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[Page 74]

F) Types From The Previous Generation

Grandfather's Character

A.L. Shvartz (Johannesburg)

Translated by Avi J. Levin

Donated by Pamela Sacks

One of the images that was chiseled into my memory from those distant days is the character of my grandfather, R. Zvi Dovid son of R. Moshe Abramovitz, brother of Mendele Mocher Sforim[1]. From eight years of age until fourteen, I was under his supervision and influence. [He was] wise and intelligent, a practical and sociable man among the most distinguished in town, who garnered the trust of the community.

And I recall the great controversy that broke out in our city in connection with the selection of a rabbi.

It was decided once and for all to turn to grandfather who would travel to a certain city to select the rabbi, R. Hersh Tiktin. And they sent with him a letter of appointment to the Rabbinate, as was customary in those days. There was a general celebration in the city on the occasion of the successful choice. However the chosen rabbi became ill after being in the city for three years. So they again turned to grandfather to select a new rabbi. He traveled to the town of Derechin and chose Rabbi Shalom Dov Herenzon OB”M[2]. Grandfather met privately with him, and [in the future] they would consult for hours every day, for most public affairs were decided by them.

One of the projects that were accomplished in the city through Grandfather's initiative, for which he merited recognition and adoration – was the city bathhouse, which was housed in a beautiful building. It was a first necessity for the Jews of Kletzk, considering the humble and primitive requirements of that time.

I recall that they would say of him: if he had built a simple bathhouse, it would have sufficed for us – all the more so that he built a magnificent bathhouse, for it is a great pleasure to bathe in it…

Even though he was an orthodox Jew and kept every commandment no matter how difficult[3], he would sometimes scoff at Jews who overdid it by being too stringent on themselves. In general, he was a calm and easygoing man. And I recall that he nicknamed one such strictly observant person Hor Hahar – as if to say: One mountain is not enough for you, but you want to place another mountain on top of the first. As you know, it was on Hor Hahar that Aaron the Priest
died[4]

He knew perfect Hebrew, and wrote eloquent satires. He was surely a brother to the great satirist Mendele Mocher Sforim.

When studying Talmud he would not learn the witty dialectics– in his lessons he would explain the straightforward words of the Gemara [5], with logical clarity. He was filled with bitterness toward the ignorant teachers, the monotonous instruction, the strict discipline, and the fanatical treatment of students. I began to study Gemara with Tractate Ketuboth[6]. It is a wonder to me that I did not tell my teachers to stop teaching this tractate to children.

Years later I remembered this fact and my questions about it: Is it possible to teach Tractate Ketuboth to children? An answer still evades my question… Yet when the new era arrived and shocking ideas and spiritual changes emerged in the lives of the Jews, and many people of that generation sought to uproot everything – we were terribly saddened.

The last time I saw him was in the year 1896. I had separated from him before my trip to South Africa. He trusted in me that despite everything I would keep my Jewish beliefs, and continue the chain of Torah and tradition. He was filled with substantial doubt that the education he gave me was not a failure. This was his hope and consolation in his modest, pure, and holy life. And his instructing words did not leave me my entire life.

And suddenly, it was as if he had an outburst from the broken spirit inside him. An unseen upheaval happened within him. He began to cut himself away from life, became introverted, and minimized his conversations with those around him, for to him this was idle conversation. He also no longer paid attention to his external appearance and his clothing. He limited his needs to the absolute minimum, as a hermit and an ascetic. He spent most of his time in the Bet Medrash[7]. Nearly eighteen hours a day he would sit in the Bet Medrash studying for its own sake, without any breaks. And he even refrained from entering conversations with Torah scholars about Torah matters. When they would turn to him with Talmudic questions, he would answer in brief, simple and clear – and return to his studies. The extreme afflictions, the total immersion in studying GP”T[8] and the great fear of profiting from Torah study – were seen by people as enigmatic. So long as his mother-in-law was healthy and safe and the success made her cheerful, she would oversee and manage the household. However when she became impoverished she had no choice but to turn to a rabbi to ask for support. The rabbi ordered him to come to a scheduled Din Torah[9] to join [and serve with] the court of law. Thus he became a judge.

He himself did not receive even one cent from his wages.

He died before his time due to his extreme asceticism.

I saw him for the last time in 1896, when I separated from him before my trip to South Africa. At that time he was already frail, and only a spirit of superiority hovered over him – a noble spiritual character, which was not of this world. [He was] a Jewish character, pure and holy.


My Brother Avraham Shlomo

Y.N. Adler (New York)

Translated by Avi J. Levin

Donated by Pamela Sacks

My older brother, Avraham Shlomo, was a prominent Hebrew teacher, who produced many students in the New York metropolitan area. His nobility inspired everyone else in his field, small and great alike.

He was born in the village of Zaskevichi near Kletzk. In his childhood he studied in a “cheder[10] in Kletzk, and afterwards in the “yeshiva” of Judge Shmuel Dovid in Nesvizh, who was considered, incidentally, a friend of ours. Afterward my brother studied in Minsk – and there he acquired for himself a secular education as well. From there he went – at the age to be drafted to the army – to London. He also spent some time in Glasgow, Scotland, and got married there. And from Glasgow he immigrated to New York. Here in New York he became famous as an educator, a true pedagogue.

He had a great influence on his students. And that [influence] became fully expressed and extended when he was appointed principal of the famous Talmud Torah[11]Migdal Zion” in The Bronx, NY. Immediately he expanded his tent and established a high school and a Bet Medrash for teachers – he was a giant achiever in that initial period of the birth of Hebrew education in America: These accomplishments were possible due to my brother's charming personality, his energies, sacrifices, and his love for Jewish children.

Avraham Shlomo passed away in St. Petersburg, Florida, and was buried in New York. He was sixty nine years old when he died. May his memory be blessed.


  1. “Mendele Mocher Sforim” is the pseudonym of Shalom Yaakov Abramovitz, noted author, 1836-1917. Return

  2. OB”M = Of Blessed Memory. Return

  3. This is a quote from Mishnah Avos 2:1 Return

  4. See Numbers 20:27. Although this is the name of a place, it could also be translated as the “mountain of the mountain”. Return

  5. Gemara is used interchangeably with Talmud, and refers to the extensive commentary to the Mishnah. Return

  6. Ketuboth deals primarily with marriage-related topics. Return

  7. Bet Medrash = House of Torah study, yeshiva. Return

  8. GP”T = Acronym for Hebrew for Gemara, [Rashi's] commentary, and Tosafot (additional commentaries). Return

  9. Jewish law court proceeding. Return

  10. cheder = religious elementary school. Return

  11. Talmud Torah=religious school. Return


[Page 75]

Characters

Dr. Avigdor Greenspan

Translated by Avi J. Levin

Donated by Pamela Sacks

R. Berel Dovidzon, the Judge from Kletzk

A special character, original and rare, even for those distant times. A modest man who spent his whole life in the Bet Medrash[1], whether summer or winter, day and night. He was not an aspirant; he led a solitary life with extreme frugality. After all, this whole world is but a vestibule to the palace…[2]

I remember him before he was appointed judge of the city, as per the recommendation of R. Shalom Dov Herenzon OB”M[3]. He was recognized as a fine young man, dressed as one of the city intellectuals. A white pressed shirt, neat scarf, and fine tie. His short beard which decorated his pleasant face was tastefully groomed. He was always joyful and happy. He was a man of the people – and everyone thought he was destined for the rabbinate, because his ancestors were also rabbis. My aunt, Dinah Ruttner (the eldest sister of Mendele Mocher Sforim[4]) produced a sizable amount of money to merit him as a husband for her only daughter. She budgeted for a large dowry and food for several years for her son-in-law, as was customary in those days, so that he could continue studying after the wedding to become proficient in Torah and commentaries. She was very proud to be related to her son-in-law.

And he was diligent about Torah study. He knew the rabbinic texts with clarity and received rabbinic ordination from several prominent rabbis knowledgeable in Torah. In addition to this, he was a great grammarian who wrote pure Hebrew in a pleasing and polished style. He also possessed an expansive knowledge of Hebrew Literature of the Middle Ages.

R. Avraham Leib Shvartz

Born in 5629 (1869) to his father R. Moshe, a learned Jew, and to his mother, the daughter of Zvi Abramovitz, brother of Mendele Mocher-Sforim. Until he was eleven years old he studied in “cheders”[5], however the old methods of education did not stir the heart of this city child or yield extra love for his teachers.

The young man began searching for the path to personal perfection, and ultimately found it in the house of R. Moshe Cohen, which was a meeting place for the enlightened at the end of the 1870s. In that place there was a large library, mostly Enlightenment books, and there new horizons were opened before him. The lad who thirsted for knowledge absorbed the books of Smolenskin, Mapu, Broides, and others. There also began the concept of love of Zionism, of which Moshe Cohen – “Yershkes[6] was an enthusiastic follower. With it he absorbed the negative intellect and old destructiveness that ruled in the literature of the Enlightenment. The destructive heresy of “youth's sin”, and the sharp criticism of YeLe”G[7] against the spiritual authority of the rabbis had a strong influence over him. He was entirely caught up in the Enlightenment, but also had Zionist visions as articulated by Peretz Smolenskin[8] in his book “Am Olam[9] and Lilenblum[10] in his essays from the 1880s, and therefore this also struck deep roots in his soul. The proper conviction, permanent and everlasting in Enlightenment literature, superseded for him the destructive sources and formed Shvartz' outlook on the world.

For years he traveled with his parents to the town of Mir. There he heard lessons in Talmud and its commentaries from the sage R. Chaim Leib Tiktin OB”M. But even these lessons did not bring him satisfaction. Steeped in the destructive spirit of the Enlightenment, the lad was not capable of comprehending the monotonous dialectics. In Mir his knowledge was expanded, for he acquired a basic knowledge of the Russian language and her literature. The efforts of his parents, the guardians of tradition, to redirect their son from his new path, were for naught. He continued in his path, and in the early 1880s he established himself in Warsaw and began to do business there. Even with this, he added to his proficiency in secular knowledge and science. There, in the walled, stormy village, he found ample opportunities to work toward a Zionist nation and to enrich his spiritual resources. He frequented the houses of the authors SHaPa”R[11] and Ben Avigdor[12]. He was influenced by them and was given to the task of settling the Land of Israel more vigorously.

In 1891 he emigrated with his wife to Johannesburg, South Africa. There were few “Chovevim[13] or Zionist activists in this country. Still, the young man did not sit there idly. Those were the days of “financing Jewish settlements” established by the “Colonial Bank”[14], and Shvartz himself procured 30 shares and became involved with the affairs of others. And when the time of the Jewish National Fund arrived in 5659-5669 [~1897-1907], Shvartz found ample new opportunity for Zionist work. The JNF absorbed his entire existence for he saw it as the most important thing. One small and illustrative example: he would speak convincingly to a Jew to donate 10 Lirot to benefit the JNF, and in recognition of this the donor's name would be listed in The Golden Book. The Jew would ask his fundraiser: - Where is this “Golden Book?” And he would reply: - “In Vienna, Tirkenshtrasa number 9.” From this – the Jew would continue to ask – so if my acquaintances and friends would want to dispute that I actually gave such a large sum, they would have to travel to the capital of Austria? Shvartz was impressed by the question and rushed a letter to Herzl's[15] office in Vienna, and in it he suggested that for the glory and good of the matter it is desirable to send important benefactors whose names are listed in The Golden Book certificates written on parchment or on quality paper, mounted in beautiful, professional frames. The donors would hang the certificates on the wall and visitors would see them and also make donations.

Shortly after, a letter of thanks was received from Dr. Herzl. In it he extolled the creativity of the young communal worker, and from that day on the central assembly in Vienna started granting donors whose names were listed in The Golden Book magnificent-looking “certificates”.

From the official certifications and the many letters that he received from Shmaryahu Levin[16], Nahum Sokolow[17] and others it was evident that his Zionist work was far-reaching and productive. He worked in Africa about 33 years and the joy of his Zionist achievements was not forgotten. But his powerful aspirations toward the Land of Israel would not let him sit still, and in 1925 he visited Israel. He toured Israel comprehensively and saw the new settlements, the young industrial enterprise – and his soul was energized. Most importantly, he was glad that the Hebrew language had been revived. There too he delighted in public service achievements.

He had a complete and harmonious personality. He possessed a direct intelligence and rational logic, and loved truthfulness. His words and convictions on various subjects, and especially in the realm of religion and nationality, were original and resolute. But his entire inspiration and the fire of his soul, since his childhood in Kletzk, was a different way than he had learned in the yeshiva which illuminated the stations of his life – being immersed in Zionism.


  1. Bet Medrash = House of Torah study, yeshiva Return

  2. This is a reference to Mishnah Avos 4:16 Return

  3. OB”M = Of Blessed Memory Return

  4. “Mendele Mocher Sforim” is the pseudonym of Shalom Yaakov Abramovitz, noted author, 1836-1917 Return

  5. cheder = religious elementary school Return

  6. I presume this name refers to Moshe Cohen Return

  7. Acronym for Yehuda (Judah) Leib Gordon, poet during the Enlightenment, 1831-1892 Return

  8. Peretz (Peter) Smolenskin, Russian Jewish novelist, 1842-1885 Return

  9. Am Olam” = “The Eternal People” (the Jews) Return

  10. Moshe Leib Lilenblum, Hebrew author and Zionist, 1843-1910 Return

  11. Shaul Pinchas Rabinovitz, author and translator, 1845-1910 Return

  12. “Ben Avigdor” is the pseudonym of Avraham Leib Shalkovitz, writer and publisher, 1866-1921 Return

  13. Chovevim or Chovevei Tzion refers to the movement to build the Land of Israel which preceded Zionism Return

  14. The “Jewish Colonial Bank” in London was founded by Dr. Herzl to provide financial services to the Zionist movement, to back up his diplomatic activities Return

  15. Benjamin Ze'ev [Theodor] Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist who founded modern political Zionism, 1860-1904 Return

  16. Shmaryahu Levin, Zionist orator and advocate, 1867-1935 Return

  17. Nahum Sokolow, Zionist leader, author, translator, and pioneer of Hebrew journalism, 1859-1936 Return

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