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[Page 17]

Mendele Mocher-Sforim
and His Connection to Kletzk
*

Translated by Avi J. Levin

In the Kletzk cemetery there is a gravestone inscribed with the following text: “The eminent R. Zvi Dovid, son of R. Chaim Moshe, at 72 years old was gathered to his people on Wednesday 5 Iyar 5661 [April 24, 1901].” After this, there are numerous praises about the deceased.

His nickname in Kletzk was “Hershka Kapulyer[1], for the name of the city of his birth, Kapulie, which was also in the Slutsk district. He was born there, conjectured M. Weinreich, in the year 1829-30. The name of his first wife was Golda Liba. She bore him a daughter, Pesha Macha, whose son Avraham Leib Shvartz now resides in the Land of Israel. When he married his first wife, he was about twenty two years old. After a brief time as a shopkeeper in Kletzk, he left his wife and traveled to Kamenets-Podolsky by himself, where he became a teacher in wealthy Jewish circles. It seems [he did] not [teach] in Kaminetz itself, but in the surrounding area. He profited nicely from this and saved some money for himself, returned to Kletzk and established a large textile shop. It was made a reality, for his brother Shalom Yaakov (Mendele Mocher Sforim[2]) wrote him specific places from which he should import.

From the statements of Rabbi Herenzon, who knew R. Hershka well in his old age, it seems he also knew that Hershka had gone to the south to be a teacher. Numerous shopkeepers in these places did this, since the economic situation was so poor here – and in the south the situation was far better. The Jews there were simple folk, and the “Litai” who came to them to disseminate Torah knowledge to their children were handsomely compensated. According to the Rabbi, R. Hersh appreciated jokes and was described as a colorful character.

Y.C. Ravnitsky, in his biography of Mendele writes, among other things:

“Abramovitz received a letter from his older brother who was a teacher in one of the small towns, complaining to him about his wretched livelihood which is shortening his life. As a reply to this letter, his brother Mendele sent a long letter pointing out that if he conducts himself angrily toward his students and constantly yells at them, then he is the primary one at fault and accordingly is not suited for this task which is unfitting for him. And he also explains to him in this letter the qualities of educating, and what it means to be a teacher and educator for children. Since those who were acquainted with R. Hersh said that he was very strict and impatient, we can understand that R. Hersh did not succeed as a pedagogue.”

R. Hersh was in the vicinity of Kamenets-Podolsky for several years – it is impossible to know exactly how many. The son of Mendele Mocher Sforim, Meir Abramovitz, informs in a letter that the only one of his father's brothers he knew was Hersh, for he was sometimes a guest of his father in Zhitomir when he traveled from the Podolia region where he was, apparently, teaching in private conditions. It can be assumed that, in general, the familial connection of Hersh with Mendele was somewhat weak. Especially if we recall that by nature Mendele was not that close to his family members. As proof of this, he sufficed in writing just three letters to his brother Hershka in a later period. The [first two] letters were from the year 1899, and the third letter from the year 1901, just days before his brother from Kletzk died. R. Hersh Abramovitz' second wife gave these three letters to M. Weinreich when he visited Kletzk. Her name was Chaya Esther, whom R. Hersh had married at age 56, and who bore them a daughter, Sarah Goldstein. (She and her husband were killed in the Holocaust).

The letters of Mendele Mocher Sforim to his brother

Odessa, 22 July 1899

Greetings to you my brother who is dear to me!

I was happy with your photo that you sent me, and as a symbol of love and thanks I am sending you an enclosed photo of myself. If a person puts his brother's photo before him, looking at it is like seeing the face of his brother. Thank G-d who has given you tranquility in time of old age, for as you've said, you are making a nice and easy living. It should be His will that He lengthen your days with much peace, [also] peace to me and my household. My two daughters Chava and Zina Ida are studying medical science in university in France, and will be finishing their studies this year. My young daughter Nadizhra is getting married this year in Nissan to the grandson of our late brother Baruch OB”M (this was the firstborn son of Moshe Chaim – father of Mendele and Hersh Abramovitz and who died before the year 1867) Doctor Vladimir Abramovitz – a good and worthy man filled with fine virtues. And currently this fine fiancé lives in St. Petersburg. My son Meir has lived there already since '82, and stays in the company of great people there. Today or tomorrow he will go to Odessa on business and from there will travel along a hachure. And I will go and travel with him and have a good time together for a month. Please bestow blessings from my wife Alexandria and myself to your wife and children.

Your loving brother who blesses you with all that is good. S. Abramovitz.

How is our sister Dina doing?

 

4 November 1899

Greetings to you my dear brother!

I will hand over your letter to Shmuel Shmorak and ask him to pay his debt to you. And you, in your kindness, forgive me since I have not written to you until now. My worries have become more abundant than the hairs on my head, and I have no free time to answer all those who turn to me with letters. Besides, I am weak and unable to make the effort with lengthy friendly correspondence. Therefore, please forgive the iniquity of your brother and do not count it against me as a transgression[4]. And you should know that I love you dearly with all my heart.

Tell our sister Dina that I received her letter concerning the marriage proposal, and it is very difficult now. What was possible ten years ago is now impossible, because my daughter Chava will be studying medical science in France now, and her love of this science she desires with all her resources, body and soul.

Bestow blessings from me to your wife and dear children and write me periodically of their welfare. All the members of my household send regards and bless you with all that is good forever.

Respectfully always,
Your loving brother, S.Y. Abramovitz.

 

Odessa, 16 April 1901

Dear brother!

Behold I have investigated your open letter and I will reply with a concise and clear answer:

In any way possible it is better for you to travel to the springs of salvation in Druskeniki[5]. And The Liman[6] – at very least is not suitable given your stamina and lifestyle, for there you will have to wander around and endure much suffering. And all this effort will cost you a tremendous sum of money. Perhaps this is more than you can afford and you cannot rely on me… In sum, steer clear of The Liman for your own sake and wellbeing.

I and my family are well and send regards to you and your household.

Your brother S.Y. Abramovitz

 

This letter of Mendele Mocher Sforim to his brother was written exactly eight days before the death of R. Hersh the Kletzkite.

Dina was born in approximately 1827 in Kapulie and died in the year 1904. Her first husband was none other than the famous scholar A.A. Harkavy. Mendele

[Page 18]

Mocher Sforim refers to her in his book “Shlomo R. Haimis” as “De Shvaster Leah[7] ”, and delves into the tragedies in her life in chapter 16, when she became divorced from her husband who had been supported by his father-in-law R. Chaim Moshe (Mendele's father) from Kapulie. She received the Get[8] from her first husband in the winter of 1847-48, and in the same winter her father in Kapulie also died. One of her children, Chaim Moshe Ruttner, was still living in Kletzk in the year 1936 when M. Weinreich visited the town, and he gave him some details about Mendele's family. At the time of this visit Chaim Moshe Ruttner was about eighty five years old. The old man gave only a few details about his mother Dina and her relation to Mendele. He did not have any more to tell, since he never met Mendele Mocher Sforim. Chaya Esther Abramovitz and her daughter Sarah Goldstein had things to say, since for many years Hersh felt as if his brother Shalom Yaakov had exalted himself above him. And apparently, once this Kletzkite wrote to him: “You are Abramovitz in Odessa, and I am Abramovitz in Kletzk.”

When Mendele Mocher Sforim's last letter to his brother in Kletzk arrived, R. Hershka was no longer alive. Their sister Dina replied to Mendele's letter. After this there was no further correspondence between Hersh's family and Mendele.

Sarah Mishkovskit, from the Abramovitz family, who dwelled in Nesvizh, described Hersh the Kletzkite with these words:

“He was a good Jew, intelligent, and according to the situation in those days – also suitably educated.”

(“Forwards”, 8.11.1936)

*

According to a collection of letters publicized by N. Shtiff in the collections of Kiev (“Kievar Shripton”) Hersh apparently visited with his brother Mendele on November 24, 1857. Probably as an outcome of that visit from his brother, Mendele authored his first article in Hebrew. The focus of his article: “A letter about educating.” See his autobiography which is published in “The Book of Memoirs” of Jewish authors, by Nachum Sokolov (published by “HaAsif”).


* According to the article by M. Weinreich entitled “Mendele's Parents”, “YIVO Bleter” 1934, volume 11 Vilna [3]. The sources were obtained by the author from his visit to Kletzk, September 1936. return
  1. The name Zvi is a Hebrew word meaning “deer”. The Yiddish equivalent is Hersh. return
  2. “Mendele Mocher Sforim” is the pseudonym of Shalom Yaakov Abramovitz, noted author, 1836-1917. return
  3. YIVO is an acronym of “Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut” or “Jewish Scientific Institute” which, among other things, began publishing the Yiddish language periodical “YIVO Bleter” in 1931. return
  4. The Hebrew phrase he uses is similar to one from the Selichos (penitence) service. return
  5. Druskininkai (known as Druskeniki before 1917) is one of the oldest health resorts in Lithuania nestling in the pinewoods by the bend of the Nemunas River. Mineral water was discovered there in the 18th century, and a little later one of the best curative muds in Europe. At the beginning of the 20th century, Druskininkai was a resort popular with the rich, which was frequented by noblemen from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw and Vilnius. return
  6. The Hebrew word “Haliman” apparently refers to some place. Based on context, I guess this would be a resort or vacation area. It may refer to Rousalka in Bulgaria, which is in the forest of “Tauk Liman”. return
  7. De Shvaster Leah” = “The Sister Leah”. return
  8. Get = Jewish divorce document. return

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