Larry Goldberg hiked through the journey of life, stopping here and there, picking up experiences and lessons as he went. Only now, looking back, can he finally appreciate the foundations that Hashem put in place years ago to prepare him for his eventual destinations.
We began profiling Larry’s life in our previous column. The “official” start of his journey began while he was a PhD student in UC-Berkeley, but many of the pieces were already in place years earlier.
The Torah lists each of the 42 places where the Jews camped in the desert. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim), the Torah does so to amplify the nissim that occurred in each place. At the end of the forty-year journey, when we looked back, we were able to appreciate the constant miracles Hashem had performed.
Similarly, in our own lives, we need to be cognizant of the many miracles and the Hand of Hashem present at each step. Hashem is the master orchestrator, carefully planning each note and every stage.
Larry grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His grandparents had come from Russia and the German-speaking regions of Slovakia and had been observant there, though they threw off their observances after emigrating to America. However, his childhood was filled with his grandparents’ reminiscences of the “old country” and the traditions they had left behind.
Larry’s grandmother penned a poem in German in his elementary school autograph book. When Larry looked at it curiously (he did not speak or understand the language), his grandmother said to him, “One day you’ll need to know German.”
Following college, Larry moved to Boston to begin his career. It was the early 1970s, and he was always looking for challenges and new experiences to broaden his horizons. He decided to take a night school course to learn to speak German, in part because of his family’s heritage. He took his studies very diligently and soon became fluent.
Fast forward to 1977. Larry had already begun to become observant while in graduate school. When his PhD research flopped that year, Larry decided to pack his bags and headed to Eretz Yisrael to work on a kibbutz. On the way, he drove across America from California to his parents’ home in Brooklyn.
He spent Shabbos with his parents, the first time he had been home since making the decision to become Shomer Shabbos. His observances were still relatively new to him, but for his parents, they appeared to be from a different universe.
A female friend from college, who was Jewish but not observant, heard that Larry was in town. She decided to visit him on Shabbos and called his parents’ home to speak to him.
His mother picked up the phone and told her, “No, he won’t take the phone. He’s ‘Shomer Shabbos’ now. He’s crazy.”
Undaunted, the friend drove over to visit Larry. She began pummeling him with questions about his new observances in front of his parents, much to his chagrin, as he had not yet disclosed to them the full gamut of the changes in his life.
She said in front of my parents, “So you’re Shomer Shabbos. I supposed you don’t eat shellfish.”
(As the questions continued, the look on the elder Goldbergs faces turned from tepid to perturbed.)
“You don’t drive on Shabbos.”
“And I bet you walked up the 18 floors to get to your parents’ apartment.”
“My mother asked me, ‘Why didn’t you arrive huffing and puffing?’
“‘Well, I walked up 17 flights, and waited to catch my breath, so that you wouldn’t realize.’”
Following that Shabbos, Larry boarded a flight to Paris and continued on to Tel Aviv later that week. He spent his first night with a friend at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach. The following morning his plans changed, and he decided to stay and learn and forgo the kibbutz.
He was seated in the yeshiva with students from South Africa (his first experience with people from that part of the world), and he quickly fit into their group.
He also loved the learning and the atmosphere of the yeshiva. However, something nagged at him. The yeshiva set up students with local families for Shabbos meals. Most of the families were young couples barely older than the students. Everyone seemed happy and settled in his lifestyle, but every family seemed to share the same story – they were all raised non-observant but returned to observance in college and were now sitting and learning full-time in Yerushalayim.
One Shabbos he was sent to the Adler family, a middle-aged family. They were older than the other families he had been to and had been observant all their lives. Mr. Adler was a successful businessman, which gave Larry a positive role model of balancing Torah study and working.
After everyone was seated, Mr. Adler’s elderly mother came out from a back room. She blessed the children, and then Mr. Adler introduced her to their guests.
“This is Mrs. Adler, famous for her chopped liver.”
The name immediately clicked in Larry’s mind. In his childhood, he had grown up on a steady Jewish diet of chopped liver, chicken soup and herring, much of which was supplied by Mrs. Adler’s Foods.
“This struck a chord with me. It’s not just young marrieds learning full time. This is real, a true mesorah passed down over generations. I saw that there was something more to it. This tipped the scales for me. From then on I took things more seriously.”
Following that Shabbos, Larry dove into his learning and into his observances. The rabbi of the beginners’ program eventually made a shidduch for him with a young woman, Phyllis Lowenstein, who had lived down the street from him. She was a frum-from-birth Yekke from South Africa.
Not only did Phyllis’ family maintain their Yekke minhagim, they continued to speak German at home. Larry finally understood his grandmother’s blessing, and his own deep-seated interest in learning the language. After their marriage, Larry and Phyllis decided to speak both English and German between themselves and also some with their future children.
Larry had always been drawn to the meticulous, precise nature of Yekkes, and marrying into an established Yekke family was like hands-on training in that world.
After two years in Eretz Yisrael, the Goldbergs moved to South Africa, where they joined the Johannesburg Yekke community. With its own shul following the Yekke nusach, and dedicated communal institutions, the community proved to be the ideal place for the couple to build on their glorious shared heritage.
That move was the clear culmination of numerous steps in Larry’s life, bringing him first west to California, and then east and then south to find his path and his future.
Early on in Larry’s journey, his parents asked him a question that represented their impression of his religious growth. He responded with a poignant statement about the driving force of his journey.
“My parents, being good Americans, asked me the classic question, ‘Does it make you happy?’
“I said, ‘No, I’m not doing because it makes me happy. I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do.’
“To make me happy – I might as well be a Hare Krishna or a drug addict. No, I’m doing it because it’s right.”
That has been the guiding light in Larry’s life – pursuing a path of clear truth and correctness. Once he committed himself to this path, he came to realize that Hashem had been gently calling to him through his journey, arranging the pieces at just the right times to bring him home.