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[Page 629]

The Brothers Zsupnik

By R. M.

Translated by Renee Miller

The two brothers Aron and Ber Zsupnik lived in their own houses in the city, on the south side of the market, on the tail end of Altsandzer Street. Both were the “ornaments” of Sandz, surrounded with love and attention, thanks to their extraordinary erudition, either for lomdes [scholarship] or for worldly knowledge. They came to Sandz from Middle Galicia, from the city Zaborów. Their outward appearance, in the oval of their face, or in their gait – they would walk slowly, sunk in thought, - created in the city the predominant sense of their qualities of learning and as thinkers. But in truth, there was a great difference both in the spiritual level of both brothers, and in their characters.

R' Ber Zsupnik, shorter in height than his older brother, had dark eyes and in the grayness of his head, and in his cut (but not shaved) beard, black hair was interspersed. His gait, his careless attire and the movement of his feet made him seem like a botlen [idler] – and that assumption was not misleading. One of his most characteristic traits was his otherworldly absentmindedness and astonishing naivety in practical everyday life. In the city they used to tell about the time when R' Zsupnik opened his shop with men's ready-made clothes and when, in the first few days not one customer came in, he came up with a reproach, saying to his friend: “ Avade [of course], if you open a food shop, there would be customers. Everyone has to eat, but a shop with trousers, who needs it! Did you ever see a man on the street without pants?”

Image:
Baruch Zsupnik

The goodness and courtesy of Ber Zsupnik was expressed in his warm, friendly attitude toward people. He needed to schmooze [chat], to share his philosophical thoughts and ideas, and so he was happy when he happened upon a person who listened and understood him.

[Page 630]

On the question of why he went every evening to pray minhah-mayrev [the Jewish afternoon and evening prayers], although he was not pious, with his good-natured smile, he would answer: he goes for fargenign [pleasure], “it is really a club where you come together with people and you schmooze.”

As a classic maskl [an adherent of the Haskalah {Jewish Enlightenment} movement], Ber would read, practically devouring every book that came into his hands, no matter what the field of knowledge. He raised this universality of reading material and of acquiring learning to the level of a principle. Once the well-known yeshiva bukher [a Yeshiva boy], Matus Gutman (Matus Radoszyner z”l [of blessed memory], lived in Cleveland, Ohio) came shoyel-eytse zayn [to consult with] him on what he should read to acquire a fundamental education, and in what order. R' Ber answered him in short, with a serious expression: “Read everything that is published … Though Ber Zsupnik himself followed that advice, there were fields of knowledge in which he particularly excelled. He knew Tanakh [The Five Books of Moses] thoroughly, almost by heart, a great deal of Talmud and he was a great mumkhe [expert] in Hebrew dikduk [Hebrew grammar]. Apart from the world languages, German, French, English, having been in the military for a short while during the war, he also taught himself Hungarian. His philosophical education was not systematic, and so it would happen that he would pose philosophical questions that had already been well-known for a long while in the history of philosophy. So, he was extremely well-read in world literature. In the period of the First World War, unhappy in his family life, he and his wife carried out a lawsuit before the Sandzer court. The lawsuit was a sensation in the city, not only because the accused man used to take his wife, the accused woman, by her arm, every time they went to court. The public would fill the courtroom, among them, lawyers and judges, so interesting and witty were Ber Zsupnik's speeches: he would quiver reciting portions of world literature that he knew by heart, which had a connection to the issues in his dispute.

The older brother, Aron Zsupnik, was, according to his appearance, an exceptional aristocrat. Smoothly shaven and neat, in short clothes like a modern talmed-khokhem [scholar], one recognized the philosopher in his blue, nearsighted, deeply thoughtful eyes. He was neat in his outward appearance and systematic and orderly in diverse and deep learning. As a thorough philosopher, he had a solid scientific foundation in mathematics and in physics, logic and psychology. When his daughter Ada[1] wrote her doctoral dissertation for Vienna University on the theme “The Psychology of Sentence Structure”, she benefitted from his observations and instructions.

[Page 631]

Aron Zsupnik who was as well-versed in Talmud as he was in Tanakh, also had a great deal of information in the field of political economics and sociology. He distinguished himself with his sharp, critical sense and understanding of the differences between genuine knowledge and glamorous shallowness. At the beginning of the nineteen twenties, when the work of Oswald Spengler “Untergang des Abendlandes” [“The Decline of the West”][2] was the modern hit in the fields of sociology, philosophy and history, Aron Zsupnik, with complete firmness, wrote these lines: “Spengler's work belongs to that category of advertising unfounded opinions, as for example, Otto Weininger's “Geschlecht und Charakter (1903) [“Sex and Character”][3] that is rarely read now. Similarly, only several years will go by and no one will even look at Spengler's book”. That realistic prognosis by the deep, quiet Sandzer thinker literally came true.

This philosopher with an encyclopedic mind, who knew more than several university professors together, just as his eldest daughter Ada and his maskil brother Ber, had one fault: he was not creative. Bekhol-oyfn [in any case], he did not feel the drive to publish his thoughts and see his creations in print. He carried his phenomenal knowledge within himself like an authentic stoic living unassumingly, withdrawn, not seeking the least honor, while his younger brother, Ber survived a great, personal tragedy, though of another sort: after the death of his beloved wife, barely several years after their marriage, he remained a widower for the rest of his life. His two daughters, Ada and Bronka brought themselves up alone.

Rich and deeply farvortslt [rooted] and farknipt [connected] to a chain of generations of scholars, in a small city in the Karpathians, the culture of a people possessed such experts and such thinkers, quiet lamed-vovnikes [one {or several} of The Thirty-Six Good Men][4] with their modesty and crystal-clean character. The vile Frankensteins were not satisfied with suffocating and transforming the two gentle learned men together with their sister and brothers from Sandz into ash. Even in the first days when they grabbed the city, they did not spare the Zsupnik brothers the humiliation of ordering them to sweep the market, or spare them from the happy laughter from the hamoyn [mob] of boorish[5] onlookers.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Regarding Ada Zsupnik-Schipper, see above, in Chapter “The Circles of the Student Youth”. Return
  2. Oswald Spengler advocated a cyclic view of history, arguing that great civilizations all had natural and unalterable life cycles which involved rising, maturity, and then eventually and necessarily falling. There is nothing rational which governs which cultures will rise to become dominant world cultures and there is no basis for evaluating one culture as somehow better or superior to others. Instead, there are simply more successful and less successful cultures and the historian's job is to describe what has happened to them over the course of time. At the time he wrote he was a strong believer in the important role Germany had in the development of Western culture, but he rejected the philosophy of the Nazis who attempted to use his work for their own ends.-About.com Return
  3. Otto Weininger (April 3, 1880 – October 4, 1903) was an Austrian philosopher. In 1903, he published the book Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) which gained popularity after Weininger's suicide at the age of 23. Today, the book is viewed as misogynistic and anti-Semitic by some academic circles; however, it continues to be held up as a great work of lasting genius and spiritual wisdom by others, most notably the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – Wikipedia Return
  4. It relates to the Hebrew word for 36. Traditionally each generation produces 36 wise and humble folk. A “Lamed Vovnik “... can be any soul who goes forth amongst the wounded, tending to the underdog in particular, to the despised, to those the overculture sees as untouchable, worthless, expendable. The Lamed Vovniks themselves do not know they are Lamed Vovniks. They ask for nothing, go on to the next task, are... the pillars of the world…the world would fall apart if the Lamed Vovniks were not on earth. Return
  5. Compare further on, in the first chapter, the part “Destruction and Death” Return

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