Photo Credit: Jewish Press

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Reb Zalman was not a talmid chacham who cut himself off from others. Indeed, he often demonstrated a special sensitivity to people, as the following stories illustrate.

When the patriarch of a certain family living in Albany passed away, the family felt it had no further need for the deceased’s Shas, Mishnah Torah, and Turim and insisted that Reb Zalman take these sefarim, despite his protests. A few days later Reb Zalman drove to the Lower East Side with the intention of selling the sefarim to Goldman’s Otzar HaSefarim bookstore. That way the volumes would be purchased by someone and put to good use.

As he exited his car he encountered Rav Rifael Reuven Grozovsky, an old friend from Europe. After the two men spent some time updating each other on their lives, Reb Zalman asked Rav Reuven what brought him to Goldman’s bookstore. Rav Reuven said was looking for a Shas or a Rambam or a Tur he could afford. Reb Zalman told Rav Reuven about the sefarim from the family in Albany and said he could think of no more fitting owner for them than Rav Reuven. He and Rav Reuven drove to Rav Reuven’s apartment, and the two of them carried the sefarim up the stairs. When Rav Reuven went to look for money to pay for the three sets of sefarim, Reb Zalman quickly left before he could be paid anything.

There was a shul in Albany that had remained strictly Orthodox since the middle of the nineteenth century despite attempts by some to move it into the Reform camp. Sometime around 1940 the shul announced that since teenagers generally had no money to donate to the shul, they would be given aliyahs only at their bar mitzvahs and not after. Reb Zalman protested to the officers of the congregation, telling them that young people were the future of the shul. Apparently the shul officials did not agree with him, and Reb Zalman began attending another shul.

When Reb Zalman sat shiva for his sister (who lived past the age of 100), a steady stream of talmidei chachamim came to be menachem avel. One day a well-known mechaneches came to express her condolences. However, she had trouble getting close enough to speak to him due to the large number of men present. Reb Zalman noticed this and had the men step aside so she could approach him. He treated her with special graciousness and related to her stories of gedolim he knew she would find especially meaningful.

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Zalman Rifael Levine worked full-time for the State of New York (overseeing the disbursement of checks received by state workers) for many years, finally retiring at age 84. However, his job was not the real focus of his life – limud haTorah was. He devoted large amounts of time and great effort to Torah study. He awoke each morning at 4:45 so that he could learn before going to work. At about 7 p.m., after returning from work and eating dinner, he would give a private shiur on the works of the Maharal. After that there followed the study of other sefarim.

Visitors came from all over to learn from him, to study with him, and to consult with him. One can find students he influenced living in Monsey, Monroe, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and many other places. In his later years, whenever he traveled to Monsey and Monroe he was welcomed not only as the Malach’s son but as a formidable and revered Torah scholar in his own right.

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Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He then taught as an adjunct at Stevens until 2014. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.