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[Page 43]

The Peculiarity of Rakishok in Jewish Lithuania

by J. Shalit

Translated by Rae Meltzer

rok043a.jpg [7 KB] - Leo (?) Shalit

 

Introduction

Sons and daughters of the shtetlach in Europe strive to place gravestones made of words to the memory of their old home place. It is fine, good, and right to do so. Nevertheless, often a thought arises: why this or that shtetl, necessarily? Is our Holocaust a divided one then? In general, can one divide and separate one shtetl from another? Was the life and the Holocaust of all our six million not almost the same? Certainly, the life and death of every Jew was identical in every land. There was no difference for the Jews of Frankfurt, Berlin, Kovno, and Vilna. The life and death of Jews in Poland, Germany, and Lithuania can perhaps be differentiated, but what was the difference between one shtetl and another when such differences did not exist? Perhaps, in nuances and details, but in essence it was the same life and the same tragic fate, the same bottom line.

And yet! The wish of shtetlach Jews to mark and remember their birth place, to express their love for their home place and those who are no longer living, is all understandable. These shtetl monographs will tell the small specifics or the larger episodes that happened in that particular shtetl, giving information for the future historian. The historian of the future will give the larger and complete picture to memorialize the life and Holocaust of East European Jewry. This book about Rakishok will certainly serve as a stone in the future great monument, which will reflect the cutting down of Jewish life, and will stab the heart of the world and the sky above with the horror of our Holocaust.

How is it that in Rakishok, far from the Polish border in the so-called “Lithuanian Siberia,” in a land of “Misnagdim,” some Chasidim rolled in? Perhaps in this book one will find the answer.

* * *

The Ruch family had a name (i.e. standing) in Rakishok. It was a family of piety, Chasidism, and wealth. The sons, Dovid and Ishker, studied Torah. There is a legend about Pesach Ruch, who was of the first generation. According to the legend, Pesach Ruch was a poor man prior to WWI. During WWI most of the Rakishok Jews were forced to flee Rakishok. Pesach was one of the few who went into hiding in Rakishok until the end of the war. A Polish lord, who owned all of Rakishok, was looking for a place to hide from his enemies. By chance he was helped by the God-fearing poor man Pesach Ruch. Later, the lord bestowed great wealth upon Pesach. Ruch became an even more devout Chasid, and went to fetch his Rabbi and brought him to Rakishok. However, his sons went to the cold “misnagdisher” Yeshiva in Telz.

In the “misnagdisher” Lithuania, many Chasidim were interested in learning. They were referred to as “cold Chasidim”. They were expert in the “Gemorah”. The Telzer Yeshiva was the most suitable, among all the Yeshivas of Lithuania. In Telz, learning and study was a goal in itself. All the other Yeshivas had various limitations: in Slobodka and in the Kelmer “Talmud Torah,” morale was low. In Ponevezh, the Yeshivah was not well established and was surrounded by a big city with all its frightening aspects by Lithuanian standards. Telz was a small, friendly shtetl where the main activity was learning. The measure of a young man's accomplishment was his performance on the “Gemorah”. Telzer had very strict standards for piety and for devoutness. The expectation in the Telzer Yeshiva was that one would separate oneself from worldly affairs. For example, Zionism was frowned upon much more in Telzer than in the other nearby Yeshivas. Slobodka and Ponevezh Yeshivas were definitely closer and there was established contact with Kovno; nevertheless the young men of Rakishok went to Telz.

Both Ruch's sons, Dovid and Ishker, and a few others from the Telzer Yeshiva studied “Synyo” while the others studied “Musar”. They stood out at Simchas ­Torah, Purim, and weddings at the Yeshiva, (when even the cold misnagdim let them­selves go and entered into the revelry). When the Ruch sons danced, they expressed great joy, their singing was jolly and their whole body expressed exaltation. People said it was their Chasidic blood that burst out into their exaltation. They were passionately committed to helping a friend and equally committed to punishing the sinner.

Even in pious and devout Telz new winds were blowing, and the new winds blew right into the Yeshiva. The “chalutzim” were preparing a conference in Telz to be held on the Sabbath. Some of the delegates would travel by train on the Sabbath. A “fanatic” group from the Yeshiva, including the Ruch brothers, gathered stones, determined to stop the conference. The Chasidic blood overcame the “battalions” from the “misnagdisher” Yeshiva boys. The confrontation ended in failure, but the name “Rakishoker Chasidim” became associated with “fanaticism” even in devout and pious Telz.

Rakishok was not a rich shtetl in Lithuania. There were shtetlach that were richer and poorer than Rakishok. In the Gentile population of Lithuania, Rakishok was an out-of-the-way, far-off place, even in the small land of Lithuania. But in the Jewish world of Lithuania, Rakishok was a significant center.

Zionism had a stronghold in Rakishok. The Zionist commitment was deep and strong. Many of the Zionists from Rakishok were the first “chalutzim”. One meets them in the oldest “kibbutzim” of Israel. Did their poverty drive the young men and women from Rakishok? Or did the warmth of their Chasidic experience start the flame for their belief in the diaspora? Perhaps it was both.

Rakishok, the largest shtetl in the eastern region of Lithuania, was the spiritual center for the shtetlach of: Ponevezh, Kamai, Abel, Panimunok, Kupishok, and Skopishok. All these shtetlach were provided with Zionist speakers and youth leaders from Rakishok. The Zionist groups of Kovno considered the Rakishok Zionists an independent circle, not a part of Ponevezher circle. In the Zionist organization of Rakishok, the leading group was the Hashomer Hatzair among the youth. Among the older people it was the General Zionist Organization.

Rakishok, among very few other shtetlach, had a leader and personality by the name of Hillel Aidelson, who attended the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Aidelson was intensely committed to the Zionist dream. His every breath was filled with devotion to the Zionist ideal, and his whole life was devoted to Zionism. He never married and did not have a mishpocheh. He was an unusual person. When he walked, his footsteps were very quiet. He was a veterinarian. He used all his intelligence and knowledge to solve Zionist problems. His diaspora dream found all his personal goals in Zionism as well as his ideals and principles. To the Zionist ideals he gave up everything he had: money, health… everything.

In 1937 he attended a youth conference where he was warmly welcomed and greatly honored. But as always, he was very shy. He sat at the head table, an honored guest, but very silent, with downcast eyes, almost ashamed that he was receiving so much attention and honor. Hillel Aidelson was the one who brought the breath and personal messages from Dr. Herzl to Rakishok. He brought the words from the Source. Perhaps this is the reason that Zionism became so strong in Rakishok, much earlier than in other places in the land.

The poverty in Rakishok drove the youth of the town to Zionism, but also to the idealism of building a better world everywhere, and thus redeem the Jewish folk. In the beginning of the 1920's, when Lithuania became independent, nationalism was on the rise, as was Soviet communism. The youth began to cross over the border to the Soviet Union. From Rakishok the Soviet border was close. The youth of Rakishok jumped over the border to Russia – the “New World”. Later the border was “hermetically” sealed, and even letters stopped being exchanged. Family members lost touch with one another and were forgotten. The Communists went underground and people were afraid to talk about their friends and relatives who went “over there”. In 1939 when the Soviet military invaded Lithuania, Red Army officers and soldiers came into Rakishok and other shtetlach, and people once again recognized the “forgotten ones.”

One of the “forgotten” ones was the Rakishoker Jacob Shmuskevitch. In the 1920's he left his father, the Rakishoker butcher, his mother, and his mishpocheh and fled “over there” (i.e. Soviet Russia). When the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, stories about the Rakishok youth Shmuskevitch and his wondrous deeds spread everywhere. The newspapers were full of photographs of him, his mishpocheh, and his house on the street near the railroad where he once lived. The legends about him began almost immediately, even before there was confirmation of his exploits. It seems as if the legends dropped from the sky. With his airplane, Shmuskevitch landed in Rakishok to visit his mishpocheh and his hometown. The new spread like wild fire all over Lithuania. Proudly the Jewish folk hailed “our Yankel (Jacob)!!! Yankel the Rakishoker, a General in the Red Army, Hero of the Finnish (Finland) Front. What a marvelous achievement. Such an honor will ring out all over the Jewish community of Lithuania, and not only in his hometown of Rakishok.

Life is a circle. The end was tied to the beginning. In the years after the First World War, the Lithuanian Jews returned from the Russian diaspora to Lithuania. They came via Abel and Rakishok, returning to their home­towns in Lithuania.

In the first days of the German-Soviet war, many Jews from middle and northern Lithuania moved to the Soviet border via Abel and Rakishok. After 20 years, the Lithuanian Jews were running back to Russia. It was 20 years earlier that they left Russia and returned to their hometowns in Lithuania.

The circle was about to close tightly. The Russian border closed. Close behind was standing the bloody enemy, the German. There was no way to return to one's own hometown, so one was caught in Rakishok. At least one was among Jewish homes. In the marketplace, in the synagogue and school, in every Jewish home, people clung together before the oncoming storm. The German vandals were already in the streets.

It was very crowded in the homes of the Rakishok Jews. Everyone took in strangers who were escaping the Germans. But the crowding did not last long; a week, not more. Then it was crowded in the mass graves. Into the graves they shoveled the Chasidim and the misnagdim, the Zionists and the communists, those who dwelled in Rakishok and those who ran to Rakishok from elsewhere. They are no more.

 

Closing Words

We all know the enormity of our terrible misfortune; our enormous grief over the Holocaust. Over the graves in the Rakishok orchard, I would like to find a few words of consolation. It is so difficult, so very difficult, to find word of consolation. We do deserve consolation. I force myself to tell you that when I arrived in Johannesburg, wandering around the Jewish quarters, suddenly I saw a sign that read: “Chasidic Beth Hamedresh” (school house/synagogue). I immediately concluded that Jews from Rakishok emigrated to Johannesburg along with other Lithuanian Jews. The Rakishok Jews undoubtedly brought over with them their Chasidism from their old hometown. It must be that here in Africa, as in Lithuania, Rakishok lives on. Let us find a little consolation in those who here in Africa, in Israel, and everywhere in the world carry in their hearts the memory of life in Rakishok, and remember the holy ones and the martyrs. May the holiness of their lives and the martyrdom of their death, strengthen us to march forward and renew our important Jewish future in a better world.

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rok043b.jpg [13 KB] - Pesach Ruch
Pesach Ruch
[Ref. in text p. 24. Photo and Family History.
Ref. to sons: David and Ishker Chasidic family]

 

[Page 46]
rok043c.jpg [13 KB]
H. Eidelson
Zionist leader

 

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rok043d.jpg [20 KB] - Jacob Smushkevich


[Page 50]

Chabad

by Rabbi Prof. L. I. Rabinowitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Prof. L. I. Rabinowitz is the head rabbi of the Federation of the Synagogues in Transvaal and the head of the Bet Din [rabbinical court].
He is Professor of Hebrew in Witwatersrand University and the author of the following books, which were written in English: The Social Life of the Jews in South Africa; Excommunication within the Community; From the Depths; Soldier of Yehuda; and The Mission in the Far East.

Actually, I was, from a certain point of view, not the right person to write about the Hasidim and even less about Chabad, because my family followed the famous Reb Haim Volozhiner, a follower of the Vilna Gaon [genius], whose opposition to the Hasidim, in all forms, and chiefly to the well known Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, is well known. Yet although I was shaped as a mitnagid [follower of Enlightenment] both by origin and by education, my feeling for Chabad is such that when Rabbi Weinberg, the representative from the Lubavitcher rebbe, was here, I allowed myself to tease him in the following manner: “Even though you are a Hasid, at least you are a Chabadnik.”

Reb Haim Vital, the student of Reb Yitzhak Luria, the Ari HaKadosh [Translator's note: Ari the Holy; Ari is an acronym for Adoneinu Rabbeniur Yitzhak – Our master, our rabbi, Yitzhak] in his book, Sefer Gilgul HaNefesh [Book on Transmigration of the Soul], presents a remarkable distinction between the Rambam[1] and the Ramban.[2] According to him, it appears that both are descended from the adam hakodmon [the original man, i.e. Adam]. However, while the genius of the Ramban comes from the left peye [side curl] of Adam that represents intellect and strict judgment, the Ramban's inheritance is from the right peye that expresses emotion, tenderness and mercy. This difference was the cause of the first clash between the Hasidim and the mitsnagdim.

I said above that I was a mitnagdim through education. In order to confirm this, I will here describe one incident in my life. I was still a small boy when Hasidism began to have an effect on me. I asked my father if the Baal Shem Tov[3] was a great man. His answer was significant. “We can pass judgment as to whether a man is great or not according to the books that he has written. However, given that the Baal Shem Tov has not written a book, I cannot tell you.”

These simple words were for me the highest level of intellectual supremacy – the extreme rule of intellect over the emotions that were the characteristic trait of the mitnagdim against which the Hasidim revolted. Whereas the mitnagdim glorified the intellect and considered studying the highest stimulus of piety, the Hasidim made fun of this and focused on ecstatic prayer, and this united them with God through ecstasy and emotions as the level of piety. It is even said that one of the students of the Baal Shem Tov is supposed to have said, “Where one studies a great deal, there is no piety.”

This Hasidic concept entirely undermined the foundation of Judaism and the mitnagdim had to combat this. One could not expect that the Vilna Gaon, who had dedicated himself totally to learning for the sake of learning would not react to this heretical “Torah,” and for the first time in his life, he left the pulpit and threw himself into the feud because the concept of the mitnagdim was this, as Reb Ismael had quoted: “There are two verses of the Torah that contradict each other and Chabad introduces a third verse that can harmonize the two others.”

Since the beginning, Judaism always excelled in the manner in which it harmonized and held an equilibrium between wisdom and awe, between the intellect and the emotions--the study of Torah for its own sake is a positive commandment; it does not permit the idea that an ignorant man can be a Hasid. This means that one cannot reach perfection in the faith without the foundation of knowledge. And although it underlines the essence of Yidishkeit [Translator's note: Jewishness, also connoting an emotional connection to all things Jewish], it also allows that awe, the emotional approach to G-d, is more important than only the intellectual concept of Yidishkeit and G-d: “Wisdom without awe are like someone who has lost the key to his treasure.” And Reb Hanina ben Dosa [first century scholar] in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] characterizes these two concepts in this way: “For those for whom awe comes before wisdom, it will endure. However, if his wisdom has the advantage over awe, his wisdom will not endure.”

Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, well understood this and built on this foundation. His remarkable system: “It is good that you should believe this and also not release your hand from the other, because he who has fear of G-d, comes to an understanding of both.” (Koyheles – Book of Ecclesiastes] This was perhaps his motto. He also aspired to place Hasidism on a scholarly foundation and called for belief based on Judaism, instead of a blind belief based on emotions. Therefore, Chabad always excelled with intellectual balance.

Schechter, in his interesting although somewhat superficial treatise about Hasidism, deduced that the pure learning of the Baal Shem and of his successor, Reb Ber of Mezherich, degenerated to a cult of tzadikism [Translator's note: belief that a tzadik or righteous man serves as an intermediary between G-d and man], making the tzadik divine. I do not have the opportunity to confirm or to negate his lecture. However, I can confirm one thing, that the degeneration about which he speaks did not affect Chabad. Based firmly on the understanding and information of the Torah balanced with the pure belief and ardor of the founder of Hasidism, it always excelled with two traditions – a firm self sacrificing support of Yidishkeit and the ardor of a mission fanatic – with which it still excels now. When I visited the Lubavitcher yeshiva in New York, I met young men there who had lived their entire lives in Soviet Russia, yet they retained their faith. In the rest of the world as well--France, South Africa, Australia, Israel--Chabad carries on its Jewish work, “capturing souls” everywhere. It is their firm determination that the light of Yidishkeit not be extinguished, given that the future of Yidishkeit lies both in knowledge and in belief.

I understand that all Rakishok Jews belong to Chabad.* May their landsmanschaft in South Africa derive satisfaction from these exalted and noble Jews.

*Editor's note: the author's statement here is misleading, perhaps due to the fact that (as far as we know) he was not from Rakishok. While it is true that Rakishok was one of the few towns in Lithuania with a significant Hasidic presence, there were mitnagdim as well, as evidenced by the fact that there were two rabbinates in the town, one Hasidic and one mitnagdim


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Hebrew acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon or Maimonides Return
  2. Hebrew acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi or Nachmanides Return
  3. Yisroel Ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (The Master of the Good Name, was the founder of Hasidism Return

 


[Page 53]

Rakishok and Its Hasidim

by B. Stein

(In memory of my father, Moshe Leib, of blessed memory)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Rakishok was considered one of the larger shtetlekh [towns] in Lithuania. When I left in 1912 traveling to South Africa, it was thought that the population of the town consisted of 600 families. The percentage of non-Jews in the shtetl was very small, so that it had a thoroughly Jewish character. The market day took place every Monday without exception, when the peasants from the surrounding villages would arrive in the shtetl to sell their products and buy various things from the Jewish shops. Early in the morning the large marketplace would be filled with harnessed horses, hitched to the peasant wagons. Jewish merchants, both large and small, would walk around among these wagons and bargain with the peasants for the various agricultural products that they had brought with them.

The shtetl would lose its quiet and dreaminess on these market days and be captivated by the momentum of the market. The entire shtetl was boisterous and boiling like a kettle. At night, when the peasants would leave, the large marketplace emptied and the shtetl again would return to its quiet and serenity.

* * *

As is known, Rakishok was the only shtetl in all of Lithuania that was completely Hasidic. As far as I know, it is not fully known how it happened that Hasidus captivated the entire Jewish population and completely erased any trace of Misnagdes [Orthodox opposition to Hasidus].

The Rakishok Hasidim were divided into three groups based on the rabbis of whom the Hasidim in question were followers. I believe that the largest group consisted of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. The Liadyer Hasidim and the Kapuster Hasidim consisted of much smaller groups. However, the small number of Kapuster Hasidim were the most active and were more typically Hasidic than the others. Of the four houses of prayer in the shtetl, the “small shtibl [small synagogue] was under the total influence of the Kapuster Hasidim. There they would study the Tanya* during Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayer] during the week and on Shabbos they repeated Hasidus after the third Shabbos meal. The Hasidim there would drink a little whiskey from time to time, as for example, on Rosh Khodesh [the start of the new month], at a yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] or when a Hasid from a neighboring shtetl visited.

*[Translator's note; the principal book of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic philosophy written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady.]

One such Hasid who I still remember very well was Yankl Skopishker. This was the grandfather of the brothers Zalman, Leibl and Yerakhmial Feldman

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and their sister, Ruchl Zaydl. He was a good friend of my father and when he would come to Rakishok he would visit my father. They would sit with a glass of tea and talk about various matters.

Yankl Skopishker would come to pray in the shtibl in the evening and after the evening prayers he would provide whiskey.

A second such Hasid was Shlomo Skopishker. He moved from Skopishok in around 1910 and settled in Rakishok. As he was an avid Hasid and was well versed in Hasidus, he became one of the prominent Hasidim in Rakishok.

Great revelries would take place at times in the shtibl where there would be the feeling of true Hasidic joy.

* * *

A warm relationship to Hasidim and Hasidus was created in me in my young years under the influence of my home in particular and of my shtetl in general. My father, Moshe Leibe the Gemora-melamed [teacher of the Gemora – Talmudic commentaries], was an avid and warm Hasid. He would use his free time mainly to study Hasidus. He studied it himself or with several Hasidim who would come to him on the weeknights and my father would teach the book, Tanya, to 10-15 Hasidim in the shtibl. On the Shabbos nights he would repeat Hasidus for a much larger group. It was apparent to everyone that the teaching of Hasidus was not an obligation to him, but a subject of pleasure. It was the same kind of pleasure that people derive from music or from great literary works. He literally lived in the artistic world that through the generations had produced creative artists. What else were the grandiose, fantastic structures built by Hasidus if not artistic creations? I often think that such people as my father were true followers of and benefited from art. For us, the secular, art is a secondary matter, an addition to life; for them, however, their art was the quintessence of life and what we call reality was a secondary matter to them.

* * *

My warm connection to Hasidus was stronger during my later years when I encountered Misnagdim [Orthodox Jews opposed to Hasidus]. The first time was in Dvinsk [Daugavpils] to which I traveled to study after my Bar-Mitzvah. There I sensed in the Misnagdish synagogues and houses of prayer the large difference between Hasidus and Misnagdes. Misnagdish houses of prayer appeared cold and gloomy to me, just like the sad Vhu rachum [“…and He, being compassionate…”] floating in the air and blowing with cold and sadness. Even the Lekhu-nerareno [“Come let us sing”] on Friday night resounded cold and lifeless. I strongly longed then for the “small shtibl' in my shtetl where a certain amount of mystical religious ecstasy and rapture was sensed even in the weekday prayers. Above all, on Friday night the uplift of Shabbos actually radiated from the Hasidic faces and a warm joyfulness hovered over the shtibl.

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I understood at that time that while the Hasidim and Misnagdim believe in the same God and in the same Torah, Hasidus for the Hasidim permeated their very essence and enriched their lives. It became clearer to me in later years. One of the most important things in Hasidus is that one needs to serve God not with fear but with love and that one need be joyful in God's world and [recognize] the possibility that a person can have pleasure from it [God's world] and can make improvements in it. The Hasidic principle of joy did not remain simply a doctrine frozen in the pages of religious books, but penetrated into the heads and hearts of the Hasidim and became the prevailing strength in their personality and character.

The Mishnagdish world was gray and gloomy, not only because of the poverty and difficulties of life, but also because of the doctrine of the Misnagdish books of moral instruction. They all emphasized that man did not have anything to boast about or to take joy in. They emphasized the insignificance of a person's short life on earth and they disdained the pleasures and joys as something to be renounced. Others books warned that one would have to pay in the next world for every bit of pleasure and joy in this world. They learned that a man must turn away from the world and cry and lament at their own insignificance and sinfulness, at the exile of Israel and the exile of the Divine Presence. Their main goal consisted of a complete negation of everything material, a renunciation of their own self. A man needs to remember that he enters the world with nothing and that he leaves the world with nothing.

Much also is said in Hasidus about the elevated state of consciousness and the nullification of selfhood, but both precepts provide another message. True, the person has to remove his materialism in the world, but there are sparks of sanctity and Godliness hidden in the coarse substance of the world. It is the human task to bring out these sparks from potential to manifestation. The person can show it through worship and good deeds, through human fervor and the human mind, which he can bring to the coarse material world. A person is capable of bringing these sparks of sanctity on every step of his way and he can find a rectification for the inwardness of creation, in the Creation of the world, and through this he becomes a partner with God in the creation of the world. This is a very different kind of removing oneself from the world. Here the person removes himself from the world not to distance himself from it, but to join with it and to reveal the sanctity and Godliness that is buried in it. And as a result, the principle of joy enters here because how can one not celebrate when one receives the gift of such privileges to repair the world and to become a partner of the Creator in the creation of the world.

One understands from this that the Hasidic disdain for material reality was completely different from that of the Misnagdish. The latter leads to the denial of one's own self in that the person should completely understand his insignificance and decadence. The Hasidic negation of everything material leads to something completely the opposite. If a person is for himself, with his coarse,

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egotistical I, with his more rational animal soul banal and fallen, his soul is however at the same time a part of God above and it is a person's task to make known and reveal the sanctity that is hidden in himself. The individual receives an immense importance here in that through worship and good deeds he can unite with the Divine Essence.

So the dignity that the Hasidic doctrine gives to the person, along with the precept that a person needs to shun sadness and that he needs the opposite, to be full of joy, for his task in the world, this was all mirrored in the Hasidic personalities of our shtetl.

* * *

I will try to provide several pictures of Hasidic life at that time in our shtetl that still remain clear in my mind despite the 40 years that have passed since I left that life. My father, Moshe Leib, must be the central figure of this picture. This is not because as my father he strongly influenced me and through him I absorbed the spirit of Hasidus from early childhood on, but mainly because he truly was the central figure in the Hasidic life of our shtetl, as well as in the area of Hasidic education and in Hasidic society as a whole. He also occupied the central place in Hasidic celebrations and revelries and with a little whiskey he would create an atmosphere of Hasidic excitement and joy among followers of the same rabbi.

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Friday Before the Lighting of the Candles

My mother was busy in the kitchen putting food for Shabbos in a warm oven and my father brought the samovar that was already boiling and placed it on the table. Meanwhile he walked through the room and recited Patakh Eliyahu [Eliyahu opened]. This is a chapter of the Zohar that certain Hasidim recite Friday night before the lighting of the candles. His walking back and forth through the room was calm and easy. The light of the spirit poured from his face and he recited the words with pensiveness and restrained spiritual awakening. I, still a young boy, sat still and listened; I, too, became caught up in the enchanted world in which he was engrossed. The magnificence of Friday nights was so strongly etched in my childish imagination and the image in general remains fresh and clear, but also the Patakh Eliyahu still remains in my memory. The passage that speaks about God who “encompasses all worlds and permeates all worlds and none can grasp Him” made a particularly strong impression on me. I would translate it into Yiddish: God circles all of the worlds and fills all worlds and no one can comprehend Him. However, I did want to understand it and often thought about it. I then had not heard the word pantheism, but I doubt if my later acquaintance with pantheism brought me more clarity in the matter than the above sentence from the Zohar.

* * *

 

Friday Night in the Shtibl

It was light and joyful in the shtibl. All of the large lamps were lit and all of the faces and eyes were clear and festive. Jews entered with combed beards and peyes [side curls], in black, long, coarse coats with gartlen [a belt signifying the separation of the sacred from the profane] and were welcomed with mystical, religious ecstasy and fervor. As if by miracle, all suddenly were freed from the weekday cares and worries and everyone was enveloped by a shared happiness – the luck of possessing a Shabbos.

When the welcoming of Shabbos ended and the evening prayers were done, everyone wished: good Shabbos, good Shabbos, good year! – And they left for home.

But several Hasidim remained. While the group recited the evening prayers they [the Hasidim] looked into a religious book; on Friday nights [it was their custom] to recite the evening prayers privately. Avdotya, the [female] water-carrier entered and extinguished the lamps; she only left burning a small lamp that stood on the table where they studied between the afternoon and evening prayers. The lamp cast a weak light over the shtibl. The several Hasidim stood in separate corners in the half darkness. My father stood in one corner, Elye the shamas [sexton] stood in another and in the third – Shimshon Nisen. They prayed quietly and calmly at first. However, little by little the praying became warmer and more ecstatic. Everyone became enraptured in their own way, but all of the melodies flowed together in one melody of yearning. They continued to pray quietly, restrained, but the fire of rapture, of the outpouring of the heart was felt in each voice.

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Meanwhile, I sat and listened and I was very irritated that I was still a small boy and could not stand in a corner like the adults and become enraptured along with them.

* * *

 

Daybreak on Shabbos

The voice of my father, of Elye the shamas and Shimshon Nisen reached me behind the oven where my bed was located. For years, both summer and winter, the two Hasidim came at daybreak on Shabbos to study Hasidus with my father. Their conversations about various matters while drinking a glass of tea in the other room did not disturb the Shabbos calm that ruled over the house. I woke up completely and as the Hasidus instruction began, I became enraptured by the secrets of the spiritual worlds that my father with his deep, hearty voice divulged to Chaim Elye and Shimshon Nisen. I remember that I was almost a Bar-Mitzvah boy and I still was concerned with foolishness. I decided that I could no longer be like that. From that day on I became a ba'al tshuva [one who repents and becomes more observant]. I fell asleep again, immersed in the magical, mystical world that was created here.

* * *

 

Shabbos in the Evening

My father felt all through Shabbos that it was good to live in the world. He had great joy from everything – from prayer, from studying and from the foods of Shabbos. However, he had the deepest Shabbos pleasure between the afternoon and evening prayers when he recited Hasidus before a group. He was always a man with a stately appearance – with the most beautiful beard, with open, intelligent eyes. But the joy of Shabbos lit up his face and shone out from his every gaze when he recited Hasidus after the third Shabbos meal. His voice, deep and hearty, conveyed the spiritual pleasure that he felt to the group. Hasidim stood with open mouths and ears and swallowed his words. It was half-dark in the shtibl. The weak light from the only lamp that had already burned for 24 hours created a shadow on the group around the table. Soon they would start the weekday evening prayer and the workday [world] would again engulf the shtibl and the shtetl. But it was still Shabbos and my father was occupied with the secrets of the higher spiritual world. He told the group about the influence of the Endless Light that always floods all worlds and gives life and strength to all creatures and things. If the Endless Light would be removed for one second, the world would cease to exist. Everything would crumble and disappear into chaos where it had been before the creation of the world.

He strolled with his listeners to the upper worlds and brought them into the Temple of the Souls. He declared that the souls of people are emanations,

[Page 59]

revelations from the Endless Light and the task of the souls when they come down to the world below is through prayer and good deeds to redress the imperfections that have fallen into the creative process because of the coarse flesh and to bring to the person the power and unity in the world. The person must rejoice with his missions in the world and, therefore, he must worship with joy and divine love, with devotion and rapture.

Hasidim stood and nodded in agreement. My father, like a singer with a wonderful voice, took them out of their own narrow, enclosed world and brought them into a freer, limitless world. They felt that one was not simply thrown into the world below. They saw clearly that there is present a narrow connection between this world and the higher spiritual world, between every one's soul and the Endless Light. They felt cheerful and warm because of this.

When it became completely dark outside and someone said the weekday [prayer] “And He, being compassionate,” the weekday hardness wrestled with my father's voice whose juicy tenor still hovered in the air and did not want to allow in the authority of the ordinary.*

*[Translator's note: “And He, being compassionate” are the first words of a prayer recited on weeknights.]

* * *

 

Revelries

The real revelries in the shtibl would take place on Yud-Tes Kislev [the day that the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalmanof Liadi, was released from prison, celebrated as the birth of Hasidism], the fifth [Chanukah] candle and Simkhas Beis Hashoeiva [celebration of water-drawing held during the intermediate days of Sukkos – the Feast of Tabernacles].

Approximately 25 to 30 Hasidim remained after the evening prayers. Chaim Elye, the shamas, already had prepared a white tablecloth and he spread it over the table on which they studied between the afternoon and evening prayers. The large lamps were lit and it created a lively mood in the group. My father went from Hasid to Hasid and gathered money for whiskey and food. The richer ones gave up to five or 10 kopikes [pennies] each; the poor ones gave up to two or three kopikes. He gave the money to Chaim Elye. The latter had already that day prepared everything necessary and had hidden it somewhere in the women's synagogue.

Chaim Elye and one of the Hasidim left for a time and came back loaded with packages. They placed small plates on the table and filled them with cookies and sponge cake. Others busied themselves at the faucet with herring. They washed them and sliced off the skin, cutting them in pieces and laying them on small plates and brought them to the table. The table, now covered with the various foods, took on a holiday appearance. Several Hasidim sat on benches that stood on one side of the table near the wall. Others sat further away from the table and the remainder stood around the table.

A Hasid began to speak:

– Chaim Elye, I did not know that you are such a skillful person. Look
[Page 60]

at what kind of table you have arranged. But something is missing. I do not know what, but something is missing.
Chaim Elye acted as if he did not know what.
– What could be lacking? Herring – enough; cookies and sponge cake – enough. Perhaps, roasted ducks?

– A Hasid said, Look at how he feigns ignorance. There is an opinion, Chaim Elye, that when Hasidim come together there is an uncertainty about whether a blessing is recited without performing the related deed, does one make a blessing over certain foods made of grains, without a blessing over certain foods and drinks, except wine. Look at the glasses that are sitting empty and forlorn. They are looking for tikun [brandy].*

*[Translator's note: tikun is used in Hebrew as a word for brandy. It is more often translated as “redress” and is used here as a play on words.]
– Chaim Elye said, Oh, now I understand. You, of course, mean whiskey. Imagine, I have completely forgotten it.
He walked onto the bimah [raised platform in front of the Torah ark in a synagogue], was busy there for a time in a corner and came back to the table with two bottles – “75.”*

*[Translator's note: “75” is a reference to the “alcohol proof” of the whiskey. In this case 75 proof.]

Hasidim took small sips [of whiskey] and ate the cookies and herring. It did not take long for the group to become animated and talkative. They joked, they quipped, they provided ingenious ideas and ideas that were related to the mundane conversations of the sages. They had another drop among themselves and another drop.

Shimshon Nisen, as was his habit, was not at the head of the table. He sat on the side. My father suddenly remembered him:

– He called out: Where is Shimshon Nisen? And searched for him with his eyes.
He stood up, looked around for him and found him sitting at the end of the bench.

Shimshon Nisen was tall with a bent back as well as a bent nose. Sitting or standing, he always kept his head lowered. The main characteristic of his figure was being bent over. It reminded one of a picture of a horse that spent the entire day in harness and at night when it stopped for a time, it still stood in harness with a bent, lowered head. As people passed by, a feeling of sympathy and friendship was awakened; they thought that it was time to remove the harness and for it to rest.

My father went over to Shimshon Nisen.

– Why are you sitting on the side, Nisen Shimshon?
When they had a little whiskey, Hasidim would reverse the names, so that Shimshon Nisen became Nisen Shimshin.
– There is no difference where one sits, answered Shimshon Nisen.

– My father called out, ostensibly in anger: Help, what does one do with a Misnagid? He carries the exile of Israel and the exile of the Divine Presence on himself.

[Page 61]

He took him by the arm and led him to the table.

– Have you made the blessing, Nisen Shimshon?

– Certainly, of course.

So take another small drink with us, you Misnagid!

After finishing his drink, my father said to him: Come, Nisen Shimshon, let us dance. He laid a hand on his [Nisen Shimshon's] shoulder and the dance began. My father sang a Hasidic melody. The others joined and sang along. Nakhum Ber's voice stood out from all of the other voices. Nakhum Ber had a very fine voice, beautiful and he would often pray from the lectern, on Shabbos and holidays.

My father encouraged Shimshon Nisen: Lift a foot, Nisen Shimshon. That is the way, that is the way. But it did not help. Even dancing, Shimshon Nisen gave the impression of being in harness.

Meanwhile, other Hasidim joined in and almost all took part in the dance. A familiar warmth grew both in the singing and in the dancing. It filled the entire shtibl and embraced the entire group.

Such revelries would often last until late at night.

* * *

The images above were all from Shabbos except for the last image that also was not from a usual weekday. It could be thought that there were no weekdays. In truth, there were weekdays and, mostly, they were difficult and bitter days. People toiled and were busy and did not have enough income. Most of them simply did not have enough income, but our Hasidim in the shtetl lived for Shabbos. The aphorism that the entire world was created only for Shabbos was very suited to them. Hasidim would say: what are the weekdays? All the people were busy providing an income, some through commerce, some through trades, some through teaching. There was no distinction. During the weekdays, the world was a weekday one and life was a weekday one. Like ants, lehavdil [word used to separate the sacred from the profane] – everything is a race for a livelihood. Only on Shabbos does a person truly feel that he lives in the world. God gave the person a Shabbos with the additional soul a Jew is said to possess on Shabbos so that at least once a week he would be freed from the gray weekdays.


[Page 62]

Jewish National Autonomy in Lithuania

by I. Batnizky

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The epoch of Jewish national autonomy in Lithuania during the first years of Lithuanian independence at the beginning of the 1920's was short, but spiritually rich, and it can be remembered as the golden era of Lithuanian Jewry. In the course of this brief era, the small Jewish community in Lithuania showed a strong national energy, and the creative national strength of the Lithuanian Jews grew in all areas of life. The 700-year-old tree of Lithuanian Jewry began to bloom and provide juicy and wonderful fruit. South African Jewry very much benefited from this fruit, because the majority of Jewish immigrants, who arrived in South Africa during the time between the two World Wars, were the product of Lithuanian Jewish national education that was an element of Jewish National Autonomy and still remained when autonomy as such had been abolished.

Jewish Lithuania no longer exists. The short time of autonomy looks like a quickly passing episode after the bloody destruction of Lithuania Jewry. Yet it is important that the era of autonomy not be forgotten because it was a clear demonstration of the great potential strengths of Lithuanian Jewry. This intensifies still more our grief over the decline of the nationally vibrant and productive Lithuanian Jewish community with a spiritually rich history of 700 years behind it.

In the following lines I will present a short overview of the rise and destruction of autonomy, which began with great hopes and expectations and ended with bitter disappointments.

After the German defeat in the First World War, in many areas of the former Russia that had been occupied by the Germans, there arose the so-called border states, such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The concept of “Lithuania” was introduced, a country in its historical boundaries, that is, including also Vilna and Grodno. In such a country, however, the ethnic Lithuanian element made up a minority. Consequently, the Lithuanian politicians tried to draw the national minorities such as the Jews, Poles and White Russians to their side because only with their cooperation could they create the Lithuanian nation in its historical boundaries. Therefore, they promised extensive national autonomy to the minorities. The Poles refused this because, in general, they opposed any Lithuanian nation. They dreamed of a Greater Poland – from sea to sea – that would also incorporate Lithuania. The White Russians and Jews stood on the side of the Lithuanians.

The Jewish leaders, who took an active part in the struggle for Lithuanian independence, had a great vision for themselves. The concept of “Lithuania” in its historical boundaries was identical to the Jewish concept of Lithuania. Such a country would have to be a state of not one nationality but many, and the Jews would be equal partners in the sovereignty of the nation. For the first time in the Jewish history of the last 2,000 years, Jews would become a sovereign nation, as a subject and not an object of the state.

This was the great dream of Dr. Shimshon Rozenboim and the other leaders of Lithuanian Jewry, who stood on the side of the Lithuanians and worked with them for he creation and recognition of the new Lithuanian nation. When further political events did not permit Lithuania to spread out over its historical territory, the Jewish leaders understood that the situation for the Jews would be very different from what they had imagined. However, they fought further for autonomy, but under more difficult conditions, in conditions in which the Lithuanians made up more than 80 percent of the population.

It should be emphasized that the Zionists in all groupings carried the entire load on the autonomy side, from its rise to its downfall. The leftist parties were, in general, oriented towards the Soviet Union and were entirely against the Lithuanian nation. The non-Zionist parties, which were insignificant in number, worked with the Zionists. The heart of Jewish Orthodoxy was full of suspicion and fear for the worldliness of the institutions of autonomy and, therefore, was an uncertain partner of the Zionists in the struggle for autonomy.

Then, when Vilna was occupied by the Bolsheviks, and afterward by the Poles, the Lithuanian government moved to Kovno. It was proposed on the part of the government that the Jews and White Russians take positions in the national government. After deliberations, the Jews decided to occupy the post of Minister for Jewish Matters. The Zionists, at first, held that a minister would have to bear the responsibility for the work of the entire cabinet and would also have to change with every cabinet change. Therefore, they made a proposal of a State Secretary for Jewish Matters, who would carry the responsibility only for his work and would not be subject to any cabinet changes. However, in short, the Lithuanian government insisted on a minister, and this had to be accepted. Dr. M. Soloveitchik entered the government as Minister without Portfolio – for Jewish Matters, on the 2nd of June, 1919.

Autonomy took on a public form with the creation of a Jewish Ministry. Thanks to the Jewish Ministry, the democratic kehilus [organized Jewish communities] then arose. In the beginning all of the Jewish parties participated in the communities. The left, and among them Poalei-Zion, later seceded from the kehilus. The left was not represented at the first kehilus convention that was called by the Jewish Ministry on the 5th of January, 1920.

A fight between the Zionists and organized Orthodoxy about the substance of autonomy flared up at this convention, with the question being whether it needed to be worldly and nationalist, or religious. In order to prevent the Orthodox from leaving the convention, a compromise was passed and the question about the essence of autonomy was removed from the agenda. A coalition was created of the Zionists and the Orthodox. On the question of the school system it was decided the autonomous administration would not interfere with the program of schools and the freedom of the three existing school movements (Tarbus, Yavneh and “Culture League”) was recognized. A Jewish National Council was elected at the convention that was the highest democratic organ of organized Lithuanian Jewry.

The political achievements from the rise of the Jewish ministry to the election of the national council were as follows:

1) The insurance for Jews of the widest autonomy through the Lithuanian peace delegation in Paris in August 1919. The was supposed to be the Magna Carta of autonomy, and;
2) The law of the 10th of January, 1920, concerning the kehilus, that they have the right to institute a compulsory tax on members.
After the election of the national council, broad, varied activities began in every area of Jewish life. Democratic kehilus were organized; a wide network of Hebrew and Yiddish public schools and gymnazies [secondary schools] were created; the People's Banks and associations arose that were the economic nerve of the Jewish population. This era was the brightest and most hopeful. Lithuanian Jewry was seen then in its fullest splendor. An ebullient and pulsating Jewish life was sensed everywhere. All of the Jewish students studied in national Jewish schools. At that time, Lithuania was Eretz-Yisroel [Palestine] in miniature.

After the second kehilus conference that took place on the 14th of February, 1922, in which the leftist parties also took part, a crisis was sensed that was both external and internal. Externally, in the non-Jewish neighborhoods, reactionary sentiments were victorious. It is true that according to the Constitution, the Jewish Seim deputies controlled the carrying out of two principles concerning the rights of the national minorities: one principle assured the right of the national minorities to administer their national matters and a principle that the national minorities had the right to tax their members, as well as the right to receive a portion of the government budget for their cultural institutions. However, the Christian democratic majority in the Seim did not permit the passage of any laws that would legally strengthen the organs of Jewish autonomy. The mandate of the largest number of deputies of the national minorities was declared void through legal tricks. A. Frydman, whose only purpose was to disrupt everything that was created, was chosen as Minister of Jewish Matters against the will of the Jewish representatives.

Internally, the Orthodox began to sabotage and undermine the institutions of autonomy, arguing that they could not help to build up worldly organs of autonomy. The Orthodox members seceded from the national council and did not take part in the national meeting that was called on the 20th December, 1923, and was elected through general and direct voting.

The newly elected Seim, in which the national minority scored a great victory winning 14 delegates, restrained its reactionary character. The attack on the Jewish autonomy on the part of the dominating power was abandoned for a short time. Dr. Sh. Rozenboim was designated as the Minister for Jewish Matters. This was a political maneuver because of the then difficult external situation for Lithuania. The Memel question[1] was then being dealt with in the felker-bund [People's Socialist Labor Party] and at that moment no one wanted to disturb relations with the Jews. However, the earlier crisis over autonomy continued.

On the 20th of November, 1923, a Jewish national meeting was called in which the leftist groups took part, but not the Orthodox. The national meeting was the first and, unfortunately, also the last in Lithuania. After the national meeting, a continuous liquidation of autonomy began. The Seim rejected the budget for the Jewish Ministry and then the post of Jewish Minister, itself. A decree was issued that forbade writing in the languahes of the national minorities. Litigation was carried out against Dr. Sh. Rozenboim as to why he still called himself the “Jewish Minister.” The National Council was dissolved. A law was passed about compulsory rest on Sundays along with a law that did away with the existing democratic Jewish kehilus.

In 1926, when the Lithuanian progressive democracy scored a victory in the elections to the Lithuanian Seim and formed the leftist government of National and Social Democrats, hope was revived that autonomy would be renewed. However, the government did not last long.

Thus ended the historic experiment of fulfilling national-personal autonomy in Lithuania. After the destruction of autonomy, Lithuania rolled downhill toward the anti-Semitic abyss and, under the leadership of Hitler's beasts, the Germans and the Lithuanians annihilated the entire Jewish population.


Translator's Footnote

  1. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Memel and its surrounding territory were taken from Germany. Memel was incorporated into Lithuania as a separate autonomous region in 1924 Return

 

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