Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The 10th of Kislev is the yahrzeit of two brothers-in-law, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein (1866-1934) and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer (1870-1953).

Rav Moshe Mordechai was born in Bakst where his father was the rabbi. He studied under his father as well as in Volozhin. Rav Isser Zalman studied in Mir, his hometown, and then went to Volozhin when he was 14. Rav Shraga Feivel Frank, a wealthy Torah scholar who passed away young, had asked his wife to find a suitable young scholar for their daughter. She went to Volozhin and spoke with the Netziv. The Netziv was unable to choose between Rav Moshe Mordechai and Rav Isser Zalman as who should be the son-in-law. She asked her brother-in-law to choose, but after speaking with both of them he couldn’t decide either. So, she went with her brother-in-law and the two prospective sons-in-law to Kovno to ask Reb Yitzchok Elchonon who to choose. With Reb Yitzchok Elchonon also unable to say who was more suitable, he finally asked her if she had another daughter. When she answered in the affirmative the dilemma was solved, and Chaya Menucha married Rav Moshe Mordechai and Baila Hinda married Rav Isser Zalman.


In Volozhin, Rav Moshe Mordechai developed a relationship with Rav Kook, and accepted the opinions of the GR”A and Netziv that action should be taken to build Eretz Yisrael. He joined a secret Zionist organization called Nes Tziona. Rav Isser Zalman joined as well. Rav Moshe Mordechai traveled to Palestine to purchase land shortly after his marriage, but thirty years would pass before he would move there.

After his engagement, Rav Isser Zalman went to learn in Radin. He subsequently went to Slabodka and was appointed rosh yeshiva along with Rav Moshe Mordechai when he was 24. A few years later the Ridvaz, the rav of Slutsk, opened a branch of Slabodka and Rav Isser Zalman went there to be rosh yeshiva. In 1903 when the Ridvaz moved to Chicago Rav Isser Zalman became rav of the city as well.

In Slabodka, besides being responsible for delivering lectures, Rav Moshe Mordechai also had fiscal responsibility for the yeshiva. During WWI the yeshiva wandered to a number of different locations before returning to Slabodka in 1919. In 1924 he decided to move the yeshiva to Eretz Yisrael. With the Communist takeover of Slutsk, life became very difficult for Rav Isser Zalman and in 1923 he moved the yeshiva to Kletzk where he served as rosh yeshiva along with his son-in-law, Rav Aharon Kotler. In 1925 he was invited to become rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Yerushalayim. He remained in that position for the remainder of his life.

In order to avoid politics, Rav Moshe Mordechai opened his yeshiva in Chevron. At the time the yeshiva opened he was in America, on a fund-raising trip along with Rav Kook and the Kovno rav. He then spent about a year in Chevron before returning to Slabodka. He was back in Chevron during the massacre. Although his immediate family was safe, his nephew, who had come there from Chicago, was among those killed. He was distraught afterwards and unable to run the yeshiva. His son-in-law, Rav Chatzkel Sarna took over the leadership.

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The 6th of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Dovid Yosef Gruen (1886-1973). Born in Poland, he was educated in a Jewish school founded by his father who was an ardent Zionist. It was a cheder, but a modern one that taught in Hebrew. His formal schooling ended after his bar mitzvah, but he and some friends formed a club to promote the study of Hebrew and the Land of Israel. In 1904 he moved to Warsaw hoping to attend school there, but he couldn’t meet the entry qualifications, so he became a Hebrew teacher at a local cheder.

In 1906 he moved to Palestine and worked as an agricultural laborer. Shortly thereafter he became active in the Jewish labor movement, quickly rising to positions of leadership in several organizations. In 1910 he started to write for the newspaper of Poalei Zion and adopted the Hebraicized name of Ben Gurion. In 1911 he decided to relocate to Istanbul to study law in order to understand how to better function within the strictures of the Ottoman Empire. First, he spent time in Salonika to learn Arabic. He also attended the 11th World Zionist Congress and became a leading figure in Poalei Zion.

During WWI, as the Ottoman Empire fought on, he traveled to America to raise a Jewish army to support the Turks. The efforts proved futile, but he did meet his wife there. Returning to Palestine after the war he became the head of the Histadrut, the Israeli labor organization, and by the mid-30s was also the head of the Jewish Agency. After the British White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, he tried to advocate a middle of the road approach to deal with the British. On a trip to Paris in 1946 to negotiate a way out of the deadlock in Mandatory Palestine, he befriended Ho Chi Min who offered him refuge in Vietnam. Ben Gurion assured him that he would succeed in creating a Jewish state.

After declaring independence with the British withdrawal from Palestine, and successfully leading the efforts to rebuff Arab attacks, he was named Prime Minister of the new state of Israel, a position he held for 13 of the first 15 years of its existence.

Although he considered himself to be an atheist, and was proud of his many desecrations of Torah, he realized that in order to win the support of the Orthodox it would be necessary to agree to keep the status quo on certain public religious issues. Towards the end of his life, he admitted that he believed that there was a Creator.

He retired from the Knesset in 1970 and moved to a kibbutz to write his memoirs.


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Chayim Lando is the practice manager at Maryland Neuro Rehab & Wellness Center and has been a Jewish educator for over three decades. His favorite activities are studying and teaching Talmud and spending time with his grandchildren.