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[Page 112]

Cantors and Cantorship in Minsk

Prof. Moshe Levinson

Translated by Judy Montel

The author, a native of the town of Berzina, Minsk district, was a student of the Minsk cantor Rabbi Israel Shovalzon, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, served as a cantor in Odessa, Warsaw, Minsk, New York. Made aliya to Israel in 1935.
The following article is an edited version translated from the original Yiddish, which was published in “Zukunft”, New York, April 1947.
I would like to tell you here about three cantors who were active in the great Jewish city of Minsk during the past 125 years who disseminated Jewish music among the Jewish masses, the old, exalted melodies of prayer “Nusach” [musical traditions] that have no parallel in any other people.

In 1820, the famous cantor Rabbi Sender Poliachek was made the municipal cantor of Minsk, a position he held for 45 years until his death. His prayers had the gift of heaven, improvising tunes at the prayer stand, and even though he could not read music, he composed wonderfully musical tunes. Klezmers wrote them out and played them at weddings and other such occasions. During prayer, Rabbi Sender Poliachek shook every heart, in the “Ne'ila” service [the closing service of the Day of Atonement], the entire synagogue became a “Vale of Tears”, and the entire congregation would sway and weep.

After his death, several of his compositions were written down by his son, Rabbi Moshe Poliachek, who was an excellent violinist. But most of his tunes, sadly, were lost.

He did not live from his cantor's salary; but from his large home, which functioned as a hostel for wealthy merchants from abroad who arrived to do business in the city. Rabbi Sender used to joke: “I am the best hostler of all the cantors, and the best cantor of all the hostlers.”

His son, Rabbi Moshe, was a food supplier to the Czar's government and he was granted a decoration and the title “Honorary Citizen for Generations”.

At the same time, the Gaon Rabbi Tevli worked as a rabbi in Minsk. A story circulating in Minsk was that one day, Rabbi Sender asked Rabbi Tevli: “Teach me, rabbi, what is the difference between the two of us? I also wear a “shtraimel” (fur trimmed hat) and long silk “kapote” (caftan), and I am also educated in Jewish lore, as they say. Therefore, what indeed is the difference between you and I?”

He asked and he replied: “The difference is whom we turn to in distress. When you, rabbi, have a problem making a legal decision, you go to Maimonides, the “Golden Rows” [Turei Zahav], the “New House” [Bayit Chadash – both famous commentaries on Jewish law], and the other great precedents; whereas I, when I have a difficulty in my cantorship, my assistants are Leibichke Herika, Chaim HaSandlar [the cobbler], he is my bass – these are my advisors.”

Rabbi Sender died in 5620 [1860].

After his death, Minsk looked for a substitute for a long time, and since a cantor received the position for his lifetime, groups and parties sprung up who supported one candidate or another. After five years of options, the cantor Rabbi Israel Shovalzon from Slonim was chosen, known affectionately as Reb Yisraelke. He rejuvenated the cantorship, refreshed it, and brought light, sweet melodies with him that penetrated every heart. The congregation drank in the beautiful tunes with a yearning soul, tunes that reflected the time and attitudes and Judaism. In their gentleness, as they were played, they were like healing balms to the Jewish souls, just like the folk songs of Eliakum Tzunzer (who also lived in Minsk at the time) of which people were very fond. These tunes became very popular among ordinary people. The cobbler hummed them at his bench, the tailor in his workshop, the carpenter at the lathe, the porter waiting for customers at the “Old Market”. They reminded one another's ears of the tunes for “Yechadshayhu”, “Min Hameitzar”, “Tov Lachasos BaHashem”, “Kevakaros”, and as they sang, their eyes beamed with joy. The sweet tunes sweetened their difficult lives, allowed them to forget their poverty and distress.

Cantors from the small towns in the area would come to Reb Yisraelke to learn the tunes, and these became known throughout the district of Minsk, and far beyond.

For a choir he had the sons of the householders plus a few men's voices. It was an honor to sing for Reb Yisraelke. All the inhabitants of the city knew Tzela (Bezalel) the Bass with his wonderful soft voice, Avraham Icha the hat maker with the powerful tenor and Mota the tailor, a tremendous baritone…

He would prepare new “Niguns” [melodies] for every holiday: for Passover - “Min HaMeitzar”, for Shavuos – “Krotz Mechomer”, for Rosh Hashana – “Kevakaros”. To all of his tunes must be added the wonderfully artful sung speech, “Haya Am Pipios”, from the prayers of Rosh Hashana, which was written down and arranged by the cantor Tzemachzon. Rabbi Israel died in 1900.

The leaders of the Minsk community at the time were: Wolf Rapaport, Wolf Servint, Avraham Chaim Shved, a great merchant and an author, all of these were the “Gabba'im” [synagogue managers] of the great Beit Midrash; Rabbi Zisel Korland, the gabbai of “The Cold Synagogue”. The rabbi at the time was the famous Gaon, “The Minsker Godol”. They said in Minsk that “The Godol” was once at a rabbinical conference where every rabbi delivered talks on the Torah in the name of his father, thus emphasizing that his father had also been a rabbi. Everyone knew that the “Godol's” father was a mere tailor. So “The Godol” got up and said: “My father would say: 'Never take-up the old piece of work of turning an old piece of clothing inside out [to renew it], take up something that is new to begin with. Therefore, I will bring new words on the Torah of my own…”

After the death of Rabbi Israel Shovalzon, another cantor was not appointed in Minsk, and Tzela the Bass prayed in the great Beit Midrash until he went to the United States.

The Minsk intelligentsia, which was uncomfortable with the noise that reigned in the synagogues in the “Shulhoif” [Synagogue Court], founded its own congregation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in the “Handicraft School” building. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and free-thinkers who considered themselves educated and were striving for a renewed and modern synagogue, like in the great cities of Western Europe, with superb choirs, order, quiet and manners. Thus Dr. Yosef Lunz, a famous doctor and community activist, had the idea of building a modern synagogue. Under Dr. Lunz's influence, a fund was established for this purpose. Coincidence also lent a hand; a wealthy man of Minsk, Michael Aharonson, left 25 thousand rubles in his will to this purpose, but on the condition that the building of the synagogue begin no later than two years after his death. In order not to lose the sum, Dr. Lunz harnessed all of his energies to raise the remaining funds, and after seven years and much labor by Dr. Lunz, the synagogue was built and called “Chor-Shul” (Choir Synagogue).

It was a splendid building, and elegant. Twelve pillars within, galleries for the women on three sides, five giant and colorful copper chandeliers which had cost a fortune at the time, 10 thousand rubles, a large hall for praying which could hold up to 400 people, with the synagogue library in it as well. The pride and glory of Minsk was based on this synagogue.

{Photograph Page 114: The Chor Shul}

In 1906, a week before Rosh Hashana, the building was consecrated with much pomp and ceremony. Women wore their fanciest clothing. Even the district governor, Prince Erdeli, and other senior officials came to the ceremony. Because the fixed pews were not ready for the opening, they ordered the famous Viennese chairs from Vienna and they made the synagogue look like a philharmonic hall.

It must be mentioned here the wrong-headed and submissive act of the synagogue's overseers, who gave the honor of opening the synagogue, that is, the key, not to a rabbi, but to a gentile, to the Minsk district governor, Prince Erdeli.

After a competition of many cantors, Moshe Levinson was accepted as the cantor of the “Chor Shul”, he was known as a talented and multi-faceted cantor, with a higher musical education, and was simultaneously a lecturing professor at the national conservatory. He set up a large choir of select, experienced singers, and performed the best compositions of Jewish liturgy, organized yearly concerts at Hanukah at the synagogue accompanied by an orchestra and wind instruments. The synagogue became an institution that broadened and developed the culture of Jewish music. The many visitors preferred to listen to the song and prayers there on Friday nights than to go to the opera which came to Minsk occasionally. It must be said, that Cantor Levinson raised the art of Jewish music to a very high level.

Dr. Lunz was the chairman of the synagogue, and was assisted by the author Yehoshua Sirkin, who was assimilated, and under the influence of Dr. Lunz became a Zionist, and was one of the founders of the “Dorshei Zion” association. Their third, the treasurer, Osip Poliak, was the son of the banker, Rabbi Moshe Poliak. Besides them, twelve gabbaim were selected from the most important householders. Of these it is worth especially mentioning some of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Minsk, who did much to disseminate the Zionist idea among the people: Chaim Churgin, Avraham Kaplan, Yehuda Nofech, the jurist Shimshon Rozenboim and Yitzchak Berger.

In this manner, the most important personalities of Minsk at that time gathered round the Choir Synagogue. The synagogue became a meeting place for all of the municipal assemblies, a center for the city of Minsk. The synagogue had a library rich in Jewish lore in various languages, antiquarian and rare books. Yehoshua Sirkin and Feinberg were the library supervisors and Levinson was the librarian.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, masses of refugees reached Minsk from the surrounding villages, especially from Smorgon. It was the eve of Shavuos. The “gabbai”s decided not to hold holiday prayers in the synagogue and to let the refugees make use of the building. Several hundreds of people were installed there with their possessions. They were given food for the holiday and for a significant amount of time after it, as well. This was done in the other synagogues as well. The Jews of Minsk proved that they were indeed merciful people, sons of merciful people.

The famous “Gaon” Rabbi Eliezer Rabinovitch was the chief rabbi of Minsk at the time, after “The Godol”, and he devoted himself to public affairs. There was not a small or big problem in the congregation of Minsk that Reb Leyzer didn't take care of. He also was occupied with international Jewish affairs. At the rabbinical assembly in Petrograd with the permission of the government, when the Minister of the Interior was Prince Swiatopolk-Mirski, Rabbi Reb Leyzer filled a most honorable role. In those days, the “Tzefira” wrote: “A rabbi has come to the assembly, a sickly and worn out man who looks as though he carried the entire Jewish Diaspora on his shoulders, with an unusual talent for speaking, educated and inspired in his ideas, a man of great understanding in Jewish affairs, who had great influence at the meeting; this is the Gaon from Minsk, Rabbi Reb Leyzer Rabinovitch.”

He understood the people very well, was familiar with all of the disagreements between the parties, was beloved by all the classes, and even by the pure left and with the grace of his mind he attracted to him also the hearts of the freethinking youth. Everyone treated him with tremendous respect, and this was a great help during the Soviet period, during the revolution, when the youth reached leadership and government positions. Reb Leyzer was a kind of “Pillar of Fire” who lit the difficult period of confusion, of darkness. In every trouble or outbreak, people would run to Reb Leyzer and he encouraged and gave hope.

The Choir Synagogue functioned during the days of the Soviet rule as well, until 1921. Cantor Levinson then left Minsk for the United States. After he left, the synagogue, under the order of the Minsk “Yevseksia”, was turned into a club. The Choir Synagogue was considered a bourgeois institution that the city could do without. The other synagogues were not touched at the time.

Cantor Levinson, the last of the cantors of Minsk over 125 years, went to New York, there he worked as a cantor for 9 years, until he moved to the Land of Israel in 1935.


[Page 116]

The Thief

by Shaul Ginzburg

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 116: Shaul Ginzburg}

The author (1866-1940) is a native of Minsk. He is a well-known writer and historian. He specialized in research into the Jews of Russia in the latter generations. The chapter included here, translated from Yiddish by Y. L. Baruch, is taken from his book “Historical Writings from the Life of the Jews in Russia Under Czarist Rule”, published by Dvir, 5714 (1954).
We Jews are not angels. Rather, like all nations, we have all types of people with their fine points and faults. Naturally, there are also some criminals among the Jewish people. The time has come to liberate ourselves from the myth that Jews are uniquely compassionate and soft hearted. The ancient chronicles of Poland from the 17th and 18th centuries tell stories about Jewish thieves and murderers. In his poem “Brothers and Thieves” the famous Russian poet Pushkin described a band of thieves and mentions incidentally that among its members there is “A Jew with black locks of hair”. This is not only the fruit of the poet's imagination, but also an echo of reality, for in the first half of the 19th century, when a large portion of Russia was still covered by thick, dark forests, it was not only gentile thieves who used to hide there and use them as a base for their “activities”, but Jewish thieves as well.

When I read in the newspaper about the famous robber Dillinger[1], who stirred up all of America for a long time, and who was pursued by thousands of policemen who were unable to capture him, I remembered the Jewish thief of days gone by who was similar to that American robber in brazenness, cruelty, and alacrity.

This Jewish Dillinger carried out his “work” more than 80 years ago in the region of Minsk. To this day, the residents of that area tell various stories about him and his cruel crimes. Forty years ago, there were still people in my hometown of Minsk who had seen this Jewish thief with their own eyes. His family name was Chefetz, but he was known by his nickname Boytira (a nickname apparently derived from the Russian word “Byuni” or “Boystov”). From my youth I recall that whenever they wanted to insult someone from Minsk who was evil and strong-hearted, they would say: “He is a veritable Boytira”. This thief came from a proper family. Why did he engage in this awful profession? It is told that the Poles murdered his parents or his closest relatives during the Polish revolt of 1831. In order to avenge them, he became a thief. As is known, many cruel deeds were indeed perpetrated against the Jews at that time, and it is possible that this is true. He not only robbed and murdered Poles and Christians, but also Jews.

[Page 117]

It is said that he murdered several dozen people with his customary great cruelty during his acts of robbery. It is said that he was mentally deficient. He had no mercy for the elderly or women. There were cases where he murdered young children in a cruel fashion before the eyes of their parents. First he would break the child's head against the wall or the oven, and then he would slaughter the parents. It is worthwhile to note the following interesting detail: It is said about him that when he murdered Jews, he would first give them time to recite the confession. I heard another surprising story about him: Once Boytira attacked a Jewish passerby, stole his money and intended to murder him. This was during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The poor man pleaded with him to have mercy upon him, and said with tears: “Does your heart move you to murder a Jew now, during the Ten Days of Repentance, when every Jews is duty-bound to repent, and even the fish in the sea tremble from the upcoming Day of Judgment?” These words had their effect on the thief, who let the Jew go.

The thief conducted his “work” in the region of Minsk, especially in the area of Borisov. He attacked the farms of estate owners, houses of farmers, and individual passers-by. His friends and accomplices only assisted in large attacks. In general he conducted his activities on his own. He would hide mainly in the forests. When he was short of food, he would go to one of the farmers or nearby Jews, tell them who he was, and demand bread or other food. It goes without saying that the startled person would give him everything he asked. In such cases, Boytira would continue on his way without harming anyone. He instilled his fear upon Borisov and its environs for many years. Everybody was afraid of setting out on a journey. The mail was transported with an escort of many guards. In the villages, everyone was afraid for their property. The authorities would pursue the thief endlessly, and send army battalions against him who would hunt him, accompanied by camps of farmers. They would surround the forest in which he lived from all sides, and search for him everywhere. However, Boytira would disappear, just like Dillinger, as if he was swallowed up by the earth. He always succeeded in escaping from the snare. For some time he would uproot himself from his place and move to another place, or to a nearby region. Before long, he would trouble his new place of residence with one of his frightful deeds of pillage or murder.

During those days, the war against thieves in Russia was overseen by the state police, which was known as the “Third Division”. When it found out about the deeds of Boytira, it sent a gendarme captain from Petersburg to Minsk with the special task of utilizing all means to capture him, dead or alive. A reward was established for anyone who would capture Boytira. The chases after him were conducted with great strength, but all of this did not accomplish anything. Every time that it seemed that Boytira would finally soon be caught, he would disappear and after some time pop up in a distant place where he would perpetrate new thefts. The superstitious farmers believed that he knew some sort of incantations that thwarted all of the chases against him. When everything was quiet for some time, and nothing was heard of him, people thought that he had been shot by a bullet during a chase. However, he would quickly assert his existence through a new act of murder. Thus passed many years until the farmers finally captured him in one of the forests near the village of Lohoisk. It is told that a gentile woman who was in love with him revealed his hiding place in the forest. They chained Boytira's arms and legs with iron chains and brought him to the prison in Borisov. Soldiers guarded him day and night in a cell,

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where he was chained to the wall. The inquest began immediately. Boytira realized that he was finished, and therefore he decided to push off his end as long as possible. He thwarted the inquest and invented new accusations of crimes that he apparently perpetrated in various far off areas. Therefore, it was necessary to bring him there in order to conduct inquests in those places. It is possible that he hoped that he might succeed in escaping as they brought him from jail to jail.

The inquest became complex and dragged on longer and longer, only ending after several years. The list of his crimes, one worse than the other, was very long. Such serious cases in Russia would be adjudicated by a military court. A military committee headed by army captains was set up to judge Boytira. The thief acted with great brazenness during the trial, and he mocked the judges. In those times, there were no devices such as the electric chair. Therefore, the military court condemned Boytira to 5,000 lashes with batons. Beating with batons was harsher and more terrifying than any means of corporal punishment in the world. A person could not even tolerate 2,000-3,000 lashes, and here the court ordered 5,000! This was a virtual death sentence, to be carried out with unusual cruelty. Thus was the procedure for administering lashes by batons: Approximately 500 soldiers would be set up in two rows, one facing the other, like a column. Each soldier would carry a baton – a long, pliable branch, one quarter of a span in length. The accused would be stripped naked and a gun would be tied to each of his hands. Two vice officers would hold these guns and lead him slowly, step after step, through this dreadful column. As he was passing, each soldier would beat him on the back with his baton. If the number was 2,000, he would pass four times through the column, etc. The body of the accused would start to bleed immediately after the first blows. A physician was always present during the punishment. When the accused weakened, the physician would examine him and determine how many beatings he would still be able to endure. When the number of blows was too great, they would divide up the punishment into two parts with a break of several weeks in between, so that the accused could rest and regain is strength.

Boytira's verdict was sent to Petersburg, where it was authorized by the supreme military court. The terrible punishment was carried out immediately thereafter. The beating was administered in a wide open space outside of the city of Minsk, where physical punishments of this type were usually carried out. Thousands of people came there from the city. Farmers also came from the nearby villages in order to see how the thief who instilled his fear upon them for so long would be punished. Forty years ago, there were still people in Minsk who told about the punishment of Boytira which they witnessed with their own eyes. The elderly Dr. Fucht, who fulfilled the role of physician during the even, was still alive. He told me the details of this terrible corporal punishment. The accused behaved brazenly, cursing and mocking the officials. 3,000 blows were administered the first time. According to Dr. Fucht's description, Boytira was a man of average height, with unusual strength and with particularly strong nerves. He marched through this frightful column bleeding and crushed, without uttering a cry of pain. He finally weakened and fell to the ground. The physician examined him and determined that the he could still withstand the punishment. Then they put Boytira on a hand wagon, tied him on it, and continued to lead him through the rows of soldiers. Even now he did not scream out. Due to the pain, he gnawed on the boards of the wagon that were close to his mouth and turned them to dust.

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After Boytira withstood the first 3,000 blows, they took him to the hospital so that he could recover slightly from his severe wounds. The second half of the punishment was carried out one month later. This time he was weaker, and he had to be laid onto the hand wagon very quickly. Even this time, not one cry was heard. As he was been beaten for the second time, his body turned into a bloody mush, to the point where it was impossible to discern any sign of life. Nevertheless, Boytira still had sufficient strength to ask that he be buried in the Jewish cemetery. He gave up his iniquitous soul as he was being brought back to the prison on the wagon.

During the time of the inquest, when Boytira was incarcerated in the prison in Borisov, a moving incident took place. It was related to me by the well-known Jewish bibliographer Shmuel Weiner, who was a native of Borisov. The incident is as follows: Boytira asked procurator to summon the rabbi of Borisov to come to visit him in prison. The rabbi did not wish to see the thief, and did not fulfill the request. However, after some time, when Boytira was no longer alive, the rabbi understood that he had wronged him greatly. It is true that Boytira was a hardened criminal, but he was a Jew nevertheless. Was it is possible that he summoned the rabbi because he had regretted his terrible crimes and wishes to repent? Perhaps he wanted the rabbi to help him recite the deathbed confession? In general, it is not permitted for a person to push off the request of a person who is about to die – how can one deny such a person compassion and comfort! The heart of the rabbi of Borisov continued to bother him, he continued to agonize, and finally he was afflicted with an evil spirit and a melancholy.

Boytira's request to be given a Jewish burial was only partially fulfilled. The Chevra Kadisha (burial society) of Minsk looked into the matter and discovered that it was impossible to give him a place inside the cemetery itself, so they buried him outside the fence. A mound of earth was set up there, covered with grass, and without a gravestone. Everyone knew that this was the resting placed of Boytira's bones. When children came there, they felt themselves duty bound to spit on the heap and to sully the grave of the thief, whose name their mothers reminded them of frequently in order to scare them[2].

This is the story of the famous Jewish thief, about whom legends are still told to this day. In the many stories that are told about Boytira, we find strange psychological contradictions: great, unrelenting cruelty on the one hand, and the “Jewish spark” which was without doubt found in the soul of this terrible criminal on the other hand; murder, and fear of the Ten Days of Repentance; in addition the request to be given a Jewish burial. How could such variegated feelings reside together in the soul of a single person? People who study criminal psychology do not see anything novel here. They know that contradictions such as this are found with some frequency. Fifty years ago in Minsk, there was a band of thieves occupied in deeds of robbery. Among this band was an elderly Jew, who looked more like a rabbi or a clergyman than a thief. During the trial it became clear that this elderly thief never went out to “work” with his friends at night unless he had first recited the Maariv service. Who can delve into the dark depths of the human soul, especially when it becomes submerged in the crime and iniquity!



Translator's Footnotes:
1 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dillinger. Return
2 There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “The fascinating topic of the “Thief Boytira” was rendered into a dramatic form by the poet Moshe Kolbak. The play is called “Boytira the Thief” and the National Jewish Theatre of Moscow presented it on stage. (See the article on this page in the Morgan-Freiheit newspaper from November 20, 1936.” Return


[Page 120]

A Page from the
Annals of Jewish Education in Russia

by L. Lavenda

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author (1835-1888) was a Jewish-Russian author from Minsk. Read about him on page 179 of our book. The following article, translated from Russian, is from Yevreiska Biblioteka (The Jewish Library), 1873.

In his interesting article, “The History of the Haskala among Russian Jews”[1], M. Margolis touches upon the city of Minsk only superficially, when he speaks about the fierce opposition encountered there by Dr. Lilienthal[2] from the extremist Orthodox party, which had the greatest level of influence in the city. However this opposition was not the final word of the Jews about this matter, which aroused great interest among Count Ubarov and other enlightened statesmen of that period. After the harsh words[3] of the elders of the community of Minsk, words that have not lost their significant practical meaning despite being over 30 years old, an honorable era in the annals of the Haskala of Russian Jews arrived beyond all expectations – both on account of its sources and on account of its practical results. I will tell about this era from my childhood memories, which not only are not erased from my mind, but are indeed preserved in great detail as if they happened just yesterday and not some 25 years previous.

Dr. Lilienthal's three week sojourn in Minsk was not for naught with respect to the activity for which he had come. The arrival into the extremist Orthodox community of a doctor who did not tend to the sick, but rather offered ceaseless counsel to healthy people, at first caused confusion, then fear, and finally anger. This perforce would arouse great agitation in the minds, and would later turn into a strong movement. The elderly and the youth, the rich and the poor, all began to talk about schools at any opportunity. They would castigate Dr. Lilienthal as the chief instigator of iniquity who was liable to lead Jews off the straight path of religion and tradition. Even though we cheder students went in to the synagogue in the evenings to read chapters of Psalms to beseech G-d to prevent this disaster that was looming over us; even though we never ceased to hear fear mongering about the school and matters associated with it – despite all this we felt for some reason and even hoped that G-d would not listen to our prayers, and that the disaster that was threatening us would indeed fall upon our heads. I do not know how the progressive faction related to Lilienthal's programs, or if there even was such a faction in Minsk, even though there were several enlightened people, or more precisely, scholarly people, among the wealthy citizens of the city. However, this I know – we children, who had been trained to have a deathly fear of the school, to the joy of our teachers, and who chased after the doctor's sled and threw snowballs at him – really wished him

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full success, and we waited impatiently for the new school as an fascinating novelty. Indeed, we believed fully in the torments that were apparently perpetrated on the school children – they especially pointed out to us the blackboards and the classroom benches that we frequently saw in the yard of the religious school and which we regarded as implements of torture. However, for some reason we were convinced that on account of our diligence and talents, we would not be brought to justice, i.e. that the torments would not befall us… and that we would be very happy about the school, especially with regard to the innovations which our own teachers, our angels of destruction, were deathly afraid of. With respect to the danger that was lurking at our own religion due to the school, we did not understand why an alphabet primer on grey paper that one could purchase in a store for five kopecks and that was allowed to be torn and trampled underfoot – why such a thing as this could even have any affect on our holy, ancient religion with its Torah scrolls which one could not touch with a bare hand, and with the rest of our holy, solid values? What did one need to be afraid of?

As we saw, the efforts that were begun by Dr. Lilienthal were not for naught, and they continued on.

About a year and a half after Lilienthal left Minsk, Semyonov, the district minister of Minsk, with the agreement and assistance of the elders of the community of Minsk, enlisted approximately twenty Jewish school children, including girls, all who were homeless orphans without a mother and a father, cut their hair, dressed them in uniforms and placed them in the Minsk orphanage with full support under the supervision of the religion teacher and kashruth expert[*1] Chaim Vigdorchik. This laid the foundation for the great enterprise which until this time was restricted to an exchange of ideas and letters. It is worthwhile to note that this experiment by the Minsk regional minister, unique in its kind, did not give rise to any rumors or slander amongst the Jews. On the contrary, everyone related to it with appreciation: the wealthy did not skimp in financial donations, the rabbi frequently visited the residents of the orphanage and gave them appropriate directives. The community itself was almost proud that the government did not withhold itself from heaping praise on Jewish children for their diligence, success in studies, and fine character traits, to the point where they began to present them as examples to their Christian friends. The residents of the orphanage, all clean and tidy, were invited to dine at the tables of the wealthy Jews of the city on Sabbaths and festivals. The hosts would inquire to see that they were not forced to kiss the cross and were not tormented in any way. The guests would answer negatively. For were the Jews not satisfied to have these children, who were regarded as scapegoats for the entire community, conclude the matter for which the infidel from abroad had come to start, and into which the government had invested so much energy? Would the community not be content to willingly sacrifice a few hairs of the heads of homeless orphans in order to save the remainder, the Jewish youth who were not homeless, from the government attacks that became progressively more stubborn and successful?... It seems to us that we must respond to these questions affirmatively without hesitation, especially since the Jews of Minsk were not nearly as calm or submissive with respect to the further developments of this matter by the district minister Semyonov as they were with the first experiment.

The second step was not taken directly by the district minister, but rather by the Jewish activist David the son of Aharon Luria, with the support of the minister. As a child of very wealthy and respected parents, who had a strict orthodox but not fanatical education, it was as if Luria foresaw from the outset his future task of the education of his Minsk co-religionists. He began very early on to acquire European education, so that at the beginning of the 1840s, aside from his usual knowledge

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of Talmud, he was almost fluent in Hebrew, German, and French, and was familiar with the best of European literature. He became known throughout the Jewish environment as a freethinker, that is to say an enlightened man, who nevertheless honored his traditions. His freethinking reached such a level that he satisfied himself with relatively modest material possessions, to the extent that it enabled him to live only in a meager fashion. Since he avoided seeking monetary gain, he was distant from the world of commerce and dedicated all of his time to books. Therefore, among the superstitious circles of Minsk Jewry he was considered to be a sorcerer. Jokes were told about him that would even have done honor to Count Saint Germain or Bosko. Not engaging in business, not becoming ensnared with material benefits, loving books – this was above the conceptual grasp of the masses! Therefore, it was clear to everybody that Luria was no ordinary person from the marketplace.

It became clear that the masses were not so mistaken in their suspicions. Luria was indeed an unusual man. The subsequent events clearly demonstrated the degree of burning love for erudition, organizational talents and innovation that were buried within this strange scion of businessmen who made light of the business acumen of people of his economic class. When he entered the stage of communal activity, he began to work with dedication, courage and energy that are typical of people who are whole-heartedly convinced of he justice of their ideas, and are dedicated to them without bounds. Despite the adage “a lone person cannot succeed in battle”, Luria always fought alone against large masses of extremists and he fomented a revolution in the hearts of his fellow townsfolk. He only descended from the arena when the enterprise for which he was fighting was crowned with definitive, irrevocable success, and when the government approached him not for assistance, which he did not need, but in order to replace him so that they could reap that which he had sown with a broad hand.

There is basis to believe that the experiment of the district minister Semyonov, which was crowned with almost full success, completely convinced Luria that it would be best to begin the revolution in the education of Jewish youth from the bottom up – that is, instead of conducting endless debates and battles with the stubborn, wealthy, and most traditional classes of the community, it would be best to present a practical example to the non-wealthy who would be more amenable to the benefits of proper education in a school as opposed to the home or cheder. Therefore Luria's first action was to introduce new, proper foundations into the Talmud Torah which was based on Talmudic teaching with flawed methodology. Since the teaching material was already available, it would be easier to activate the rational methodologies based on general pedagogical principles that were foreign to Jews. As was expected, Luria ran into an almost insurmountable obstacle with his first step. The organized religious Aguda regarded the Talmud Torah as under its own supervision and as its own possession, which it must defend without bounds. This is exactly what the Aguda did. Headed by its zealous trustees, it went out to battle against the enemy that was threatening its own private possession. Curses and threats were cast upon Luria's head. The zealots did everything in their power to disrupt, for they suspected that this was a serious situation. However Luria stood strong against the first storm and subsequent storms of angry zeal, even though he was alone in the battlefield, without any allies even from among his relatives, who regarded this brazen activity as madness worthy of castigation and mockery. However he found strength in the deep understanding of the benefits and the necessity of the task that he set before himself. He went forth in giant, strong steps, without any doubt about his success.

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After a long, harsh battle, Luria was finally able to wrest the Talmud Torah from the hands of the extremist Aguda, which laid down its weapons in the face of this tireless fighter. Therefore, he established the basis of the building that would later cause excitement and even joy to his opponents.

In order to sever all connections of the institution to its gloomy past, and thereby to ease the adoption of brave innovations, Luria moved the Talmud Torah from its dirty courtyard, from its old, dark building, to a light, spacious and comfortable building on a clean, broad street. He provided the students with undergarments, shoes and uniforms, thereby turning the poor, shabby, unkempt youths into neat youths. He then began to teach these youths in the style of European educational institutions.

Instead of the lackadaisical teaching methodology focusing solely on Talmud, he introduced a curriculum with various subjects to the Talmud Torah. The subjects included Bible, Talmud, morality, Hebrew, Russian, arithmetic, geography and penmanship. The unenlightened teachers who had no concept of pedagogy cleared their spaces for wise teachers, including Liebman[4] for Jewish studies and Y. Levin for general studies. The former was known as an expert in Talmud and as a great scholar of the Hebrew language. He was known for his pedagogical activity in the city of Vilna. The latter was one of the best private teachers in the city of Minsk. In addition to these senior teachers, there were junior teachers who were later assisted by assistants chosen from amongst the best of the students. Diligent supervision was imposed upon the school staff, with support for the diligent and proper teachers, and penalties for those who were lax. The living spirit in all of the new order, both administrative and pedagogical, was the supervisor himself – David Luria, who worked day and night in nurturing the institution which he established. He encouraged the teachers and students, removed obstacles, and fine tuned the educational methodologies without holding back from making expenditures from his own private funds, for the financial means of the Talmud Torah were, as usual, quite restricted. It is a wonder how an autodidact who never studied in a formal school could perform so well in the pedagogical field and conduct the school in such a practical manner that was impressive to any professional pedagogue who followed his professional career for a long period. Luria knew very well how and with what to influence the hearts of his young charges who came into his care half wild. He knew how to inspire in this unruly mass the love of order, cleanliness, intellectual development, and moral completion. In short, he knew – and he was almost the only one who knew – how to raise the Talmud Torah student from the darkness and march him toward light. From where did he draw his knowledge and abilities? Apparently, from his honest diligence and burning love for the enterprise which he loved to serve.

The faithful diligence of David Luria and his closest assistants was quickly crowned with the appropriate success. Within a short period of time, the Minsk Talmud Torah reached a stage of development that no other school opened by the government ever reached at a later time. Such schools were called “Jewish Government Schools” and had quite adequate budgets and teachers with proper accreditation. The educational leadership never ceased to be amazed about the speed and enthusiasm with which the students of the new institution grasped all of their subjects. They testified to this in the registry book which was established for that purpose. It is appropriate to mention in favor of the Jews of Minsk – not only did they

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make peace with their enemy, but they also began to regard his activities with appreciation and admiration, for they saw it as effective from all perspectives. The students of the Talmud Torah attracted attention not only for their diligence, but also for their politeness and honesty, and for the fact that they were not damaged by studying various subjects. As a proof as of the great level of appreciation for David Luria's communal activities, we can bring down the fact that several synagogues conducted daily public prayers for his recovery when he became seriously ill. The fear of losing this communal activist caused so much worry that even his former opponents began to regard the matter as acceptable before G-d.

The success of the Talmud Torah was so attractive that after some time the wealthy citizens of the city, who at first were vehemently opposed to the school, now wanted their own children to attend this school, for they realized that they should be ashamed in front of the orphans! They had received a superior education, so that with the passage of time they had become more educated and wise than their own dear children who had been educated by the old, inferior methodology. The wealthy people decided that they too must do something daring as fitting to the new spirit of the times, to which they had begun to acknowledge its existence. As a result of this, with the support of the merchants, a school for the children of the merchants was opened. The job of chief supervisor was given to David Luria, who had started to be regarded as the magician of Jewish education. The school was opened with great fanfare and festivity. There was music, speeches, flowers, sweets, and toasts. Russian, German, French, arithmetic and geography were taught. The teachers were Mr. Levin for Russian and science, and Mr. Melzer for German and French. Almost all of the children of the merchants of Minsk were among their students. It seems that everyone was convinced of its success… however to our dismay, success did not come and was not possible. Aside from the fact that the children of the merchants had been ruined to a large degree by the home style education and were cypriots[*2], rude and lazy, not wanting to obey the rules of the school; the organization of the school itself was a very great obstacle, against which even David Luria, who fulfilled more of an honorary role than an executive role, was powerless to do anything. The reason was that the merchants, who recognized the benefits of communal education over home-based education but had not decided to put an end to the habits that had become so dear to them, hoped to arrange matters so that the wolf would be satiated and the lamb would be whole. They wanted to arrange that their half-wild children, who had formerly been under the care of the melamdim, would attend the school for only two hours a day in order to become familiar with the languages. This unsuccessful compromise hindered the development of the school and half ensured that it would never live up to its expectations. The melamdin, out of a natural tendency for self protection, incited the students against the school and its routines, and mocked and derided the pedagogic tactics of the enlightened teachers. They succeeded in their goal. The students found in the dark, slanderous words of the melamdim reason to justify their laziness. They began to hate the school, its subjects and teachers. They began to deride the lessons, and later to skip them completely, to the point where the school had to be closed because it was ineffective from all perspectives. The merchants did not have sufficient will or understanding to reestablish the school on rational foundations. To them, the old guard was more suitable and comfortable, so they returned to it. It is possible that they were also satisfied that their experience did not succeed. In this way, the compromise between the cheder and the school failed definitively. This was a compromise that Luria would have prevented

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had he had the power to run the school for the children of the merchants in the same manner and with the same level of independence as he ran the Talmud Torah.

Despite this failure, the topic of the school had become such a popular and satisfying topic of conversation among the Jews of Minsk, that a year and a half after the renewal of the Talmud Torah, David Luria saw that one should take hold of the iron while it was still hot, and saw it possible to open a school for the middle class who would not want to study in the institution for orphans. This school, called Midrash Ezrachim, opened in 1845. It was organized according to the paradigm of the Talmud Torah with the sole exception that the students had to pay a tuition fee of 12 ruble a year. This was a significant sum in those days, when the tuition for the gymnasium was 5 rubles. The subjects were the same as those of the Talmud Torah, with the addition of German. The teachers were V. Liebman the brother of the teacher of the Talmud Torah, Mr. Levin, Luria himself who taught bible and morality in the upper classes, as well as two or three other teachers of the second rank for the lowest class. The Lancaster methodology was used, particularly for the general subjects. The external facilities of the school were splendid, almost excessive, with very spacious classrooms and halls for spare time, a large yard, a garden, and a detention room. Luria did not hesitate to utilize his own financial means for this facility, which was not inexpensive, since he knew how great the influence of fine facilities would be on the spirits of the Jewish children. Luria was not incorrect: the students quickly became uncomfortable about attending school in clean rooms if they were unkempt, if their hair was not combed, or if their clothes were not pressed. They began to pay more attention to their externals, which had been neglected completely with their Jewish education. Thus, without using too many words to nurture a love of cleanliness and order among the Jewish students, Luria succeeded in ensuring that the students of the Midrash Ezrachim would begin to concern themselves with their external appearance as inspired by the physical environment of the school that surrounded them. This in turn made their parents happy, for to their great joy, cleanliness and neatness made their children more healthy and lively.

The student population reached 100, and at times even more than that. If we take into account that in the government schools that opened up later, where the tuition was free, the number of students varied between 15 and 20 even in the district cities; we can appreciate how great was the faith that the Jewish parents placed in Luria and his educational enterprise, whereas previously they distanced themselves from him as a Satanic person. Luria earned this faith on account of his deep understanding of the needs of the Jewish youth, and his ability to provide for those needs.

Luria imbued a great deal of love and diligence into Midrash Ezrachim – traits which characterized his work in the Talmud Torah, and which led to the same results. This new enterprise enjoyed bright success. The students revered their patron and withheld no efforts in order to earn his praise. Each one tried to surpass the other in diligence and good behavior. In this noble competition, they earned nothing more than a supportive look and a good word from their revered patron, from whose mouth a rebuke was considered to be the most serious punishment. The hearts of the young, uncorrupted children would be disturbed if they somehow hurt the man who worked so diligently for their happiness, without expectation of reward. In his free time, Mr. Luria would gather the students of the highest grade around him and discuss various topics with them that were not included in the set curriculum, thereby broadening their circle of knowledge and awakening in them a love of knowledge and moral completeness.

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During these discussions, which took the form of popular lectures, Mr. Luria would often touch on one Jewish custom or another that had already become outmoded, and explain its source and the reason for continued existence until this time. In short, he attempted to the best of his ability to develop and educate the children who were given into his charge, and to whom he dedicated his entire essence. These discussions became etched in the memories of the young audience, for they were not pedantic or heavy. Luria was adept at conversation and storytelling. He would tell his stories in a light, humorous style which would keep the listeners away from boredom and weariness, which would invariably accompany a boring speaker. As is typical of the social mores of youths, the students later discussed their impressions of the school discussions with their parents and family members. In this manner, they brought the light of enlightenment into the home environment of the Jews of Minsk. Thus did Luria's spiritual influence reach not only into the institution that was under his supervision, but also outside of its bounds where it was doubly effective. Were Lilienthal to come at this point to Minsk, he would not recognize the wild ones of the past who wished to stone him for his heretical actions. The revolution in the thinking patterns of the Jews was indeed astonishing, especially since it was effected through the activities of a single person. Pay attention! One man! From this perspective, we must acknowledge the superiority of David Luria over the activists of Vilna in the 1840s, who functioned as a united power, forming a united group and assisted by the newspapers; whereas Luria was missing all of these accoutrements. They were apparently unnecessary for him, for he replaced them with his tireless diligence and his faithful love of education.

Thus was the situation until the latter part of 1846, when to the dismay of all the Jews of Minsk, the Talmud Torah and Midrash Ezrachim were closed by order of the government, which was then attempting to open government schools in Minsk. Thanks to the successful work of David Luria over a four year period, which led to the Jews of Minsk making peace with the idea of school education, the schools which then opened were overflowing with students, most of whom were alumnae of the institutions that had been closed. The Talmud Torah reverted to its former locale in the school courtyard, under the direction of its former unenlightened teachers.

David Luria descended from the stage. He was awarded the Stanislaw stripe medal a few years later due to his great efforts and material sacrifices that he made. He was also the focus of a brief poem at the end of the booklet “The Buds” (Hanitzanim) by A. B. Gotlober. Why was he not inducted at least as a national member of the “Organization for the Spreading of Enlightenment Among the Jews of Russia” – this we do not know.



Text Footnotes:
1 Yevreiska Biblioteka (Russian), volume I. Return
2 Dr. Max Lilienthal (1815-1882), a rabbi and education from Germany, was summoned in 1841 by the Russian minister of Education Ubarov to conduct a publicity campaign for the benefit of enlightened education amongst the Jews of the Pale of Settlement. See about his visit to Minsk on page 47 – a note from the editor. Return
3 Ibid, Volume I, paged 152, 153. “As long as the state does not grant the Jews rights of citizens, education is liable to be only a disaster.” Return
4 He died in May 1873 in Minsk in a situation of poverty, since he did not receive a pension despite his 17 years of service at the school. In his latter years, he lived off of donations from the late benefactor Zissel Rappaport and other benefactors in Minsk. Return



Translator's Footnotes:
*1Under the context, this may mean “expert in supervision” – i.e. general supervision rather than the ritual sense of the term. Return
*2I am not sure of the implications of the term here, obviously used as slang. Return

 

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