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[Page 541]

The Hebrew Minsk

by Daniel Persky

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Published in “Hadoar” year 27, issue 13, 26th of Shvat 5708 (1948)

After a conflagration, one begins to enumerate the property that went up in fire. After a deadly tragedy in a family, one weeps over the loss. We were witness to a terrible Holocaust of six million Jews, a wholesale collective slaughter that has no parallel, not only in the blood-soaked annals of our people, but not even in the history of any people at any time. We are indeed stretched to the limit from our terrible and disastrous destruction. Experts and researchers describe the Jewish communities that were destroyed and entirely cut off. People with good memories relate details and paint pictures of the fundamental, old Jewish reality that was destroyed and is no longer. It is obligatory for us to collect fragments and shards from our beloved items that were broken by the bitter enemy, and to shelter them as eternal souvenirs and keepsakes for generations in our libraries. This time, it is not sufficient to have one “Shevet Yehuda” or one “Yaven Metzula”[1] from among the ancient books of tragedy. Many books of dirges will not be sufficient for our days of weeping over the tragedies of our people at such a time. Writers, researchers and collectors have only begun their historical work, and their pens are still in action.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I will reveal to you my heart: a dirge for my native town of Minsk is eating me up. I have not yet read a descriptive and detailed eulogy in Hebrew about it. Who does not know that this community, until the First World War, stood in the first rank with its other famous, large sisters: Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa, Bialystock, and others. It was not only a city of sages, writers, rabbis, and Gaonim, but it was also an important center of movements and national factions, revolutionaries and proletarians. It was particularly known as the life grounds of the Zionist Movement, Poale Zion, and Bund. Its Jewish youth were intelligent, developed in spirit, idealistic in aims, stormy and effervescent.

Minsk was almost entirely Jewish. Everything before us, wherever one turned – there were only Jews. The language that prevailed was obviously Yiddish. To us, there were only three kinds of gentiles: policemen, government officials and janitors (“Dvornikes”). On occasion we would meet gentile farming women in the meat market, who had come to purchase various provisions and also non-kosher tallow at extremely discounted prices. It was also said that there were a few gentile neighborhoods, but they were far away, and the people did not mix with us. Our people who lived in Minsk during my childhood were a people that dwelt alone.

In truth it is not for me to describe to you Minsk in the present, as I saw it from the time I was born until I left it to go to America. I was very young, only three years after my Bar Mitzvah, when I left. As well, from the time that I became aware, I was always involved in a Zionist and Hebrew environment, and I did not pay attention to all of the internal political and numerous debates that took place regarding the various general and charitable organizations that were so numerous in the city. For example, there was great opposition and stormy debate surrounding the “Karovka”. That is to say, the wealthy lessee who leased the Kosher meat tax (one kopeck per liter) from the community for a set price for a year, and subsequently acted strongly, with the power of the authorities behind him, to raise the price of meat and cause all sorts of hatred and jealousy – exactly as is written in the story “Di Takse”[2].

I am certain that the researchers will succeed in describing the history of the community of Minsk, which goes back half a millenium. But what? It does not have historiographic fortune. In New York, a large committee of writers and activists prepared to publish a book “Pinkas Minsk” in Yiddish, in the same style as “Pinkas Pinsk” and “Pinkas Vilna”.

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And then tragedy struck, for the driving forces – folklorist A. Litwin and the three first editors, Shaul Ginzberg, Baruch Bladek and A. Lisin – all four of them passed away and the enterprise completely ceased. Later I found out that an organization of Minsk émigrés in Tel Aviv was preparing to publish “Pinkas Minsk” in Hebrew, but who knows if the war with the Arabs there would not abort the enterprise. Only I, the writer of these lines, girded my loins and published two feuilletons in “Hadoar”, “Minsk As It Was” (Year 20, issue 35), and “My Hometown of Minsk” (year 23, issue 35). There, among other matters, I attempted to deal with the following things: the unique Yiddish accent (“Fis on Sabbat”)[3]; the derogatory nickname “Minsker swine”; the two Gaonim of times gone by, the authors of “Shaagat Aryeh” and “Seder Hadorot”); three rabbinical personalities – “The Great One of Minsk”, Reb Yaakov Meir Baal Hamofet [Gorodinsky, elsewhere transliterated from the Polish as Grodzenski ], and Reb Isser and his synagogue known as “Reb Isser's Cheder”; jesters; fools; the scholarly and sharp drunk Morgenstern; the youth gatherings in the Painter's Synagogue and those who lectured there – Meir Halperin, Michel Rabinovitch, A. Ch. Rachlin, and especially Rabbi Sh. Y. Halevi Glicksberg who lectured on history (the author of “Hadrashah BeYisrael”), the Zionist leaders Yitzchak Berger, Yehoshua Dov Beininson, Yehuda Zeev Nofech, Shimshon Rosenbaum, and Dr. Chaim Chorgin.

In order to conclude this chapter on a positive note, I will add one embellishment here regarding the essence and character of Minsk. It had many synagogues of specific groups of professions, more than any other city[4]. For example, we had synagogues for tailors, shoemakers, joiners, locksmiths, butchers, shopkeepers, masons (“moliares”), painters (“maliares”), salesmen, business assistants (“Gezelen shul”), and many others. What more could there be? We were blessed with a synagogue of water drawers (where my father and his household worshipped for a certain period), which was called by a mispronunciation by the people, “Shevemim Shul” or “Shamayim Shul”)[5]. How surprised would you be to hear that we were not lacking a synagogue for garbage pickers and rag sellers (“Anutshnikes Shul”), where my mother's uncle served as shamash [beadle].

And now I will move on to my main topic: The Hebrew movement in Minsk.

The mighty cultural activity that took place in our city is worthy of being engraved in letters of gold, in order to make known how much an individual man of great activity was able to do for our language. These “Sirotkin's Groups” were well known throughout the city even in my earliest youth. There was one Hebrew teacher, whose name was Mordechai Sirotkin (the brother of the well-known Hebrew writer and Zionist activist of his day, Avraham Avli Sirotkin, who signed his name as “Bar Yatma” and was the assistant editor of “Hamagid”, “Hamelitz”, and others), founded many groups, solely for girls, to study the Hebrew language. The groups would meet in private houses a few evenings a week. Several hundred students studied there with diligence and enthusiasm[6]. Since my sister Minka taught at “Sirotkin's Groups”, I knew about the quality of the Hebrew studies that took place. They studied, as was customary at the time, with a Russian translation in accordance with the book “Mesila Chadasha” [“New Path”]. This was a simple and straightforward guide of the study of Hebrew for Jewish youth, in the path of the spending teacher Dr. Ohn, written by Michael the son of Mordechai Karpel Volper. He was a teacher of religion in the second High School [gymnasia] and a teacher in the Hebrew Teacher's Institute of Vilna. It was a very widespread and popular book of study, from which Shaul Tshernikovsky studied in his youth, as is written in his memoirs. My sister's progress reached the point where she brought home the book of poems of Ch. N. Bialik, published by “Tushia” in Warsaw. She had apparently borrowed it from the “Nofech Library” that greatly spread the knowledge of our literature in our city. Apparently, this was the first time that I had

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seen this book, and I am not sure if I had heard about the writer at this point. I do not know who set up the equivalent groups for boys: was it the same Mordechai Sirotkin or not, but I faithfully remember that I also went to study Hebrew in one of those groups. The image of these evening classes in a private home is still alive in my memory. The teacher, whose name was Shapira, assigned us, the “quorum” of students, a composition to write on the topic Abraham our forefather. After I did my homework, the teacher read my composition to the group along with the rest. It was entitled “The Rock From Which We Are Hewn”. He then told the group that the only positive attribute of my composition was its nice title, since its style was poor and convoluted. I also studied the well-known book “Guide for Children” by Y. Ch. Tabiov, and I worked hard to translate individual, boring sentences from Russian to Hebrew. This was difficult even though the author assisted us slightly by placing numbers on top of the Russian words to inform us of the word order in Hebrew. I must admit that I succeeded very much with this book, and I also enjoyed studying the rules of grammar that were scattered in each chapter.

I already mentioned once (see “My Native Town of Minsk”) in greater detail the influence of the “Nofech Library” on the Hebrew-oriented youth, for we found there many Hebrew books to read. Almost all of the books that I read in our language during my childhood and youth came from there. It was possible to borrow books and Hebrew newspapers to read from the bookstore of the scholar Reb Meir Halperin (the author of the book “Notrikin, signs and innuendoes”) for a set price. My older brother Mordechai was registered in this lending library, and he designated me as his messenger to exchange books and periodicals. I obviously glanced in them as well. Since this was a private enterprise, it was less active than Nofech's library.

Here is the place to recall the interesting character of an enlightened teacher named Avraham Shachor. He was the intimate companion, assistant, and supporter of the young poet Matzi”r Maana who came from the town of Radoshkovitzi in the region of Minsk. Anyone who investigates the complete writings of Maana, published by “Tushia” in Warsaw, will find there the letter of the poet to Avraham Shachor. Avraham Shachor ran a cheder in our city, not far from where we lived. My younger brother Eliahu studied there. Since that Shachor was once a Sofer Stam[7], he was graced with a clear and fine handwriting. He subscribed to all of the Hebrew newspapers of his day: “Hamelitz”, “Hatzefira”, “Hatzofeh”, and “Hazman”. In the evenings, after the cheder was dismissed, I would go to him and browse through his newspapers. Thus did my soul become bound to our literature. This innovative teacher Shachor indeed introduced an innovation, for he brought in a singer to teach the children childhood and popular Hebrew songs, such as: “Ma Nishma Laregaim” by M. Tz. Maana, “Shuru Na” by Zeev Yaabetz, “Chushu Yeladim Vetzeu El Harechov” by Shaul Tshernikovsky, and other similar ones. Avraham Shachor, who certainly helped endear our language to this small group, later immigrated to America. He served as a Hebrew teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, and died there.

At the beginning of the 20th century, and with the rise of the national Zionism of Herzl, the movement of “Modern Cheders” awoken with all of its might. Of course, this did not pass over the large community of Minsk. Some of the teachers – Grayzel (the father of Dr. Shlomo Grayzel, the author of English scholarly books on the annals of the Jewish people, among other things. He edited the books of the Jewish Publication Society); Ch. D. Rosenstein (he was a writer, who authored study textbooks such as “Mishna Brura”, “Beit Hamidrash”, and others. His son is Avraham Even-Shoshan of Jerusalem, the compiler of the “New Punctuated and Illustrated Dictionary”, published by “Kiryat Sefer”) – banded together and opened up a modern cheder in a large premises with a blackboard, books, and other amenities, as would be found in

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the public schools. The main innovations were the introduction of the utilization of the scholarly method and the introduction of general studies in Russian. The tuition fee was higher than was customary in the older cheders. Nevertheless, the number of students from well-to-do and wealthy families was very great, so that there was no space – and the teachers succeeded materially as well as spiritually. The deep opposition on the part of the Orthodox teachers and rabbis greatly assisted them. Placards posted on the central synagogue and synagogue courtyard, as well as sermons, gatherings, and private endeavors, railed against he “Chadarim Mesukanim” in their language[8]. They claimed that the study of Russian will violate the holiness of the cheder, and the speaking of Hebrew will minimize the study of Torah, etc., etc. The influence of the modern cheder was felt in the city very quickly, for some of the students and youths began to speak Hebrew, and spread charm upon some of the fathers with their fine pronunciation. This caused many of the cheders to contract special teachers to teach grammar and language. Modern youth were particularly in demand for this role, so that even I, despite my young age and the fact that I was not such a “scholar”, received payment to give a daily class at one of the cheders. We read one of the study books (I believe that it was “Reishit Limudei Sfat Ever”[9] by Yehuda Grazovski, published by “Tushia” of Warsaw) to students whose parents insistently demanded this. Similarly, other Hebrew-Russian schools appeared, such as “Torah Vadaat” under the directorship of Yisrael Kaplan, the son-in-law of the well-known Zionist leader Yehuda Zeev Nofech (his son was Dr. Yitzchak Nofech, the eminent judge in Tel Aviv). That Yisrael Kaplan spread knowledge publicly, for on Sabbaths he would lecture eruditely, and in fine form, on segments of history and Pirke Avot[10]] in various synagogues. These lectures won the hearts of the youth. He later moved to the Land of Israel, served as a teacher in Hebron, published various research books, especially a book on “Hebron the City of the Fathers”. The modern cheder organized holiday celebrations that attracted fitting crowds. I recall that the daughters of the teacher Grayzel especially participated in these events. They were regarded as scholars. The daughter of Meir Halperin, the aforementioned scholar and bookseller, was known as an expert in Bible (Tanach) and Talmud. (She married the writer and scholar Michel Rabinovitch, the owner of the “Darom” bookstore in Jerusalem.) We were particularly impressed with Bayla and Ruchama, the two delightful daughters of the Zionist leader Yehoshua Beininson, who had previously spent time in the land of Israel, and spoke Hebrew with the Sephardic accent – wonder of wonders! They later became the two Mrs. Weismans, Zionist activists and well-known philanthropists in Cairo, Egypt. Within a short period of time, dozens of Hebrew speaking girls appeared in Minsk, products of the Sirotkin groups, from among those who studied in private lessons, or ones who had come from smaller towns. We young Hebrew speakers were invited to gardens, gatherings and private houses with Hebrew speaking girls – and obviously, our interest in Hebrew was intermingled with amorous pursuits.

One refined and intelligent girl made a particular impression on us. She was Nechama Katinski, who had come from Bialystock and remained in our city for a few months. Her knowledge of Hebrew, and especially her rich and flowing manner of speaking Hebrew, attracted my heart and the hearts of my group of comrades. She rented a large a large, pleasant, and spacious room on the second floor of a building in the square of the small civic garden, facing the mountain, near the house of the regional minister. About five of us visited the beautiful apartment almost every night and read Hebrew books together. I recall that she brought us from Bialystock the first novel of A. A. Kabak, “Levada” (published by “Tushia” of Warsaw, 5665 – 1905). According to Nechama, the heroine of the novel, Sara Margalit, was an actual girl from Bialystock who Kabak knew from when he spent time in that city. This first Zionist novel literally made us drunk, both because of its own merits and because it was read in such a romantic setting.



Translator's Footnotes:
1 Shevet Yehuda is “The Scepter of Judah”. Yaven Metzula is “Deep Mire”. Return
2In the Yiddish dictionary of Weinreich, “Takse” is translated as “tax on Kosher meat”. Return
3Jews of Lithuania (and Minsk is close enough to Lithuania to count on this matter), are known to have trouble pronouncing the 'sh' sound. Return
4It was common to have synagogues that were founded and attended by certain segments of society, mainly broken down by profession. Return
5In Hebrew, water drawers would be shoavim. Shevemim is clearly a Yiddishized mispronunciation. Shamayim (sky or heaven in Hebrew) is a further mispronunciation, rendering the name of the synagogue into a sublime name. Return
6There is a phrase here “for a very meager salary”, which seems out of place. It could be that 'studied' in this sentence should be replaced with 'taught' – the two words are spelled equivalently in Hebrew without the vowels. However, it seems unlikely from the subsequent context. Return
7A scribe who writes Torah scrolls, Tefillin and Mezuzas. Return
8The Hebrew term for Modern Cheder is “Cheder Metukan”. The 'tav' letter in metukan can be pronounced as a 't' or a 's' depending the presence of absence of a dot, and the style of pronunciation one uses. By using the 's' sound, and then making a play on words to replace the 'tav' with a 'samech', one ends up with “Cheder Mesukan”, which means “Dangerous Cheder”. Return
9First Lessons in Hebrew. Return
10The Mishnaic tractate of Chapters of the Fathers, dealing with ethical statements of the sages. Return


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Y.Ch.N.H.Z. - A Folk Storyteller

by Chaim David Rosenstein

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 551: Y.Ch.N.H.Z.}

The article of Ch. D. Rosenstein, brought here with small changes, was published in “Davar”, literary supplement, 6 Kislev 5687 (1928) - at the milestone of 70 years of Y.Ch.N.H.Z.'s life, and 50 years of his literary work.

Y.Ch.N.H.Z.[1], at the beginning of his rise on our literary stage, was a unique literary personality with prominent traits and an individualism that almost had no equal in our literature. He was different than others of his type in his manner of speaking, in his light humor that hovered over his stories, in the content of his feuillitons that were mainly curiosities, in his sharpness, his jokes, and his literary games.

There is no more humble writer than Y.Ch.N.H.Z. As in his private life, he was simple in the essence of simplicity and prominent in his extreme modesty that came at times to self-abasement. Also in his literature, he was far from self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. He was modest, and he ran far away from honor and glory. Once he was asked by Y. L. Peretz to work with him, and he did not respond. Once, the editor of Hamelitz invited him to come live permanently in Peterburg for a respectable salary, and he did not want to do so. Y.Ch.N.H.Z. stated his reason by referring to the flute that was in the Temple. The flute was made of a reed, and had a pleasant sound. The king commanded that it be covered with gold, and its sound was no longer pleasant. When the covering was removed, its sound returned to as it was…

This was the way Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was. He had a fear of “well pedigreed people.” He was afraid of the “covering of gold,” of the pomp, splendor, polish and puffy glorification that were customary amongst our “high literature.” He was concerned that the stage fright would ruin his voice and remove its unique sweetness in the style of Y.Ch.N.H.Z. He was content to sit in his corner and write in accordance with his style and spirit. Y. Ch N. H. Z. was also not picky with regards to his hosts. He would bestow from his treasury upon all literary publications (he participated in 64 publications). He never declined a publication because he did not like it.

If possible to say, Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was a literary recluse. He was separated and disconnected from all literary professions, alone in his circle of feuillitons, in his four ells of stories, from which he did not move even one iota. He never took part in any literary debate. He never deliberated over any issue in life or in literature that may have excited the hearts so much in its time. Zionism, Bundism, a natural or exegetical style - all of these were issues that did not touch his being, unless they served as material for his stories.

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In the year 5661 (1901) Y.Ch.N.H.Z. published a book called “He who Sanctifies the Sabbath” that took up ten editions of Hamelitz. Its content in brief is as follows: A lad educated in the Fear of Heaven in a cheder, was taught by the “activist” and accepted into the gymnasium. This type of success was not within reach of every lad during those days, since the law of quotas was in full force. When the lad was forced to transgress his first Sabbath by writing, and did not want to do so, he was expelled from the gymnasium. He returned to his home “mourning and with a covered head”[2]. At that time, his parents organized a joyous party, and the invitees raised glasses in toast of the life of the “fortunate” gymnasium student.

This story aroused a literary debate in Hamelitz. Some said that this was a matter of imagination, since in reality there are no lads so pious. Others claimed that there indeed are, and Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was writing about an incident that he had witnessed. What did Y.Ch.N.H.Z. himself, the young man about whom this debate was centered, do? He was silent and did not say anything. However, after some time, a Y.Ch.N.H.Z. style response was written - a long story that occupied 19 editions called “The Sabbath Violator.” It was thought that Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would attempt to confirm the first possibility in this new story. The new story was indeed the opposite of the first. It describes a particularly observant, Orthodox man, who was a teacher and a prayer leader, who was extremely shaken by something that he had heard in the synagogue during the Sabbath Eve service. He heard that the Deposit and Credit Bank, in which the dowry of his grown daughter was invested, was going to default on its investors. He did not stand by the test. He went the next day, on the Sabbath, to withdraw his investment after writing and signing the receipt, as is the custom in the banks.

In the story “The Sabbath Desecrator” it was as if Y.Ch.N.H.Z. wanted to calm the spirits of his readers and show them that nothing was impossible. G-d's world is full of contradictions and paradoxes, and rich in all types of personalities. There is a lad who withstands the test, there is an elder who does not withstand the test, and “one should not disparage anything”[3].

Y.Ch.N.H.Z.did not squander his talents on various literary professions, and did not divide it into fragments. He guarded his fine treasury, his Divine gift, and his literary talents very carefully. He began with stories and ended with stories. Therefore, his blessed wellspring continued to grow and overflow. Aside from Shalom Aleichem, I do not know of any author in our literary family as fruitful as Y.Ch.N.H.Z. (Indeed, there were many points of contact between Shalom Aleichem and him.) Y.Ch.N.H.Z. told me that he wanted to compose a yearly calendar of stories for every day of the week, with each day and each season having its own story. It was only due to reasons beyond his control that he did not write such.

Y.Ch.N.H.Z. did not require any special Divine inspiration for writing, as did other literary practitioners. The inspiration always rested upon him at any time he was free from his regular work of teaching and editing books. He would go from lesson to lesson, incidentally casting a glance at an announcement posted on the wall of one of the houses about a lost dog - and he would immediately weave the story “Man and Beast” in his brain. He would hear a rumor on the street about a matchmaker who, due to stinginess, thwarted a mach made for his learned acquaintance - and a large, thirty edition, story “The Marriage Agreement” [Tenaim], was already resting in his box. He sat down to teach his students - and read before them fine stories with the special theme that he was creating at that time. Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would at times astound his students by asking them to choose any word that they wanted, and composing a fine, heartwarming story about that word. In this manner, many stories that were published at various times were produced. It is possible to state without exaggeration that had Y.Ch.N.H.Z. been given the opportunity to write, he would have brought a flood of stories into our world. However, teaching took up all his time (twelve or more hours). He always gave too many lessons, and was too busy in editing books. Therefore, his time of writing was only on one Sabbath eve until the next. During those Sabbath eves, he created, as spiritual creation,

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as the works of creation, all of the many stories of Y.Ch.N.H.Z. - more than 400.

It was very pleasant to see Y.Ch.N.H.Z. during his times of creativity.

About some storyteller, it is said that he would spill several drops of sweat for each drop of ink; and about another, that he would write and erase, write and erase, until the line comes out properly.

Not so with Y.Ch.N.H.Z. He did not have difficulty; he did not crease his forehead; and he did not stop long to think. He had only to take out his diary -- a small, crushed notebook -- and leaf through it for a moment to find the appropriate name for the story that he had already noted, in order to be able to build his story. It was called “Rav and Shmuel.” It sprouted before his eyes from his notebook. One eye fixed upon it, the other looked glanced at the window for a moment - and behold! The plan of the story “Rav and Shmuel” was already woven in his mind, along with its structure, flow of themes, and sentences. What was missing? - only to transcribe it onto a paper. He would hurry and transcribe, hurry and write. If one of the idlers was sitting next to him at that time and pestering him with trivia - it did not matter at all to Y.Ch.N.H.Z. The idler would chatter and Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would sow line after line, page after page. Now there were already, three, five, ten long pages -- and it was over. Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would not bother to copy over the manuscript into a good form once or twice. He had no time or need for such. The first version was pretty much clean. Corrections? - Corrections do not apply to a completed product. Then he would “fly over” to the post office so he would not miss the delivery time, lest he and the publication that commissioned it would lose out.

Since he was always pressed for time, he did not spend too much time delving in to the character of his heroes. He would not dive into the depths of their opinions and dredge up their thoughts and intentions that were not relevant to some action or another. That is to say, he did not involve himself in what is known in the vernacular as psychology. Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would tell us stories from the day-to-day lives of cantors and their assistants, teachers and their assistants, and others from what is known as the petite bourgeois class. In their day-to-day lives, it was not in these people's nature to hide their thoughts. On the contrary, they would even express that which does not come to mind, and Y.Ch.N.H.Z., who was expert and knowledgeable in conversation and speaking, would express clearly that which he saw and heard from their mouths. Even though there was no deep psychology in Y.Ch.N.H.Z.'s stories, there was a great measure of heartiness and folksy simplicity. He was a folksy storyteller in the full sense of the term. There was no matter, incident or event that he did not deal with in his feuillitons. The way of life of the middle and lower classes were clearly known to him.

Yeshayahu-Nisan Goldberg (Y.Ch.N.H.Z.) was born in the village of Stalbovshchina near the town of Mogilyany on the Neman River on the 28th of Cheshvan 5618 (1857) to his father Reb Yekutiel Zalman HaKohen, a scholarly, well-pedigreed man, the grandson of Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir who was the author of “ Or Chadash” on the Tractate Pesachim and other works. He supported himself through stipends from his wealthy relatives Reb Moshe and Reb Natan Kalir who lived in Vienna and Brody. He later settled in Mogilyany, a small, impoverished town both from a material and a spiritual perspective. He earned his meager livelihood from teaching.

Yeshayahu-Nisan received his early education at the cheder of a foolish and extremely zealous Hassid (for his father only taught Talmud and Halachic Decisors to older lads). Y.Ch.N.H.Z. explains that a child once brought a discarded, ripped page from a Russian book to the cheder. The rebbe immediately dug a hole in the ground of the house and buried the page. He ordered the children to trample on the page thoroughly with their feet and call out, “This is what is done with something impure and unfit!”

Later, his father sent him to the cheder of a non-Hassidic teacher, who was a master of Bible and of language, Reb Yisrael Koidanovy. With him, the lad, who excelled in his finest talents, acquired a great expertise in Bible

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and Hebrew. However, the lad did not yet have the paper upon which to spill out his translations that brimmed forth from him.

The soul of the lad was very attracted to writing. He had a need in his soul which could not be ignored. What should the lad do? It was very hard to convince Father and Mother to give him a coin to purchase a piece of paper.

Then, the lad wrote with coal on the walls and wooden utensils of the house. When he did not find satisfaction in this writing, he became smart and made a type of ink from soot and water, and wrote on the shavings that came from the carpenters using feathers that fell of the ducks as they were pecking in the fields of the town. However, these splinters were also not appropriate for writing. They flew around and could not be guarded well. The desire to write on actual paper, white and clear, burned and burned… Suddenly, he found a great find. A bookbinder came to town to bind the new Talmud that was purchased by the Beis Midrash. The lad hastened and gathered the leftover pages that fell out of the large volumes., some only a fingerbreadth wide. Yeshaya-Nisan wrote and wrote…

Once things worked out well, and a great fortune came to him. It was the vacation time when he was free from the studies in the cheder. He took on a student whom he taught ten hours a day for a week, and he received a complete roll of paper in return! The soul of Yeshaya Nisan did not ask for more than this. Now, thank G-d, he already had something upon which to write. He wrote and wrote…

About what and about whom did he write? - Don't ask. There was the wicked Nebuchadnezzar who exiled us from our land, the wicked Nebuzaradan who burned our Holy Temple, and the wicked Apostomos who burned the Torah. Thank G-d, there were many wicked people in the holy books in the Beis Midrash of Mogilyany, upon which Yeshaya-Nisan could pour out the fiery wrath locked up in his sensitive heart, with the fire of his interpretations. He poured and wrote, poured and wrote…

Then Yeshaya-Nisan began to record the difficult words in the Bible, the holiday prayer books, the Selichot service and supplications, which he already knew by heart. He would add his own explanations and clarifications - did such a lad not have any other diversions?!

When Yeshaya-Nisan left his study room, his father taught him Gemara until his Bar Mitzvah. Then he left his father's house and studied in Yeshivosin the cities of Kopyl, Uzde and Nieswiez. In those days, he was already known as a “Great Writer” in Mogilyany. One day, the “Masters of the Language” in Nieswiez, including the Mogilyaner, were asked to formulate the gravestone inscription of a certain deceased person of stature. The versions were collected and examined by the rabbi and gaon Rabbi Yehoshua Heller. He preferred the version of the Mogilyaner over all the other versions, and received 15 kopeks in payment! From that time, the Mogilyaner began to make a “career” out of his inscriptions. (Incidentally, nobody knew how to make grave inscriptions with all the customary plays on words as well as Y.Ch.N.H.Z. Almost all of the Minsk cemeteries are strewn with gravestones that have his inscriptions.)

When he was about 16 years old, Yeshaya-Nisan came to Minsk and turned to Yeshiva Hakatzavit[4] - and his pocket empty… The eyes of the Mogilyaner looked around as if they were searching for a resting point. There in the corner of the Yeshiva was sitting a Torah scribe, fixing an old Torah scroll. The Mogilyaner glanced at the page that he was on, and an error caught his eye. He rolled a bit - and there was another error: A “full” word instead of a “deficient” word[5]. The scribe showed the situation to the Yeshiva teacher Reb Shmuelke of blessed memory. A “ tikun[6] was brought and the words of the Mogilyaner were verified. The Yeshiva teacher was astonished at the competence of the Mogilyaner with the traditional test, and he became known as a trustworthy corrector.

From that time, the Mogilyaner began to make the rounds to the houses of prayer in the city, correcting their Torah scrolls. He also went around to the towns in the area of Minsk to correct their scrolls. He even went as far as Zhitomir and Kiev. He even reached the headquarters of the “Rebbe” in

[Page 555]

the city of Makarov and corrected the Torah scrolls of the “Rebbe”. However, he was not allowed to examine the hidden Torah scroll of the Baal Shem Tov, lest he find some issue with it… Heaven forbid, such should not happen in Israel!

(Y.Ch.N.H.Z.' sense of vision is still a wonder to this day. He would read a book once, and the letters were already standing out before him, well illuminated. He once showed me the following “sign”: I opened a book before him upside down, with its top on the bottom and the bottom on the top. This elderly man stood about two feet away and read it “unstable as water.” He told me that during his youth, he would stand and read Rashi upside down through the window - that his, he would be standing outside, and the upside down book would be inside the house! His mother's blessings during the lighting of Sabbath candles “may my eyes witness my children involved in Torah,” were fulfilled with him in full.

When he got married at age 23 and his family grew, correcting Torah scrolls no longer sufficed for his livelihood, so he also became involved in teaching. From that time, he was both a teacher and a corrector. He first settled in the city of Koidanov, and later, in Minsk.

When he studied in the Yeshiva Hakatzavit, he became known to the writer Sh. L. Citron of Minsk, who already had some of his writings published. He gave him his first push toward writing. In the year 5638 (1878), Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was published for the first time in Hakol of Radkinson, published in Konigsberg. It was immediately evident that the a fine sapling was planted in the field of literature, which would eventually yield lovely, praiseworthy fruit.

In his role as corrector, Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would visit the home of Shatzkis, the author of Hamafteach, whose home was a gathering place for sages and scribes. At that time, the “Corrector” who conducted himself in a Hassidic style, enveloped himself in Hassidism and wore long Hassidic peyos, also appeared before Shalom Aleichem, the well polished aristocrat, in his parlor that was decorated in a wealthy style of that era. Shalom Aleichem saw in that Hassid a brother in humor, “one of the jesting people whose jokes find favor among his readers.” (Y. Ch.N.H.Z. praised himself in this manner in his letters to the poet Y. L. Gordon.) Shalom Aleichem asked him to produce something for the Folks Library that he published. Of course Y.Ch.N.H.Z. did not refuse, and he gave him “Letters to America,” for which he received 17 rubles and 80 kopecks. This wage astonished and surprised the impoverished Y.Ch.N.H.Z. who, until that time, was used to writing for free, as was the custom of all the writers of those days. The “Letters from Lithuania to America” that began to be published in Cederbaum's Yudishe Folksblatt, were continued by Y.Ch.N.H.Z. in that weekly even after it transferred to the ownership of Levi, and especially in Hamelitz.

Y.Ch.N.H.Z. had special love for Hamelitz, and he graced it above other literary publications by publishing his best stories in it. From his first feuilleton in Hamelitzcalled “The Voice of the Groom and the Bride” until its closing, Y.Ch.N.H.Z never desisted from providing his stories. When the poet Y. L. G.[7] left the editorial board of Hamelitzdue to the well-known chasm between him and “Haerez”, and attempted to attract Y.Ch.N.H.Z. with him by promising to provide him a large stage for literature, and that he, Y.Ch.N.H.Z. would “stroll at the head of everyone in the lower Garden of Eden” - Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was not enticed and did not leave Hamelitz. Hamelitzalso held on to Y.Ch.N.H.Z. and gave him a “large salary” of a ruble and a half for each issue in which he wrote. (A Y.Ch.N.H.Z. style issue was folded into four.) Y.Ch.N.H.Z. remained loyal to Hamelitzuntil it closed. There were many years when Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was sustained only through the stories of Y.Ch.N.H.Z. At the end of every quarter year, Hamelitz began to publish a large serial story of Y.Ch.N.H.Z. that began and did not end - as a guarantee to ensure the renewal of subscriptions. Hamelitz knew very well the degree to which Y.Ch.N.H.Z. was loved by his audience of readers, and anyone beginning to read him would not put down the paper until the end. For his stories had a unique form of salt, Y.Ch.N.H.Z. style salt, that provides and maintains their taste and does not let them rot and does not impact their charm and sweetness.


[Page 556]

Jewish Minsk in the Eyes of Daniel Persky

by Sinai Leichter

{Photo page 556: Daniel Persky.}

The Hebrew writer, teacher and journalist Daniel Persky (1887-1962) was a native of Minsk. Even though he left the city at the age of 19, his memories remained fresh throughout his life. In the last years of his life, Daniel Persky published a series of more than 20 articles in HaDoar of New York. In some of them, a broad fabric of the life of the Jewish community of Minsk at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th century is woven before us. The value of these articles is enhanced by the fact that Persky continued to remain in close contact with his community after he moved to the United States. He also remained in contact with important personalities who emigrated from Minsk to various countries, especially to the Land of Israel.

This is how Jewish Minsk is drawn in the eyes of the spirit of Daniel Persky: “In the latter days, Minsk served as a Jewish kingdom in its own right, to the point where it was almost completely populated by our Jewish brethren, and the few gentiles who remained on its streets were policemen, officials, soldiers, or general servants in our house - Sabbath gentiles[8]… Complete abstinence and full rest pervaded on Sabbath and festival days… this one of the blessed and fruitful towns along the path of our exile.” (HaDoar, volume 34, issue 16).

From that time and always, Jewish Minsk knew of storms: the battle between the Hassidim and Misnagdim, between the Maskilim and Misnagdim, between the Zionists and Bundists, and others. In Minsk, there was a stronger Chibat Zion chapter than in any other community. I set up a unique body, “ Agudat HaElef” to promote aliya and settlement. The all-Russian Zionist conference took place in Minsk in 1902. Minsk responded to the call of Yosef Witkin for aliya to the Land in an unprecedented manner. This was for the Second Aliya[9], that continued until the First World War. Minsk was always alert to any happening in Jewry. This was a sensitive community with a sense of national consciousness and pride…

Persky compares his hometown of Minsk with is neighbor Vilna. “Minsk was a typical Lithuanian city, completely Misnagdic[10], scholarly and sharp like its elder sister Vilna. However, there was a difference between them: Vilna was more European, more Haskala and intelligentsia oriented, and more literary. There, unlike in Minsk, there were Hebrew publishing houses, literary institutions and important newspapers. It was

[Page 557]

more fundamental, more oriented to the masses, more traditional… It was a proud Jewish fortress from generations of yore, in the manner of a “small scale Jewish state” (HaDoar, volume 20, issue 35).

The splendor of scholarly Minsk was Rabbi Yechiel Halperin (1660-1742), the author of Seder Hadorot, an important three-volume book which was used by Graetz in his research. A new edition of the book was published by Naftali Maskil-LeEitan. The Jews of Minsk would go to the grave of the author of Sefer Hadorot every year until the destruction of the community. The book includes a Jewish and general historical chronology, the order of Mishnaic and Talmudic sages, and a list of Hebrew books that were never published.

Communal and Cultural Life

In Jewish Minsk, the educational institutions were the domain of all the Jews, rich and poor, young and old. Daniel Persky brings down reminiscences of Reb Isser, who would disseminate Torah to the tradesmen. Reb Isser even succeeded in encouraging the tradesmen to build a large Beis Midrash with their own hands on the Street of the Bogs (Blotte Gasse). About 500 tradesmen studied with him, and conducted a siyum[11]. In the winter, the studies went until noon, and in the summer, people got up before dawn and hurried to study Torah and wisdom from Reb Isser. With the passage of time, adults who came to Reb Isser without knowing a letter of Hebrew attained the level of scholars.

In 1905, several Bundists entered the Beis Midrash of Reb Isser, began to speak, and even hit the rabbi. The people present wanted to call the police, but Reb Isser shouted, “Do not give over a Jewish person to the gentile!” During the 1930s, clandestine Hebrew courses took place in that Beis Midrash, and the children stood on guard.

The Magid [preacher] of the city filled a most important role in communal and cultural life. What is the difference between a Magidand a rabbi, between a sermonizer and preacher. The rabbi of the city concerned himself with communal affairs, which were naturally connected with the wealthy people of the city. On the other hand, the Magidwas a simple man of the people. The working masses of Minsk found a special warmth in the Magid, since the Magidimperformed the role of actor, musician, teacher, and spokesman. After the worries of livelihood - the Magidwas the most important thing in the life of the simple Jew. The preachers were occupied with didactics and Jewish law, and only few people understood their words; whereas the preachers were modern orators who dealt with politics, the love of Zion, and the struggle for rights.

The most famous Magid in Minsk was Rabbi Binyamin HaKohen Shakovitzky. When the blind Magid, Yisrael Horodner, died in 1896, Binyamin HaKohen was invited to serve as the Magid of Minsk. He was 25 years old, a native of Eishishok [Eišiškės], who received his ordination in the Yeshiva of Slobodka. During the First World War, he would assist with great self-dedication the refugees who arrived in Minsk. Reb Binyamin would lecture in the Chevreshe Shul Synagogue on Sabbath Eves following the evening meal. When he reached the height of his devotion, he would open up the ark cover and pour his heart out into the Holy Ark itself with weeping and wailing. The Jewish Bolsheviks tormented him, but Reb Binyamin continued to be active in the cold synagogue.

In 1936, the Yevsekis arrested the religious leaders of Minsk and the area, and brought most of them out to be killed. However, Reb Binyamin survived and made aliya to the Land. His first action in Tel Aviv was to ascend the scaffolding in order to kiss the Jewish worker and bless “ Shehechayanu.”

Persky states that in Czarist Russia, the Jewish body was oppressed but the soul was free. When the Jews were prevented from benefiting from general education, the Jews benefited, because

[Page 558]

Jewish and Hebrew education broadened. On the other hand, the opposite occurred in Soviet Russia. The Jewish body was liberated, but the soul was oppressed. “On the land of Czarist Russia, a wonderful Israelite nation, unparalleled in the annals of the Diaspora, flourished” - writes Daniel Persky.

The Revival of the Hebrew Language in Minsk

Minsk was one of the important centers of the revival of the spoken Hebrew Language. Daniel Persky notes a long row of talented teachers who taught grammar, Bible and Hebrew literature. The revived Hebrew Language began to be heard in the outskirts of the city. Mordechai Sirotkin, the brother of the writer Avraham Sirotkin, founded an organization for Hebrew speaking girls. Avraham Shachor led public Hebrew singing. In the Modern Cheder, many teachers, such as B. Grayzel and Ch. D. Rosenstein (Even Shoshan) taught with the methodology of Hebrew in Hebrew.

At the beginning of the 20th century, three groups of Hebrew speakers existed in Minsk: “Speakers of Hebrew” (Dovrei Ivrit), “Zion and its Language” (Zion Usfata), and “Our Language” (Sfateinu). The founders were the teachers B. Grayzel (the father of Professor Solomon Grayzel of Philadelphia)[12], Ch. D. Rosenstein (Even Shoshan), and Dov-Ber Shlapian (Dva'sh). They received great assistance the engineer and Zionist activist Yehoshua Sirkin in building their own Hebrew organizations such as “Bnot Shlomei Emunei Zion” and “ Yehudit.”

In Minsk, there were Jews who were “crazy” for Hebrew grammar. It was said that Avraham Avronin was sick with the grammar sickness. He was an active member in the Sfateinu organization of Minsk that gathered in secret, for all gatherings were forbidden under the Czarist government. After he made aliya in the year 5670 (1910), he was selected as a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. In his research, he expressed reverence for Bialik and claimed that his poems were a continuation of the Bible, and that they were imbued with the spirit of prophecy.

The writer Dr. Shmuel Perlman (HaDoar L.Ch.Z.) was a fierce fighter for the revival of Hebrew in Minsk. He was a descendant of the famous Rabbi Yechiel Halperin, the author of Sefer HaDorot. Perlman would enter the Hebrew bookstore of Meir Halperin and his son-in-law Michel Rabinovitz, where he would conduct many conversations with writers and Torah giants. Perlman translated the works of Heinrich Heine in nine volumes. Along with other writers and researchers, such as Kloisner, Glikson, and Yaakov Cohen, Dr. Shmuel Perlman founded a world organization for the Hebrew Language called “Disseminators of the Hebrew Language” (Mafitzei Sfat Ever), which was centered in the city of Berne, Switzerland. Perlman compiled a Hebrew atlas with the collaboration of Jabotinsky. His most important literary activity was the editing of “To Their Borders” (Ligvulam) - a lexicon of Jewish authors in foreign languages, in Hebrew translation).

In a series of articles in HaDoar, Daniel Persky discuses the fine people of Minsk, whether in separate memorial articles or together with other personalities in a general survey. In his article “In Memory of Minsk” (HaDoar, volume 34, issue 16) that is a call to action for the Yizkor Book for the Jewish community of Minsk, Persky states about himself, “I have dedicated full chapters to people of note of my hometown: Yitzchak Berger, Yehuda Zeev Nofech, Shimshon Rosenbaum, the Magid of Minsk, Meir Halperin and Michel Rabinovitz, Mordechai Rodanski, Yehoshua Dov Beininson, Dr. Chaim Chorgin, Mordechai and Abba Sirotkin (Bar-Yatma), Sh. Niger, A. Leissin, B. Vldek, Ch. Ch. Rosenstein, Shaul Ginsburg, Avraham and Meir Kaplan, Rabbi Sh. Y. Glicksburg, and others.” To these, we will add a few other from the articles of Persky that we have in our hands: about Shmuel Perlman, Avraham Avronin, and Eliezer Kaplan. It is accurate to state that this is not even yet a complete list.



Translator's Footnotes:
1There is a text footnote here: the literary name of Y. N. Goldberg. It is the acronym for Yeshayahu HaKohen Nisan Har-Zahav. (Translator's note: Har Zahav is the Hebrew translation of Goldberg. Note, there may be an interesting play on words in the complex acronym. If you change the Ch. To K. - chaf to kuf - you get the acronym Yknh'z, pronounced Yaknehaz, which, in halachic terms, describes the order of blessings of Kiddush on a festival that occurs on Saturday night, when the Kiddush is to be combined with Havdala. The pronunciation of Y.Ch.N.H.Z., would be similar -- Yachnehaz. From the title of his book given at the top of page 552, it sounds like this play on words may have been intentional.) Return
2Esther, 6:12. Return
3Pirke Avot 4:3. Return
4The Hebrew term “ Yeshiva Hakatzavit” would literally mean, “The Butchers' Yeshiva”. Return
5Some Hebrew words can have their vowels spelled out with a placeholder of a Yod or Vav letter. The same words can often be spelled without the placeholder letter, and with just the presumed vowel. If the placeholder letter is used, the word is spelled in the “ Maleh” or “full” fashion, and if it is missing, it is spelled in the “ Chaser” or “deficient” fashion. Return
6A printed book with the text of the Torah written out as it should be written in a real Torah scroll. Return
7Yehuda Leib Gordon Return
8Gentiles who would perform work for Jews that they were forbidden from performing on the Sabbath. Return
9See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Aliyah Return
10Misnagdic means non-Hassidic. Here, Lithuania is used in the broader sense of the term. Return
11A celebration of the conclusion of a Talmudic tractate of an order of Mishna. Return
12The well-known historian. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Grayzel Return

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