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Mr. Hirsch Katz

4 April 2023

My father, Yankel Katz, was born in Mogilev, Belarus, to a Lubavitcher family that moved to Chicago a few years later, in about 1905.

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He began working as a child laborer in a printing plant, and by the age of fifteen was the main provider for the Katz family since his father could not provide very well for them.

Although my grandfather parted ways with Chasidism, my father was dedicated to the community, and became an outstanding member of Congregation Anshei Lubavitch, an elegant synagogue that was one of four Lubavitcher shuls in Chicago at the time. He was also a friend of great rabbinic leaders, and as a young man in the 1920s, he would correspond and donate money to the great rabbis of Europe, like the Chafetz Chaim and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.

In 1929, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, visited Chicago and my father was fortunate enough to make his acquaintance. There, in the Lubavitcher shul, began a close and dear friendship. My father was smitten with the Rebbe’s charisma, his manner, and his friendship.

My father never talked about the charity he gave. We ourselves lived on a shoestring but, through his generous giving, my father was able to help buy 770 Eastern Parkway – the building that would become the movement’s headquarters – and to contribute to the founding of Kfar Chabad, the Chabad village in Israel. After he passed away, I opened up his desk and found a wad of checks from 1943, thousands of dollars sent in support of the wartime refugee community of Shanghai. He had never said a word to me about it.

I never met the Previous Rebbe, but in 1955, when I was ten years old, my father took me to 770 to see the Rebbe. He and my father got on very well. There was a time when he would call my father every week, after Shabbat, and sometimes he would call my father at his business. I would know it was the Rebbe because my father would immediately jump up from his seat, run to the hat rack to put on his hat, wash his hands, and then start talking. On occasion, I would answer the phone myself.

“Who is it?” I would ask.

“Rabbi Schneerson,” was the reply.

I would also sit with them when they were together in person. They would talk about all kinds of things; there were a lot of laughs too. Once my father complained to the Rebbe about one of my hobbies: “My son loves to collect stamps, but it’s taking him away from learning Torah.”

“I’ll have you know that collecting stamps is not so bad,” the Rebbe said. “As a matter of fact, I used to collect stamps.” He related that his parents were once in a bad situation, and they used the proceeds of selling his stamp collection to sustain themselves for a long time. “So I would not worry about your son collecting stamps.”

That quieted my father; he never bothered me again about collecting stamps.

The Rebbe would stop me in the hallway of 770 and ask how I am. When I was a little older, he saw me walking in the street, and he told his driver to pull over the car. “Remember what I told you previously,” he said to me. “You should speak publicly. It’s important that you speak publicly.” He must have thought that I had a talent for explaining things – I did study to be a rabbi – and I tried to fulfill what he said and I gave speeches.

Since I am a Kohen, he also urged me not to be lax about duchening, that is delivering the priestly blessing in the synagogue on holidays. And he would often ask my father – on ordinary days – to give him the blessing then, as well. When my father stopped working, at the age of eighty-five, he became somewhat depressed. “Your job,” the Rebbe told him “is to bless people with the priestly blessing.” And so, all over 770, he would be giving out blessings. It made my father very happy.

Until 1970, we also used to join the Rebbe’s Seder. On the first night of Passover, we would pray in 770, and after the service, the Rebbe would go from the synagogue into his private room. My father would follow him in, taking me along, and they would schmooze there for a bit.

The Rebbe would then spend some time alone in his room, and eventually someone would knock on his door, and we would all go upstairs for the Seder.

The Rebbe took about ten minutes or so setting up his Seder plate. There would be a number of distinguished chasidim sitting around the table, each of them with their own individual Seder plate. When the time came to open the door for Elijah the Prophet, someone would open the door, and what seemed like 500 Elijahs would be there. It was towards the end of the Seder, and all the yeshivah students came to watch the Rebbe.

My father would always lead the Seder, by which I mean that he would read the Haggadah out loud, while the Rebbe and everyone else followed along, quietly reciting the words. That’s the way it had been with the Previous Rebbe as well. At times, the room went quiet, as people strained to hear the Rebbe read the passage of Nishmat. My father went quiet as well, but the Rebbe lifted his eyes and looked at my father: “Out loud!”

He wanted my father to keep on reading. It was as if he was saying, “I don’t want this attention; I want you to lead the Seder.”

Sometimes, there would be some conversation throughout the Seder, or somebody would ask the Rebbe a question. He would answer, and explained things very concisely. Once, I distinctly recall asking him about something it says in the Dayenu passage: “Had He brought us close to Mount Sinai but not given us the Torah, it would have sufficed.”

“How can we make such a statement?” I wanted to know. “We exist because we have the Torah. How could it have been ‘enough’ if we had never received it?”

The Rebbe responded that the gathering at Mount Sinai was an event of national importance: We became the Jewish nation when we assembled at Mount Sinai, and that is something in and of itself.

When the Seder was over, the Rebbe took a large bottle of wine enclosed in a paper bag, so that only the neck of the bottle was exposed, and poured a little bit of wine from Elijah’s Cup back into it. Then he would take the bottle and pour it back into the cup, and go back forth, diluting the wine in the cup, until it was all back in the bottle.

By this time, the room was very crowded with spectators, and while he was doing this, they would be singing a chasidic song: Keylee ata v’odeka…

For me, sitting there and watching this great leader of the Jewish people doing this ritual, while hearing this wonderful tune, was incredibly emotional. It was so beautiful, like an out-of-body experience. That was, if I may say so, the apex of the Seder.

After growing up in Chicago, Mr. Hirsh Katz moved to New York City where he became a real estate broker, specializing in industrial and commercial properties. He was interviewed in December of 2007 and passed away in May of 2008.