by his Children
Last month, we began the story of our Totty, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Siegel. We described his youth as a graduate of TA’s first high school class; his 10 years of learning in Ner Israel with his rebbe, the Rosh Yeshiva Harav Ruderman; his marriage; and his passion for the sugya of zmanim, about which he wrote three sefarim and was an internationally recognized expert. We continue the story of our father’s life.
Son-in-law and Ner Israel alumnus, Nosson Westreich, remembers when the Rosh Yeshiva asked him to deliver a message to our father. Rabbi Ruderman wanted Totty to come to the yeshiva because he wanted to confer upon him a Yadin Yadin semicha, the highest level semicha available. The earlier semicha conferred upon our father by the Rosh Yeshiva had been a Rav Moreh Umanhig, which the Rosh Yeshiva felt was not befitting our father’s kavod and his level of Talmudic mastery. According to Nosson, upon hearing Rabbi Ruderman’s message, Totty was reticent, even reluctant. Several weeks later, the Rosh Yeshiva called Nosson in again to follow up on his earlier request. He asked Nosson to deliver the message a second time. Nosson did so, and once again, Totty demurred. When Nosson asked him why he was not pursuing this offer, Totty said, “Hekdesh is not chal on a baal mum – a person with a defect cannot acquire holiness.” According to Nosson, when he went back to the Rosh Yeshiva to deliver this message, the Rosh Yeshiva responded, “He is not a baal mum; he is a tamim – He has no defect; he is pure and unblemished.” At Totty’s insistence, the matter was left closed.
In his post-retirement years, our father learned in the senior kollel headed by his TA classmate Rabbi Nachman Klein. Totty gave shiurim on a number of topics and would pinch-hit for Daf Yomi when needed, as he could always be counted upon to be holding in whatever the daily subject matter was. He was remembered for the absolute patience and clarity he had in learning with others. No matter how heated the discourse with his chavrusas, our father remained calm and gentle in his manner. And of course, he was always ready to engage with excitement and animation in any discussion about his beloved zmanim.
On the Home Front – Conscientious and Committed
Totty’s Class of ’47 classmate, Rav Aharon Feldman, shlita, said about him that “he was without contradictions in his life. Everything was consistent.” Commitment to his family was a manifestation of this consistency in his life. Any endeavor that our father undertook was marked by precision and conscientiousness: be it learning, carpool, laundry, dishes, or helping with homework.
Soon after his mother, Miriam, died in 1960, our parents moved into his parents’ house at 5700 Narcissus Avenue in Baltimore, a historic home, as it had been previously owned by Rabbi Shimon Schwab and Rebbitzen Schwab, who moved from Baltimore to Washington Heights when Rabbi Schwab assumed leadership of the Breuer’s kehila.
As a family, we were zocheh to have our grandfather, Morris, live with us from the time of our grandmother Miriam’s petira (passing). Having Grandpa Morris in our home was nothing short of magical, as his joyous spirit permeated every aspect of our home, particularly on Shabbos. For our father, having his father live with us provided him and our mother with endless opportunities to demonstrate the act of kibud av (respect for one’s father) at the very highest level and to serve as exemplars for us children. Throughout our childhood, we recall that it was our grandfather who sat at the head of the table with our father at his side. Totty stood up for his father every time he entered a room. With the utmost gracefulness, our father always deferred to his father’s preferences.
On those mornings when he was scheduled to do carpool, our father would often daven at home to ensure that he was punctual to all his pick-ups. Our father did not view this as a compromise in his adherence to the mitzva of davening with the tzibur. Rather, he was acting in accordance with his practice of being medakdek (exacting) in all of his actions and in accordance with the Torah principle that one cannot delegate the act of chesed to others; especially when those individuals in need of chesed were his wife and his own children.
We children were thoroughly familiar with our father’s distinctive rendition of the Shema, as we would hear his recitation reverberating throughout the house on those carpool mornings when he davened at home privately. When our father would pick up carpool at the end of the school day, he would arrive early and would spend the time until dismissal with a sefer, learning in the car.
R’ Shmuel Dovid’s children were not the only family members who benefitted from his exceptional carpooling skills. Our father would regularly pick up and drop off our Grandpa from minyanim and from the historic Wednesday night and motzei Shabbos shiurim with Rav Yaakov Kulefsky, zt”l. When we were absent from school, our father would go to our friend’s houses to collect their notes from the lessons we had missed to ensure that we did not fall behind. After we had finished copying what we needed, our father would always take care to return the notebooks to the classmate that same evening so that they were not inconvenienced by sharing their materials with us.
At night, our father was impeccable in carrying out his responsibilities. He never learned outside the house and would only sit down to begin his own learning after all of the homework and housework had been completed. We children considered it perfectly normal to see our father learning for hours night after night on his own in the house. We never heard him voice a word of complaint that his learning was suffering because of his diligent attention to his responsibilities at home. Our mother’s pursuits as PTA president at TA and as a proud member of the chevra kadisha were facilitated by his supportive attitude.
The one exception to our father’s nightly study in the home was the weekly Wednesday night excursion with the entire family to the local public library, where we would each take out the full limit of books allowed. Totty would most often spend his time at the library at a table in the children’s section learning and keeping a watchful eye while we children would run around at high speed collecting our allotment of books. On occasion, we would notice our father examining books in the Reference section, where, we surmise, he was conducting his research into those issues that he needed for his zmanim analysis.
In later years, when the first of the Westreich grandsons entered the Ner Israel Bais Midrash, Zaidy Siegel started a biweekly Derech Hashem chavrusa with his oldest grandson, Aryeh. Not only did Aryeh benefit from the regular learning with his Zaidy, but he also forged an enduring relationship with his grandfather.
Consistent in the Face of Challenges
Our mother’s passing in 1981, at the age of 46, was a great blow to our father, who was left with a young family and his aging father to care for. He met those challenges with the absolute faith and acceptance of the will of the Ribono shel Olam that defined him from his youth.
In 1985, Totty married the former Yente Potash from Brooklyn. Their shidduch was made by Mrs. Eisgrau, mother of Totty’s close friend, Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau. As a Holocaust survivor whose entire family had been wiped out, Yente was delighted to finally have a father-in-law and an elter-Zaidy for her own grandchildren. She devotedly cared for Grandpa until his passing in 1989. Yente carried on the Siegel legacy of Torah and chesed, volunteering in Levindale and at the local nursing homes and hospitals.
Even after his children had long-since graduated from school, our father’s carpooling duties did not come to an end. More than once, Totty would proudly support Yente in her activities as a doula (birthing coach) by driving her in the middle of the night to the hospital to help young women during childbirth.
During his marriage to Yente, our father moved into his job as a mashgiach (kashrus superintendent) at Empire, where he worked for 10 years. He continued to distinguish himself as a valuable Torah and halachic resource in his new professional capacity. Ever humble, when asked to accept a promotion as a rav hamachshir (rabbinic administrator), Totty declined, preferring to remain a simple mashgiach working on the production line. Rabbi Kostelitz, rav hamachshir, described our father as a tzadik: “He never said a word of lashon hara or complaint…. He was a sefer chai (a living Torah work).”
With Yente by his side, Totty continued in his Torah endeavors and wrote his fourth sefer, Nachalas Sadeh, which was a collection of commentaries on the parsha and on Yom Tov.
By 2010, it was apparent that something in our father’s cognitive health was shifting. At first, the changes were subtle: a bit of forgetfulness for names and events. However, when his grasp of zmanin and schedules seemed to be affected, we knew that something serious was happening. Neurological testing confirmed that some form of dementia was setting in: likely, Alzheimer’s.
Even with the cognitive losses, Totty continued to amaze. Those who did not know that he was struggling with dementia continued to discourse in learning with him. His prowess and halachic insights into zmanim analysis remained unparalleled. Nevertheless, planning to move the couple to a more supported environment began. By then, the Siegel children had moved to other communities: Azriel to Eretz Yisroel, Sara to Toronto, Miriam to St. Louis, Fayge to Detroit, and Chaim to Far Rockaway. Although the children from both the Siegel and Potash sides visited regularly, Totty was becoming aware that the shift in his health would place additional demands on his wife that could only be met by living in proximity to children.
The decision to move to Monsey, closer to children, was emotionally fraught as Totty’s ties to his beloved Baltimore were deeply and generationally entrenched. However, in his inimical way, he accepted the changes without complaint and with absolute acceptance.
Upon moving to Monsey, Totty immediately recognized the advantages of living near children and being next door to a shul. In short order, this consummate Litvak found a home in the Stoliner shul next door and had become a much-loved figure, learning regularly with a chavrusa. Even as his health became frail and his cognitive abilities declined, Totty remained able to discourse in learning.
Due to Totty’s increased risk of falling as his Alzheimer’s progressed, the family had no choice but to protect his safety by finding him a residential placement. We were fortunate to find Totty a spot in Pine Valley in New Square, which not only provided excellent medical support for his advancing Alzheimers but had the added advantage of close ties with the chasidic community of Skver. Totty was able to attend a daily minyan, and on Shabbos to attend the Skverer shteible, which was housed in the Pine Valley building.
Even while confined to a wheelchair at Pine Valley, Totty continued to delight visitors with his capacity (albeit modified) to carry on a conversation about Torah topics. While his recent memories were affected, his long-term recollections were largely intact. The intense learning of his childhood stood him in good stead. As recently as three weeks before his petira, if prompted with a fragment of any pasuk (verse) in Chumash, Gemara, or Rashi, he could complete it unaided, and with minimal support he was able to do a weekly review of the sedrah. At the end of every conversation with him, Totty would give brochos to the visitor or caller, sharing his wish that we would share besoros tovos (good news).
Last Chanukah, his final Chanukah, Totty was visited at Pine Valley by his great-nephew and long-term chavrusa, Leibi Laks. The two had been learning weekly on Shabbos afternoons for eight years, until the move to Monsey, with the chavrusa only being cancelled for hurricanes and blizzards. During this visit, Totty took Leibi’s gemara Brachos and opened it to the daf (page) in Brachos that discusses the treatment to be accorded to a talmid chacham who forgot his learning due to illness or the need to seek a livelihood. The gemara clearly states that one must not show disrespect to the talmid chacham, as he is compared to the broken luchos, the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, which were accorded the honor of being placed in the Aron (ark) in the Bais Hamikdash (the Temple).
Even in the throes of his Alzheimer’s, as his mind was ravaged by this disease, it was clear from this exchange that Totty was aware of his cognitive loss. However, he did not allow that awareness to interfere with his ability to take pleasure in what he had or to detract from his essential personhood. Totty’s recognition of the value of his Torah learning remained intact.
At his funeral in Baltimore, the hespedim (eulogies) of our father, by his chaver, the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aron Feldman; Rav Sheftel Neuberger; Totty’s sons, Azriel and Chaim Siegel; his son-in-law Yossi Young; his grandson, Aryeh Westreich; and his step-grandson Yisroel (Srulie) Twerski painted a portrait of an exceptional and unique talmid chacham, who was always sameach bechelko (content with his lot); a study in humility and graciousness; and one who remained true to his fundamental identity as an eved Hashem (a servant of G-d).
As was his final wish, our father was buried in the Bnai Israel cemetery in the holy ground where his beloved family: wife, Ruth; parents, Morris and Miriam; grandparents, Chaim and Sora Fayge; and other Siegel aunts and uncles are buried. May he be a meilitz yosher, a righteous intermediary, in the Heavenly Court, for his family and for klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Shmuel Dovid HaLevi Siegel leaves behind his wife, Mrs. Yenti Siegel, now of Monsey; his sisters, Mrs. Debbie Naiman of Baltimore and Mrs. Ada Sperling of Jerusalem; his children, Rabbi Azriel and Mrs. Esti Siegel of Ashdod; Rabbi Dr. Nosson and Mrs. Sara Westreich of Toronto; Rabbi Yossy and Mrs. Miriam Florans of St. Louis; Mr. Yossi and Mrs. Fayge Young of Detroit; Rabbi Dr. Chaim and Mrs. Tzipora Siegel of Far Rockaway; grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and the extended Siegel and Potash families in America and Eretz Yisrael.