Books by Yaakov Astor

My Mother-in-Law: Jewish Heroine and Nazi Killer

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This was published on Aish.com

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Rachel Blum around age 20, about five years after surviving the Holocaust.

It was a daunting assignment: speaking to 120 eighth grade girls about the Holocaust in the last hour of the last day of their school year. Compounding my challenge, it was gloriously sunny outside. The girls would be anxious to take leave for their summer vacation.

In my favor, I was going to tell them a remarkable story: that of my mother-in-law, Rachel Blum, may her soul rest in peace – a story I have told to spell-bound audiences and have recently published in book form under the title Nothing Bad Ever Happens.

I told these teenage girls that my mother-in-law was roughly their age during the war years, beginning in June 1941 when the Nazis invaded her town, until July 1944 when the Russians liberated Lublin where she had been hiding with a non-Jewish family.

Then I dove into the story, which is truly incredible and gripping – including a Hollywood-worthy climax as Rachel rides in the caboose of a speeding train transporting a thousand SS soldiers to Germany. Fearful an SS officer is about to discover she is Jewish, she convinces the conductor – Ivan Roluk, husband of the non-Jewish couple who took her in – to overturn the train by speeding up around a sharp bend and blowing the horn just beforehand to allow her and his family to jump. (It worked, the family survived and many Nazis were killed; 15-year-old Rachel was responsible for the death of more SS Nazis in one shot than the combined efforts of all the legendary fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising!)

Despite the dramatic nature of that story, I will save the details for the book and instead share another story, one which is in some ways even more incredible.

Rachel’s childhood town, Ludmir, was home to about 22,000 Jews before the war. On Rosh Hashanah 1942, the Nazis, with the help of local collaborators, began marching columns of bedraggled Jews to a spot outside town and machine-gunned them to death into open pits. Between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews lost their lives that way. And Ludmir was just one of countless Jewish towns in Eastern Europe; all told, some million-and-a-half Jews suffered a similar fate under Nazi domination (even before the gas chambers started operating).

Rachel and her family survived thanks to an ingenious attic hideout. And for the next year, she survived by staying in hiding, smuggling in food for her family and ultimately joining the few thousand survivors in the Ludmir ghetto who had been conscripted into brutal slave labor battalions. Over the year, though, each family member was killed or died of starvation.

Finally, on December 25, 1943, the Nazis came to finish off everyone left in the ghetto. In miraculous fashion – Rachel found a hiding place beneath a wooden porch. A few days later she emerged and made her way to a Polish woman her family knew before the war.

This woman risked her life to keep Rachel – until one day when an anti-Semitic neighbor discovered her. Frightened for her own life now, the Polish woman told her she had to leave by the early morning.

It was January 1944. A fresh layer of deep snow lay on the ground. The air was biting cold. And a little girl, improperly dressed, was alone and on the run again.

She wandered the streets of non-Jewish Ludmir for a while before entering a barn. Her entire body chilled to the bone, she found a spot at the far end and stuck her feet into a stack of hay to warm them up.

Suddenly, a woman walked in. Their eyes met. Rachel pleaded with her to be quiet, promising she would be gone by the next morning. The woman said nothing, gathered some items and left.

As the day turned into evening, Rachel prepared to leave. The night before she had experienced a powerful dream where her recently-deceased father appeared to her and told her everything would be alright. Drawing courage from the dream, she exited the barn and approached the house next to it.

She knocked on the door. The woman she had seen earlier in the day opened it and invited her inside. The woman then introduced husband and their seventeen-year-old son (who Rachel later found out worked in the local SS office!). They offered her a bowl of soup. During conversation it emerged that this family, the Roluks, knew Rachel’s father. They praised him for being a very righteous and honest man they had had business dealings with. If they did not have money to pay for the items he gave them on consignment, he did not pressure them to pay.

At this point in the war, both Rachel and the Roluks knew the Nazis would kill any family caught harboring a Jew. Understanding the predicament, Rachel asked Mrs. Roluk if she and her family were religious. She answered affirmatively. Rachel then asked her if they had a Bible. Again affirmative. Rachel next requested that she take the Bible and place it on the table. She did. Finally, Rachel said to the entire family, “I want all of you to place your hands on the Bible.” They complied.

“Now, promise me the following,” the 14-year-old recently orphaned Jewish girl said. “I have nowhere to run. I’m tired and I’m alone. After this, I will go outside to your backyard and lie down in the snow. There I will freeze to death. You will bury me. Now, promise me on this Bible” – and it is difficult to convey the quality of conviction in my mother-in-law’s voice even as she retold it decades later – “that after the war you will find Jewish people and tell that there is a little Jewish girl buried in the backyard. Promise me that you will tell them that her last wish was that she be reburied with other Jews in a Jewish cemetery.”

A deathly silence fell upon the room. The Roluks looked at each other. One by one, they rose from the table and walked into the next room. Rachel could hear them talking. After a while, they returned and said to her, “You will stay with us. We will tell people that you are our niece from another village.”

What the Roluks did not know at the time was that in saving Rachel they were saving themselves – not only in soul but in body too. (This is detailed in the book. Hint: it has to do with the train story above.)

By the end of my lecture, the 120 girls were mesmerized. The most amazing part of Rachel’s story is that – despite the fact that by war’s end she had no family, friends or money – she became the happiest, most active, most loving and helping human being; someone who regularly said with absolute sincerity, “Nothing bad ever happened to me.”

The story of my mother-in-law inspires on many levels. She is a genuine heroine. As Jews, her story impresses upon us an added message: the value of what it means to be Jewish. Perhaps most of all, we learn from her that even if very bad things happen to us, we have within ourselves an astonishing, mysterious, inextinguishable untapped capacity to love; to be truly happy, active, focused and a magnet of joy for others. God knows, the world needs more of that.

Nothing Bad Ever Happens (retitled: Run Rachel Run) tells the thrilling, true story of Rachel Blum’s struggle to survive in a world bent on destroying her. Click here to order.

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New Book!

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TUGH-72dpi-CMYK-3D I’m very excited to announce a new book I had the privilege to put together.

This book highlights the spiritual activism which took place both inside and outside the Soviet Union between 1975 and 1992. Although a movement to help Soviet Jewry began in the United States and elsewhere in the 1960s, its focus was essentially political, not religious. Its goal was to get the Soviet authorities to allow Jews to immigrate to Israel, not necessarily teach them what it meant to live a Jewish life. For the most part, many of the intellectuals and scientists who became activists in the sixties and the seventies never embraced an observant life. They saw their return to Jewish identity in mostly secular terms. There were a handful of old Jews who miraculously held onto their beliefs and observance even from Lenin’s time, but by Soviet design they had no influence on the younger generations. From a Torah perspective, the Soviet Union was a vast spiritual wasteland.

Then a spark was lit – albeit among a handful of young Jews who were alone, scattered, persecuted, under constant surveillance by the KGB and without books or teachers. Fanning their spark into the fire of a spiritual revolution required Jews from outside the Soviet Union to get involved. And, indeed, a few such Jews stepped into the breach.

One of them was was couple: R’ Mordechai Neustadt and his wife. From husband-and-wife travel agents trying to make a small difference there eventually grew this vast network called Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisrael (Organization to Rescue Dispersed Jews) that dispatched hundreds of shlichim (emissaries) to the Soviet Union to teach and encourage members of a budding baal teshuvah movement. Moreover, as the Soviet Union began collapsing and started letting its Jewish population emigrate, the Vaad helped already-freed Soviet Jews make the transition to life in Eretz Yisrael and America. It would set up yeshivas, kollels and educational institutions geared specifically for them. In short, the Vaad turned a trickle into a torrent. It changed the course of history.

The Vaad’s shlichim were particularly noteworthy in that many of them were prominent roshei yeshiva, venerated mechanchim and acclaimed talmidei chachamim. This cadre of distinguished emissaries placed themselves in the line of fire, risking arrest, detention and hostile interrogations from the KGB just to teach Torah to a lost generation. They were frontline participants and living witnesses to one of the greatest miracles in recent history – the resurrection of Torah-true Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. Their testimonies not only tell the story but tell it with an especially high dosage of Torah perspective.

The hope is that this book becomes the source for young and old, novice and maven, who want an in-depth firsthand account of what happened to Jews in the Soviet Union, the miracle of how Torah sprouted from behind the Iron Curtain, and why, for all its tragedy, the story of Soviet Jewry turned into an incredibly inspiring chapter in the unparalleled ongoing story of the Jewish people.

The Liberating Experience of Judgment

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ImageAccording to Judaism,1 each of us undergoes three different types of Days of Judgment Days:

  1. Rosh Hashanah, which is an annual review of one’s actions over the previous year used to determine one’s material circumstances for the upcoming year;
  2. Day of death, which reviews the deceased person’s life and determines whether it is ready for Paradise;
  3. The Great Day of Judgment, which is an event in the future, at the end of history as we know it, when all who lived are resurrected, and are judged whether they are worthy of everlasting life in a spiritualized renewed physical world (according to most authorities) to frolic in the splendor of God’s Presence.

All this judgment strikes the contemporary mind as backward, even offensive. It only reinforces the stereotypic image of “Old Testament” Judaism as a religion of fear, not love.

Well, yes, judgment — whether on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Death, or the “Great Day of Judgment” — contains the general air of awe and seriousness. There is no sense trying to sugarcoat or diminish the magnitude of these events.

Nevertheless, what’s often lost to the contemporary mind is the liberating experience judgment entails. Perhaps the best illustrations of this are found in a surprising place.
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Speaking engagement on Tisha B’av

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I will be speaking on Tisha B’Av, iyh, at a Hakhel event.

See attachment for details: Hakhel – Tisha B’Av 5773

Topic

The Hidden Hand: Lessons and Teachings From the Holocaust

Including A New Audio-Visual Presentation

Time: 5:45PM

LOCATION: KOLLEL BNEI TORAH
1323 East 32nd Street (Between M & Kings Highway)

Question on Prayer

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Rav Miller on Emunah and BitachonI received the following question [I’ve edited out personal information]:

QUESTION

I’ve just stumbled across your website and after reading it a bit decided to email…. I miscarried more times than I can recall, 20 plus is an average estimate, and while those years were the worst of my life I just remained focused on HaShem, much to the frustration of everyone around me. My faith has just steadily grown stronger…. With any decision making I need to do I always wonder what HaShem wants of me. I paid out possibly around $200k for fertility treatments but always said, I will work hard to pay for it, but ultimately it was up to HaShem if I had children and only He knew what was best for me.  Years later I began to wonder if my desire for children wasn’t great enough and/ or it was wrong handing it over to HaShem. Can you clarify that for me please?

RESPONSE

It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what Hashem wants from you. But we do know, as you said, that Hashem does know what’s best for us. That is certainly the correct sentiment. Beyond that, there can be lots of reasons why things happen or don’t happen, in this case why you have not been able to have children. Let me just throw out one general thought, which may or may not apply to your case.

Most people view prayer as a vehicle to some desire, or their heart’s desire. And that is indeed one important function of prayer, something that many people have yet to learn. However, there is also another way of looking at it: prayer is the goal and our heart’s desire is the vehicle. King David said, Ani tefillasi, “I am prayer.” He did not say, “I pray.” He said, “I am prayer.” He reached the exalted level of being in a constant state of prayer. Sometimes God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer because he wants us to pray harder, to unleash the full potential of our heart’s desire. But at other times he wants us to go even higher, and realize that prayer is an exalted state of being unto itself.

I cannot say which applies to you. But perhaps this might help you. Sometimes the lesson he wants us to learn is that we should not be attached to results, to serve him without the condition of expecting reward. That is not to say that there is no reward. But that we should detach from our expectations to such. There is reward. No prayer goes unanswered — even if it is not immediately answered in the way we thought it would be answered. Keep praying. Keep striving to learn more. Keep realizing God does always know what is best for us.

Rav Miller Book – Table of Contents

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TABLE OF CONTENTS –

Table of Contents – Download (feel free to share)  

DEFINING EMUNAH & BITACHON            

  • What Is Emunah-Bitachon?
  • Why learn about Bitachon?
  • What should one think about when saying the Shema?
  • What is meant by Menuchas HaNefesh (a “Calm Mind”)?
  • How could Elisha Ben Avuya have lost his Emunah?
  • What is meant by pointing at Hashem?
  • How is Emunah “Righteousness”?

ACQUIRING EMUNAH & BITACHON        

  • How does one acquire Emunah?
  • What if one doesn’t have the ability to believe?
  • If Emunah is instinctual why is it so hard to believe?
  • A decent man without Torah?
  • What practical things can a person do to work on Bitachon?

TRUSTING ONLY IN HASHEM     

  • Why was Yosef punished for a minor lack of Bitachon?
  • How does someone deal with betrayal?
  • Why were the younger ones the successful ones?
  • Why does Hashem make things seem hopeless at times?

HISHTADLUS     

  • Wrong Emunah?
  • How much Hishtadlus?
  • Is it possible to forestall trouble?
  • Why did David fight so many battles? Why not have Bitachon?
  • Why does a person have to work?
  • How should one deal with lack of success in Parnassa?
  • How much effort should one put into finding a Shidduch?
  • What does it mean “A person is led the way he wants to go”?
  • Can people die before their time?

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Introduction to the new Rabbi Miller book by Yaakov Astor

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This book is intended for everyone from the most uninitiated to the most advanced student. Indeed, the general topic of emunah and bitachon, “faith and trust,” is for every human being: man and woman, adult and child, Jew and non-Jew. Like a gushing fountain, it’s a never-ending subject, completely replenishing itself with time. The youngest child can attain (and should be taught) some understanding of it while at the same time adults build on that understanding (hopefully) as time goes on.

Rabbi Miller was uniquely qualified to speak on such a subject. He had a special ability to make the most complex subjects sound simple. Of course, no one should mistake this for lack of depth. Indeed, just a perusal of all the sources he drew on, constantly and often just from memory, is testimony to the breadth. His uncanny ability to instantly apply this vast knowledge to every question thrown at him during his thousands of recorded lectures amply demonstrates the depth of this knowledge. (Not that he needed to prove that.)

His same words that struck a chord with the uninitiated caused great excitement to the advanced student. This ability, combined with his vast erudition and depth of knowledge, makes a book by him on the subject of faith something the widest spectrum of people can understand — and not only understand, as Rabbi Miller would say, but to utilize to change and grow; to make oneself a better person.

Although Rabbi Miller authored 12 books on his own, he left thousands of recorded lectures which include many ideas and/or many nuances of ideas that were either not necessarily mentioned in his books or explained in as much detail in those books. Our topic, emunah and bitachon, is implied in and indeed oozes from all his writings and recordings, but none of the books talk about it as explicitly or at least in once concentrated area as we have endeavored here.

This book is based primarily on the following lectures recorded by Rabbi Miller.

  • 1. Singing In The World
  • 23. Forestalling Trouble
  • 241. Bitachon And Hishtadlus
  • 334. Bitachon And Emunah
  • 486. Bitachon: From Nowhere Comes My Help
  • 562. Bitachon I
  • 794. Bitachon And The Calm Mind
  • 946. Three Aspects Of Bitachon
  • S-10. Bitachon 1
  • S-11. Bitachon 2
  • S-12. Bitachon 3
  • S-13. Bitachon 4

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My New Book – R’ Miller on Bitachon

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I’m happy to announce my newest book, Rav Avigdor Miller on Emunah and Bitachon. Please stayed tuned to this blog for excerpts. Meanwhile, here is a brief description of the book:

Rabbi Miller on EmunahVirtually every decision we make is affected by our grasp of the principles of emunah and bitachon (faith and trust in Hashem). But where do we turn to gain clarity about these issues, to find answers to our many questions?

Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, answered that need for thousands of Jews, and more than a decade after his passing, he continues to do so. Rav Miller left behind a vast legacy of recorded shiurim and writings. Now, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Yaakov Astor, an important part of that legacy has been transformed into this monumental book.

The themes of emunah and bitachon permeated a great many of Rav Miller’s shiurim and seforim, but the material was scattered in many different places and was thus hard to access. Now, that eye-opening material has been collected, assembled and organized into a fascinating question-and-answer book, a book that will answer your questions and bring you clarity when you need it most. Rav Miller’s bold, straightforward approach sheds a brilliant light on the most troubling, thorny issues that confront us. His crystal clear Torah wisdom will profoundly impact your life.

“This sefer will surely enlighten and inspire every reader.”
— Rabbi Shmuel Miller, Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel

Light in the Kingdom of Darkness

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Aushwitz-Birkenau. The main Nazi guard tower is the highest point, offering a view of virtually the entire camp. In that tower, we davened mincha…

Last month, I joined a group of 24 educators visiting the concentration camps in Poland. It was the culminating leg of a year-long fellowship program sponsored by Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education branch of Torah U’Mesorah. Its director, Rabbi Sholom Freidmann, and I worked all year with these highly experienced and accomplished teachers helping them to become in effect the vanguard of a new generation of Holocaust educators.

From the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps at Treblinka and Majdanek to the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (presently being rebuilt) to the kevarim of the Remah, Sfas Emes, Chozeh of Lublin, Maharal and others – none of us came back the same.

Undoubtedly, the most moving experience was Auschwitz…

Auschwitz – its name alone sends a chill down the spine.

Peering through the barbed-wire fence for the first time, the thing that struck me was its size. Nothing had prepared me to grasp the sheer expanse of Birkenau, Auschwitz’s main death camp. Besides the unimaginable numbers murdered there, it housed 80,000 slave laborers.

80,000!

That’s larger than most Jewish communities today; think of a medium-sized town.

Row after row of barracks stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Straight ahead, the infamous railroad tracks extended into the distance further than I had imagined until they veered off to the equally infamous disembarkation point where Dr. Mengele conducted the Selektion, deciding who would live and who would die….

A chilling thought as we head into the days of Elul and Yemei HaDin….

It took hours to tour the camp. Terrifying… horrifying… yet uplifting don’t properly convey the emotions… especially by the “Pool of Ashes,” a marsh-like area of human ash next to the tangled concrete and metal of the now destroyed gas chambers and crematoria, listening to Rabbi Shmuel Klein talk about Kiddush Hashem… which was followed by a rousing kaddish.

Kiddush Hashem – it’s hard to explain to the uninitiated the connection between Auschwitz and Kiddush Hashem. But, nowhere more than the depths of the deepest darkness can the brightest light of spiritual heroism emerge.

By day’s end, we were the only group remaining in this Empire of Evil. That was eerie enough. But then we were given special permission to ascend the main Nazi guard tower. And there, high above Hitler’s Valley of Death, we turned east, bowed and poured our hearts out to Hashem.

After mincha, the guard tower became engulfed in a supernatural orange glow of the now set sun. Spontaneously, we formed a circle and danced — silhouetted against heaven’s glow — singing Aleh Varechev, Ani Ma’amim and L’shana Habah b’Yerushalayim.

View from atop the guard tower where we davened mincha. (View is west; we prayed facing east.)

It was a flash of light in the Kingdom of Darkness. A moment of triumph. A proclamation! The Thousand Year Reich is dead… Om Yisrael chai….

Elul is a time for introspection… and inspiration… to make light, not darkness… to choose life… to live lives of Kiddush Hashem… for the six million kedoshim… for ourselves.