Translated by Rabbi Boyarsky My father, Rabbi Abraham Myerowitz, was a son-in-law of Rabbi Bezalel o.b.m., and serves as the rabbi of the township Skimiahn. He hailed from Karelitz, located in the province of Minsk, and studied in the Mir, Wolozin, and Slabodka yeshivas.
I recall as a child when we returned to Rakishok from Russia, we were welcomed back by the townspeople with flowers, love, and honor. My father was a wise man and no stranger to world affairs, and his command of Russian and German which he acquired on his own, broadened his horizon beyond the boundaries of Rakishok.
Frequently he was called to Ponevez to sit on a rabbinical arbitration board to help resolve disputes between litigants. He was also one of the original founders of the Rakishok Folkbank and served as its director. Many Rakishok landsleit now living in South Africa surely remember the bank loans he approved for them.
My father was a Misnaged--an opponent of Hasidism--but by no means a fanatic, and was considered to be a "modern" person in accordance with the socio-religious standards of that time. His Zionist orientation led him to join the Mizrachi--the National Religious Party--within the Zionist movement. He often appeared as speaker at their meetings and political rallies. Because of these activities, he was less popular in the ultra-orthodox Agudas Yisroel circles.
At a rabbinical conference held in Ponevez, my father issued a warning that we were sorely mistaken in thinking that Hitlerís objective was confined to the destruction of the German Jews. He declared that this was an ominous signal for the entire Jewish population in Europe. This raised a volley of criticism among the Agudah delegates. Unfortunately, his admonition fell on deaf ears, and he met his death with the rest of the illustrious Lithuanian Jewry Al Kidush Hashem--in martyrdom.
I know that my father had immigration papers for America, but my mother, Asne Rivka o.b.m., refused to emigrate, leaving behind the older children. In 1928, my father was the rabbi of Abel, and remained there till the very end. According to eyewitnesses, he was found dead from a fired shot on the highway to Abel, in the early days of the German-Russian war.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Khona was his parents' oldest son and was raised in an environment of Torah and study.
There was a wonderful Jewish intelligentsia in Dvinsk that was permeated with the most beautiful ideas. Interest in worldly culture was strong among the young people and Khona Arsh and his brothers also were inspired to learn the Russian language and to enter a gymnasia [secular high school].
The Zionist movement captured Khona during his early years and he was very active in it. The greatest experience for him was when Dr. Theodor Herzl traveled with his mission to Russia. He was also at the reception that the Vilna Jews held in honor of Dr. T. Herzl, when he visited Vilna.
The Zionist ideal was holy and dear to him and he was devoted to it his entire life. His dream and wish was to settle permanently in Eretz-Yisroel.
He married a daughter of an esteemed merchant in Sviadoshits at age 23. There he opened a small iron business and he lived there with his family until the First World War.
During the First World War, he and his family evacuated to Russia, where he remained for seven years living through the turbulent times of the war and the revolutionary years.
In 1922 he returned to Rakishok with his family. His eldest daughter, Ruchl, remained in Moscow.
He succeeded in building up a large iron business with Pesakh Rukh and greatly strengthened his economic position.
However, the Zionist movement filled his spiritual essence. He was active in all of the institutions and societies in the shtetl, one of the most prominent workers. He also was active in the area of the educational system, as an active member of Tarbus [Translator's note: Tarbus promoted secular Zionist education taught in the Hebrew language].
He contributed as if a rich man to all of the funds and he received emissaries from Eretz-Yisroel with great hospitality, looking at each as a herald Khona Arsh's house was the center of Zionist-communal work in Rakishok.
He had an elevated Jewish soul, and with deep love he did everything that he could on behalf of the Jewish people and on behalf of Eretz-Yisroel.
He was slim and handsome, and a person of stately appearance internally and externally. It was not without reason that he was revered in Zionist Lithuania.
My mother, Nekhame-Liba Arsh, helped him in his communal-Zionist work. Her father, Moshe Yakov haKohan Farber, was a very great scholar and a pious man and the greatest aristocratic man in Sviadoshits. (He died this year in Jerusalem at the age of 97.)
As a young woman, my mother frequently attended the Russian school and was a skillful business woman in my father's cut-goods business.
After her marriage, she helped her husband run his business.
She was a logical person, with deep understanding and energy, and was very truthful in her actions. She very much liked to read and tried to give her children a good education.
They perished together cruelly at the hands of the Hitlerist devils in 1941, with the entire Rakishok Jewish community.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund The Jewish temperament, impatient and stubborn, led to arguments, to unreasonable hatred in many cities and shtetlekh [towns] not so passionate about personal matters, although this aspect was also present as it was about kehile [organized Jewish community] matters; a gabbai [person who assists in running of synagogue], a khazan [cantor], a shoykhet and so on. Each side wanted the rabbi, the shoykhet [ritual slaughterr], etc. in the shtetl to be his. Rakishok possessed two rabbis; each rabbi had his supporters. The shoykhetim had their sides, too. However, the supporters of the rabbis themselves split because of the shoykhetim and the supporters of the shoykhetim were divided over the rabbis. Consequently, the result was that the entire kehile was divided and torn apart into groups and factions.
My grandfather, Zorukh, was one of the shoykhetim in Rakishok. He probably hoped that his only son, Berchik, would inherit his position as shoykhet when he, Zorukh, would die. However, his only son was a great prankster. He climbed on fences, roofs and trees the entire day up until the age of 14 or 15. Therefore, his father had great sorrow when he saw that his only son was not inclined to follow in his path. He did not study and did not want to study. As a result, my grandfather beat him because he did not want to raise a peasant.
However, Berchik turned 15 and a great change took place in the spoiled young boy. Quietly, he took a few rubles out of his father's drawer and ran away to the Wilkomirer Rabbi and gaon [Torah genius], Reb Shual, who was their relative. There he threw himself into studying and later became a brilliant student and beloved by Reb Shual.
It should be understood that my grandfather was very happy. His hope that his son would take over his position moved him to advise my father that he should study slaughtering and the laws of kosher slaughtering. Thus, after my grandfather's death, my father became one of the Rakishok shoykhetim.
Berchik the shoykhet was well known both in Rakishok and in the surrounding area as a great scholar, whose mastery of and resourcefulness in the Talmud and the commentaries was great and deep. Outwardly he had a disheveled beard, a wide square forehead and restless eyes that looked out from under an angry brow. His forehead was wrinkled from constant deep thought. However, I often saw a smile on his face, as with an innocent child. Even his anger appeared to me as the squinted whim of a child.
The quarrels which broke out during the later years led to Rakishok having three or four shoykhetim. This hurt my father greatly. There were even people who blamed him and said that he was the cause of the quarrels because, although my father was the son of a devoted Hasid, he was not very devoted to Hasidus. He was undecided about becoming a follower of a Hasidic Rebbe and could not bear the Hasidic indifference to Halakah [the Jewish laws dealing with all aspects of life] with which his thoughts were always occupied. Therefore, many Hasidim were his strong opponents, but he did not pay attention to this. He went on his own path. He treated everyone with impartiality. He was convinced of his correctness and stubbornly defended it because one cannot play on two fiddles at once [hold two opinions at the same time]. Even his enemies had respect for his firmness. He did not look for any honors nor did he wear a shtreimlekh [fur hat worn by Hasidim]; he was satisfied with his fate that had made him take over the tenure of his father. At the end I was told the after the First World War, when the people from Rakishok came back to their homes and did not find Reb Berchik, his greatest opponents regretted the loss of their shoykhet, Reb Berchik.
He would wake up in the middle of the night to study, but it was almost day, and studying during the day was often interrupted because of business. Therefore, his jumbled books had to be left alone. The days and the nights were too short and time could not be borrowed. By nature, he was impetuous and impatient and he did not have time and any interest in other matters, only for studying. Even when lying in bed, resting on his arm and wanting to rest, his face was strained, concentrating and suddenly he would spring up, take out a book, page through it and again sit and study. In the synagogue, when he prayed, he did not have the patience to wait until the person leading the prayer finished. He was the first to finish and threw impatient looks at the worshiper as to why he took so long. However, on Shabbosim [Sabbaths]. and holidays, when he would recite the Torah before the congregation, his impatience would disappear. A sedateness and tenderness would then reign over him, as with an old grandfather who was having a good time with his grandchildren. He would try to bring his listener to him. He spoke with the greatest simplicity, explained things so that they could understand and comprehend what he was saying to them and his face beamed with satisfaction when he felt that the congregation had absorbed his talk.
He was very rigorous with concerning piety for himself and among others. When it came to unfamiliar interests, he was lenient. Therefore, the butchers in the slaughter house, although they were afraid of him because he was strict with them, requested that he inspect their cattle because he could spend a great deal of time studying an adhesion on the lungs in order to declare the cow kosher because an unkosher cow was a great loss for a butcher.
He disliked taking the time to talk about everyday things with those around him in the shtetl. However, he loved to spend time with the young men who would come from the yeshivus, and with people who had visited foreign lands, if they were a little involved with dissent from the religious norm. He loved to carry on philosophic conversations with young men. He was acquainted with the old Greek philosophy; he studied The Guide to the Perplexed, the Khazari [Kitab al Khazari by Yehuda ha-Levi] and similar books, although the very pious frowned upon them. The young people considered it an honor to visit Reb Berchik.
My father was frail. He traveled abroad often because of his weak health. He also used these journeys of his to alleviate his suffering to acquire old books. As a result, he had visited all of the historical centers of Torah. Returning, he brought old books, rare books. When he received such a book, the satisfaction would radiate from his eyes. He was so joyous when he found, and brought with him from abroad, a first edition of Sheylus Vatshuves [book of rabbinical analysis of questions of religious law] by the Rashba [Rabbi Shlomoh ben Aderet] and other books from abroad. (The mentioned publication by the Rashba was printed in 1545 and in now with his son-in-law, Mr. Yitzhak Padowicz [Johannesburg]). It is said that at the outbreak of the First World
War, when everyone in Lithuania was evacuated, he was the last one to leave Rakishok because he did not want to go without his books, which he needed to pack in sacks. He had a great treasury of books. Because of this, his trip into deep Russia was slow. He wandered aimlessly at each train station longer than the other homeless. Only a small portion of his books are in Johannesburg. His Talmud and other books, on whose edges he wrote his comments, remained in Latvia. He certainly intended to publish these comments, which surely would have stood out in the rabbinical literature.
My father remained in written contact with the famous Rogatchover gaon the Hasidic rabbi of Dvinsk. When I went to study in the Witenberg yeshiva, my father told me that I should visit the Rogatchover gaon and extend a greeting from him. I remember the visit. It was dark in the first room where the old shamas [synagogue sexton] with a grey-yellowed little beard sat and napped over a book. He woke up and immediately led me into a bright and homey room where books were spread on the tables. Two dark eyes, blazing like diamonds, looked out from under a large forehead. With his face looking like a large parchment, the gaon sat in a long velvet jacket. Upon learning that I came from Rakishok, he immediately asked me: How is Reb Berchik?
We children have letters that the Rogatchover wrote with great respect to my father. My father had several students; one, Reb Zelig Rakishker, later became the head of the Lomza yeshiva. A second, Reb Shmuel Aba Snieg, became a famous rabbi and leader, and is now the chief rabbi in Munich, Germany.
When one of the students would come from the yeshiva bringing a letter from the head of the yeshiva stating that he was not showing any interest and was not making progress, my father would not punish or reproach him. He only asked him, what kind of employment would he chose for himself, because education did not have to have a purpose, it had to emanate from an internal need, like eating or drinking.
Learning for him was life, and life for him meant studying Torah. Jews would hope to die with the vide [confessions of sins] on their lips. I believe my father died with Torah on his lips.
He died at the age of 65, may the memory of a righteous person be blessed.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
My father, Shlomoh Orelowitz, may he rest in peace, or as he was called: Reb Shlomoh Orelowitz, Reb Shlomoh Skopishker and, also, Reb Shlomoh, Zelig's son, was the most popular person in the entire area and was known as a great, learned man and the most enraptured Hasid in all of Poland.
During his childhood he studied in the yeshiva of the Kopuster Rebbes. He was acquainted with many Hasidim. After his marriage, a great Hasid attracted him to his businesses and he was employed as one who sells on commission in Kenigsberg [Konigsberg]. Later, he settled in Skopishok [Skapiskis] because of family opportunities and opened a yard goods store there. From that time he received the name, Reb Shlomoh, the Skopishker although he had to call himself Reb Shlomoh Orelowitz. This alone confirms his great, esteemed position in the shtetl [town] that bestowed the name, Skopishker.
He was tall with broad shoulders. However, by nature, he was very humble and would always hold his head down.
Twice a year he traveled to his rebbe to hear the mysteries of the Torah, to listen to Hasidus [the teachings of the Hasidic rabbis] from the mouth of the rebbe. Before his departure, he took kvitlekh* from almost everyone in the shtetl to bring to the rebbe. When he arrived at the rebbe's for the Days of Awe [the period including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], he stayed until after Simchat Torah. His power of memory was noteworthy. He remembered every innovation, word and melody.
*[Translator's note: A kvitl is a piece of paper on which a person writes a request for prayer from the rebbe for such things as a good marriage partner for a child or the conception of a child by a barren couple. Kvitlekh is the plural form.]
In 1919, my father and the family moved to Rakishok [Rokiskis] and opened a haberdashery shop. Our house became the central gathering place for all Hasidim. Every Hasidic guest, Hasidic messenger who would come to Rakishok found lodging with Reb Shlomoh Skopishker. This was the address for our own Hasidim and for other Hasidim.
Every Shabbos, between minkhah and maariv [the afternoon and evening prayers], he celebrated shalosh seudot [third Shabbos meal] and told all the Hasidim and worldly people about the rebbe and he did not forget to pass on the rebbe's new melodies. Then one went to the Beis-Midrash [house of study and prayer].
It was already dark in the Beis-Midrash. The shadows fell on the eastern wall. This was the right time for Hasidus. He was the one to speak of Hasidus. Everyone sat quietly and listened word by word.
I relate only one thought about Hasidus that he would often repeat for a circle of Hasidic friends:
Hasidus is not spoken hurriedly; Hasidus is said under one's breath, because then it can be more thought through; Hasidus has a neshome yeseyre [the additional soul a Jew possesses on Shabbos], that includes a Godly part, and it has a melody! Hasidus needs to climb gradually from underneath, step by step and one must go slowly on the steps, not jump over them because a mortal can be injured; Hasidus teaches how to love one another and to serve God because of love; knowledge is not everything, the Torah seeks man's heart, and so on.
In such a manner Reb Shlomoh Skopishker held his Hasidic audience, who felt that he was leading them away to the higher worlds, suspended.
Although it was already late and the time had passed when the maariv prayers should have been said, the Skopishker did not rush; he still floated in the heavens.
The Shamas lit the candles very late and the weekly vehoo rachoom [He is forgiving first two words of prayer of supplication recited on Mondays and Thursdays at the end of the morning prayers]" was heard.
In a volume of short stories by Alter Epshtein that was published in America, there are passages about my father, who in his youth when he lived in Ponemunok was known as Zelig's Shlomoh [Zelig's son]. I will here pass on the following essays of text, word by word:
A circle of people stands at the Eastern Wall around Zelig's Shlomoh, a tall, thin, pale young man with a long, thin neck and with large black eyes and with a hoarse voice, deliberately, with respect, he tells of the wonderful things that happened to him, upon my word. And the crowd around him stands as if enchanted, holding their breath.
And a dangerously sick person came to him. The doctors had given up on his life. And no one knew how sick he was. Even the professors in foreign countries failed to guess. As soon as Zelig's Shlomoh looked at him, at saying hello, he said immediately: 'Go home and God will help you.' 'But, Rebbe, I cannot stand on my feet,' the sick man argued. 'It does not matter, God will help you, have faith,' the rebbe said to him and what do you think, on Sukkous, the same Jew came, healthy, strong, unrecognizable. What do you think of that? And his face shone like the sun.
The congregation heaves a sigh. Everyone feels a deep longing in his heart. As if tongs were drawing them there, to the distant shtetl that had been wrapped in holiness for many generations and if only once in a lifetime to look at him; to hear Torah from his own mouth. The shtetl stands before the eyes; it calls and winks; and everyone decides that if God would only give health and earnings, one must go there for yom-tov.
In addition to the stories, Shlomoh brought new melodies from the rebbe of a kind that had not been heard in our locality. These are the melodies that are sung every Shabbos at the Rebbe's table at the third Shabbos meal.
And the time came that night crept up and a sadness invaded and it began to gnaw at the soul; they began to ask Shlomoh to sing. He was obstinate; he was embarrassed. However, the congregation did not yield because time would not stand still. It would be dark, impenetrable and crowded in a minute. It was clearly seen that Shabbos was giving way like smoke. A weak glimmer was seen on the market. There day was wrestling with night, Shabbos with the week. Finally, Shlomoh gave in. He coughed, moved his thin hand over his face and began.
A loud shout tore out of his chest and the entire minyon [prayer group] shivered. All became silent, holding their breath. Those reciting Psalms also became quiet; they knew that this was important and again a scream, strong and powerful was carried through the air and it seemed that it would again become Shabbos, become light. The week was frightened, shivered and lowered its hands.
The congregation sang along with rapture, with fervor. All the voices flowed together, mixed, one woven into the other and they became one voice, one melody. And a love, a joyfulness was heard in the singing. And it appeared as if everything, the Torah ark, the walls, the old forest and the heavens were singing; everything sang the sacred, strange melody.
And from on high, from the women's section of the shul, an old woman sneaked out her head. She labored to penetrate the darkness with her weak eyes and to look at her consolation, her treasure, and tears of joys rolled over her old cheeks. How many tears did she shed at that time, when her child roamed from home among strangers and, alas, suffered from hunger. Who saw her tears? However, thanks to God, she lived to see her source of pride. Here where he was now.
And the melody rolled, turned and twisted higher and higher. The congregation cried and shook and snapped their fingers. There was a joy, the eyes shone and gleamed with faith, with enthusiasm.
My father was a very sociable man and he would be an arbitrator in various disputes. I remember such a case:
Two merchants once came to him about a forest dispute. He received a handshake agreement from both that they would implement his decision.
One insulted the other, he stopped them, saying: Whereas, if you are not on good terms only because of money matters, then why do you insult each other?
He reconciled them and the two merchants became good friends. Several times a rabbinical position was proposed to my father. However, he did not accept because of modesty. He was beloved in Rakishok and in the area, esteemed by old and young.
During the years of the First World War, Shabtai evacuated to Krementzug with the Slabodka yeshiva. He was a teacher for a time in a shtetl in Mahilver [Mikalavas] gubernia.
He married in Panevezys upon returning from the evacuation and became very beloved and esteemed by everyone in the city.
He perished with his wife, Lipsze Zelbowitch, and his children and with the entire Jewish community, al kiddush hashem [in the sanctification of God's name, as a martyr] at the hands of the Nazi hangmen.
He studied in a yeshiva as a young child and was a very industrious person in the style of H. N. Bialik's HaMatmid [the poem, The Talmud Student]. He was also gifted with a dynamic spirit and with a strong will. He took part in the revolutions that would break out in the yeshivus against the leaders and supervisors.
The first yeshiva in which he began to study was in Kupishok [Kupiskis]. There he ate his meals and had his lodgings with a wagon driver. Later, he studied in Panevesz [Panevezys], Bobroisk and in Slabodka-Kovno.
In the Slabodker yeshiva, he rebelled against supervision that was too dictatorial and severe and persecuted those students who read secular books. Zelig Orelowitch, too, was marked by the supervisor as one who read heretical books, and after a talk with the director of the yeshiva, he left the Slabodker yeshiva and went to study in the Mirer yeshiva with which he was satisfied. The head of the yeshiva in Mir, Reb Alya Brukh, took a more moderate course and did not scrutinize so carefully if a student read a worldly book.
He moved to Vilna during the First World War, where he lived under German occupation. We did not receive any news about Zelig for a long time. Then he informed us through the Red Cross that he was in Vilna.
In 1918, Zelig was in Poltawa, where the Mirer yeshiva was located. By chance, I was also in Poltawa, and when I met him, he made a strange impression on me. He sat, in the evening, with other young men from the yeshiva and almost all of them were covered with long beards and made gestures as if crippled. They made themselves appear as cripples and sick in order not to be mobilized in the Russian army. He, Zelig, also wore a long beard and was dressed in a pair of military shoes and in a paper suit.
The civil war began in Russia. There was turbulence in Poltawa. We moved to the shtetl Kaupos [Kaupyay], Mohilever gubernia [province]. Then he left for Mahilev where he gave a lesson in Torah to a great crowd.
However, Zelig was thirsty for knowledge. Returning to Rakoshik, he corresponded with Professor, Reb Haim Heler of Berlin, and left to study in Germany. He studied for four years at the Beis Midrash Elyon in Berlin and earned the title, Doctor of Philosophy.
After returning to Rakishok from Berlin, he was a teacher in the Hebrew pre-gymnazie for a short time and then he was hired as the director of the Yavne Gymnazie in Kovno. He was the head of Reb Asher Nisen's Yeshiva in Shavl [Siauliai] for a short time.
He married Roza Snieg and settled in Rakishok. At that time, he was invited to become a rabbi in Sweden and he was also offered a rabbinical position in Johannesburg.
After Rabbi Betzalel's death, he became the rabbi in Rakishok. The Soviet regime was then in Lithuania and the rabbinical seat was not a good economic position. Yet, he accepted the Rakishok rabbinate.
He perished al kiddush Hashem [as a martyr; sanctifying God's name] along with his wife, Roza, and his son, Moshele and with all of the Jews from Rakishok and the area. It was reported that the Germans permitted him to speak to the Jews who stood near the open pits. He spoke for two hours until the Germans interrupted his speech with a volley of shooting.
He was the last Rabbi in Rakishok and perished with all of the Jews on the Inquisition pyre of animal-like Nazism.
His father, Reb Mikha the Rakishetsiker, was the lessee of an estate in the village of Rakishetsik and was known as a fine Jew.
Reb Mikha gave his son a religious upbringing and sent him to study in the great yeshivus. He, the Rabbi, Reb Zelig, also studied at the Slabodker yeshiva where many other Rokishker young men studied. He excelled with his great diligence and erudition.
The Rabbi, Reb Zelig was a great authority in the rabbinical world and was the head of the Lomza yeshiva.
The entire Rakishok area was proud of its follow townsman, the Rabbi, the Gaon, Reb Zelig Rukh.
He perished at the hands of the Nazi hangmen in Lomza.
He was a great authority in the scholarly-rabbinical world.
After he died, his rabbinical seat was taken by his son-in-law, Reb Shmuel, who is now in New York and occupies an eminent place in the Lubavitch yeshiva there and in Lubavitch Hasidic circles.
He was a sage and great aristocrat. It was a pleasure to talk to him and when he would scratch the end of his beard, there was a premonition that he would soon utter a pearl of wisdom. He was a great scholar in the scholarly world and wisdom and learning shone from his eyes.
He and his brother mentioned above were very beloved in the shtetl. Rakishok was proud of both brothers who were later modern, intelligent young men and were friendly with religious and non-religious elements, with Hasidim and scholars.
In later years Shmuel Aba Snieg became Reb Shmuel Aba Snieg. He devoted himself to communal work and was chairman several times of the Vaad Kehile [Communal Council] and of the People's Bank. He would also study a page of gemara with a group in the synagogue.
At the time of the independent Lithuanian state, Reb Shmuel Aba was nominated as the chief rabbi of the Lithuanian army and was awarded the rank of colonel. He was respected and esteemed by both the Jewish and by the Lithuanian populations. He often worked in the Lithuanian press and was a constant co-worker in the Lithuanian army newspaper. Everyone marveled at the fact that Shmuel Aba had learned to write so beautifully in Lithuanian, even better than many Lithuanian journalists.
Reb Shmuel Aba Snieg survived the cruel Hitler years. His wife perished. In a letter from Munich, Germany, dated March 16, 1942*, he wrote that he was chairman of the Vad Agudas Kharevim [Council of Union Friends] in the American zone. He also wrote that he intended to settle in Israel.
*[Translator's note: the year 1942 is a mistake as the war had not ended and the American zone was not in existence until after the war ended.]
Hana Eidelson (Shadur) was very active in all communal organizations of the town. She dedicated much energy to the Rakishok orphanage that was also a central institution for the area.
Hilel was a unique person. He was chairman of the Zionist Party, of the kehile, of Maccabi [Jewish sports organization], chairman of the orphans house, of the halutzim [agricultural pioneers] organization, was also one of the founders of the town library and loan office. He was the axis around which the entire cultural-communal work in Rakishok turned.
He was very active in the refugee committee at the time of the First World War. He traveled across the cities of Russia in order to make arrangements for homeless Jews. He always excelled in his communal work.
Not every city in Lithuania had a person such as Hilel Eidelson. He was an idealist starting from his youngest age. He was also a vegetarian and remained one until the end of his life.
He held socialist beliefs and lived very modestly and was poor. He had a few rooms on a side street that were appropriately furnished.
Hilel Eidelson gave up the idea of getting married and devoted himself entirely to communal work in Rakishok and served the Zionist ideal with ardor and great devotion.
When he received the title of Engineer in Berlin, he settled in Rakishok and served in his profession in the Rakishok city hall.
Later Yeheil Zamet devoted himself to communal work and was active in the kehile, in the city managing committee and in the People's Bank.
He was also the leader of the Zionist-Socialist Party in Rakishok.
He was very professional at shoeing horses. He would approach the craft as a dance. He stroked the horse's mane before and then he would begin filing the hoof with a file.
The horse looked foolishly with his large horse eyes and calmly gazed into Reb Efroim's eyes.
Coming home from the forge, he changed into other clothing and went to the Beis haMidrash.
He was a Jew and a scholar, and would sit at a long table and study with a group. He then looked like another person, as if the divine presence had rested on him.
In later years, he devoted himself to communal work and was also the gabbai [lay person who assists at the reading of the Torah] of the large Beis haMidrash.
At dawn, in the dark, he would drive passengers to the train station. During the day he carried various loads to the train and from the train. However, he was a man who was happy with his luck, although he worked hard. He had to carry full sacks and chests on his back every day.
When he came home tired and weary in the evening, he would sit down and study a chapter of Mishnah and recite a chapter of Psalms.
I had the occasion to travel with Reb Yankl-Hirshe to and from the train station. Seeing how other wagon drivers passed Reb Yankl-Hirshe's wagon, I once asked him why he does not whip his horse so that it would go faster. He answered this: The horse is also a creature and my partner; we both work together and it is a pity on him. I hold the whip, but I do not flog him with it because the Most High in heaven is also concerned. He would punish me for every sin; I would no longer be in the world.
Because of his behavior, Reb Yankl-Hirshe was crowned with the title, Reb Yankl-Hirshe Baal Shem Tov.
The three brothers were peddlers, common Jews. However, they could be distinguished from other toiling shtetl Jews in that they lived a collective life: they bought the same clothing, shoes and led the same way of life. They also traveled to the same rebbe.
The Bnei Zysa were Lodzer Hasidim and would travel to their rebbe several times a year and tithed part of their earnings to him.
I remember that before they traveled to the rebbe they would come to my father so that he could calculate how much they had to tithe to the rebbe including every penny from their earnings in the course of an entire year.
*Translator's note: group of three species of leaves which are shaken together with the esrog [citron] during Sukkos [Feast of the Tabernacles that occurs during the month of October].
However, everyone knew that Reb Haim Elya was a Jew who was capable of studying and was a great Hasid who was esteemed in the high circles of the Hasidic world.
Erev Yom Kippur [on the eve of Yom Kippur] he would stand by the large table in the small prayer house near the door with a wide strap in his hand and would administer malkus [39 soft lashes received as a reminder of the need to seek repentance and forgiveness for any committed sins] . He did this with his heart and with his conscience; he would only administer the strap for the sake of appearance.
Once an esteemed proprietor who had insulted Haim Elya said during the malkus: Nu, now you can get even with me. He answered that: If you think that way, I will not administer any malkus. On my part, I forgave you a long time ago.
In addition to being the shamas, Reb Haim Elya had an additional source of income. He would make wine for kiddush and for Passover. I once came to him in his small house to buy wine. He was then in the cellar with a candle. I went down to him in the cellar. There stood small and large casks of wine. The cellar was a real wine factory, with glass tubes.
I was curious and wanted to touch a tube and as a result I turned over a bottle of wine. I was very afraid that Reb Haim Elya would tear me to pieces. However, he immediately noticed my fear and assured me that no one would know of my shame and he would not tell my parents about this.
I was no longer angry with Reb Haim Elya after this act.
Reb Haim Elya had two sons: Leib and Dovidl. They studied at the Babroisker yeshiva and when they would come home for yom-tov, Haim Elya drew great pride from his children.
Leib was a pious Jew and Dovidl had a love of looking into a secular book and also shaved his beard. He, Dovidl, had a sweet voice and when Hasidim would come together, they asked him to sing.
He was a wonderful singer and Haim Elya, the shamas, took pride in his Hasidic melodies. He also had great pleasure from Leib, who later became a rabbi.
There were still more notable personalities and types in Rakishok who I have not mentioned. I have certainly not meant to wrong them, but the run of years has erased many memories. Therefore, at the end of my work, I will at least describe a Rakishok Shabbos between Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers]. Perhaps this will serve as a partial supplement.*
*This description was published in the Afrikaner Yidishe Zeitung [African Yiddish Newspaper] several years ago.
Here goes Reb Betzalel, the rabbi with a black coat over his shoulders, strolling with his son-in-law, Reb Avraham. Behind them is Reb Moshe Leib the malamed [teacher] with Haim Yitzhak Klumel. *Translator's note: yud-tes Kislev, the 19th day of the Hebrew month Kislev. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Hasidism was released from a Russian prison on this date in 1798.
The gabbai of the Beis haMidrash, Reb Bera, Leah's son, Shamai Welwe the ropemaker, Mendl the shoemaker, Itsche the tailor and others are seen going from Kovner Street. Men are sitting on Yankl the quilter's stoop and talking. The entire street is full of people who are drawn to the courtyard to stroll. From Jurdzike and Neye Streets, people can be seen from the marketplace near the pump.
Avraham Itse Meller and his wife sit in the attic, looking down on the strolling crowd and catch a word with several passersby.
People sit on all of the bridges, old and young. Young men and women stand near Nusen Dubin's house and talk.
The boulevard is full of people. Others stroll from the boulevard to the courtyard and all passersby convey an expansive gut-Shabbos to each other. Everyone is dressed up in their Shabbos clothing and is in a very elevated mood.
The air is so sweet and cozy; it seems as if the fields and trees are accompanying the Jewish crowd on its Shabbos stroll.
Young men and women walk in the courtyard where the trees on each side of the road come together as if they were a tunnel. They feel as if no one sees them and they hold hands. Young friends see this and point their fingers, look he is holding her hand.
Near the large synagogue, people are in motion and gather in the synagogue and other stand and talk. Young people chase each other and make a racket. Above, on the stairs, it can be seen that Sura, the rebbitzen, and other women are going to the women's section of the synagogue. And here comes the rabbi and everyone enters the synagogue.
Jews are sitting and talking in every corner of the synagogue. It is dark and the talk is of the large markets in Kamaj [Kamajai], Ponidel and Abel [Obeliai], about the great bargains that were bought there and how many eggs the peddlers gathered in the village this week.
In one corner all deplore the great misfortune that befell Haim Beynish the butcher with the large ox that he bought this week; it had an adhesion on its lungs and was therefore not kosher and, it is a pity, he lost money and the hypothesis is that the peasant knew that the ox had swallowed a nail and thus he sold it so cheaply.
Reb Yankl-Hirshe Baal Shem Tov sits in another corner of the small synagogue. He was a wagon driver. But he is called Reb Yankl-Hirshe Baal Shem Tov. All of the merchants trusted him with their money for transporting their goods from the trains. It is said that he would often make an error and gave the merchants more money then he had been given. The Baal Shem Tov sits with a Book of Psalms in his hand, melodiously reciting the Psalms and rocking. Reb Elyakim Meir stands near him, leaning with his head against the wall, his hands turned over his head and whispers. No one knows what he is saying there. It is said that he speaks to the angels.
Suddenly a bang on the table is heard; the rabbi is going to speak. And it becomes quiet. Everyone gathers around the table and everyone perks up their ears to hear the stories the rabbi is going to tell from the Midrash [commentaries on biblical verses].
A little later Shmuel the coachman sits in a corner and takes a delicious nap. The week was so difficult and he dreams so enjoyably here in the synagogue. A gang of jokers move inconspicuously and push a can of snuff under his nose he sneezes and has such a fit of sneezing and the rabbi must stop speaking because of the great uproar.
When the rabbi finishes speaking about the Midrash, Kopl the shoemaker goes onto the bima [lecturn], bangs on the table and cries out: Ashrei temimei derekh [Happy are those who walk in the righteous path]. The entire congregation says verse after verse. Others sing the verses so that it melts the heart.
It is already very dark in the small synagogue, so that they cannot see each other. At the door in a small corner stand friends and they fool around, shove, carry on, and, meanwhile, a towel is twisted together and thrown into the heating oven. There is a tumult, a cry and the first to call out Rascals, get out of the synagogue! is Hilel's son Bentsa, who himself threw the towel.
In the central part of the synagogue Bertsik Zalkind sits near a table and reads for a group. The shochet [ritual slaughterer] sits at a second table and reads for another group. It looks as if they are partners in the business of teaching. They do not compete for listeners. One does not shout over the other; if one wants to, he sits at the other table it is not a competition.
Betzalel Kaplan sits in the antechamber of the synagogue with others around him and they talk politics, tell stories and ordinary witticisms.
In a house opposite the central part of the synagogue Hasidim gather together from a shtibl [small prayer house] to have the final Shabbos meal. Reb Moshe Leib the malamed, Haim Yitzhak Klumel, Haim Elya the shamas and his son, Shimshon Nisen the malamed, Zalman Shimshon Shwartsberg, Mende Milner, Ahron Zelig and Shlomoh the butcher, Reb Nakhum Ber and a few arriving yeshiva students, Shmuel Aba Snieg and his brother, Itse-Lazar, Zelig and Shabtai, Leibe and Dovid-Shlomoh's son, Khatskl Garbuz and others arrive. They talk and they take a little whisky at the final Shabbos meal. Fish and cookies are arranged on the table. They eat and talk about various Hasids and Hasidus and what is happening with the rabbi, may he be healthy. They tell about how the rich man from Petersburg, Ziamke Levin, had danced a Hasidic dance with Shimshon Nisen the malamed on yud-tes Kislev* and the next morning Ziamke came to Shimshon Nisen, knocked on his door and said to him, 'I am leaving soon and I do not know if we will, God willing, see each other again. Be well. And I have an interest-free loan of 25 rubles for you be well!
Shimshon Nisen pleaded with him, 'Good heavens, Reb Zalman, how can I take the money from you? My entire income is from the small amount of beans that my wife cooks and sells in the chederim [religious elementary schools]. So, from where will I find the money to give back to you?
Ziamke scolded him, 'Do not be a fool, do you want to become a partner of Satan the accuser; I could not sleep the entire night and I wrestled with Satan and barely convinced him that I should give you an interest-free loan of 25 rubles. Now you come and agree with Satan. I tell you, Shimshon Nisen, no resurrection of the dead and no repentance will help you.
Pitifully, Shimshon Nisen was very frightened and took the 25 rubles and shook Ziamke's hand and said to him: 'Ziamke, you say I have an agreement with Satan. I say that you have made an agreement with the Almighty. Go in health and God grant you another year [of life]!
As it got dark, Dovidl was asked to sing the new melodies that he had just brought from Bobroisk. As the congregation came to life singing, it seemed as if the angels were dancing around the house. Everyone's face radiated with joy and notes were sucked, turned and twisted with such sweetness that the hearts would melt with longing.
Shimshon Nisen the malamed sat in a corner on a chair and snapped his fingers, his head cast up and with an earnest face looked far, far into the sky. It was as if he was asking for mercy from the stars in the sky with his eyes, that they not rush to come and disturb the holy Shabbos until dusk.
After the singing the congregation stands up and enters a smaller room. There Shlomoh Skopishker repeats Hasidus for the group.
Leibl's son, Bertsik, sits in a corner and learns Mishnah by heart he pulls his red handkerchief from his chest pocket in which a can of snuff is wrapped, opens the lid and pinches a bit of snuff. He sniffs it and gives the can to the others.
When Shlomoh Skopishker and the others enter the shtibl, everyone sits down around the table. It becomes quiet and everyone goes around on tip toe, so as, God forbid, not to disrupt. When Shlomoh repeats the Hasidus, he lays a spark in every word, a spark from himself, from the rebbe, may he be in good health, so that it radiates as from a burning fire and everyone feels as if in a sweet dream. When Shlomoh discourses about Hasidus and floats in the highest worlds, it can be seen, even at dusk, how Mende Milner holds the point of his beard bitten between his lips, as if he would draw in a sweet honey.
Reb Moshe Leib the malamed sits in thought. His forehead is wrinkled and he smoothes his white beard. Borukh the railway station worker holds his head to the side and his hat turned to the side. As if he had traveled from a large market day. Haim Elya the shamas has his head on the table and his beard appears pasted to the table as if he cannot tear it away. In the darkness, more heads moving around in the other, higher world, such as Meir the shoemaker, Shimshon Nisen the malamed, Haim Elya the shamas and Zalman Shimshon Shwartsberg, are seen all around the synagogue, going around arm in arm with the heavenly angels.
As Shlomoh Skopishker ends the repetition of Hasidus, a bang is heard on the lectern and Shlomoh the butcher cries out with a sad melody: He is merciful and will forgive, and everyone's heart becomes gloomy. Everyone begins to think about tomorrow's promissory notes, about a new interest-free loan and about the small bit of flour and barley that his wife is concerned about buying.
They think about the week and its worries.
Translated by Nathan Snyder Zalman the soda water maker was an immensely pious and ardent Chasid. He was by nature a quiet, gentle and good hearted Jew. He was loved by all of the town's people and highly respected by the Chasidim. He was slender of build and the work at the soda machine had made his chest concave and his back hunched, his shoulders rounded. It was difficult work for him to make the soda water. He did it with his last strength. And he earned his livelihood with the sweat of his brow.
His house was opposite the small Chasidic shtiebel. A great window with clear glass panes looked out right opposite the shtiebel, as if it could observe the comings and goings of the Chasidim, going three times a day to give account to the Creator of the Universe.
Zalman the soda water maker is among the earliest of those going to the shtiebel to pray. From a side door of his house, with a bowed back, he goes out into the cold fresh dawn, meeting up with other Chasidim.
Zalman the soda water maker led the prayers during the Days of Awe for the Morning and Additional Services. This was his prerogative.
Zalman the soda water maker poured out his heart and feelings before the pulpit for the community of Israel. And, at twilight, he used to sing out vigorous Chasidic melodies for groups of Chasidim.
With bowed heads, bent to the earth, the Chasidim hurried to the shtiebel. The small yellow blue flames, giving off a subdued glow from the rows of large wax tallow candles which threw a pale grey light over the small room's walls.
Like white snow covered trees in a thick forest, on a quiet winter's day, so the Chasidim appear in the shtiebel with their snow white prayer-robes. And like a snow white swan, Zalman the soda water maker, the prayer leader, shone out in his white robe.
The panes in the prayer room are covered with a cloudy film, the air is heavy and smells of fat and paraffin from the candles. However, the quiet groans of Zalman's prayers cut through the thick atmosphere.
Zalman's open-hearted soulful groans and sighs are not for himself, but rather for all Israel. He ignores his sick heart, the care of which he entrusts to Divine Providence.
The Unetaneh toykef, the Let us now relate the strength prayer is the essence of all prayers. He puts his last ounce of strength into it. He prays with all of his very being, preparing for the Day of Judgment. The entire congregation is aroused by the outpouring of his soul. With a quiet murmuring, he cries out, who shall live and who shall die. Just as a still calm breeze moves the young branches of a tree, so he has whispers the words Who shall live and who shall die.
But now, his voice raises itself to higher octaves. The crowd of praying people is swept forward and a great cry of lament, a sobbing breaks forth from everyone including the Women's Gallery.
With outstretched arms, reaching to the Gates of Heaven, wrapped in a white prayer robe, as a gigantic eagle with mighty wings, Zalman stands, his entire body stretched out, the words resounding out: WHO BY STRANGLING, WHO BY STONING.
The noise and lament in the room becomes stronger and stronger. All the more it turns into a trembling, shaking the prayer books and the cry flows with strength, striving to reach the very Throne of Glory.
It once happened that Zalman the soda water maker fell in a faint as he led the Yom Kippur service. A cold sweat covered his forehead and a dark cloud seemed to dim his eyes which lost their shine.
He fell helpless into a faint in the middle of Let us tell how utterly. The crowd tried to revive him. He came to himself. However, in a few days, he gave up his soul, and closed his eyes forever.
The town made him a great honorable funeral the next day. Big and small accompanied into eternal rest, Zalman the soda water man, who was a great Chasidic Jew, with a good heart and exalted soul.
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