Something amazing occurred in Slutsk. Refoel Yossel, the tailor, a young man had suddenly given up tailoring. When Chava, Chava, the broad bean seller, brought her husband's kapote to be repaired, the tailor was not in his house. And it was made clear to her that he had not been around for a couple of days.
Where was he sleeping? Everybody was interested in this question. The whole town was agitated and various opinions were given. One person said that he had gone to buy a house. Others said that the tailor had gone to the villages to work for the gentiles. A poor man, he tried to make a living for his wife and children. An honest young man, not a great scholar, but he had a good heart and worked hard. Now he had suddenly disappeared, not saying how long he would be gone or where he was going.
In "vtikin shtibl" [prayer house] the shamas [synagogue beadle] was found sitting engrossed in an "Ein Jankev" [a story from the Talmud] and told the tailor's wife that her husband was in shul. On no account did he want to go home. There was privacy there so he could study Torah and serve God.
Everybody came by and implored and made clear that he should go home. For what reason would a man suddenly leave his wife and children to sit and study? He was just being stubborn. Sitting in shul he will waste his few years, far from everything, carefree, far from worldly pleasures and demands-he should be so lucky!
"He will sit there a few days, then he will get hungry and he will long for home. The exile of the Jews should last as long as the time he will waste in the prayer house," that is what people said.
But not Reb Refoel Yossel. Body and soul, he gave himself to studying Torah, went through the Mishnah, bit by bit the Gemore. He labored arduously. Eat, not eat, what's the difference? If his wife brought food, good. If not, it was also all right. Until late at night he studied. When he was tired he grabbed a nap on a hard bench. He did not go home, a waste of time! It would be contemptuous of the Torah! Better to go through another couple of pages of Gemore.
During the day he asked questions unashamedly and studied diligently, and at night, when all around was quiet, he sat by a small lamp, a Jew with a sweet, thin voice singing, poring over a large Gemore, peering deep into a difficult passage. People wondered how a simple tailor could reach such a level. Scholars were surprised by his great proficiency and deep understanding and were taken aback by his sharp mind. Nobody dared to call him "Refoel Yossel, the tailor" any more and with holiness on the lips of the Slutskers, the name "Reb Refoel-Yossel" made the rounds.
The city Jews made it their duty to care for his family and to provide them with food.
Reb Refoel Yossel would often fast, very rarely leaving the prayer house even for a couple of minutes.Years passed while he studied the law. He became pale, had sunken cheeks and long, silken payos [earlocks]. He had black eyes that expressed a deep sorrow and a love of the whole world. He charmed everyone, and he was known throughout the entire region as a pious man.
If something terrible happened, people would come to Reb Refoel Yossel. He would stand bent over and bitterly sigh with tears in his eyes-"What can I do to help, my child? I am a simple man, a tailor. Go home and he who lives in heaven will help you. The main thing is to believe in our Father in Heaven, He is the Almighty."
When somebody came to speak to him about studying, he answered, discussed with him, but other than that he was silent.
A Jewish woman came to ask a question concerning religious law and he said: "My daughter! Go to the Rabbi!"
"But, rebbe,"she said, "You are more like a rabbi!"
The dayan [judge in Jewish court] asked, "Are you are a "rabbi?"
"Go, daughter! I am Refoel Yossel, the tailor."He would get up in the middle of the night and put ashes on his head. His voice trembling, full of anguish, rang out: "When will you have pity on Zion, our Father? Oy, great is the need and the necessity of your people Israel. Great are the worries of the Jews and they have no more patience. That is the marvel, Sweet Father! It is not their fault. This is a most bitter exile, full of troubles and sorrows. Please have pity, Great Father and help-the water is up to their necks!"
When he was older, he became ill. When they wanted to take him to a residence, he would not agree to it. How had he earned it?
The elite of the city took him to Warsaw. When he was served a quarter fowl and found out that it cost fifty kopecks, he did not want to stay in Warsaw any longer. "I do not want to be a burden to the community, they are spending too much money on me. I am going back to my city, Slutsk." And that same day he left Warsaw.
A worker came to the Vtikin shtibl and complained to Reb Refoel Yossel that he was disgusted with tailoring.
"My child! Do something else and God will bless you as one who has great knowledge and you will be lucky."
"I did not mean that, rebbe! I want to leave tailoring to sit and study."
"My child! Work as a tailor and serve the Almighty and this will be counted as if you were studying Torah."
"Rebbe, excuse me, you were also a tailor and today, you are a pious man and a rabbi."
"My child! First of all, I am scarcely a saint and far from being a rabbi. Secondly, there was no profession for me to leave, because I was not a good tailor, just a lowly patcher of clothes! But you, my child, you are an excellent tailor. Go back to your trade, recite a few Psalms each day, go regularly to synagogue, learn from "Ein Jankev." Throw yourself into your work, and don't leave your wife and children [for Torah]. Oy! "For thou shalt eat of the labor of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee." [Phonetically: "Y'giya kapeykha ki tokhal, ashreykha v'tov lakh." Psalm 128:2]
Then tears choked off his speech.
Entire days and nights Reb Refoel Yossel would study and console his visitors.
Few saw him when, little by little, he lost, his strength and died with an honored name.
With trembling and reverence the name "Reb Refoel Yossel" will be remembered.
In " Vtiktin shtibl " people would indicate: "That is where the "Tzadik " (pious man) sat".
Nobody else ever sat in that place.
There are hundred of things and stories about the greatness of a person who had earned merit to such a high degree.
As told by Reb Chaim Zaydes:
Reb Refoel Yossel was a bungler of a tailor. Once he brought somebody a piece of work that was not perfect and this person hit him. So his friend Reb Yasha the Gaon [eminent rabbinical scholar, genius] who was already a master tailor told him: "You will never be a tailor. Sit and study."
Refoel Yossel asked, "Is it possible? I am an ignorant person who can only pray and have the responsibility of a wife and children."
Reb Yasha answered him, "Start with Chumash [the 5 books of Moses] with Yiddish translations until you are a scholar. About making a living, do not worry. I will set up your wife to make loaves of bread for which the rich housewives pay three kopeks a loaf. This will be a good living."
Refoel Yossel sat and studied in Vtikin Shtibl and went home only on Friday night. At that time kerosene was very expensive, so he burned a half candle between his fingers while studying, until his fingers would burn. The Slutsk Rabbi, Reb Yasha-Ber Soloveichik, befriended him, encouraged him and supported him. From the entire area, people would turn to Reb Refoel Yossel. Women called on him to interpret dreams. He never took money from anybody. He only took a candle so he could study.
When the RIDBaZ [acronym for Reb Jankev Dovid Vilovksy] came to visit for a Purim feast, he yelled to those sitting at the table:
"A tailor sits in Vtikin-shtibl and women go to him to interpret dreams, and soon they will ask the tailor questions about religious law. Let us go and ascertain if he is an ignorant person."
Arriving there, the RIDBaZ saw Reb Refoel Yossel studying. The RIDBaZ asked him difficult questions, but Reb Refoel Yossel answered and quoted the source. The RIDBaZ was surprised by his knowledge and said, "Until today I thought I was the only scholar in Slutsk. Now I see another sitting in the shtibl."
[Tsvi Hirsh Dainov] was born in Slutsk and was a prominent man known by the name "The Slutsk Maggid" [preacher]. He was one of the first modern Yiddish orators to use simple Yiddish, without the traditional melody, without gesticulations and without frightening people with hell. With the strength of his words, he would make a great impression on his listeners. Inspired by the ideals of Haskalah [enlightenment movement], he described for the people the humiliating economic and spiritual condition of the masses. He spoke out against false pride, against idlers, about the government's need to help fight poverty, the necessity of education and the need to send [Jewish] children to public schools.
The members of the Haskalah movement sent him out on their behalf to Jewish towns and villages to give speeches to the people. His strength of expression against fanaticism and superstition, such as not being too rigorous in interpreting the law and keeping certain commandments, made the Orthodox Jews come out against him.
He also had a lot of enemies among the older generation. The Russian administration (to which he would turn for help) protected him.In many towns people had closed the doors of the besmedresh  to him. "Hamagid" and "Hamelitz" [Jewish newspapers] would often publish laments about the persecution that he endured from the opponents of Haskalah. Thanks to the endeavors of his friend YL'G, the community "Ein Jankov" invited Dainov as an orator in 1874. These were Russian-Polish Jews in London where he was very popular and well liked, even by the leader of the Jewish community, Rabbi Nathan Adler.
Characteristic of his relationship with the Yiddish language; in one of his letters to the "Chevra Mfitze Haskolah" in 1873, he drew the society's attention to the need to publish Jewish books, through which one could have a an effect on the Jewish masses. He told them how useful the Yiddish writings of Michal Gordon, Linetsky, Axenfeld and others were. Dainov left a lot of manuscripts.
Reb Tsvi Hirsh Masliansky was born in Slutsk, 3 Sivan 1856 in a middle class family and received a traditional education. Even as a child he showed his aptitude for learning. At seven he knew the Tanakh [Five Books of Moses] by heart. At 10 he would wrap himself in a tablecloth and would give his friends a lecture about the destruction of the Temple that moved them to tears.
He studied at the yeshiva in Mir, then settled in Pinsk, Karlin, where he became a Hebrew teacher, private as well as in the Talmud Torahs. At around 14, after the pogroms of 1881, he was drawn to the "Lovers of Zion" movement and began to agitate for them in schools and synagogues. Showing a great talent, he undertook a speaking tour in Southern Russia, Lithuania, Zamet, and Courland, propagandizing for the movement and Jewish nationalism. He inspired both Orthodox and assimilated Jews.Due to police interference, he left for America where for the first four years he traveled to different cities as a speaker. He settled in New York and in 1898 he was appointed as "orator" in the "Educational Alliance." He participated in the Yiddish and Hebrew press. He published a book entitled "Droshes: [lectures] Memories of a Public Speaker."
(From Rayzin's Lexicon)
The rich grain merchant, Reb Shmuel Simkhoivitsh, was a famous Slutsk personality and distinguished himself in many ways. He was smart, educated in both Jewish and worldly subjects, and was fluent in several languages. He was an international businessman, traded stock on the London stock exchange, and subscribed to Hebrew, Russian, German and English newspapers. From time to time he would write to the St. Petersburg German newspaper "Petersburger Herald."
In 1894 he was invited by the Russian government to take part in the Rabbinate commission.
A Jew with a stately appearance, an experienced merchant Soloveichik had the talent to skillfully combine worldly problems with Jewishness and learning.
He had one of the sharpest minds in town. In his large, elegant house that stood in a beautiful garden was his large and rich library of rabbinical and worldly literature.
The most influential person in city affairs was the rich and powerful Chaim Michal Gutzeit. It was said that he had influence only because he had money. His fortune was thought to have a value, by those in Slutsk, of more than a hundred thousand rubles, which at that time was a legendary amount. He was a short, corpulent man, with a red face and dark brown hair. He was a good businessman, very decisive. Parents would come to him to deposit their daughters' dowries.
People had enormous confidence in him. The community entrusted him with orphans', widows' and divorced women's inheritances, and wedding pledge money, etc.
He created work for a lot of families in his sawmill and his large grain mill that was powered by a steam engine. Also a lot of workers made their living from his large undertakings and estates in the surrounding area.
[Hochmark] had a multi-faceted personality due to being acquainted with the world at large as a delegate for community institutions and yeshivas. He visited the United States and also South America. Rabbi Reb Yhezkel Abramski was the last Slutsk rabbi of the council.
Dr. Shildkroyt was renown in Slutsk and surroundings. Everybody knew him. He had an imposing personality. His white face and broad shoulders made quite an impression on everyone. He had studied medicine at Moscow University. His mother, who was poor, helped with all her might. He was a liberal man. To him everybody was the same-rich or poor. If somebody was fatally ill, he never complained about being tired, day or night.
Therefore Shildkroyt acquired renown among all classes of the population as a simple man and learned doctor. He had a phenomenal memory. He only had to meet a person once, and he remembered his given and family name, even after a long time. If he could not find a droshky, he went on foot to see his patients.
During the First World War (1915-1917), when Slutsk was full of refugees, Polish Jews who had run away, he was one of the ones who organized a relief committee for those who were suffering. He dedicated all his energy and used his own money to help the needy and save lives.
There were other doctors in Slutsk beside Dr. Shildkroyt. They were Drs. Melzer, Feinberg and the Christian doctors Wecher and Yanushkevitsh. Among the barber-surgeons, Grayew was very popular. The Jewish doctors served the one charity hospital and old peoples' home.
The well-loved young doctor Sinayski tragically perished as a young man. He was murdered in his house together with his beautiful young daughter. The murderer was his Christian coachman. Sentimental songs were written about this tragedy.
Eliyohu Tsharni was known in Slutsk as a wit, a lover of literature. He was an editor for the "Slutsker Shaygets" that appeared in 1911.
A slim man, with a long pale face, he had penetrating gray eyes that accentuated his paleness.
He became an orphan very young, and his mother, the widow, had the task of maintaining and nourishing her two sons, Eliyohu and Pinye Tsharni. She owned a property with a house on the market place that had two stores, from which she derived her living. Both brothers were born weak and sickly. Pinye inherited consumption from his father, who had died young.
Eliyohu studied with melamdim who would come to the house to teach him. His brother Pinye became a dentist and had an office in Stary-Dorogy. Eliyohu in his free time pursued his love for reading. He loved Yiddish and Russian literature. He had a sense of humor and a sharp memory. He was able to describe features in minute detail, a piece by a writer, a poet or an artist.
His mother Paya treated him lovingly and watched over him because of his weak health. This had a psychological effect on the old bachelor, so much so that he never sought employment. Most of the time he lay about in bed from meal to meal. Only late in the evening he would walk alone or with friends. He dedicated one hour a week to the Zionist library. This was his life as an old bachelor.
I knew him when I was 11 years old and visiting the reading room and library.
He always wanted to publish a humorist journal about the daily life of Slutsk and specific types. His dream came true with the "Slutsker Shaygets."
For many years there was a wooden headstone marking Reb Refoel Yossel's grave. Leibe Yof, the blacksmith, took the large stone that was lying at the Kalter shul and made a headstone from it for Reb Refoel Yossel's grave.
Reb Refoel Yossel made a statement about women's fashions of the time.
At a wedding he influenced the groom's family. The groom did not want to stand under a chupah [traditional canopy] without the rotonde that was missing from the bride's wedding clothes.
Reb Refoel-Yossel was sent for and was begged to make peace between the two sides.
Reb Refoel Yossel arrived and first asked what a rotonde was. It was explained very clearly to him that this was a woman's garment without sleeves.
Reb Refoel Yossel sat down next to the groom and asked him very earnestly and sincerely:
"My child, over a couple of sleeves, people should not be arguing about going to the chupah. For a couple of sleeves would you become the laughing stock of these people?"
The groom smiled and his parents smiled as well.
Then Reb Refoel Yossel continued speaking to the groom and said:
"With God's help, after the wedding you can add the sleeves to your wife's garment at your own expense. And perhaps by adding the missing sleeves to the garment you will gain merit and will be blessed with making a good living all your life."
The argumentative groom's side did not stop smiling. The son and the parents thanked Reb Refoel Yossel for his blessings and ordered that the chupah be put up during a good and lucky time.
Written in Slutsk by R.F.
Fayvl Harakh [Charach] was born a sexton. His father Reb Aaron, the Jewish Court of Justice sexton, died young and left his widow, Esther Frume, with four small children, and the community, in respect for him, turned over the position of sexton to Fayvl. He was then only fourteen years old. He had a good head for studying, but he had no desire to take over as sexton. But this was the only way to feed his mother and the small orphans. So Fayvl, at fourteen, became the Court of Justice sexton and also "assistant sexton" for the Kalter shul. Several years later, when Reb Hirschl, the "head sexton" of the Kalter shul, left for America, Fayvl became the head sexton. Nevertheless Fayvl was very busy with city affairs, so he was never separated from his holy books, knew the Tanach, and was well versed in " Ein Jankev. "
As sexton for the Court of Justice, he usually managed to spend a large amount of his time around the rabbi. The rabbi, Rabbi Iser Zelman, would turn to him with questions: "Where is this verse or that tractate of our Sages of Blessed Memory to be found?"
When Liate, the sexton from the Butchers' shul, died, Fayvl immediately began to say "Ein Jankev" there between afternoon prayers and evening services, but not for money, God forbid.
Fayvl was a smart Jew and always happy. He had a good heart and everyone respected him. In the 1920s when the Bolsheviks had already naturally requisitioned all the synagogues and did not have any place for sextons, Fayvl purchased a horse and wagon and drove loads around town and once in a while took a passenger to the train station. But his livelihood was mainly derived from bringing kegs of water and selling it to the Soviet restaurants, even though the leaders were aware of his "bourgeois past" as sexton.
In 1930, after Trotsky's downfall, when the "Cheka" [Soviet secret police] made up stories to get rid of anyone on whom there fell the least bit of "Trotskyism," a certain Jewish Communist, a Trotskyist, was arrested in Slutsk. There was little to remind people of him but he left behind a young wife with several small children.
Fear filled the entire atmosphere. People shook even when speaking to their families. But on a cold winter day at dawn, Fayvl put on his fur coat and left the city and stayed in "Otshered" for a couple of hours. There he acquired several bundles of wood, drove them back to the home of the wife of the "Trotskyite" and left them without any explanation.
When Fayvl arrived home late that night half-frozen, his wife asked him, "What did you earn?"
Chava! Blessed be His name, I earned a lot today."
In 1942 at the age of sixty, Reb Fayvl was murdered in Slutsk by the Nazis, may their names be erased. May the Lord avenge his blood and may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.(This article is based mainly on information from prominent people who prefer to remain anonymous. N.W.)
Reb Shlomo Demburg was a scholarly Jew, a good speaker with a wonderful appearance and a pleasant face. Politeness and kindness exuded from him. He was cheerful Jew, full of joy. Even though a pauper, responsible for eight children who would wait every day for the couple of groschen their father earned as sexton in the Tailors' synagogue, Reb Shlomo still derived comfort from doing his work honestly, in good faith. For him it was not enough just to worry about poor people, the widows and orphans one would always see in the street. Reb Shlomo would go around with bags full of clothes or food and give them to these poor souls.
His goodness was renown in Slutsk. During the First World War Shlomo Demburg was a soldier. Soldiers lay in the trenches and shot, except Shlomo. 'What does it mean to shoot or be shot at?' he thought. One can still, G-d forbid, really meet a bullet!
Shlomo lay and sang Psalms when the shooting started. The division commander was told about it and he came and shouted: "Demburg, why don't you shoot?" Shlomo knew that "this meant trouble" and he took courage and lifted the rifle high in the air and shot three times until the officer left. Then he lay down the rifle and busied himself with Psalms again. Because of this he survived.
At the beginning of the 1920s, when the Red government had requisitioned the yeshiva buildings, most of the students from the yeshiva ran away with their leaders to Kletsk. Individual yeshiva students stayed, however, and continued their studies in the Tailors' shul.
As you know, the Tailors' shul had very nice benches. The bosses became angry with the yeshiva students who used too many benches and book stands. For appearance's sake, Reb Shlomo would scream: "Mischievous fellows, that is what you are! You are destroying the synagogue, breaking the benches, the book stands they cannot endure your treatment!"
But as soon as the bosses left he would go to the yeshiva students and say: "The bosses are simpletons. If not for studying, then what are the benches and synagogue together for? Use them in good health. Just study, Torah children!"
Reb Shlomo was also the official speaker in the Tailors' shul. He never prepared a speech. But what strength there was in his speeches! Shabes during the day it would often happen that he would be angry, and with his sad melodies would bring tears to the eyes of many.
The Nazis, may their names be erased, murdered Reb Shlomo in Slutsk.
The Kloyz was the oldest synagogue in Slutsk and it looked more like a fortress than a synagogue. The walls were thicker than other buildings. As strong as walls of the Kloyz were, stronger still was the Jewish spirit that ruled inside the walls. In the Kloyz the Rabbi and the esteemed men of the community customarily prayed. Always after evening prayers, a daily page of Gemore [part of the Talmud commenting on the Mishnah] was read at a table, around which were seated two-three Jewish minions [ten men needed to make a prayer quorum].
There were a lot of holy books in the Kloyz, old ones from ancient scholars and also new sets of the six books of the Talmud and the Rambam's [Rabbi Moishe, son of Maimon, Maimonides] digest of Talmudic law, from Vilna. Reb Yehezkel Abramski, the last Slutsker rabbi, would say that the word Kloyz came from Hebrew "kol eoz," the strong voice of the Torah that was called "eoz" [h' eoz lemo otn in Hebrew]. Slutsker Jewishness was strongly felt in the Kloyz.
The sexton Reb Shmuel Vendrov embodied a segment of Jewish Slutsk. In the course of his entire life he never left Slutsk, not even to travel. He saw Slutsk in its entire beauty and brightness, when Slutsk was thought to be second, after Vilna, in the dynasty of Lithuanian Jewry.
Reb Shmuel was the sexton during the time when Reb Yoshe-Ber Soloveitchik was the Slutsker rabbi (Reb Yoshe-Ber was the Rabbi in Slutsk from 1862**-1870-5602** to 5630, also with Reb Yakov David and Reb Isser Zelman Meltzer. And he lived to be the sexton with Reb Yehezkel Abramski).
** There is a discrepancy between the English year and Hebrew Year.
Shmuel was versed in Talmud [the Mishnah and Gemore] and very knowledgeable in Midrash [commentary on the scriptures]. He was always sitting and studying. This, however, did not stop him from fulfilling his duties as sexton in the synagogue. Mainly, he was in love with the Kloyz's holy books, and he watched over them as one would a treasure. It was very difficult to get a holy book from him, and as soon as he saw a gemore lying on a stand, he would immediately put it back in the bookcase and close it. Rabbi Abramski would joke: "Reb Shmuel had already barred and locked it in the bookcase, so men had to fulfill the "redemption of prisoners."
Because of his age and his closeness to the certain great Slutsker rabbis, he looked at the young rabbis and the newly ordained that always came to the Kloyz with contempt. "They are of no consequence, these 'made by machine' rabbis, what do they know-they are at present little boys-of Reb Yoshe-Ber's sagacity or Reb Yakov David's knowledge?" he would say.
But he referred to the young Rabbi of the city with great respect, even when he had something against him. Rabbi Abramski would stay in the synagogue after praying and studying wearing a talis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries]. Once Reb Shmuel remarked that rabbi's tefillin " shel rosh " [the one of the phylacteries placed on the forehead] was something he would not take off, even though he should have. But it took courage to correct the rabbi.
Shmuel did not leave the problem alone but went to the rabbi with a story, "You know Rabbi, I remember how Reb Yoshe-Ber would smooth down his hair when he took off the 'shel-rosh' so that there would not be a part." Rabbi Abramski looked at him and said, "So, I do not do this?"
Meanwhile he automatically brought his right hand up to the tefilin shel-rosh and immediately took it off. Reb Shmuel smiled as he had not, G-d forbid, offended the honor of the rabbi.
Reb always looked sullen, an angry Jew, but he possessed warmth and goodness without measure. Three of his daughters, G-d preserve us, died during his lifetime from diabetes, leaving behind small orphans. Reb Shmuel always claimed the each person received whatever was his fate, no more and no less. Of confirmation of this, he said, that he sees it clearly himself. He suffered a lot from life, but no toothaches. After all he had already lost almost all of his teeth, so he would never know the pain of a toothache, because it was not his to have this grief.
In 1925 the Soviet municipal government put out an order that all the synagogues may be open only for prayer, but not for studying, therefore they must be closed from nine o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the evening. The one remaining yeshiva student would go and open the Kloyz through the back door and study there.
The Soviet attendants uncovered this and made a big fuss about it. The bosses of the Kloyz yelled at Reb Shmuel that he did not know what was going on in the Kloyz and he was frightened and became angry with the "criminal" who dared jeopardize the synagogue's existence. But shortly after when he had time to think about it, he went and apologized to the student for his hasty remarks against him. After all he, the student, had put himself in greater danger so that he could study.
In his last years Reb Shmuel gave over the position of sexton to his son-in-law, Reb Hillel the Scribe. He gave his attention to the Torah scrolls so they would always be ready at the place where one must read and also that each Torah scroll should be used one after the other, so that one would not remain unused for a long time. He kept this job because it was too holy to entrust to somebody else.
It happened that Reb Shmuel had prepared a Torah scroll and as usual, laid it on the edge of the table while he went to get somebody and together they would put it back the Holy Ark. Meanwhile the Torah scroll had rolled and fallen off the table. Reb Shmuel stood there trembling with fear. In his long career as sexton in the Kloyz, such a thing had never happened. He immediately said that this must be the end, that it would not be long before he left this nonsensical world.
So it was. In a short time Reb Shmuel died and so after his death his "kingdom" fell. The Soviet government soon closed the Kloyz, as well as all the Slutsker synagogues.
The "Karni'im-shul" was exactly the same as the Butchers' and Tailors' synagogues, a remembrance of past years when all of Jewish life centered around the shul for praying and to meet with colleagues. The comb-makers Society prayed in the Karni'im shul, and there were a considerable number of them in Slutsk. Therefore the synagogue was called Karni'im made of horn. In the last years there were already fewer comb-makers, but the name Karni'im-Shul remained as a remembrance of this beautiful period in Jewish life.
The last sexton of the Karni'im-shul was Reb Nathan Fishkin-Horn. He took the additional name of Horn himself, as he was proud of the synagogue's name. Reb Nathan was a man of average height, skinny, sickly, always on a diet, and trembled from the thought of taking an extra morsel. Looking at him you could not understand how he managed to stay on his feet, and, G-d preserve us, not fall down. He seemed barely there, but as he stood at the cantor's desk as the prayer reader, he was immediately transformed into another being.
When Reb Nathan prayed before the congregation, they knew for certain that there stood a strong man with an iron chest. His praying conveyed an immense gusto, a religious ecstasy, and sharp longing. He read the Torah with a rare intensity and clarity. Even his treatment of a thing as simple as Kiddush (prayer recited over wine) every Friday evening in shul rang like a bell and was heard in several streets.
But mostly Reb Nathan excelled as he glorified Shabes right before nightfall when in the shul it was almost dark. Only one lamp burnt at the table. Then Reb Nathan went to the cantor's desk and, in a tenderly sad, and melancholy plaint, canted the penetrating melody of the Ashrei [song of praise to G-d, from Psalm 145]. Several Jews pushed towards the lamp in order to read from small Books of Psalms, but the majority of the congregation repeated after Reb Nathan, verse by verse, by heart. With each verse, his ardor rose, so that one clearly felt the quiet lament from the walls of the shul. Even the devilish little youngsters, coming back from the third meal, were awed by Reb Nathan's Shabes night Psalms reading and did not move from the synagogue until after evening prayers.
Reb Nathan was a pauper; only his stature was affluent. His expenses soon exhausted his small salary as sexton, so he took small jobs such as helping a shatkhn (marriage broker) complete a shidekh (a proposed match), or helping a broker sell a house. He made his name as an expert in the house business, mainly as a great trustee to whom one could entrust great wealth on his word. Therefore a lot of people signed over their houses in his name. An old father who was close to dying was afraid that the children would fight over the inheritance, signed over his house to Reb Nathan, and he was able to die in peace because Reb Nathan would see to it that everything was satisfactory. A son ran away from military conscription and the father was afraid that the government would put a large sum of money as a fine, against his house. He signed his house over to Reb Nathan.
With his first wife of many years, Reb Nathan had no children. His love of children remained strong, however, during all this time. Later, his first wife died and he had a child with his second wife. The children also loved him a lot, and he spent time with them talking about their studies in heder and helping them with their studies.
Reb Nathan would give orphans in marriage and helped a lot of poor people. The poor always knew that if worse came to worse they could go to the Karni'im shul "Reb Nathan, the sexton, would find a way and would not let a Jew leave with empty hands." Everyone in Slutsk knew that Reb Nathan was always ready to help. It mattered not what the issue. He would help write a letter for a widow to her relatives in America. He would assist a poor couple in making a nice bris [circumcision ceremony]. He would speak a little with a Jew, an embittered soul, who was anxious to talk about what was bothering him. Sometimes he was also able to play the idiot as if he could not count to two.
In 1923, when the Soviet municipal government had already closed all the hederim and forbidden teaching Jewish children Torah, a Jew hung a notice proclaiming in all the synagogues that Jews should give their lives to teach their children. The yevsekes [police] knew who it was and brought a sexton to court for permitting such a "crime." Erev Tishebov [9 Av destruction of the Temple] 5683-1923, a trial began that shocked the religious elements of the city. When the Procurer screamed, why had they allowed such a call to be hung in the synagogue, Reb Nathan made like a golem [dummy] and said that he did not know what was written there. "Who cares that a notes hangs in the synagogue?"
His speech had excited even more the expectations of the yevsekes because they well knew that he was not as unworldly as he made out. The procurer became agitated: "Do expect us to believe you are so naïve when you work at brokering houses?"
But Reb Nathan looked them right in the eye and stroked his beard as if they did not mean him.
After that as all the synagogues were closed, Reb Nathan worked to keep a minion and some remnant of a meaningful Jewish life. Every day the situation became more difficult. The eyes of the yevsekes penetrated all the hiding places and sought to root out every remembrance of Jews and Jewishness.
Reb Nathan was murdered together with all the Jews from Slutsk. May the Lord avenge his blood and may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.
Reb Isserke's shul was the only one in Slutsk that was named for a person. The name itself embodied a piece of Slutsk's history that went back hundreds of years.
The Isserlin, or Isserson, family, had supplied a lot of sages and learned men and were descended from the Gaon [sage] Reb Moshe Isserlesh who was famous as "the RM'A" (1520-1579). Members of the family had lived in Slutsk for many generations. They were buried only in prominent places in the Slutsk cemetery (see "Daas KA'doyshim" The knowledge of holy people, Section "Yisroyn Daas" which translated means the benefit of knowledge, page 25).
Reb Abraham, Reb Isserke's Isserlin, lived in Slutsk at the beginning of the 19th century. Because of his great lineage, the fact that he was a great Torah scholar and very well to do, his wife Rivka built a synagogue that was called "Rivka Reb Isserke's Kloyz." Their son Yonah enhanced it. Reb Yonah Isserlin married Deborah, the daughter of the very respectable Reb Yoel Sirkin, and all his businesses went well. His wealth was estimated at approximately six hundred thousand rubles, a colossal sum in those years in Slutsk.
To the Slutskers, Reb Yonah was a great philanthropist. He provided for everyone who requested challah and meat for Shabes. One of Reb Yonah's daughters was the bride of the young Gaon Reb Tzvi Hirsh Ornstein who later became the Rabbi in Brisk and Lemberg. Old Slutsker say that the match had great repercussions and created ripples in the Jewish world because the groom due to his greatness in Torah, came from the greatest gaonim and lineage from Lemberg, and along came a wealthy man from Lithuania who caught such a rare son-in-law.
Due to the great match, Reb Yonah even consented to allowing the wedding to take place, not as a normal Jewish wedding would in the bride's hometown, but in the groom's city. Reb Yonah had even advised his rabbi, the old Gaon Reb Yosele Peimer, that he would have to travel to the wedding as far as Lemberg.
Reb Yosele's name was famous in the entire Jewish world and the gaonim from Lemberg impatiently waited to welcome him and to hear something great from his mouth.
Reb Yosele came to the wedding but only to perform the marriage under the chuppah (marriage canopy) and not one more word did he say. The other rabbis, as usual, wanted to study near Reb Yosele and sought all means to approach him and engage him in talking about the Torah. Some even began to doubt his greatness: "No matter what, in Lithuania people can spread the word around."
They decided to arrange a small bit of fruit on a plate and put it near Reb Yosele so he would be maneuvered to eat something and have to say a blessing first.
Reb Yosele "stopped the examination." He looked over the rabbis. "As you are aware, a Litvak knows about the small letter, yes. Around here he is silent!"
Endlessly they came to stand with him and question the reason for his silence. Reb Yosele answered cold-bloodedly that he never said anything about Torah, not even what he heard from his rabbi, Reb Chaim Volozhiner.
But the match did not succeed. The difference between the two worlds was too great for this couple, and about one year later they divorced and Reb Yonah's daughter came home to Slutsk.
A short time later she married Shmuel Simchovitz from Minsk. He was "a jewel," a "rarity," a Jew with all the necessary qualities: a Torah scholar of high standards with a great brain and a big Jewish heart.
Reb Shmuel Simchovitz was known as a wise man and a worker for social justice, beyond the area of Slutsk and even the Province of Minsk. The Russian Tsar had set up the "Ravinski Commission" in which the greatest rabbinical leaders such as Reb Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor and Reb Yoshe-Ber Soloveitchik took part. The idea was to discuss with them from time to time Jewish questions. Reb Shmuel Simhonwitz was also a member of the council.
A man of great wealth, Reb Yonah Isserlin liked religious book and students of Judaism. He created a vast library made up of a very large collection of Jewish religious books. He brought ten students of Judaism to his mother's Kloyz who were supported by him and they studied Torah without any worries. They were referred to then as "asore batlonim" ["Ten Idlers"].(see Sefer Megilla 5 [the book of Scroll 5, possibly referring to one of the five Megillas the Bible, but more likely to some other then-known book by this name. The "5" might also be a chapter number.] [page?/verse?] 71: "What can be called a big city? Any one in which there are ten idlers.").
Old Slutsk jokers told about one episode that reflected the poverty and the paupers' conception of those years. Reb Yonah had yahrzeit [anniversary of the death of a close relative] for his father and he came to his minion and said: "I beg of you, tomorrow night sit all night and study with devotion in memory of my father, of blessed memory. For your trouble I will also reward in the morning with a meal according to each one's desire."
The society fulfilled his desire and studied the entire night. In the morning when he asked them what they desired for the feast they answered that they had already deliberated and unanimously chosen beet leaves with milk and buckwheat porridge cooked with butter.
In 1868 the synagogue burned down together with a large part of the city Slutsk and also, for the most part, Reb Yonah's religious books were destroyed (Z. Halbnitz, from a periodical, The Lebanon, Year 5, Number 27).
Reb Yonah Isserlin rebuilt the shul and put his minion back to studying. From then on it became known as a family thing, "Reb Isserke's Kloyz or Shul " where men always studied. Years later the shul was also the home of Reb Nechemia's Meykhina Yeshiva until it united with Reb Berl and Reb Yoshe Tritzaner and together they formed the " Meykhina " and remained until the beginning of the 1920s.
The last sexton of Reb Isserke's Shul was Reb Israel Feller. Feller was born in Orla and studied with Reb Boruch Ber in Slobodka. During the First World War he came to Slutsk with his parents as war refugees and remained there.
Reb Israel married one of Rabbi Yitzhak Yakov Sheynboim's daughters, who was called in Slutsk the " Harazaver messenger."
He was a Jew, a firebrand and when he gave a sermon it was like a volcano. Jokingly, he was called "the tool from hell."
After his marriage, Reb Israel Feller made an attempt at business but failed and he became a poultry shochet [kosher ritual slaughterer]. Meanwhile he taught Mishnah to men in the Karni'im shul and also said a page of Gemore in Reb Isserke's Shul where his father-in-law prayed.
In 1924 the municipal government took the main part of Reb Isserke's Shul and left only the women's section open for prayer. Then Reb Israel took over as sexton more in the way of a good deed than for the income. So this synagogue was almost the only one still open through all the years until the great doom. Both his occupations as shochet and sexton truly were more acts of self-sacrifice than anything else.
During the last years of the 1920s with the government's dreadful repression, people sat in prison until they would give outlandish confessions. This is what people called the "Dollars Inquisition." Reb Israel Feller was put in prison: The Cheka agents tortured him thinking he would be the one to tell them whom one can "squeeze" and "extort" dollars.
But Reb Israel outlasted all the suffering and never betrayed anyone. Furthermore, even sitting in prison together with many others, he comported himself so well that his arrest earned him respect from everyone in prison with him. He impressed even the heartless Cheka agents. During his entire life, everyone was convinced that his word could be trusted and they believed him. On his word alone were those arrested set free and the preparations for further arrests were stopped.
As mentioned he was sexton until the last destruction and also worked as poultry slaughterer together with Rabbi Reb Simcha Rishin (son-in-law of Reb Chaim Ber, a well-known respectable man in Slutsk who was also the trustee of the Karni'im-Shul).
Those two were the last ritual slaughterers in Slutsk. After Rabbi Reb Yehezkel Abramski ran away from Slutsk to a foreign country, Rabbi Reb Yitzhak Hochmark, who married Yihumaner Rebetzin [a rabbi's wife] Yerusalimski, daughter of the RIDBaZ and mother-in-law of Rabbi Abramski, stayed only for one year afterwards.
These were the last of the Mohicans in the long, glorious period of religious institutions in Slutsk.
At the end of the list permit me to write several personal memories from one born in Starobin, for whom Slutsk was the first gate into the large outside world.
When Starobin burnt, we decided to stay in a village. Destiny took us to Michavitz that was about sixteen Russian versts from Starobin and four versts from Pohost. In this village only separated Jewish families lived. An eruv had to be put up in the village of Seltz so that on Shabes people could go to pray in the Pohost besmedresh [synagogue, study house and meeting hall]. [On Shabes according to the law, people must not go outside town on Shabes more like a "Sabbath limit" that was almost two versts long unless there was an eruv].
This went on in the beautiful early morning of summer and also in the snow and cold of the White Russian winter. Also for the Days of Awe (High Holidays) we would travel there and stay in Pohost. The first time I went to the besmedresh, adorned with large lamps, the rabbi taught Chumash on Shabes before praying and Reb Hirshl Aydli's hearty additional services on the Days of Awe left a deep impression on me. But going daily to Pohost to attend heder was impossible. Therefore, my grandfather had to teach me the first couple of years (my father was already in America).
My grandfather, Berl Choshes, olev hasholem [peace be with him], was a typical product of his time. Broken from squalor and a life of troubles, still he remained confident and naturally proud. Despite his angry demeanor, his smart eyes were mild and warm, a fact I took advantage of at every opportunity. His learning marked him as what one would call "a mishnayes Jew." He knew Psalms by heart, the entire Chumash with Rashi, Tanakh until Yesheya and the entire Mishnah (with the additional holidays) almost by heart, but no Gemore. He also knew a few other "small things" like Ein Yankev [16th century book with stories from the Talmud], Midrash and a little Zohar [Kabbalist "Book of Splendor"], in which he dabbled every Shabes at daybreak.
He taught me until I was six or seven. Then there was a question of where to study, in Starobin or Slutsk. Slutsk was chosen because his eldest daughter lived there and there would not be any problem about lodgings for me.
In Slutsk Reb Berl, the Yeshiva Dean, listened to me and said to Zeyde: "A good boy, only a drop too young. He should still go to Lipa Shiniovker for a year."
So I was left to stay with my aunt, Rashe the butcheress, who lived in the meat market brick building and I studied at Reb Lipe's. He was already knowledgeable in Gemore and the entire Tanakh. One studied the entire day and each summer I studied preparing Tanakh with my grandfather with whom simple meant "to break one's teeth." This did not stop me from running from heder into the Butchers' synagogue to listen to Reb Liate the sexton say "Ein Yankev" every day between afternoon and evening prayers and Shabes afternoon the sermon of Reb Leibe Neymark in the Tailors' shul.
Afterwards, all we youngsters would run around on the field at the new yeshiva. Usually people would encounter the rabbi's brother-in-law, Reb Sheptil Kremer, the yeshiva mashgiach [supervisor of dietary laws in institutional kitchen], going for a walk with his daughter (now Rabbi Feygl Ruderman in Baltimore).
When Starobin was rebuilt, our family moved back home. For several years I
studied in Starobin and after that studied further in Slutsk. During the war,
many people from Poland ran to Galicia. But the calm did not last, and it was
the beginning of the end. The yeshiva building was requisitioned. The yeshiva
moved back to the Tailors'
shul. When the Reds arrived, Slutsk began to burn out, a long agony. Over twenty
years, bit by bit, Slutsk died. It was a sad last breath
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