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[Page 58]

Memories from the
Beginning of the 20th Century

A.Z. Jablok

Translated by Pamela Russ

I was in Byten for fourteen years: from 1900-1914. When I arrived in the town as cantor / ritual slaughterer (khazzan/shokhet) after the holiday of Shavuos in the year 5670 (1910), I was overwhelmed by so many connaisseurs of cantorial music (khazzanus) that were there. They loved khazzanus and all the traditional melodies. This fact will demonstrate how exceptional the town of Byten was about cantors: For two years, cantors would journey to Byten and the connaisseurs would turn up their noses. Even though it was a small town, they would look for a cantor only from the best of the best. I myself went through many a trial until they finally agreed to take me as their cantor.

I remember the people of the town for whom cantorial music was the entire world. Some of these need description: Reb Borukh Breskin, Yisroel Beryl the innkeeper, (Moltchadski), Leymeh the innkeeper, Reb Hershel the Dayan (rabbi and judge), and many others. But if you put a period here as if that's all you remember of Byten, mentioning only those who were musically knowledgeable, that would be wrong.

In those years, Byten was primarily a town of learned people and Torah scholars. The Jewish court consisted of no less than four people: the chief rabbi and three rabbis that were also judges who were Reb Avrom Yakov Bruk (Reb Mordkhe'le's son-in-law, a rare type, who aside from being a rabbi and judge, was also a glazier), Reb Shmuel Breskin and Reb Hershel dayan, and aside from the town's rabbi, Reb Matisyahu, there was also another Rav, from the “other side of the river,” Reb Dovid Shloime the dyer. The town gave great respect to Reb Matisyahu, who was called none other than Reb “Matiske.”

Reb Matiske was a great genius and author of “Matis Yodei” (the hand of Matis). In his time, he was a disciple of Reb Yisroel Salanter (the founder of the “Mussar” movement in Lithuania, a major movement in Orthodox Jewry), and a friend of one of the giants of Minsk. To illustrate Reb Matuske's greatness, [I will say that] he [learned and] tested Reb Khaim Ozer [Grodzinski, a great leader and scholar in Lithuania in the early 1920s] when Reb Khaim Ozer was still a young student. This is the same Khaim Ozer that later became the Rav in Vilna and one of the greatest geniuses in those times.

[Page 59]

Reb Matiske left Byten in the year 1912. He held the rabbinic position for about thirty years.

When his successor, Rav Yitzkhok Ziv took his place, I was still in Byten. It's not really of interest to recount how the new Rav paid Reb Matiske paid $1500 for the rights to the Byten rabbinate.

There were great scholars not only in the more aristocratic circles in Byten, but also amongst the workers and general people. I clearly remember the learned ones: Reb Leyb Hersh Galinski, Reb Shmai Lisowicki, Reb Moshe Shimon Sowicki, Reb Avrom Yakov Ayin (Shayna Rokhel's). Because he (Reb Ziv) didn't understand much about khazzanus, during the time that I would recite the “loud shmoineh esrei” (khazzan's repeated amidah) he would study a page in the Talmud. Once it happened that a page was missing in the Talmud he was learning and he didn't notice it. Understandably, the material on the missing page was not related to what he was learning, but Reb Avrom Yakov corrected the situation with his great cleverness.

Reb Hilke Kas, the town's elder, was a world scholar. Yakov the shamesh (Zakin) was a great teacher and writer of petitions. He also knew how to repeat a page of the Talmud. Amongst the business people who worked for the community and the people who were consulted for advice, I remember: Yoshe Rabinowicz, Reb Leyb Hersh Galinski, and Meyer the tailor (Nozhnicki), who was also involved in the town's administration. Among the wealthier families was the prominent family of Reb Shimon Garfinkel. He himself was a Torah scholar and had very accomplished children. His daughter Reshke was a medical doctor and one of the leaders of the socialist movement in the town; and his son Moishe was a well-known lawyer in Kiev.

When I recall the youth of Byten during the ten years prior to World War One, I see before my eyes, as is understood, the youth of the labor movement from 1904 and 1905. I also see the Zionists, the nationalistic youth. Amongst them were many Hebraists who would speak Hebrew amongst themselves. The Hebraist movement was thanks to the teacher Shepsel Gorodecki and Nuske Kuleshevski who raised a generation in Byten in the spirit of our holy language.

The youth in Byten was interested in literature and art, and as unbelievable as it may seem, it is a fact that even then, more than 40 years ago, there were amateur theater performers in Byten. Mostly it was historical pieces that were performed from Goldfaden's repertoire. (Goldfaden – in Romania – was the father of modern Jewish theater, late 1800s-early 1900s.) I remember this chapter very well because the group of actors had to study the music, so they …

[Page 60]

… enlisted me to teach them several songs. I remember Meyer Leymus among the actors, he was the Talmud teacher, and Risha Mendeles, she was the bagel baker.

I left Byten with great difficulty in the year 1914, shortly before the war. I lived well in the town, and I liked the people there. It became my second home. But other things were fated for me, and I left for America. And since then, much of life has passed.
All these Jewish settlements run through my memories, seeing how I live in this new world and work for the community – but Byten lives in me as if it were yesterday.

Byten remains bound to me with the most precious memories.

 

  Reverend Asher Zev Yablok, cantor (shliach tzibur) and ritual slaughterer (shochet u'bodek)
Columbus, Ohio

 

The road to the “bridges”
On the right, the house of Naomi Zeidel (Wisniacki)

 

[Page 77]

A Rabbi, A Glazier

A. Litvin

Translated by Pamela Russ

Avrohom Yakob Bruk was born in the year 1850. He was the son-in-law of the well known Reb Mordkhele. Though he was on of the greatest scholars in that area, he declined to become the Rav and managed to earn a living from various types of jobs. He was one of the delegates from the Grodno territories to the first founding Zionist Congress. He was held in great esteem by many circles. In 1905, when the police commissioner asked him for the names of the all those who belonged to the local Bundists (Socialists), he replied that every person has a right to his belief in his own mission. He died in the year 1913.

In the small, downtrodden towns in Russia, there remains until today, only here and there, the type of Rav of former times, with a pure, refined stature. Iím not referring to the Rav that is wrapped up in his religious books, keeps his eyes down to the grounds, does not go out of the study hall, and does not know about financial issues. I am referring to the Rav who knows about this world, who - together with these ancient religious books - knows about and feels the spirit of the new world, is familiar with the challenges of his time, is interested in the issues of life around him, and for himself is a true shepherd for his flock.

It was this type of Rav that I found on my travels to Byten - a Lithuanian town in the division (uezd) of Slonim, in the province (gubernia) of Grodno.

The hero of my story is Avrohom Yakov Bruk. He is, as they called him, a great “Talmudist”, recognized by many rabbis as one of the best Poskim (a legal scholar who decides legal issues according to the Jewish law - halakha). The majority of people from the towns come to him with their issues. But in the town itself he is only a judge and earns only three rubles a week salary. For a long time, Bruk was not interested in becoming a Rav. He worked in many jobs, not wanting to make his Torah

[Page 78]

… into a tool that would play the role of something holy that is used to make a living. His idealism was even less appropriate to the position of merchant than to the position of rabbi. Eventually, he was forced into finding a rabbinic position.

But this was also difficult for him to find. Bruk had one drawback about him, one thing that the greatest rabbinic authorities were never able to forgive. Do you think, heaven forbid, that he wasn't religious? That he was a heretic? God forbid! That much, even his embittered opposition was unable to say. Bruk is very religious, still sitting and studying the old, holy books. But in addition to the books of the Talmud on Jewish law (Yoreh Deah) and on judgment (Choshen Mishpat) and all the commentaries, Bruk also treasured Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevikhim) and the Kuzari, the small religious, philosophical book by Yehuda Halevi. These two works were clear to him and he knew them by heart. If Bruk had any fanaticism in him, it was only his fanatic love for these two enlightened spirits from the times of medieval Judaism.

And even this, maybe the rabbis would have forgiven. But he had one more “sin” - his great love for Herzl, the dead leader of Zionism. And this, the official representatives of the Jewish faith under no circumstances were able to forgive.

Bruk is a Zionist - was. His Zionism disappeared as a beautiful but unattainable fantasy, for him and for thousands of other former fervent Zionists. But the love for Herzl survived Zionism. And with the death of the Zionist leader, his love for him and the great attention to his personality were strengthened, even though he himself was now a Territorialist. (This was a Jewish political movement calling for the creation of a sufficiently large and compact Jewish territory, not necessarily in Israel and not necessarily fully autonomous.)

His deifying of Herzl originates from a deeper and greater love, his love for the Jewish nation. Bruk believed in Herzl, and still believes in him to this very day as if in a redeemer of the Jewish nation. He believes that only Herzl was capable of this, and that he had almost a godly calling, to gather the dry bones from the scattered, far flung Jewish nation. He is upset at the leaders of the Russian Zionists, because according to his view, it was Russian plots that shortened Herzl's life. And Herzl's death, as he believes, was a third destruction for the Jewish people (following the destruction of both Temples).

Bruk was not a theoretical Zionist. He took a consistent part in the movement. His house was always the meeting place for the Zionist youth. Without him there was no activity in his town.

However, for Bruk, the love of his people was stronger than his love for Zionism. The future of the nation - was more important than the past. And so, he easily went from being a Zionist to being a Territorialist. His great admiration for Herzl was carried over to …

[Page 79]

… (Israel) Zangwill (1864-1926, writer, political activist, leader of Territorialist movement) and he loves Max Nordau (1849-1923, co-founder of World Zionist Organization, alongside Herzl) no less. According to Bruk's view, Nordau is the greatest person of the Jewish nation in today's times.

In the early days of the Russian Revolution, Rav Bruk took a careful look at what was going on around him. Not looking at his Zionism or Territorialism, his heart was really with the youth, and with time, he openly said: “From them, from the youth, will come the salvation.”

Physically, Rav Bruk is completely broken. And still, his house remains the center for those who are choosing to wander [to other places and ideologies]. He is the founder of Y.I.K.A. (a community fund to help low earners) in the town. For him, the door never closes to immigrants who come for advice.

This is the Rav Bruk as the community worker. But he is even more interesting as an individual. He is of the type that among the Jews he is called a “mushlem” (a universal man).

It was naturally impossible to live on three rubles a week. He was not embarrassed to have to take on work. So, he became a glazier.

He buys some glass, and some Jews, farmers from the town, and some from surrounding areas come to him. They bring a frame, and he puts in a pane of glass.

The farmers are very respectful of the “Rabbin” (Rabbi). Priests also come to see him very often, and they enjoy having disputes (discussions) with him. He cuts the glass and fits it in with putty - and maybe has a few more rubles that week. At one time he had an additional means of livelihood - he would make raisin wine, and would also have a few more rubles. And that's the way, in whichever means, he had his existence, and even managed to save a few rubles and pay for the place with the house in which he lived. He planted a garden around the house.

He built the house and planted the garden by himself, each tree with his own hands. A cellar - he put in himself. He does all the household work himself. In the summertime, he builds a post (stand) in the garden, and studies there in the fresh air.

I spent a lot of time in the home of the Byten rabbi - glazier, with his lean, handsome presence, deep black eyes in which even now there burns a youthful fire. With his naïve spirit, and at the same time, practical outlook on life, he makes a strong impression, and it is very pleasurable to spend time with him.

The difficult asthma, that doesn't leave him for a minute, and his bitter struggle all his life with hardships, he feels the soul's pain, and surely feels it among the wealthier, fanatic surroundings that have sapped his energy and love of life, but did not murder his social ideals.

(from the fourth edition of A. Litvin's “Yiddishe Neshomos” [Jewish Souls], Volume 2, Lithuania, New York 1916)

 

[Page 80]

Reb Leibele the Ritual Slaughterer (Shokhet), of blessed memory

Yitzkhok-Aron Hurwicz
(Kfar Saba, Israel)

Translated by Pamela Russ

Before my eyes is the shining face of my father Reb Leibe the ritual slaughterer, of blessed memory. Words fail me for describing his spiritually rich personality. He was a Jew with a large soul. His heart and his home were always open to everyone who needed help or friendship.

In his younger years, he was already outstanding in his capacities, sharpness, and kind-heartedness, an absolute genius. And to his great fortune, he also had great rabbinic teachers. In Torah studies, he was a student of the then famous genius, Rebbi Eliezer from Minsk, the “Minsker giant.” In the study of khassidus, he was a disciple of the first rebbes of Slonim - of the great leader and rabbi, Rav Avrohom, of blessed memory, author of Yesod HaAvodah, and the great leader and rabbi, Rebbe Shmuel, of blessed memory.

He was married at a young age, and according to the bidding of the elder Slonimer Rebbe, he became the shokhet of Byten.

This young scholar experienced a real spiritual crisis in those times. In his thoughts, the responsibilities of the shokhet were too great and too holy. And in his humility, he felt he wasn't worthy for the job. But the Slonimer Rebbe's order was brief and sharp: “Want or not want, you must!” And as a disciplined soldier, he followed the Rebbe's orders, and took to serving his Creator and serving his people.

For a long life, over fifty years, he served the Jewish population of Byten as a shokhet, a person who leads the prayers, a community supporter, and a compassionate father and friend to everyone. All his life, he was loved and respected by all, both the religious and secular people. Whoever needed help, a favor, advice, or simply warmth and compassion, made his way there and filled up from his overflowing goodness and kindness.

[Page 81]

There's so much to tell about my father, but I will only focus on a few characteristic facts and episodes.

I remember: Once, the Rav, Rebbe Avrohom-Yakov Bruk had to marry off his daughter. The great tzaddik, Reb Mordkhe Oshmener, the Slonimer Rav, was to come to the wedding. The entire town went to greet him and his entourage outside of the town, at the Meremin Mountain. When the wagon arrived, the most dignified and wealthy people unharnessed the horses and harnessed themselves instead. Then, Reb Mordkhele got off the wagon and said that he would not take on this honor himself, but he would only go if Reb Leibe the shokhet would sit at his side. My father began to tremble. He held his position, but it didn't help him. They forcefully sat him up on the wagon and together with Reb Mordkhele they were both led into the town of Byten with great reverence.

Many years passed, and times changed. Many things changed, but the love and care for my father did not change. Once, in the year 1905, when the local workers and the youth was caught up in the storm of the revolution in Russia, they organized a demonstration against the Czarist regime on a Friday night. The group went with transports and red flags in hand, cigarettes in their mouths, and shouted: “Down with the Czar!” Suddenly, my father met them head on. From all sides, there were voices heard suddenly: “People, throw away your cigarettes. Reb Leibe the shokhet is here!”

His love of Jews was tremendous and Jewish earned money was dear to him. I remember: Once, before Passover, my father and Reb Matisyahu (Reb Matuske) went out to collect money for maos khitim (funds to help the poor get food - particularly matzo - for Passover). A religious question came up about a big ox that had been slaughtered and a Jewish butcher was faced with great losses. Meanwhile, several men from the town's committee gathered in his house. These men included: for example, Avrohom-Yakov Ayin, Shimon Garfinkel, Cizling, etc. When my father returned from the maos khitim campaign, he went into the Rebbe's house. Cizling called out: “Here comes Reb Leibe the shokhet, our Gruzenberg!” (This was in the time of the Beilis trial. [Beilis was a Ukrainian Jew accused of ritual murder, or blood libel, in a notorious 1913 trial, known as the “Beilis affair,” and Oskar Gruzenberg was one of Beilis' lawyers.] And that's how it was. My father got involved in the matter, researched and studied the religious books, until he found some positive resolution.

He was tied up with Byten, body and soul, and wanted to hear of nothing else, even if it was bigger and better. Two of his daughters lived in Baronowicz (his sons-in-law were from Byten, the teacher and Beryl Brisker) which he would visit annually on the Shabbos after Shavous, when the Slonimer Rebbe was in Baronowicz as well.

[Page 82]

Once, his visit coincided with the death of the khassidic shokhet Reb Moyshe, of blessed memory, in Baronowicz. The local wealthier people approached him to take over the position of shokhet in Baronowicz, but he declined.

When his children asked him why he put off such a “position,” he replied: “Byten is my home, and what is lacking for me there?”

He passed away in an old age. All his life he was steeped in a deeply religious, responsible feeling. He perceived ritual slaughter as a holy service, a service to God, and not God forbid merely as a means of earning a livelihood or support. And because of that, he didn't want any one of his children to follow in his footsteps as a shokhet.

 

Rebbe Avrohom Zushe Kushnirowski
One of the outstanding Talmud (Gemara) teachers in Byten.
He raised many generations of Jewish children.
He was the embodiment of Torah and good deeds.

 

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