Growing up, I didn’t have any grandparents; they had all perished in the Holocaust. As a matter of fact, none of my friends or contemporaries in Los Angeles did either. In our community of Hungarian immigrants, almost all of the adults were survivors so I never even knew what a grandmother or grandfather was.
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My father, Berel Weiss, was a successful entrepreneur in the nursing home industry as well as a devout chasid and a very spiritual person. We would walk to shul each week on Shabbat, and he would tell me stories about the Baal Shem Tov and the Rebbe. “He is our grandfather,” my father would say.
Although there were very few Lubavitchers in Los Angeles then, my father had gone to meet the Rebbe in 1962, and it was a seminal moment in his life. He had a very emotional meeting with the Rebbe, and then a formal audience. He only brought my older brother Yona Mordechai along, but he did write my name in the note he handed to the Rebbe. The Rebbe read the note, and when he reached my name, he underlined it.
“Your younger son, Moshe Aron, where is he?”
“He’s too young,” my father explained. I was just two at the time.
When I turned three and had my traditional upsherinish, or hair-cutting ceremony, there was a chasid there by the name of Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky. He was a very warm man who would periodically visit us in Los Angeles, and he delivered a gift. For my upsherinish, the Rebbe had sent me a little Chabad siddur.
Although my father was very supportive of Lubavitch, he was also adamant that we continue the customs of his family. He had come from an area in Hungary near the town of Satmar, where they prayed in the Sefard rite and he wanted us to continue in that way. For that reason – and probably because he didn’t want me to lose it – he didn’t actually give me the siddur. Being a stubborn little boy who felt very attached to the Rebbe, this bothered me greatly. And I was also still angry about not going along with him to visit the Rebbe.
As my father became closer to Lubavitch, he began to visit the Rebbe annually at the end of Sukkot, for Hoshana Rabbah and Simchat Torah. At his next audience, when the Rebbe reached my name in my father’s note, he asked, “Where’s Moshe Aron?”
“It’s funny you ask,” my father replied. “He was so angry that he didn’t come last year that I had to sneak out to the airport without him noticing.”
When he returned, I didn’t speak to him for two weeks. “OK, from now on,” he promised, “where I go, you go and where you go, I go.”
But the next year, he still thought I was too young. “Where’s Moshe Aron?” the Rebbe asked again.
My father excused himself: “Rabbi Kazarnovsky says that Simchat Torah isn’t a good time to bring a little boy to Lubavitch.”
The Rebbe waved off their hesitations. “Ahh – you have to bring him!”
But the next year, I caught a big cold and couldn’t come. Meanwhile, I started kindergarten in Los Angeles’s Toras Emes Academy. The dean there was Rabbi Yechiel Yehuda Isacsohn, the kindly rabbi of our community shul, and a nephew of the then-Satmar Rebbe.
One day, I walked into Rabbi Isaacson’s office and announced, in my little boy’s voice: “I need some paper.”
Rabbi Isaacson looked at me. “Moshe Areleh, why do you need paper?”
“Because,” I said, “I’m a Lubavitcher, and I want to write a Lubavitcher siddur.” My father still hadn’t given me my siddur, so I decided to write my own. Rabbi Isaacson actually gave me the paper and a folder, and I started copying the siddur. When the rabbi came into shul that Shabbat telling everyone the story, my father was very proud.
The next Hoshana Rabbah was Yona Mordechai’s thirteenth birthday, and the Rebbe suggested that my father make the Bar Mitzvah in New York: “I want the whole family to come,” he said.
And so, I finally got to see the Rebbe in 1966. I remember standing in the middle of 770, when the Rebbe turned to my father and motioned to him. My father understood that he was asking about me, and so he lifted me up and the Rebbe responded with a big smile.
My father was very excited when he heard that on the holidays the Rebbe would eat together with several chasidim, and with his characteristic aggressiveness, he managed to get us an invitation. So that year, and a couple of years after, we were able to dine with the Rebbe.
There weren’t any other children at the table, and the meal, which took place upstairs in 770, was a solemn occasion. The Rebbe wouldn’t start eating until everybody was served, which made a tremendous impression on me, and everybody stopped eating the minute the Rebbe stopped eating.
During one meal, the Rebbe asked my father whether I was eating.
“He only likes his mother’s fish,” my father excused me. “He’s a little spoiled.”
“Tell him the food is good here, too,” said the Rebbe with a smile.
At the farbrengen held before the hakafot dancing, my father sat with me and my brother behind the Rebbe. The room was filled with people pushing for space, at times aggressively, so we stayed next to my father. At one point, during the singing, the Rebbe turned and looked at my father, who took this as a cue to come over. The Rebbe spoke with us briefly and even gave me a piece of cake.
“Soon it’s going to get very crowded here, and I don’t want you to be scared,” the Rebbe then said. He lifted the tablecloth and added, “I want you to go under the table, and wait until it stops.”
We went under the table and heard the Rebbe speak, and all of a sudden we heard a tremendous noise. With us tucked away safely, the Rebbe started to distribute a bit of vodka to everyone who wanted to come up to him and say L’chaim.
After Simchat Torah, our whole family had a private audience, where my father told the Rebbe the story of my Lubavitcher siddur.
“G-d willing, he will go on to publish Lubavitcher books!” the Rebbe told my father.
I took that to heart, and twenty-three years later when the Rebbe’s explanations on his father’s writings on the Zohar were compiled, I wanted to sponsor the publishing of all three volumes. When the first volume, titled Torat Menachem Tiferet Levi Yitzchok, came out, I brought it to the Rebbe on a Sunday, when he was distributing dollars for people to give to charity, along with my father.
When the Rebbe took the book from my hands, with visible pleasure, my father commented, “The Rebbe told him that he would print Lubavitcher books.”
“Yes,” replied the Rebbe, “but I said books in plural.” He didn’t just want me to be involved in one book, but many. Thank G-d, I’ve been able to print tens and tens of books since then.
Rabbi Moshe Weiss is the director of Chabad of Sherman Oaks, California. He was interviewed in September 2011.