Guest Posting By Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin - The Pair of Tefillin
I was always very curious about my roots and was the family genealogist. It wasn’t until I became frum that information about the past had any real bearing on my present and future.
By the end of my freshman year of college, I was already shomer Shabbos and shomer kashrus. The one thing I was missing was a pair of tefillin. I never received a pair of tefillin at my Bar Mitzvah and probably had put them on only once by a Lubavitcher at some type of Jewish festival. I was ready to spend my summer learning at a camp in Pennsylvania and knew that I needed to buy tefillin. I asked the Rabbi who gave a weekly shiur at my university if he could order me a pair and he asked me a question that would lead me down a most unusual path.
“How do you wrap your tefillin, in or out?”
I had no clue but I told him I would ask my grandfather who was in his 90’s and used to put on tefillin every day until he was in his mid-30’s. My grandfather showed me how to put on tefillin. Although our family was from Minsk, not the most Chasidish place, our minhag was to wrap “out” and not to make a shin on the hand. He said that his father taught him how to put on tefillin and told him that everybody does it the other way, and we do it this way. I told the rabbi my findings and he ordered me a pair of tefillin with a Sefard kesher. Although I was a little bothered by the lack of the shin, he said it wasn’t necessary. I began to get very curious. If Chasidim wrap out, does that mean we were Chasidim? Should I be davening Nusach Sefard? My grandfather was not able to help me on this one. His father came to America in the 1890’s and a lot of people adopted generic minhagim of the shul they attended. Besides tefillin, the only unique mesorah he passed down were nigunim for the Pesach Seder, nigunim which were not standard fare.
At this point, I was determined to begin a quest to find out if there were any Chasidim in Minsk. I asked anyone who I thought would have some clue. I got a slew of responses: “Why do you care? Just do what everyone else does.” “All because you wrap out doesn’t mean your family davened Sefard.” “There were no Chasidim in Minsk.” The truth is that while many people may have changed their nusach hatefillah, 99.9% of Ashkenazim who wrap out would also have davened Sefard. And there were Chasidim in Minsk. After I looked in a Lubavitch minhagim sefer and saw the way they put on tefillin, I thought for a week that I might actually be Lubavitch. Anyway, while this search was going on and I was davening Ashkenaz, I happened to have connected with someone in my home town (another great hashgacha pratis story but not for now) who davened at a local Chasidisher shtiebel. Whenever I was home from school I would stay with this friend for Shabbos. We started learning Nesivos Shalom, and I knew I had found the path for my neshama. Chassidus spoke to me, especially this sefer. I would carry it with me wherever I went. (This was about twelve years ago, before it became so popular).
One year and a half later, Hashem had some interesting plans in store for me. I was selected among a group of students to spend my junior year in Oxford University in England. I didn’t actually want to go but I applied anyway to humor my parents. I was accepted and knew there was some reason why I had to go there. I continued asking people in England about Minsk until I met a Chasidisher Rov in London who put me in touch with a shliach from the Stoliner Rebbe who used to live in Minsk. He had returned to America and was living in Monsey. I was excited. Perhaps he knew the history of Minsk. Maybe he even met someone with my last name. I called him on the phone and it turns out that his aunt’s mother’s maiden name was Slatkin and they were from Minsk. He said they were Koidenover Chasidim. What was Koidenov? I had never heard of it. I found a book in Oxford’s Oriental Institute Library called HaChassidus HaLitais (Lithuanian Chasidism) which had a map of the region and showed which Chasidim were in each town. Minsk hosted Koidenov and Slonim. I also made friends with a Slonimer Chasid in London who had also heard of Koidenov. Anyway, the Rabbi from Monsey told me to call him in a few weeks and he would try to find out more information from his aunt. I attempted to reach him and was unable. For some reason, I never bothered calling him again, yet I was still quite curious. I finished my year at Oxford and returned to the U.S. for my senior year in college. About a year later, we hosted a Shabbaton at the university with a Rosh Yeshiva and two bochurim from Monsey. One of the bochurim used to attend our university. I asked him if he knew this Rabbi in Monsey and said that his father was their Rebbi in yeshiva. A month later, I went to Monsey for spring break to learn and to meet their Rebbi. The Rebbi gave me his sister-in-law’s phone number and I called her. I explained that my great grandfather was named Chaim Noach and he lived in Baltimore….. “Uncle Chaim from Baltimore!,” she exclaimed. At that moment I knew. Her grandfather, “Zeide Yosef”, was Uncle Joe. My grandfather had told me about Uncle Joe and we knew he had five children but we had completely lost contact with his family. I started singing the Pesach nigunim, and, of course, they were the same. My long-lost cousin was the wife of a prominent Rosh Yeshiva of a Chasidishe yeshiva in New York. She told me that the Slatkins were Koidenover Chasidim and that her grandmother, my great great grandmother used to bake the yud beis challos for the Koidenover Rebbe. I couldn’t believe it. I thought maybe I would track down information linking us to a particular Chassidus but to find frum cousins was beyond my imagination. Although I had wanted to daven nusach Sefard for awhile, I told myself that if I ever found out my minhagim, then I would switch. I didn’t want to do something generic if I had the option of following in the path of my family. I spoke to my cousins right before Purim and I did not wind up meeting them until after Pesach. In the interim, I started davening nusach Sefard on Shabbos haGadol. I was excited to learn more about Koidenov and I was able to have seforim transferred to the university library from Yeshiva University. As I graduated, I was looking forward to going to Eretz Yisroel to yeshiva in Elul. I would finally have the opportunity to meet the Koidenover Rebbe.
On my first off Shabbos from yeshiva, I went to join my cousins in Bnei Brak. Erev Shabbos, my cousin took me to meet the Rebbe. He opened the door and welcomed me in. I told him about my family and how my great-grandfather was a Koidenover chasid and he exclaimed “v’dor har’vii yashuvu ad hena,” and the fourth generation will return here (Bereishis 15:16). I had come home and received a royal welcome. The Rebbe invited me to daven at his bais medrash Shabbos morning and share the seudah with his family. I told him about my journey and started learning about the minhagim. I even got to see the Koidenover siddur, which is what all of the Lithuanian Chassidim used to use (Stolin and Slonim) before they made their own siddurim. One of the most astonishing realizations for me was that Koidenov came from Karlin/Stolin and Lechovitch and that Slonim actually came from Lechovitch and Koidenov. The derech I was so drawn to in the Nesivos Shalom, the one that brought me towards chassidus, was actually the path of my zeides. I was finally home.
I became a ben bais by the Rebbe, spending many Shabbosim and Yomim tovim. He was m’sader kiddushin at my wedding and recently performed the upsherin for my son. It has been an amazing experience and I know that it is only beginning. As the Rebbe is rebuilding what was once a giant Chassidus in White Russia and Lithuania, many of us old Koidenovers have come out of the woodwork in America. It is a zchus for us to help revive what was so much a part of our family’s lives.
While I have heard plenty of Rabbis “specializing” in baalei teshuva, encouraging people to follow the generic yeshiva minhag, I feel very strongly about reconnecting with the past. Many baalei teshuva were able to become frum precisely because they didn’t follow the masses. They were able to see what they thought was truth and to choose that despite the popular trend. Therefore, imposing one brand of yiddishkeit on such a person is often a recipe for disaster. Continuing in the ways of my ancestors, helps ground me. It gives me a path, not just some random nusach or minhagim from Artscroll. I guess conformity doesn’t run in my blood if my family became Chasidim in the hotbed of hisnagdus. Minhagim allows for some individuality within the framework of halacha, in a society which is very much about conforming. Finally, it helps give me a sense that I am not just coming out of nowhere, but that I am merely returning to something we took a break from for a few generations. There is a sense of continuity. It helps that I was drawn to Chassidus. I am not suggesting that people must research and follow their family’s minhagim. What I am saying is that it should be an option or even a suggestion for those who are starting out, instead of the common discouraging attitude. Imagine if the Rabbi from college did not asked me how we wrapped tefillin. He could have ordered me a regular pair with an Ashkenaz kesher, yet his one question sparked a search which eventually ignited my neshama. Everyone must find their own path that works for them. While people can get carried away with minhagim and forget about the essentials, I believe that minhagim establish the rhythm of our lives and are a precious heritage to bequeath to our children. I have many more thoughts about this in light of posts by A Simple Jew and Dixie Yid, but that could be for another time.