by J. Shalit
Translated by Rae Meltzer
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.
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.
[Ref. in text p. 24. Photo and Family History.
Ref. to sons: David and Ishker Chasidic family]
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 and the Ramban. 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 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
by Berl Stein
(In memory of my father, Moishe Leib)
Translated by Rae Meltzer
Rakishok was considered one of the larger shtetlach in Lithuania. When I left there in 1912 for South Africa, it was estimated that the population of Rakishok was 600 families. The percentage of non-Jews in the shtetl was quite small and therefore Rakishok had a Jewish character and flavor. Every week on Monday was the market day when the peasants from the surrounding hamlets came into Rakishok to sell their produce and shop in the Jewish stores. The huge marketplace filled up early in the morning with hundreds of unharnessed horses tied to the wagons of the peasants. Jewish merchants, small and large, wandered between the peasants' wagons and bartered with the peasants for their produce. On market days the shtetl lost its dreamy quietness. The entire shtetl was caught up in the tumult of market day, like a boiling kettle. At twilight, when the peasants drove away and the huge market place emptied, the shtetl once again returned to calm and peace.
It was known that Rakishok was the only shtetl in all of Lithuania that was entirely Chasidic. I understand that no one knows just how it happened that Chasidism captured the entire Jewish community and completely wiped out any sign of Misnagdism.
The Rakishoker Chasidim were divided into three groups according to the rabbis who led the groups. The largest group was, I believe, the Lubavitcher Chasidim. The Lyodyer Chasidim and the Kapuster Chasidim had much smaller groups. The small number of Kapuster Chasidim were the most active and were more typically Chasidic than the others. Of the four prayer houses in the shtetl, the little shtibl (small-prayer house attached to a synagogue) was completely under the influence of the Kapuster Chasidim. There they studied the book of Chasnya at sundown and evening prayers during the week, and on the Sabbath after prayers they studied Chasidism. The Chasidim studying would from time to time drink a little brandy, for example, on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month, on someone's yartzheit, or when a Chasid was a guest from another shtetl.
One of these guests whom I remember very well was Yankel Skopishker. He was the grandfather of the brothers Zalman, Laibl, and Rachmiel Feldman and their sister Zeidl. Skopishker was my father's good friend and when he came to Rakishok, he would come to my father. They talked about all sorts of things while drinking tea. Skopishker would come to pray in the shtibl and drink a little liquor. Another Chasid was Shloime Skopishker. In 1910 he moved from Skopishok to Rakishok. Since he was a learned Chasid he became a prominent Chasid in Rakishok. In the shtibl there was energetic merry making and carousing in true Chasidic joyousness.
In my youth, under the influence of my own home and my shtetl, I felt warmly drawn to Chasidim and Chasidism. My father, a teacher of Gemorrah, was an enthusiastic and warm Chasid. He spent his free time studying Chasidism. He studied by himself or with a few other Chasidim who came to study with him. During week nights, my father studied the book Chasnya with 10 to 15 Chasidim in the shtibl. On the Sabbath evenings he studied Chasidism for a much larger audience. For him this was always a pleasure, never a chore. For him, it was the same pleasure that some enjoy from music or literature. He lived primarily in this esthetic, artistic world of Chasidism, inherited from many previous generations of Chasidic artists. The grandiose structures that the Chasidim built were they not artistic creations? I often think that people like my father truly enjoy and appreciate art. For most of us art is a side issue of life. For my father and others like him, the art of Chasidism is the quintessence of life, while what we consider the center of life is for them just a minor issue.
The warm relationship to Chasidism became stronger in my later years, when I came to know misnagdim. The first time was in Dvinsk, where I went to study for my Bar Mitzvah. There in the misnagdisheh shul and Beth-Midrashim, I experienced the great difference between Chasidism and misnagdishism. Misnagdisheh prayers were so cold and sad. Even the Friday night services were cold and lifeless. I greatly missed the shtibl from my hometown where even on week nights the prayers were filled with life and joy. On Friday night, the soul shone on the faces of the Chasidim, and the shtibl was filled with great warmth and celebration.
In those years, I came to realize that although Chasidim and misnagdim believe in the same God and in the same Torah, nevertheless for Chasidim, their Chasidism is in their heart and soul and thus enriches their lives. In later years it became clearer to me. One of the main ideas in Chasidism is that one serves God in joy, not in sadness; and one should be joyful in God's world and enjoy all of life's opportunities, as well as repair (tikkun) and correct what is wrong in the world. The Chasidic principle of joy and happiness and celebration. was not a frozen page in a book, but rather inside one's brain and heart. It influenced the Chasid's personality and character.
The world of the misnagdim was grey and sad, not because of their poverty and hard labor, but also because they accentuated that man has not much to be proud of or happy about. They emphasized the negatives of man's short life on earth. Some of their books warned that for any joy and pleasure in this world they will have to pay in the other world. Therefore, they learned that man has to do nothing except cry and howl over one's sins, and reject oneself and one's soul. Man has to remember that he comes into the world with nothing and he leaves the world with nothing.
The Chasidim also believe that man has to separate himself from material things. Nevertheless, in the material world there are hidden sparks of holiness and Godliness. It is up to man to bring out these higher qualities, through good works, devotion and teaching, through stories and history of goodness. Man can use his intelligence and understanding to influence the materialistic world. In his every step man can find a remedy and repair the mistakes in the world and thus be a helper to God. He can bring the essence of prayer into all his efforts and works. This is but another way of separating oneself from the materialistic world not to distance oneself from the world, but to be involved in order to strengthen and uncover the holiness and Godliness in the world. This brings us to the Chasidic principle of simcha joyfulness and happiness. How can one not be joyful, when one is given the privilege to be God's helper and be God-like and close to God?
The Chasidic response to the misnagdisher belief that man should understand that he has fallen and is nothing and therefore give up his egoism, is to recognize man's soul and man's responsibility to bring out and develop the holiness that is inside of him. The individual, through good works and dedication, can redeem himself. Chasidic belief rests on the principle that man does not have to succumb to sadness and depression. Instead he can with good works and dedication enjoy happiness in this world. These qualities of joy and happiness were prominent aspects of the Chasidic personalities in our shtetl.
I will describe several Chasidic personalities of our shtetl that I remember clearly though it is forty years since I left that life. My father, Moishe Leib, is the central figure in this memoir, not only because he influenced me very strongly and through him I absorbed the spirit, but also primarily because he was the major figure of Chasidism in our shtetl. He was the pre-eminent scholar of the Chasidic Torah, and the leader of the communal Chasidic activities. He was also at the center of all the joyous revelry; with a little whiskey he created an atmosphere of Chasidic rejoicing.
Friday Before Blessing Candles
My mother is occupied in the kitchen making the cholent, while my father carries in the samovar that is almost boiling and puts it on the table. He walks around the room saying Pesach Elijah. This is a chapter from the Zohar that certain Chasidim say on Friday night before blessing the candles. He walks around the room, here and there, quietly and slowly. His face is radiant and he speaks thoughtfully. I, still a young boy, sit quietly and listen, and I am captured by his magical world. The memory of these Friday evenings is so etched in my childhood memory and so fresh and clear, that even phrases from the Pesach Elijah are still in my mind. There is the phrase that says: God surrounds all the worlds and feels all the worlds and no thought can encompass or understand him. But I wanted to understand and often thought about it. The word pantheism I had not yet heard. But I doubt whether my later knowledge of pantheism helped my understanding any further than the chapter from the Zohar.
Friday Night in the Shtibl (Little Prayer House)
In the shtibl it is light and full of rejoicing. All the lamps are glowing and all the eyes and faces are clear and Sabbath-like. The beards and sideburns are combed and all the Chasidim wear their long, black coats. They greet the Sabbath. Everyone has suddenly felt free from the weekly chores and worries, and happiness envelopes all the happiness of celebrating the Sabbath.
When the Sabbath welcome is finished, the evening prayers are said and everyone wishes each other Good Sabbath, Good Year. Then people separate and walk home, but a few Chasidim linger. They had been looking into a Chasidic book while the others were saying their evening prayers. The water-carrier, Avdotia, comes in and puts out the lamp-light. Only one lamp is left burning on the table, where the small group is studying prayers. The single lamp casts a weak light in the little prayer house. In the shadows, each of the small band of Chasidim stand in a separate corner. In one corner stands my father, in another corner the shamus, and in a third corner stands Shimson Nisson. At first they are praying quietly and calmly. But gradually the praying becomes more emotional and turns into chanting. Each one chants in his own way, but all the chants and tunes flow together in one nostalgic melody. In each one's voice one hears the fire of Chasidic prayer and chants. I sit and listen closely, and feel sorry that I am only a young boy and cannot stand in a corner with the grownups and chant together with them.
Daybreak on Sabbath
The sounds of my father, of Elya the shamus, and of Shimson Nisson, come to me where I sleep behind the oven. For years, in summer and winter, these two Chasidim come to my father to learn Chasidism. They discuss various topics and ideas while drinking a glass of tea in the next room, without disturbing the Sabbath peace that reigns over the house. I awaken when I hear my father's rich, deep voice chanting the blessings and prayers; he charms and enchants me. I am reminded of my forthcoming bar mitzvah and still my mind is filled with all kinds of foolishness. I decide that I must change. From this day forward I will be a person who renounces his sins (a bel tchuva). Still in slumber, I dream of my secret wish to magically enter into all the secrets of the world that has been created, and thus dreaming, I again fall asleep.
During the entire Sabbath, my father feels that it is so good to be alive in the world. He takes pleasure in everything from praying, from learning, and from the delicious foods served on the Sabbath. For my father, the greatest joy of the Sabbath for him was presenting the Sidus for the assembled. He was always a handsome man, with his elegant beard, and his large, intelligent eyes. But on Sabbath eve when he spoke, he radiated a special light from his face and all his words and gestures. His voice, deep and heartfelt, carries over his audience and gives them those ideas and emotions that he feels so deeply. The Chasidim listen to him with open ears and open mouth, literally swallowing his words. Inside the Little Prayer House, it is shadowy, and the people block the light from the single lamp that has been burning since the beginning of the Sabbath. Soon the weekday prayers will begin and the weekday cares will capture the attention of the shtibl and the shtetl. Meanwhile, it is still Sabbath and my father is telling the assembled the secrets of the universe and the pleasures of life. He tells them about the influence of the Light that shines on all the worlds and gives delight and might and strength to all strange creatures and things. If, for one moment, he says to them, the power of the Light would end, then the existence of the world would cease. Everything would fall apart and vanish, become disordered and abandoned. He is now walking with his listeners in the higher realms of the world and brings them inside the Temple of the Soul. The souls of people, he says, are streaming sparks from the Light and Illumination (Godly Light and Illumination) in the end of days, when the creation of the Soul descends to the underworld where they reform and improve their inner selves. They become part of the creative force for reform and change. Through divine prayer and devotion and good deeds, man brings wholeness to the world. The world is repaired (tikkun). Man should rejoice with his mission in the world, and therefore his prayer and worship should express joyousness and love, joined with fervor, excitement, enthusiasm, and inspiration.
The Chasidim are standing and nodding their heads. Like a musician on a magical instrument, my father led them out of their own, crowded, closed world, and brought them into a freer world of light and joy. They feel that they have not been just randomly cast into the world and abandoned to the underworld. They are stirred by his idea that there is a close connection between the underworld and the other world of humanity, community, and future. Listening to my father, their hearts become warm and cheerful.
When it becomes dark outside, the group is torn between the demands of the weekday chores and obligations and my father's strong, full voice which fills the air and does not want to let the strength of weekday work and worries banish the Sabbath.
[Translator's note: this section entitled Sabbath Evening' is liberally sprinkled with Hebrew words and phrases, not all of which are easily found in the Hebrew dictionary because they tend to be religious Chasidic idiomatic expressions. The search was eminently worthwhile because they gave a special and authentic voice to the translation. In a very few instances, where diligent search did not yield the English equivalent, I had to rely on gaining the meaning from the textual context. I do not believe I did any violence to the meaning of the original Hebrew expressions.]
Revelry and Carousing
After evening prayers, about 25 to 30 Chasidim remain in the shtibl (little prayer house). The shamus had previously prepared a table with a white tablecloth upon which the Chasidim had been studying their prayer books. The lamps are lit and a lively atmosphere envelops the group. My father goes from one Chasid to the next, collecting money for whiskey and food. The rich Chasidim contribute from 5 to 10 pennies each. The poor Chasidim give 2 to 3 pennies each. He gives all the money to the shamus, who earlier in the day had prepared everything and hidden it in the Women's Shul.
The shamus and another Chasid leave the room briefly and come back loaded down with packages. They put plates on the table and on the plates they put cookies and cake. Others are busy washing off the herring at the faucet. They peel off the skin, cut it up into pieces, put the herring on small plates, and bring the plates to the table. Now the table is full of various dishes and looks in a holiday mood. Some seat themselves on the bench that is on one side of the table near the wall. Others seat themselves further away from the table, and the rest are standing around the table.
A Chasid says to the shamus Chaim-Elye: I did not know that you are such an accomplished cook! Just look at the wonderful table he set before us. But something is missing. I don't know what it is, but something is missing.
Chaim-Elye pretends he does not hear what is being said to him.
What can it be? It seems we have enough herring, enough cookies and cake. Maybe it could be roasted meat?
Another Chasid says: When Chasidim are gathered they need something in their glasses when they say a blessing. Look at the glasses as they stand empty and forlorn. They are waiting for something to fill them up.
Oh, now I understand, says Chaim-Elye. You mean, perhaps, some whiskey. I completely forgot about the whiskey. He goes up on the stage, searching around for a while in a corner and comes back to the table carrying two bottles.
The Chasidim take small sips of whiskey and munch on the rolls and herring. It doesn't take long for the Chasidim to become lively and jolly. They exchange witticisms, jokes, riddles, advice, and examples relating to prayers and Chasidic lore. Throughout, they are sipping whiskey and more whiskey.
Shimson Nisson, as is his nature, does not make himself known. His sits to the side. My father suddenly is aware that he does not see him.
Where is Shimson Nisson? my father calls out, and searches for him with his eyes. He stands up and searches for him, walking around the room and finds him sitting at the edge of the bench.
Shimson Nisson is a tall man with a bent spine and a similarly bent nose. He always kept his head down when he stood. Sitting or standing he always kept his head down. The main impression of his stature was that he was bent over. He reminded people of a horse, who all day was in harness, and when he was released from harness in the evening, he still stands as if in harness with a bent and lowered head. When people pass him, they feel sympathy and friendship for him; they feel that it is time to unharness him and let him rest.
My father goes up to Shimson Nisson and says to him, Why are you sitting here on the side, Nisson Shimson? (After whiskey, Chasidim turn around the first name with the last name.)
It doesn't matter where one sits, answers Shimson.
Help! What does one do with a misnagid? calls out my Father. He carries all the burdens of Israel and the diaspora on his shoulders.
My father takes Shimson Nisson by the arm and leads him to the table. Did you have a drink yet? my father asks him. Of course, what else, Shimson answers.
Take a little drink with us, my Father urges him, saying, You are such a misnagid. After the drinks, my father says to him, Come, come, Nisson Shimson, let us do a little dance. My father puts his hand on Shimson's shoulder and the dance begins. My father starts to sing a Chasidic melody, and the others join in the singing. The voice of Nachum Berr is heard above the rest. He possesses a fine voice and often sang and often chanted the prayers on the Sabbath and holidays. My Father cheers up Shimson Nisson and instructs him thus, Lift up a foot , like this, like this. But it doesn't help. Even dancing, he gave the appearance of being in harness. In the meantime, the other Chasidim are joining the dancing; warmth and cheerfulness come through the singing and dancing. It fills the The Little Prayer House and the whole group is enveloped in the warm, cheerful atmosphere.
Such evenings of revelry often lasted late into the night.
The vignettes above are of extraordinary events and Sabbaths. It may seem that we did not have any ordinary weekdays. In truth there were certainly weekdays, and they were mostly harsh and bitter days. People worked hard and slaved but never earned enough to live on. Chasidism in our shtetl lived by the spirit of the Sabbath. Their theme that the whole world was created for the Sabbath fit them very well. Chasidim would say, What are the weekdays? During weekdays man is oppressed with all kinds of labor and worries: earning a living, business, and learning there is no rest from all these burdens. During the week, the world and man's life are like that of the ants. Everything is a race to make a livelihood. Only on the Sabbath does a man feel truly human and part of the world. God gave man the Sabbath so that at least on one day in the week man can free himself from the drabness and greyness of the weekday grind.
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;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.
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 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 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.
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