by Volf Shnayder (Detroit)
(Section of a larger work)
A small and pleasant room, in a small attic in Kremenets,
In it lives a wonderful man of many good deeds …
(N. Sokolov, Hatsefira, 3 Kislev 5656)
By the end of the 18th century, Kremenets, the town where Ber Levinzon was born, was economically and ethnically a typical town of southwestern Russia. Although it was surrounded by mountains, Kremenets—the Switzerland of Volhynia, as it was called—was not at all isolated from the surrounding world. Rivers and roads connected it with other towns and cities in Volhynia, as well as with the border towns of East Galicia.
The Ikva River, not far from the town, flows into the Styr and, with the Pripiat, is part of the Dnieper water system. In the 19th century, it still served as waterway for transporting timber on rafts.
Jewish settlement in Kremenets began in the 15th century. As with many other Jewish settlements in Ukraine, it encountered periods of prosperity and hardship. It can be said with certainty that at the beginning of the 17th century, the settlement began attracting Jews even from Lithuania. In 1635, at the meeting of the major Jewish communities, Kremenets was represented as well.
The years of decline began with the Chmielnitski pogroms of 1648-1649, when many Kremenets Jews perished in the massacres. Later, in the 1870s, two fires impoverished many Jewish merchants and brought others to a state of need and isolation.
By the end of 1793, after the Second Division of Poland, all the eastern provinces, among them Kremenets and vicinity, became part of Russia. The Jews suddenly felt free and hoped that the Russian authorities would restrain the power of the Polish nobility, which had caused persecutions and humiliation. Wholesale commerce began to flourish between Russia, Austria, and Germany, and the number of Jewish wholesale merchants increased continually. Around 1799, the number of such Jewish merchants in Kremenets and the county was 24, compared with 9 Christians.
Between 1764 and 1847, the Jewish population increased. From 1,029 Jews in 1764, the Jewish population in Kremenets and the other localities in the county grew to 18,264 in 1847. The town Kremenets itself, where we found only 649 Jews in 1764, was home to 3,791 Jewish souls in 1847.2 Besides wholesale commerce in grain, timber, tobacco, wool, and textiles—products that were sold to Russia, Poland, and Austria—Jews were represented in the general economy by the following occupations: tailors, pub owners, bakers, butchers, painters, glaziers, brass workers, goldsmiths, barber-surgeons, folk-musicians, etc.
Even in the framework of the local economy, which was not highly developed, there was social differentiation among the Jewish population. Although the dividing lines were not too sharp, there were still the rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged. The differences between rich and poor were expressed mostly in the matter of loans and interest payments. In the social sphere, the differences were strongly felt in the home, street, and study hall. The roads from Kremenets led, on one hand, to Ostra, to the tradition of the MHRShA (R’ Shmuel Eydels) and on the other hand to Dubno, to the Magid of Dubno. But on all roads and waterways, Kremenets Jews would travel to the Rebbe, or the Rebbe would come to them. Like many other towns and villages in the Ukraine, Kremenets was a town of Hasidim. The Kremenets printing house (1805) was one of the numerous Hasidic printing houses in Volhynia that printed only religious and Hasidic books and nothing else.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the first echoes of the Enlightenment movement were heard. They arrived on the same roads on which commerce between Galicia and Ukraine, between Brody and Kremenets, was conducted.
R’ Yitschak Ber Levinzon was born on September 2, 1788. His father, R’ Yehuda Levin, was a merchant and was engaged in business with the rich Polish landowners in the area. Levinzon was considered a great scholar, an expert in Bible and Talmud study and, in particular, very knowledgeable about grammar and linguistics. From various remarks in his works, we learn that he was a descendant of a large family of distinguished lineage, refugees of the Spanish Expulsion.
As a child, little Yitschak had shown signs of great talent and ability. He had a wonderful memory and a great desire to study. At the age of three, he began studying in cheder, and at ten he was already deep into the study of Talmud and Poskim. However, this was not enough for his father, who gave his young child special lessons in Bible and Hebrew grammar and developed in him a great love for the Book itself on the one hand and for the language of the Prophets on the other hand. In this way, he planted in him the notion that Hebrew must be learned totally and comprehensively, as well as strictly according to grammar. He also saw to it that his son studied Polish and in particular Russian, which at the time had become the national language.
[Translation Editor's Note: Poskim means arbiters or deciders, especially rabbinical scholars who pronounce in disputes and questions of Jewish law.]
While still very young, Yitschak began writing poems. One of his first poems was a love poem that he wrote at the age of 16. When he was 18, he was married in Radzivil, and the young couple lived with his in-laws, as was the custom.
Radzivil, the border town between Austria and Russia, was an important point for trade between the two countries. From the merchants who came from Galicia, Yitschak Ber obtained a great deal of information about Brody and the Brody Enlightened. He was very attracted to that kind of spiritual environment and, with great diligence, began to deepen his knowledge. He studied German and French—the languages and their respective literature.
His family life was not happy. After his only child died, he divorced his wife. In the meantime, his father became impoverished, and Levinzon remained in Radzivil and made a living by giving private lessons. During the Russian-French War (1812), he obtained a position as translator in the office of the local Russian commandant. After the Russian army's victory, he wrote a poem in Hebrew in which he described and praised the great Russian victory. This patriotic poem, written by a Jew, made a strong impression on the Russian commandant. He sent it to the Minister of the Interior as an example of a Jewish patriot, and so Levinzon became known and respected in royal circles.
With renewed energy, he pursued his independent studies, studied day and night, and made notes for his planned future works. However, his energetic and hard work affected his health, until he collapsed. Sick and weakened, Levinzon went to Brody for treatment and remained there longer than he had expected. At that time, Brody was a very important commerce crossroads point between Russia, Austria, and Germany, as well as the largest Jewish community in Galicia. Brody was the center of Austrian higher education and the Enlightenment movement. The Trakhtenberg brothers' house was the assembly point of the educated and those yearning for knowledge. This was the environment that attracted and absorbed Levinzon, who drank the knowledge and wisdom of the spiritual leaders with great thirst.
First in Brody and later in Zholkiev and Tarnopol, Levinzon met with the Enlightened of that period face to face for the first time, such as R' Shlome Leyb Rapaport, R' Nachman Krokhmal, Yosef Perl, Mendel Lepin, Berish Blumenfeld, Yakov Shmuel Bik, Yitschak Erter, R' Leybish Mizis, and others. He was captivated not only by their vast knowledge, but also by the various ways in which each of them reacted to the painful problems of Jewish life. R' Nachman Krokhmal, the famous thinker and enlightenment scholar, with whom he met later in Zholkiev, made a remarkably deep impression on him.
At the beginning of his stay in town, Levinzon worked as accountant in a store, but he soon found that this type of work was a hindrance to the pursuit of his studies. Consequently, he decided to leave the post and return to teaching. He began to give private lessons again, devoting his free time to study. With his characteristic diligence, he began studying logic and philosophy—in particular the 18th-century philosophers—as well as completing his studies of the German language and literature. Later, he relocated to Tarnopol, passed the exams at the Israelite High School, and received a diploma. Thanks to Yosef Perl's help, Levinzon was hired as a Hebrew teacher at the Brody high school. He devoted his free time to literary work, on the projects he had planned before; he had begun to write while still in Radzivil.
He completed his Table of Taxes—a translation into Yiddish of tax rates—compiled a Russian language textbook, The Fundamentals of the Russian Language, and worked on his Hamazkir—a collection of studies and research in philology. However, of the work mentioned above, only Table of Taxes was printed in Zholkiev; the other two works had no such luck. As did most of the Enlightened, Levinzon began writing satirical literature—the very popular literary genre that they used in their publicity work. He wrote about the Hasidic books Divrei Tzadikim and Emek Refa'im, describing the ignorance of the Hasidim and their naïveté and blind faith in their rabbis' words, also attacking rabbis who performed miracles and consciously exploited their Hasidim. Understandably, in keeping with the Enlightenment method and techniques, Hasidism and Tzadikism were painted in particularly black colors. His works were at first distributed in manuscript form, as were many other Enlightenment works. Only later were they collected by Y. Perl and printed in one volume, in 1830 in Vienna.
The six years that Levinzon spent in Galicia were a preparation for the mission and responsibility that history has laid upon him. Publicizing and spreading the idea of spiritually and materially rebuilding Jewish life in Russia was, in fact, the goal that he had set for himself years before he came to Galicia. While still in Radzivil—he was then only 22 years old—he planned and even began to write his monumental work Te'uda BeIsrael [Testimony in Israel]. After spending many years in Galicia, absorbing knowledge as well as taking part in the struggles of the Galician Enlightened, he decided to go home and devote himself entirely to the good of his people, spreading the ideas of the Enlightenment movement among the Jews of Russia.
It would be a mistake to assume that Levinzon made his first steps into the Enlightenment movement only when he came to Brody or even earlier, in Radzivil. At that time, small groups of Enlightened, or an individual Enlightened, could be found in every large Jewish settlement. In Kremenets, we find the Landsberg brothers, the sons of R' Avraham ben Yechiel Landsberg, a relative of Y. B. Levinzon. The older brother, R' Leybish, was Levinzon's close friend; the younger, R' Mendel, was a philanthropist and a bibliophile, and Levinzon used his library regularly. A third brother, R' Shlome Yeshaya, was said to be the author of a satirical work against the Tsadikim. All three of them were surpassed in general knowledge and study of languages by their brother R' Ayzik, who years later became the headmaster of the Odessa School and famous for his linguistic research. However, these were isolated, private Enlightened, whether in Kremenets or elsewhere. Small in number and separated from the people, they could barely have any influence on the popular masses.
Breaking open a path for the Enlightenment Movement in Jewish life in Russia, ignoring the antagonism of the Hasidic and rabbinic circles, and bringing the Enlightenment to the people—this was an endeavor for a very special personality: a person of an extended education, wisdom, revolutionary fervor, and great perseverance, along with the strength to meet his opponents with the power of the word and faith in the truth of what he was preaching. R' Yitschak Ber Levinzon was just such a rich spiritual personality.
In 1820, Levinzon returned to Kremenets. Compared with Brody, Kremenets seemed to him even more backward than it really was. No wonder that he described it in dark colors.
I live—he complained—in a darkened town; one does not meet fresh people, there are no writers, no books, there is not one person who could bring some news from the world; nobody reads books, nobody is interested in newspapers. Around me every day I hear the call of the poor, who are robbed by those who rule over the nation, by our leaders and commanders. The racket of the drunk Hasidim reaches me wherever I am; their gangs dance in the streets, singing in loud voices and bringing to town new rabbis who travel in carriages; one is coming and another is going away. The fanatic Hasidim are get drunk and cry Holy.
A believer in the power of education, Levinzon decided to embark on his first and most important task: explaining the idea of Enlightenment. If the source of antagonism was ignorance in Jewish circles, then the idea must be brought to light among the various levels of the Jewish population in town, and he must explain that Enlightenment brings only light and knowledge. And if hatred was the result of fear that some outside wisdom that was opposed to the Jewish spirit would be forced upon them, then he must convince them that the idea of Enlightenment was deeply rooted in Jewish life and in full accord with the spirit of true Judaism. To fulfill this task, Levinzon returned to his Te'uda BeIsrael—the work that he had begun to write years before.
Levinzon completed his book in 1822. Only then did the difficulties begin—raising money for its publication and finding a printer. He issued a public appeal announcing that his work would be published in about a year's time and asking for pre-publication subscribers. However, the result was very disappointing. The rumor that Yitschak Ber Levinzon had written a heretic book spread very quickly in the towns and villages, and no publishing house or printing shop in Kremenets and vicinity would agree to print the book.
Five years passed.
In 1827, through his friend and admirer in Kremenets, a high official in the court of justice and a member of the Education Council in Volhynia, he finally approached the Jewish Committee in Warsaw asking for help in publishing his book. His friend added a letter to the request, in which he wrote that R' Shlome Rapaport had read Levinzon's manuscript and praised the work; therefore, he appealed to the Committee for help.
However, the Committee rejected the request, explaining that they did not have the necessary funds. Finally, after some pressure and hard work, and with the help of several close friends, they managed to publish the book in Vilna in 1828. A very interesting fact is connected with the publication of the book: Levinzon knew very well that the book would arouse a great storm in the rabbinic, in particular in the Hasidic, circles, and he could also easily imagine what the results would be. Considering that, he had the following idea: before the book was published, he ordered a sample of the manuscript from the printer and sent it to the Minister of Education, A. S. Shishkov. In the attached letter, he asked for permission to add the minister's name to the cover of the book, which would authorize the publication of this work. He also asked for a grant to help him continue writing other books that would aim to improve the moral situation of the Jewish population. The request and the manuscript were sent to two Jews who had converted to Christianity, Zandberg and Podella, who were employed by the government as experts on the Committee for Jewish Affairs. Zandberg recommended the book as a very useful work; however, he was against adding the minister's name to the cover for fear that it could have the opposite effect. He also directed Levinzon to omit several passages that he thought might offend the Hasidim.
Shortly after that, Shishkov left his post, and the Czar Nicholas I authorized the Committee's recommendation to give Levinzon a grant of 1,000 rubles for his book, whose object was the moral renewal of the Jewish people. Levinzon immediately sent his printer in Vilna a thank-you letter for the czar, to be printed in the book. Levinzon succeeded: soon after the publication of the book, Hasidic circles raised an uproar, but they did not go as far as to excommunicate him… .
The book Te'uda BeIsrael may rightly be considered a very important turning point in the history of the Enlightenment in Russia.
Already in the introduction, Levinzon asked the question: What had actually caused him to write the book?
His answer was that in his youth his friends had addressed him, asking him to explain what the true path to take in life should be, as a Jew and as a human being, and to point out to them what studies would be absolutely necessary to attain human integrity in general and Jewish integrity in particular. The entire book is built around the answers that Levinzon provides to those questions. Systematically, showing great erudition, he analyzes every question. His explanations are clear and packed with quotations from the Talmud, Midrash, and rabbinic literature, and with historical facts and ideas from many great authorities.
Levinzon's personality is reflected in the book as a great scholar, teacher, lecturer, and fighter. His style is solid and serene. However, his tone often becomes belligerent, especially when he sends his arrows in the direction of the Hasidim and deals with questions about the economic, social, and spiritual structure of Jewish life at the time. His style assumes a particular eagerness when he calls for spiritual and economical rebuilding of Jewish life.
After a meticulous tour through Talmudic and rabbinic literature, Levinzon comes to the conclusion that it is the duty of every Jew to know the Hebrew language to perfection. He sharply criticizes the obsolete methods by which the language of the Holy Scripture was taught in the cheder—without any system at all.
The Bible as well as the Talmud considers language a synonym of nation, says Levinzon, citing expressions like all nations and languages or every nation and language. The person who bears the name Hebrew must have a perfect knowledge of the language of his nation—Hebrew. Hebrew is the only language that unites all the Jews the world over, and only Hebrew can guarantee the national existence of the Jewish people.
In general, says Levinzon, as far as writing is concerned, there is no sanctity or corruption—it all depends on the subject discussed. Any book that contains Torah commentaries, morality matters, or general knowledge is, by virtue of that, kosher and pure no matter in what language it was written.
However, he takes exception with Yiddish. Yiddish, Says Levinzon, is a language that we have borrowed from the Germans, and it is a mixture of German, Hebrew, Russian, French, and Polish. Yiddish is appropriate for the expression of simple, common matters. It is not satisfactory when we need to convey sophisticated topics.
Then Levinzon deals with the next question: is a Jew allowed to study foreign languages and external sciences?
Relying on the Talmud and other Jewish sources and authorities, Levinzon demonstrates that it is important for Jews to study other languages beside Hebrew, especially the tongue of the land—the language of the country where they live. All great Jewish luminaries, whether in the Mishnaic era or later generations, have known other languages beside Hebrew.
Philo of Alexandria and Josephus Flavius knew and wrote their books in Greek; Maimonides, R' Saadia Gaon, R' Yehuda Halevi knew Arabic, etc.
As concerns external sciences, there is no science or knowledge that would not be useful for us, arouse great love and better understanding of the Creator of the universe in us, or help us in our spiritual and physical existence. Levinzon also mentions that throughout the generations, Jewish scholars were familiar with studies of other nations and became experts in the bodies of knowledge of their times. Very often this was beneficial to the Jewish people. With his numerous citations from the Talmud, he establishes that our sages of all generations held those scholars in high esteem.
Thus Levinson concluded that knowledge of languages and external sciences not only would not harm Jewish people, but, on the contrary, would benefit them a great deal in their commercial dealings and their constant interaction with gentiles, in particular with the officials of the state and the nations among whom they live. On the other hand, Levinson understood very well that education alone was not the full answer to the Jewish problem. Jewish economy, he said, must be rebuilt, and the Jews must change their economic way of life: from luftmenschen [lit. air-people], tavern owners, etc., they must become productive people and perform useful work, the most important being crafts and farming.
Here, too, Levinzon cites many facts from Jewish history and evidence that Jewish sages made their livelihood through hard work, being woodchoppers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, etc. It was easy to show that our ancient sages maintained that learning Torah was not enough but must go together with hard work and craftsmanship. He argues that from ancient times, Jews were an agricultural nation. During the hundreds of years that Jews lived as an independent nation in their own land and before the destruction of the Second Temple, farming was regarded as desirable work and actually was their main occupation even later, when they developed commercial relations with other nations. Only generations later, when the Jews were dispersed among the nations, and especially during the Middle Ages, when their human rights were restricted, were they forced to become a nation of merchants.
Why, asked Levinzon, did our people, man and woman, big and little, rich and poor, all stick to commerce only? Why couldn't we, like our forefathers of long ago, occupy ourselves with working the land? Why do we hate farming so, and why have we distanced ourselves from it—since it was never considered a lowly occupation?
A strong believer in the new era of enlightened absolutism and the new ideas of human brotherhood, Levinzon concluded his book with a passionate call to the Jews to leave their empty occupations and meaningless small businesses and instead learn crafts and farming, for only working the land can bring real happiness and joy to man and woman.
Jews, he repeated again and again, should study other languages and enrich their Jewish knowledge with general knowledge. This will lead to a better understanding of their gentile co-citizens, and they will be accepted and liked by the nations of the world.
The book left an incredible impression upon all those who were yearning for knowledge, especially young people. Its effect was that of a manifest proclaiming freedom of mind and spirit. For many, it was a confirmation of many truths that they felt but could not or were not allowed to express. Some copies of the book that reached the towns and villages, often a year or two after publication, circulated from hand to hand and were read in attics, in secret places, late at night in the dark corners of the study hall, by the last flicker of the wax candle… .
Here is how the writer and poet Ber Gotlover describes in his memoirs the impression of Te'uda BeIsrael on youth:
Countless young Jewish people opened their eyes and began studying the holy language [Hebrew] as well as the language of the land. They did that with great courage, not frightened by the fanatics who stood in their way. In every town they founded study groups, aided by a number of Enlightened who were already acting in these towns. They separated from the general Hasidic public and devoted themselves to education and acquisition of knowledge.
The book left a strong impression on famous scientists, writers, and poets, Levinzon's contemporaries, as Shlome Leyb Rapaport, Adam Hakohen Levenzon, Kalman Shulman, Yakov Aykhenboym, Mordekhay Natanzon, and others. All recognized the importance of Te'uda BeIsrael and, with great love and respect, began calling the author by the title of his book, as was the custom among honored personalities. Some of the poets wrote poems in honor of the book.
These important people, remarked Gotlover about the older Enlightened, preceded Levinzon in education and wisdom and did not draw from his source; however, later, when he became famous and his books became known all over the world, they all gathered under his banner and he became their leader. They understood that he was greater in wisdom and capable of accomplishing great work and that he might be the source for the economical and spiritual salvation of the Jews. His book was their guide, and they followed in his light.
Bibliography and Notes
by Yisrael Margalit
What did we do, many years ago, to preserve the memory of Yitschak Ber Levinzon?
In 1906, at the initiative of and with the cooperation of a group of community members —Dr. Litvak, Pinchas Ras, Rabbi B. Kunin, Leyb Shumski, and myself—an assembly was called of people interested in preserving our distinguished citizen Y. B. Levinzon's name and memory. About 70-80 persons attended—the community's intelligentsia and cultural workers—to discuss the how we could preserve the memory of Y. B. Levinzon in Kremenets.
After an exchange of opinions and ideas, it was decided to use the entire Jewish press in former Russia to publish an open appeal to the Jews, asking them to donate money to buy the little house where Yitschak Ber Levinzon had lived and worked, with the purpose of transforming it into a public library and reading room. We elected the following committee to carry out the decision: president, Rabbi B. Kunin; secretary, Dr. M. Litvak; treasurer, P. Ras, and two members, H. L. Shumski and the writer of these lines.
After the first call was published, money began pouring in from all parts of former Russia. An especially warm response came from the Lithuanian Jews and others who admired Levinzon and were thankful to those who had initiated the project. In the meantime, we contacted the authorities about the future reading hall's legal status—we had to wait for official authorization of the hall's status before we could buy back the little house where Levinzon had lived; at that time, the house was being used as a pub.
However, the czar's authorities maintained that libraries and especially reading rooms were harmful for the public, so they rejected our request. We then called an additional general assembly in order to discuss the problem and decide how we could in any case buy the house and remove the pub, since we thought it was a disgrace to run a pub in Levinzon's house.
It was decided to buy the house under the name of private persons, not the community, and the following buyers were appointed: M. Litvak, Leyb Shumski, and the writer of these lines.
Indeed, we bought the house, closed the pub, and waited for better times, when we hoped to realize the plan. However, time passed and World War II broke out, and during the war we didn't have the time or motivation to pursue the matter. Most of the committee members passed away, and finally we, the three buyers, decided to transfer the rights of ownership to a legal organization. So we did, and we transferred the house to the only legal organization that possessed the right to buy and own property—ORT.
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