Sunday, May 17, 2020

Heshy Trainer of Trainer Studios Passes On

 Reb Heshy (Harry) Trainer z”l, legendary photographer and owner of Trainer Studios died,  he was 95.
Reb Harry was known for the gorgeous pictures of great rabbonimroshei yeshiva and admorim that he took over the course of his life.
Reb Harry was born in Williamsburg in the 1920s. His parents were both immigrants who had immigrated from Galicia several years earlier. Initially, the Trainers lived on the East Side, but by the time Harry was born, they had already moved to Williamsburg. Harry’s father was a Husyatiner chossid and came from the town of Skalut, while his mother came from a family of Belzer chassidim who lived in the town of Rava Ruska.
In his youth, Harry attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, beginning with first grade and continuing through post-high school.

At the time, Yidden who came to America from the Old Country met a new reality in the United States and in many ways were not familiar with the way things worked in America. Reb Harry once recalled that when he was in mesivta, he came to understand that much of the Pesach matzah being sold was problematic. He and others would therefore bake their own shmurah matzah for the Seder in the basement of the old Torah Vodaas mesivta building on South 8th Street. He would also go to the machine matzah bakery and bake his own matzos to make sure that they were completed within eighteen minutes and that the machines were cleaned in between.
Already in Harry’s time, practically no one in Williamsburg sent their children to public school. Nevertheless, the norm was for a bochur to attend college. Because Torah Vodaas was not a college yeshiva, many bochurim left Torah Vodaas to go to college. There were no kollelim in those days, although there were many learned baalei batim from the old country who spent their every free minute learning in the shteiblach.
At Torah Vodaas, the individual who made the greatest impression on him was Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Harry saw his temimus in avodas Hashem, how sincere he was, how he so deeply wanted to serve Hashem, and how he loved Hashem and stood by his principles with such conviction and sincerity.
Reb Harry would tell a great story to illustrate this point.
The first wedding that he ever shot was the chasunah of the Bostoner Rebbe of Boston and Har Nof, Rav Levi Yitzchok Horowitz zt”l. He was a fellow talmid in Torah Vodaas and Harry had a camera. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, like many gedolim of that time, was very particular that no pictures should be taken of him. Harry knew this, but he just couldn’t resist. Harry took a chance, snapped the picture, and ran away. In a couple of quick strides, Rav Shraga Feivel was there had caught up with Harry, held him by his shirt and jacket, and literally lifted Harry off the ground. What he said then in Yiddish remained indelibly etched in Harry’s memory: “If not for the fact that so many people are here, I would give you two fresk! Take out the film from your camera and tear it up!” Naturally, Harry did what he was told. He was not, however, angry with Rav Shraga Feivel was there. In fact, Harry became even more impressed with how sincere he was about sticking to his principles.
A few years later, however, Rav Shraga Feivel was there and some other gedolim began to change their stance on pictures. As cameras became more prevalent, with many more people owning them, it became nearly impossible to control them. Harry remembered when Rav Shraga Feivel married off his daughter to Rav Shea Schiff and Harry was asked by the Schiffs to photograph the chasunah. Rav Shraga Feivel didn’t say a word about it. By then he had made peace with the situation and, indeed, some of the best pictures of Rav Shraga Feivel in Harry’s collection came from that chasunah.
There were two other mesivta rabbeim who made a very deep impression on Harry. One was a young rebbi named Rav Avrohom Pam. He was Harry’s rebbi in the first year of mesivta; he did not even have a beard back then. Harry was so impressed with him and became so attached to him. Harry saw in him a person from their generation who so cared about Yiddishkeit and was so humble and caring. The beauty of his middos combined with how much he cared about mitzvos impressed Harry greatly. His rebbi the next year, Rav Dovid Bender, also had a tremendous hashpaah on Harry. Rav Dovid was also an American who had recently returned from learning in the Mir in Europe. He spoke with such enthusiasm about Europe and the way Torah was learned there.
So how did Harry get into taking pictures?
Harry told the story numerous times: “There was a raffle going on in Torah Vodaas in the late 1930s. I bought a ticket for a penny. The first prize was a camera and I won. I began to take pictures with the camera. I enjoyed it and saw that I had a knack for capturing a good shot. From that basic camera, I graduated to a Brownie, which was the ‘in’ camera at the time. I began to do picture-taking as a hobby. This was all while I was still a bochur learning in yeshiva.”
At that time, there was no such thing as taking pictures of a wedding. The flash was not yet invented, and only outdoor pictures in daylight could be taken. Thus, after the yichud room, the chosson and kallah would be driven to a nearby picture studio that was outfitted with proper lighting. There they would have pictures taken and they would then return to the chasunah hall for the seudah. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the flash camera was invented, thereby enabling one to take pictures indoors. At that time, Harry’s oldest brother got married and Harry decided that he would take pictures of his wedding. Harry bought a flash camera for five and a half dollars, a tremendous amount of money in those days. That chasunah was the first wedding that Harry shot. His hobby, however, was costing me a lot of money – between the price of the camera, the cost of film and developing. Harry realized that he needed to recoup some of his losses. Word soon spread that a bochur named Trainer from Torah Vodaas could take pictures at weddings. No one wanted to go to a studio in the middle of the wedding if they could avoid it, and that is how Harry began to shoot chasunos.
Almost all of his pictures of gedolim were taken at weddings. In order to pay for his expenses, Harry began selling pictures of the gedolim that he had taken at weddings. He charged eight cents per picture, a fair amount back then, and that enabled his to recoup his losses and eventually make a parnassah as well.
At the beginning, the Litvishe rabbonim, in general, did not say anything in opposition. Among the chassidim, around 50% covered their faces or studiously avoided Harry. It was very tough, because on the one hand, these rebbes were very makpid and didn’t want to be photographed. On the other hand, the chassanim were very intent on having a photograph of their rebbes at their chupah, and that was what Harry was hired to do. The conflicting interests were thus a great challenge for Harry.
Harry had a number of encounters with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum. When the rebbe arrived in America in the early 1950s, he became an instant sensation. Everyone wanted to have him serve as mesader kiddushin at their chasunah. Indeed, in those days, he had a chasunah almost every night. There Harry was, taking pictures at weddings attended by the Satmar Rebbe nearly every night of the week. He was extremely makpid not to have his picture taken, so Harry had to use innovative methods of taking his picture under the chupah, because the chassanim always insisted that Harry had better get a shot of him at their weddings.
After a while, the rebbe decided, “No more!” He made a policy that he would not attend a wedding if a photographer would be present. After a few months, Harry realized that his business was drastically dwindling. People wanted the rebbe to come to their chasunos, and if the price was not hiring Trainer, they didn’t hire Trainer and they made do without a photographer. Harry decided to go to the Rebbe himself with a kvittel. In the kvittel, Harry explained to the Rebbe that his parnassah was in danger as a result of his policy and begged him to reconsider. He read the kvittel and sympathized with Harry’s plight, but he explained the Kabbalistic reason for why he couldn’t agree to have his picture taken. Harry replied that he understood, but added, “What should I do? I have to make a living.”
“Okay,” the Rebbe responded. “Let’s make an agreement. I will not object to a photographer being present at the wedding if you promise not to take pictures at the chupah.” In those days, however, the chupah was the main attraction for photographers and pictures were not taken during the seudah, so Harry could not agree. People simply did not want to hire a photographer if he would not take pictures at the chupah. Harry returned to the Rebbe and told him, “I still have no business.”
Again the Rebbe responded, “Okay, let’s make another agreement. You can take photographs at the chupah, but not while I am making the brachah.”
That was a condition that Harry could agree with, because, as it was, Harry was the person who ran the chupah at weddings. Harry would get the chosson, the kallah and the family members up under the chupah. Harry poured the wine and gave it to the mesader kiddushin along with the bentcher that had the brachos on it. So, after Harry would pour the Rebbe’s wine for him, he would recite the brachah and Harry would sit with folded hands, not taking any pictures. As soon as the Rebbe finished the brachah, the Rebbe faded into the background and that was Harry’s signal to resume taking pictures.
Harry would say that he was very impressed with the way the Rebbe handled the whole thing. Harry recalled, “He could have just stood his stance and said no. Instead, he showed how much he truly cared about my parnassah and therefore worked with me so that we could come to a solution that would satisfy both of us.”
Another story about the Satmar Rebbe told by Harry: “It was at a chasunah. I remember the chosson’s tish. The chosson was seated between the Satmar Rebbe on one side and the Klausenberger Rebbe on the other. There was a massive crowd pushing to get close to the rebbes, the two most prominent rebbes in America at the time. I, of course, was adept at pushing through crowds to get the best shots. This time, my pushing caught the eye of one of the Rebbe’s gabboim, who came over to me and said, ‘I am hereby giving you a warning. If you take a picture of the Rebbe, the chassidim will not only break your camera, but will break every bone in your body and throw you out the window!’ I was shaking in fear, but I stood my ground and did not leave. I had a responsibility and had to do the job. The gabbai returned to me saying, ‘What are you doing?’ I retorted, ‘I will take my chances. I am taking pictures.’ Looking me straight in the eye, he said, ‘Look, I did my hishtadlus. I warned you. If you won’t listen, can you at least wait a minute so that I can get into the picture and have a picture of myself with the Rebbe?’”
Another story about Harry and the Satmar Rebbe is a remarkable one that shows the rebbe’s greatness. One day, Harry received a call from the Rebbe’s gabbai. “The Rebbe wants you to take a picture of him,” he said. Harry almost fell to the floor. “The Rebbe WHAT?!” Harry exclaimed.
The gabbai explained: “There is going to be a massive demonstration in Manhattan Center against giyus banos, the Israeli government’s attempt to forcibly draft girls into the army. The Rebbe wants the demonstration to get as much publicity as possible, and he wants everyone to know that he was there and how strongly he feels about the issue. Because of that, he is willing to forgo his refusal to have pictures. We want you to come and take one shot, but one shot only.”
Harry went to the demonstration and got on the ladder, trembling from fear and hisragshus. The Rebbe looked him straight in the eye and motioned to him to shoot. Harry took the picture and, within a second, before he could even think of taking another one, he was off the ladder, thanks to the Chassidim. That is the only real, powerful, close-up face shot in existence today of the Satmar Rebbe.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was not at all opposed to having his picture taken. In addition to his greatness in other areas, Rav Yaakov had a remarkable sense of humor. Harry remembered once when he was arranging the chosson and kallah under the chupah, making sure that the microphone was in place, pouring the wine, and giving the bentcher to Rav Yaakov. Afterwards, Harry picked up his camera, ready to shoot, and he waited for Rav Yaakov to begin. He didn’t. Everyone was wondering about the delay and Rav Yaakov, with a smile that could light up an entire room, gently asked, “Mr. Trainer, may I begin?” If Harry was running the show, Harry should give him his cue!
Harry would frequently get calls from the gabboim of admorim to come over and take a passport picture. Harry remembered once going to the Klausenberger Rebbe’s home to take a passport picture and the Rebbe quipped that he was the first person that he has to stand up for… The Rebbe had been sitting in a chair with seforim shranks in the background. Harry told him that the regulation dictates that the picture has to have a white background and they should therefore move over to a blank wall. The Rebbe then quipped, “Mr. Trainer is the only person who I have to stand up for!”
There is a famous picture of the Skolya Rebbe, where you can see the famous shin formed from the crevices on his forehead that everyone talks about. Harry took that picture at a chasunah. The Skolya Rebbe was just about to put up his hand to cover his face, because he didn’t want Harry taking his picture, but Harry chapped it before he could cover his face.
Harry had several stories with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Harry was hired to take pictures at many Lubavitcher weddings. In the Rebbe’s early years, he would go to every wedding, and not only would he stay at the chosson’s tish, but he would deliver a maamar. The Lubavitchers were different than the other chassidim. They loved pictures and they kept on encouraging Harry to take more pictures of the Rebbe. Harry took one picture, feeling that it was enough, and he didn’t want to shter the maamar, but they kept motioning him to take more. Harry took a second, then a third, and they still wanted more. As Harry was getting ready to take a fourth picture, the Rebbe looked up and said in Yiddish, “I think that three pictures is already enough.” Harry was impressed that even while he was delivering an intricate maamar, he was keeping score.
Sometime later, Harry was at a Lubavitcher chupah and the Rebbe was being mesader kiddushin. It was a mob scene and they put tables around the chupah in order to keep the crowd away. The crowd then got up on the tables to get a better view. It was so full that Harry could not find an inch of space upon which he could stand. The chupah had started, and Harry knew that if he didn’t get up on the table in a matter of seconds, he would not have a picture of the chupah. That is what he was hired for, so he had to get up. Harry grabbed someone standing on the table by the sleeve and told him, “I only have a few seconds. You must let me in just to take one picture. Then I will come down!” The guy replied, “I am not budging!”
Harry was so desperate that he felt compelled to tell him that if he would not voluntarily make room for him, I he would be forced to pull him down and take his place and jump up on the table so that he could take that picture successfully. The fellow didn’t move, and Harry indeed had no choice but to pull him down and jump up. When Harry came down after taking the picture, that Yid looked at Harry and exclaimed in Yiddish, “You az ponim what you are!” He then continued, “I am making my own child’s chasunah in two months and I only want you to take the pictures!”
Harry would remember the early Agudah conventions, where he was always invited to attend, and he would come with a long telephoto lens that he would use to take close-ups even if he was standing very far away. In addition to taking pictures of the dais for the Agudah, Harry would take individual shots of the gedolim for his own personal gedolim picture business.
Harry was once asked what he says about today’s picture-saturated culture? He responded: “I am old-fashioned. In my days, photography was a real art. You learned how to set yourself up in the right place at the right angle. To use a baseball analogy, the goal was to hit a homerun on the first attempt. You tried to be a sharpshooter and get that great shot with one click of the camera. Today, the philosophy is like machine gun fire. You just spray bullets all over the place and hope that one of them hits the target. To prepare for a shot, anticipate a winner, and go for it is missing today. I also think that people are fed up from having so many pictures. People get hundreds of pictures of their wedding and they have to choose from all of them. It is crazy! What people need is fifty really good ones from which to choose.
Harry once said that being a photographer and having the opportunity to observe people up close at very important life cycle events such as weddings taught him a lot about how people should and shouldn’t conduct themselves. He said, “One of the main lessons I noticed is how important it is for everyone to realize what the ikkar is and what the taful is. There are weddings where the chosson and his parents are fully focused on the sanctity of the moment, the chasunah. The chosson is davening and his parents walk with trepidation and a tefillah to the chupah fully cognizant of what the ikkar is. Then there are chassanim and parents who even while they are under the chupah are telling the photographer to dim the lights. They are telling the musician not to forget to play the songs. They are so caught up in the tafel, in all of the less important things, that they forget about what is really the tachlis of the day. One life lesson of my profession that I have learned is, ‘Ubilvad sheyechavein libo laShomayim,’ the main thing is that a person has to bear in mind that whatever he is doing should be l’sheim Shomayim. The chosson should realize that his l’sheim Shomayim is to prepare himself spiritually for this most important day. The photographer, too, should do his job l’sheim Shomayim. When people mix up their roles, things don’t come out good. That is a lesson that I learned from my years in photography that I think everyone can apply to their own lives.”
Harry was a one-of-a-kind photographer and a one-of-a-kind vintage Yid. He will be sorely missed.
Yehi zichro boruch.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Trainer was a very nice person always with a smile on his face. Will be missed by all. ת.נ.צ.ב.ה