Some time ago, I was at a shiur in which the speaker asked, “Why is Pirkei Avos called Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Fathers) and not Pirkei Tzadikim or Pirkei Chasidim (Ethics of the Righteous)?” I honestly do not remember the answer. What I do remember is thinking how lucky I was that in all the years I knew my father, Rabbi Mendel Kaufman zt”l, it never once occurred to me to ask that question.
For me, for my family, Pirkei Avos really was Ethics of Fathers. As the very first mishnah in Pirkei Avos says, he passed along the mesorah he received from his father, he brought up many students, and as the next mishnah says, his was a life of g’milas chasadim (kind deeds).
Sadly, there was one mitzvah he could not be m’kayeim, and that was Kibud Av (honoring one’s father). He never really knew his father, Rabbi Uri Kaufman zt”l, a prominent rav on the Lower East Side. Rav Uri passed away from cancer in 1938 at the age of 44, when my father was only four years old, leaving my grandmother with a family to raise in the Depression. It forced her to move to a tenement in which my father slept on a cot in the kitchen. My uncle told me that as a little boy, my father would run into Rav Uri’s shul looking for his father. He never found him.
It might have driven a lesser man to despair. My father never felt sorry for himself. The opposite. He always found a way to make people laugh. He could have made a living as a comedy writer. But his career path was always clear. He descended from the Minchas Chinuch on his mother’s side and the Rama on his father’s. He was going to be a rav.
He learned in Torah Vodaas and then later in Tifereth Jerusalem under Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, from whom he received his s’michah. While there, he began writing a sefer, Perach Shoshanah, a commentary on the Pri M’gadim, which can be found on the shelves of yeshivos all over the world. And he is cited as a source by Rav Moshe in at least two places in Dibros Moshe.
When my father became engaged, he wrote down a guest list for the wedding. We had it framed, because it reads as a Who’s Who of the Torah world of the early 1960s. In addition to Rav Moshe – who later acted as my sandak – my father jotted down the name of his chavrusa, the great Rav Nissan Alpert zt”l, as well as his friend “Reuven” – Rav Reuven Feinstein shlita, before he received s’michah.
My father first served as a rav in his father’s shul on the Lower East Side. He then moved to Connecticut where he became the rabbi of the Young Israel of New Haven. It was a small shul, serving a small community, but a big man can make a small job important. One famous congregant was a young Attorney General named Joe Lieberman. I met Senator Lieberman once at an AIPAC Policy Conference and he told me that my father was the funniest rabbi he ever met. Though my father left the post in 1974, people called from New Haven decades later, asking that he officiate at weddings or funerals.
In Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma says that one should only live in a mekom Torah. My father took that advice and moved our family to New York in 1974 to become the rabbi of the Young Israel of Briarwood. This was a very different k’hilah from the one he knew in New Haven, one made up primarily of Holocaust survivors. I remember once seeing my father read from a book describing how a group of people in Auschwitz fashioned a menorah on Chanukah out of scrap metal they found in the camp. A woman who rarely spoke cried out, “I remember it! I was there when we did it!”
Years ago, the main event of the National Council of Young Israel was its annual retreat. The highlight of the event was the Pirkei Avos shiur given by the legendary Rav Irving Bunim zt”l. After Rav Bunim passed away, the National Council had to select someone to step into those big shoes and give the shiur in his place. The rav they selected out of all the rabbanim in the National Council was Rabbi Mendel Kaufman.
My father also taught for many years in the girls’ high school of Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Given the size of his salary and the cost of traveling from Queens all the way to Washington Heights, he was practically a volunteer. The same could be said for all the tutoring he gave for free to members of the Bukharian community who later moved into the community. My father made sure they all got into yeshivos, and then agreed to help raise the money needed to pay their tuition. When I mentioned this at my father’s l’vayah, I saw the Bukharians standing in the back nodding their heads yes. They all remembered.
When my father became a rav in the early 1950s, I doubt there were more than 50,000 frum Jews in the whole world. In Israel in 1951, the first year they had the draft deferment, only 400 took advantage of it. How many yeshivah bachurim were there in America? Probably not much more than that. Not since Rav Yochanan ben Zakai cried, “Give me Yavneh and her wise men!” did klal Yisrael come so close to the end. The most recent number of yeshivah boys in Israel that I saw is 63,000. How did we go from 400 to 63,000? It didn’t happen by itself. It happened because after the War there was a tiny, elite group that was willing to sacrifice itself to ensure that the Holocaust would not be history’s verdict. This was our Greatest Generation. And this in the end was my father’s legacy.