My beloved friend and study partner from my yeshiva days in Chicago, Rabbi Chaim Zelig Fasman, passed away recently. I was really brought up very short and greatly distressed at learning of his passing. Even though seventy years and the space of great continents separated us, one never forgets or is really distant from one’s learning partner – we studied together on a daily basis for nine years during our yeshiva days.
When I left the yeshiva, newly married and looking to find my way in life, I entered the practice of law and commerce. My learning partner, Rabbi Fasman, went on to study in one of the great Torah think-tanks of that time in American Jewish life, Beit Hatalmud, then located in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.
This institution was the bastion of very intensive and analytic Talmudic study coupled with the ideas and philosophy of Lithuanian Jewish mussar. The founders and heads of that institution, after somehow surviving the Holocaust and years of exile in Shanghai, arrived haunted yet undaunted in spirit into postwar American Jewish life. Rabbi Fasman became a true disciple of these great personalities and to a large extent his passing now marks the end of that era and philosophy.
He was generous and sensitive to others, many times to a fault. Gentle in manner and in speech, he was iron in will, spirit and determination. He possessed within him a pioneering view of building a generation of Torah scholars and leaders. And, he chose Los Angeles to be the location of the institution that he founded, nurtured and expanded for decades, which literally changed the face of the Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles.
He himself was the son of a great rabbinic figure, Rabbi Oscar Z, Fasman. His mother, Jeanette Fasman, was an extraordinary woman of influence and stature. So, he had a great heritage upon which to build his own life, family and the institution. And he did so in a very successful fashion, against many odds and a world of naysayers.
I remember the Los Angeles Jewish community of almost seventy years ago. It was considered to be a wasteland as far as traditional Jewish life was concerned. Certainly no one ever imagined that the Los Angeles Jewish community would host and support an intensive kollel that would spread Torah in its midst. There was no shortage of those against the project and even to the very existence of such an institution in Los Angeles.
This was a generation that despaired of traditional Jewish life and said that it could not be done in America. This was followed by a generation that said that it could not be done outside of the communities that had a solid core of Orthodox Jews – such as New York, Chicago, etc.
So, Los Angeles fell into this category – with its physical, moral and social climate forbidding the success of such an institution. My beloved friend, Rabbi Fasman, proved them all wrong. And because of the institution that he founded and headed for these many past decades, the Los Angeles Jewish community has become a flourishing society of Torah study and intensive Jewish life.
I am confident that there will be others from his family and his community that will continue his great work. The institution of the Los Angeles kollel will continue and prosper, but for me his passing leaves an irreplaceable void in my heart and psyche. There were so many shared experiences that we were partners to but I never imagined that somehow he would leave me.
But life is inexorable and there are no exceptions to our mortality. I am resigned and accepting but I grieve for the loss of such a person of nobility who always exemplified to me what the rabbis meant in Avot that a good friend can be the main focus of strength and security in one’s lifetime. His loyalty was always unconditional and unshakable. He criticized what should have been criticized and encouraged when words of encouragement were required.
A good friend knows and keeps secrets, forgives transgressions and is never jealous or petty. This is why it is difficult in this world to really have a good friend in the full meaning of the words. That is why throughout Torah literature a good friend is regarded and described as a blood brother. I never had any biological brothers, but Rabbi Chaim Zelig Fasman filled that role for me during his lifetime. His memory will be a blessing not only for his immediate family but for all of Israel as well.