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[Page 36]

8. Mordechai ben Yehezkiel

The city changed after the fire. Many new houses were built, and the only houses left belonged to the poor, who could not afford to build themselves houses. The kloyz and R' Bezalel's beis midrash had not yet been rebuilt either, and their congregants prayed in the other beis midrash – the one that had not burned down. It was the “ urban” beis midrash, or, as it was called then, “ the Greeks” (because the congregants were “ Misnagdim”, and therefore the Chassidim called them “ Greeks”). One of the outcomes of the fire was that fewer young men learned Torah and only the lucky few still sat and learned in the beis midrash. It was at this time that a thin redheaded boy made the corner of the beis midrash his permanent place. R' Simcha OBM [of blessed memory] said that he was destined to be a Torah genius. He would sit in this spot and learn from morning until late at night. His name was Motik (Mordechai) Yehezkiel dem meshenems (this was how R' Yehezkiel was called, after his grandfather who was yellow “ as a kind of brass”…). This Motik was born in our city, Galina, in 1883 to his parents Yehezkiel and Chanche. These two suffered greatly in their childrearing, since many of their children died at a young age.

I knew his father, R' Yehezkiel, and I'd see him coming back from the village with a sack of merchandise over his shoulder. He'd walk to the nearby village of Parnoyov, less than tchum Shabbos (1 kilometer) from our town, and buy a little grain, flax and so on from the farmers. He'd bring the goods over his shoulder to the city to sell it and thus managed to just barely support his family. He was also an expert in cleaning flax to improve it, and worked for his neighbor R' Avraham Rikover in this capacity. I saw him in the beis midrash, standing by the furnace and holding a book. We all respected him, I don't know why; perhaps because he was a learned Jew, or perhaps because he was Chanche's husband, or perhaps because he was his son Motik's father.

R' Yehezkiel passed on in 1902, leaving behind two sons – Motik, who was 19, and Chanoch, who was 12 or 13. I knew their mother Chanche well. She was an expert in children's illnesses, which she surely came to know from the suffering she endured with her own children. She used various cures and folk remedies, and when a child in town was sick Chanche was called to consult. Many mothers would tell how Chanche saved their children from different diseases. To her own son Motik, who was a weak and spoiled child, and nevertheless quite mischievous, she also used a “ folk remedy” to “ protect him from harm”: she dressed him in a suit of natural fibers, the handiwork of farmers, and sewed a small pocket onto his collar into which she put the eyes of a mouse, that were taken out – oh the barbarity of superstitions! – while he was still alive…this garment-vaccine against the “ not good” were Motik's attire ever since he had been a boy in the “ cheder”.

When he was still a little boy his talents were evident, and even the cheder prepared him for the rabbinate – he was taught Gemara, Tosfos [scholarly writings of a sixteenth century Bavarian rabbi], poskim, and so on. He thought no different. When he finished his studies at R' Simcha's cheder, and he was still a little boy, he began learning in the kloyz on his own, among the young men, and was very diligent. When the kloyz burned down in the town fire of 1895, he began learning in the beis midrash. He attracted much attention there, and several talmidei chachomim (Torah scholars) took an interest in him, such as R' Yossele Shochat, among others. His rabbis included Rav Boruch Beskes, the dayan R' Beryl Goldberg (Rochtchess, after his mother), and Rav Asher Zelig Marfeld, R' Abely Shochat's son-in-law.

I first met Motik when he was a boy among boys, who called him Motik Chezkel dem meshenems. Later he was called Motik Halperin, and now Mordechai ben Yehezkiel. This is the name he signed on his first article “ The Essence of Chassidus” in the monthly HaShaluach journal. We met while learning in the urban beis midrash, after the fire of 1895, and would get together often in our apartment, home of Uncle R' Aharon Klotz. After that, we would go off and talk and I'd sometimes ask him to explain some of the harder places in the Gemara. Many predicted he'd be a rabbi. He was about 13 then, and I was about 16 years old. And from that time on, we became friends. Ben Yehezkiel, who was weak by nature, became even weaker and his health waned due to his diligence in Torah studies all day and all night, and people feared he'd gotten tuberculosis, since he spat up blood. Thanks to his friends' efforts, he was sent to a camp in the town of Skulia in the Carpathian Mountains, from where he returned healthy. He also suffered from rheumatism. Once he got typhus and the government doctor put him in quarantine at home, with no one allowed to enter. But I sat at his bedside nonetheless, and I'd wash his body with vinegar and bandage him. Once, when I was there, the government doctor came. I wedged myself into the chimney and stayed there until the doctor left. And so I sat by his bed until he recovered.

At that time ben Yehezkiel met R' Hillel Finnelish, who opened the door to Haskala (Enlightenment) books on loan for reading, science and languages. He would learn languages from dictionaries, and would absorb everything he read. This occurred at the same time that the Herzlian Zionism began to appear in our town, and fewer men learned in the kloyz.

In 1895 a school founded by the Baron Hirsch opened in our city. Some of the teachers who came to teach in this school were graduates of seminars (teacher education schools), and some were academics. Some had doctorates, and some had no degrees, because they could not afford to complete their professional studies. They became teachers in these schools for a limited time. (This was the Curatorium's way of supporting this type of intellectual, affording them the opportunity to later complete their studies, or to specialize in education, and they were required to be tested at a later date to become permanent teachers, or to leave the institution.) Among the teachers in our city's school were two who stood out in their character and influence: the principal Dr. Chaim David Lippe, a doctor of philosophy and a great intellectual (he researched Nietzsche's dogma) and Mr. Meir Balaban, now a professor at the University of Warsaw. The influence these two had on the people of our town, especially the youth, was great. It began with the students at the school and reached the young men of the kloyz. Since they would frequently visit R' Efraim Katz's house, a sort of meeting place for great Torah scholars, and since ben Yehezkiel also frequented this house, he was introduced to them there. Balaban's introduction to ben Yehezkiel was a blessing for both. Each influenced the other – one knew more about the general culture, and the other was a Torah scholar, proficient in all areas of Torah. They learned together for as long as Balaban stayed in our city, and continued their studies even when both moved to Lvov, ben Yehezkiel as a private teacher and Balaban as a secondary school teacher. Balaban told me then that ben Yehezkiel was his teacher and rabbi and that he had taught him Hebrew.

When Dr. Yakov Kurkis and his wife came in 1906, our city gained another cultural house and important intellectual forces. The assistants in his office were also always nationalistic and Zionists, who greatly influenced the development of Zionism. The Kurkis home was an example of a cultural Jewish home, and showed special respect and friendship to ben Yehezkiel. When ben Yehezkiel came to visit their home in Galina, or later in Lvov, he was always their important and favored guest. And while preparing himself to enter the university, Dr. Kurkis was his Humanities teacher, and ben Yehezkiel taught Hebrew to Dr. Kurkis, his wife and his children.

The rise of nationalistic enlightenment at that time among Jewish youth in Galicia brought many of the men learning in the kloyz and in the batei midrash in the small villages to Lvov, primarily for preparatory studies to gain admission to the higher classes in the secondary school, or for matriculation exams for university admission. At that time a committee was established to support autodidactic students. At the head of this committee sat the Caesar's advisor Mr. Yakov Shtrah, Carl Shtand (brother of Adolf Shtand OBM, leader of the Galician Zionists), and others. This committee gave support to those students in the form of tickets for lunch at the local soup kitchen, or for small monthly stipends. They would also loan them books for their studies. Sometimes they would also ask the teachers giving the tests to be lenient with these secondary school applicants

At the behest of his friend Mr. Dov Melman, ben Yehezkiel rode to Lvov in 1897 to prepare himself for secondary school. To receive support from this committee, one of the applicant's acquaintances had to lobby a member of the committee and testify that this is a talented young man, and worthy of support. Since ben Yehezkiel did not yet know anyone in Lvov who could do this for him, and was not skilled in lobbying for himself, his money ran out and in three weeks he returned to our city. He devoted himself once again to his Hebrew and general studies, primarily in Hebrew education. And for all his learning from intellectual and linguistic books, he never stopped learning Gemara and Tosfos daily. In addition, he would study ancient and new books of mussar and chassidus, and extracted “ sparks of holiness” from them, writing everything he found.

And there was an incident in 1902 in which Mrs. Chaya Katz, wife of R' Efraim Katz OBM, who was at the Ivanovich bathhouse, received a letter from ben Yehezkiel, and R' Eliezer Meir Lifschitz from the city of Lvov was staying there at that time as well. The letter got to his hands as well, and he could tell from reading it that it had been written by someone very talented. R' Eliezer Meir told Mrs. Katz that ben Yehezkiel would do well to return to Lvov, and he will surely find a source of income. So ben Yehezkiel rode to Lvov once again with two goals in mind: to earn a living and to study. But he was once again unsuccessful, because the few lessons he managed to find in Lvov were not sufficient for his living expenses, and he could not attain his goals. After six months of great effort, he was forced to once again leave Lvov, and he returned to our city. During his time in Lvov, he visited the large community library and read many books. He also bought books, books of chassidus and others that could not be found in our city. And so he sat in a small room in his mother's home, studying and researching, collecting and compiling, processing literary material, and he grew and developed. After three years, in 1905, he once again headed for Lvov, but this time with more force and strength, armed with the wisdom of Torah and with general knowledge. This time, he found ample opportunity for work in Lvov. A group of friends who had also developed during this time, such as R' Eliezer Meir Lifschitz, Mr. Asher Brash, Mr. Chanoch Yalon (then Distenfeld), Mrs. Devorah Shpinner, now Radler-Feldman, Mr. Raphael Soferman and the educator Yitzchak Schwartz OBM, all worked in the field of education. In light of the nationalistic movement, people in Lvov had formed groups for the purpose of learning Hebrew language and literature, and the abovementioned people taught these courses. Some also taught Hebrew and Jewish knowledge in private houses. Ben Yehezkiel was one of these teachers, and earned a comfortable living. He now felt he had found his place, like a fish in fresh water. This aforementioned circle of friends widened greatly to include Dr. Avraham Kurkis and Shlomo Schiller OBM, among others. These two formed the center of all the forces actively developing Hebrew culture and working for the Land of Israel. The war that had broken out between Russia and Japan brought a flow of refugees to Galicia, as well as intellectual youth, teachers and authors, including Moshe Kleinman, G. Shopman, Y.H. Brenner and others. These were the days the Hebrew language flourished in Lvov. With the help of the Yiddish daily newspaper “ Togblatt” published by the Galician Zionist Union in Lvov and edited by Moshe Kleinman, (from 1904 until he left Galicia and returned to Russia in 1908), the influence of Hebrew Zionism spread to all corners of Galicia. Hebrew day schools for children and courses for adults were founded in many cities, along with “ Clear Language” (“Safa Berura”) societies licensed by the government, and a society for Hebrew day schools, which took on the task of sending teachers to schools all over the country. Lvov then became a center for Hebrew culture in Galicia.

Ben Yehezkiel's indecision about completing his secondary school education greatly disappointed him, but he did not despair, and tried several more time without success. During this entire time he did not abandon the old and new Hebrew literature for a moment, and with the power of Torah alone paved his way through life.

Ben Yehezkiel greatly influenced his surroundings: his friends and all those with whom he came into contact treated him with respect and courtesy as befits a Torah scholar and a modern intellectual combined into one. In his lecture in the National House in Galina as in a casual conversation at a friend's party, ideas would spring forth from him as if from a bubbling brook, and his glowing comments to current issues would express his sharp and rational mind and his feelings of deep responsibility for every word he spoke.

During the time (1905-7) ben Yehezkiel spent in Lvov, he adapted and arranged the literary material from the lists he had made during his time learning chassidus and so on. He completed two very important works, one a study titled “ The Essence of Chassidus” that appeared in four parts in HaShaluach volumes 17, 20, 22 and 25, and the second a large book “ The Life of the Rebbe R' Elimelech of Lizensk”. During the fire that ignited when the Russian army invaded in 1914, all of his books and most of his writings were burned, including this book.

I remember the day I received the journal HaShaluach, the third booklet of volume 17, in the year 5667-8, and in it ben Yehezkiel's article. This was considered a major event in our city, and a large dinner was made in its honor in the National House in our city. Many of ben Yehezkiel's friends participated in this dinner, and his aging mother sat at the head of the table. It was also the going away party for his brother Henich (Chanoch) who was leaving for the Land of Israel that week as a craftsman. Chanoch was the first bird to fly out of our city's coop to the Land of Israel (in 1908). He was an expert tailor, but the conditions in the Land were difficult for him, and he returned to our city in 1909. This brother of ben Yehezkiel was an active Zionist even in his youth, and was one of the founders of the “ Poalei Zion” (Workers of Zion) society in our city a few years before he left for the Land of Israel, and was its president for several years. His friend Archie (Aharon) Mandel, son of R' Yuzip, also participated. Their parents, R' Yehezkiel and R' Yuzip, were also friends. I recall one Purim the charity collectors went around collecting money for the different town charities, and R' Yehezkiel and R' Yuzip were among them. He was also a talented writer and wrote in Yiddish in the “ Der Yiddisher Arbeiter” newspaper published in Lvov. In 5671 or 5672 [1911 or 1912] he went to America, there he lives with his family to this day, working as a tailor and is publicly active within the community of his landsmen. In 1909 ben Yehezkiel left Lvov for the city of Bern, Switzerland, where he studied at the university until 1911, then returned to Lvov to teach Hebrew lessons. In 1913 he was the delegate from our city to the eleventh Zionist Congress in Vienna. In 1914 I met him in Vienna where he studied at the university and taught private Hebrew lessons. After the assassination of the heir Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, when preparations for war commenced, ben Yehezkiel and I returned to our city in July. On August 26th, 1914, the day of panic when the Russians invaded our city, ben Yehezkiel and his mother escaped to Lvov. Two weeks later Lvov was invaded by the Russian army and he returned to our city once again with his mother, and since their house and all they had was burned by the Russian army, which burned most of the houses in our town, he and his mother came to live with me, and stayed until the end of 1915.

Ben Yehezkiel stayed in Galina until the end of the World War, and was busy during this time with acts of public charity: he was a member of the aid committee during the Russian occupation, and even after the Austrian army returned to our city was a member of the orphanage committee and a member of the national committee during the days of the Ukrainian government, along with Rav Meir Shapira OBM and others. On November 1st , [sic] 1918, the World War ended, and a war immediately began in Galicia between the Poles and the Ukrainians, which I describe elsewhere in this book.

On Shabbos, May 24th 1919, the Poles seized the city from the Ukrainians. When the connection to Lvov was re-established, ben Yehezkiel and I went back there. Because of the infamous pogrom the Poles had waged when they invaded Lvov, the Jews of that city were in a very depressed state. The Poles, who suspected the Jews of siding with the Ukrainians, harassed the Jews in every way. Many Zionists were imprisoned and the hatred towards the Jews rose in general. Then came the idea to establish a Jewish secondary school in Lvov, and with the efforts of Zionists and non-Zionists three schools were established simultaneously: a classical school, a practical school and a girls' school, each with 8 classes, and many parallel classes. Ben Yehezkiel became a Hebrew teacher in one of these schools, where he taught until 1920. That year he was invited to come to the Land of Israel, where he became a teacher in a beis midrash for teachers and kindergarten teachers in Tel Aviv, and taught there until the end of 1922. In December of that year he left for Berlin, where he made his living teaching private Hebrew lessons. In Berlin he met Bialik, who treated him with friendliness from that moment on. Bialik made a contract with him named “ Dvir” to have him prepare the “ Sefer haMaasios” (Book of Tales) for the society's publication.

Toward the end of 1924 ben Yehezkiel returned to the Land of Israel and was admitted as a teacher in the “ Mizrachi” teacher's beis midrash in Jerusalem, where he teaches to this day. In 1925 his first book “ Sefer haMaasios” was published by “ Dvir” publications, of which four volumes were published by 1929.

His new method for researching “ haMaasios” has great value for researching the history of their development as well. He examines the nature of the Tales according to their type, source, character, homeland, evolution and logical sequence. He has written more than ten books in this series about “ Sefer haMaasios” that are ready for publication, and authored a whole library on the subject of Jewish folklore.

This trait of excessive modesty, of uncertainty and hesitation, never left him, and for this reason he does not have the skill to organize his affairs like other authors and is satisfied with accumulating more and more material, writing and compiling until the Messiah comes and publishes them. From his great love of Hebrew and its literature he is fond of and admires great Torah scholars, including authors, and those from the Old Yishuv, and spends his days among books and Torah scholars.

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