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Jewish Souls

by A. Litvin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, Shmuel Horowitz (1862-1942) was a well-known Jewish writer under his literary pseudonym A. Litvin. He was one of the founders of the Minsk chapter of Poale Zion. See more about him on pages 423-425 of our book.
The three first articles, from Litvins's book “Yiddishe Neshamos” (Jewish Souls), were translated from Yiddish by Nachum Chinitz. The article “Sixty Years at his Post”, transcribed from his book “Neshamos BeYisrael” (Souls in Israel), was translated from Yiddish by A. Kariv, published by Am-Oved, Tel Aviv, 5704 (1944).

 

The End of an Editor

He stands before my eyes as if alive. Lean, short, with a black cloak, spotted with yellow and green spots on his shoulders, with a black hat, soft, with a dusty, spotted coat. He walked through the streets of the city as a shadow, bent over with his cane in his hand. There was an ancient book under his shoulders – for he did not value the new ones. He did not even taste a special taste in Bialik, and did not understand why many people visited him. The elderly Wahlman was a fighter, a revolutionary in Haskalah. He had a place in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. He was held in great esteem. The elderly Minsk millionaire Poliak was his student, and declared that it was virtue to be numbered among the students of Wahlman. With his knowledge and rhetoric he hovered among the prominent and wealthy householders, and in his day to day life, he was one of the common folk. He lived in a dismal cottage. He wrote poems in Yiddish, and humorous portraits from the life of the people. His book “Veibishe Kniplech” (“Bundles for Women”) was loved by all the girls and women. He was also an editor. He published a publication called “Hakochavim”, in which the finest of the Hebrew writers of that era participated. However, all of the publications and subscription money were burnt in a fire.

Until his last year, he gave private lessons. He lived a life of poverty until his 80s. When his energy declined, the wealthy men of Minsk allotted him two rubles per month from the “Chonen Dalim” committee. He waited in line in the cold and frost week by week in order to obtain his allotment of a half a ruble. One day, he fainted from weakness. He was brought into the nearby bookstore and revived with great effort. He entered an old age home at the age of 92, at which point they stopped giving him the two rubles.

Fate smiled; the ethnographic society in Peterburg remembered that Wahlman was a comprehensive treasury of Jewish history and culture. A short time before his death, they recommended that he write his memoirs. The society only ignored one fact -- that in order to write one's memoirs, an elderly man must also eat to satiation, so that his fingers would be able to hold a pen…

Death came and redeemed him from all tribulations and from the kindness of the Peterburg society.

 

The Tragedy of the Hebrew Mark Twain

Yosef Brill (Iyo”v of Minsk) was 80 years old when I visited him in his home. He had a special, unique place in Hebrew literature. He was a type of Hebrew Mark Twain. He wrote his satire in the forms of books rather than feullitons, but he became attached to a new style, the style of Midrash

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and Gemara. His satires were published with the general title “Midrash Sofrim”. This was a wonderful literary imitation of the language of the Gemara.

It was literally a holiday to the readers of the Peretz Smolenskin's “Hashachar” when they found Brill's “Midrash Sofrim”. The satire was biting. No favoritism was played. Nevertheless, the “victims” licked their fingers. Brill relates: Once the “Midrash” wrote about Smolenskin himself. We sent the “Midrash” to him. Later, he was sorry about this. He thought that this was the end of his participation in “Hashachar”. How surprised was he when he saw his Midrash in the “Hashachar” booklet. When he met Smolenskin, he asked him, “How can it be! How did a person publish a criticism of himself?” “But this was wonderful, the main thing was that everything was proper and good, true and firm,” Smolenskin retorted with a smile on his lips.

Even at the age of 80, the elderly Brill did not put down his satirical pen. He showed me “The Abridged Code of Jewish Law for the Wealthy” in the satirical, Midrashic style. Here are a few excerpts:

Paragraph 13, for those who go bankrupt: Someone who goes bankrupt blessed “shecheyanu[*1]. It is not every day that a miracle takes place for those who go bankrupt. In the tractate “Shtarot” there is a discussion about whether one must make two blessings, first “al netilat yadayim”, and second “shehechayanu”. However the law goes with the latter teaching and one must bless “shehechayanu”.

Paragraph 26, laws for summer vacationers: For all the days of the summer vacation, the vacationers are exempt from charitable deeds, and various payments. Their children are exempt from studies, prayers, and all types of commandments and customs. The parents do not pay the rebbes and teachers anything.

Brill gave private lessons even during his old age. With swollen feet, he made his way with difficulty to the houses of Jews who remembered the grace of his youth. The “Mafitzei Haskalah” society of Peterburg and its Minsk chapter granted him a one time grant of 125 rubles.

He authored a six volume Talmudic lexicon, as well as the “Maane Lashon” book on weeping and elegies. Brill took this book into his hands, began to read it to me, and burst out in weeping as tears choked his throat. That man who desired to elicit laughter and mocking with his satire was now, with his final work, attempting to elicit weeping and tears.

 

Simcha the Shoemaker

Who did not know Simcha the Shoemaker[1] of Minsk? He was the only proletariat Maskil. He was the son of an impoverished man. His father, a former owner of estates, had lost his property through a fire and became impoverished. His son Simcha came to Minsk and became a shoemaker. He was not a great expert in shoemaking. He was primarily immersed in Haskalah. At his first opportunity, he would free himself from his apron and workbench and set out to the street with a bundle of books and newspapers under his arm in order to listen to and hang out with Maskilim. He was an “in-law” among the writers. He constantly bragged: “I soled half boots for Zusnich, I fixed the soles of Mezach's shoes, I was close to Tsharny, I was like a brother to Ber Bampi and Reb Zisla Rappoport (wealthy Minsk Maskilim), I was close with Dr. Luntz.”

If a Maskil came as a guest, Simcha the Shoemaker would immediately be with him. He would visit Simcha the Shoemaker and return with the soles of his shoes repaired – a free gift.

His own shoes were not particularly whole, and his clothes were not patched. There were no

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whole benches in his house, and his window panes were not in good repair. He was not always able to give a meager amount to his wife for a morsel of bread and impoverished grit soup. Despite this, Simcha had one of the finest libraries in Minsk. Hundreds of yeshiva students and poor lads obtained their literary knowledge from Simcha the Shoemaker. When a good book came out, Simcha hastened to purchase it. Simcha went hungry on more than one occasion on account of his love for his library. Simcha did not care if hunger afflicted him on occasion. This was not the case with his wife, who desired food in full portions.

With Simcha, Haskalah and fear of heaven were intermixed. He loved the freethinking Hebrew writers, but he also loved and esteemed religious Jews and rabbis. Throughout his life, he served Reb Gershon Tanchum, the elder, renowned rabbi of Minsk. Only a thin section of wall separated between them. When Simcha's oven was hot and fully stoked, the elderly rabbi came to warm up. At times, the rabbi would visit Simcha after midnight and read his compositions to him. Simcha would read the new Haskalah books to the rabbi. When Rabbi Gershon Tanchum became bedridden during his final years, Simcha did not leave his bed, day and night.

Simcha was approximately 70 years old when the Russian Revolution broke out. He gave up his shoemaking shop and wandered by foot to southern Russian. He set out for the synagogue when he reached Yekatrinaslav. He felt some emptiness in his heart, a sort of distance from Lithuania! There, after the prayers they would study Mishna, Ein Yaakov and Midrash. Here, however, the neglect was great. Through his initiative an Ein Yaakov group and a Bible study group were formed. Simcha the shoemaker became a sort of preacher and lecturer.

Pogroms broke out. Simcha returned to Minsk while he still had the energy. No trace was left of his library, for his wife had sold all his books. Old age caught up with him. He returned to his workbench and anvil, and waited for purchasers and customers, for he still had the energy to sew shoes. However, even the repair jobs were scarce. His livelihood was based upon repairs.

 

Sixty Years at his Post

I met him on the street during one of my visits to Minsk and was very surprised. I had read in one of the newspapers that he had died, and here he was before my eyes, alive and well. I immediately realized that one of the tricksters had hastened to publish an obituary for the old man so that he could see his name in print.

I was very happy to see my first Russian Language teacher alive. Who in my city had not been a student of this old man? Which lad of Minsk, whether from a wealthy or poor family, did not obtain his education from Leder's school?

He served the Haskalah and the residents of Minsk for 60 years – double the years of army service during the days of Nikolai I plus ten years. He began his service when he was 18 years old, and ended it when he was 78 years old.

Who in Minsk did not know Leder? Among whom was the impression of his dark face, apparently ugly, but nevertheless very characteristic and so beloved, not known? Anyone who saw him even once could not forget him.

He was the teacher of the Jews in the school for 60 years – from the days that the winds of the Haskalah began to blow (using a metaphor) until the storm of the revolution began. The first birds of the spring of Haskalah sat in his school; and perhaps on the very same benches, for the benches were quite ancient, sat their grandchildren in workers' shirts, listening to classes from the well-known revolutionary Grygory Gershuni every evening.

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Years passed and years came. News ideas and new world outlooks blossomed and withered away, as new movements and new people took their places, conquering the world, then disappearing as well, leaving behind new generations with new aspirations. All this time, he, Leder, remained on his guard and taught the Jewish children things whose time had not passed. He taught them the Yiddish and Russian languages, prepared them for the struggle of life, and eased the struggle of life for them to the extent that he was able.

Leder did not educate his students more than teaching them how to read and write to the extent that is needed for day to day life. He himself was not highly educated. He did not read many books. He told me that many years earlier, he had even tried to write an article for a newspaper, but they did not print it. Once he shared with me in confidence that he was writing a diary, but I am sure that the diary was lost and even forgotten by him for some time already. Leder was not at all like one of those Maskilim whose spirit is not calm, and whose soul pines after some idea. Teaching was simultaneously his profession and the aim of his soul. He stood at his podium for decades and taught generations of students the same grammatical principles and the same arithmetic questions – everything calmly and pleasantly. Leder never went forth beyond his bounds. He never raised his voice or cast gall upon any student. His face never lost its natural calmness and munificent, lackadaisical smile. Therefore, he was beloved by his students.

As in every place within the Jewish areas, new schools with new teachers who brought new teaching methodologies also arrived in Minsk -- they arose and also disappeared. Leder's school was not concerned about competition. He stood strong. Leder always had families of householders as well as poor people who passed to him from generation to generation as an inheritance. Many of his students studied at half tuition or for completely free. The city council paid several dozen rubles a year for them. Even those who did pay paid somewhat meagerly, not on time, or even not at all. Leder was not exacting with them. Therefore, those who did not have the means to pay preferred to send their students to Leder, even though everyone knew that his school was already aging somewhat.

Most of his students, the children of the masses, did not conclude school. When they had studied a bit of arithmetic and a bit of reading and writing, they set out to search for a “purpose”: some in a store, some at a trade, and some at a trade school. No small number of his students, who had received their first push toward Haskalah from him, went on to complete their studies in secondary and high schools. Leder has many doctors, lawyers, engineers, technologists and the like among his former students.

The cultural activities of Gershuni in Minsk played themselves out in Leder's school. Gershuni was the first one to set up evening classes for youths and adults among the Jewish people of Russia. He did this with great toil and effort. He was forced to house these lessons in Leder's school, as it was beyond political suspicion in the eyes of the authorities. The classes were set up especially for the Yeshiva students. However, many youths with black and red shirts were also there.

Leder's school was closed only at the time of the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. He no longer had the energy to maintain it by itself. In any case, he was still teaching there several hours a day. Leder had never been a big spender. New clothes were never seen upon him. From the day that I knew him, it seems to me that he was wearing the same old, stained hat, and the same old coat – a hybrid between a modern jacket and an old style kapote. He deported himself like a poor householder, and his face always bore the smile of a person who was satisfied with his lot.

That day when I met him in the street, as he was sitting on a stool in front of the gate, age was already

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beginning to sap his strength. His appearance was that of a ruin about to collapse. Six or seven years previously, he would greet me when he met me on the street. Now he did not recognize me anymore. He only recognized me after I gave him a few signs, and his face expressed satisfaction. During the previous year, it never happened that one of his former students stopped him and asked about his wellbeing and his activities.

He was still continuing with his work a few years previously, giving classes in the Talmud Torah. However, during the previous year, both his feet and his mind stopped working properly. On a nice day he was still able to go out of the door of his house and walk the distance of a few houses. However, even them he had to rest on a stool on occasion.

“Where is your place? From where do you get your livelihood?” I asked him.

“Here I am at my house,” he answered me, “but I do not take anything; thank G-d, I do not take anything from any person,” he continued on, as his eyes glittered, and a satisfied, almost happy smile came over his face. “Praised be G-d, I have walked on the earth for 78 years, and have not benefitted from other people, have not encroached on my fellow, and never responded to a slight with a slight. Everybody is my friend, and I am a friend of everybody. I earned my bread honestly throughout all my days…”

“Who gives you your livelihood now?” I asked him, “Do your friends help you in your old age?”

“The Czar gives me!” he responded with pride, “I do not need the help of anyone. I receive an allocation of 12 rubles a month, which is sufficient for me. For what are my needs?”

I realized that from the time he began to runt he school, for duration of 40 or 50 years, they would deduct some of his salary. That was the source of the 12 rubles per month “which the Czar gives to him.”
“And the city?” I asked, “Indeed you worked for 60 consecutive years. It would seem to be that half of the residents of Minsk were your students. Does the city help you at all? Do the trustees of the Talmud Torah, in which you worked for many years, help you?”

“No, the city does not give me anything, nor does the Talmud Torah”

Ingrates! The weak, elderly man served the residents of Minsk for 60 years, and nobody cares about him or even thinks about how he lives and how he is spending the end of his days.

I expressed my complaint to the ears of the old man. However, he turned to me with the simultaneous expression of a cold spirit and a satisfied spirit.

“No, no… I have no complaints. Praised be G-d that my life has passed me by with honesty. I never took anything from anybody. I never damaged anybody… I am satisfied with my lot… However, but… at times my heart desires something… something sour or salty… Eating does not attract me at all… at all…”
This was the only thing that the soul of the old man desired…


Text Footnotes:
1 He was the father of the Jewish writer David Kassel. See further on in the article of A. Lisin, page 261 – the Malbih”d. Return



Translator's Footnotes:
*1Shehechayanu is the blessing recited upon wearing a new garment, eating a new fruit, experiencing certain types of special occasions, or on the festivals. Al Netilat Yadayim is the blessing recited upon washing the hands on arising in the morning or before partaking of a meal. Shtarot means contracts or documents (there is no such tractate in the Talmud). Return


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Memories of a Yeshiva Boy

by Alexander Ziskind Horvitz

Translated by Jerrold Landau

This chapter, translated from Yiddish, is taken from the book “Memories of Two Generations” by Rev. Alexander Ziskind Horvitz, a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and Hebrew teacher in the city of San Antonio, Texas, part I, 5695 (1935).
The author was born in Minsk in the year 5620 (1859). During his childhood, he studied in the towns near Minsk – Rakov, Kapolia, and Ivanovich. When he was 12 years old, he was a Yeshiva student, studying in Uzda, and Berezin [Byarezino]. When he was 14, in the year 5634 (1874), he began to study in the Yeshiva of Minsk.

“Exile yourself to a place of Torah”[1], our sages used to say, and Minsk is a place of Torah. There are many yeshivas of all types in Minsk. There I can study in yeshiva, and I won't have to worry about food. I have a sister, Rivka, there, as well as uncles, aunts and cousins from my father's side. Aside from my sister, all are wealthy.

However, we made our calculations without a wealthy householder, and our relatives did not want to recognize these calculations. During all my time in Minsk, I did not eat at their table even once. My paternal relatives in Minsk were just like my maternal relatives in Uzda – the common factor among them was that they were like pigs. However, Uzda is a small town, and therefore their piggishness was less than the people of Minsk, the large city. However, since I did not know this, I placed great hopes in my relatives, and was very anxious to travel to Minsk.

However, there was another reason for my desire to travel to Minsk. Go out and see what a 14 year old lad dreams about. I heard Father explaining to Mother on a festival that he had been in Minsk, and Uncle Leizer Ish–Karelitz told him then that he wished to take me as a groom for his granddaughter. He would support me in his house, provide me with all my needs, teach me until the wedding, and sustain me until I would become a rabbi. When I heard about the two successes coming to me: that I would be a groom and later a rabbi, I certainly desired to travel to Minsk! I waited impatiently for the end of the festival, and then I set out for Minsk with a wagon driver to meet up with what had been discussed.

I arrived in Minsk, went to my sister Rivka, and told her that Father had sent me to study in Minsk and to meet up with Uncle Leizer. I did not tell her that I wanted to see his granddaughter. Early the next morning, I dressed up nicely, curled my peyos [sidelocks], and put on my Sabbath clothes – for I was going to meet the bride! With a fearful heart, I approached the door of their home on the second floor. I grabbed onto the door handle with hands trembling with fear. I stood for a long time, not daring to open the door. Thousands of thoughts went through my young mind. Who knows what would take place there? Would he like me, or, Heaven forbid, perhaps he would not like me? What are we talking about here? I am a yeshiva boy. I have never spoken to a girl, especially to a bride who would make me into a rabbi!

In that manner, I stood next to the door immersed in my thoughts, as Eliezer the servant of Abraham stood at the well while going to take a wife for Isaac. Without noticing, I opened the door, and my eyes immediately saw the purpose that had brought me to Minsk. She was a slight girl with red hair braided into two small braids, like two mice–tails. She had a thin face, freckled arms, a long nose, and thick lips through which two rows of weak, yellow teeth could be seen. She had yellow eyebrows atop her dark eyes. Literally a rebbetzin!

Without saying a word, I wanted to turn back and disappear quickly. However, when she asked me who I am looking for, I was forced to respond that I wished to see her grandfather, my uncle. She told me that he

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was still at the synagogue. I did not enter a conversation with her, and I left the house immediately. As I went outside, my eyes opened up. I did not tell my sister anything, and I did not go to my uncle again.

My brother–in–law promised to set me up in a yeshiva and arranged a meal rotation for me with his acquaintances. I remained in Minsk.

There were many yeshivas, large and small, in Minsk at that time. Almost every synagogue had yeshiva students studying there, as well as complete yeshivas, such as “Blumka's Kloiz,” the small Beis Midrash, the Synagogue of the butchers, of the water drawers, of the tailors, of the shoemakers, the Chatayivtzi synagogue of Mirel, and many other synagogues in which yeshiva students studied. There were also many Talmud Torahs, ranging from those that taught elementary Hebrew to Gemara with commentaries. The city maintained, fed, and provided places of lodging and study for thousands of yeshiva students. It was only me that the city of Minsk could not sustain, and I was forced to accept help from its suburb of Prosafa for the Sabbath. I would go there on Friday afternoons and remain there until the Sabbath afternoon. This lasted for several months, until a heavy rain fell one Sabbath, and I could not go there. I then partook of my Sabbath meals regularly with my sister.

In the Apprentices Synagogue, there was a yeshiva with about 15 lads. The head of the yeshiva was Rabbi Yaakov Eliezer. I studied and also slept there. The synagogue was large and clean. I had a good bed, made up of four chairs on the eastern wall. A sugar sack filled with straw served as my mattress. It was pleasant for me, and sweet dreams filled my nights. I was happy enough to spend my time with the yeshiva lads, to be a bit mischievous, and to listen to jokes about the Beis Midrash. I could not have enjoyed all this had I slept in my sister's dwelling.

My sister's house consisted of three non–large rooms, and a kitchen that served more for the baking of bread than for cooking, for my brother–in–law was a baker. Half of the kitchen was covered with large sacks of wheat, a large basin for sifting the wheat, pans to knead the dough, and a large, wide tablet upon which to place the completed loaves of bread. There was a large flask of water in which to dip the scraper that cleaned the ashes from the oven, and there were other cooking and baking utensils. The dining room had many uses: for eating, entertaining guests, and at times even for sleeping if guests came. However, for the most part, it served as the storehouse of bread from the time it was removed from the oven until it was brought to the marketplace. The bedroom was small, with room for nothing other than bread and a small sofa. Therefore, sleeping in the synagogue was preferable for me.

I studied there for one summer, and then transferred in the winter to study in Blumka's Kloiz, the largest yeshiva of Minsk.

The yeshiva was called Blumka's Kloiz because Blumka founded the yeshiva. After her death, during the time that I studied there, the yeshiva was run by Blumka's daughter Rivka. Rivka was meticulous about maintaining all of the customs of her mother Blumka, without leaving out anything.

The Kloiz was built of bricks, and had three stories. The main story served as the yeshiva, and the top story served as the women's gallery, for the yeshiva also served as a house of worship. The lower story was the minyan of the cigarette producers.

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Approximately 30 older lads, from the city as well as the towns and villages of the region, studied there. My friend Abba Sirotkin and I were the youngest. My friend was even two years younger than me, but he excelled at his studies more so than me. He was considered to be a genius. The Rosh Yeshiva was Reb Monia, a renowned educator of Minsk who was about 60 years old. He was tall, with a long, white beard, and good, intelligent eyes. He had the countenance of a scholar. He taught his classes to the yeshiva students. He would teach a page of Talmud with the commentaries, and then answer with sharpness all of the questions and didactics. He was not strict, and everything was conducted with pleasantness. He would deliver his class from 10:00 a.m. until noon. He would not remain in the yeshiva any later to ensure that the yeshiva lads were studying and answer their questions. Therefore, there was a mashgiach [supervisor] remained in the yeshiva from the morning until 9:00 p.m. The mashigach, Reb Moshe was also an expert in Torah, and very sharp.

The Minsk householders would shorten their allotment of daily meal rotations for the yeshiva students. They would not give the yeshiva student three meals a day. Nevertheless, a yeshiva lad is also flesh and bones, who suffers from hunger pangs in the morning as well. Therefore Blumka of blessed memory ensured that the yeshiva lads would not remain hungry until noon, and therefore ensured, as did her daughter Rivka later, that a soup of grits would be prepared in her kitchen for every yeshiva lad. Immediately after the Shacharit service, they would bring two large copper pots of milky cereal to be distributed to the yeshiva lads. Every yeshiva lad has an earthenware bowl to be used for dairy meals, along with a wooden spoon. He would receive his portion of soup, dip the grit soup in the bread that he had set aside the previous day, and thereby satisfy himself until lunchtime.

Every morning after the services, immediately following the Aleinu prayer, every yeshiva lad would quickly wrap up his tefillin, run to the shelf upon which he kept his personal belongings, take out his earthenware bowl and wooden spoon, and run quickly to the women's gallery so as to be first in line. Everyone entered and arranged themselves in two lines, waiting impatiently for the arrival of Reb Tanchum with the pot of grits. They would chat and joke with each other as they all looked toward the door. When the door would open, everyone would be silent, not uttering a sound. Everyone would back up toward the sides to make way for Reb Tanchum. Each lad had his bowl and spoon ready in his hand, as a soldier before his commander.

Reb Tanchum was a simple, elderly Jew. He was already distributing the grits during the time of Blumka. This was 30 years ago, and this tenure was the source of pride. He would bring in the large copper pot covered with a large lid. He would sit comfortably on the bench, and only then begin the distribution. It was forbidden to push. One had to wait until Reb Tanchum would call him by name. He would utter – the person from Slutzk! The person from Borisow!, the person from Berezany!, etc. The yeshiva students were not called by the names that they were given when they entered the covenant of Abraham our Forefather, but rather by their native towns. The yeshiva student would approach submissively and stare at Reb Tanchum to see the portion that would be allotted to him. Reb Tanchum would take his ladle, pour it twice, and call the next lad. He would then continue on.

A lad who Reb Tanchum liked would be given a generous portion of two overflowing ladles. A lad who Reb Tanchum did not like would receive a smaller portion, also consisting of two ladlefuls, but not full. It was forbidden to complain to Reb Tanchum that his measurement was not just, for he oversaw the division of soup, and there was nobody else aside from him. This entire procedure lasted for almost an hour. Then everyone washed their bowl and cup, and turned to Gemara with a willing attitude and full stomach.

When the Gemara class finished at noon, everyone went to eat lunch.

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The only ones who remained were those yeshiva students who were missing their daily meal rotation. Everyone returned to yeshiva at 1:30 to study until 9:00 p.m. Then the mashgiach and those students who lived in the city went to their homes. Almost all of the outsiders remained in the yeshiva to sleep. They divided up into groups. Some sat down to eat if they had food; others wrote a letter or fixed their clothes. All the others, who had free time, discussed issues of the day, stories about good Jews, and told jokes. After about an hour, they got ready for sleep. Then there was a tumult. They moved benches, lecterns and tables. Everyone had a designated space and the objects that were used to set up a bed. When they went to bed, they would continue chatting until they fell asleep, and quiet pervaded in the yeshiva. There were those who did not hold back from paying cards in secret. Owning cards was considered to be completely forbidden, and the punishment for such was expulsion from the yeshiva. However, scholars are practical people. They would write down the numbers from one to ten upon notepaper, and play the game of Thirty One with their own initiative. This too was done in secret, without the Rosh Yeshiva knowing. This would continue until after midnight. Then there was silence, and the only sound that could be heard was the voice of the guard [mishmar] studying all night, with his somber Gemara melody.

The Torah commands, “And you shall delve into it day and night” (Joshua I). However, who from among the householders would be willing to sit for an entire day and study Torah? Therefore, all of the large yeshivas instituted that at least one yeshiva student would sit and learn for an entire night, when everyone else was sleeping peacefully in their beds. This was called mishmar [standing guard]. However, which of the yeshiva students would want to give up on their sleep and be the scapegoat for the public? Therefore, a rotation of mishmar was set up, and applied to all the yeshiva students in an order. Anyone who wanted would be able to redeem himself with money by hiring a different yeshiva lad to sit in his place. The price was set: ten kopecks for a winter night and five for a summer night. It was the same thing during the days of Czar Alexander II.. If a person was drafted into the army and had the means, he would hire a different Jews to serve in his place. However, there were more volunteers to sit for mishmar than to serve in the Russian Army. Why? It was a light and easy livelihood. They would sit in the warmth, and receive ten kopecks for an entire night. Furthermore, it was also a mitzvah.

I was always one of the first of the volunteers, and I will admit that this was not so much for the sake of the mitzvah, but rather simply for the livelihood. I needed money very badly. They did not send me any from home, my relatives did not assist me, and I did not have other sources of income. I had to make various purchases, like any person, even a yeshiva student. Aside from this, I hired a teacher (a yeshiva student as well) in the winter to teach me to read and write Russian. I paid him 15 kopecks per week. From where would I get this money? Therefore, I was always hired for mishmar, sometimes even three times in a week.

I remember that on those nights, I would sit alone at the podium leaning over an open Gemara, and study to the dim light of a small tallow candle that barely lit up the small letters of the Gemara and Rashi's commentary. It was dark and silent in the yeshiva, as everyone was sleeping. I did not notice the echo of my voice as I studied my chapter in a sorrowful voice, and I did not notice the rhythmic ticking of the wall clock and the snoring of the sleeping lads. I peered with jealousy upon those who were sleeping properly and enjoying pleasant dreams. Those people wished that the night would be extended. This was not the case with the lad on mishmar. In his eyes, the night wore on endlessly, and his soul desired to see its end.

Then the clock struck five, marking the end of my mishmar. I closed the Gemara, went down happily

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from the podium. The lads who were arising from their sleep were then jealous of me, and I, happy with my portion, turned my attention from the crowd and lay down to sleep.

Time passed. Chanukah came. This was the season of the drafts – that is, the drafting of new soldiers for army service. This was during the time of Alexander II, when the entire community had to give over soldiers to the army according to the number of people under its control, or pay a redemption fee to the royal treasury for every soldier that it was supposed to provide. However, not every city was able to pay the required sum, and therefore it was forced to provide soldiers. From where would they obtain such? Indeed, the administrators of the city or town had several lowly, degenerate people who would sell their souls for a taste of liquor or a hearty meal. These served as the “snatchers”, and the snatchers had the permission of the authorities to attack any house in the middle of the night and to snatch one or two youths, whether they were unmarried or married with children – as long as they were fit to serve as a soldier. They would drag their victim from his bed even in his nightclothes, bind them with chains and bring them to the communal hall that was designated for snatched soldiers. The weeping and pleading of the family members of the snatched people would not help. The stones of heart of the evil ones did not soften. They would primarily attack poor families and widows, and even steal an only son. Those orphans and poor people were the scapegoats, who were an exchange for the householders and wealthy people of the city. After the snatched people were divided up into their brigades, the communal leaders and their emissaries – the snatchers – would conduct their festivities with great celebration and fanfare.

There were cities and towns that would purchase “volunteers” who would sell themselves willingly for a high price to serve as soldiers. The wealthy people whose children did not go to the army would provide for all the needs of the “volunteers” until the day that they went to the army. Minsk, which was a large city and had to provide a large quota of soldiers, used this technique of purchasing “volunteers.” The technique of snatching the children of the poor was also not absent.

When Alexander II, despite being a merciful ruler, announced, “Give me the souls” – i.e. give me the required number of soldiers – the communal administrators sent out Jewish snatchers, who went out every night with the assistance of the police and the army to search for their prey in the houses of the poor and in the Beis Midrashes and yeshivas of the city, for the yeshiva students were on their own without anyone to demand justice for them – and they snatched whomever came to their hand. Our Blumka's Kloiz was not passed over by the snatchers. In the darkness of the night, after midnight, we heard pounding at the door and shouts of “Open!” with the addition of “He who blessed the soldiers”… We got up in a panic. The mishmar person opened the door. The first to enter was Butshanka the Snatcher. He was a large, strong, Jew, a big drunkard and very evil. His cheeks glowed from drunkenness, and his eyes exuded flashes of wickedness. Policemen and soldiers followed after him. Butshanka issued his command in simple Yiddish, “Hurry up and get dressed! Come, sons of Zion, they need you.”

When we heard the words of Butshanka and saw the policemen and soldiers with their swords and guns, we understood that there was no choice other than to go. A pall of fear overtook us, and Butshanka counted his victims. I too was among them. Suddenly, Butshanka grabbed my hand and pulled me so powerfully that he almost pushed me into the door. As he was doing this, he burst out in hearty laughter: “Indeed, this is an appropriate soldier!” He pushed me to the side and shouted, “Go away, not appropriate!” The disgrace took away the joy of my freedom. All the rest were hauled to the police as prisoners.

When they arrived at the police downtrodden and with lowered heads, they found out that many others were in the same position.

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More than 100 lads were already there. All of the yeshiva students from all the yeshivas and Beis Midrashes who were fit for military service were there.

I remained alone in the yeshiva. I could not sleep any more, and I also could not learn. I waited until the congregation arrived for the Shacharit service.

A tumult arose in the morning. People ran to the Rosh Yeshiva, and he ran to the wealthy people of the city. All of the Rosh Yeshivas shouted out loudly in the ears of the wealthy people that such a travesty of this nature had never been perpetrated among the People of Israel. The city notables ran to the district minister. At 10:00 a.m., all of the yeshiva lads were freed. People who studied Torah were free from the yoke of the army.

In return for our fright that night, we had a free day. That day, we were free from our studies.

Photocopy page 145: An official permit from August 7, 1903, signed by the rabbi of Minsk, Avraham Chalanes, stating that on May 15, 1892, a son was born to Ben–Zion and Chaya Ethel Shkolnik in the city of Minsk. He was named Yisrael Idel. Idel (later Louis) Shkolnik immigrated to the United States at the age of one. He was active in the cultural field, and he wrote Yiddish poems and articles that were even published in an anthology (Selected Writings, Holon, 1972). He immigrated to Israel in 1966, and died in 1973. There is a library in Kiryat–Sigal (Apel) named for him and his wife Fania.}



Translator's Footnotes:
1Pirke Avot 4:18. Return

 


[Page 146]

On the Yeshivot

by Ch. D. Rozenshtein

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author (1871–1934) was a teacher and Hebrew writer, a native of Minsk. He was one of the writers of Hamelitz. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, he published there articles called “Letters from Minsk.” Read about him on pages 545–550.
The article below is taken from Hamelitz, 14–16 Av, 5661 (1901).

In the large yeshivas of our day, there is no mention of the atypical scholastics and didactics. Those born in the “fortunate times,” when the in–depth study of Talmud was inculcated from the youth until old age, would toil in Torah all the days of their lives as well as the nights. It was a time when they occupied themselves with Torah literally for its own sake, in order to know the Torah itself. Occupying oneself with Torah was considered a great and holy mitzvah. There were many people who studied Talmud all of their lives and never studied Poskim [halachic decisors], for rabbinic ordination was not the goal of their studies, and didactics or casuistry [pilpul] was the decisive factor of the in–depth study. Since Talmud was considered to be an endless sea, and the adage “set a place in it to fence around it” was common in the mouths of the rabbis, everyone looked for an area to come up with new ideas. The sharpest or deepest minds, on account of sharpness or confusion, invented this sophistry that brought them great enjoyment and broadened their knowledge. They enjoyed using the didactics of the Talmud to toy with the intellects of their students and broaden their thinking.

However, when the number of Torah studiers declined in general, and the number who studied for its own sake declined in particular; from the time that people studied in able to make Torah their profession and to use it to earn their future livelihoods, and those who were preparing for the rabbinate did not have time to delve into Talmud too much for they had to had to become more familiar with the means that are utilized by the rabbinate – they removed the didactics [pilpul] that wasted much time and replaced it with a simple and straightforward learning methodology, a methodology of proper and clear logic, to get to the essence of the matter and find the source of the law from the Talmudic section, so that they could make it easier to study the rabbinic decisors and save time that is more precious than silver. In the smaller yeshivas – that is to say for youths who were not studying due to inner conviction but rather due to the fact that their fathers commanded them to do so or who did so due to their situation – they were taught Gemera and Tosafot[1] or “abstract” Gemara – that is without Tosafot – i.e. how to study and how to understand the simple meaning. If they understood the simple meaning well, they would add in the Rosh[2] or other commentators to sharpen them somewhat. On the other hand, in the larger yeshivas – for students who were studying to be rabbis – they would teach them how to be rabbis, how to derive a matter from another matter, and how to compare one issue to another and to issue a halachic decision. However, there were few yeshivas for older lads, whereas there were many yeshivas for younger lads. This is all with respect to the methodology of study, but with respect to the curriculum, there was no difference between the larger and smaller yeshivas. They all had the same curriculum. Aside from the larger and smaller yeshivas, there were other places of Torah study called kibbutzim, where nobody taught the class, but a group of young men or older lads studied Torah, and were given some level of stipend. These kibbutzim existed in many places. There are two such kibbutzim in my city of Minsk – one for young married men [avreichim] and one for unmarried lads [bachurim]. (I describe them in my story in Hamelitz from the years 1899 and 1900.) There was no curriculum or educational methodology in these kibbutzim, and every person studied what he saw fit. However, they had “spirits”, that is to say, it is possible to only ask about the

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spirit that pervaded in them. For it is obvious that the spirit of the kibbutzim of the large city of Minsk was not the same as the spirit of the small city of Radin, in which the Chofetz Chaim[*1] and his spirit gathered the studiers together.

A rotation for meals existed in all of the yeshivas of our country. This means that when a lad came to the yeshiva, already when being greeted for the first time, the mashgiach or supervisor would ask if he has “days.” If the lad had acquaintances in the city upon whom he depended to set up his rotation, and he would answer that he had, the supervisor's face would light up and he would say, “You are a valiant lad!” The lad would then enter the yeshiva in peace. If he was a stranger in the city and he had nobody to set up his rotation, the supervisor's face would freeze. He would shake his head right and left, and whisper, “It is very bad… Setting up of a rotation in our time is as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea.”

Then the lad would ask nervously, “Therefore, should I die here of hunger, or should I return from where I came?”

“The choice is yours,” answered the supervisor. “It is possible to set up a rotation, but the price is very expensive…”

“Expensive? How much?” asked the lad as he felt his pocket.

“Not that expensive. Only 50 kopecks a day, so the seven days of the week would cost you 3.5 rubles. This is a clear and straightforward calculation.”

“Please sir… lower the price a bit. I do not have more than two rubles in my pocket,” pleaded the youth.”

“Therefore, I will set you up for four days, according to the money you have,” answered the supervisor, cold as ice.

“And what should I do for the three remaining days? Should I fast?”

“Heaven forbid. If there is no grain, there is no Torah. You will be given ‘bread’ from the yeshiva, and when you get more money from your father, I will set up the rest of your ‘days.’”

“Let it be so,” said the lad, as he took out his money and gave it to the supervisor. The supervisor took him by the hand and led him through the roads and the marketplaces. Along the way, the supervisor urged him on and warned him to be careful to say good morning and good evening out loud to his hosts, so that the people of the household would like him and would not refuse him later on, as they refused such and such a lad, who only ate with them twice and then they sent him away…

“Here you will eat on… which day?” said the supervisor when he came to a certain house, turning to the lad with the question. He said to the mistress of the house, “This is a wonderful student, very diligent. I know that you will be content with him.”

“Let it be on Sunday,” said the embarrassed lad with his face red as a crab, as he quickly exited, for his embarrassment took hold of him to the point where his blood was about to burst forth…

The following Sunday, the lad would go to his “day.” He would go with his heart palpitating in his chest… This was the first time that he ate at the home of a stranger, and he was embarrassed, very embarrassed. His legs

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buckled under him as he walked, and hunger was afflicting him… His stomach had been collapsing inside of him for about two hours, but it was impossible for him to go to eat. It was impolite to go to that table early to eat… He waited and waited until he was about to faint… And then he went and arrived…

“Good morning,” whispered the lad as he came to the house, with his face alternating between red and white, and his eyes appearing as if he was looking for a place to hide.

“Wait, lad, in the kitchen!” called out the maid. He waited and waited until his soul was about to depart.

“Gute, Gutke, give the lad to eat,” said the mistress of the house to the maid in a half voice, “for how long should the lad wait?”

“He is waiting, let him wait!” called out the good Gutke, “Do I have the strength to deal with each and every ‘patron’[*2] individually? Let all the patrons come, and I will fatten them up!” (The custom among the refined maids and mistresses was that if three or four yeshiva students were supposed to eat with them, they would all be invited on the same day, so as to discharge the obligation at one time. If one came without the other, they would not give them to eat unless they all came together. There would be an exception if an army person was eating with them, for the maid would not invite him on the general day, but rather on a unique day…)

The patrons gathered together one by one and were brought in one group around a small table resting against the oven in the kitchen. Our new patron was in the kitchen. They ate and stuffed themselves, gorging themselves and choking themselves on each and every bite due to the anger of the maid and the venom burning in her eyes on account of all the work that they had caused her – until our patron became used to the sparks of her eyes, and also became immune to her curses and warnings for not respecting her work–ending time. This continued until he learned from the rest of the older patrons to tread carefully with her so that he could eat well…

This was the order of the “days” rotation, and how the eating rotation worked.

 

How did the “Money Days” Work?

This was also straightforward. There were many mistresses who would forgo their share in the World To Come that they might have obtained by preparing food, and chose rather to give a cash contribution – ten or fifteen kopecks on a weekly rotation. The yeshiva student would come on the set day of the week, stand outside the house and receive his donation. He would then buy bread and cheese to eat in the yeshiva, and would be happy with his hefty lot. Sometimes the lad would be able to hide his “money day” and would be given two measures of bread from the “yeshiva bread,” a piece in the morning and a piece in the evening, as was the way with those who were lacking the day rotation. He would then be able to leave over a bit of money for small expenses. In this way, the “money day” was better than the “eating day” for the yeshiva students. There was a second reason for this. A student could have no more than seven eating days, according to the days of the week. However, he could have many more than seven money days. If the lad was a miser, he could accumulate a small fortune from his money days. He would be the most fortunate of the yeshiva students, and everyone would be jealous of him. Such a fortunate student would not be in a hurry to leave the yeshiva. He would remain there until his hoard of money would balance out. Of course, it would never balance out. He would be the “elder lad” in the small yeshiva, the “honorary citizen” who was respected by everyone as an elder who had acquired wisdom (and there is no wisdom other than money…). He “ruled” in the yeshiva

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and its students in an unbounded fashion. The best of its “chazakas[*3] would be his, and the best of the “shtenders[*4] would be his. The best of every good thing would be his, for he would remember all of the yeshiva students, his holy flock, with good and beneficial things, with Psalms and a prayer quorum [minyan], for every yeshiva student prays for this and raises their heads to the prayer quorum with ten people. He, the elder lad would join the minyan, and any lad whom he called by name would join. He was the elder lad, the “second hand” of the mashgiach [yeshiva supervisor] in all matters. If a dispute broke out between two lads and they came to the mashgiach for adjudication, the elder lad would serve as the prosecutor, defender, or mediator – all in accordance with the relationship of the lads to him. Whatever he decided would stand. If a spirit of jealousy overcame the obscurantists[*5] of the yeshiva, and a sudden investigation took place in the shelves of the lads to find illicit material, the elder lad would be the informer, spy, or policeman, or he would be the one to hide the forbidden objects from the eyes of the searchers – everything in accordance with his own will, so to speak. He, the elder lad, had many acquaintances among the women who occupied themselves with selling beans and legumes, since he was their regular customer. When he took of his fortune to give them their money on interest, he would receive some “interest in the form of food” – i.e. aside from the set rate, they would give him a portion of hot beans and legumes every day. As his fortune grew even more, he would extend his loans to the shoemakers and tailors whom he knew. He, the elder lad, would leave the yeshiva with his cash in hand, and many of the girls of the small towns would want to marry him, since he was a scholar with good fortune as well. He would end up as a large–scale “lender for interest” in his community, and he would eventually become a trustee of charity…

This is the story of the yeshivas, the annals of which are only known to a few people.

There was a Beis Midrash in the city with a shamash, and that shamash was blessed by G–d with poverty and destitution. He would search for a way to improve his shaky livelihood and to augment his income that was insufficient for his needs. He would turn this way and that, and there was no place to earn a coin on the side. Such was the situation with being a shamash, what could he do?

There was a “chone” in the city who did not yet have a “here is the holy community”[*6] – that is, there was a young man in the city who had attained rabbinical ordination, but he had not yet found a rabbinical post. He had already spent his dowry on travels and matchmakers fees, so he had no means to open a store for his wife. He, his “disobedient wife” shouted out like a crow: “Give, give, you thief, give bread you loafer, why shall I and my children perish before your eyes? Are you better than Rabbi Datz, who is ordained, but has made something of himself. The ordained rabbi achieved something? Make it be that this will be an achievement with comfort!…” He twisted and turned to the right and the left, and fell upon any means to earn a coin through the sale of etrogs – which was insufficient; by being an emissary for some yeshiva – but someone else preceded him. He was unable to make something of himself, and they would not give him their honor or their heart due to shame. What could he do?

There was a loafer in the city, but the loafer was not truly such, he was only called that as a negative euphemism. On the contrary, his hand is intermixed with every issue and with every transaction that took place in the Beis Midrash, the poorhouse, and the “bavi masuta[*7] [bathhouse]. He would make the rounds to the doors with a veritable poor person, with the red kerchief in his hand. He was the emissary

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of the local yeshivas. He collected money for all types of charities. In short, he was the jack of all trades. However, with all of his honorable business dealings, there was still no bread and sustenance in his house. He was still searching for some other source of livelihood that will fill the gaps in his multi–branched but multi–holed livelihood. What did he do? The loafer went to the shamash, and the shamash to the loafer, and the two of them to the young man, and they said to him: “Young rabbi, do you want to do a good business with us?” “Yes,” he answered. “Give us your hand,” they said to him, “and we will set up a yeshiva, with you as the head. We will take three rubles per each person (three rubles was the set tuition in yeshivas that even a poor lad must pay) aside from the urban students (the heads of the yeshivas would take students from the sons of the householders at a larger tuition rate), and aside from the ‘bread’ in accordance with the numbers of youths (the directors of the yeshivas would take bread from the bread of the yeshiva), as is customary. The shamash will serve as the shamash, and he would obtain bread and money at the beginning of the month, on Chanukah and Purim, and other gifts for the shamash from the lads, as is customary. The loafer will be the mashgiach and he will also get the gifts for serving in that role, as is customary.”

“Here is my hand,” said the young rabbi with great joy.

The young rabbi immediately took white, blue and red notes, and wrote notices as follows:

“A large yeshiva[3] is being founded by the great rabbi and Gaon, Cho'v [sharp and expert][*8], soa'h[*9], etc. The honorable[*10] young rabbi, shlit'a[*11], who will teach a daily page of Gemara with Tosafot, Maharsha'h and all the commentators and novel ideas, delving deeply and sharply. The students will receive guidance, supervision and expert oversight. Everything will be for the best[*12].”

He would affix them on the doors of the synagogues and Beis Midrashes of the city, and prepare himself to give the classes calmly and with great pleasure in that he merited the title of Reish Metivta[*13] and would earn his livelihood…

What did the shamash and the loafer do in the interim? They would curl their peyos well, comb their beards, take their staffs in their hands, and go out into the city at a propitious and successful time. When they entered a house, the loafer would begin to sing, “He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may He bless so–and–so (he mentioned the name of the homeowner) who donated such and such (here the loafer would inflect his voice and ask, how much?).” After a short break in which the householder collected himself, he would finish, such as “two pods of bread (not necessarily bread, for if they gave cash, they certainly would not refuse), on all the days of the year, and will sponsor a daily rotation of meals for the new students who will come to them in a positive fashion.” The wages of the loafer and the shamash would be 50 kopecks per day, as was noted above. Thus, a new yeshiva was founded among Israel!

However, there were cases where the yeshiva was not founded due to some reason, and the threefold thread was severed. Nevertheless, the loafer and the shamash did not hold back from collecting the pledges and vows on the account that the future yeshiva would materialize at some time or another, for a Jewish person had intended to donate and was given a Mi Sheberach blessing. He would not retract from his pledge, and he would discharge it down to the last kopeck. They would “sell” the daily rotation commitment to other yeshiva students.



Translator's Footnotes:
1Tosafot is one of the prime commentators on a Talmudic folio. It is actually an anthology of several different commentators, and deals primarily with reconciling contradictions from different sections of Talmud. Return
2A Talmudic commentator who deals mainly with the halachic results of the Talmudic discussion. Return
3This announcement is replete with acronyms, as are pointed out in the text footnotes. Most of them translate awkwardly into English. There is an element of over–exaggeration in this announcement. Return


Text Footnotes:
*1Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kohen of Radin (1839–1933). He was known by the name of his book, “Chofetz Chaim” that received great acclaim. Return
*2A nickname of disparagement or of appreciation for a yeshiva student [Ch.D.R.]. Return
*3The place where they lay down and sat was called “Chazaka” by the yeshiva lads. [Ch.D.R.]. Return
*4A stand upon which to place a book. Return
*5Darkened ones. Return
*6Here is a holy community Return
*7In the bathhouse. Return
*8Sharp and expert. Return
*9A Sinai and uprooter of mountains [translator's note: referring to someone who has both the breadth of Torah knowledge, and the ability to delve deep into a topic]. Return
*10Honor to the name. Return
*11May he live for long and good days, Amen. Return
*12On the better side. Return
*13The head of the yeshiva. Return

 


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Minsk – Jerusalem of White Russia

by Chaim Lavshai

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, Chaim Lavshai (Lifshitz) was born in Minsk in 1917. He made aliyah to the Land in 1937.
He was a civil servant. He edited booklets. He translated and published poems and articles in Hebrew and Yiddish.
The destruction of the community of Minsk was not like that of the other Jewish communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust. Minsk, the capital of White Russia, and in the years before the First World War – the regional city and chief city of the cities of the region of Reisin[1] and its region – suffered and was destroyed twofold. It was destroyed by Hitler's legions, in the presence of the enemy Eichmann, may his name be blotted out. On Purim of 5612 (1942), a day of mass murder of more than 5,000 people – young, old, women and children – it suffered its second destruction. The first preceded this one by approximately 25 years, when the Bolshevik regime arose and wiped out Judaism and anything that is called by its name.

Minsk, a great city for G-d and people, with myriads of Jews, a prince among the cities, was overturned by aliens. The Red Revolution that overturned it and all of wide Russia, was like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As its comrade Vilna, Minsk also merited a nickname full of meaning – Jerusalem of White Russia[2]. Until that revolution – fast trains went out from the wonderful Vilna pathways and formed a bridge and connection of business and culture between them.

 

Its Rabbis and Great Ones

The vast majority of the population of Minsk was Jewish, and in the latter half of the 1920s, the Jewish population reached more than 50,000 people.

In this large Jewish hearth, there were – already from the previous century – great people and famous rabbis, worthy of praise. The Gaon Yechiel Halpern, known from his historical work “Seder Hadorot” [The Order of the Generations], served as the Rabbi of Minsk in the 18th century, and headed a famous yeshiva. At that time, the great one of the Gaonim of that generation and the following generations arrived in Minsk: Reb Aryeh Leib, the author of “Shaagat Aryeh” who also founded a large yeshiva. However, something took place between these two yeshivas and they became hostile to each other. The people of Minsk defended the author of “Seder Hadorot”, and sent the author of the “Shaagat Aryeh” away from the city on a Friday. The monument of the grave of the “Seder Hadorot” stands to this day, intact and fenced off, in the old cemetery, which was completely ploughed and paved over. All of its monuments and graves were willfully desecrated.

In the 19th century, the following Gaonim lived and worked in Minsk: Reb David Tavli the author of “Nachalat David”; Reb Gershon Tanchum; Reb Yaakov Meir [Gorodinsky, elsewhere transliterated from the Polish as Grodzenski]; and the “Gadol” Rabbi Aryeh Leib Perlman the author of “Or Gadol” [Great Light], a commentary on the Mishna. The latter served as the rabbi of the city. The influence of these Gaonim and personalities upon Minsk and its Jews was great. They spread its fame throughout the scattered breadth of Jewry.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Gaon Eliezer Rabinovitch served as the Chief Rabbi of Minsk. He was the son-in-law of the “Gadol”. His death, a few years after the revolution, brought deep shock to the Jews of Minsk. Many of them participated in his funeral, including Communists and gentiles.

After the death of Rabbi Rabinovitch, his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gluskin, continued on in the rabbinate. He was a dear and refined soul. He died in Leningrad, to where he was exiled with his family after the

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Yevseki government of Minsk libeled him and confiscated all of his property. Other well-known rabbis, who dedicated their souls to the preservation of the ember of Judaism, lived and worked in Minsk during the time of Rabbi Gluskin and after him. These included Yehoshua Zimbalist, Izak Rabinovitch, Moshe Gordon, the Magid Binyamin Shakovitzki, Rabbi Asher Kershtein, and others. These people worked and risked their lives for Judaism, under the ruthless police, imprisonment, and torment. Through their power and the powers that spread from their power – Judaism flickered, whispered, and guarded its embers lest they be completely extinguished.

 

A City of Refuge

During the period of the First World War, in the spring of 1915, the community of Minsk took the chief crown of Russian Jewry, which until that time had been borne by the community of Vilna, with the community of Minsk being second to it (There was the “Gaon” of Vilna and the “Gadol” of Minsk). This was caused by the fact that Nikolai Nikolevitch, the chief army officer of Russia, expelled the Jews of Poland and Lithuania, and ruthlessly uprooted them from their areas of residence. The pretext for the expulsion was the closeness of the Jews, who were suspect of being unfaithful to Russia, to the border regions with the enemy country of Germany.

The Jews of Vilna, Radin, Kovno, Brisk, Vilkomir and other areas from the regions of Poland and Lithuania, who lived in these cities by the thousands along with their leaders and rabbis, uprooted themselves and for the most part came to the “Jerusalem of Reisin”, to Minsk. Minsk was a great city unto G-d[3], populated with myriads of Jews, and under the influence of large, splendid Jewish institutions. Indeed, the Jews of Minsk opened the doors of their homes and their reserves of money for these refugees of war. They housed them and gave of their resources and strength to absorb them. Thus, the greats of that generation gathered into the midst of the Jewish center of Minsk – in the area of the old market, that is glazed and covered with wood and iron; in the alleys near the large square around which the synagogues are centered; and in the area of the Fish Market next to the Svisloch River whose waters flow swiftly in the summer and winter.

In the large and small synagogues that were centered around the streets Nemiga, Zamkova, Hakadarim [the potters] and in the alleys of “Bitza” [the bog], between the stores, and on the long, curved Street of the Butchers – Reb Yisrael Meir Kahan the author of the “Chofetz Chaim”, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, Reb Leib of Vilkomir, and Reb Yeshayahu Kareliz who later became known as the Chazon Ish, and many others sat, learned, and engaged in didactics. These synagogues were open day and night. Thousands of holy books were stored on their shelves and tables, as is the manner of synagogues in areas of Jewish settlement.

With the outbreak of the Communist Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet government, these rabbis and people were once again exiled. Some of them fled at the risk of their lives and returned across the borders to Poland and Lithuania, which became independent states after the war and were free from Communist rule, in accordance with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

 

Torah and its Studiers

Minsk was well known for its Torah, its studiers of Torah, its synagogues, its study groups, and its classes for the study of Torah, Mishna, and homiletics. It had many synagogues that did not close during the day and even during the night. Many of its synagogues were called by the name of the group that studied in them, or of the class that was given in them, such as: the Synagogue of the Chayei Adam[4], the Group of Tiferet Bachurim, etc.

The “Cheder” Synagogue was most famous, since the people of this synagogue would gather in the middle of the day, especially on Sabbaths. Their great rabbi, Reb Isser, and after his death his son-in-law Reb Aryeh, would sit on a high and exalted chair, not next to the table, but rather in the middle of the synagogue, on the bima [platform], surrounded by the audience

[Page 150]

of the many who heeded his voice, the exalted one in a high position. Silence would pervade. Even the rustle of a fly could not be heard as he spoke.

Next to the main square of the city, “Sobor” (whose name was changed to Sboboda – that is Freedom – after the revolution), there was a large, wide courtyard – the Synagogue Courtyard. Tens of synagogues, including the large, central synagogues of the city, were located there. The large, central synagogue was known as “Hakar” (the Cold), since at its inception, it did not have a stove due to its size. It was difficult to worship there in the winter. They would hire a quorum [minyan] of men to come to worship there, so that the prayers would not be missed there in the winter. The “Hachevra” synagogue, the large Beis Midrash, the small Beis Midrash, and many others – every synagogue with its story, every Beis Midrash had its studiers. The Synagogue Courtyard had three gates on each of the three sides that led to adjacent roads. (The story of the foundations, and history of these synagogues, as well as their capture, closing, and destruction by the Communist regime, is very long, and is worthy of being told in its own right.) In addition, there were beautiful and splendid synagogues scattered throughout town. Even group of artisans or professionals had their own synagogue, called after its name: the synagogue of the butchers, of the carpenters, of the plasterers. These were located in the area of the city where the craftsmen worked. Even the streets were called by the names of the professions.

In this city that was pervaded by the Misnagdic [anti-Hassidic] Lithuanian style, there were even three Hassidic synagogues. These were among the largest and warmest: Lubavitch, Koidanov, and Slonim.

 

A Center for Zionism and Pioneering

Minsk was one of the largest centers of Zionism. The Zionist movement in all its streams, from Poale Zion and Hashomer Hatzair until Mizrachi[5], found a wide venue for their activities in Minsk, and struck down firm roots in the sectors of the people. The wide publicity of the Zionist movement and also Minsk brought the General Convention of Russian Zionists to the “Paris” hotel in Minsk in 1902. This conference was conducted with great splendor. This was an era of oppression in Czarist Russia. The Czar behaved toward the Jews with a strong hand. Strange winds, rooted in the leftist and nihilistic movements, were blowing in the Jewish street. These were reflected by the “Bund” movement, the Anarchists, the Social-Revolutionary and Social-Democratic movements, and others. The Zionist Council of Russia became a gathering point for all Jews who were concerned about Zion and longed for the redemption. The movement straightened its back, raised its horn, and poured the dew of renewal into the hearts. The Jews of Minsk walked in its light in the outskirts of their city, dreaming and full of hope for the approaching redemption and the building of the Land. Years passed by, and grandfathers spoke about this large convention with pride and longing to their grandchildren who were born after the revolution.

A large portion of the activists of the Zionist movement lived and worked in Minsk and its environs. It is sufficient to mention Nachman Sirkin, Yehoshua Sirkin, Mania Shuchat, Eliezer Kaplan, the first treasurer Herzl Berger, Dr. Alexander Goldstein, and many others. First and foremost, there is President Shazar[6], who was also raised in Minsk and its environs.

Minsk was the cradle of Zionist activists, both with regard to finances and settlement, in the years prior to the revolution and even in the years following. These included “Agudat-Haelef”, which established the Jewish settlement in “Ein-Zeitim”, “Kadima”, “Hashomer Hatzair”, “Tzeirei Zion”, and others. There were natives of Minsk and its environs among the founders of Degania[7], and in the ranks of Bilu, as well as among the first students of the Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv. It is proper to mention in particular the convention of “The Zionist Soldiers on the Minsk Front” that was established in Minsk at the end of the First World War in the year 1918, under a Hebrew flag upon which fluttered the symbol of the Magen David.

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Poets and Writers

Minsk excelled not only in the realms of Torah and Zionism, but its position was also prominent and significant in the realms of culture, poetry, and literature. Poets and well-known people in these fields, such as H. Levek, B. Vladek, A. Lisin, Avraham Reisin, Moshe Kolbak, Zelik Akselrod, Izi Charik, Moshe Teif and many others, lived, composes, and were prominent in that region. The Hebrew writers Daniel Persky, Yknh”z, Michel Rabinovitch, Ch. D. Rosenstein, David Zakai, and Edel Presman were natives of Minsk.

During the 1930s and later[8], Yiddish literature and journalism arose in Minsk. The central theater, a gathering place for Yiddish writers, ensembles and choirs, meeting places for workers, and Jewish libraries all operated in Minsk. Theatrical groups and Jewish artists from Moscow, Kiev, and other cities would visit Minsk. Those who awaited them rejoiced with their Jewish hearts to hear the Yiddish language – the language which was interwoven with the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew expressions.

Around the 1930s, a general conference of Jewish writers took place in the central Europa Hotel in Minsk. The poets Itzik Feffer, Peretz Markish and Izzi Charik stood out there.

 

The Yevsekia

The Yevsekia in Minsk formed an embarrassing era, with its war against Jewish religion and culture. Through its aim of denigration, it emasculated and cut down the image of Judaism and its standard bearers. It did not shy away from instigating libels and false court cases against promoters of religion. The court cases of the years 1925-1929 excelled in their evil. These included the case against the union of shochtim, and the case against the shochet Rappaport.

Even though the end of the Yevsekia came and its chief spokesmen were not vindicated for the government of Stalin liquidated them as well, Minsk, an important city in Israel, with great influence, a great center of Jews and Judaism – now lies silent. Its mouth was shut, and a Jewish desolation envelops it.

{Painting page 151: “And these sheep, how did they sin?” by Mark Zhitnitsky.}



Translator's Footnotes:
1 According to the Yiddish dictionary of Uriel Weinreich, Reisin is a term for White Russia or Byelorussia. The term used in the first part of the sentence is 'Russia Halevana', which literally means 'White Russia'. The term used in the title and the latter part of this sentence is Reisin. I am not sure of the different connotations of these terms, but from this current sentence, it seems as if there is such. Return
2Vilna is often known as Jerusalem of Lithuania. Return
3A reference from the book of Jonah, describing the city of Nineveh. Return
4Chayei Adam is a detailed work on day-to-day halachah.Return
5Poale Zion is a general Zionist faction. Hashomer Hatzair [The Young Guard], is a Socialist, secular Zionist youth group. Mizrachi is the religious Zionist group.Return
6This refers to the third president of Israel, Zalman Shazar (his surname is an acronym of his original name, Shneur Zalman Rubashov.Return
7The first Kibbutz.Return
8The timeframe seems to be problematic here, as the Second World War followed the 1930s – unless this is referring to Yiddish culture in the post-war Soviet era, prior to the Stalinist purges of Jewish artists in the 1950s. From the names of the writers listed in the next paragraph, it seems probable that this era is indeed referred to (e.g.. Peretz Markish was one of the writers murdered under Stalin).Return

 

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