By Joshua Friedlander
The passing of elderly rabbis is a fairly regular, if unhappy, event in Jerusalem; but few of them as wide a ripple across the Jewish world as that of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Mir Yeshiva, who passed away on November 8th at the age of 68, after suddenly going into cardiac arrest.
Finkel, one of the most respected rabbis in Israel and head of the country’s largest yeshiva with an estimated 6,000 students, came from a background unfamiliar to most of his contemporaries. Born into a Modern Orthodox family in Chicago, he was raised within the open, modern American culture of a Philip Roth novel – a dramatic contrast to the one in which he spent most of his life.
Deep inside the labyrinthine passages of Me’ah She’arim, the Mir Yeshiva sprawls over five campuses, inspiring a well-known anecdote: A young man, arriving in Israel to study, asks a local for directions to the Mir. The local replies, “Just wait here. Sooner or later, the Mir will reach you.”
Within the yeshiva, here is an unspoken uniform of black suits and fedora hats, masking the diverse mix of cultures from which the students stem.
Finkel is remembered as a gentle, frail man with an ever-present smile. Once, addressing a group of students in Chicago, he asked: “Who here attended the Jewish Academy?” Several hands were raised. He continued: “Who played on the baseball team?” A few hands remained in the air. Finkel smiled and proclaimed, “I did!” In fact, he was the starting centerfielder.
Born in Chicago to affluent parents, operators of a successful catering business, Finkel was a self-described “typical American Jewish boy.” Despite his ordinary beginnings, he showed promise from an early age for Talmudic aptitude. The young Nosson Tzvi, or “Natie,” as he was known at the time, was the scion of a great European rabbinic dynasty and bore the same name as his great-grandfather. The elder Reb Nosson Tzvi had held the same position for which the younger was destined – the founder and rosh yeshiva of the Slabodkė Yeshiva, which is known as the mother of modern Lithuanian-style yeshivot, including the Mir.
Finkel’s family was prominent in the traditional Jewish community. Nevertheless, he opted to attend the ‘modern’ Chicago Jewish Academy (now Ida Crown Jewish Academy), overlooking the clerically oriented Hebrew Theological College, which did not offer secular studies at the time.
After high school, Finkel travelled to Israel, his intention originally to study for only one year. However, his great-uncle, Rabbi Eliezer Yudel Finkel, who had founded the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and who served as rosh yeshiva at that time, had other plans for the young Natie. The older Finkel succeeded in persuading nephew that his destiny lay within the walls of the study hall. So began the pursuit that blossomed into a personality whose legacy will be remembered throughout Jewish history.