The Yom Tov Stern Family - Stars in the Jewish Firmament
by M. Samsonowitz
In the Service of the Community
When Chaya Esther Stern passed away on January 27, 1998, it was a sad moment not only for the large Stern family spread out over the U.S. and Israel, but it signaled the sunset of another generation of a family that had resolutely stood up to the trials of early America while maintaining and promoting an authentic Jewish environment. In the pre-War years, Yom Tov and Chaya Esther Stern raised her children with all-encompassing devotion, and ran her home so that it was a lighthouse of chesed and wisdom. After Yom Tov's passing and Chaya Esther's move to Eretz Yisroel, she naturally assumed the position of matriarch for her large family because of the reverence that all her descendants felt toward her.
Mrs. Stern was born Chaya Esther Herman, the oldest daughter of Yaakov Yosef Herman (of All for the Boss fame), on August 6, 1905 (5665). She grew up in a home whose attitude to Judaism was uncompromising: her grandfather on her mother's side was Rav Shmuel Yitzchok Andron from Dvinsk, the founder of one of the first yeshivos in America, Yeshivas Yaakov Yosef on the Lower East Side. Her father was a strictly religious man and a born nonconformist, who was singularly unimpressed by all the attractions of America during those years when Jews who had made it to the U.S. were rushing to dive into the melting pot. New York is those days was a religious Wild West. Visitors from abroad were afraid to eat in New York Jewish homes, since word of the disreputable standards of kashrus were rife. There was only one family where rabbis and meshulachim all over the world knew they could safely eat — the Hermans — and without this oasis, many individuals would have literally starved.
Rebbetzin Feinstein, the wife of the world-famous posek, demonstrated the vital role that the Hermans played when she told a grocery store owner shortly after her arrival, "I'm waiting for Mrs. Herman to come and tell me what I can buy." Chaya Esther, as the oldest daughter in the family, was her mother's right hand in the warm hospitality that was proffered to the armies of guests that visited their home.
When President Theodore Roosevelt was elected president, the young Chaya Esther wrote him a heartfelt congratulatory letter the gist of which was "As a Jewish resident of New York, congratulations and may G-d guide you in the right way." But she wrote it in her beautiful handwriting in a attractively-worded way. Her family was surprised when she received a personal letter back from the president, "You must realize how much mail has been pouring into Washington to congratulate me. I don't know why, but your postcard to me stood out. Looking at your beautiful handwriting, I decided to write you back in person to thank you for your wishes."
The Stern Family — Deep Torah Roots
At age 17 she married Yom Tov Lipman Stern.
Yom Tov's father came from a town near Vilna, and had studied under Reb Simcha Zissel of Kelm and the Chofetz Chaim. He remained very close with the latter, even when in America. Although the Chofetz Chaim repeatedly urged Jews not to travel to the U.S., he had told the elder Mr. Stern "I'm not worried about you going." Before Stern immigrated to the States, the Chofetz Chaim asked him to write once a month to inform him of his spiritual situation.
Mr. Stern supported himself by becoming a ship ticket agent and a money changer. His two sons attended Columbia University at a time when the only Jews who were accepted were those who achieved 95% or over on exams. His oldest son was Rabbi Dr. Dovid Zussman Stern, who was principal of Torah Vodaas for 39 years, head of the National Council of Young Israel, and, in the last years of his life, chavrusa of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
Yom Tov Lipman, the second son, studied accounting in university. He had successfully completed the entire study program and needed only to take the final exam, when he discovered that it was to be given on the second day of Shavuos. He was in the jaws of an unsolvable dilemma — it was unthinkable to transgress Yom Tov, but would his years of college be for naught?
Summoning his courage, he approached the assistant dean of the Account Faculty, a Jew, and asked for special consideration. The man replied, "The test is given on one day only — if we let you take the test a day earlier, you'll give the answers out, and if we let you take it a day later, you'll get the answers from others! I'm sorry I can't help you." Yom Tov Lipman mumbled a quick "Thanks very much," and walked out. But, on the spur of the moment, he decided to approach the Catholic dean.
"No, there's no way we can let you take the test privately," the dean told him emphatically. Then he looked deeply in Yom Tov's eyes, and asked him spontaneously, "So what will you do now?"
Yom Tov took a deep breath and said, "I'll take the year over, and hope that next year, the text won't be given on Shavuos."
A look of amazement passed over the dean's face. "But — what if you do take the test on the scheduled day? Who's to find out?"
Yom Tov looked steadily. "The One Above sees it. I will never do it." He turned around and began to walk out of the room.
"Young man!" It was the dean calling him back. "The day before your holiday — come to my office. I have something to tell you." Yom Tov left mystified.
Erev Shavuos, Yom Tov appeared before the dean. The dean went over to the door and locked it with a key. He looked up. "Yom Tov, I'm doing something for you that I never did since I became dean. If anyone finds out, they'll fire me." He went over to the safe, opened it, took out several papers which he put it in an envelope and sealed it.
"Take this home with you. I trust that a young man who will take over a year of school because of his religion will not do anything wrong. If you sell this exam, you will become a millionaire — I trust you will not do it. The night after your holiday, you have four hours to do the exam. Get someone to time you. After four hours, put the exam back in the envelope, seal it, and bring it back to me the next day. I trust you on your word of honor that you won't copy from another, or look in a book. No one but us will know that you did this exam privately."
Yom Tov arrived home in a euphoric state. But when he told his father the great favor the dean had done for him, his father replied, "Yom Tov, the dean trusts you — but I don't! Give me the test!" His father kept the exam under lock and key until after Havdalah, and then took it out and gave it to him. "You have four hours and I'm timing you."
Yom Tov was just putting the final touches when the four hours ended. "I'm almost done, Papa!"
"He gave you only four hours!" said his father, and took the papers. Yom Tov received a 98% on the test, with 2% off because he hadn't managed to complete the test.
When the dean next met him, he asked why he didn't finish the test. Yom Tov explained how unyielding his father had been on the time limit, and the dean's mouth fell agape. "I've never heard of such honesty!" he exclaimed. "Would you like to finish the test now?" he then proposed.
Yom Tov of course refused.
Chaya Esther Becomes a Star (Stern)
The wedding of Yom Tov and Chaya Esther was one of the first weddings in the U.S. where separate seating was upheld.
During the festivities, an elderly rav approached Esther Chaya to shake her hand and tell her mazel tov, but she put her hand behind her back and shyly acknowledged his blessing. The rav burst out, "What kind of fanatics are you? Don't you know that you're living in different times and have to change! What could be wrong with a kallah of 17 giving a hand to a rabbi of 70!"
Chaya Esther had been taught in her home that a woman doesn't give hands to anyone besides her husband, father and children. She broke into tears.
R' Yaakov Yosef Herman, the father of the bride, was indignant at this distortion of halacha in public, and feared that others present might accept the rav's ruling. Wedding or no wedding, he demanded to know the source of the rav's decision. Reb Yaakov Yosef pulled out a Beis Shmuel on Even Ezer which explicitly ruled that it was forbidden. The rav of course could find no basis for his claim, and he left the building fuming.
The young couple settled on Livonia Avenue in Brownsville, on the upper floor of the house where Yom Tov's parents lived.
Life was frugal in those beginning years. Despite Yom Tov's impressive qualifications, everyone was working a 6-day week, and Yom Tov's insistence on observing Shabbos was a severe disability. For months he would be hired on Monday, knowing that he would be looking for work by the following Sunday. For two years he and Chaya Esther made a living by sending volume mail for companies in which he received a cent per letter.
The Stern family ate radish roots, cheap beets, bought 2- day old bread, and gave only half a herring to each member. They couldn't afford chicken or meat during the week. Even on Shabbos, each person received half a piece of gefilte fish, and no matter how many guests or children there were, one chicken had to suffice.
In November, 1923, Chana was born, followed by Moshe Aaron in July, 1925, Leah on June, 1927, Goldie in 1929, and Minna in February, 1931.
HaRav Moshe Aharon Stern zt"l
Yom Tov and Chaya Esther had firm principles concerning how they wanted to raise their children. They never spoiled the children to compensate for her own confining childhood. Every child was expected to help out, and boys and girls alike shared the chores. It was a rare week when the family didn't have guests either. Sometimes the older kids were told to say that they weren't hungry, so there would be enough portions for the guests.
Although they lived a frugal existence, the family was content until unexpected tragedy struck. When Yom Tov was 26, he became deathly sick and was diagnosed with nephritis. In these days before steroids, transplants, dialysis and antibiotics, this was a short-lived illness whose victims died within a few weeks. The family had enlisted the services of the famous Professor Loeb of Columbia-Presybterian, one of the biggest experts of kidney diseases in the U.S., but he shrugged his shoulders and sadly informed Chaya Esther that her husband's kidneys had both stopped functioning and "There is nothing we can do." The doctor advised her to take him home to live out his remaining days
Chaya Esther was then a young wife with three little children. The Stern and Herman families rallied around at this hour of despair with heart-rending prayers and supplications. And then Yom Tov's father decided upon a desperate move.
He wrote his rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim, and asked if he could give his son the years of life that remained to him. He was at that time a healthy man of 65 years. The Chofetz Chaim said that it was possible. Mr. Stern begged the A-mighty to transfer his remaining years to his son. Days after that, Yom Tov's kidneys inexplicably began to work again and he regained his health. His father passed away three months after.
Yom Tov lived another 31 years, only passing away at the age of 57. In the interim, Yosef was born in 1933, Shmuel Yitzchok in 1935, Rachel in 1936, and Yisroel Meir in 1941.
When Chaya Esther was sitting shiva for her husband in 1958, an unknown elderly couple suddenly walked in and sat down. The gentleman asked her, "Do you recognize me?"
Chaya Esther did not.
"I am Professor Loeb who treated your husband many years ago."
The fresh widow began to weep. "You knew my husband," she wept. "He passed away so young, at the age of 57!"
"Mrs. Stern," the non-Jewish professor softly rebuked her. "You're crying? Your husband was dead 31 years ago! The Almighty performed a miracle and he lived another 31 years. You should thank the Almighty for the present He gave you!"
Chaya Esther wiped her tears and said softly, "You consoled me.
End of Part I