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[Page 15]

Generation to Generation Speaks...(cont.)

The Jewish Scene in our Town

We switch the discussion from nature to the people of our town, especially the Jews. The purpose is to commemorate our parents, siblings and friends in the time we lived there. It is a life which ended and will not be experienced again. We will describe personalities of our town as I remember them- from the sublime to the ridiculous, their culture, customs, character and aspirations.

When did the first Jews appear in Bendery? How many were there? When did they strike roots in a growing community? This is not a matter of statistics – it will be discussed further in the book. These are reminiscences and memoirs.

 

The Wertheim Dynasty

The ancient cemetery in Bendery does not contain a single marker detailing the exact date of the arrival of the first Jews- except for the grave of the “Old Tzadik”. It was built like a small house with a sloping roof on two sides. The Tzadik was an ancestor of our main clergy, Rabbi Shloimke Wertheim. The legend was that thanks to blessings by the Tzadik there were no pogroms in our town, unlike other cities, especially Kishinev. I believe that it was due to the cordial relations between Jews and Christians as they were involved in commerce and social life. This was true until the Holocaust engulfed us. Even our community was destroyed.

 

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Prayer in memory of those who perished in the Kishinev
pogroms in 1903. It is handwritten by Yosele Wertheim.

 

In order to portray, in a simple way, the Jews of Bendery, we must begin with the distinguished Rabbi Shimon Shlomo Wertheim. He was a gifted scholar and he and his family served as the focal point of the community. He was the offspring of a lineage of rabbis existing in Bendery for one hundred and forty years. The father of this dynasty was the “Old Tzadik” Rabbi Aryeh-Leib, the brother of Rabbi Moshe from Sovran and the son-in-law of the Maggid Nahum from Chernobyl, Ukraine.

How did the Old Rabbi, the father of the dynasty, arrive in Bendery?

There are two versions of the answer. One says that the Old Rabbi was sent to Bendery by order of the Rabbi of Sovran. The second proclaims that he was brought by a wealthy Jew who found him in a small town in Podolia during his travels. Either way, he was the seedling that grew and produced magnificent fruit for our town.

Rabbi Shloimke was much like his father, Rabbi Yitzhakl. He was a charming and impressive personality who was respected by Jews and Christians alike. His blue eyes projected the beauty of the Torah. His presence proclaimed tradition and lore of past generations. He stood out among other rabbis in Bessarabia by the fact that he merged the present with the scholarship he inherited from his parents. He saw our future in the building of Zion as our homeland.

 

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The Dove – A Literary – Talmudic Periodical
Edited by Yehuda-Leib Hacohen Fishman
Published by The Union of Distributors of Talmud under the supervision of Shimon Shlomo Wertheim

 

After the Kishinev pogrom he traveled to Paris to negotiate with Baron de Hirsch the settlement of agricultural families from Bessarabia in Eretz Israel. Even Max Nordau was enthralled by the Late Rabbi Shloimke. In 1907 Rabbi Shlomo Wertheim, together with Rabbi Y.L. Fishman from Ongany, published a religious Zionist periodical called “The Dove”. They were both leaders in Mizrahi.

Rabbi Shloimke steeped his children in Zionism. His eldest son was much like his father both externally and internally. He was invited to serve as chief Rabbi in many communities in Russia and in Poland. Even before Mizrahi was founded he formed an association of religious Zionists. Later in his life he made Aliyah, and was buried in Jerusalem after his death.

In 1914, at the start of World War I, the late Rabbi Wertheim arrived in Eretz Israel via Turkey. His letters, read aloud to a small group of followers, were full of love for the country and sadness for those who lived in exile.

The Rabbi's family was the pride of our town. Each member was a jewel and had an important part in building our people and our land. Except for three of his children- David, Haya and Srulke- all made Aliyah. They continued their activities in building the land in various arenas. The three who did not go were always in contact with Eretz Israel and with Zionism. They contributed to the Zionist movement.

I remember the honor and respect given to the Jews of Bendery due to the stature of the Rabbi. He was chosen by the Tsarist authorities to be president of the electoral committee for the eighth Duma (legislature) in Bessarabia.

The “lions” of the group were the judges who poured water on the Rabbi's hands. Pinhas Dayan was a patrician Jew and a Torah scholar. Parents who wanted their sons to learn Torah would send them to him. Even Rabbi Wertheim sent his son Srulik to study with him.

Avraham (Avremel son of Yehiel and Brucha) was an honest and simple man. He never stopped learning Torah and Gmara and was also the mohel in town.

The ritual slaughterers were similar. Foremost was Leib Brodsky. He was a tall, handsome man and a scholar. He wrote a book about the connection between Adam and the present. He was also an expert in Astronomy. It was said that he knew all the sayings of the sages about Zion by heart. He was followed by Zeidl Yotam. He was a bright and honourable man, helpful and knowledgeable.

Next was Leib Hunis Chaplik- a religious man. He was highly intelligent and a good judge. In addition to ritual slaughtering, he was also a cantor. His voice was pleasant and he wrote and published a book called “Light unto the Jews”.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Berdichevsky was absent-minded and a dreamer, but honest and straight-forward.

Last, but not least, was Moshe Sverdik (he changed his name to Sever in Eretz Israel). His nickname was Rav Moshele. He was charming and respected. We can say he was a scholar, deep-thinker, G-d fearing and kind. In addition to dealing with Torah matters (he was known to be a Mishna expert), he was also involved in charitable affairs. Even prior to the founding of the Jewish bank in town, he made certain there were funds available for the poor and for dowries. He was also an active and energetic man and was involved in every institution meant to help the “little man”.

Over the years he collected sayings of the sages. They were published in three volumes by the Rav Kook Institute ((to be discussed further in the book). He was a Zionist, made Aliyah and settled in Zichron Yaakov. His late father had made Aliyah years earlier and lived there. His father was also well-versed in Torah. An intelligent and dignified man, he served as the Rabbi of the settlement. Many people would ask for his counsel and sought his guidance.

These were our ritual slaughterers. They were scholars and community leaders in addition to their professional duties.

Fathers paved the way for their sons. Mordehai Sever, the son of Moshe Sever, was talented in many fields: painting, music and poetry. He was an excellent translator of poetry from Yiddish and Russian. In Eretz Israel he worked in several fields. He began by working on the railroad and then he was employed in the office of the Hadassah Hospital in Safed. He was also a correspondent for “Al Hamishmar” (On guard). He now edits biographies of personalities active in the labor movement on behalf of the Central Committee of the Histadrut.

 

The Jews of Bendery

Bendery and its residents were different from other Jews in Bessarabia. In order to understand this statement it is necessary to stress the great difference between the Jews of Northern and Southern Bessarabia. Their culture and customs were influenced by their ethnic surroundings and forged their separate images.

 

Influence of Odessa and Wallachia

It is well-known that Bessarabia lay between the Prut River and the Dniester River. The Jews of Northern Bessarabia, on the banks of the Prut, absorbed the culture and character of the Jews of Romania and Wallachia. Their speech and language had a different intonation- the “R” and “A” were sharper in Yiddish. The Southern Jews in Bendery and Ackermann pronounced them more softly.

The Jews of Bendery did not resemble the simple, natural and hard-working Jew of Bessarabia. In contrast to Jews from other villages in Bessarabia, the Jews of Bendery craved an urban existence. They wanted to be like the Jews of Odessa, which was not far away. Bendery was situated on the banks of the Dniester, facing north towards the District of Kherson with Odessa as its main city. As well, the people of Bendery were different. As a result, the town was nourished by two cultures- Russian and the mysticism of Wallachia. Odessa, where the best intelligentsia, Russian culture and the arts were concentrated, influenced Bendery to a great extent. However, Bendery was also influenced by Wallachia. There were there many Hassidim and scholars (even Russian ones) as well as groups of activists in all movements and trends which existed in that time in Russia.

Not all the residents of Bendery had been born there. Our ancestors came to settle from many parts of the Russian Empire. They came mostly from Ukraine, but also from Lithuania, Poland and Russia.

 

A Tale About a Store Open on Shabbat

In spite of different origins the Jews of Bendery lived in peace and harmony among themselves. I do not recall any sectarian controversies except, perhaps, one. It occurred when Kaiser, owner of a book and stationery store on Haruzina corner Alexandrova, broke the tradition which had existed for many generations. He was the first who dared to open his store on Shabbat. I do not know if he did it to “anger” or because the authorities demanded that at least one stationery store stay open on Shabbat. (The Russian girls' high school, the science high school and all other schools held classes on Shabbat). The teachers and students complained that when they needed textbooks and writing utensils on Shabbat they could not obtain them. The trade was only operated by Jews and therefore there was a demand to open such a store on Shabbat. The controversy was huge and the town was buzzing. “Have you ever heard such a thing? To dare open a store in Bendery on Shabbat!” Although it was a mixed town- Jews and Christians- on Shabbat it was a typical Jewish town. The marketplace was empty even of non-Jews. All the stores were closed and the Jews hurried to their synagogues. The town was dressed for Shabbat. “Here comes this evil man – a brother to Dotan and Aviram – and he desecrates the holy day.” The town erupted. Avigdor Shreibman, old man Hatzkelevitch and my late grandfather were the leaders. These observant Jews made a lot of noise and delayed the Reading of the Torah on Shabbat. They railed even against Rabbi Shloimke who never argued on Shabbat. Slowly, the storm subsided. This was the first controversy.

 

Election of the Official Rabbi

The second controversy- as I recall- was about the election of the official Rabbi. The position had been occupied for many years by Mr. Kolpekoshi – an educated and noble Jew from a respected family and well-loved by the town scholars. He was himself a Jewish scholar as well and was full of love for his people. The year the election was to be held, by law, for the position, a new candidate appeared. He was a poor Jewish student, Efraim Darbrimediker, a scion of the family of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak from Berdichev. Although he was a grandson of respected rabbis he could not be compared to Kolpekoshi. The town was divided into two camps: the intellectuals on the side of Kolpekoshi and ordinary folk led by Zalman, the chimney sweep, on the side of Darbrimediker. It must be said that the fact that Zalman was a chimney sweep did not prevent him from being involved in community issues. Never quiet, he would scream and curse. He was even capable of attacking the person reading the Torah on Shabbat by announcing his opinions. Issues could be the community or the Korovka*, or elections of committees and their chairmen. He was involved in everything. He was simple and crude and even rumoured to be a denouncer to the authorities. He was feared because no one wanted to be the subject of his rude attacks and they often gave in. He held the Jewish community hostage. It seems like a paradox that the poor and the craftsmen supported him. When the election came Zalman found a cause and made a great deal of noise. In a loud voice he forced the choice of Darbrimediker as the official rabbi. The townspeople were quite ashamed. Zalman the chimney sweep was assisted by Bondarov who came from a good and well-respected family

 

Era of Hassidism in our Town

The Rizhiner Dynasty

This was a period of great Hassidism in sections of the Jewry of Eastern Europe. Bendery was also involved in the movement. Hassidism in Bendery was influenced by rabbis from Wallachia and Moldova, in particular the Rizhiner dynasty. It was multi-branched. Rabbi Itzik'l, the father of Rabbi Shloimke, was the leading follower and did not allow other Hassidic sects to come. At one time, no leader of any other sect was able to visit – as long as he lived in town. He considered himself to be the continuity of the Baal Shem Tov and therefore only he could be the leader. In spite of that he did not leave behind any followers.

On the other hand, the Hassidim of Bendery had great respect for Rabbi Israel from Rizhin and his sons. They had great influence on their followers in Bendery who were very different from Hassidim in Podolia, Volyn and Poland. They followed the customs of the Rizhin court by wearing clean clothes, being well-groomed and being more restrained than Hassidim in other parts of Eastern Europe. This was evident mainly in the influence of Rabbi Israel the Rizhiner and his sons. They did not look like other Hassidim and there was certain nobility about them. They were generous and carried themselves in an imposing manner. The father of this dynasty settled his sons in many parts of Ukraine, Romania and Wallachia. They were in the towns of Pashkan, Bahush and Ajuta on one side and Sadigura on the other. They built their center in Bendery. We must add that in addition to the Rizhiner Hassidim there were also some Lubavitch and other groups such as Talne, Elsky and Karlin. However, they were few in number and did not stand out.

The Pashkan Hassidim included Yossel Shaposnick and Haim Immes. His father, Velvel, was one of the wealthy and great men of Bendery. It is interesting to note that Haim's two step-brothers, Manny and Yasha Immes, as they were called, were most supportive of their father's Hassidism. They were not followers themselves and were considered to be aristocrats. The Rabbis were regular visitors in Bendery. Each time they came to town they would be received in public with pomp and circumstance. They usually stayed at the home of Yossel Shaposnick, a highly-religious man. He was wealthy and had a welcoming, spacious home. He built his own synagogue with a mikve and a bath house. He was charitable and had great influence in town.

 

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Shmuel- Abba Sudit

 

Other important Hassidim worth mentioning for their influence in the community were also Rizhiners. Shmuel-Abba Sudit, “the lion”, was beloved and well-liked for his intellect and intelligent comportment with all people. His sayings were famous among the Jews of Bendery. He was a scholar and gave wise counsel. He never missed an opportunity to do a good deed and would overcome any obstacle to do it. His nobility affected his surroundings. Sudit was an enthusiastic follower of the Rebbe from Pashkan and was their representative in town. He respected everyone without exception, even if it was a secular person he did not like or agree with. In spite of being a Hassid and religious, he did not disqualify the assimilated. He loved to argue with them and they loved to argue with him. They always parted on good terms. As a religious man he would not shake a woman's hand, but if there women who did not know the custom he would say “I believe what you tell me.”

Another important Hassid was Levi Hochberg (Levi the Bricklayer as he was called because he owned a brick factory). He too was religious and well-liked by people. For many years he served as the collector of Meir Baal Haness charity boxes and he also transferred the money to Eretz Israel. He made Aliyah with his two sons. He died and was buried in Eretz Israel, as per his instructions.

There were also Israel Chulak and his sons- enthusiastic followers and Buya Abramovitch. It was said of him that he represented Torah and greatness. He was wealthy and donated to all causes. Haim Volovetz was a religious man and a kind one and was viewed by the town leaders as honest and affable. These were the people closest to the Rabbi.

 

Lubavitch Hassidim

In addition to those already mentioned there were other Hassidim- followers of Lubavitch. The leader was Shebt'l Berman. He was a scholar and a strong personality. He was chosen often to the religious committee as the representative of the Ultra-Orthodox. He ruled the committee.

Among the Lubavitch, Aaron-Moshe Shneirson stood out. He was a scion of the Shneirson family of Rabbi Shneyer Zalman Shneirson from Liadi. Well-known for his kindness and scholarship, Aaron-Moshe Shneirson was considered, in our town, to be a deep thinker and a Torah student. He studied day and night. His sayings were like pearls and were spread in town as soon as he uttered them. I recall that once he was studying Gmara with Yossel, the Rabbi's son, in the synagogue. Suddenly, Aaron-Moshe stood up near the window between Mincha and Maariv and he saw a local drunk sprawled on the sidewalk. He turned to Yossel and said: “My friend, do you see this man? He is more decent than us!” “How?” asked Yossel. Aaron-Moshe replied: “This man follows in his father's footsteps. Are we also following in the footsteps of our fathers?”

Although he was a religious Jew he did not prevent his sons and daughters from studying secular subjects. He allowed them to obtain an excellent education. One of his daughters became a professor in a Russian university. His daughter, Bluma, lives in Eretz Israel and was one of the first kindergarten teachers in the Tarbut schools. She spoke Hebrew even then and educated Jewish children in a Zionist atmosphere. She was highly sought in Bessarabia as a director of Tarbut kindergartens. One son changed his family name to Yoeli and was a journalist with Davar.

 

Moishele Landman

The respected Moishele Landman arrived in Bendery from Poland in 1908/09. I do not recall his origins, but as soon as he arrived in town he settled and followed the customs of the Hassidim. He received donations and requests for blessings and was surrounded by followers who were ordinary craftsmen. These were Jews who barely eked out a living and performed hard physical labor. Moishele was their backbone and he revived their spirits. They were careful in following the commandments and listened to him when he taught the portion of the week.

He was pleasant, calm and was able to influence and lead his followers. He walked on the street with his head down. It seems he did not want to accidentally look at a woman. When he went to the ritual bath his secretary, Mordehai, followed behind him. They never walked side by side. One cannot imagine the singing and dancing around this rabbi's table on Shabbat during Seudah Shlishit, on holidays or on the New Month.

It was a special celebration. The faces of his followers would shine as if they had entered a wonderful world without any pain or worry.

The leader of the Hassidim was Mordehai Eli Cohen (brother-in-law of David Gurfel). (He was nicknamed Mordehai Eli the Blind One). He eked out an existence and lived in dire straits, but he was always content and served G-d happily. No one could compare to him when he was with his Rabbi. He was one of his closest followers.

After the war, Moishele arrived in Israel with other survivors. He settled in Jaffa and was surrounded by simple followers. They had come to Israel from Romania, some even from Bendery. In Jaffa he opened a small synagogue and followed the customs of the Hassidim. He died and was buried in Eretz Israel as any religious person would wish. He was survived by a son who worked for the government and by a married daughter.

 


*Korovka was a special tax levied by the Jewish community on Kashrut. The money was used to help the poor and for religious purposes. Return

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