Friday, January 11, 2019

Memories of Rabbi Yaakov Kalmanovitch (“Reb Yankel Melamed”)

Yahrtzeit: 9 Shevat
By Dovid Sears

Rabbi Yaakov Kalmanovitch, better known as “Reb Yankel Melamed,” zatzal, was a well-known Breslover Chassid in Yerushalayim who passed away during the 1990s at an advanced age. He earned his nickname because for much of his life he worked as a teacher (melamed) of young boys, especially at the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva. One of his pupils was my teacher, Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, zatzal, leader of the Breslov kehillah in Tsfat. In his old age, Reb Yankel would spend the months of Elul and Tishrei in the Kenig home, where he slept on a day-bed in the one room that served as dining room, living room and library. He was the Baal Shacharis in the Breslover kibbutz in nearby Meron on Rosh Hashanah for many years, and also led part of the Yom Kippur service in the Breslov shul on Rechov Yud-Alef in Tsfas. I was zokheh to meet him during that period. Reb Yankel was a “chassidisher yid” to his bones, with a crusty Yerushalayim personality, a razor-sharp sense of humor, and the yirah one saw on his face while he was davening was something I will never forget.  

He’aras ha-Ratzon
In 1990, I went to Uman for Rosh Hashanah (my third trip and second Rosh Hashanah there), and continued on to Tzefat for Yom Kippur. Among other things, I wanted to confer with Rav Elazar Kenig (hereafter “Reb Elazar”) in Tzefat about a crisis (which B”H fulfilled the saying, “Gam zeh ya’avor… This too shall pass”). I remember pacing the cobblestone streets of Tzefat in the orange lamplight with Reb Elazar and my friend Reb Shlomo Aharon Gottlieb (yibadel bein chaim li-chaim) for over an hour, discussing the problem from various angles. Reb Shlomo Aharon eventually departed, and Reb Elazar and I slowly made our way to his house on Rechov Chasam Sofer.

As we entered the dining room, I saw an elderly Chassid lying on a stained sheet on the day-bed beside the table. Reb Elazar greeted him warmly, calling him “Rebbe.” The old man responded in turn, somewhat mischievously calling Reb Elazar “Rebbe,” and with effort sat up and adjusted his clothing. I recognized him as Reb Elazar’s childhood teacher, Reb Yankel Melamed, who had led the Rosh Hashanah shacharis prayer in Meron the one year I had been present (1988). Reb Elazar helped him to the table, while Rebbetzin Kenig served the honored guest supper.

“Reb Yankel,” my teacher continued, “here is a Jew who just came from Uman, and he has a problem. I can’t do anything with him. Maybe you can make him bi-simchah!” With these words, Reb Elazar departed, leaving me alone with Reb Yankel Melamed.
“Reb Elazar is a groiser tzaddik (a great holy man)” Reb Yankel commented, preparing to eat his repast. Then he looked at me fixedly. “Obber zein rebbetzin is gohr gresser . . . But his wife is much greater!”

Deliberately, the elderly Chassid lifted a spoonful of what we Americans call “Israeli salad” to his lips, spilling half of it on his clothes, closed his deeply lined, bloodshot eyes, and fervently recited a brochah. Then he slowly placed the food in his mouth, chewed it and swallowed, as I watched in silence. The next few spoonfuls were consumed with equal deliberation and mindfulness, until at some point he took notice of me again. Perhaps just to make conversation, he commented, “The Rebbe says that when one eats he can experience a he’aras ha-ratzon (an awakening of the deepest inner will of the soul)…”
“I know,” I replied. “But I’m a plain person. What does the Rebbe mean by ‘he’aras ha-ratzon?’ “
Reb Yankel looked at me in undisguised contempt (at least, that’s how I interpreted it).

Again, he lifted a spoonful of Israeli salad to his lips, stopped for a moment, rolled his eyes heavenward, and suddenly emitted a deafening Breslever krechtz: “O-O-O-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y!!!!!!

So that was he’aras ha-ratzon!

I was surprised the plaster ceiling didn’t fall down.

I hastily thanked him, left the room, and hurried out of the house and down the dark alley into the street. As I entered the yellowish lamplight, I saw Reb Elazar waiting for me in the shadows of a nearby doorway.

“Reb Elazar, what did you do that to me for?” I exclaimed.

“What did Reb Yankel Melamed tell you?” he asked.

“He gave me a lesson in he’aras ha-ratzon!”

Reb Elazar couldn’t help chuckling. Then he became silent. So did I. In the distance, a baby was crying; otherwise the streets were still.

“Do you hear that baby crying?” Reb Elazar mused. “That’s how you have to cry to Hashem…

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