshuv became important because it was important to my parents first.
My parents tell how I was the first of my generation to trudge Far Rockaway asphalt en route to yeshivah on Shabbos morning, when during my first year, I tottered from our diminutive quarters at 1256 Central Avenue to the “old” building at 1284. That necessary pleasure would become a mainstay of my youth. To the “new” building at 1526 from our Rose Street home, I would turn right onto Cornaga and again onto Neilson, left onto Dinsmore toward Brian Piccolo, right onto Bayport, past the mikveh and Central Manor, and one final left, past Rabbi Mashitz and a bodega, toward the weighty, metal doors. I could complete that march today with my eyes shut tight.
Like most urban addresses, my Shor Yoshuv was reachable by various means and conduits of transportation. There were many pathways home. My parents’ journey moved from Canarsie and Borough Park, through Shulamis High School and Yeshivah Chaim Berlin. Newly religious pilgrims hailed from more exotic locales. Some could not tell how they arrived. Like those seekers, my parents were captivated by Reb Shloima and his initiative. The cityscape provided an ideal setting for his project – hectic, accessible, magnificent. The Yiddishkeit pursued inside was, like the avenue outside, rushing with life.
From New Moon to New Year my Shor Yoshuv was as poignant as a hymn. At the initiation of each month the earnest and buoyant Yehi Ratzon implied new beginnings are solemn and promising – a theme exploited in sound throughout the Yamim Noraim. In my Shor Yoshuv, teshuva was an invigorating process. Reb Shmuel’s haunting Unesanneh Tokef was somehow optimistic. Reb Moshe Dov’s Kol Nidre was ethereal and light. When Reb Shloima spoke Lamnatzeach Livnei Korach I felt awe; when he sang “Hoshia Es Amecha” I heard hope. For me, it all came together in the post-tekia silence, when Reb Shmuel sweetly called Ashrei.
Succos was a fragrant time. For a while Shalom B. sold esrogim from my basement and perfumes of citron and flax lingered long thereafter. The air was dense with pine and bamboo, myrtle and palm. Impatient men could not complete their hoshanos circle. Reb Shloima’s succah smelled of smoked fish and good spirits. I recall Succos breakfasts as cheerful and unguarded. The aroma there was alluring – a departing scent of repentance with an incoming bouquet of joy.
|In the Succa, circa 1978|
Purim was different. Unlike Simchas Torah, we spent much of the winter holiday in transit. Reb Yehoshua’s theatrical Megillah rendition kicked it off, then were sequential rendezvous. From house to house I trekked and watched others drink. When older, I happily imbibed. Reb Naftali's table sagged with Purim paraphernalia. There was laughter, weeping, shouting, and lawn-sprawled slumber. The stagecoach years were grand. My parents brought me to pay respects at Château de Bunim. Toward dusk, I indulged at our family seudah and returned to yeshivah for a frenzy of amplified delight.
|With the author and his father on stagecoach, Purim 1984|
I do not recall studying on Shavuos but I know of some who did and that is fine. The bais medrash was a hubbub of men fighting slumber with words and caffeine, it was Styrofoam and countless tired eyes, Reb Naftali saying shiur, again. What did I do all night? I always intended to study but ended up downstairs, upstairs, on the tacky red cushions in the women’s section, or outside with the smokers. Once, I slept in the dorm. When will the skylight illuminate? Prayer was a blur and then there was cheesecake.
Though Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings were always teeming with people, attendance on Shabbos eve and afternoons was relatively scant. While some welcomed Shabbos earlier with other congregations or davened with Reb Shloima in his home, we rarely missed a minyan in yeshivah. Instead of taking part in Reb Shloima’s exclusive Shalosh Seudos, my father regularly attended Reb Naftali's afternoon shiur in the bais medrash. Alternating members would provide a modest bill of fare and the group would eat and sing together before studying. There was no tumult, just a circle of friends learning from each other. The simplicity soothed me. That too was Reb Shloima’s achievement.
Above all, my Shor Yoshuv was home. Every inch of 1526 Central Avenue is memorable and daydreams often bring me back there. When my mind wanders, I can feel my senses reaching out to caress every feature of that structure. In my Shor Yoshuv, kiddushim and seudahs are in the cavernous, third-floor dining room where the echoes of slamming doors, popping corks, and clanking bottles resound. Oh, that fantastic noise. My most enchanting experiences were at those aromatic, energetic happenings. There our hearts and flesh intoned a living G-d. Though the herring, egg kichel, kishke, pepper cookies, stuffed cabbage, fried chicken, Asti Spumante, Cold Duck, Stolichnaya, and Wild Turkey were sublime, those adventures were far more than gastronomic. I learned to behave like a Jew at those events. I learned not to eat during speeches and not to sit before adults. I learned the role of camaraderie and song and sensed a spectrum of Jewish emotion. I heard booming mussar, calming balladry, and sophisticated wit. I laughed and cried, danced on tables and slept beneath them. I felt connected at those occasions – to my friends, to Reb Shloima, to Heaven.
There was a time when our teacher’s grace drew us all together and “Veshuv Itchem” melted our hearts. There was a time when everyone went to my succah for cream puffs and pecan pie. There was a time when my Shor Yoshuv was forever.
How many times did I hear Reb Shloima beckon, “Reb Shmuel, zing ah niggun”? How many times did I hear “l’chaim”? How many times did I witness friends erupt in spontaneous dance? How many times have I heard my father tell of the early years on Channing Road, when he and the others would cling to Reb Shloima and be cradled, sobbing, in his lap?
|In the cavernous, third-floor dining room, 1990, ©Avie Cohen|
It was not supposed to be this way. In the fairy tale my life is not, I effortlessly provide my children what my parents eagerly provided me. Instead of hearing about it, my children experience Shor Yoshuv viscerally, with all its enthusiasm and energy. I am not tasked to be responsible, grown up. In the actual chronicle the hero tragically passes, his ethos taken to task by some. The community goes on in name and I relocate to foreign soil. My children are not projections of an idyllic vision, frolicking in multi-generational bliss. The plotline is more somber, more lonely. The reading is more challenging than I want.
Despite such discontents, Reb Shloima’s determination hides in my endeavors. An emerging generation burgeons in my offspring and talmidim whom I care for according to my rebbe’s point of view. I rear my family in proximity to a yeshivah from where relationships radiate familiar warmth and conventions provide us distinctiveness and reason. As a father and as a rebbi, I strive to extract relevant lessons from my upbringing and to convincingly imbue them in a dissimilar context. Continuity is the ideal and not perfection. I am emboldened by the mesorah I was willed. Counting birds from my mirpeset I trust the coming year will be better, my rebbe’s expectation nourishing my intents.
With hope, my early life has instilled in my family identity and character, providing aspirations on which to reflect. My prayer is that my daughters and sons feel belonging in a divisive society, conviction in a culture where anything goes. In a world of apathy they will know ambition. In a world of mayhem they will know meaning. The potency of longing has sustained many throughout exile. The power of legend has encouraged many throughout a night. Nostalgia links my children to my parents and teachers, to principles I cherish, to doctrines I hold dear. While others hesitate, my children are certain where they come from, confident of what their history suggests. A second-generation of affinity is much a part of our lives. Alongside disappointments, my satisfactions are not in doubt.
Many lessons from my Shor Yoshuv reverberate in me today. I learned that no such thing exists as a bad question and nothing is as courageous as a truth-seeking one. I learned that to engage the New World one need not disengage from the old one. I learned religious fervor is an art and tefilah is a lost art. I learned that quality sustains more than quantity. I learned how outside of the beis medrash there is wisdom but not kedushah. I learned that friendships are worth developing and holding on to. I learned that the world is chaotic though it was meant not to be. I learned that the true stature of man is inconceivable. I learned that righteous women can inspire less righteous men. I learned that integrity is the highest achievement. I learned a definition of “normal” increasingly rare in use. I learned that when a valiant monarchy falls all its defenders become that kingdom.
At the author's Bar Mitzva, 1984
In today’s distracted culture Reb Shloima’s deliberate intent would conceivably be lost. I cannot imagine my teacher with a smart device, or with a dumb one for that matter. Social media would undoubtedly earn his scorn. My teacher cherished innovation and creative ideas happen when you stop checking your phone. At the same time, reactionary bans might to him be equally distasteful, the pursuit of piety irreconcilable with fundamentalist creed. Reb Shloima was partial to elegance, and as a rule extremism is ugly. Reb Shloima was grateful of conversation, and by its nature zealotry is abrupt. My master dressed in black but thought in color. His palette was obliging, multi-hued.
To Reb Shloima, no inconsistency existed between bestowing and accepting guidance. My rebbe spoke often and emphatically of his role models, proposing by implication how fragile can be a life lived alone. Reb Shloima gave way to his master as a rose yields to moisture, demonstrating how without deference life will not bloom. Inspiration was something my teacher provided and sought, establishing how counsel can be precious and pleasing. Reb Shloima was a sympathetic rebbe because he was a sensitive talmid first, like in Yiddish how “to teach” is the same as “to learn.”
|Neos Deshe bungalow colony, circa 1980|
Alas, time has been unkind to the Shor Yoshuv of my musing. My adored building stands forsaken, her darling halls abandoned. Does she hear me singing still? Are her floorboards damp with my tears? “One more Kiddush” she pleads. “One more Simchas Torah” she sighs. “One more Yamim Noraim, one more Tiskabel, one more Hayom T’amtzeinu – please.” And the avenues. Do they miss my plodding feet? Are they lonesome for my march? And the cast. Too many have moved on, too many have aged without peace. And horror! I notice faults in the bedrock of my once sturdy haven. I see loud ones reticent, proud ones feeling shame. I perceive detachment where I used to know vigor. I sense disappointment and disinterest, soreness and regret. To where has the spirit drifted? Well mister, it vanished right into the air.
Before enrolling in Shor Yoshuv myself, I was a child during Reb Shloima’s reign. As much as I want for his charisma, I never truly knew him. Reb Shloima was more profound than a child could discern. I experienced him as a man of stature who stooped toward me and retained his height. I miss his insight, encouragement, wisdom, and humor. I miss his gait and his voice. I imagine his robust recital of the pasuk “Tuv taam vodaas lamdeini” and tremble. Too many years have passed without him. I wonder what he would think of my efforts today.
Reb Shloima was a humble poet, “whose songs gushed from his heart, as showers from the clouds of summer, or tears from the eyelids start.” He was my Longfellow and my rebbe and I miss him every day. But Shor Yoshuv too was my teacher. I grew as part of a tzibbur. I thrived as part of a klal. My childhood refuge is no longer and I am lonesome without her. The poet is indistinguishable from his verse. I miss them both terribly.