My Father My King

September 2, 2021

Say It with Feeling!

A Conversation with Rav Chaim Elazar Blau, Veteran Chazzan for BMG’s Beis Medrash HaYoshon

Rabbi Mordechai Resnick

As the Yamim Nora’im approach, my mind conjures images of the uplifting years when I had the privilege to daven on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Yoshon beis medrash. Time seemed to stand still as the tzibbur was swept up to untold heights of heartfelt prayer while the chazzan chanted the haunting words of U’nesaneh Tokef, and the very rafters shook during Avinu Malkeinu from the piercing cries of hundreds of voices begging Hashem in unison to shred any evil decrees.

One voice that has continued to be heard for over three decades is that of the Yoshon’s longtime chazzan Rav Chaim Elazar Blau shlita. Rav Blau’s simple nusach and palpable emotions have defined the tefillos of the Yamim Nora’im in the Yoshon and helped create its unique atmosphere. Rav Blau graciously agreed to share some of his background with me. His amazing tale of survival and rebuilding left me awestruck and inspired.

A childhood of hardship

Rav Chaim Elazar Blau was born in 1937 in a small town in Hungary. His father worked hard for a living, producing and selling homemade soap. When the war years commenced, authorities refused to renew his business license, so he was out of a job. His brother, who was a rav in Budapest at the time, invited him to come to the city and take a job as a member of the chevrah kaddisha.

“Moving to the big city ultimately saved our lives,” says Rav Blau. “All the smaller villages were completely wiped out by the Nazis.”

When the war reached Hungary, the Blau family miraculously procured a coveted Schutzpass which allowed them to stay in a Swedish safe house. These houses, like embassies, were considered neutral zones and out of Hungarian jurisdiction. The Schutzpasses and all the safe houses were fabricated by a heroic Swedish Jew named Raoul Wallenberg, who acted without any authority from the Swedish embassy. Miraculously, these official-looking passes were honored by both the Hungarians and Nazis, saving thousands of Jewish lives.

Amazingly, Rav Blau’s entire immediate family—including his parents, four brothers, and one sister—survived the war in the safe house. One of his brothers was drafted into the army and would throw food toward the house every time his regiment passed by.

“We found a library in the house,” Rav Blau relates. “Our family stayed warm during the brutal winter by taking books from the library and burning them for fuel. The food my brother provided and the books were the only provisions we had throughout our stay in the safe house.”

Rav Blau’s son R’ Shmuel Binyomin relates that miracles occurred almost daily. “One time, my father’s entire family was standing in a lineup where the Nazis yms”h were getting ready to gun down all the gathered Jews into one mass grave. Suddenly, a huge goy ran over and started to yell at and beat my grandparents. He then dragged the family from the line and led them away as he continued to rant and pummel them with his fists. After they were a safe distance from the deadly gathering, the burly giant disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.”

Escaping Hungary

When the war finally ended, the Communist party rose to power and sealed the borders of Hungary. In addition, war soon broke out in Eretz Yisrael, and it wasn’t considered safe to immigrate there.

Finally, in 1949, Rav Blau and a brother were given the opportunity to leave the country on a Kindertransport which would take them across Europe to France. At first, their mother couldn’t muster the courage to part with her sons. Tragically, she had already lost 24 family members, which included her siblings and their children.

“My mother went to seek the advice of Rav Chatzkel Mertz zt”l, a renowned tzaddik who lived in Budapest at the time and later moved to Williamsburg. He ruled that if she could save the children from violating even one Shabbos under the Communist government, it was worth the risk of never seeing them again. With renewed resolve, my mother marched her two sons to the trains and sent them off.”

Once in France, the brothers lived in a group home for about a year under the care of frum Israelis affiliated with the Aliyat Hano’ar organization. They were then transported to Eretz Yisrael, where they lived in a group home for children located in the Katamon neighborhood of Yerushalayim.

About a year and a half later, their parents finally escaped Hungary, taking advantage of the sporadic pockets of chaos during the civil unrest and political uprisings that characterized the postwar years. They lived for a short while in Tel Aviv before emigrating first to Canada and then to New York, where they finally settled in Boro Park.

During this time, Rav Blau continued to live in Yerushalayim, where he developed a close relationship with the Mirrer rosh yeshivah Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt”l. He learned in Knesses Bnei Hagolah, a yeshivah in Katamon which was founded by the Brisker Rav.

When asked about the poverty that children endured in Yerushalayim at the time, he answers shortly. “Food was very tight, but we didn’t think about these things. It wasn’t something we spoke about.”

The gedolim of Yerushalayim

Rav Blau made it his business to seek out the gedolim of the time. He spent a lot of time with the Chazon Ish. He recalls how just watching the Chazon Ish recite Asher Yatzar was an experience that left a lasting impression.

Rav Blau recalls being farhered by Rav Leizer Yudel for half an hour on Kiddushin. “I was known as the bachur from Europe, ‘der Europeyisher,’ because most of the bachurim were from Eretz Yisrael. At one point, I became very close to Rav Leizer Yudel. He started giving me a stipend of five lira a month, and I started going to him for Shabbosim. R’ Moshe Reichmann from Toronto would also go.”

Rav Blau recalls hearing Rav Nachum Partzovitz zt”l give his very first shiur in the Mir during the Pesach zman of 1954. “He gave his first shiur on Perek Shnayim Ochzin, and there were fourteen bachurim in attendance. At first, Rav Nachum didn’t want to give shiur, but Rav Leizer Yudel pushed him until he reluctantly agreed.”

The year 5714 had started as a very tragic one for him and the entire Torah world, with the passing of the “sheloshes haro’im” in close proximity: the Chazon Ish in Cheshvan, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer in Kislev, and Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Teves.

Rav Blau was also very close to Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l and took every opportunity to hear his shmuessen. He even recorded many shiurim, and many recordings that we have today of the Mashgiach’s shmuessen are thanks to him. These shmuessen had a tremendous impact on Rav Blau, and to this day he vividly recalls many of the Mashgiach’s teachings.

In 1958, Rav Blau left Eretz Yisrael and joined the Mir in Flatbush, where he became close to the rosh yeshivah Rav Avraham Kalmanovich zt”l as well as Rav Abba Berman zt”l. In 1961, he married and moved back to Eretz Yisrael, settling on Rechov Dessler in Bnei Brak for two years and learning in Kollel Chazon Ish. He would daven in Ponevezh and spoke to Rav Chatzkel often. Finally, in 1963, he moved back to America and settled in Boro Park, where he has lived since.

For 45 years, Rav Blau gave a shiur in Yeshiva Shaarei Yosher, until about 10 years ago. After that, he began to learn in Yeshiva Bais Yosef-Novhardok, where he currently spends his afternoons.

A long career in chazzanus

Rav Blau’s long career in chazzanus for the Yamim Nora’im began over 55 years ago. In 1965, he was asked to daven for the amud in Rav Levi Krupenia’s yeshivah in Woodridge, which he did for the next few years. From 1970–1975, he served as the chazzan in Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel’s yeshivah in South Fallsburg. Following this, Rav Chaim Mintz asked him to come daven in Tiferes Yerushalayim; he was chazzan there until Rav Moshe Feinstein’s passing in 1986.

Rav Blau recounts a story that happened one year on Rosh Hashanah: Rav Moshe was sick and confined to a wheelchair that year. He did not want to bring his wheelchair into the beis midrash, so he sat right near the door. After Shacharis, he began to slowly make his way to the middle of the beis midrash. Each step was an arduous task. Finally, he came over to Rav Blau at the front of the room and said, “Yasher ko’ach, yasher ko’ach!” Rav Blau was floored.

“All the mispallelim would pass by Rav Moshe after Mussaf to wish him ‘L’shanah tovah.’ He could have easily waited until I came by to thank me. Instead, he went through the hardship of shuffling over to me, a distance of some twenty yards, to show his appreciation. That is gadlus!”

Following Rav Moshe’s passing, Rav Blau started traveling to Eretz Yisrael every year for the Yamim Nora’im. He was the chazzan in Lakewood East until 1991, when he began to daven in BMG. “In those days, there were only two minyanim, the vasikin minyan and the Yoshon,” Rav Blau recalls.

Rav Blau switches off with Rav Chaim Ginsberg—one day Rav Blau davens Shacharisand Rav Ginsberg davens Mussaf, and the other day vice versa. Rav Blau has remained in this position for three decades.

Guidance for chazzanim

What is the main role of a chazzan? Rav Blau’s answer is surprising. “The chazzan must daven with special kavanah and remember that he is standing before Hashem. He must prepare extensively during Elul, not just by going over the nusach, but by learning mussar sefarim and the deeper meaning of the tefillos. A bit of time preparing the chazzanus should be enough.”

When asked for advice for new chazzanim, Rav Blau’s answer is simple. “Spend Elul learning sifrei mussar. Practice davening with kavanah and remembering that you are standing before Hashem. Every word should be said with deep feeling. Why is it called avodah sheb’lev, worship of the heart, and not avodah sheb’rosh, worship of the mind? The Panim Yafos says that it’s not enough to think about the translation of the words, you have to put your heart into what you are saying. The Mashgiach, Rav Chatzkel, would say a mashal: Every year at a dinner for a yeshivah, someone gets up and praises the generosity of the guest of honor who does so much for the yeshivah. The speech is identical every year, regardless of how much the donor gives. The only thing that changes is the feeling—the yasher ko’ach is bigger for a two million-dollar donation than for a hundred thousand-dollar donation.

“When we say ‘Father and King, return us in teshuvah sheleimah before You,’ how much do we mean what we say? Everyone, young and old, is saying the same words, but their avodah sheb’lev varies greatly.”

Yom Hadin

Rav Blau underscores the pivotal role of Rosh Hashanah. “When a chazzan says ‘Zachreinu l’chaim,’ he should think about everything that happened in the past tumultuous year. How many are in the hospital or passed away, R”l? We have the power to control the outcome of the Yom Hadin, thereby changing the entire course of the year.

“The Mashgiach said many times that on the Yom Hadin you will be going in front of the supreme Judge. But this judge is your relative, and you are in fact His ben yachid. Not only that, he tells you what to do in order to win your court case. He does not advise you to finish Shas, say hundreds of chapters of Tehillim, or give away thousands of dollars to tzedakah. ‘Say before Me Malchuyos, so that you shall accept My sovereignty. Blow the shofar before Me and I will consider it as if you made your own Akeidah.’ The Mashgiach would also say that Hashem wants you more than you want Him! He wants you to win in His din. His Hand is open during these yemei ratzon to accept sincere teshuvah.”

Rav Blau impersonates the passionate voice of the Mashgiach in his European Yiddish as he quotes him: “Elul is like Erev Shabbos; those who work on Erev Shabbos eat on Shabbos. One must properly prepare for the holy days of the Yamim Nora’im. Everything a person will experience throughout the year is decided on the Yom Hadin. Simchos, yeshuos, problems with children, money or health problems, tragedies—everything is sealed during these days. People think the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed on Tishah B’Av, but the truth is that the Churban happened on Rosh Hashanah, because that’s when the decision was sealed.”

Rav Blau relates that Rav Velvel Chechik zt”l once suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital early on a winter morning and attached to all types of machines and wires. He was heard commenting that if he had only cried out a bit harder during the Yamim Nora’im, all of this suffering could have been avoided.

Every small act

Rav Blau gives practical advice for this auspicious time. “The Mashgiach used to say that every drop of ruchniyus is a great achievement, but accomplishing nothing is ‘geferlach, terrible.’ Imagine someone collecting for a yeshivah with a budget of fifteen million dollars. A donor is thinking about whether to give him a dime or not. For such a large budget, that dime will make absolutely no difference. But ruchniyus does not work the same way as gashmiyus. ‘Even a bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.’ You may think your small accomplishments are worthless, but the difference between that small accomplishment and achieving nothing is inestimable.

“The Mashgiach would talk about bnei Torah who only a few short days after Yom Kippur find themselves left with nothing. He would explain that this happens because they aim too high and aren’t satisfied with anything short of teshuvah sheleimah. They decide they will never utter a word of bittul Torah again, their eyes will never stray again, they will never come late to davening, etc. The trick is to take upon yourself something small that you can keep throughout the year. That way, every time you adhere to your resolution, you are reminded of the Yamim Nora’im and your goal to strive for more growth.”

Rav Blau shares that Rav Isser Zalman was asked by a ben Torah what he should leave the Yamim Nora’im with. He answered that every day he should say one bracha from a siddur. Even a small thing, when done l’kavod Yom Hadin, makes a big difference.

“Learn something new for half an hour. Say a nice ‘good Shabbos’ to your wife,” Rav Blau says. “I once heard Rav [Avraham] Pam zt”l say that being mechabed your wife is a chiyuv d’Oraysa. We write in the kesubahAna eflach v’okir—I will work and honor.’ Just writing these words would not constitute a chiyuv, it would just be a matter of remaining a man of your word. But the chassan makes a kabbalas kinyan on the words of the kesubah, making it a chiyuv gamur. You are a ganav if you do not honor your obligations.”

Speaking to Rav Blau was like being transported back in time to postwar Yerushalayim and sitting through a shmuess of the legendary Mirrer Mashgiach. His moving tale of hardship and perseverance and his impassionate words of mussar have lent an entirely new dimension to the yemei hadin. His “Kesivah v’chasimah tovah” rings in my ears as I take leave of a tzaddik and veteran chazzan who was molded by his unique life experiences as well as the gedolim he sought out.