On Friday, November 24, a group of loving and loyal friends and relatives gathered for the Hakamat Hamatzeva, the unveiling of the headstone, for Karen’s father, Rabbi Philip Harris Singer ZT’L.
Karen and I would like to thank all those who took the time to honor Rabbi Singer’s memory by attending the service. We especially want to thank Lance Fogel, long-time Seraphic Secret reader and commenter who has just made aliyah. At a moment’s notice, Lance dropped everything, got into a car and came to the cemetery. Lance is a good friend to the Avrech/Singer famillies and we greatly appreciate his kindness and generosity.
We also wish to thank Seraphic friend David Bogner AKA Treppenwitz, who took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to make sure that we had a minyan. David and I have had a cyber-relationship for over three years. Finally, we met face to face and as soon as we did, well, it was as if we were picking up the thread of an old and familiar conversation. David’s wife, the lovely and talented Zehava, made Karen and I feel right at home in her home, and Zehava’s cookies were–oh my goodness–magic!
I’m embarrassed to admit that after announcing the details of the unveiling in Seraphic Secret so often, we discovered that we had been given the wrong information, the row and aisle numbers and been mistakenly transposed, hence David Bogner was fated to stand at the wrong row for far too long, and missed my remarks.
Anyway, I promised David that I would publish my speech.
We thank all those who have taken the time out of their busy schedules to attend this service. We also would like to acknowledge the absence of my mother-in-law Celia Singer, who, unfortunately, was unable to make the trip for this unveiling. Of course, my mother-in-law desperately wanted to be here, but circumstances prevented it. The same goes for Rena and Naomi. Their absences are deeply felt. These members of the family may not be here physically, but we know that they are with us in spirit.
A unique perspective has allowed me the priviledge of bearing witness to one portion of the life–public and private–of Rav Pinchas Tzvi Singer, ZT’L. For close to 30-years I have been Rav Singer’s son-in-law.
When you enter a family you cannot help but notice the family dynamics that are at work for, naturally, they are achingly familiar, yet at the same time, there is something almost other-worldly about how any other family leads their lives.
Let me step back a moment and tell you that Rav Singer was a presence in my life even before I married Karen. My father, Rabbi Abraham Avrech was the Rav in the JCH in Bensonhurst, just a few blocks away from Rabbi Singer’s Avenue O’ Jewish Center. Every once in a while my father, half-kidding, would tell me to go daven by Rav Singer’s shul, that I should listen to his Shabbos speeches, that Rabbi Singer was “probably the best speaker in America.”
My father also said, and this is a quote: “Rabbi Singer might be the most talented orthodox Rav we have. His talent and learning are simply vast.”
I should also mention that before Karen and I were married my father met with The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and he referred to Rav Singer as, “A Bakee.” One who is fluent in Torah and Talmud. From The Rav, this is the highest compliment.
And so, Rav Singer always stood out in my mind as a figure much larger than life. His reputation for Torah knowledge and learning surpassed his considerable pulpit speaking abilities.
Confession: I actually did attend the Avenue O’ Jewish Center when I was a student in Yeshiva Flatbush. I was in the 8th grade; I had had a crush on Karen since she transferred from Yeshiva Ohel Moshe in 4th grade, and one Shabbos I davened at the Avenue O’, not I have to admit to hear Rabbi Singer speak, but in the hopes of getting a glimpse of Karen in shul.
In any case, I remember that Rabbi Singer did speak powerfully and after shul he said “Good Shabbos” to me and sent regards to my father once he learned my last name. I remember being incredibly intimidated by Rav Singer’s deep bass voice. He used it like an instrument, like an oboe. Rabbi Singer had real presence; he projected authority and I was terrified of his overpowering personality and never went back to his shul–not until my auf-ruf.
This week’s Parsha Toldot, which is translated as Generations, is a rich and appropriate chapter to mark the unveiling of Rav Singer’s headstone, for what is the story of generations but the story of educating one generation of Jews in Torah after another. In this my father-in-law excelled, and in this he dedicated his life.
The parsha, the chapter, tells us of Yaakov and Eisav, siblings from the same parents–yet with utterly different values.
Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch comments that Yitzchak made sure to give the exact same education to Yaakov and Eisav but Yitzchak was also wise enough to understand that the brothers were of radically different temperments, and so he allowed room for the education of each child to be customized for their natural talents and inclinations.
One of the first qualities I noticed when I entered the Singer family was Rav Singer’s exquisite sensitivity to the individual nature of all his children. He made sure that Rena, Karen, Naomi and David all received superb educations–but there were variations for each unique personality. No child was locked into a predetermined mold.
The Singer Shabbos table was a unique educational experience. Rav Singer would always pose a seemingly simple question about a Shabbos custom: why do we perform this particular custom? And all the children would pelt their father with answers.
“Nope, nope, nope,” my father-in-law more often than not would reply, and then proceed to give the correct answer. But when one of the children did manage to come up with the correct answer, my father-in-law would tilt forward–like a prize fighter, and cry out in joy: “Ah-hah!” And everyone would smile like 49ers who have just struck a rich golden vein.
From the private to the public my father-in-law carried his zeal for educating toldot, generations.
Countless times I have met adults, middle-aged Jews, who have told me that they are connected to Judiasm, only because of the Talmud Torah they attended in the Avenue O’ Jewish Center; that their connection to Yiddishkeit rests on the powerful personality of Rabbi Singer, a forceful man who made such a deep impression on them when they were children.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Rav Singer worked tirelessly for Yeshiva Shalaavim here in Israel, and helped build it into one of the preeminent Torah institutions in the world.
My father-in-law’s love of Eretz Yisroel was unsurpassed, and though he was never able to make aliyah Rav Singer did everything possible to support the Land and the people. And let it be noted that my brother-in-law David and his lovely wife Elana have imbibed and fulfilled their parent’s ahavat Eretz Yisroel and made aliyah–in fact, so great is their love for The Land that they made aliyah twice!
During shiva, a Rav who served on the Vaad Harabanim of Flatbush with Rav Singer, told me an amazing story. As President of The Vaad, my father-in-law proposed and insisted on one essential platform for that organization in regards to Israel, and it was this: The Vaad of Flatbush should never, ever publicly criticize the State of Israel. No matter what the political situation, no matter what political party was in power, no matter what political hot-cake was on the front-burner, my father-in-law insisted that the Vaad maintain a moratorium on criticism.
Think about this.
This is a unique
and almost unprescendented stance for orthodox Rabbis: to maintain silence. For it is far easier to stand up and criticize, to claim to know better, to claim to have more knowldge, to be purere, holier. But because of Rav Singer’s force of personality, because of his absolute love of Eretz Yisroel, because, in principle, he was correct, and he knew it, the Vaad went along with his proposal.
On a personal note, I miss my father-in-law’s force of personality. I miss his absolute surety, his mastery of Torah and Talmud were, for me, a harbor of safety, a harbor of jewels and gold in a world that is more than ever preoccupied with trivial matters.
Every day I reach for the phone to call Karen’s father in order to pose an halachic question, only to realize as I am punching in the numbers that he is no longer of this world.
Every day I recall his mastery of the Yiddish language, to hear him give a Gemara shiur in Yiddish was enough to bring tears to this non-Yiddish speaker’s eyes. And of course there was his sense of humor, not just funny, but falling-down-on-the-floor-and-rolling-over-funny.
In the parsha, there are several sentences that deal with the digging and naming of wells.
26/18 “And Isaac dug anew the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father and the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he called them by the same names that his father had called them.”
It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the wells as containiing the depths of the Torah. Time after time, in an endless and brutal cycle, Philistines come to stop-up the wells of our Torah, to bury them under layers of sand, to go as far as to rename our Torah–but men like Yitzchak, men like Rav Pinchas Tzvi Singer ZT’L stand fast, dig up the well, let flow the sweet waters of Torah, and give back the original names.
Yes, this is the picture I hold in my heart and mind of my revered father-in-law: a man of perfect faith, a man of perfect conviction, a man who, even now, lovingly toils at the depths of Torah, in the heavenly Beis Midrash.