Translated by Jerrold Landau
From Kochvei Or, published by Am Oved and Davar, Tel Aviv, 5710.
The details appear to me now as if from a fog. However the melody of the matter still lives in the heart as if on the day it happened. As I think of it, it rises up, makes sounds, shakes up and brings to life an entire world.
I was a young child. One of the greatest rabbis died. This was Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector of Kovno, or Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin of Jerusalem in any case, the mourning was very great in the old synagogue. The rabbi of the city and the rabbi of the neighboring community delivered eulogies, but the town was not satisfied until the Maggid of Minsk himself came to deliver a eulogy for the illustrious departed.
The synagogue was filled to the brim. At the podium stood a man about forty years old, bearded and enwrapped in a tallis, with the voice of a lion, and with eyes streaming with tears. Morai Verabotai , the voice began to reverberate, and instill deep mourning. One story joined with the next, and one parable with another. The language was popular and picturesque, spiced with many Russian words, popular sayings, and expressions that were culled from life and circulated among the people of the town for many years thereafter. It was told about the soul of the illustrious departed who came to visit this community enveloped in mourning during the eulogy, as is stated: You are brethren to me in this mourning . With convincing drama, he presented before the eyes of the stormy congregation a dialogue between the spiritual rabbi of Israel and the grieving community. With demanding paternalism, the Maggid pleaded before the congregation in the name of the departed to abandon their evil ways, to rectify their deeds and to purify their thoughts so that the soul of the deceased will be able to pray on behalf to this community before the Heavenly Throne. As a child that sinned, the Maggid pleaded on behalf of the entire congregation in the presence of the soul of the deceased, recounted before him the tribulations of the generation, the afflictions of the times, and the machinations of the inclination, and pleaded and demanded to forge a path to the Gates of Mercy, to fall before the feet of the Father in Heaven, to prostrate himself before him, and not to let Him be until he has mercy upon Israel and sends the Righteous Redeemer to them. In the midst of this moving debate, a wonderful picture of the value of the tears of the community comes, the purifying power of weeping, on the righteousness of mercy, on the awesome deed with respect to the great guest who got lost along the way on a snowy night, in a winter storm, and arrived at the home of a poor Jew who had nothing with which to feed him and restore his spirit. He stood and poured him hot water to save him from the cold. Behold, the great person of Israel came to us from the world of truth, without anything in his hands, no Torah and no good deeds. The evil spirits pervade, and the storm is the storm of destruction, and the great soul searches for some means of protecting Israel. Come, let us treat him with tears. I will give the fire, and you will give the water, and we will restore his soul. Immediately he jumped from his place, tore open the doors of the Holy Ark, placed his head upon the Torah scrolls, and screamed in a bitter voice: Master of the World, for how long will you hide your face from us. Now arise, and have mercy on Zion, for it is the time to have mercy upon it, for the time has come . The entire gathering in the synagogue, young and old, from both the women's and men's sections, broke out in weeping. The house turned to the fear of G-d.
Many things occurred to me since then. Few are the feelings of a child who has not been overtaken by the passage of years. However that weeping remains in my ears forever. The participation in the weeping will remain in my heart forever.
Later on, when I heard Chana Rubina weeping next to the wall on the night of the destruction , the tears that welled up in weeping that night came forth from the same source. When I later read And my Heart is a Threshold of Weeping by Bialik, my first association was with the Maggid of Minsk.
I recall that the town urged the Maggid to remain for the next day. He responded positively, and delivered a second lecture, this time after Shacharit (the morning prayers). Then, he proved with signs and wonders, with the same dramatic picturesqueness, through logic and intellect, that the Torah comes from Sinai, that Israel is the Chosen People, and that the Righteous Redeemer must come. The words were enlightening, clear, certain, and comforted every soul.
From that time, I never again saw the Maggid of Minsk, and I did not hear anything about his lectures. The paths parted. Decades later I found out, during a description of life in Soviet Russia, that the Maggid of Minsk became a target of the arrows of the zealots of the Yevsektsia. It was said that they imprisoned him and forced him to sign some sort of paper in the midst of Yom Kippur. From across the distance, his pain was my pain.
Some time ago, I saw a notice in the newspaper that the Maggid of Minsk gives lectures on the weekly Torah portions in a synagogue in Tel Aviv every Sabbath eve. I did not believe that he was still alive, that he was with us, and that one could still hear him. I often said that I should go to hear him, but it never worked out.
Then I saw a black notice on a street in Tel Aviv: The Maggid of Minsk passed away, and that Rabbi so-and-so will deliver a eulogy for him in so-and-so synagogue on such-and-such a day. My legs could not move.
That day was a day that was full of meetings. The members were to discuss the difficulties of the times. When the time of the memorial came, I could no longer restrain myself. I stood up and went to hear the words of the eulogizers.
Along the way, I became very embarrassed that I did not find the time to take interest, and to find out what was the opinion of this old man about us, about our activities, and about all that he saw in this Land to which he arrived toward the end of his days. Did he become appeased, and bless? Or did he become angry and curse? However, this I knew with certainty: he had a role in this enterprise, whether he knew it or not. When a faithful observer will take account of all the sources from where the workers of all of this wonder drew their spirit and will, they will also find his heart, the threshold of tears, who traveled from podium to podium throughout the cities and towns of Lithuania and Russia for fifty consecutive years. There is no small number of natives of Minsk and its region, in the cities of the Pale and in the cities that were founded from those who came from the Pale, who during the outset of their spiritual life, absorbed his words of love of Israel, of weeping over the tribulations of Israel, and his faith in the hope of Israel. These words were sealed deeply upon their hearts, created renewal and comfort, and became a multitude of compartments among us.
Has this wondrous ability and mission died with him, and with his brethren? Is there among us any maggid who can ignite an inextinguishable ember in the heart of a child with the breath of his mouth?
I reached the gates of the synagogue that was designated in the notice. I will confess that I did not know that such wonderful houses of Torah and prayer had been erected on the side streets of Tel Aviv. The room was full. The women's section and men's section were both overflowing. The men indeed, I meet them on the streets of the city, but they are as if they are nullified by the majority of youth and of Jews of the new style. However here, when they gather all together, with nobody else among them, all with beards and many with peyos, some with long kapotes, one can forget that one is in Tel Aviv. The great poverty, the short hair, the wrinkled faces, the Yiddish language that they speak all of this says Lithuania, a town in Lithuania, my town.
On the podium there is a maggid. I am told that he is a descendent of the Netziv of Volozhin. The melody is the same melody, or at least from the same family of melodies that trills and penetrates to the depth of the soul, accuses and pleads, chastises, caresses, and overtakes the heart. The words are the same words: You are brethren to me in this mourning. Once again the same dramatic dialogue between the nation drowning in the sea of tribulations and the tribulations are new, alive and frightening and with the faithful and beloved representative, this time Reb Binyamin the Maggid of Minsk, who was now sent to plead before the Seat of Glory of the Father in Heaven. Suddenly, the Maggid jumps up, tears open the doors of the Holy Ark, rests his head against the Torah scrolls, and screams in a bitter voice: Master of the World, until when will you forget about the flock that you tend. Now arise, have mercy upon Zion The entire house, from above, below and the sides, bursts out in weeping.
It is the same weeping.
I turned my head and beside me, next to the bench, stands an 8 or 9 year-old boy, moved and emotional, with his two large, bright eyes fixed upon the lips of the Maggid.
|2||An introduction to a speech, literally My teachers and masters, colloquially Gentlemen. Return|
|3||An Aramaic phrase, from the Talmud or Midrash, the exact meaning of which is unclear. Return|
|4||Psalms 102:14. Return|
|5||Probably referring to Tisha B'Av. Return|
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The author, the daughter of Reb Binyamin Shakovitzki, made aliyah in 1931.
These words were recorded by David Cohen from an oral account.
Minsk had an abundant Jewish population. It was famous for its rabbis, scholars, and parnassim [communal administrators] who were observant of the commandments and were great philanthropists. It had charitable and benevolent organizations, as in all other Jewish communities prior to the First World War. These organizations had a special Minsk character. The sounds of Torah did not cease from the city day and night, in the junior yeshivas, in the gatherings of older students, and with the supporters of Torah, elderly Jews who sat and occupied themselves with Torah, and with the philanthropists and parnassim of the city. Even those for whom Torah was not their vocation set aside times to study Torah, before going to or after returning from work. Everyone studied Torah in accordance with his strength. Some studied Mishna, others Gemara, some Ein Yaakov and others only recited Psalms. The spirit of Torah and tradition was the spice of their lives, from which they drew their might and strength to stand up to the upheavals in the lot of their lives.
There were dozens of synagogues and Beis Midrashes [study halls] in the city. Some were general ones for the community and its suburbs, and others were for members of the various professions who set up their own Beis Midrashes. Some were donated by private benefactors, who established a Beis Midrash in their own names. All of these Beis Midrashes were filled with worshippers and Torah studiers.
The oldest of these was the large cold synagogue called The Kalte Shul. Rabbi Leizer Rabinovitch, the Chief Rabbi of the city, the son-in-law of the Great One of Minsk, and the heir to his position, worshipped there. A prominent cantor conducted the services there. The shamash [beadle] was Mr. Yaakov Minkov, whose four sons live in Israel. The large Beis Midrash was next to the synagogue. It had a cantor and a choir. The rabbi of the large Beis Midrash was Rabbi Yitzchak Rabin, the Vice Chief Rabbi of the city. He was the son of Reb David Tavli of Minsk. A dispute broke out in the city after the death of the Great One. Some sided with his son-in-law Reb Leizer, and other sided with the son of Rabbi David Tavli. The controversy was solved, one served as Chief Rabbi, and the other served as Vice Chief Rabbi.
Blumka's Kloiz  was located in the synagogue courtyard shul hoif. Blumka was a pious woman who provided for the author of the Shaagat Aryeh who was a rabbi in Minsk, had a debate with the community and was dismissed from his position. He blessed her in a twofold fashion, that she should merit to have a fitting rabbi in the city, and she should merit making aliyah to the Land of Israel in her latter years. She told the rabbi about the blessing of the Shaagat Aryeh. He said to her, Why should you go afar and wait to make aliyah to the Land of Israel? Establish a Beis Midrash for the students of Torah, and you will have the Land of Israel here. She indeed did that. She built the Kloiz that was called by her name, and the sound of Torah never desisted from it. As the years went on, when the Maggid of Minsk founded the Tiferet Bachurim organization, a movement of merchants, officials, workers, and students of higher education who set aside times for the study of Torah. They studied Torah, Mishna, Ein Yaakov, etc. under his tutelage, each in accordance with his ability in Torah. The organization was set up in Blumka's Kloiz.
The craftsmen set up their own synagogue. The synagogue of the tailors was on the Street of the Butchers. The tailors were considered to be the most learned of the craftsmen. They were known to spice their mundane conversations with verses of the Torah or statements of the sages. The rabbi of the synagogue gave a class in Gemara in this Beis Midrash.
The hat makers had two synagogues: an old one and a new one. There were many hat makers in the city. As is known, the Christian and Jewish residents of Russia used to wear fur hats on their heads. Who went around bareheaded in Minsk? The hat makers earned their livelihood readily in the city, and there were many of them, so they built two synagogues. These were also on the Street of the Butchers. Rabbi Reuven Yudkovski served in one of them. His son-in-law was Rabbi Brauda, later of Jerusalem, who was a great scholar and gave a class in that synagogue. My father, the Maggid of Minsk, taught Ein Yaakov in the Cold Synagogue the Kalte Shul. When my father was out of town on business, Rabbi Brauda took his place.
The builders also had their own synagogue. They would build houses of burnt bricks. Every house had brick ovens and heating furnaces for the winter. They founded their own synagogue.
The barbers also had their own synagogue. Father and Reb Yaakov Meir [Gorodinsky, elsewhere transliterated from the Polish as Grodzenski] would walk through the streets prior to the Sabbath and declare the oncoming of the Sabbath, Jews, close the stores, the Sabbath is coming. This declaration was made about one hour before the start of the Sabbath. The barbers would close their stores, and serve those customers who remained inside until the onset of the Sabbath.
There was a special synagogue for junk dealers. Dozens of people would dig through garbage heaps and gather rags, garbage and bones. There were scrap contractors who would accept everything and sort the junk. They would have separate heaps for cloth, silk, flax, metal, and bones. They would gather together each type. They would send the bones to a sugar factory, the metal to a smelter, and the rags to a textile factory. Their rabbi was Rabbi Nachum Eig, and their gabbai [synagogue functionary] was Peretz the hunchback, about whom I will write later.
Each suburb had its own synagogue with a rabbi who was a teacher-decisor. These were rabbis who did not receive a salary from the community, but rather received their livelihood from the income of the synagogue as was determined by the gabbaim, as well as fees for weddings, engagement documents, circumcisions and the like. The livelihood of these rabbis, teacher-decisors, was dependent on the size of the synagogue and the wealth of its worshippers. Sometimes this income was not enough for their livelihood, and their wives would keep shops to supplement the livelihood.
Thus there was, for example, a rabbi in the suburb called Komarovka who was called The Milky Rabbi, because his wife opened up a dairy store.
There was a large synagogue in the suburb of Neistadt. The rabbi was Rabbi Zusia Mali, who was known as The Nail Rabbi, because his wife opened up a store for shoe materials. This rabbi was an expert scholar with a splendid countenance. There was a small yeshiva in this synagogue. The head of the yeshiva was my paternal grandfather, Reb Mordechai Shakovitzki. His son Reb Hillel, my father's brother, served as the mashgiach [spiritual counselor].
There was also a synagogue for water drawers. In those days, Minsk did not have water delivery pipes for the houses. There were wells in the city, from which people would draw water for household use. There were water drawers who earned their livelihoods from the distribution of water. They would distribute water to the houses, and receive a salary for that. There was a yeshiva for youths of the age 13-17 in that synagogue, which was headed by Rabbi Yehoshua Horodner, a great man of Torah and a superb Tzadik .
There was a synagogue of butchers which contained a gathering of youths. A gathering refers to a yeshiva of youths and adults, aged 18 and older, who study Torah themselves, without the tutelage of a head of a yeshiva. A volunteer from among the rabbis of the city or a guest who was learned in Torah would visit there and deliver a class to the youths of the gathering . Many people of the city studied in the gathering. It was presumed that someone who studied in the gathering was
great in Torah. Some of them studied Yoreh Deah  in order to study for the rabbinate, and others studied Torah for its own sake. In general, this was considered beneficial for obtaining a marriage partner. They generally married the daughters of wealthy people and later occupied themselves in business with the help of their fathers-in-law. Others who were rabbis continued their studies of Torah for its own sake while being supported at the tables of their fathers-in-law. The youths who came from nearby or far-away towns had their food taken care of by the butchers. They lodged in the synagogue.
There was a similar gathering in the small Beis Midrash that was located in the synagogue courtyard.
There was also a synagogue on the Street of the Tatars, known as the Tatarishe Shul. There was a Tatar neighborhood in the city. Among them were some wealthy people who had villas, vegetable gardens and fruit gardens. They would provide fine fruits and vegetables to the residents of the city. Their daughters were known for their beauty. Many of them served as army captains and senior officials in the government. They had a splendid mosque with a Mulla a Moslem prayer leader. There was a synagogue on that street. The rabbi was Rabbi Leib Mas. After his death, Reb Mendel his son-in-law inherited his post. He was a Jew who was great in Torah.
During the First World War, when the Jews of the cities and towns near the front were expelled on suspicion of spying for the Germans, the famous Slobodka Yeshiva located in Minsk, and set itself up in the Tatar Synagogue. The head of the yeshiva was Rabbi Mordechai Epstein. In 1923, he moved a portion of the Slobodka Yeshiva to Hebron. This yeshiva existed in Minsk for two years.
The Chofetz Chaim with his yeshiva also spent a period of time in Minsk during the First World War. My father assisted him in gathering money for the yeshiva. There was a wealthy Jew in the city, Axelrad, who owned a textile factory in the city. He had no children. Luck shone upon him, and he won the grand prize in a government lottery, 200,000 rubles. My father approached this wealthy man along with the Chofetz Chaim. He gave 500 rubles for the yeshiva. In those days, this was a large sum. After he parted from Father, as the Chofetz Chaim was walking along, a porter with a sack of flour passed by him, and inadvertently dirtied his clothes. A Jew approached him and said, Rabbi, you are dirty with flour. He began to clean his clothes, and in the process, stole the 500 rubles.
The shamash on the Street of the Tatars was Reb Pesach Leib, a great scholar, G-d fearing, and charitable. Yeshiva students would eat at his table on a daily basis, and especially on Sabbaths and festivals. He shared everything he had with the yeshiva students. To this day, I am astonished as to how a shamash of a private synagogue had enough livelihood to feed so many yeshiva students, especially during the difficult times of war and famine. Apparently his son-in-law, Reb Shmerel, a Torah scholar who worked at a wholesale grocery store on the Street of the Butchers, was a man of means and supported his father-in-law, Reb Leib.
It is worthwhile to mention one Jew, Reb Mendel Klagrad, the chief chimneysweep of the city. He was always dirty with soot, for he plied his trade, and had other chimneysweeps as assistants. He fed many yeshiva students at his table on weekdays, Sabbaths and festivals. I do not know if he was a scholar, but he set aside times for studying Torah in the Beis Midrash that was called The Cheder of Reb Isser. Craftsmen and workers from amongst the simple folk studied there. This Beis Midrash was also known as the Beis Midrash in the Mud (The Blote Shul). There was quicksand in the area, and it was impossible to pass through this street on rainy days. Reb Isser presented classes in Torah, Ein Yaakov, and Gemara in this Beis Midrash, and even held sessions for those who recite Psalms. All of the Jews of Zamkov and Pod-Zamkov came here.
After the death of Reb Isser, his son-in-law Reb Leib inherited his position as the rabbi of the Beis Midrash in the Mud.
He was a great scholar with a splendid countenance, of pleasant manner and always with a smile. He was the second husband of the daughter of Reb Isser. She had two daughters from her first husband, but she and Reb Leib had no children. When Reb Leib died during the time of the Bolsheviks, my father eulogized him. On account of that eulogy, my father was imprisoned for subversion against the government.
There was a splendid synagogue in Minsk called the Choral Shul. Moshe Levinson was the cantor, and he had a large choir. I and my friends would go to that Beis Midrash for Kol Nidre [the opening prayer of Yom Kippur]. The prayers of Cantor Levinson were wonderful, literally breathtaking. Later, under the Bolsheviks, this synagogue was confiscated and turned into a theater.
There was a Beis Midrash called the Chevra Kadisha Shul in the synagogue courtyard. My father worshipped there, as well as Reb Yitzchak the Vice Chief Rabbi. Rebiski was the cantor there, and he had a very fine choir.
Each suburb and neighborhood had a synagogue with their own rabbis: in Komarovka, Serebrianka, Lachovka, Feld, Sloboda and others. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Sadovski served as the rabbi in the Feldshul. Rabbi Avraham Tiktinski served in Serebrianka. His son and daughter are in Israel. One of his daughters married Moshe Cohen, the well-known Hebrew teacher and Zionist activist.
There were two synagogues on Romanovskaya Street. Rabbi Menachem Kadish Rabinovitch served as rabbi in one of them. He was great in Torah and very righteous. His son Reb Izak lives in Jerusalem. The son-in-law of Reb Izak is Rabbi Zukerman of Kadima.
Rabbi Mendel Leib Levin, the grandfather of the famous Jewish-American writer Herman Wouk, served as rabbi in the second synagogue. The writer Herman Wouk is an observant Jew. When he was in Israel and went to visit his grandfather Reb Mendel Leib Levin who lived in Tel Aviv, he would also visit me. Rabbi Levin died a few years ago in Tel Aviv. His daughter, the mother of Herman Wouk, lives in Israel.
There was also a synagogue next to the train station. Reb Shimshon Grazovski, an expert scholar, served there. His son Reb Reuven died in America. He published his own Torah novellae on the Talmud. His books are well received by yeshiva students, even in Israel. Reb Shimshon's grandchildren live in Israel. His granddaughter, Naomi Denin-Eliav, was a member of the religious Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. Her brother, who was a student of the Chevron Yeshiva, is a teacher in a religious school. Her sister is a teacher who is married to a shochet [ritual slaughterer] in Kfar Saba, the son of the shochet Shabtai Radonski of Minsk, who was one of the dozens of regular shochtim who were paid by the community. Shabtai Radonski was also a very fine mohel [ritual circumciser]. He was forced to flee from Russia during the time of the Bolsheviks due to his practicing circumcision in secret. When he arrived in Israel, he served as a shochet in Pardes Chana. He studied together with Rabbi Meltzer  and later with Rabbi Diskin . His two daughters are in Israel.
Rabbi Chaim Leizer Bernstein served as the rabbi in Komarovka. One of his sons, the genius Izak, was murdered in the year 5689 (1929) in Hebron, where he was a student of the yeshiva . Several other Minsk natives were murdered in Hebron: Moshe Aharon Rips, Yisrael Lazarovsky who was seventeen years old, a married brother of Lazarovsky and their young daughter, the elderly Dropkin, the son of the head of the Kolel  of Jerusalem, as well as Heller the genius of Koidanov. My brother was severely wounded in the house of Rabbi Slonim in Hebron during the massacres.
Rabbi Binyamin Shimonovitch was the rabbi of Blumka's Kloiz. His son Mendel, an active Zionist, died in Russia. His second son Noach was the son-in-law of Rabbi Mishkovski of Koidanov, and the brother-in-law of the rosh yeshiva and rabbi in Kfar Hassidim. He was also involved in matters of the yeshiva, and died suddenly at the age of forty.
There was also a synagogue called Sarake's Shul named after a women whose name was Sara. Youths also studied there.
There was also a gathering of youth in the Synagogue of the Apprentices Gezeln Shul. In this synagogue
wealthy merchants worshipped. The Chief Rabbi, Reb Leizer, worshipped there on weekdays.
There was also a synagogue named after Chaya Ettinger (Ettinger Shul). She was the mother of the Zeldovich and Pines families, two wealthy and wonderful families of Minsk. Dov Pines was a gabbai [trustee] and activist. He founded the Kolel Tomchei Torah. This kolel was composed of adults who studied Torah. He supported them. Sara Pines, the daughter of Zeldovich, was a great scholar and communal activist. She was a splendid speaker. He later started night classes in Hebrew for observant people.
Peretz the Hunchback was the gabbai of the Junk Dealer's Synagogue. He was an observant Jew, a great philanthropist, and also the rabbi of the swindlers and smugglers of the city. He would ride on a white horse in the outskirts of the city. He legs were long but his body was small. We children called him The Messiah on the White Horse.
I heard about one case of swindling that took place in his home. A purchaser came. Peretz was standing in prayer, and he stood for a long time until he finished his prayers. Afterwards, he sold him textiles that were later found to be forged. When the man came to complain to the police, they answered him: you did not have to buy, for indeed, the purchasing itself is partnership with theft.
The group of swindlers numbered sixteen people. Each person had his nickname. They would stand in the market and sell English cloth in dark corners that was in fact made from the cheapest type of cloth. They would purchase gold rings, gold watches, and other such things from people who were forced to sell them on account of difficult circumstances. They would receive the merchandise, set the price, and say I am going to a partner to get the money, and disappear with the merchandise. Or they would deal with diamonds, and during the time of the examination of the merchandise, they would swap the diamond for simple glass. Peretz was their rabbi, and he also served as the middleman for exporting the merchandise abroad.
One day, a woman entered our house, weeping and wailing. She told my mother, We had a sack of diamonds. We ran into Peretz' gang as we were on our way to Poland. We were in difficult straits, so we decided to sell the diamonds. The gang examined the diamonds and decided not to buy. We later realized that the diamonds were exchanged for glass. And now, what do we do?
Father sent for Peretz, and asked him if he knew about this matter. At first Peretz claimed that he did not know anything, and then he later confessed that his men already smuggled the diamonds across the border. Reuvke Smurk came along with Peretz. He was tall and had a thick beard. Father lectured him: Jew, why can you not conduct your business honestly? Why do you torment people with your swindling? Reuvke answered him, Everything is from the Creator. G-d could have created you a swindler and me a preacher. To your good fortune, you are a preacher and I am a swindler, and that is my livelihood. How am I guilty? At the end, a large portion of the diamonds was returned to the cheated woman.
During the time of Soviet rule, Peretz was involved in a libel against the shochtim who set up a work group called Ortel. It was claimed that they approached, as it were, Peretz with the suggestion to kill one of the shochtim who was not a member of Ortel, since he was competing with them. He was also involved in a libel against the shochet Reb Yaakov Tovia Rappaport, claiming that he raped or attempted to rape a woman. We do not know how Peretz sunk to such a level.
In addition to the synagogues, there were also several shtibels, that is Hassidic synagogues, in the city. First and foremost, the largest and most splendid of them was the shtibel of the Hassidim of Chabad . The Mashpia there was the son-in-law of Rabbi Zevin. The Mashpia is the man who repeats over to the community of Hassidim the doctrines of the Rebbe as was given over by his mouth, and discusses Hassidic matters in general. His name was Reb Avraham Baruch.
Similarly, there was the shtibel of the Hassidim of Slonim. This was a small synagogue that was filled with joy. My friends and I went there for the Hakafot . It was very crowded there, particularly in the women's gallery. They stood there head-to-head. However, the joy was like an overflowing well.
There was also a shtibel of the Hassidim of Koidanov in our city. An intelligent Jew, Yoshka Michla, was there. He composed verses about the Bolshevik government, broke into song, and the youths would repeat after him with a chorus. It was very joyful there on Simchat Torah. His verses had dual meanings, and were composed with great intelligence. It was impossible to prove exactly that they were directed against the government. We melted from joy.
I knew the rabbi of Slipianka, the Slipianker Rav. He would come to our house, and dearly loved my father. However, he was a hot-headed Jew who would incite disputes. Despite this, he was sharp, and a great scholar. He was one of the most stubborn and sharp opponents of Reb Leizer, the Chief Rabbi of the city. He would mock and deride him. He did not have the form of a rabbi. He had no beard, and his face was as red as a drunk's. He was diligent, alive, and very alert, but Father did not like him. During the time of the Bolsheviks, he would write letters to the Communist newspapers, in which he would side with the government and the Yevsekia.
I also knew the Red Rabbi. During his time, he was a rabbi of the old path. He enjoyed women and their charm. He would eat at a specific restaurant when he came to town. He would ask the mistress of the restaurant to sit next to him, saying, I like when you sit next to me. It adds to my appetite. He sided with the Yevsekia as a complete apostate during the time of the Bolsheviks. He later made aliyah to the Land of Israel.
The city also had bountiful assistance organizations. First of all, there was a soup kitchen for the poor. At this kitchen, every poor person was able to receive a good lunch for the price of one kopeck. Whoever did not have even one kopeck could eat there for free, provided that he brought a note from the preacher or from Rabbi Yehoshua Horodner. This soup kitchen on Rakovskava Street was large and ample. It served other purposes on festivals.
I do not know if there was any other city in the Diaspora where something of this nature existed, as it did in Minsk the vat of kosher food. This vat was designated for soldiers who served in the army. As is known, there was a garrison stationed in Minsk, in which approximately 300 Jewish soldiers served. Would it be possible that Minsk should look on as Jewish soldiers eat non-kosher food? Therefore a special vat was set up for kosher food for the soldiers. The food would be cooked in the yard of the barracks. The army authorities permitted this willingly. There was a charity box for the benefit of the Vat for Kosher Food in every Jewish home in Minsk. The parnassim and philanthropists of the community would make up what was missing especially Reb Chaim Luria, a wealthy forestry merchant who was G-d fearing and set aside times for the study of Torah.
Glochovski, a dear Jew, was the chief activist of the Vat. He labored in this matter with all of his efforts. On festivals, especially for the Passover Seder, festive meals were prepared for the soldiers in the soup kitchen. The important men of the city and its parnassim went to rejoice with the soldiers as they conducted a seder. My father would read the Passover Haggada to them with his own interpretation. The soldiers would sing, and joy pervaded among them. Only after this time would every person return to his home to conduct his own seder.
There was a large jail in Minsk. The prisoners, especially the political prisoners, included Jews. The people of the city toiled and provided them support: food, clothing, and judicial support. My father also took care of the prisoners, but Glochovski played the prime role.
In honor of Passover, meat, wine, and four kilograms of matzo per person was distributed. They would receive the meat
from the butcher shops. The matzos were distributed from our home and the home of Reb Yehoshua Horodner. Our house was turned into a marketplace for the poor during the week before Passover. My parents did not leave the poor to themselves throughout the year. My father and his friend Reb Yehoshua Horodner would make the rounds to the wealthy people several times a year to canvass them. This money was used to provide wood for the homes of the poor during the winter, or to purchase shoes and clothing in accordance with the need. They did not just support the poor with a pledge, but actually concerned themselves with their needs.
There was a Linat Tzedek organization in the city. This organization would send doctors for free to the hospitals, and would also supply medication . Members of the committee, including my father, also provided chicken soup and cut-up chicken to the hospitals. This organization would support its work through collections and donations. It also had special boxes for this purpose. One of the collectors was Rasha Minkov, the wife of the shamash of the Great Synagogue. She was a very pleasant woman, always dressed in white as she went from house to house to collect contributions.
There was a Talmud Torah in the city for the children of the poor. They would also get hot meals, clothing and shoes for the winter from the Talmud Torah. The wealthy of the city donated the money that was needed to maintain these beneficial organizations. Praiseworthy teachers were appointed to the Talmud School, so much so that prominent householders in the city sent their children to study at the Talmud Torah.
With the arrival of the torrent of refugees to Minsk during the time of the First World War, a school was founded for their children in the Bistrochod building. Later, the General Zionists established courses in Hebrew there for the residents of the city. The teachers were Menachem Itzkovich, Chaim Tzenzer, Moshe Cohen, and others. Agudas Yisroel founded its own courses, with the teacher being Katznelson. Courses in Hebrew for the lower grades and also for the higher grades took place in the women's gallery of the Great Synagogue. One of the teachers there, Neuman, was a great scholar in literature and grammar. He spoke Hebrew. Poale Zion also founded their own courses, with the teacher being Goldberg.
Afterwards, I myself became a Hebrew teacher for small groups who were preparing to make aliyah to the Land. I was in Hechalutz. One of my students was Gober who now lives in Tzofit. I had a group of students in the suburb of Komarovka. In general, we would go out to the forest every Sabbath for lectures. I would also speak. I also learned how to type with a typewriter. In Zeidman's house, I would print the material that we received from the central office in Moscow, and distribute it. The people of Minsk were comfortable with Hebrew, and it was almost a living, spoken language.
My father, the Maggid Meisharim of Minsk, was born in the town of Eishyshok [Eisiskis], near Radin, the town of the Chofetz Chaim. The town of Eishyshok was famous throughout the world for its rabbis who were great in Torah. It had a yeshiva whose students ate on a rotation basis with the residents of the town, and a kolel of prushim that is of married men who separated from their wives for a few years in order to occupy themselves with Torah . The prushim would visit their families only twice a year, and they would dedicate their entire days to Torah. They did not eat on a rotation basis like the rest of the yeshiva students. Rather, the housewives of the town would provide them their food. There was a Jew in Eishyshok in those days named Yosel. He wore a belt with hooks, and he collected pots and jars for the prushim. Each housewife would designate a certain portion of food so that the prushim could eat a warm lunch.
Grandfather was a scholar. He did not serve as a rabbi, but he did set aside times to study Torah. His wife supported
him as was customary in those days. Their livelihood was earned from a grits mill that supplied grits to the entire area. Their house was a three-room stone house. The largest room at the entrance served as a storage place for grits, and the family crowded into two small rooms. Grandmother was a pretty woman who knew how to speak in a fine fashion. Apparently, my father inherited his gift of speech from her. She only valued this world as a hallway toward the World-To-Come. She was a charitable woman. Every downtrodden and poor person would turn to her, and she would comfort them and help them. She would say, I wish to help you with a warm hand while I am still alive, and not with a cold hand after death, by leaving behind a bequest.
My father was born in the month of Adar of the year 5633 (1873). He studied in a cheder in the town until age 9. Then he traveled to Vilna where he studied in the Ramailes Synagogue, where youths sat and studied Torah. He was talented. He had a quick grasp and a phenomenal memory. Once, they pushed him to deliver a lecture in public. When the people left the synagogue, he closed the doors and arranged the study stands as if there were living people, and he lectured to them. When he reached the age of 17, he began to lecture in synagogues about the weekly Torah portion and matters related to the time of year. He became known publicly as an expert preacher. When his time came to go to the army, his parents wanted to assist him to exempt himself with money. However, he said that he would only be exempted from the army through his own efforts. He went out on a lecture circuit in the area, collected money, and through bribery obtained a red card that is a card indicating that he is free from regular service and would only be called to serve in the army during a time of war.
He was eligible for the draft during the First World War, but he was freed from service along with the rabbis. Father also prepared a list of rabbis in Minsk and the surrounding area, and received an army exemption for all of them from a Tatar general who was in charge of enlistment.
I do not know if it was by chance, or if he had heard about my mother, but he found himself in her parents' home, and decided from the first glance that she would be his wife. My mother was very pretty, intelligent, and refined. She was taciturn, and every word was measured. My maternal grandfather was a scholar who had a textile shop. Father married at age 24. Mother was lonely when she came to the large city of Minsk, far from her parents and all of her acquaintances in her town. However, our neighbor simply fell in love with my mother. She drew her near, and made her situation more pleasant. My mother was a wonderful housewife. She was pious, and did the will of her husband.
Father was a wonderful preacher. He never warned and threatened the punishment of Gehinnom [hell]. Rather, he spoke about the obligations of life in this world and the World-To-Come. He emphasized the obligation of going in the ways of Torah, good deeds, kindness and the performance of the commandments. He was very emotional, and enthusiastic, and inspired enthusiasm. His voice touched and penetrated hearts. When he preached from the pulpit, he literally enchanted the congregation, and everyone was to him like clay in the hands of the potter. Words that come from the heart penetrate the heart. He was not an ordinary preacher who collected statements and verses from books, but rather a diligent scholar, whose mouth never desisted from learning. He got up early in the morning and went to sleep late at night, and he was always looking into a book. He slept for very few hours. He would take a nap for about a quarter of an hour before each lecture. He loved books. All of the booksellers knew of this weakness, and would bring father books by various authors. These included old books of great value, and also general books. We indeed had a very large library of approximately 5,000 books. We had a Talmud in German translation, and books of the Bible in various editions and languages.
Father read Russian and German. He spoke an inexact Russian, but his lectures were spiced with Russian adages. He knew all of the Russian classics, and of course Yiddish and Hebrew literature. We had volumes of Hamelitz, and other such items in our home. When my older brother got older, he prepared a catalogue of our library, and he would lend out books to anyone who wished. When it became clear that people borrowed books and did not return them, he instituted that anyone who wishes to look at a book could do so only in our home.
There is a story about Rabbi Herzog  of blessed memory who once heard a lecture by my father in one of the cities of Lithuania while he was still young. Years later, when Father arrived in Israel, he was completely white-haired, since his years in Soviet Russia aged him early. He went to visit Rabbi Herzog. When Rabbi Herzog heard his voice, he said, This is the Maggid of Minsk, the youth whose lecture I heard in Lithuania.
Father was loved by his congregation. He loved the masses of people and the refugees. All of those who were downtrodden and unfortunate came to him to complain about their troubles. He would offer them advice and also help them literally. He was a communal activist. He even served as an arbitrator in monetary matters, and people used him as a monetary middleman for all sorts of ventures.
Our house was wide open. Rabbis, emissaries, preachers, and various people were among the guests in our house. Rabinovitch the Maggid [preacher] of Kovno was a guest in our house, as was the famous Maggid Simcha Cohen of Tambov, and various itinerant preachers. There was one blind preacher who would come to us with his wife. She was a very simple woman, but followed him around on his journeys. Father would teach him several lectures. When he would exhaust his supply, he would return to us with his wife.
Young rabbis would also come to us. A rabbi who was accepted in a city had to deliver a sermon. There were young men who were great in Torah but did not know how to preach. They would turn to Father, who would teach them sermons. One rabbi who was a Hassid of the Rebbe of Stolin came to us. The Hassidim in general did not study sermons, but rather discussed issues of Hassidim. However this rabbi from Stolin was accepted into a mixed town, where there were also Misnagdim [opponents of Hassidism]. He was required to deliver a sermon on the Ten Days of Penitence, on Shabbat Hagadol [the Sabbath prior to Passover] and on some winter Sabbaths. He did not know how to preach. He came to us, and Father instructed him in preaching. We loved him very much. He had an exceptional sense of humor. He told us stories about the court of the Rebbe of Stolin. He once told us about his how his Rebbe went out to meditate in his chariot that was hitched to four horses. One Hassid said, Oh would it be that I was an oat in the feed of the horses of the Rebbe!. He would also sing Hassidic melodies to us. Father also knew how to sing, and would on occasion serve as a prayer leader in the synagogue in which he worshipped. This Hassid, Moshe Leib, taught my father Hassidic melodies. Father served as the prayer leader for the morning service [Shacharit], and a good cantor with a choir led Musaf . Father also blew the shofar on the High Holy Days. His shofar blowing was like the tune of a flute. They would ask him to also blow the shofar in the Great Synagogue.
He also customarily led the Selichot  in Serebrianka. On account of the distance, they would come to him with a wagon at 2:00 a.m., and he would travel there. We did not get up early, so we did not hear his Selichot. However, we were told that it was something exceptional. They would return him in the morning with many presents: roosters, hens, honey, and eggs. There was especially a lot of honey, for during the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Penitence, Father would preach in all of the synagogues of the city and would become very hoarse. Mother would prepare scrambled eggs and honey for him.
I remember almost nothing of Father's sermons. He did not put his words into writing. Today, we all regret this. We know that he wrote several eulogies, for Rabbi
Rabinovitch, for the wealthy Brodsky, for Baron Hirsch and for Reb Hendel of Paritz. Apparently, everything remained in Minsk among the books that we could not take out of Russia. In general, only the outlines of his manuscripts remain with us. During that time, we succeeded in bringing a portion of the books to our brother who studied in Slobodka. This brother later became a rabbi in Gateskill, England for 25 years. My eldest brother was the famous Rabbi Betzalel Cohen, who spent 17 years in America and later became the chairman of the World Mizrachi Organization. He authored a commentary on the Rambam called Mishkan Betzalel which is now being studied in yeshivas around the world.
When the Bolsheviks burst into our home in Minsk, we placed a request to the government to transfer the books to our brother abroad. They advised us to sell them a portion of the books. We agreed to that. We placed the rest of the books in the Great Synagogue. All of these books were lost, for the synagogue was later destroyed.
Our house was built in a large field leased from the Praboslavic Church. Our neighbor was the Episcopal of the church, a dear man. We would send him gifts of stuffed fish [gefilte fish], and he would send us fruit and flowers from his garden. We had a flower garden in front of the house and a vegetable garden behind. We grew onions, radishes, carrots, etc. Father loved to tend to our garden, and he instilled that love in us. Each child had a few garden beds in the vegetable garden to tend. Our house was open to everyone in need. The tablecloth was spread on the table from morning until late at night. Anyone who entered was offered food, especially if he were a guest from outside the city. On Sabbaths, we had many guests for the meal. It was the custom in the synagogue that guests would be divided up for the meal. Father was involved in this. The rich people of the city would choose the honorable, well-dressed guests for themselves. The rest, those who were the poorest, whose clothes were tattered and worn Father would bring home to us.
I remember that Gitla, the daughter of Rabbi Gluskin the granddaughter of Reb Leizer, would come to us on Friday afternoons. (She is today a professor in Leningrad, and she signs her name as Gita Gluskin despite her fame). Father would give her a wreath of flowers from his garden in honor of the Sabbath.
Father received a salary from the Korovka, the meat tax. The community imposed a tax of one kopeck for each liter (400 grams) of meat. This tax was sufficient to pay for the ten cattle slaughterers in the city, for the rabbi, and also the Maggid. In addition, Father was permitted to leave the town for two months a year. He would then preach in various communities, near and far. This was also a source of livelihood.
Father was one of the doers and activists. The offering of assistance to poor families was not from institutions, as it is in our day, but rather from private donations that reached directly to the person in need.
There was a wagon driver in the city named Zusha. They called him Ferdele , since he would buy a dying horse for a few rubles and work it until it died. When Ferdele appeared with his wife, we knew that his horse died once again. Then Father would give him money to purchase a new horse, and the situation would repeat itself.
Father had a list of honorable poor people who were scholars. There were people who were simply ashamed to ask for help. Father would discretely give them wood for the winter, clothing, shoes, food products, etc. In general, Father would restrict his own needs and distribute things to those in need of charity. He educated us children toward that end. There was the courtyard of Nachum Velvel in the city. Poor people lived in this courtyard.
Father once brought me there to see for myself the type of poverty that people suffer from in this world, so that I would learn to restrict my needs for luxuries, and thank G-d about my privileged life.
Our house was literally a guesthouse. It goes without saying that emissaries from various yeshivas would stay in our home. When there were many guests, and there were not enough beds, Father would take down the ten doors that were in our house, place them on chairs, and lo and behold, there were beds. We had plenty of pillows and blankets in our home. I prepared the beds. When questionable guests came, Father would say, I cannot kick them out of the house based on suspicion. The guests would go to bed, and Father would remain awake all night learning. Of course, Mother would help him. Without her agreement, he would not be able to turn the house into a hotel.
During the First World War, a torrent of refugees came to Minsk. The Russian army expelled all of the Jews near the front on the suspicion of spying for the Germans. Entire communities with their rabbis arrived. Dwellings were found for the first of them. When the torrent increased, they were housed in the synagogues and study halls. A large number were put up in the Great Synagogue. A typhus epidemic broke out. Doctors volunteered their assistance. A refugee committee was founded, headed by Rabbi Sorotzkin, the Rabbi of Baranovitch, the Rabbi of Riminski, Yitzchak Berger who was a member of the city council, and Father of blessed memory. It was necessary to tend to the epidemics that broke out. The committee enlisted the doctors and medics for that purpose. Medicine was obtained from Orbach's pharmacy.
The front drew near to us, and food was scarce. There were many soldiers in the city, and the bakeries only baked for the soldiers. The price of bread increased. Father entered into the situation. He enlisted the help of the mill owners in the city, Jacobson and others, and we opened a bakery in our house. Sacks of flour were piled in our house up to the ceiling, as well as beans and salt. We distributed portions to the refugees. Mother baked and Father kneaded the dough. Father arose early in the morning, spread out the loaves of bread into portions, boiled a large kettle of tea, and ran with the basket of bread and the kettle of tea to the synagogue, where he would give the refugees food and drink. The tea would be sweetened with saccharine, as sugar could no longer be found. He would do this a few times in the morning. Mother would prepare a dairy dish for those who were sick, for we had that in the house.
Our house was turned into a hotel, first and foremost for relatives and natives of Eishyshok. With the increase of the stream of refugees, our house turned into a center for searching for the addresses of missing persons. Family members who were separated from each other during the expulsion turned to Father to help find the lost people.
During the early 1920s, the convoys started to return to Poland. Among the returnees was a woman with two children dressed in rags, and this was during the winter. She turned to Reb Leizer, the rabbi of the city. He gave her a few coins and sent her to the committee. She went out to the street and started to weep. A Jew passed by and asked her, Why are you weeping? She told him her story. He said to her, Come with me to the Maggid. He brought her to our house. We washed her and the children with warm water, and we dressed them in clean clothes. She said that she lost her husband, Zupowicz from Eishyshok in the caravan, and she does not know what to do. They stayed with us. One night the door opened, and a small, withered man walked in, her husband. Of course, he stayed with us as well. Suddenly he took ill with recurring typhus. He slept with us in a bed in the dining room, for there was no other place. All of the other places were occupied. His livelihood was from all of the Jew-haters . This was
already during the time of the Soviets, and Father did not receive a salary. Not only was our entire house filled with guests, but we also rented a house from our neighbors where Rabbi Grodzensky from Vilna stayed. The Chofetz Chaim was also in our house. His livelihood was from baking bread, and here was a Jew sick with typhus. We placed him in the Hekdesh. When he recovered, Father rented a dwelling from the judge Vishnivski. Father plastered the dwelling, brought in wood, and moved the Jew there. Zupowicz later returned to Poland, where he became a rosh yeshiva. He made aliyah to the Land and died here.
Tribulations began with the arrival of the Bolsheviks. They confiscated our house, with the exception of one room that remained for me, since I was a kindergarten teacher. They searched Father with the intention of imprisoning him. He fled from the house and hid in various places. Among these places was the house of the shochet on Zamkovya Street. From there, they smuggled him out to the town of Krasni while he was wearing grandmother's clothes, with his head covered as someone suffering from pain. Then the winds quieted somewhat, since a rumor spread that Father crossed the border into Poland. One day, a certain Jew appeared and innocently said that the Maggid did not cross the border, For I saw him with my own eyes in the house of Itza in the village of Krasni. This rumor reached the authorities. Gershon Katz went out first with the children. In the meantime, our family shrunk. One of the brothers crossed the border and studied in Radin, the second in Slobodka, and my younger, 13-year-old brother crossed the border and reached Vilna. At the time, they also imprisoned Mother. When they searched for Father and could not find him, they imprisoned Mother  as a guarantor until Father would return. Mother claimed, I have five children at home, and if I remain here, the Maggid will certainly not come. Free me, and I will look for him. They finally freed her.
They finally captured Father. On the Eve of Yom Kippur in the year 1919, two secret policemen entered the house and imprisoned Father. Through the intermediation of a friend from the Lachovsky family, we came to Esther Frumkin, the well-known Communist. 150 workers petitioned the government to free him. They brought a tallis and kittel to the jail. Father gathered together about sixty Jewish prisoners. They prayed, and Father preached to them. The next day, apparently, with the help of Esther Frumkin, a command arrived from General Medbeiditz, the commander of the front, and they freed him. He returned home at 2:00 a.m. He went out black and returned white. His hair turned white in the jail during the course of the night.
The imprisoned him again in 1925 with all of the rabbis. They tormented him with an inquisition that lasted for days and nights, until all of the rabbis signed a proclamation that there is no persecution of Jews in Russia. The first signature was that of Rabbi Yehoshua Horodner. After him, Father, Rabbi Gluskin, and Rabbi Abramski signed. There were approximately twenty signatures. Father was freed.
He was imprisoned again at the same period of time. The incident went as follows. Father delivered a eulogy for the son-in-law of Reb Isser. After the eulogy, he requested the congregation to sit for a while, as is customary after a eulogy for an important person. There was an informer present who reported to the government that Father spoke against the Bolshevik regime. However the interrogator, a certain Kozin, said, The Maggid is smart enough not to speak against the police. Father was freed, but after that, he received an expulsion order that stated that Father was not permitted to live in a big city. Father moved to Priluki near Poltava. One brother moved to Israel in 1928. My sister and I made aliyah to the Land in 1931. My brother sent my parents a certificate from Israel as a rabbi. I, as a Prisoner of Zion , approached Pashkova, the wife of Maxim Gorky. Professor David Schor also approached him with a letter. In my approach, I described the serious situation in which my parents found themselves. Finally, my parents received a permit, and made aliyah to the Land in 1934.
|1||A kloiz is a small, Hassidic prayer hall. Return|
|2||Literally, A tzadik who is the foundation of the world. Return|
|3||Kibbutz but not referring to its usual Zionistic meaning. The word literally means gathering. Return|
|4||The second of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch). Yoreh Deah deals with the laws of kashruth, and other matters of prohibitions and permitted things. (The other three sections deal with 1) the daily, weekly and yearly cycle, including Sabbaths and festivals, 3) marital laws, 4) jurisprudence. A mastery of Yoreh Deah is generally considered to be a prerequisite for rabbinical ordination. Return|
|5||Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, died 1953; Rav of Slutsk, and later rosh yeshiva / dean of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem. Return|
|6||Rabbi Yehuda Leib Diskin, a well-known rosh yeshiva in Jerusalem. Return|
|7||This refers to one of the Hebron massacres that occurred prior to the founding of the State of Israel. Return|
|8||A kolel is an advanced yeshiva for married students. Return|
|9||Chabad (acronym for Chachma, Bina, Daat) is the formal name for Lubavitch Hassidism. Return|
|10||The festive processions with the Torah scrolls conducted on Simchat Torah. Return|
|11||Evidently for poor patients. Return|
|12||Prushim means those that separated. Return|
|13||Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel. His son Chaim Herzog later became the President of Israel. Return|
|14||Musaf is the additional service that follows the morning service on Sabbaths and festivals. Return|
|15||Selichot are the penitential prayers that are recited daily during the High Holy Day season. Return|
|16||Ferdele means horsy or little horse. Return|
|17||This is an expression indicating that his livelihood was very difficult. Return|
|18||The word here is Father, which is obviously a typographical error. Return|
|19||A term used for someone who was imprisoned in Russia for wanting to make aliyah. Here, she obviously means that she was a former Prisoner of Zion. Return|
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