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[Page 112]

Cantors and Cantorship in Minsk

Prof. Moshe Levinson

Translated by Judy Montel

The author, a native of the town of Berzina, Minsk district, was a student of the Minsk cantor Rabbi Israel Shovalzon, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, served as a cantor in Odessa, Warsaw, Minsk, New York. Made aliya to Israel in 1935.

The following article is an edited version translated from the original Yiddish, which was published in “Zukunft”, New York, April 1947.

I would like to tell you here about three cantors who were active in the great Jewish city of Minsk during the past 125 years who disseminated Jewish music among the Jewish masses, the old, exalted melodies of prayer “Nusach” [musical traditions] that have no parallel in any other people.

In 1820, the famous cantor Rabbi Sender Poliachek was made the municipal cantor of Minsk, a position he held for 45 years until his death. His prayers had the gift of heaven, improvising tunes at the prayer stand, and even though he could not read music, he composed wonderfully musical tunes. Klezmers wrote them out and played them at weddings and other such occasions. During prayer, Rabbi Sender Poliachek shook every heart, in the “Ne'ila” service [the closing service of the Day of Atonement], the entire synagogue became a “Vale of Tears”, and the entire congregation would sway and weep.

After his death, several of his compositions were written down by his son, Rabbi Moshe Poliachek, who was an excellent violinist. But most of his tunes, sadly, were lost.

He did not live from his cantor's salary; but from his large home, which functioned as a hostel for wealthy merchants from abroad who arrived to do business in the city. Rabbi Sender used to joke: “I am the best hostler of all the cantors, and the best cantor of all the hostlers.”

His son, Rabbi Moshe, was a food supplier to the Czar's government and he was granted a decoration and the title “Honorary Citizen for Generations”.

At the same time, the Gaon Rabbi Tevli worked as a rabbi in Minsk. A story circulating in Minsk was that one day, Rabbi Sender asked Rabbi Tevli: “Teach me, rabbi, what is the difference between the two of us? I also wear a “shtraimel” (fur trimmed hat) and long silk “kapote” (caftan), and I am also educated in Jewish lore, as they say. Therefore, what indeed is the difference between you and I?”

He asked and he replied: “The difference is whom we turn to in distress. When you, rabbi, have a problem making a legal decision, you go to Maimonides, the “Golden Rows” [Turei Zahav], the “New House” [Bayit Chadash – both famous commentaries on Jewish law], and the other great precedents; whereas I, when I have a difficulty in my cantorship, my assistants are Leibichke Herika, Chaim HaSandlar [the cobbler], he is my bass – these are my advisors.”

Rabbi Sender died in 5620 [1860].

After his death, Minsk looked for a substitute for a long time, and since a cantor received the position for his lifetime, groups and parties sprung up who supported one candidate or another. After five years of options, the cantor Rabbi Israel Shovalzon from Slonim was chosen, known affectionately as Reb Yisraelke. He rejuvenated the cantorship, refreshed it, and brought light, sweet melodies with him that penetrated every heart. The congregation drank in the beautiful tunes with a yearning soul, tunes that reflected the time and attitudes and Judaism. In their gentleness, as they were played, they were like healing balms to the Jewish souls, just like the folk songs of Eliakum Tzunzer (who also lived in Minsk at the time) of which people were very fond. These tunes became very popular among ordinary people. The cobbler hummed them at his bench, the tailor in his workshop, the carpenter at the lathe, the porter waiting for customers at the “Old Market”. They reminded one another's ears of the tunes for “Yechadshayhu”, “Min Hameitzar”, “Tov Lachasos BaHashem”, “Kevakaros”, and as they sang, their eyes beamed with joy. The sweet tunes sweetened their difficult lives, allowed them to forget their poverty and distress.

Cantors from the small towns in the area would come to Reb Yisraelke to learn the tunes, and these became known throughout the district of Minsk, and far beyond.

For a choir he had the sons of the householders plus a few men's voices. It was an honor to sing for Reb Yisraelke. All the inhabitants of the city knew Tzela (Bezalel) the Bass with his wonderful soft voice, Avraham Icha the hat maker with the powerful tenor and Mota the tailor, a tremendous baritone…

He would prepare new “Niguns” [melodies] for every holiday: for Passover - “Min HaMeitzar”, for Shavuos – “Krotz Mechomer”, for Rosh Hashana – “Kevakaros”. To all of his tunes must be added the wonderfully artful sung speech, “Haya Am Pipios”, from the prayers of Rosh Hashana, which was written down and arranged by the cantor Tzemachzon. Rabbi Israel died in 1900.

The leaders of the Minsk community at the time were: Wolf Rapaport, Wolf Servint, Avraham Chaim Shved, a great merchant and an author, all of these were the “Gabba'im” [synagogue managers] of the great Beit Midrash; Rabbi Zisel Korland, the gabbai of “The Cold Synagogue”. The rabbi at the time was the famous Gaon, “The Minsker Godol”. They said in Minsk that “The Godol” was once at a rabbinical conference where every rabbi delivered talks on the Torah in the name of his father, thus emphasizing that his father had also been a rabbi. Everyone knew that the “Godol's” father was a mere tailor. So “The Godol” got up and said: “My father would say: 'Never take-up the old piece of work of turning an old piece of clothing inside out [to renew it], take up something that is new to begin with. Therefore, I will bring new words on the Torah of my own…”

After the death of Rabbi Israel Shovalzon, another cantor was not appointed in Minsk, and Tzela the Bass prayed in the great Beit Midrash until he went to the United States.

The Minsk intelligentsia, which was uncomfortable with the noise that reigned in the synagogues in the “Shulhoif” [Synagogue Court], founded its own congregation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in the “Handicraft School” building. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and free-thinkers who considered themselves educated and were striving for a renewed and modern synagogue, like in the great cities of Western Europe, with superb choirs, order, quiet and manners. Thus Dr. Yosef Lunz, a famous doctor and community activist, had the idea of building a modern synagogue. Under Dr. Lunz's influence, a fund was established for this purpose. Coincidence also lent a hand; a wealthy man of Minsk, Michael Aharonson, left 25 thousand rubles in his will to this purpose, but on the condition that the building of the synagogue begin no later than two years after his death. In order not to lose the sum, Dr. Lunz harnessed all of his energies to raise the remaining funds, and after seven years and much labor by Dr. Lunz, the synagogue was built and called “Chor-Shul” (Choir Synagogue).

It was a splendid building, and elegant. Twelve pillars within, galleries for the women on three sides, five giant and colorful copper chandeliers which had cost a fortune at the time, 10 thousand rubles, a large hall for praying which could hold up to 400 people, with the synagogue library in it as well. The pride and glory of Minsk was based on this synagogue.

{Photograph Page 114: The Chor Shul}

In 1906, a week before Rosh Hashana, the building was consecrated with much pomp and ceremony. Women wore their fanciest clothing. Even the district governor, Prince Erdeli, and other senior officials came to the ceremony. Because the fixed pews were not ready for the opening, they ordered the famous Viennese chairs from Vienna and they made the synagogue look like a philharmonic hall.

It must be mentioned here the wrong-headed and submissive act of the synagogue's overseers, who gave the honor of opening the synagogue, that is, the key, not to a rabbi, but to a gentile, to the Minsk district governor, Prince Erdeli.

After a competition of many cantors, Moshe Levinson was accepted as the cantor of the “Chor Shul”, he was known as a talented and multi-faceted cantor, with a higher musical education, and was simultaneously a lecturing professor at the national conservatory. He set up a large choir of select, experienced singers, and performed the best compositions of Jewish liturgy, organized yearly concerts at Hanukah at the synagogue accompanied by an orchestra and wind instruments. The synagogue became an institution that broadened and developed the culture of Jewish music. The many visitors preferred to listen to the song and prayers there on Friday nights than to go to the opera which came to Minsk occasionally. It must be said, that Cantor Levinson raised the art of Jewish music to a very high level.

Dr. Lunz was the chairman of the synagogue, and was assisted by the author Yehoshua Sirkin, who was assimilated, and under the influence of Dr. Lunz became a Zionist, and was one of the founders of the “Dorshei Zion” association. Their third, the treasurer, Osip Poliak, was the son of the banker, Rabbi Moshe Poliak. Besides them, twelve gabbaim were selected from the most important householders. Of these it is worth especially mentioning some of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Minsk, who did much to disseminate the Zionist idea among the people: Chaim Churgin, Avraham Kaplan, Yehuda Nofech, the jurist Shimshon Rozenboim and Yitzchak Berger.

In this manner, the most important personalities of Minsk at that time gathered round the Choir Synagogue. The synagogue became a meeting place for all of the municipal assemblies, a center for the city of Minsk. The synagogue had a library rich in Jewish lore in various languages, antiquarian and rare books. Yehoshua Sirkin and Feinberg were the library supervisors and Levinson was the librarian.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, masses of refugees reached Minsk from the surrounding villages, especially from Smorgon. It was the eve of Shavuos. The “gabbai”s decided not to hold holiday prayers in the synagogue and to let the refugees make use of the building. Several hundreds of people were installed there with their possessions. They were given food for the holiday and for a significant amount of time after it, as well. This was done in the other synagogues as well. The Jews of Minsk proved that they were indeed merciful people, sons of merciful people.

The famous “Gaon” Rabbi Eliezer Rabinovitch was the chief rabbi of Minsk at the time, after “The Godol”, and he devoted himself to public affairs. There was not a small or big problem in the congregation of Minsk that Reb Leyzer didn't take care of. He also was occupied with international Jewish affairs. At the rabbinical assembly in Petrograd with the permission of the government, when the Minister of the Interior was Prince Swiatopolk-Mirski, Rabbi Reb Leyzer filled a most honorable role. In those days, the “Tzefira” wrote: “A rabbi has come to the assembly, a sickly and worn out man who looks as though he carried the entire Jewish Diaspora on his shoulders, with an unusual talent for speaking, educated and inspired in his ideas, a man of great understanding in Jewish affairs, who had great influence at the meeting; this is the Gaon from Minsk, Rabbi Reb Leyzer Rabinovitch.”

He understood the people very well, was familiar with all of the disagreements between the parties, was beloved by all the classes, and even by the pure left and with the grace of his mind he attracted to him also the hearts of the freethinking youth. Everyone treated him with tremendous respect, and this was a great help during the Soviet period, during the revolution, when the youth reached leadership and government positions. Reb Leyzer was a kind of “Pillar of Fire” who lit the difficult period of confusion, of darkness. In every trouble or outbreak, people would run to Reb Leyzer and he encouraged and gave hope.

The Choir Synagogue functioned during the days of the Soviet rule as well, until 1921. Cantor Levinson then left Minsk for the United States. After he left, the synagogue, under the order of the Minsk “Yevseksia”, was turned into a club. The Choir Synagogue was considered a bourgeois institution that the city could do without. The other synagogues were not touched at the time.

Cantor Levinson, the last of the cantors of Minsk over 125 years, went to New York, there he worked as a cantor for 9 years, until he moved to the Land of Israel in 1935.


[Page 116]

The Thief

by Shaul Ginzburg

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 116: Shaul Ginzburg}

The author (1866-1940) is a native of Minsk. He is a well-known writer and historian. He specialized in research into the Jews of Russia in the latter generations. The chapter included here, translated from Yiddish by Y. L. Baruch, is taken from his book “Historical Writings from the Life of the Jews in Russia Under Czarist Rule”, published by Dvir, 5714 (1954).
We Jews are not angels. Rather, like all nations, we have all types of people with their fine points and faults. Naturally, there are also some criminals among the Jewish people. The time has come to liberate ourselves from the myth that Jews are uniquely compassionate and soft hearted. The ancient chronicles of Poland from the 17th and 18th centuries tell stories about Jewish thieves and murderers. In his poem “Brothers and Thieves” the famous Russian poet Pushkin described a band of thieves and mentions incidentally that among its members there is “A Jew with black locks of hair”. This is not only the fruit of the poet's imagination, but also an echo of reality, for in the first half of the 19th century, when a large portion of Russia was still covered by thick, dark forests, it was not only gentile thieves who used to hide there and use them as a base for their “activities”, but Jewish thieves as well.

When I read in the newspaper about the famous robber Dillinger[1], who stirred up all of America for a long time, and who was pursued by thousands of policemen who were unable to capture him, I remembered the Jewish thief of days gone by who was similar to that American robber in brazenness, cruelty, and alacrity.

This Jewish Dillinger carried out his “work” more than 80 years ago in the region of Minsk. To this day, the residents of that area tell various stories about him and his cruel crimes. Forty years ago, there were still people in my hometown of Minsk who had seen this Jewish thief with their own eyes. His family name was Chefetz, but he was known by his nickname Boytira (a nickname apparently derived from the Russian word “Byuni” or “Boystov”). From my youth I recall that whenever they wanted to insult someone from Minsk who was evil and strong-hearted, they would say: “He is a veritable Boytira”. This thief came from a proper family. Why did he engage in this awful profession? It is told that the Poles murdered his parents or his closest relatives during the Polish revolt of 1831. In order to avenge them, he became a thief. As is known, many cruel deeds were indeed perpetrated against the Jews at that time, and it is possible that this is true. He not only robbed and murdered Poles and Christians, but also Jews.

[Page 117]

It is said that he murdered several dozen people with his customary great cruelty during his acts of robbery. It is said that he was mentally deficient. He had no mercy for the elderly or women. There were cases where he murdered young children in a cruel fashion before the eyes of their parents. First he would break the child's head against the wall or the oven, and then he would slaughter the parents. It is worthwhile to note the following interesting detail: It is said about him that when he murdered Jews, he would first give them time to recite the confession. I heard another surprising story about him: Once Boytira attacked a Jewish passerby, stole his money and intended to murder him. This was during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The poor man pleaded with him to have mercy upon him, and said with tears: “Does your heart move you to murder a Jew now, during the Ten Days of Repentance, when every Jews is duty-bound to repent, and even the fish in the sea tremble from the upcoming Day of Judgment?” These words had their effect on the thief, who let the Jew go.

The thief conducted his “work” in the region of Minsk, especially in the area of Borisov. He attacked the farms of estate owners, houses of farmers, and individual passers-by. His friends and accomplices only assisted in large attacks. In general he conducted his activities on his own. He would hide mainly in the forests. When he was short of food, he would go to one of the farmers or nearby Jews, tell them who he was, and demand bread or other food. It goes without saying that the startled person would give him everything he asked. In such cases, Boytira would continue on his way without harming anyone. He instilled his fear upon Borisov and its environs for many years. Everybody was afraid of setting out on a journey. The mail was transported with an escort of many guards. In the villages, everyone was afraid for their property. The authorities would pursue the thief endlessly, and send army battalions against him who would hunt him, accompanied by camps of farmers. They would surround the forest in which he lived from all sides, and search for him everywhere. However, Boytira would disappear, just like Dillinger, as if he was swallowed up by the earth. He always succeeded in escaping from the snare. For some time he would uproot himself from his place and move to another place, or to a nearby region. Before long, he would trouble his new place of residence with one of his frightful deeds of pillage or murder.

During those days, the war against thieves in Russia was overseen by the state police, which was known as the “Third Division”. When it found out about the deeds of Boytira, it sent a gendarme captain from Petersburg to Minsk with the special task of utilizing all means to capture him, dead or alive. A reward was established for anyone who would capture Boytira. The chases after him were conducted with great strength, but all of this did not accomplish anything. Every time that it seemed that Boytira would finally soon be caught, he would disappear and after some time pop up in a distant place where he would perpetrate new thefts. The superstitious farmers believed that he knew some sort of incantations that thwarted all of the chases against him. When everything was quiet for some time, and nothing was heard of him, people thought that he had been shot by a bullet during a chase. However, he would quickly assert his existence through a new act of murder. Thus passed many years until the farmers finally captured him in one of the forests near the village of Lohoisk. It is told that a gentile woman who was in love with him revealed his hiding place in the forest. They chained Boytira's arms and legs with iron chains and brought him to the prison in Borisov. Soldiers guarded him day and night in a cell,

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where he was chained to the wall. The inquest began immediately. Boytira realized that he was finished, and therefore he decided to push off his end as long as possible. He thwarted the inquest and invented new accusations of crimes that he apparently perpetrated in various far off areas. Therefore, it was necessary to bring him there in order to conduct inquests in those places. It is possible that he hoped that he might succeed in escaping as they brought him from jail to jail.

The inquest became complex and dragged on longer and longer, only ending after several years. The list of his crimes, one worse than the other, was very long. Such serious cases in Russia would be adjudicated by a military court. A military committee headed by army captains was set up to judge Boytira. The thief acted with great brazenness during the trial, and he mocked the judges. In those times, there were no devices such as the electric chair. Therefore, the military court condemned Boytira to 5,000 lashes with batons. Beating with batons was harsher and more terrifying than any means of corporal punishment in the world. A person could not even tolerate 2,000-3,000 lashes, and here the court ordered 5,000! This was a virtual death sentence, to be carried out with unusual cruelty. Thus was the procedure for administering lashes by batons: Approximately 500 soldiers would be set up in two rows, one facing the other, like a column. Each soldier would carry a baton – a long, pliable branch, one quarter of a span in length. The accused would be stripped naked and a gun would be tied to each of his hands. Two vice officers would hold these guns and lead him slowly, step after step, through this dreadful column. As he was passing, each soldier would beat him on the back with his baton. If the number was 2,000, he would pass four times through the column, etc. The body of the accused would start to bleed immediately after the first blows. A physician was always present during the punishment. When the accused weakened, the physician would examine him and determine how many beatings he would still be able to endure. When the number of blows was too great, they would divide up the punishment into two parts with a break of several weeks in between, so that the accused could rest and regain is strength.

Boytira's verdict was sent to Petersburg, where it was authorized by the supreme military court. The terrible punishment was carried out immediately thereafter. The beating was administered in a wide open space outside of the city of Minsk, where physical punishments of this type were usually carried out. Thousands of people came there from the city. Farmers also came from the nearby villages in order to see how the thief who instilled his fear upon them for so long would be punished. Forty years ago, there were still people in Minsk who told about the punishment of Boytira which they witnessed with their own eyes. The elderly Dr. Fucht, who fulfilled the role of physician during the even, was still alive. He told me the details of this terrible corporal punishment. The accused behaved brazenly, cursing and mocking the officials. 3,000 blows were administered the first time. According to Dr. Fucht's description, Boytira was a man of average height, with unusual strength and with particularly strong nerves. He marched through this frightful column bleeding and crushed, without uttering a cry of pain. He finally weakened and fell to the ground. The physician examined him and determined that the he could still withstand the punishment. Then they put Boytira on a hand wagon, tied him on it, and continued to lead him through the rows of soldiers. Even now he did not scream out. Due to the pain, he gnawed on the boards of the wagon that were close to his mouth and turned them to dust.

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After Boytira withstood the first 3,000 blows, they took him to the hospital so that he could recover slightly from his severe wounds. The second half of the punishment was carried out one month later. This time he was weaker, and he had to be laid onto the hand wagon very quickly. Even this time, not one cry was heard. As he was been beaten for the second time, his body turned into a bloody mush, to the point where it was impossible to discern any sign of life. Nevertheless, Boytira still had sufficient strength to ask that he be buried in the Jewish cemetery. He gave up his iniquitous soul as he was being brought back to the prison on the wagon.

During the time of the inquest, when Boytira was incarcerated in the prison in Borisov, a moving incident took place. It was related to me by the well-known Jewish bibliographer Shmuel Weiner, who was a native of Borisov. The incident is as follows: Boytira asked procurator to summon the rabbi of Borisov to come to visit him in prison. The rabbi did not wish to see the thief, and did not fulfill the request. However, after some time, when Boytira was no longer alive, the rabbi understood that he had wronged him greatly. It is true that Boytira was a hardened criminal, but he was a Jew nevertheless. Was it is possible that he summoned the rabbi because he had regretted his terrible crimes and wishes to repent? Perhaps he wanted the rabbi to help him recite the deathbed confession? In general, it is not permitted for a person to push off the request of a person who is about to die – how can one deny such a person compassion and comfort! The heart of the rabbi of Borisov continued to bother him, he continued to agonize, and finally he was afflicted with an evil spirit and a melancholy.

Boytira's request to be given a Jewish burial was only partially fulfilled. The Chevra Kadisha (burial society) of Minsk looked into the matter and discovered that it was impossible to give him a place inside the cemetery itself, so they buried him outside the fence. A mound of earth was set up there, covered with grass, and without a gravestone. Everyone knew that this was the resting placed of Boytira's bones. When children came there, they felt themselves duty bound to spit on the heap and to sully the grave of the thief, whose name their mothers reminded them of frequently in order to scare them[2].

This is the story of the famous Jewish thief, about whom legends are still told to this day. In the many stories that are told about Boytira, we find strange psychological contradictions: great, unrelenting cruelty on the one hand, and the “Jewish spark” which was without doubt found in the soul of this terrible criminal on the other hand; murder, and fear of the Ten Days of Repentance; in addition the request to be given a Jewish burial. How could such variegated feelings reside together in the soul of a single person? People who study criminal psychology do not see anything novel here. They know that contradictions such as this are found with some frequency. Fifty years ago in Minsk, there was a band of thieves occupied in deeds of robbery. Among this band was an elderly Jew, who looked more like a rabbi or a clergyman than a thief. During the trial it became clear that this elderly thief never went out to “work” with his friends at night unless he had first recited the Maariv service. Who can delve into the dark depths of the human soul, especially when it becomes submerged in the crime and iniquity!



Translator's Footnotes:
1 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dillinger. Return
2 There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “The fascinating topic of the “Thief Boytira” was rendered into a dramatic form by the poet Moshe Kolbak. The play is called “Boytira the Thief” and the National Jewish Theatre of Moscow presented it on stage. (See the article on this page in the Morgan-Freiheit newspaper from November 20, 1936.” Return


[Page 120]

A Page from the
Annals of Jewish Education in Russia

by L. Lavenda

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author (1835-1888) was a Jewish-Russian author from Minsk. Read about him on page 179 of our book. The following article, translated from Russian, is from Yevreiska Biblioteka (The Jewish Library), 1873.

In his interesting article, “The History of the Haskala among Russian Jews”[1], M. Margolis touches upon the city of Minsk only superficially, when he speaks about the fierce opposition encountered there by Dr. Lilienthal[2] from the extremist Orthodox party, which had the greatest level of influence in the city. However this opposition was not the final word of the Jews about this matter, which aroused great interest among Count Ubarov and other enlightened statesmen of that period. After the harsh words[3] of the elders of the community of Minsk, words that have not lost their significant practical meaning despite being over 30 years old, an honorable era in the annals of the Haskala of Russian Jews arrived beyond all expectations – both on account of its sources and on account of its practical results. I will tell about this era from my childhood memories, which not only are not erased from my mind, but are indeed preserved in great detail as if they happened just yesterday and not some 25 years previous.

Dr. Lilienthal's three week sojourn in Minsk was not for naught with respect to the activity for which he had come. The arrival into the extremist Orthodox community of a doctor who did not tend to the sick, but rather offered ceaseless counsel to healthy people, at first caused confusion, then fear, and finally anger. This perforce would arouse great agitation in the minds, and would later turn into a strong movement. The elderly and the youth, the rich and the poor, all began to talk about schools at any opportunity. They would castigate Dr. Lilienthal as the chief instigator of iniquity who was liable to lead Jews off the straight path of religion and tradition. Even though we cheder students went in to the synagogue in the evenings to read chapters of Psalms to beseech G-d to prevent this disaster that was looming over us; even though we never ceased to hear fear mongering about the school and matters associated with it – despite all this we felt for some reason and even hoped that G-d would not listen to our prayers, and that the disaster that was threatening us would indeed fall upon our heads. I do not know how the progressive faction related to Lilienthal's programs, or if there even was such a faction in Minsk, even though there were several enlightened people, or more precisely, scholarly people, among the wealthy citizens of the city. However, this I know – we children, who had been trained to have a deathly fear of the school, to the joy of our teachers, and who chased after the doctor's sled and threw snowballs at him – really wished him

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full success, and we waited impatiently for the new school as an fascinating novelty. Indeed, we believed fully in the torments that were apparently perpetrated on the school children – they especially pointed out to us the blackboards and the classroom benches that we frequently saw in the yard of the religious school and which we regarded as implements of torture. However, for some reason we were convinced that on account of our diligence and talents, we would not be brought to justice, i.e. that the torments would not befall us… and that we would be very happy about the school, especially with regard to the innovations which our own teachers, our angels of destruction, were deathly afraid of. With respect to the danger that was lurking at our own religion due to the school, we did not understand why an alphabet primer on grey paper that one could purchase in a store for five kopecks and that was allowed to be torn and trampled underfoot – why such a thing as this could even have any affect on our holy, ancient religion with its Torah scrolls which one could not touch with a bare hand, and with the rest of our holy, solid values? What did one need to be afraid of?

As we saw, the efforts that were begun by Dr. Lilienthal were not for naught, and they continued on.

About a year and a half after Lilienthal left Minsk, Semyonov, the district minister of Minsk, with the agreement and assistance of the elders of the community of Minsk, enlisted approximately twenty Jewish school children, including girls, all who were homeless orphans without a mother and a father, cut their hair, dressed them in uniforms and placed them in the Minsk orphanage with full support under the supervision of the religion teacher and kashruth expert[*1] Chaim Vigdorchik. This laid the foundation for the great enterprise which until this time was restricted to an exchange of ideas and letters. It is worthwhile to note that this experiment by the Minsk regional minister, unique in its kind, did not give rise to any rumors or slander amongst the Jews. On the contrary, everyone related to it with appreciation: the wealthy did not skimp in financial donations, the rabbi frequently visited the residents of the orphanage and gave them appropriate directives. The community itself was almost proud that the government did not withhold itself from heaping praise on Jewish children for their diligence, success in studies, and fine character traits, to the point where they began to present them as examples to their Christian friends. The residents of the orphanage, all clean and tidy, were invited to dine at the tables of the wealthy Jews of the city on Sabbaths and festivals. The hosts would inquire to see that they were not forced to kiss the cross and were not tormented in any way. The guests would answer negatively. For were the Jews not satisfied to have these children, who were regarded as scapegoats for the entire community, conclude the matter for which the infidel from abroad had come to start, and into which the government had invested so much energy? Would the community not be content to willingly sacrifice a few hairs of the heads of homeless orphans in order to save the remainder, the Jewish youth who were not homeless, from the government attacks that became progressively more stubborn and successful?... It seems to us that we must respond to these questions affirmatively without hesitation, especially since the Jews of Minsk were not nearly as calm or submissive with respect to the further developments of this matter by the district minister Semyonov as they were with the first experiment.

The second step was not taken directly by the district minister, but rather by the Jewish activist David the son of Aharon Luria, with the support of the minister. As a child of very wealthy and respected parents, who had a strict orthodox but not fanatical education, it was as if Luria foresaw from the outset his future task of the education of his Minsk co-religionists. He began very early on to acquire European education, so that at the beginning of the 1840s, aside from his usual knowledge

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of Talmud, he was almost fluent in Hebrew, German, and French, and was familiar with the best of European literature. He became known throughout the Jewish environment as a freethinker, that is to say an enlightened man, who nevertheless honored his traditions. His freethinking reached such a level that he satisfied himself with relatively modest material possessions, to the extent that it enabled him to live only in a meager fashion. Since he avoided seeking monetary gain, he was distant from the world of commerce and dedicated all of his time to books. Therefore, among the superstitious circles of Minsk Jewry he was considered to be a sorcerer. Jokes were told about him that would even have done honor to Count Saint Germain or Bosko. Not engaging in business, not becoming ensnared with material benefits, loving books – this was above the conceptual grasp of the masses! Therefore, it was clear to everybody that Luria was no ordinary person from the marketplace.

It became clear that the masses were not so mistaken in their suspicions. Luria was indeed an unusual man. The subsequent events clearly demonstrated the degree of burning love for erudition, organizational talents and innovation that were buried within this strange scion of businessmen who made light of the business acumen of people of his economic class. When he entered the stage of communal activity, he began to work with dedication, courage and energy that are typical of people who are whole-heartedly convinced of he justice of their ideas, and are dedicated to them without bounds. Despite the adage “a lone person cannot succeed in battle”, Luria always fought alone against large masses of extremists and he fomented a revolution in the hearts of his fellow townsfolk. He only descended from the arena when the enterprise for which he was fighting was crowned with definitive, irrevocable success, and when the government approached him not for assistance, which he did not need, but in order to replace him so that they could reap that which he had sown with a broad hand.

There is basis to believe that the experiment of the district minister Semyonov, which was crowned with almost full success, completely convinced Luria that it would be best to begin the revolution in the education of Jewish youth from the bottom up – that is, instead of conducting endless debates and battles with the stubborn, wealthy, and most traditional classes of the community, it would be best to present a practical example to the non-wealthy who would be more amenable to the benefits of proper education in a school as opposed to the home or cheder. Therefore Luria's first action was to introduce new, proper foundations into the Talmud Torah which was based on Talmudic teaching with flawed methodology. Since the teaching material was already available, it would be easier to activate the rational methodologies based on general pedagogical principles that were foreign to Jews. As was expected, Luria ran into an almost insurmountable obstacle with his first step. The organized religious Aguda regarded the Talmud Torah as under its own supervision and as its own possession, which it must defend without bounds. This is exactly what the Aguda did. Headed by its zealous trustees, it went out to battle against the enemy that was threatening its own private possession. Curses and threats were cast upon Luria's head. The zealots did everything in their power to disrupt, for they suspected that this was a serious situation. However Luria stood strong against the first storm and subsequent storms of angry zeal, even though he was alone in the battlefield, without any allies even from among his relatives, who regarded this brazen activity as madness worthy of castigation and mockery. However he found strength in the deep understanding of the benefits and the necessity of the task that he set before himself. He went forth in giant, strong steps, without any doubt about his success.

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After a long, harsh battle, Luria was finally able to wrest the Talmud Torah from the hands of the extremist Aguda, which laid down its weapons in the face of this tireless fighter. Therefore, he established the basis of the building that would later cause excitement and even joy to his opponents.

In order to sever all connections of the institution to its gloomy past, and thereby to ease the adoption of brave innovations, Luria moved the Talmud Torah from its dirty courtyard, from its old, dark building, to a light, spacious and comfortable building on a clean, broad street. He provided the students with undergarments, shoes and uniforms, thereby turning the poor, shabby, unkempt youths into neat youths. He then began to teach these youths in the style of European educational institutions.

Instead of the lackadaisical teaching methodology focusing solely on Talmud, he introduced a curriculum with various subjects to the Talmud Torah. The subjects included Bible, Talmud, morality, Hebrew, Russian, arithmetic, geography and penmanship. The unenlightened teachers who had no concept of pedagogy cleared their spaces for wise teachers, including Liebman[4] for Jewish studies and Y. Levin for general studies. The former was known as an expert in Talmud and as a great scholar of the Hebrew language. He was known for his pedagogical activity in the city of Vilna. The latter was one of the best private teachers in the city of Minsk. In addition to these senior teachers, there were junior teachers who were later assisted by assistants chosen from amongst the best of the students. Diligent supervision was imposed upon the school staff, with support for the diligent and proper teachers, and penalties for those who were lax. The living spirit in all of the new order, both administrative and pedagogical, was the supervisor himself – David Luria, who worked day and night in nurturing the institution which he established. He encouraged the teachers and students, removed obstacles, and fine tuned the educational methodologies without holding back from making expenditures from his own private funds, for the financial means of the Talmud Torah were, as usual, quite restricted. It is a wonder how an autodidact who never studied in a formal school could perform so well in the pedagogical field and conduct the school in such a practical manner that was impressive to any professional pedagogue who followed his professional career for a long period. Luria knew very well how and with what to influence the hearts of his young charges who came into his care half wild. He knew how to inspire in this unruly mass the love of order, cleanliness, intellectual development, and moral completion. In short, he knew – and he was almost the only one who knew – how to raise the Talmud Torah student from the darkness and march him toward light. From where did he draw his knowledge and abilities? Apparently, from his honest diligence and burning love for the enterprise which he loved to serve.

The faithful diligence of David Luria and his closest assistants was quickly crowned with the appropriate success. Within a short period of time, the Minsk Talmud Torah reached a stage of development that no other school opened by the government ever reached at a later time. Such schools were called “Jewish Government Schools” and had quite adequate budgets and teachers with proper accreditation. The educational leadership never ceased to be amazed about the speed and enthusiasm with which the students of the new institution grasped all of their subjects. They testified to this in the registry book which was established for that purpose. It is appropriate to mention in favor of the Jews of Minsk – not only did they

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make peace with their enemy, but they also began to regard his activities with appreciation and admiration, for they saw it as effective from all perspectives. The students of the Talmud Torah attracted attention not only for their diligence, but also for their politeness and honesty, and for the fact that they were not damaged by studying various subjects. As a proof as of the great level of appreciation for David Luria's communal activities, we can bring down the fact that several synagogues conducted daily public prayers for his recovery when he became seriously ill. The fear of losing this communal activist caused so much worry that even his former opponents began to regard the matter as acceptable before G-d.

The success of the Talmud Torah was so attractive that after some time the wealthy citizens of the city, who at first were vehemently opposed to the school, now wanted their own children to attend this school, for they realized that they should be ashamed in front of the orphans! They had received a superior education, so that with the passage of time they had become more educated and wise than their own dear children who had been educated by the old, inferior methodology. The wealthy people decided that they too must do something daring as fitting to the new spirit of the times, to which they had begun to acknowledge its existence. As a result of this, with the support of the merchants, a school for the children of the merchants was opened. The job of chief supervisor was given to David Luria, who had started to be regarded as the magician of Jewish education. The school was opened with great fanfare and festivity. There was music, speeches, flowers, sweets, and toasts. Russian, German, French, arithmetic and geography were taught. The teachers were Mr. Levin for Russian and science, and Mr. Melzer for German and French. Almost all of the children of the merchants of Minsk were among their students. It seems that everyone was convinced of its success… however to our dismay, success did not come and was not possible. Aside from the fact that the children of the merchants had been ruined to a large degree by the home style education and were cypriots[*2], rude and lazy, not wanting to obey the rules of the school; the organization of the school itself was a very great obstacle, against which even David Luria, who fulfilled more of an honorary role than an executive role, was powerless to do anything. The reason was that the merchants, who recognized the benefits of communal education over home-based education but had not decided to put an end to the habits that had become so dear to them, hoped to arrange matters so that the wolf would be satiated and the lamb would be whole. They wanted to arrange that their half-wild children, who had formerly been under the care of the melamdim, would attend the school for only two hours a day in order to become familiar with the languages. This unsuccessful compromise hindered the development of the school and half ensured that it would never live up to its expectations. The melamdin, out of a natural tendency for self protection, incited the students against the school and its routines, and mocked and derided the pedagogic tactics of the enlightened teachers. They succeeded in their goal. The students found in the dark, slanderous words of the melamdim reason to justify their laziness. They began to hate the school, its subjects and teachers. They began to deride the lessons, and later to skip them completely, to the point where the school had to be closed because it was ineffective from all perspectives. The merchants did not have sufficient will or understanding to reestablish the school on rational foundations. To them, the old guard was more suitable and comfortable, so they returned to it. It is possible that they were also satisfied that their experience did not succeed. In this way, the compromise between the cheder and the school failed definitively. This was a compromise that Luria would have prevented

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had he had the power to run the school for the children of the merchants in the same manner and with the same level of independence as he ran the Talmud Torah.

Despite this failure, the topic of the school had become such a popular and satisfying topic of conversation among the Jews of Minsk, that a year and a half after the renewal of the Talmud Torah, David Luria saw that one should take hold of the iron while it was still hot, and saw it possible to open a school for the middle class who would not want to study in the institution for orphans. This school, called Midrash Ezrachim, opened in 1845. It was organized according to the paradigm of the Talmud Torah with the sole exception that the students had to pay a tuition fee of 12 ruble a year. This was a significant sum in those days, when the tuition for the gymnasium was 5 rubles. The subjects were the same as those of the Talmud Torah, with the addition of German. The teachers were V. Liebman the brother of the teacher of the Talmud Torah, Mr. Levin, Luria himself who taught bible and morality in the upper classes, as well as two or three other teachers of the second rank for the lowest class. The Lancaster methodology was used, particularly for the general subjects. The external facilities of the school were splendid, almost excessive, with very spacious classrooms and halls for spare time, a large yard, a garden, and a detention room. Luria did not hesitate to utilize his own financial means for this facility, which was not inexpensive, since he knew how great the influence of fine facilities would be on the spirits of the Jewish children. Luria was not incorrect: the students quickly became uncomfortable about attending school in clean rooms if they were unkempt, if their hair was not combed, or if their clothes were not pressed. They began to pay more attention to their externals, which had been neglected completely with their Jewish education. Thus, without using too many words to nurture a love of cleanliness and order among the Jewish students, Luria succeeded in ensuring that the students of the Midrash Ezrachim would begin to concern themselves with their external appearance as inspired by the physical environment of the school that surrounded them. This in turn made their parents happy, for to their great joy, cleanliness and neatness made their children more healthy and lively.

The student population reached 100, and at times even more than that. If we take into account that in the government schools that opened up later, where the tuition was free, the number of students varied between 15 and 20 even in the district cities; we can appreciate how great was the faith that the Jewish parents placed in Luria and his educational enterprise, whereas previously they distanced themselves from him as a Satanic person. Luria earned this faith on account of his deep understanding of the needs of the Jewish youth, and his ability to provide for those needs.

Luria imbued a great deal of love and diligence into Midrash Ezrachim – traits which characterized his work in the Talmud Torah, and which led to the same results. This new enterprise enjoyed bright success. The students revered their patron and withheld no efforts in order to earn his praise. Each one tried to surpass the other in diligence and good behavior. In this noble competition, they earned nothing more than a supportive look and a good word from their revered patron, from whose mouth a rebuke was considered to be the most serious punishment. The hearts of the young, uncorrupted children would be disturbed if they somehow hurt the man who worked so diligently for their happiness, without expectation of reward. In his free time, Mr. Luria would gather the students of the highest grade around him and discuss various topics with them that were not included in the set curriculum, thereby broadening their circle of knowledge and awakening in them a love of knowledge and moral completeness.

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During these discussions, which took the form of popular lectures, Mr. Luria would often touch on one Jewish custom or another that had already become outmoded, and explain its source and the reason for continued existence until this time. In short, he attempted to the best of his ability to develop and educate the children who were given into his charge, and to whom he dedicated his entire essence. These discussions became etched in the memories of the young audience, for they were not pedantic or heavy. Luria was adept at conversation and storytelling. He would tell his stories in a light, humorous style which would keep the listeners away from boredom and weariness, which would invariably accompany a boring speaker. As is typical of the social mores of youths, the students later discussed their impressions of the school discussions with their parents and family members. In this manner, they brought the light of enlightenment into the home environment of the Jews of Minsk. Thus did Luria's spiritual influence reach not only into the institution that was under his supervision, but also outside of its bounds where it was doubly effective. Were Lilienthal to come at this point to Minsk, he would not recognize the wild ones of the past who wished to stone him for his heretical actions. The revolution in the thinking patterns of the Jews was indeed astonishing, especially since it was effected through the activities of a single person. Pay attention! One man! From this perspective, we must acknowledge the superiority of David Luria over the activists of Vilna in the 1840s, who functioned as a united power, forming a united group and assisted by the newspapers; whereas Luria was missing all of these accoutrements. They were apparently unnecessary for him, for he replaced them with his tireless diligence and his faithful love of education.

Thus was the situation until the latter part of 1846, when to the dismay of all the Jews of Minsk, the Talmud Torah and Midrash Ezrachim were closed by order of the government, which was then attempting to open government schools in Minsk. Thanks to the successful work of David Luria over a four year period, which led to the Jews of Minsk making peace with the idea of school education, the schools which then opened were overflowing with students, most of whom were alumnae of the institutions that had been closed. The Talmud Torah reverted to its former locale in the school courtyard, under the direction of its former unenlightened teachers.

David Luria descended from the stage. He was awarded the Stanislaw stripe medal a few years later due to his great efforts and material sacrifices that he made. He was also the focus of a brief poem at the end of the booklet “The Buds” (Hanitzanim) by A. B. Gotlober. Why was he not inducted at least as a national member of the “Organization for the Spreading of Enlightenment Among the Jews of Russia” – this we do not know.



Text Footnotes:
1 Yevreiska Biblioteka (Russian), volume I. Return
2 Dr. Max Lilienthal (1815-1882), a rabbi and education from Germany, was summoned in 1841 by the Russian minister of Education Ubarov to conduct a publicity campaign for the benefit of enlightened education amongst the Jews of the Pale of Settlement. See about his visit to Minsk on page 47 – a note from the editor. Return
3 Ibid, Volume I, paged 152, 153. “As long as the state does not grant the Jews rights of citizens, education is liable to be only a disaster.” Return
4 He died in May 1873 in Minsk in a situation of poverty, since he did not receive a pension despite his 17 years of service at the school. In his latter years, he lived off of donations from the late benefactor Zissel Rappaport and other benefactors in Minsk. Return



Translator's Footnotes:
*1Under the context, this may mean “expert in supervision” – i.e. general supervision rather than the ritual sense of the term. Return
*2I am not sure of the implications of the term here, obviously used as slang. Return


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Jewish Souls

by A. Litvin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, Shmuel Horowitz (1862-1942) was a well-known Jewish writer under his literary pseudonym A. Litvin. He was one of the founders of the Minsk chapter of Poale Zion. See more about him on pages 423-425 of our book.
The three first articles, from Litvins's book “Yiddishe Neshamos” (Jewish Souls), were translated from Yiddish by Nachum Chinitz. The article “Sixty Years at his Post”, transcribed from his book “Neshamos BeYisrael” (Souls in Israel), was translated from Yiddish by A. Kariv, published by Am-Oved, Tel Aviv, 5704 (1944).

The End of an Editor

He stands before my eyes as if alive. Lean, short, with a black cloak, spotted with yellow and green spots on his shoulders, with a black hat, soft, with a dusty, spotted coat. He walked through the streets of the city as a shadow, bent over with his cane in his hand. There was an ancient book under his shoulders – for he did not value the new ones. He did not even taste a special taste in Bialik, and did not understand why many people visited him. The elderly Wahlman was a fighter, a revolutionary in Haskalah. He had a place in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. He was held in great esteem. The elderly Minsk millionaire Poliak was his student, and declared that it was virtue to be numbered among the students of Wahlman. With his knowledge and rhetoric he hovered among the prominent and wealthy householders, and in his day to day life, he was one of the common folk. He lived in a dismal cottage. He wrote poems in Yiddish, and humorous portraits from the life of the people. His book “Veibishe Kniplech” (“Bundles for Women”) was loved by all the girls and women. He was also an editor. He published a publication called “Hakochavim”, in which the finest of the Hebrew writers of that era participated. However, all of the publications and subscription money were burnt in a fire.

Until his last year, he gave private lessons. He lived a life of poverty until his 80s. When his energy declined, the wealthy men of Minsk allotted him two rubles per month from the “Chonen Dalim” committee. He waited in line in the cold and frost week by week in order to obtain his allotment of a half a ruble. One day, he fainted from weakness. He was brought into the nearby bookstore and revived with great effort. He entered an old age home at the age of 92, at which point they stopped giving him the two rubles.

Fate smiled; the ethnographic society in Peterburg remembered that Wahlman was a comprehensive treasury of Jewish history and culture. A short time before his death, they recommended that he write his memoirs. The society only ignored one fact -- that in order to write one's memoirs, an elderly man must also eat to satiation, so that his fingers would be able to hold a pen…

Death came and redeemed him from all tribulations and from the kindness of the Peterburg society.

The Tragedy of the Hebrew Mark Twain

Yosef Brill (Iyo”v of Minsk) was 80 years old when I visited him in his home. He had a special, unique place in Hebrew literature. He was a type of Hebrew Mark Twain. He wrote his satire in the forms of books rather than feullitons, but he became attached to a new style, the style of Midrash

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and Gemara. His satires were published with the general title “Midrash Sofrim”. This was a wonderful literary imitation of the language of the Gemara.

It was literally a holiday to the readers of the Peretz Smolenskin's “Hashachar” when they found Brill's “Midrash Sofrim”. The satire was biting. No favoritism was played. Nevertheless, the “victims” licked their fingers. Brill relates: Once the “Midrash” wrote about Smolenskin himself. We sent the “Midrash” to him. Later, he was sorry about this. He thought that this was the end of his participation in “Hashachar”. How surprised was he when he saw his Midrash in the “Hashachar” booklet. When he met Smolenskin, he asked him, “How can it be! How did a person publish a criticism of himself?” “But this was wonderful, the main thing was that everything was proper and good, true and firm,” Smolenskin retorted with a smile on his lips.

Even at the age of 80, the elderly Brill did not put down his satirical pen. He showed me “The Abridged Code of Jewish Law for the Wealthy” in the satirical, Midrashic style. Here are a few excerpts:

Paragraph 13, for those who go bankrupt: Someone who goes bankrupt blessed “shecheyanu[*1]. It is not every day that a miracle takes place for those who go bankrupt. In the tractate “Shtarot” there is a discussion about whether one must make two blessings, first “al netilat yadayim”, and second “shehechayanu”. However the law goes with the latter teaching and one must bless “shehechayanu”.

Paragraph 26, laws for summer vacationers: For all the days of the summer vacation, the vacationers are exempt from charitable deeds, and various payments. Their children are exempt from studies, prayers, and all types of commandments and customs. The parents do not pay the rebbes and teachers anything.

Brill gave private lessons even during his old age. With swollen feet, he made his way with difficulty to the houses of Jews who remembered the grace of his youth. The “Mafitzei Haskalah” society of Peterburg and its Minsk chapter granted him a one time grant of 125 rubles.

He authored a six volume Talmudic lexicon, as well as the “Maane Lashon” book on weeping and elegies. Brill took this book into his hands, began to read it to me, and burst out in weeping as tears choked his throat. That man who desired to elicit laughter and mocking with his satire was now, with his final work, attempting to elicit weeping and tears.

Simcha the Shoemaker

Who did not know Simcha the Shoemaker[1] of Minsk? He was the only proletariat Maskil. He was the son of an impoverished man. His father, a former owner of estates, had lost his property through a fire and became impoverished. His son Simcha came to Minsk and became a shoemaker. He was not a great expert in shoemaking. He was primarily immersed in Haskalah. At his first opportunity, he would free himself from his apron and workbench and set out to the street with a bundle of books and newspapers under his arm in order to listen to and hang out with Maskilim. He was an “in-law” among the writers. He constantly bragged: “I soled half boots for Zusnich, I fixed the soles of Mezach's shoes, I was close to Tsharny, I was like a brother to Ber Bampi and Reb Zisla Rappoport (wealthy Minsk Maskilim), I was close with Dr. Luntz.”

If a Maskil came as a guest, Simcha the Shoemaker would immediately be with him. He would visit Simcha the Shoemaker and return with the soles of his shoes repaired – a free gift.

His own shoes were not particularly whole, and his clothes were not patched. There were no

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whole benches in his house, and his window panes were not in good repair. He was not always able to give a meager amount to his wife for a morsel of bread and impoverished grit soup. Despite this, Simcha had one of the finest libraries in Minsk. Hundreds of yeshiva students and poor lads obtained their literary knowledge from Simcha the Shoemaker. When a good book came out, Simcha hastened to purchase it. Simcha went hungry on more than one occasion on account of his love for his library. Simcha did not care if hunger afflicted him on occasion. This was not the case with his wife, who desired food in full portions.

With Simcha, Haskalah and fear of heaven were intermixed. He loved the freethinking Hebrew writers, but he also loved and esteemed religious Jews and rabbis. Throughout his life, he served Reb Gershon Tanchum, the elder, renowned rabbi of Minsk. Only a thin section of wall separated between them. When Simcha's oven was hot and fully stoked, the elderly rabbi came to warm up. At times, the rabbi would visit Simcha after midnight and read his compositions to him. Simcha would read the new Haskalah books to the rabbi. When Rabbi Gershon Tanchum became bedridden during his final years, Simcha did not leave his bed, day and night.

Simcha was approximately 70 years old when the Russian Revolution broke out. He gave up his shoemaking shop and wandered by foot to southern Russian. He set out for the synagogue when he reached Yekatrinaslav. He felt some emptiness in his heart, a sort of distance from Lithuania! There, after the prayers they would study Mishna, Ein Yaakov and Midrash. Here, however, the neglect was great. Through his initiative an Ein Yaakov group and a Bible study group were formed. Simcha the shoemaker became a sort of preacher and lecturer.

Pogroms broke out. Simcha returned to Minsk while he still had the energy. No trace was left of his library, for his wife had sold all his books. Old age caught up with him. He returned to his workbench and anvil, and waited for purchasers and customers, for he still had the energy to sew shoes. However, even the repair jobs were scarce. His livelihood was based upon repairs.

Sixty Years at his Post

I met him on the street during one of my visits to Minsk and was very surprised. I had read in one of the newspapers that he had died, and here he was before my eyes, alive and well. I immediately realized that one of the tricksters had hastened to publish an obituary for the old man so that he could see his name in print.

I was very happy to see my first Russian Language teacher alive. Who in my city had not been a student of this old man? Which lad of Minsk, whether from a wealthy or poor family, did not obtain his education from Leder's school?

He served the Haskalah and the residents of Minsk for 60 years – double the years of army service during the days of Nikolai I plus ten years. He began his service when he was 18 years old, and ended it when he was 78 years old.

Who in Minsk did not know Leder? Among whom was the impression of his dark face, apparently ugly, but nevertheless very characteristic and so beloved, not known? Anyone who saw him even once could not forget him.

He was the teacher of the Jews in the school for 60 years – from the days that the winds of the Haskalah began to blow (using a metaphor) until the storm of the revolution began. The first birds of the spring of Haskalah sat in his school; and perhaps on the very same benches, for the benches were quite ancient, sat their grandchildren in workers' shirts, listening to classes from the well-known revolutionary Grygory Gershuni every evening.

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Years passed and years came. News ideas and new world outlooks blossomed and withered away, as new movements and new people took their places, conquering the world, then disappearing as well, leaving behind new generations with new aspirations. All this time, he, Leder, remained on his guard and taught the Jewish children things whose time had not passed. He taught them the Yiddish and Russian languages, prepared them for the struggle of life, and eased the struggle of life for them to the extent that he was able.

Leder did not educate his students more than teaching them how to read and write to the extent that is needed for day to day life. He himself was not highly educated. He did not read many books. He told me that many years earlier, he had even tried to write an article for a newspaper, but they did not print it. Once he shared with me in confidence that he was writing a diary, but I am sure that the diary was lost and even forgotten by him for some time already. Leder was not at all like one of those Maskilim whose spirit is not calm, and whose soul pines after some idea. Teaching was simultaneously his profession and the aim of his soul. He stood at his podium for decades and taught generations of students the same grammatical principles and the same arithmetic questions – everything calmly and pleasantly. Leder never went forth beyond his bounds. He never raised his voice or cast gall upon any student. His face never lost its natural calmness and munificent, lackadaisical smile. Therefore, he was beloved by his students.

As in every place within the Jewish areas, new schools with new teachers who brought new teaching methodologies also arrived in Minsk -- they arose and also disappeared. Leder's school was not concerned about competition. He stood strong. Leder always had families of householders as well as poor people who passed to him from generation to generation as an inheritance. Many of his students studied at half tuition or for completely free. The city council paid several dozen rubles a year for them. Even those who did pay paid somewhat meagerly, not on time, or even not at all. Leder was not exacting with them. Therefore, those who did not have the means to pay preferred to send their students to Leder, even though everyone knew that his school was already aging somewhat.

Most of his students, the children of the masses, did not conclude school. When they had studied a bit of arithmetic and a bit of reading and writing, they set out to search for a “purpose”: some in a store, some at a trade, and some at a trade school. No small number of his students, who had received their first push toward Haskalah from him, went on to complete their studies in secondary and high schools. Leder has many doctors, lawyers, engineers, technologists and the like among his former students.

The cultural activities of Gershuni in Minsk played themselves out in Leder's school. Gershuni was the first one to set up evening classes for youths and adults among the Jewish people of Russia. He did this with great toil and effort. He was forced to house these lessons in Leder's school, as it was beyond political suspicion in the eyes of the authorities. The classes were set up especially for the Yeshiva students. However, many youths with black and red shirts were also there.

Leder's school was closed only at the time of the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. He no longer had the energy to maintain it by itself. In any case, he was still teaching there several hours a day. Leder had never been a big spender. New clothes were never seen upon him. From the day that I knew him, it seems to me that he was wearing the same old, stained hat, and the same old coat – a hybrid between a modern jacket and an old style kapote. He deported himself like a poor householder, and his face always bore the smile of a person who was satisfied with his lot.

That day when I met him in the street, as he was sitting on a stool in front of the gate, age was already

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beginning to sap his strength. His appearance was that of a ruin about to collapse. Six or seven years previously, he would greet me when he met me on the street. Now he did not recognize me anymore. He only recognized me after I gave him a few signs, and his face expressed satisfaction. During the previous year, it never happened that one of his former students stopped him and asked about his wellbeing and his activities.

He was still continuing with his work a few years previously, giving classes in the Talmud Torah. However, during the previous year, both his feet and his mind stopped working properly. On a nice day he was still able to go out of the door of his house and walk the distance of a few houses. However, even them he had to rest on a stool on occasion.

“Where is your place? From where do you get your livelihood?” I asked him.

“Here I am at my house,” he answered me, “but I do not take anything; thank G-d, I do not take anything from any person,” he continued on, as his eyes glittered, and a satisfied, almost happy smile came over his face. “Praised be G-d, I have walked on the earth for 78 years, and have not benefitted from other people, have not encroached on my fellow, and never responded to a slight with a slight. Everybody is my friend, and I am a friend of everybody. I earned my bread honestly throughout all my days…”

“Who gives you your livelihood now?” I asked him, “Do your friends help you in your old age?”

“The Czar gives me!” he responded with pride, “I do not need the help of anyone. I receive an allocation of 12 rubles a month, which is sufficient for me. For what are my needs?”

I realized that from the time he began to runt he school, for duration of 40 or 50 years, they would deduct some of his salary. That was the source of the 12 rubles per month “which the Czar gives to him.”
“And the city?” I asked, “Indeed you worked for 60 consecutive years. It would seem to be that half of the residents of Minsk were your students. Does the city help you at all? Do the trustees of the Talmud Torah, in which you worked for many years, help you?”

“No, the city does not give me anything, nor does the Talmud Torah”

Ingrates! The weak, elderly man served the residents of Minsk for 60 years, and nobody cares about him or even thinks about how he lives and how he is spending the end of his days.

I expressed my complaint to the ears of the old man. However, he turned to me with the simultaneous expression of a cold spirit and a satisfied spirit.

“No, no… I have no complaints. Praised be G-d that my life has passed me by with honesty. I never took anything from anybody. I never damaged anybody… I am satisfied with my lot… However, but… at times my heart desires something… something sour or salty… Eating does not attract me at all… at all…”
This was the only thing that the soul of the old man desired…


Text Footnotes:
1 He was the father of the Jewish writer David Kassel. See further on in the article of A. Lisin, page 261 – the Malbih”d. Return



Translator's Footnotes:
*1Shehechayanu is the blessing recited upon wearing a new garment, eating a new fruit, experiencing certain types of special occasions, or on the festivals. Al Netilat Yadayim is the blessing recited upon washing the hands on arising in the morning or before partaking of a meal. Shtarot means contracts or documents (there is no such tractate in the Talmud). Return


[Page 148]

Minsk – Jerusalem of White Russia

by Chaim Lavshai

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, Chaim Lavshai (Lifshitz) was born in Minsk in 1917. He made aliyah to the Land in 1937.
He was a civil servant. He edited booklets. He translated and published poems and articles in Hebrew and Yiddish.
The destruction of the community of Minsk was not like that of the other Jewish communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust. Minsk, the capital of White Russia, and in the years before the First World War – the regional city and chief city of the cities of the region of Reisin [1] and its region – suffered and was destroyed twofold. It was destroyed by Hitler's legions, in the presence of the enemy Eichmann, may his name be blotted out. On Purim of 5612 (1942), a day of mass murder of more than 5,000 people – young, old, women and children – it suffered its second destruction. The first preceded this one by approximately 25 years, when the Bolshevik regime arose and wiped out Judaism and anything that is called by its name.

Minsk, a great city for G-d and people, with myriads of Jews, a prince among the cities, was overturned by aliens. The Red Revolution that overturned it and all of wide Russia, was like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As its comrade Vilna, Minsk also merited a nickname full of meaning – Jerusalem of White Russia [2]. Until that revolution – fast trains went out from the wonderful Vilna pathways and formed a bridge and connection of business and culture between them.

Its Rabbis and Great Ones

The vast majority of the population of Minsk was Jewish, and in the latter half of the 1920s, the Jewish population reached more than 50,000 people.

In this large Jewish hearth, there were – already from the previous century – great people and famous rabbis, worthy of praise. The Gaon Yechiel Halpern, known from his historical work “Seder Hadorot” [The Order of the Generations], served as the Rabbi of Minsk in the 18th century, and headed a famous yeshiva. At that time, the great one of the Gaonim of that generation and the following generations arrived in Minsk: Reb Aryeh Leib, the author of “Shaagat Aryeh” who also founded a large yeshiva. However, something took place between these two yeshivas and they became hostile to each other. The people of Minsk defended the author of “Seder Hadorot”, and sent the author of the “Shaagat Aryeh” away from the city on a Friday. The monument of the grave of the “Seder Hadorot” stands to this day, intact and fenced off, in the old cemetery, which was completely ploughed and paved over. All of its monuments and graves were willfully desecrated.

In the 19th century, the following Gaonim lived and worked in Minsk: Reb David Tavli the author of “Nachalat David”; Reb Gershon Tanchum; Reb Yaakov Meir [Gorodinsky, elsewhere transliterated from the Polish as Grodzenski]; and the “Gadol” Rabbi Aryeh Leib Perlman the author of “Or Gadol” [Great Light], a commentary on the Mishna. The latter served as the rabbi of the city. The influence of these Gaonim and personalities upon Minsk and its Jews was great. They spread its fame throughout the scattered breadth of Jewry.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Gaon Eliezer Rabinovitch served as the Chief Rabbi of Minsk. He was the son-in-law of the “Gadol”. His death, a few years after the revolution, brought deep shock to the Jews of Minsk. Many of them participated in his funeral, including Communists and gentiles.

After the death of Rabbi Rabinovitch, his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gluskin, continued on in the rabbinate. He was a dear and refined soul. He died in Leningrad, to where he was exiled with his family after the

[Page 149]

Yevseki government of Minsk libeled him and confiscated all of his property. Other well-known rabbis, who dedicated their souls to the preservation of the ember of Judaism, lived and worked in Minsk during the time of Rabbi Gluskin and after him. These included Yehoshua Zimbalist, Izak Rabinovitch, Moshe Gordon, the Magid Binyamin Shakovitzki, Rabbi Asher Kershtein, and others. These people worked and risked their lives for Judaism, under the ruthless police, imprisonment, and torment. Through their power and the powers that spread from their power – Judaism flickered, whispered, and guarded its embers lest they be completely extinguished.

A City of Refuge

During the period of the First World War, in the spring of 1915, the community of Minsk took the chief crown of Russian Jewry, which until that time had been borne by the community of Vilna, with the community of Minsk being second to it (There was the “Gaon” of Vilna and the “Gadol” of Minsk). This was caused by the fact that Nikolai Nikolevitch, the chief army officer of Russia, expelled the Jews of Poland and Lithuania, and ruthlessly uprooted them from their areas of residence. The pretext for the expulsion was the closeness of the Jews, who were suspect of being unfaithful to Russia, to the border regions with the enemy country of Germany.

The Jews of Vilna, Radin, Kovno, Brisk, Vilkomir and other areas from the regions of Poland and Lithuania, who lived in these cities by the thousands along with their leaders and rabbis, uprooted themselves and for the most part came to the “Jerusalem of Reisin”, to Minsk. Minsk was a great city unto G-d [3], populated with myriads of Jews, and under the influence of large, splendid Jewish institutions. Indeed, the Jews of Minsk opened the doors of their homes and their reserves of money for these refugees of war. They housed them and gave of their resources and strength to absorb them. Thus, the greats of that generation gathered into the midst of the Jewish center of Minsk – in the area of the old market, that is glazed and covered with wood and iron; in the alleys near the large square around which the synagogues are centered; and in the area of the Fish Market next to the Svisloch River whose waters flow swiftly in the summer and winter.

In the large and small synagogues that were centered around the streets Nemiga, Zamkova, Hakadarim [the potters] and in the alleys of “Bitza” [the bog], between the stores, and on the long, curved Street of the Butchers – Reb Yisrael Meir Kahan the author of the “Chofetz Chaim”, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, Reb Leib of Vilkomir, and Reb Yeshayahu Kareliz who later became known as the Chazon Ish, and many others sat, learned, and engaged in didactics. These synagogues were open day and night. Thousands of holy books were stored on their shelves and tables, as is the manner of synagogues in areas of Jewish settlement.

With the outbreak of the Communist Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet government, these rabbis and people were once again exiled. Some of them fled at the risk of their lives and returned across the borders to Poland and Lithuania, which became independent states after the war and were free from Communist rule, in accordance with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Torah and its Studiers

Minsk was well known for its Torah, its studiers of Torah, its synagogues, its study groups, and its classes for the study of Torah, Mishna, and homiletics. It had many synagogues that did not close during the day and even during the night. Many of its synagogues were called by the name of the group that studied in them, or of the class that was given in them, such as: the Synagogue of the Chayei Adam [4], the Group of Tiferet Bachurim, etc.

The “Cheder” Synagogue was most famous, since the people of this synagogue would gather in the middle of the day, especially on Sabbaths. Their great rabbi, Reb Isser, and after his death his son-in-law Reb Aryeh, would sit on a high and exalted chair, not next to the table, but rather in the middle of the synagogue, on the bima [platform], surrounded by the audience

[Page 150]

of the many who heeded his voice, the exalted one in a high position. Silence would pervade. Even the rustle of a fly could not be heard as he spoke.

Next to the main square of the city, “Sobor” (whose name was changed to Sboboda – that is Freedom – after the revolution), there was a large, wide courtyard – the Synagogue Courtyard. Tens of synagogues, including the large, central synagogues of the city, were located there. The large, central synagogue was known as “Hakar” (the Cold), since at its inception, it did not have a stove due to its size. It was difficult to worship there in the winter. They would hire a quorum [minyan] of men to come to worship there, so that the prayers would not be missed there in the winter. The “Hachevra” synagogue, the large Beis Midrash, the small Beis Midrash, and many others – every synagogue with its story, every Beis Midrash had its studiers. The Synagogue Courtyard had three gates on each of the three sides that led to adjacent roads. (The story of the foundations, and history of these synagogues, as well as their capture, closing, and destruction by the Communist regime, is very long, and is worthy of being told in its own right.) In addition, there were beautiful and splendid synagogues scattered throughout town. Even group of artisans or professionals had their own synagogue, called after its name: the synagogue of the butchers, of the carpenters, of the plasterers. These were located in the area of the city where the craftsmen worked. Even the streets were called by the names of the professions.

In this city that was pervaded by the Misnagdic [anti-Hassidic] Lithuanian style, there were even three Hassidic synagogues. These were among the largest and warmest: Lubavitch, Koidanov, and Slonim.

A Center for Zionism and Pioneering

Minsk was one of the largest centers of Zionism. The Zionist movement in all its streams, from Poale Zion and Hashomer Hatzair until Mizrachi [5], found a wide venue for their activities in Minsk, and struck down firm roots in the sectors of the people. The wide publicity of the Zionist movement and also Minsk brought the General Convention of Russian Zionists to the “Paris” hotel in Minsk in 1902. This conference was conducted with great splendor. This was an era of oppression in Czarist Russia. The Czar behaved toward the Jews with a strong hand. Strange winds, rooted in the leftist and nihilistic movements, were blowing in the Jewish street. These were reflected by the “Bund” movement, the Anarchists, the Social-Revolutionary and Social-Democratic movements, and others. The Zionist Council of Russia became a gathering point for all Jews who were concerned about Zion and longed for the redemption. The movement straightened its back, raised its horn, and poured the dew of renewal into the hearts. The Jews of Minsk walked in its light in the outskirts of their city, dreaming and full of hope for the approaching redemption and the building of the Land. Years passed by, and grandfathers spoke about this large convention with pride and longing to their grandchildren who were born after the revolution.

A large portion of the activists of the Zionist movement lived and worked in Minsk and its environs. It is sufficient to mention Nachman Sirkin, Yehoshua Sirkin, Mania Shuchat, Eliezer Kaplan, the first treasurer Herzl Berger, Dr. Alexander Goldstein, and many others. First and foremost, there is President Shazar [6], who was also raised in Minsk and its environs.

Minsk was the cradle of Zionist activists, both with regard to finances and settlement, in the years prior to the revolution and even in the years following. These included “Agudat-Haelef”, which established the Jewish settlement in “Ein-Zeitim”, “Kadima”, “Hashomer Hatzair”, “Tzeirei Zion”, and others. There were natives of Minsk and its environs among the founders of Degania [7], and in the ranks of Bilu, as well as among the first students of the Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv. It is proper to mention in particular the convention of “The Zionist Soldiers on the Minsk Front” that was established in Minsk at the end of the First World War in the year 1918, under a Hebrew flag upon which fluttered the symbol of the Magen David.

[Page 151]

Poets and Writers

Minsk excelled not only in the realms of Torah and Zionism, but its position was also prominent and significant in the realms of culture, poetry, and literature. Poets and well-known people in these fields, such as H. Levek, B. Vladek, A. Lisin, Avraham Reisin, Moshe Kolbak, Zelik Akselrod, Izi Charik, Moshe Teif and many others, lived, composes, and were prominent in that region. The Hebrew writers Daniel Persky, Yknh”z, Michel Rabinovitch, Ch. D. Rosenstein, David Zakai, and Edel Presman were natives of Minsk.

During the 1930s and later [8], Yiddish literature and journalism arose in Minsk. The central theater, a gathering place for Yiddish writers, ensembles and choirs, meeting places for workers, and Jewish libraries all operated in Minsk. Theatrical groups and Jewish artists from Moscow, Kiev, and other cities would visit Minsk. Those who awaited them rejoiced with their Jewish hearts to hear the Yiddish language – the language which was interwoven with the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew expressions.

Around the 1930s, a general conference of Jewish writers took place in the central Europa Hotel in Minsk. The poets Itzik Feffer, Peretz Markish and Izzi Charik stood out there.

The Yevsekia

The Yevsekia in Minsk formed an embarrassing era, with its war against Jewish religion and culture. Through its aim of denigration, it emasculated and cut down the image of Judaism and its standard bearers. It did not shy away from instigating libels and false court cases against promoters of religion. The court cases of the years 1925-1929 excelled in their evil. These included the case against the union of shochtim, and the case against the shochet Rappaport.

Even though the end of the Yevsekia came and its chief spokesmen were not vindicated for the government of Stalin liquidated them as well, Minsk, an important city in Israel, with great influence, a great center of Jews and Judaism – now lies silent. Its mouth was shut, and a Jewish desolation envelops it.

{Painting page 151: “And these sheep, how did they sin?” by Mark Zhitnitsky.}



Translator's Footnotes:
1 According to the Yiddish dictionary of Uriel Weinreich, Reisin is a term for White Russia or Byelorussia. The term used in the first part of the sentence is 'Russia Halevana', which literally means 'White Russia'. The term used in the title and the latter part of this sentence is Reisin. I am not sure of the different connotations of these terms, but from this current sentence, it seems as if there is such. Return
2Vilna is often known as Jerusalem of Lithuania. Return
3A reference from the book of Jonah, describing the city of Nineveh. Return
4Chayei Adam is a detailed work on day-to-day halachah.Return
5Poale Zion is a general Zionist faction. Hashomer Hatzair [The Young Guard], is a Socialist, secular Zionist youth group. Mizrachi is the religious Zionist group.Return
6This refers to the third president of Israel, Zalman Shazar (his surname is an acronym of his original name, Shneur Zalman Rubashov.Return
7The first Kibbutz.Return
8The timeframe seems to be problematic here, as the Second World War followed the 1930s – unless this is referring to Yiddish culture in the post-war Soviet era, prior to the Stalinist purges of Jewish artists in the 1950s. From the names of the writers listed in the next paragraph, it seems probable that this era is indeed referred to (e.g.. Peretz Markish was one of the writers murdered under Stalin).Return

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