The year was 1920. Poland had just been ravaged by the first world War and was plunged into poverty. Although Poland was given its own autonomy for the first time in a century and a half the local communities were left unprotected and rape and pillage was not uncommon.
Amongst this mayhem Meszulim Feyvush Bomze, the 18 year old eldest son of his widowed mother, Malcie, was faced with an impossible decision. Continue to live in his desolate hometown and attempt to rebuild, helping his family survive day by day, or abandon his community, his friends and his Rebbe, venturing to America in the hope for a better life. A life with more stability, safety and success for him and his family.
So the young Bomze gets up the courage to approach the Rebbe upon whose lap he had grown up. The Kopychinitser Rebbe had been a friend of the family since his father's time and possibly his father before him. He approaches the Rebbe and asks, “Rebbe what should we do? You know the difficulty there is in staying here in Poland. And yet you also recognize the difficulty of remaining faithful in America. How can we go, but how can we stay?”
The Rebbe turns to him, and with audible distress in his voice says, “my son. Go to America. But I want you to take with you something.” He lifts the siddur he had been holding and tears out a page. “Bring with you Yedid Nefesh. Bring it with you always”. And the young man did. He traveled to the USA with his mother, two brothers and a sister that same year.
Upon arrival, Meszulem Feyvush, now Philip, reconnected with landsman from his home town of Sukhostav who were gainfully employed in the window washing business. The Fink brothers helped get him on his feet to earn a reasonable income and support his family. At least till the end of the decade.
On the weekend of October 29th 1929, a combination of events led to a state of overwhelming investor anxiety. Stockholders flooded the market leading to an 89% drop in the Dow Jones. The aftermath of this stock market crash is now ominously referred to as the great depression. During this time period many Jews were forced, due to the dire circumstances, to work seven days a week, including Shabbos, in order to provide basic sustenance for their family.
Philip felt trapped. On the one hand, he desperately wanted to provide for his newly married bride and two young children, Sylvia and Herbert, and could not let them starve and roam the streets as beggars. On the other hand, this was precisely the reason he had feared for coming to America and being forced to break from the traditions of his parents and ancestors.
Few who have experienced what Philip went through during this time have recorded their inner struggle and what it meant for them. Herbert, who was no less than eight years old at the time, would later recall that his father diligently continued washing windows. But each week, come Sunday morn he would need to seek new customers, seeing as employers were not satisfied with his absence on Shabbos and his unwillingness to break from his day of rest. Many a time Philip took Herbert with him on his window washing rounds, and eventually, after Herbert's Bar Mitzvah, he began filling in for his father when his father took sick days.
Although Philip did not keep a journal and may not have been a proficient writer, it was not necessary for him to record what had inspired him during those trying times. As Rabbi Herbert Bomzer pointed out, it was the message from his Rebbe, the Kopychinitser, that carried him. It was the Yedid Nefesh he sang each Erev Shabbos when sitting at home, knowingly putting his family at risk and Putting all hope in none but his merciful father in heaven that inspired him to hold steadfast to his belief.
When I was told this in 2010 by Zaide, who to our great misfortune is with us in spirit alone, he recalled the story with a double meaning. On the one hand, the Rebbe supposedly did rip out the page of Yedid Nefesh from his siddur. But in Zaide’s famous style he understood it differently. The invocation of Yedid Nefesh, when looked at through the first letter of each stanza spells out yud, key, vav, key. Therefore, this is what the Rebbe was telling the young Philip those many years ago. To take with him, not the beautiful words of Yedid Nefesh, but to take the awareness of God with him wherever he may go. For faith in God would provide the wellspring of support for whatever he would do. It would help him and his family survive religiously in the trials of America. And that's what he did. He raised his family with this message through his integrity in business and all his endeavors he managed to raise a beautiful, faithful family with the love of Torah and a love for Shabbos!
Binny is the newest and youngest member of the IAJGS Board of Directors. His passion for discovering his family history has taken him on a journey. Over the past three years, he founded and lead the first JGS on a college campus, the Family Discovery Society. Having traced his family back hundreds of years with tools like JewishGen & MyHeritage, he has instructed dozens of University students to do the same.