Rav Grainom Lazewnik, born in 1915, is a talmid of Novardok in Europe who also learned by the Steipler while there. Among the many other Torah luminaries he met over the course of his long life, bli ayin hara, were the mashgiach of Baranovich, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky; Rav Aharon Walkin; and the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes. He fought in both the Polish and Russian armies and ran sabotage missions for the partisans against the Nazis during WWII, surviving only through open miracles. Indeed, Rav Lazewnik is a witness to the history of yesteryear.
In the heart of Flatbush there is a nondescript red brick semi-detached house, typical of the neighborhood. If not for the tiny metal sign reading “Mosad Adar Gbyr,” one might miss Rav Lazewnik’s shul entirely. Going in, one is presented with two doors. One door opens to the beis midrash; the other leads to an old, rickety staircase going up to the Rav’s apartment. The shul looks as if time has stood still since 1970, when it first opened its doors. The walls are covered with wooden paneling, and the bookcases are filled with old sefarim whose bindings are tearing at the seams. The chairs and pews also date back to the same era.
When I first got married, I lived around the corner and used to daven there frequently. It was obvious that Rav Grainom hailed from prewar Europe, but I always assumed he was in his 80s. After davening there for a while, I sometimes attended the Rav’s Gemara shiur. One time, during the shiur, Rav Lazewnik offhandedly mentioned that he had learned by the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky in Novardok. I remember being amazed, and I wondered how old he really was.
Rav Lazewnik’s apartment is also from another era. I find Rav Grainom sitting at a tiny table with six small chairs crammed around it. A bright lamp is shining on a specially made extra-large-print gemara. The kitchen looks like it was already outdated 50 years ago and is barely wide enough for an average-sized person to move around in it. Next to the gemara lies a well-worn Chovos Halevavos, as would befit a talmid of the mussar-oriented Novardok yeshivos.
Rav Grainom looks up from Masechas Arachin as I walk in and motions for me to speak up. “Ich her shoin nit azoi gut,” he tells me. “I don’t hear so well anymore.” Having recently recovered from an illness, he told the shul’s gabbai to keep his name on the list of cholim in need of a refuah, because he still has difficulty getting around on his own and uses a walker. “You came to hear for my history?” he then says in heavily-accented English. “Do you really have so much time?” (The Rav has been isolated since the onset of COVID-19 and has only recently returned to davening with the tzibbur after being vaccinated. Amazingly, the year in isolation hasn’t affected his mental acuity.)
Rav Grainom was born in Lenin, located near Pinsk in Poland (now Belarus). His father, Reb Yaakov, was the gabbai and was one of the most respected balebatim in town. “He wasn’t a wealthy man by any means, but we had what to eat. That might not sound like much, but in those days this wasn’t something that most people took for granted. When I was 11, my father took me out of the local talmud Torah and hired a rebbe, because he felt that it was time for me to start learning Gemara. Our rav, Rav Moshe Milstein, had tried to establish a local yeshivah, but the maggid shiur had left for Novardok. Although most bar mitzvah-aged boys in my town went to Kletzk, I chose to follow my maggid shiur to Pinsk.”
Novardok and the Steipler
Instead of establishing one large yeshivah, the Alter of Novardok, Rav Yosef Yozel Horowitz, felt that Torah would best be disseminated by making it more accessible. He therefore sent talmidim to cities across Europe to open smaller yeshivos. The Novardok network boasted hundreds of yeshivos, but the three main ones were located in Bialystok, headed by Rav Avraham Yoffen, the son-in-law of the Alter; in Mezritch, helmed by Rav Dovid Bleicher; and in Pinsk, where Rav Shmuel Weintraub was the rosh yeshivah.
“I was farhered by the Steipler Gaon. He told me to prepare a blatt Gemara and asked me a few questions. Thankfully, the main kashe was a Tosafos so I was able to answer,” Rav Grainom says humbly. “Shortly after I got there, the maggid shiur left because the yeshivah couldn’t pay him, so I joined
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