The 30th of Cheshvan is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman (1908-2003). Born in Chicago, his parents scraped together every penny they had to hire a melamed to teach him. His blind teacher taught him Torah and Yiddish and then encouraged him to attend Bais Medrash L’Torah when it opened. He remained there until he received smicha in 1929, but continued learning afterwards, saying that he was the first kollel youngerman in America. The sad reality for the newly minted rabbis was that they were wondering who would be saying Kaddish over American Jewry.
In 1931 he married and embarked on a career in the rabbinate in Tulsa, Okla. He remained there for nine years and developed deep roots in the community. When he wanted to leave, an oil magnate in the area offered him stock in his oil company if he would stay. He refused, saying that in Tulsa he could only help 180 Jewish families, but in Ottawa, where he was heading, he could help 800. However, he remained connected to Tulsa long after he left. In the mid-70s, when his son Rav Chaim was struggling to find funding to open a kollel in Los Angeles, Rabbi Oscar contacted some of his former baalei batim in Tulsa, who provided the funds. I was a beneficiary of their generosity, as about a decade later, I joined that kollel for five years.
In Ottawa, where he was Chief Rabbi of the five Orthodox shuls, he made his rounds, davening someplace else every Shabbos, as well as supervising the local kashrus. During the war many German and Polish refugees were interred in a camp near Ottawa, so Rabbi Fasman started a yeshiva in which he was able to give many of them jobs so that they were free to leave the camp. Among those who attended were Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, Rav Elya Chazan, Rav Zelig Epstein and Rav Baruch Sorotzkin.
In 1946 he left Ottawa to take over the position of President at Bais Medrash L’Torah, his alma matter. He remained in that position for eighteen years, growing the yeshiva and overseeing its move to Skokie, Ill. He retired from the Skokie Yeshiva in 1964 and opened a shul in the Lincolnwood area where he remained until his retirement. In the late 90s he moved to Los Angeles where several of his children lived.
A fascinating part of his life, which I heard him speak about on a number of occasions, was a trip he took to Europe and Eretz Yisrael in 1934. His friend Rabbi Uri (Harry) Miller was going and invited him to come along. He was reluctant to leave his young wife and congregation, but she encouraged him as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His diary reveals some amazing encounters he had. Departing on the Cunard Line’s Berengaria, they met Herman Weingarten who had been a Jewish tax-collector in Alaska for a decade. On-board the two friends spent much time debating the challenges facing the American rabbinate and how to best solve them. They were upset at the presence of unqualified rabbis and discussed the need to add more spirituality into Jewish education so that the youth didn’t abandon Judaism.
After arriving in France and touring Paris they went to Germany. They met Rabbiner Horowitz of Frankfurt, who gave them some advice: “The rabbi must have independence, including a life job and no dependence upon balabatim. The mashgichim of the gemeinde are merely to remind and keep alive the laws of kashrus, but not to guard, for a hechsher is given only to one who can be implicitly trusted in the first place.” He felt that it was important that kosher food not be more expensive than treif. They heard a shiur from Dr. Joseph Breuer on Bava Basra, and visited the kevarim of the Pnei Yehoshua, Rav Nosson Adler and others. In Berlin they met with “Dr. Weinberg” head of Hildesheimer Rabbiner Seminar. He observed that the rise of Hitler had led to more Jewish education, as other educational institutions were closed to Jews, but not to more observance. He concluded that greater observance would not be the result of a threat from without but can only come from within.
In Slabodka they met with Rav Isaac Sher and were visited at their hotel by “Victor Miller (of Baltimore).” In Telshe they attended the wedding of Rav Chaim Telzer’s daughter. In a two-hour meeting with the Ragatchover Gaon, he told them about a teshuva he had just finished writing to someone in America. He told them that while it is incumbent upon a parent to teach their child secular studies so that he can have a profession, it is not a communal obligation that their schools teach secular subjects. The community is only responsible for Torah education. They had tea and cake with him and were intrigued by his appearance. They toured Vilna and met Rav Chaim Ozer, and were warned that not every store that claimed to be kosher was reliable. They saw the kloiz of the Vilna Gaon and his burial place as well as those of the Chayei Adam and the Ger Tzedek.
A student of the Mir who they met on a train told them that Rav Yeruchem Levovitz would tell the students that he isn’t upset with the fact that they aren’t frum, but because they are foolish and lack understanding. They met Rav Elchonan Wasserman in Baranovich and Rav Itche Meir Levin in Warsaw who told them that Orthodox Jewry was lacking in confidence. They also toured Cracow, where they saw the kevarim of the Rema, Bach and Tosefos Yom Tov, Prague, where the Maharal and Kli Yakar are buried, and Vienna. They arrived in Israel on the ship carrying the coffin of Chaim Nachman Bialik. The mashgiach on board wanted the Yiddish theater on the ship closed, not because it was the three weeks, but because of the presence of Baialik’s coffin. A delegation from Palestine, including David Ben-Gurion, joined them in Cyprus to accompany the coffin.
After attending Bialik’s funeral in Palestine, they began to tour the country. They were astounded at the high price of gas at $0.37/gallon.
They heard a number of shiurim from Rabbi Meir Berlin and had the opportunity to meet Rav Kook and Rav Isser Zalman. In Chevron they met Rav Chatzkel Sarna from where they went to Shaarei Tzeddek to meet Dr. Wallach.
On the way back they traveled through Egypt and saw the Pyramids and Sphinx and then on to France and the Louvre, and London where they toured the British Museum.