Potential

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@YUNews Poster Rabbi!

There exist in our lives days that we will never forget. Happy occasions, somber ones. We’ll remember our feelings. The sights and smells around us. It’s as if the world is standing still. For me, and 130+ of my friends and colleagues, yesterday was one of those days. It was the day in which we were recognized for our years of study and completion of rabbinical school. Granted, some have long been finished while others are scrambling to complete a myriad of bechinos in a timely fashion. Yes, the ceremony itself could’ve been more succinct and to the point. It is also true that the seats in YU’s Lamport Auditorium could not be more uncomfortable. Yet, it was one of the most exhilarating and exciting days of my entire life.

33170964190_07881ff4e1_o.jpg The moment from the Chag HaSemicha that sticks out the most to me was the special award presentation made to Rabbi Hershel Schachter. This year marks Rav Schachter’s 50th year teaching Torah at Yeshiva University, an unbelievable accomplishment. But what made it truly special was the Sefer Torah that was commissioned in his honor and presented to him during the ceremony. One son carried the Torah down the aisle, flanked on both sides by a brother, until they reached the stage. They ascended, along with many of Rav Schachter’s granchildren, sons-in-law, and mechutanim, and the Eitan Katz led the entire room in song. Rav Schachter is a walking Sefer Torah, and it’s only fitting that he be presented with a Torah scroll, one that will be housed mere feet from his seat in the Glueck Beis Medrash.

 

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Graduating FIRST on the list of Yoreh Yoreh musmachim. After weeks of joking about this with my family a clerical error somehow placed me there (or did it?).

I cannot truthfully refer to Rav Schachter as my own “rebbe” as I was never regularly in his Talmud shiur nor seeked his counsel on various life issues. Yet, more poignant to me than the shiurim of his I’ve attended or halachic questions I’ve posed to him is the fact that the while he may not have been my “rebbe”, he served this role to most of my rebbeim. Had Rav Schachter never become a staple of Yeshiva University, his thousands of talmidim would’ve no doubt learned Torah from another master, yet I’m convinced the very landscape of Mordern Orthodox Jewry would be vastly different.

After the Chag and following a lovely reception with my family, Estee and I raced over to a different kind of celebration. My shul’s dinner (my apologies for lack of pictures, as our phones had died and the pictures haven’t been posted just yet) was a celebratory event recapping the successful, wonderful tenure of our senior rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, and his wife Barbara, and the indelible mark they have stamped on the Englewood Jewish community (and beyond). The significance and symbolism of these two events occurring just hours apart is not lost on me. The new musmachim sat and heard about the power of what we can accomplish in our field. Later on, I was privy to see just how one such figure went about doing that. Although Rabbi Goldin will have only been my rav for a short period of time before he makes aliyah, I’m reaping the reward for his 33 years of ingenuity, making our synagogue into the very community that it is today. Much like Rav Schachter, Rav Goldin’s reach is incredibly broad, extending far beyond the daled amos he is currently situated.

Some of my colleagues who were celebrated yesterday are well on their way to impacting their communities and the broader Jewish community at large, while others may be situated in a more nascent state. The potential exists for all of us. Yesterday, I watched to particular rabbis, among others, be recognized for their years of maximizing their potential in their given fields. It is my wish that we, the new musmachim, are able to merely approach to the standard they set for rabbinic excellence.

Mazel tov!

Click here to see more pictures from the 5777 Chag HaSemicha.

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Purim/Shushan Purim 5777 – Kimu V’Kiblu: What About Shavuos?

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YU Purim Chagigah 5773 with the Mashpia,     Rav Moshe Weinberger.

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) relates that when Bnai Yisrael accepted the Torah from Hashem in the desert, they were doing so with a sense of coercion. They needed to accept it, lest they be destroyed. After the miracle of Purim, however, the Jewish people renewed their commitment to the Torah given by God, yet this time, they did it on their own accord. It lacked the force that was present when Bnai Yisrael accepted the Torah in the midbar, and the aftermath of the Purim story served as the catalyst for their reaffirmation of the Torah.

Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Knesses Yisrael or the Chevron Yeshiva (which relocated from Chevron to Yerushalayim after the Arab riots of 1929), writes of the unique nature of the Jews of Shushan being mekabel the Torah once more as a result of the plot that unfolded. He mentions that the Arizal, among others, notes a connection between Purim and Yom Kippur. The Vilna Gaon holds that the source for connecting these two holidays, is the aforementioned passage in Maseches Shabbos. One strong memory etched in my mind from my time in Yeshiva was when our Rosh Yeshiva would stop the Purim chagigah, and lead the assembled masses in Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim, just as we do to signify the end of Neilah on Yom Kippur. On the surface, one might think the interconnection of these two holidays is absurd. Yom Kippur is the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, while Purim is usually referred to as the exact opposite. The mannerisms exhibited are strikingly different. You can feel it in the air. Nevertheless, the connection is exists. Yom Kippur is when Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of Luchos in hand, the time when the Israelites accepted the Torah. Sources elsewhere comment that this momentous occasion, accepting the Torah on Yom Kippur, should be met by a festive seudah. Yet, as it also serves as our day of atonement. As such, there is no deluxe feast then, but we partake of this celebratory meal on Purim.

Rav Cohen continues that something is missing here. The connection is apparent because on Yom Kippur, Moshe came to teach the people the word of God and Purim ushered in the dawning of “kimu v’kiblu.” But what about Shavuos? Shavuos is the day that Bnai Yisrael accepted the Torah! It’s referred to as “zman matan Toraseinu”, the very day that the Torah was given to the Jews in the midbar! We don’t stay up all night learning Torah on Purim (maybe you do…I’m looking at you, Litvaks!). Why is there no link between Purim and Shavuos?

In trying to answer this conundrum, we must take a step back. The Medrash Tanchuma (Parshas Noach) is curious as to why the Jews needed to be coerced into accepting the Torah in the first place. The Torah states that the Israelites seemingly declared “naaseh venishmah” in unison when first being offered the Torah. If this is the case, why were they pressured into acquiring it? Answers the Medrash that when they agreed to accept the Torah, it was only in reference the Torah Shebichsav, the Written Torah. The Written Law was something that, at the time, Bnai Yisrael could fulfill with relative ease. However, the Oral Torah was much more complex to master and keep with alacrity. They simply weren’t ready to take on this monumental commitment on their own, which is why they were compulsed to accept it. This all occurred on Shavuos. But when the dust settled in Shushan HaBirah, when Haman was vanquished and Mordechai and Esther successfully saved the Jewish people from the cusp of extinction, it was then that Klal Yisrael fully recommitted themselves to the Oral Torah. Generations had passed, and the Oral Law was still incumbent upon the Jews, yet Purim heralded the time when Torah Shebe’alpeh was willingly reaccepted with gusto.

There are times in our lives when we are burdened by the way we live our lives. Living an observant Jewish life is not easy (Have you seen day school tuition prices?!). Yet, it is a life that is full of significant meaning. One must work to uncover the meaning behind everything. Do not merely take life’s details as trivial. Even though the yoke has been thrust upon us, we can work to willingly reaffirm our connection to the Almighty, His Torah, and His commandments. It doesn’t need to happen after an averted catastrophe, or even all at once. Little by little we can imbue our lives with a profound sense of purpose guided by the Torah.

Just as the Jews of Shushan experienced orah, simcha, sasson, vikar – ken tihiye lanu!

 

Shabbos Zachor 5777 – Remember and Never Forget

desert_battle.jpgShabbos Zachor holds a special place in my heart (especially when it falls out of Parshas Tetzaveh). No, I do not harbor a particularly strong internal love for remembering to destroy the memory of Amalek, but because my Bar Mitzvah was on Shabbos Zachor. The Halachic aspects of Amalek are interesting, to say the least. Rambam writes (in Hilchos Malachim and Sefer HaMitzvos) that we are commanded to erase the memory of Amalek from the face of the earth. Yet, the pasuk in the Torah from which this special parsha derives its name (Devarim 25 begins “Zachor es asher asa lecha Amalek.” Literally: “Remember what Amalek did to you!” The dichotomy between remembering what they did and blotting out all memory of this nation is peculiar. The Sifri comments that this message is twofold, based on the verse in Devarim. The first message, “Zachor”, pertains to remembering verbally, to speak about the horrible nature in which Amalek cruelly attacked Bnai Yisrael as they left Egypt, tired and weary. The second message comes from the last two words of the Maftir “Lo Tishkach” that we are commanded to not forget. This, according to the Sifri, means that we are to harbor this hatred for this nefarious nation in our hearts. Our disdain for Amalek is to continue to fester internally until they are no longer. While we don’t practice this commandment with gusto today, even the mere notion that we are to behave in such a manner proves how just how serious this commandment is. The Jewish people are not a vengeful, bloodthirsty nation.  We are commanded against hating someone in our heart. We are told to be like the pupils of Aharon HaKohen, to love peace and to pursue it. Just a few mitzvot later in Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos discusses the commandment to try and reach a peace agreement before going to war! Yet, when it comes to Amalek, their deeds were too beyond the pale to simply ignore. It’s a puzzling mitzvah, but one we were commanded to do.  

We see what happens when we do not take this decree to heart to the utmost, in the Haftorah for Shabbos Zachor. Chapter 15 of Shmuel Alef tells the story of Shaul HaMelech being commanded by Hashem to destroy Amalek. His mission was extensive and clear (15:3) “…You shall not have pity on him (Amalek): and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Although generally Bnai Yisrael are a merciful group, in the battle against Amalek, there were to be no survivors. Through the efforts of Shaul and the Keinim, this Divine battle took place. Amalek had been decimated, yet they had not been completely destroyed as per the word of Hashem. Furthermore, the reason that this did not occur was not due to military shortcomings or inabilities. The text continues (15:9) “And Saul and the people had pity on Agag, and on the best of the sheep and the cattle, and the fatlings, and on the fattened sheep, and on all that was good; and they did not want to destroy them; but everything which was vile and feeble, that they utterly destroyed.” Shaul told Shmuel HaNavi excitedly that he fulfilled the word of God and vanquished their dreaded foe. Shmuel, after hearing from Hashem that He regretted appointing Shaul as king for not listening to Him, confusedly asked him why it was that he heard the sound of sheep. Shaul responded that he kept the finest animals alive in order to use as korbanos for Hashem. The back and forth continues, as Shmuel asked Shaul why he didn’t listen to Hashem’s word, and Shaul retorted that he did listen and killed them all, save the choicest of the animals and King Agag, ruler of Amalek. Shmuel drives his message home and asks Shaul: Do you think that the Lord takes more delight in sacrifices that He does in those who listen to His voice? Shaul finally realized that he had sinned, despite his best efforts and wishes. Agag and the animals thus met their demise as well. But before they did, Agag escaped from where he had been held captive and impregnated a woman. She conceived, and their ultimate descendant was none other than Haman himself.

Had Shaul killed Agag as he was commanded to do, the Purim story would never have happened. One could argue that had those events not happened, the Jewish people would’ve never been able to rededicate themselves to the Torah, an event that was exhibited with more passion and fervor after Purim than it was at Mt. Sinai. Nevertheless, if we apply Shmuel’s words to Shaul in this case, it’s evident that the more vital deed was to listen to the word of God in the first place. If we are given a mitzvah that seems, on the surface, to be so incongruent to the ways in which we are to live our lives, one is liable to do away with it entirely. Conversely, I believe that that’s precisely the reason we’re commanded so strongly about following this mitzvah. Although today we are not roaming the streets seeking to bludgeon the descendants of Amalek, Zachor, velo tishkach. We must remember what happened, and never forget about it.

 

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Shmuel I 15:34 “And Shmuel went to Ramah, and Shaul, went up to his house, Givat Shaul.”      Givat Shaul today.

 

 

Taanis Esther 5777 – For If You Do Nothing…

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Taanis Esther is the fast day commemorated by the Jewish people in honor of Queen Esther standing up in an effort to save the Jewish people from the brink of destruction. After hearing of the impending order of Haman to eradicate the Jewish people from the 127 nations in the kingdom of Achashverosh, the Jews were thrust into mourning. Mordechai beseeches Esther to intervene, telling her, through her maidens and chamberlains, to speak to the King, and plead with him to annul this dastardly decree before it comes to fruition. Esther demurred. She explains that while this information is terrifying, one who seeks counsel with the king without an appointment need not wait until this decree was enacted: they are put to death.  Upon hearing this, Mordechai conveys to Esther the sheer gravity of her position. The Megillah states (4:13-14) “And Mordechai ordered to reply to Esther, ‘Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish; and who knows whether at a time like this you will attain the kingdom?’” Mordechai does not mince words here. “If you do nothing, my dear Esther, don’t think you’ll be spared.” After all, can you imagine if Esther’s entire ascent to the throne was orchestrated by the Almighty specifically for this purpose? To rise up, and stand up, for her people, to a king who most likely did not contemplate the magnitude of what his advisor Haman had requested of him. With this mussar shmooze now in her mind, Esther gives Mordechai instructions (4:16): “Go, assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan and fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, day and night; also I and my maidens will fast in a like manner; then I will go to the king contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

There is an interplay of events surrounding the above episode mentioned in Esther Rabbah that fascinates me. Esther Rabbah (8:7) explains that the three days that Esther commands Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan to fast are the 13th, 14th, and 15th of Nissan. Interestingly, the fast was to coincide with the first day of Passover. The Midrash continues, and after seeing Esther be initially hesitant, Mordechai now exhibits a sense of reservation about the fast. He communicates to her servants that one of these very fast days occurs on the first day of Pesach, a time when fasting is prohibited. Esther responds back to him, with the same charifus (sharpness) that he originally unleashed at her: “She said to him: ‘Sage of Israel! What is the point of having Pesach if there are no Jews in the world to celebrate it?!’” Mordechai’s actions here seem a bit peculiar. This was a shaas hadchak, a scenario of extraordinary circumstances. Esther was about to put her life on the line by approaching Achashverosh without first being summoned, and now Mordechai was the hesitant one? It seems as if his message had gone to Esther’s heart, but not to his own! Yet, after Esther relates to Mordechai some mussar of her own in relating just how serious this matter was, he ultimately heeds her word, as the Megillah says (4:17) “So Mordechai passed and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.”

There are times in our lives, just like in the lives of our biblical characters, when we must break out of our comfort zones in order to stand up for something that is right. It’s much harder to convince yourself to do something like this when you’re being attacked or outnumbered. There are times when the right thing to do is crystal clear, while at other times the correct line to tow is completely foreign to you. We see this our heroes in the Megillah. On this Taanis Esther, may we merit to have the courage to do something. Who knows? That may be the entire reason you were put in that situation at all.

Zayin Adar 5777 – Two Greats and the Greatest.

The 7th day of Adar is recorded as being the anniversary of  the birth and death of Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest leader the Jewish people to date. There exists an interesting debate in Jewish law and thought about the very nature of this day. Is it one of great joy or great sorrow? It was the day that Moshe Rabbeinu, the redeemer of Israel (through the Almighty) was brought forth into the world. Conversely, it was the very day that he perished, leaving Bnai Yisrael bereft of their great and humble leader. Many Jews around the world fast, and hold this day as a day of gratitude to the Chevra Kadisha, the local Jewish burial society.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov in his Sefer HaToda’ah records that on the 7th of Adar, one should study the various passages, in the Torah and in Medrashim, that speak about the death of Moshe Rabbeinu. In the very last chapter of Devarim, the Torah records (34:10): “There will never arise another prophet in Israel as Moshe, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, known as the Yismach Moshe, points out the practical significance of this verse. Although Moses is not typically referenced as a prophet, Yismach Moshe cites that there will never arise one like him in Klal Yisrael who was always primed for nevuah, that was constantly ready to receive the word of God. He continues that while that later figures would have to prepare themselves, mentally and spiritually, to speak with God, this was not the case with Moshe. He was always prepared.

In the two preceding verses (Devarim 34:8-9), we see what transpires in the aftermath of Moshe’s demise.  

“And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moav for thirty days, and the days of weeping over the mourning for Moses came to an end. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands upon him. And the children of Israel obeyed him, and they did as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

At the end of the days of mourning for Moshe Rabbeinu, Bnai Yisrael looked to Yehoshua, their new leader. They obeyed him because he had been trained by Moshe. Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Epstein, in his Ma’or VaShemesh writes on these verses that anyone who appoints and prepares a successor for their endeavors, it’s as if they never truly left their post. Because Moshe had prepared Yehoshua so thoroughly to be at the helm of the Jewish people, it was as if Moshe never left their midst. They stopped their crying, and listened to their new leader.

This message takes on additional meaning for me, as 7th of Adar also happens to be the yahrzteit of two of my great-grandfathers, Samuel Radman and Jack Balk.

 

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Samuel Radman, who, to me, looks almost identical to his son,  my grandfather William Radman.

Samuel Radman, Yehoshua ben Pinchas, lived a tough life. He met and married the love of his life, my great-grandmother, Rose, and promised her the world. She was his everything, and I cannot imagine how his life must’ve felt in the decade that he outlived her. He was a Russian soldier who saw action in wars, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. The Radman family decided that Europe was not the place for them, yet they couldn’t simply get on a boat and leave. They walked traveled on foot, often times with bands of gypsies, across much of Russia before they were able to flee and arrive on American shores. He was a simple man, who owned a grocery store and an ice cream parlor, and was often seen sporting a coat and hat, despite sweltering St. Louis summers.

My great-grandfather, Jack Balk, Yaakov ben Yitzchak Mordechai, was born on Christmas day 1902. The youngest of the three children in his family, it’s said that he was given the name Yaakov because that name was in the first few words of the parsha that week. He, too emigrated to the United States, but as traditional channels had been all but blocked, he entered the country via San Francisco. He settled in St. Louis, the home of many Balk relatives, and worked as a butcher. Eventually, he rose to become the manager of a large grocery store in downtown St. Louis, that had a large meat processing plant. He was known to be very thorough, only willing to stock the shelves with the finest quality meat. It earned him the moniker “Send ’em back, Jack”, a nickname that he used in commercials for the establishment.

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Me and Grandpa Jack (after shamelessly cropping out 19 family members from what is, undoubtedly, the most iconic Balk extended family picture in existence.)

Not only was my Grandpa Jack alive when I was born, but I remember him vividly. There’s a picture that hung on my bar mitzvah collage in the hallway of my (now old) house of Grandpa Jack holding me as a newborn, with a smile on his face as wide as the Mississippi River. I recall the trips we’d take to his apartment on our vacations in St. Louis. On one of those trips, my mother had the foresight to bring along my siddur and mini-tallis from my first grade classroom. I stood in Grandpa Jack’s living room and proceeded through my entire davening regimen, which as a 7 year old wasn’t even that long. The smile, the same as the one from the picture a few years before, was the exact same.

Transitions may not always be this seamless, but the message here applies contemporarily as well. Samuel Radman and Jack Balk, men buried only yards away from each other, are no longer with us. Nevertheless, the legacies that they prepared their descendants for, whether they knew it or not, keeps the memories of these two men alive today.

Terumah 5777 – Nedivei Lev and Grandpa Harry

Parshas Terumah begins by discussing the first capital campaign in the history of the Jewish people. There were no phone calls, flyers or emails. As hard as it may seem to fathom, they didn’t even a giant poster board with a large empty thermometer on it, whose contents would continually be filled in with a red sharpie depicting the rising funds collected. Nada. Moshe was told by Hashem to speak to Bnai Yisrael and have them give an amount “from any person whose heart inspires them to give generously.” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Targum Yonason maintains that, as it sounds, this offering was not to have been given by means of force or coercion. The Machatzit HaShekel offering, which is written about later on, was to be given was mandatory, while this donation, for the construction of the Mishkan, was participatory. The blueprints were given from On High and the nedivei lev, the ones whose hearts inspired them to give, were to give. Not to argue with the board about final renderings, or flummox the finance committee with ways to cut costs. Rav Soloveitchik continues that the very items given by the nedivei lev were themselves sacred. He writes that as slaves in Egypt, Bnai Yisrael were not compensated for their time and labor, and no rights to property. They would walk among the Egyptians who were clad in fine garments, while they, the lowly slaves, donned tattered rags. Yet, the tables had turned. The Israelites were now free, and they left Mitzrayim with gold, silver, and other riches. The Rav continues that after years of not being compensated or even appreciated, Bnai Yisrael finally had items of value. Yet, when the clarion call came from the Kisei HaKavod to give, that’s exactly what the Jewish people did. Some gave more, some gave less, but give they did. Rabbi Soloveitchik goes a step further that the sanctity of the Mishkan exuded not only from it being the sanctuary for Hashem, but the fact that Bnai Yisrael gave these precious items eagerly with great zeal. The gold, silver, and copper that they took as their reward for generations of backbreaking labor from the evil Egyptian regime, they so willingly donated to honor the Almighty.

Nedivei lev make their mark on the Jewish people. We can encounter them directly and/or indirectly. Today, the 4th of Adar, is the yahtzeit of one such individual: my great-grandfather, Yisrael ben Shraga Feivish or Israel “Harry” Chanen. Grandpa Harry, as he was known, is someone who I never had the fortune of meeting, but I am one of his grandchildren that proudly carry his name (Akiva Yisrael). Although he passed away over a decade before I was born, I know a tremendous amount about him, not only from the accounts of family members, but from his own words. There exists in the houses of the Chanen children, grandchildren, and even some of the great-grandchildren, a work, most likely contained in a red folder with fasteners, titled “The Dagda-Quincy Life Express.” This tale, told to my great-aunt Audrey, depicts the life of my great-grandfather, from a modest beginning in his beloved Dagda, Latvia, to his eventual journey across Europe and finally to the United States. The sixty-four page book is harrowing and eye-opening. I can feel his presence as I read through his life story. He was a great man, an ardent Zionist and what sticks out most to me, even more than the incredible story of the reunification of the Chanen family, is his sincere love of Yiddishkeit. Evidence of this is peppered throughout the book. He reflects on memories of davening in the Lubavitcher shul in Dagda, singing zemiros, weddings that brought the whole town together. From his own words: “I remember at the age of six, they took me to the cheder. I was wrapped in a tallis. When we got there I was sat in a chair, and all at once some candy started dropping from above. I was told ‘if you study well, all good things will come to you.’” He loved my Grandma Jean, and his whole family as well. He bought her the biggest Buick they made. It was so big, he had to extend the garage just so it could house the vehicle. Fate in America was good to Harry Chanen, as his scrap business flourished. He was a big fish in the small pond of Quincy, IL. As a nediv lev, His efforts were able to be felt even more there. Yet, no matter what would’ve been in his bank book, that classification would still have proven true.

He implores his descendants to be strong members of the Jewish people. Toward the end of the book, he writes: “I dreamt that I had died and I, the spirit only, was hovering over the houses of my families, taking pride in their activities. I tried to talk to them, but I could not get through and I woke up.” I’d like to think that he looks down upon us, perched next to Grandma Jean, and does just that. He taught my grandparents what it meant to be a nediv lev, and in turn, they passed that knowledge to their children, who have transmitted it to the next generation. My Grandpa Harry was a man short in stature, yet I’m not sure my size 15 feet could come close to filling his shoes.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

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What I like to think Grandma Jean’s Buick looked like.