Tied up in Torah: The world according to Rav Dr. Meir Zev Weiner

With hundreds of ties hooked on a rack over his bedroom door, with spillover packing his closet, this is no simple matter. 

 ShREK OR Balak? Rav Dr. Meir Zev Weiner ties one on.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ShREK OR Balak? Rav Dr. Meir Zev Weiner ties one on.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

With the help of heaven, b’siyata d’shamaya, Rav Dr. Meir Zev Weiner is able to find the tie he’s looking for. But it’s not easy. With hundreds of ties hooked on a rack over his bedroom door, with spillover packing his closet, this is no simple matter. 

This phenomenon of neck ties tied up in Torah began 20 years ago, when Meir’s nephew had a collection of beautiful character ties, cartoons, all kinds of untraditional ties and that was his signature, his identity. Then, being haredi, he decided that he wanted to blend in more with his community. So that’s when Uncle Meir took over.

“The big lord in the sky told me it was an opportunity to tap into the parasha. I’m a pun man. So I have to be prepared to answer any possible question about the tie and if someone’s got a good idea, I’ll tell it next year in that person’s name,” he says.

Meir points to the tie he has chosen for this interview. To an observant eye, this is the Disney character Shrek. But to Meir, this is Balak. “I turned him into the destructive angel blocking the donkey and that cat is Bilam riding the donkey. Someone at shul told me that Bilam and Balak were green with envy for the Jewish people. I didn’t think about that until he mentioned it.”

Meir discovered that the weirder and more removed it is from the Torah portion, the more people tend to appreciate the connection.

 hUNDREDS OF ties are hooked on a rack over his bed-room door. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) hUNDREDS OF ties are hooked on a rack over his bed-room door. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“I went to a niece’s sheva brachas, and in preparing the d’var Torah, I asked myself which tie would be appropriate. I found my Elvis tie, which fit because this was the week of Vayeishev – the parasha of Joseph being sold by his brothers and thrown in jail in Egypt. 

“Like the song ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ he was put in jail. Then he was suspected of misbehavior, and there’s that line in the song – ‘She looks like an angel, talks like an angel, walks like an angel. But I got wise. She was a devil in disguise.’ Elvis became the king of rock & roll and Joseph was the most powerful man in Egypt after Pharaoh. The ancient capital of Egypt was Memphis, and Elvis lived and died in Memphis.”

How does a rabbi who received rabbinic ordination in 1967 from the Hevron Yeshiva know so much about Elvis? He admits he’s always been in tune with the times.

“If I’m a square, forget about it. I was always fashionable. I had bell-bottoms, Slim Jims, jeans, and whatever style there was. 

“I was a rabbi and worked with kids all my life. My first job came about when I met the rabbi of a religious day school in Atlanta on a cruise during my honeymoon. I was called the Pied Piper of the school because the kids always followed me, which was an attraction my father, who was also a rabbi, had. 

“Most of the kids in Atlanta weren’t religious and they saw that I accepted them. I opened my heart unconditionally and I listened to them. You have to be kind to yourself and others so that God will be kind to you.”

Meir moved on to become principal in Delaware at Albert Einstein Hebrew Academy, then Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Manhattan, and the southern regional director of OU’s NCSY, taking care of 800 kids. After making aliyah in 1991, he took charge of American programs for the Sephardic educational center and worked with kids at risk for the Jerusalem municipality. 

As an added precaution, he took a police course to boost security around him and his kids – and received his license to carry a gun.

“The truth is that I always had a knack for psychology. I was the guy people came to when they had their tsuris (Yiddish for ‘troubles’),” he says. Holding a master’s degree in education, he went on to get his PhD in psychology at an age when most are thinking of retirement. 

“What was important was to be able to increase my influence. This doctorate is nothing though, compared to what happened with the ties. It’s so beautiful. I owe the Torah ties to my student in Beit Shemesh, Reuven Ashenberg, and my education director when I ran the Bnei Simcha school for autistic men in Jerusalem about five years ago. 

“He liked the idea of what I was doing with the ties and he wanted to do the same thing in Beit Shemesh, so each week he came here to choose a tie for the parasha – besides the one I have to wear for myself. He knew how to choose the better tie. 

WHILE MEIR is convinced that he’s advertising the parasha in a refreshing way, he admits that not everyone who glances at his ties is amused. 

“I was at a wedding and to make the hatan and kallah (groom and bride) happy, I put on a costume, with a camera that shoots bubbles. And I did fireworks. An American rabbi came over to me. ‘How can you do this? Meir, if you want to make them happy, talk Torah.’

“So he’s a rabbi and I’m a rabbi and I know a little too. He’s challenging me, so I tell him that it’s the opposite of what he thinks. I’m sanctifying it. Everyone will remember the Torah this way.

“He was challenging me for what he felt was the wrong way to make simha with fireworks. I told him: ‘What else is there at a wedding? The hatan and kallah  become independent from their parents and they are forgiven of their sins. So it’s independence day for them. How do we celebrate Independence Day in America? With fireworks.’ His tongue hung out in disbelief. The greatest simha is to create simha. The greatest oneg (pleasure) is to create oneg.

There hasn’t been a single parasha when Meir couldn’t come up with a connection to a tie. “Everything is in the Torah. For the parasha relating to the spies, I have my tie with sneakers. My Sponge Bob tie says: Employer of the Month. I used that for the parasha when Ya’akov Avinu had to work for Laban. He was the employee of the month for 14 years running. For Passover, there’s the tie that offers why this knight is different from all other knights. 

“The problem is that people can get so whacked out if they recognize I wore the same tie three weeks ago. Or that I wore the same tie last year for the same parasha. They expect that I should have new commentaries on the tie.

Meir gradually added a new accessory: tie tacks. For parasha Huchat, the go-to tie shows a black cow with a red hat on, and the hat is flipped over backward. 

“I asked myself, how could I adapt this to the red heifer? I had a tie tack with a cow on it. I took red nail polish and painted the little cow red except for the horn and the udders. He now has his yichus – pedigree of being the brother of the red cow.

“I keep all sorts of supplies on hand to supplement my collection. I go most into the second-hand stores, as I especially like the ties of the Forties and late Thirties. They’re very abstract.

“Before COVID, I’d ask people who were traveling to look out for specific ties for me. When my grandson went to Australia, he brought me back a kangaroo tie. God is the kangaroo and we are the baby inside his pouch and he protects us. We don’t even know it.”

If you just say these things, it doesn’t come out the same. I’m like one of those guys in the 1930s and 1940s who walked around with those sandwich boards, except I’m advertising Torah.

MEIR WAS born in 1945 in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, which he describes as Mike Tyson’s old neighborhood when it was all Jewish. 

“My father was born in Manhattan and my mother was from Kovno, Lithuania. My grandfather had been a mohel in the Soviet Union. My father met my mother when he came to learn in Israel. They went back to Cleveland because my mother’s older sister’s husband owned a slaughterhouse and was the rabbinical supervisor there. 

“My older brother came home crying one day. Being the only Jew in his class, he was beaten up, and that’s when my father decided to become a rabbi in Brooklyn. 

“I grew up in a house with hessed (loving-kindness), an open house. People came in from all walks of life, Jews and non-Jews. Little by little, non-observant Jews stopped being afraid of becoming Torah Jews.

“Everybody is a shaliach (messenger) of God. We make a promise in our mother’s womb to the angels that we’ll be righteous. In order to be a tzaddik you have to be an emissary of God and carry on God’s will in the world, which is being a messenger. 

“Each person has an obligation and joy to be a messenger of God and bring out the light into the darkness of this world of ours, with light and caring and having a good eye for one another.” ❖

Rav Meir is now writing Nefesh HaMeir – Your Soul’s Personal Journey, as well as a children’s book with art by his wife Rachael Colbert Weiner.

The writer is the author of The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan. She currently lives in Jerusalem.