You won’t find “Lower East Sider” in a dictionary. If you Google those words, you’ll get some entries about prices of apartments and other various news about the Lower East Side. But for the tens of thousands of Jews who grew up and lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there is significant meaning. In fact, those old timers take it as a great compliment to be a “Lower East Sider.”
Lower East Siders possess a combination of simplicity, warmth, extreme friendliness, being non-judgmental, and unpretentious. There was, and is, nothing fancy about the Lower East Side, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. It was the land of Guss’ Pickles, Chinatown Noodles, H&M Skullcap, and the Williamsburg Bridge. There were also countless shuls, but none were in competition with the other.
I was born and spent my formative years on the Lower East Side. Both sets of my grandparents lived on the Lower East Side, and it was exciting to be able to walk over on Shabbos to see them or eat a s’udah at their apartment. Our family moved from the Lower East Side to Monsey in 1988.
My Zeide, whose yahrzeit is this Shabbos, 27 MarCheshvan, was the rabbi of the well-known Anshei Slonim shul on Norfolk Street until it closed in 1974.
My Zeide had a warm relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. The last gift my Zeide left me is a set of Igros Moshe inscribed with a brief brachah from Rav Moshe. The inscription is dated 12 Kislev 5745 (December 1985). At the time, I was five years old. Rav Moshe was niftar a little over a year later; my Zeide was niftar less than three years later. It’s one of my most treasured s’farim.
Even after Rav Moshe was niftar, his sons, Rav Dovid and Rav Reuven, would attend our family simchos, primarily in honor of my Bubby a”h. I had the z’chus that they attended my bar mitzvah and wedding.
The Lower East Side was the perfect place for Rav Moshe and his family. Rav Moshe was the poseik ha’dor, and the gadol ha’dor. His greatness in Torah was matched only by his incredible humility. Those traits were personified by his son, Rav Dovid, who was niftar this past week.
My aunt would often note that it was known that if you wanted to find Rav Dovid and Rav Reuven on a given day, you first checked the pizza shop on the Lower East Side, where they often ate breakfast together.
If you didn’t know who Rav Dovid was and you passed him on the street, you would have no idea that one of the leading halachic authorities in the world, a man who was fluent in the entire Torah, and the rosh yeshivah who had succeeded his illustrious father, had just passed you.
A few years ago, my father went back to the Lower East Side for Shabbos to attend a simchah. During the kiddush, Rav Dovid walked over to him to say Good Shabbos.
On one of our dates, my wife and I went to a restaurant in Boro Park. When our food arrived, I went to wash. (She probably ordered a salad and didn’t need to wash.) When I returned to the table, she noticed a look on my face that she couldn’t decipher. When she asked me what happened, I pointed beyond her. She couldn’t figure out what in the world I wanted. After I said a brachah and took a bite, I told her not to back up too quickly. At the table behind us were seated Rav Dovid and his Rebbetzin, along with another couple.
Rav Dovid was so great and yet he was so simple. He went shopping, he humbly walked the streets of the Lower East Side, and he was accessible to anyone who wanted. I look at the picture of him and his Rebbetzin from our wedding and marvel at the fact that he not only schlepped to Lakewood to attend, but also was willing to be in the picture with us. (The same is true about Rav Reuven and his Rebbetzin.) It was, and remains, very meaningful to us.
In a world so focused on glamour and publicity, it’s rare to find people who are perfectly happy keeping to themselves and living a simple life. But I don’t know how one can do so when he is a leader of his people with earth-shattering questions and pressing matters coming to his door constantly.
This week, we celebrate the bar mitzvah of our son, Avi. Somehow, I hope we can convey to him some of the lessons we learned and gleaned from Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l.
The nostalgic streets of the Lower East Side have lost some of their greatness, and klal Yisrael has lost a quiet gadol and leader. May his memory be for a blessing.