It is rare that you read a biography about someone whom you knew and come away with the feeling that the book truly captured the essence of its subject. Rabbi Akiva Fox has authored such a masterpiece with his biography of Rav Chaim Fasman, founder and rosh kollel of Kollel Bais Avraham in Los Angeles.
There are many facets to the book. With the biographical material about Rav Fasman’s parents, followed by Rav Fasman’s studies in Chicago, Ponevezh, Brisk, Lakewood and Bais HaTalmud before trailblazing Torah on the West Coast, the book serves as a history of the development of Torah in the West and Midwest.
With countless vignettes of Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman, Rav Chaim’s father, we develop an appreciation of his personality and the challenges facing the rabbinate and Jewish educators in the middle of the twentieth century. The author did extensive research by speaking with numerous people who knew Rabbi Chaim Fasman from his youth (such as Rabbi Berel Wein, who can always be trusted to have some good stories) and his time in Ponevezh and Bais HaTalmud, to those who accompanied him to fight the challenges of opening a kollel in the then midbar of Los Angeles, to those who worked with him in Los Angeles and many Chavrei HaKollel from a period of over 40 years.
We learn of his devotion to Torah and tefilla and his never-ending sense of responsibility to the kehilla. Having studied in the kollel for five years, I could hear Rabbi Fasman’s voice coming alive again through these pages, and I can testify that the stories told of which I have first-hand knowledge were all told with fidelity to accuracy.
Rabbi Fasman was not satisfied with remaining within the “four cubits of halacha” but spread his wings to other areas in which he felt there was a communal need. The book mentions his involvement in upgrading the level of kashrus in Los Angeles. At one point it quotes him as saying that he regrets not insisting that “only places that don’t need a hechsher receive a hechsher.” I suspect this has a connection to something touched on earlier in the book, in which it mentions that in 1933 Rabbi Fasman senior had embarked on a trip to Europe to meet some of the gedolim there. Not mentioned in the book was his meeting with Rav Yosef Yonah Horowitz of Frankfurt. I heard him tell at a grandson’s bar mitzvah that after meeting with Rav Horowitz, they asked him where there were kosher restaurants. After Rav Horowitz told them, they asked if they were all under a reliable hechsher. The Rav responded that the rule in Frankfurt was that anyplace the needs a hechsher did not receive a hechsher. Only places that did not need a hechsher were given one.
The book mentions that Rav Fasman was instrumental in planting the seeds for several outreach organizations that are currently active in Los Angeles. It doesn’t sufficiently address what he did on behalf of the Persian community. In the mid-80s, while there was already a large Persian community in Los Angeles, few of its members were Torah-observant, and there were no schools to teach their children according to their mesorah. Rabbi Fasman brought Rav Dovid Zargari to the kollel to help him become established and subsequently to build a Persian Torah community, including shuls and schools. The flourishing community that exists today in Los Angeles is a result of Rav Fasman’s efforts.
The older I get, the more I realize that when I was younger I had opportunities to learn from people who had much Torah to share, and I did not take full advantage of those opportunities. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, it was that I didn’t realize or appreciate what it was that they had to offer until the opportunity had long passed. One of the people that always comes to mind when I think of that is Rav Fasman. From Rav Kreisworth and Rav Mendel Kaplan in Chicago, to Rav Shmuel Rozovsky and the Brisker Rav in Eretz Yisroel, to Rav Leib Malin and Rav Chaim Visoker in Bais HaTalmud, he had absorbed a gargantuan tradition of learning and Mussar that imbued the way he conducted his life. We will never see such a person again.