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{Page 228}

My town

Rabbi Nissan Waxman

Translated by Paul Pascal

[This is a translation of pp. 228-234 in Hebrew with additions from the Yiddish article of the same title, pp. 460-465. The essay exists in the Slutsk Yiskor Book in both Hebrew and Yiddish versions. For the most part the two are very similar in content, but do differ occasionally in significant ways. The translation below is based on the Hebrew version, with additional or alternative passages from the Yiddish where these augment, clarify, or improve on the Hebrew text. The Yiddish additions are given in square brackets.  Hebrew terms retained in the translation are rendered here with a Yiddish pronunciation, out of deference to those in Starobin who actually used the words, with this pronunciation, in their daily lives.]

[Starobin – 3213 souls, a church, a school, a post office. Large stretches of swamp land.  Aside from trade and business, the Jewish townspeople devoted themselves to growing vegetables and cultivating large tracts of hay and grass. – From Bruckhaus-Efron's Encyclopedia]

A child of Starobin am I. My forefathers, simple and pure-hearted, were born within its borders and buried in its cemeteries.

I am a child of the twentieth century, oppressed by stormy winds and exhausted by the crashing waves.  The cradle of my youth lay in Starobin and upon its ashes I took my first steps.

Many years have passed since I left you, my darling town. I have experienced events and adventures. I have crossed oceans and countries of the world and have seen large cities, but none is more beautiful than you.

You remain engraved in my heart and before my eyes [with all of your attributes and your flaws, with your forests and fields, your mud and bog, your simple folk and your luminaries, so noble in character]. Your radiant countenance and pure heart will never be erased from my memory, even with the poverty and illiteracy which also nested in you.

I will try to describe your appearance so that your memory might endure for generations to come.

My town of Starobin belonged to the Gubernya (province) of Minsk, the city of Minsk itself being about 140 kilometers (85 miles) away. However, most commerce was conducted with the District Town of Slutsk, about 35kilometers (20 miles) away. The town was divided into three parts: Slutsk Street [also known as "Town's End"] on the edge of town, the market [also known as the "Well-to-do Section"], and Eretz Yisroel Street. I could never understand the reason for this name and have never heard of its use in any other place. Each of these three areas had its own Beis Medresh (House of Torah Study and Prayer), with its own individual charm.

Three hundred and fifty Jewish families lived in Starobin. Some earned their income from the various trades in which other Jews of White Russia were also employed, such as shoemaker, tailor, and storekeeper. In addition to these, Starobin Jews had a unique "industry" of their own from which the majority supported themselves, based on their vast gardens of cucumbers. The cucumbers were overseen with great care all summer, and at summer's end they were taken from the gardens, sliced in half by hand lengthwise, and their seeds removed. These were washed and then dried in the sun.

Merchants from deep inside Russia would then come and purchase the seeds in order to do their own sowing, and they would pay about twenty or thirty rubles a pod (40 pounds), a substantial price. It was fair, though, when you consider how labor-intensive the process was. You can also imagine what sort of income this kind of business eked out.

But Starobin was rich in Jewish souls, rare Jewish characters in whom she could justifiably be proud, including the following:

Peysakh the Melamed (the Torah Teacher)

In the Beis Medresh on the edge of town there were no outstanding scholars, but within it the voice of the Bible could nevertheless be heard. This was where Rabbi Peysakh the Melamed prayed, a teacher of Rashi Talmud. [He would take only] ten to fifteen Talmud pupils into his heyder (one-room religious school), and he worked with them with all his might from morning until late at night.

He taught Torah to Jewish young people in this way for about twenty-five years, until his throat grew hoarse and he spoke [with the voice of a duck. In fact, the jokers in town gave him the nickname "Peysakh the Drake."]

Of course, the teaching profession did not sufficiently support his household. Therefore his wife also would keep a pumpkin garden. [As if it weren't enough that this particular Jew with the gravelly voice grew exhausted each day from his long hours of teaching, at twilight daily he would run to the Beis Medresh and complete his day's work teaching a chapter of Mishna (the first part of the Talmud) to the congregants, and it was not for the sake of monetary reward, God forbid.] On the Sabbath, prior to Minha (afternoon prayers), he would preach on the Torah portion of the week.

The Postmaster

A quarter to a third of the Jews who prayed in the Businessmen's Beis Medresh were of the educated class and teachers of modern children. [They tended to be a more intelligent group, both in worldly matters and in Jewish thought.] They argued that every Jew ought to be proficient in the Bible, including the grammar. Every Sabbath a congregation of twenty or thirty refined Jews sat and listened to a lesson in Talmud by their rabbi, a great

Bible scholar, Rabbi Shleyma Landa, one of the brilliant students of the gaon (Torah genius) Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the rabbi of Hlusk.

Aside from a squash garden, Reb Shleyma earned money from a horse postal business, a dowry gift from his father-in-law, [Yankl Itshe Hayim's, on behalf of Yankl's only daughter]. Reb Yankl had leased the business from the government, and promised to support Reb Shleyma with it for all the days of his life. Thus Reb Shleyma engaged in Torah and community work, while his father-in-law Reb Yankev ben Yitzhok Hayim [Yankl Itshe Hayim's] took care of the horses, harnesses and carriages, all the while taking pride in his son-in-law.

Hirshke the Shoemaker

In that same Beis Medresh prayed a Jew who was called Hirshke the Shoemaker because of his trade when he was young. He had a powerful and pleasant voice and would lead services in front of the Holy Ark on Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur. However, the intellectuals of the town had misgivings about a cantor in their Beis Medresh who had been a man of a lower class, one who had been a shoemaker in his youth. Still, no one dared to say anything, for there was no one who could chant those heartfelt melodies as well as he could, especially his "Yaaleh" prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur and in the Musaf service of the next day.

His wife – Merka was her name [Khasha Merka's] – is a story in itself.  This Merka was a saint of the highest order. [She did the work of ten women.]  Whenever there was a need for charity and kindness, helping a poor family, providing a dowry for a poor [or orphaned] bride, staying with a sick person without family, [lending support for the funeral of a pauper], or other acts of lovingkindness, she was always there first, [organizing things quietly, so that no one would know who was responsible for the support. And when she could, she endeavored to hide her efforts from even people of means for whom she might be working, to avoid revealing how and through whom the help had come.]

In 1914-15, in the throes of the First World War, [when virtually all the Russian armies were passing through White Russia,] a regiment of Cossacks happened to arrive in Starobin exactly on Yom Kippur afternoon. When the Cossacks saw some Jews walking in the streets of the town they immediately taunted them, pushed them and knocked them down.

The Jews fled frantically and rushed into the Beis Medresh crying: "Cossacks! They have come and are attacking the Jews!" In the Beis Medresh a panic arose and many of the worshippers fled to their homes. The officers of the Beis Medresh turned to Hirshke who was standing in front of the Ark and begged him to stop the service for fear of the danger, [so as to allow the congregants to get away.] But Hirshke paid attention neither to the words of the synagogue officers nor to the imminent danger. He [dismissed them with] his hand and uttered one word: "Service!" [as if to say, "How dare you suggest we break off our worship without reciting the central service, the Shmon'Esrey – the holiest part of the prayers?"] His strong stance made a great impression on the worshippers and they too remained in their places, to hear and join in the chanting of their spiritual leader.

The excitement had just calmed down when a group of Cossacks with long swords in their hands broke into the Beis Medresh. A great terror fell upon the worshippers. Yet, when the Cossacks saw Hirshke, shrouded in white, prostrating himself and chanting the prayer "The Priests and the People" in a melody which penetrated the heart, and saw too all the worshippers on their knees, a fear of this holy atmosphere fell upon them. For a few moments they stood as if petrified, then slipped outside, one by one.

The Great Beis Medresh and Moshe Nomi's the Shammes (Synagogue Sexton)

Rabbi Dimta and all of Starobin's religious leaders prayed in the Great Beis Medresh, the most important one in town. The building stood on the edge of a wide courtyard known as the "Shulheyf" (or Shul Hoif, "Synagogue Grounds"), which served private and public life. At the other end of the courtyard was the rabbi's house.

In the middle of the Shulheyf there was a building called "House of Talmud Torah" (community Torah school for young children), even though no one in town could remember when school children had studied there. The house served as a storeroom for old objects and utensils and the Khevra Kadisha (Burial Society). This desolate building instilled fear in the children of the town and many frightening tales about it circulated in town.

It was in the Shulheyf that a khuppah (wedding canopy) would be set up,  after the bridal couple had been led through the town. At a bris (ritual circumcision), the newborn infant would be carried to the Great Beis Medresh, and once he had been brought into the covenant of our Father Abraham, the community went to the home of the boy's father for a festive meal.

Pallbearers would carry the deceased in their coffins to the Shulheyf.  Many of the townspeople took part in the funeral, and shops closed when the funeral procession passed them on its way to the cemetery. The life of every Jew in Starobin was tied, from birth to the last day to the walls of the Beis Medresh and its courtyard, where everything began, happened, and ended.

In the Great Beis Medresh, Moshe "son of the Woman Naomi" (also known as Moshe [Ed: not Moishe] Nomi's) made his home [and "kingdom"]. [Ed: Reb Meysha Hayim b'reb Yehuda Leyb Kaptshits.] He was a unique character, [the rare kind of Jew that hasn't been seen for many years now].  To all appearances, he seemed to be only the shammes of the Beis Medresh and the shammes of the Khevra Kadisha.  But he was also called "Shammes of the Besdin (Rabbinical Court)". This was his official position, and the truth of the matter is in this role he was the only authority in all religious matters in the town – proficient in Talmud, religious arbitration, and in the wisdom of the Kabbala, which he studied when no one was in the Beis Medresh.

His dedication to Torah knew no bounds. He sat in the Beis Medresh and studied Torah day and night every day of his life. The elders of the town would say that for fifty years no one ever arrived at the Beis Medresh before he did nor left after him. He fulfilled his job as shammes faithfully and devotedly and did not rely on others. Every Thursday he went around to all the doorsteps of the homeowners collecting contributions for "Paupers' Bread" (food bank). All the people in town, from youngsters to elders, admired him.  Many feared his glance, although he never looked "beyond his own four cubits" (never looked critically at others).

He also presented a lesson in Shulkhn Orukh (voluminous summary of Torah laws) every day between minkha and maariv (afternoon and evening prayers) to whomever came to the Beis Medresh.  After the maariv prayers he taught a page of Gemora (Talmud) to the scholars of the town. [Regardless of the fact that in Starobin there were always great rabbis with world-renowned reputations, it was Moshe who taught the Gemora in the Shul, and Rabbi Dimta would sit and learn from him.]

The people of Starobin, like most of the Jews in the District of Slutsk, did not recognize the Hassidic movement. Everything to do with Hassidic "rebbes" and the practice of "personal blessings" and "redemption money" were foreign to their spirit. Yet people came from far and near to receive a personal blessing from Moshe Nomi's the Shammes. Not just the Jews—even Gentiles came to him with requests. He never took payment from a son of Israel. Only from Gentiles did he accept payment, in the form of candles and towels for the Beis Medresh.

A yeshiva for advanced young people existed in town for a few years [prior to the First World War], founded and run by Rabbi Shimshon [Zelig]  Fortman (more on him later). The yeshiva acquired a good reputation, and students from the entire Slutsk region flocked to it. I, too, was among the yeshiva's young students. Many of its students are now great and famous Torah scholars of our generation [Ed. note: this was written around 1959].

On one occasion, Rabbi Fortman had to leave town [for a few weeks] and asked Rabbi Moshe the Shammes to be his substitute. So it was, and once during a lesson, a peasant carrying a package came into the Beis Medresh. Rabbi Moshe apologized to us and went out to speak with him. When he returned he sensed our strange reaction and he responded with a smile, saying, "It happened that two cows had run away from this Gentile and disappeared. A week ago he stopped in to see me and asked me to "whisper a blessing" on his behalf.

I did as he wished, for why should it bother me if a Gentile believes in these things? And look, the cows returned safely, and this man has now brought enough towels for the Beis Medresh for an entire year.  "When the Gentiles believe," added Rabbi Moshe, "this is a welcome thing, and it is forbidden to make fun of it. For if they stopped believing, it would signal a great danger to us."    

Rabbi Moshe's wife was a woman of great saintliness. In addition to her squash garden, she also spun threads for the tsitses of the townsmen (tsitses, or tsitsit, are ritual fringes on the four corners of prayer shawls, perpetual reminders of God's presence and of a Jew's obligations). Everyone in town knew that Sora Rivka, the wife of Moshe Nomi's the Shammes, shared credit in their mitzvah of tsitses (in the fulfillment of their religious duty to wear tsitses). She also performed acts of anonymous charity.

[In the corner of the Great Beis Medresh there sat Reb Avrohom Reuven Hinda's (surname Rubnitz), reciting "Alshekh". He was the oldest of the brothers in his family, the others being Peysakh the Melamed and Elya Hinda's. In town they were known as the "Bney Ruvelekh" (the Little Sons of Reuven), probably because of their grandfather, whose first name is discernible in their surname – Rubnitz (Reuvenitz). They and the Chinitzes were the largest families in town.

As I picture him, Avrohom Reuven was already in his late eighties and had long ago stopped working. Previously he had been in the fur and pig-hair business, at which he was considered the greatest expert. But all of these "foolishnesses" were only sidelines. His real passion lay elsewhere. For over sixty years in a row he would "talk" Alshekh.  That is to say, for half an hour between Minkha and Maariv prayers every day, he would teach a group of Jews the Torah portion of the week, using the interpretation of "Alshekh".  [Ed. note: Moshe Alshekh, ordained a rabbi by the famous Joseph Caro, was a 16th century Sephardi halakhic authority, teacher, and preacher, whose published ethical and philosophical commentaries on most books of the Bible, supported by extensive Talmudic and Midrashic references, were widely disseminated throughout the Jewish world.]

Among those who were there to listen were Jews who had been attending his lessons since he started teaching: Motta Yankl the Wagon-Driver, or Moishe Berl the Glazier, who were themselves already old-timers. In the eyes of all of his students, who were basically drawn from the working class elements in town, Avrohom Reuven was the symbol of Torah and wisdom. His word was the epitome of astuteness, even though in his own mind he considered himself to be artless and simple, and would in fact often come out with indolent comments.]

[One of his comments that circulated around town had it that he didn't believe "on this Earth" there were such places, really, as Moscow and St. Petersburg. "Maybe Vilna and Warsaw, I'll grant you," he would say, "you can't deny their existence, since you see their names in black and white printed on the first page of the Mishna texts."  As for Minsk or

Smolensk, he himself had met with merchants from those places who would come to buy his fur and pig-hair, "but the others – it's all deceit and lies, made-up stories which good-for-nothings concoct to make mischief, since they are too lazy to attend my lesson in Alshekh and would rather gossip about stupidities!"]

[Nowadays who can deny what he said? Maybe he was actually right!…]  

The Rabbis of Starobin

Rabbi Ahron Feinstein and his descendents served as the rabbis of Starobin over the course of the last century. Reb Ahron's son, Reb Eliyohu, in particular, excelled and became famous for his genius and wisdom. All his friends and acquaintances admired him, and his name preceded him throughout the Jewish world. (He died in 5689, or l928-29).

Reb Eliyohu was born in the month of Teyves 5602 (winter of 1841-42) in Slutsk.  His amazing talents were recognized while he was still a child, and although he was physically weak, his diligence knew no bounds. At the age of seven he was proficient in "Seder Nezikin" (fourth section of the Mishna). The head of the rabbinic court of Slutsk, the venerable gaon Rabbi Yoysef Peimer (or Pehmer), was strongly attached to him and loved him as a dear son.

When the youngster was ten years old, the old rabbi himself began to teach him and to speak about him to the outstanding personalities of that generation.  When Eliyohu reached the age of thirteen, he became engaged to the daughter of the gaon Rabbi Yitzkhok haLevi Davidovitch, the Rabbi of Karlitsh.  His future father-in-law gave him, as an engagement present, the book "Yad Malachi", whose pages the young groom soon filled with marginal notes.  After the betrothal the groom went to the Volozhin Yeshiva.

In those days there erupted in the Volozhin Yeshiva the famous controversy between the leaders of the NeTSiV Yeshiva (NeTSiV is an acronym for Rabbi Tsvi Hersh Leyb Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva), and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The two sides decided to bring the dispute before the court of the great rabbis of the day: Rabbi David Tebli (Tevela?) of Minsk, Rabbi Yosela (Yoysef Peimer) of Slutsk, Rabbi Z'ev Volf, the head rabbi of Vilna, and Rabbi Yitzkhok Elkhonon Spector, who was then in Novogrodok.

When these rabbis arrived at Volozhin in the month of Kheshvan 5618 (1857), the leaders of the Volozhin Yeshiva came out to welcome them, and Rabbi Yosela asked the Volozhin leaders, "How is my Rabbi Elinka (affectionate form of Eliyohu)?" They heard his question and knew that Rabbi Yosela did not honor just any man with the title "Rabbi." But they were silent, saying they had not heard of him. Rabbi Yosela admonished them; he told them that not knowing the son of the rabbi of Starobin rather blemished the quality of their yeshiva administration.

From then on they began observing Eliyohu Feinstein and discerning his greatness, to which the NeTSiV himself testified, for the youngster already knew the works of Rabbenu Nissim (Ha-RaN, 14th century Talmudic commentator) and the commentaries on the Mishna of Rabbi Shlomo ben Adrat (Ha-RaSHBA, 13-14th century Spanish Talmud giant).

When he was nearing his eighteenth birthday, his marriage took place – on Rosh Khodesh Tammuz 5620 (1860), and he remained in his father-in-law's home in Karlitsh. The elders of the generation would say about him that during the time he was living in his father-in-law's house he studied every part of the Shulkhn Orukh forty times and knew every section of it by heart.

During Passover 5623 (1863) his father died and the people of Starobin unanimously decided that he should fill his father's place. But he refused because of his great desire to devote himself to Torah study, and also out of fear of the burden of rabbinic leadership when he was just twenty years old. His father-in-law tended to agree with him. But instead he respected the wishes of Rabbi Yosela who appealed to him saying: "I would like to see my Rabbi Elinka take on rabbinic leadership while I am still alive."  Reb Elinka granted his request, but on the condition that the contract for his rabbinic appointment stipulated that he would not be obligated to render any rabbinic judgments or handle other rabbinic matters before midday, and that in general none of the townspeople would approach him except for teaching and for decisions on Jewish law.

In spite of those conditions, after he had taken the rabbinical seat he conducted his office on a high level, and was not intimidated by the powerful rich people who, in those days, ruled as they pleased in matters of land leasing from the Polish princes and in taking over other people's land. These people would get their sons released from army service at the expense of orphans and the sons of poor people who were sent against their will. Against these unethical people the young rabbi stood up and fought with uncompromising words and a breadth of spirit, until he became renowned throughout the country.

In the year 5627 (1866-67), when Rabbi Yehoyshua Rabinovitz from Kalish (probably either Kalush, near Lvov, or Kalisz, near Lodz), the rabbi of Kletsk, left his post in Kletsk for Nesvizh, the Kletsk community sent a rabbinic missive to Rabbi Eliyohu with a sum considerably greater than his salary.  As soon as this became known to the people of Starobin the entire town was in a turmoil, and they tried all sorts of tactics to keep him. But the people of Kletsk would not give him up. Finally the two sides came before the rabbinic law court of Rabbi Arye of Eihumen (also called Chervin) and Rabbi Gershon Tankhum of Minsk. The court ruled in favor of Kletsk and so Rabbi Eliyohu went there in 5630 (1869-70).

This ruling greatly depressed the people of Starobin, and even after several decades had passed the matter was not gone from their memory. Generation after generation in the town would tell wondrous stories about their rabbi, who had grown up in their midst and been stolen from them.

To their joy, the people of Starobin were able to have their revenge on the community of Kletsk. For Rabbi Eliyohu did not stay long in Kletsk and moved from there to fill his father-in-law's place in Karlitsh in 5634 (1873-74). He then moved to Choslovitz (Khislavichi), and afterwards to Pruzhani, in place of the esteemed Rabbi Yerukhom Leyb Perlman. There Reb Eliyohu gained fame and was renowned as Rabbi Elya Pruzhaner, of blessed memory.

After Rabbi Elya moved to Kletsk, the people of Starobin elected his brother-in-law, Rabbi Yekusiel Zusman haCohen Kaplan as their rabbi. He wore this rabbinic mantle until the day he died, on the 8th of Iyar 5660 (1890). After his death a controversy broke out in Starobin over the issue of the rabbinate. Most of the people, especially the butchers, were tired of a reserved rabbi and yearned instead for a rabbi who would speak before the public from the bima (platform) of the Beis Medresh, at least on Shabbes Shuva (Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and Shabbes haGodl (Sabbath preceding Passover).

Many rabbis, several of them famous, offered their services, in particular the R.Y.D.Ba.Z. (or R.I.D.Ba.Z., Rabbi Yankev Dovid Vilovsky/Willowski) of Slutsk, for the sake of his son-in-law, the young Rabbi Yoysef Kahnovitsh (Kanovitsh?), who had made a favorable impression with his sermons.  The RYDBaZ himself promised to come to Starobin from time to time to preach to the congregation. But the important people and the scholars of the town ultimately did not agree to hiring any of those who emphasized the importance of sermons over other rabbinic tasks. They chose instead Rabbi Gershon Moyshe Helbord, who was known by the name "the Prodigy from Trok (Trakai, Lithuania)." Reb Gershon stayed in Starobin for seven years until he was chosen in 5667 (1906-07) as the rabbi of Timkovitsh, and from there he went to Oshmina, near Vilna.

Out of love for Reb Elinka, the community of Starobin then hired his young brother-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the rabbi of Uzda. Although Reb Dovid was shy and did not preach before the public, all the people in town loved and admired him. He became famous for his great proficiency and his talent for delving deeply into the Law, such that the gaon Rabbi Isser Zalmen Meltzer of Slutsk sometimes invited Reb Dovid to help him rule on matters of civil law in the rabbinic court there.

Reb Dovid was distinguished for his nobility and outstanding character.  He conducted his rabbinate with wisdom, prudence and utmost grace. His outward appearance also garnered respect. He was a tall man and cut an imposing figure. His home was always wide open to the needy.

According to the tradition of Starobin, then and always, no one was allowed to sell candles or yeast, for it was the customary right of the rabbi's family as part of his regular income. Of course, the rabbi himself was not involved; his wife, the rebbetzin, and his children took care of it. On Thursday evenings all the people of the town would stream to the rabbi's house to buy candles for their Sabbath blessing, and yeast for the challahs at the Sabbath meal, which most of them baked themselves.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, those who came to the Great Beis Medresh would stay awake all night, on their feet. Among them, of course, were Reb Dovid and his sons, who would read verses from Psalms. Around the middle of the night, Reb Dovid and his son Reb Moishe would study the entire Talmud tractate "Masekhet Yoma".

With the death of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein on 27 Tishrey 5688 (1927), the rabbinate in Starobin effectively ended. Rabbi Shleyma Landa, mentioned earlier, tried hard to fill the void and to protect Jewish values, but this ended when the Soviet government nationalized his horses and carriages, and he was arrested as a "bourgeois" and a reactionary. He was exiled to Siberia, and there all traces of him disappeared. (His son, Rabbi Grunam, was the son-in-law of the gaon Rabbi Peysakh Frank, and was one of the directors of Yeshivat haDarom in Rehovot, Israel).

Among the family of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, of blessed memory, who perished, are the following:

His youngest son Yitzkhok, died while still in his prime. His son Rabbi Mordekhai, a Torah genius and a man of distinguished character, was the rabbi in Hrozov (Grozovo) and Shklov; he was exiled to Siberia and perished there. His son Rabbi Dov Ber, the sheykhet (shohet, or ritual slaughterer) in Starobin and Shemezova also died in Siberia. His son Rabbi Yankev and all his family perished in Riga, Latvia.  His son-in-law, Rabbi Yisroel Shoel Yapin, the rabbi of Choslovitz, Smolavitsh, and Rechitsa (Rzeczyca), was in Latvia and perished there. May the Lord avenge their blood! (See Sefer Zikaron L'Yahadut Latvia, pages 391 and 406)

And may the following members of his family be blessed with long life: His grandson Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhl Feinstein, the son of the above-mentioned Yitzkhok, who is presently in Tel-Aviv. His daughter Hanna, who is the wife of Rabbi Yitzkhok haLevi Smol in Chicago, U.S.A. One of his outstanding sons, the gaon Rabbi Moishe Feinstein, who was formerly the rabbi of Lyuban and is now in America. He is head of the Tiferes Yerusholayim Yeshiva in New York. He is one of the exceptional individuals, out of all the rabbis, who are accepted by every stripe of (religious) Jew in America.  [Ed. note: Prior to his death in the 1980's, Rabbi Moishe Feinstein had become universally regarded as the single highest world authority on matters of Torah law of the Twentieth Century.] His wife, the rebbetzin Sima, the daughter of Rabbi Yankev the shoykhet of Lyuban, is renowned for her charity and kindness.

The Scholars and Yeshiva Pupils

Starobin was full of scholars, many of them with rabbinic ordination, qualified to teach, so much so that there was a standing joke in town: "Why is this shtetl called Starobin? It's because in Russian 'Sta-Rabin' means 'a hundred rabbis'." Nearly every youngster in Starobin who finished kheyder with a Gemora melamed (elementary level Talmud teacher) went on to Slutsk to complete his Talmud studies in Rabbi Nekhemia's "religious preparatory school", followed by Slutsk's renowned Eyts Khayim Yeshiva co-founded by the RYDBaZ (Ed.: see earlier reference; and Rabbi Isser Meltzer). From there they fanned out to the yeshivas of Slobodka, Mir and Telz (Telsiai), and the Khofetz Khayim Yeshiva in Radun.

At the beginning of this century, two rabbis – The "Brothers from Starobin" – were particularly well known. Yisroel Tankhum haCohen Fortman and his younger brother Shimshon Zelig both revealed a talent for preaching, even from their earliest years. They were the sons of Shimon the Melamed, one of the Gemora teachers of the town, a Jew who excelled in the clarity of his explanations.

Their mother, Henya Roshka, a mother of six boys, helped by selling fruits and vegetables, but after the death of her husband, the entire burden of supporting the family fell on her. Yisroel Tankhum and Shimshon Zelig were by then studying in various yeshivas away from Starobin.  From time to time they would return home to give sermons in the synagogues and yeshivas of the nearby towns, for which they were paid. With these small sums they helped alleviate the burden on their mother. They continued their studies in the yeshivas of Mir and Radun, becoming famous as great scholars of Torah and as outstanding preachers. Whenever they came home for a festival or holy day, there was no limit to their mother's joy.

Now it happened that on market days she would be standing alone tending her shop. Peasants would enter in a flurry and, without her noticing, would surreptitiously snatch fruit from her shelves and slip it into their sacks. On one such occasion, a relative of hers happened to come into the shop and spot this happening. He told her about it, and asked: "Why do you stay here alone? Your sons are in town today, and certainly they would help you if you called them." At this she grew angry, and answered indignantly, "The fruit is mine and if the peasants are going to steal, let them steal. But my sons were given to me for safekeeping by my husband Shimon, and he did not entrust them to me in order for them to stand in my place in the shop."

Rabbi Yisroel Tankhum haCohen Fortman became known afterwards as one of the outstanding rabbis of Lita (Lithuania, Latvia, and White Russia) in his capacity as rabbi of Shveksna and Zezmer (Ziezmariai). It was in Zezmer that he perished, with all the members of his family. His brother Rabbi Shimshon Zelig haCohen Fortman became known as a pre-eminent interpreter of Torah, and served as rabbi in the towns of Kopatkevichi, Osipovichi, and eventually, Far Rockaway, New York, during which time he was training students in homiletics at the Toyro veDaas Yeshiva of Brooklyn, New York. He died on 27 Shvat 5711 (1951).

In the course of the First World War, most of the yeshivas of Greater Russia moved to the towns of Ukraine. By the summer of 5678 (1918), as the First World War was close to ending, Russia became calm for a short while, until the outbreak of the civil war that sparked the Russian Revolution. At that point, some of the Starobin students at the Mir Yeshiva, which was then situated in Poltava, Ukraine, returned home temporarily.

Rabbi Dimta met with them and told them that in Starobin there was a distinguished group of young students being taught by Rabbi Fortman and that it was important to hurry and move them to the big yeshiva before the roads became obstructed. Traveling from Starobin to Poltava was beyond the ability of these young boys on their own, particularly in those days of political agitation and fear. But they rose above the hardships, and accompanied by Rabbi Khayim Vetsherebin managed to make it to the Mir Yeshiva in Poltava.

A few years after the war, the yeshiva returned from Poltava to Mir in Poland. The head of the yeshiva, the gaon Rabbi Eliyezer Yehuda Finkel, told me that the group of boys from Starobin deserve utmost credit, for if not for them the Mir Yeshiva would not have survived. Remember well the names of those boys:

Zusman Tiroshkin, who died young at the Mir Yeshiva in 5685 (1924-25).

Herzl Domnitz, who perished with all the members of his family in the town of Stoypts (Stolbtsy) close to Mir.

Avrohom Pasmanik, the son of Hirshke the Shoemaker and his righteous wife, both mentioned earlier, who was the rabbi in the town of Rafalovka in Wolyn (Volynhia), and who died with all his family and members of his congregation. His younger brother Mordkha, who was an outstanding talent in his own right, was one of the students of the gaon Rabbi Shimon Shkop, and died on the Day of Slaughter in Kletsk.

Tsvi Hirsh, the son of Rabbi Moishe Ahron and Hinda Tsirin-Tehilim, an outstanding personality in Torah, wisdom, and in character, who was the rabbi in Kovaliev-Polesia, and was killed there. May God avenge their blood!

Yitzkhok Khayim Krasnitsh, presently in Jerusalem in the Council of Torah Scholars of the Rabbi of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk).

And the youngest in the group, the writer of these lines

There were three other boys, on a higher scholastic level than the aforementioned, who studied in Starobin and from there had also gone on to Poltava:

Yoysef Grozovsky-Rozovsky, known as "The Prodigy of Uzda (Byelorussia)." He later became a rabbi and teacher on the Council of the gaon Rabbi Khayim Oyzer Grodzinski in Vilna. When the Nazis entered Vilna, he fled to Russia, where he disappeared.

An article under the authorship of a "Rabbi R.Y.B.M." – the initials of "Rozovski, Yoysef ben Mordkha"—was included in Sefer haYovel {The Jubilee Book) of the gaon Rabbi Shimon Shkop, and published in Vilna, 5696 (1935-36).

Shimon Berenshteyn-Shapiro, the rabbi of Lipovka-Vilna, where he perished. (See "Yerushalayim d'Lita b'Meri u-b'Shoah" by Dr. M. Dvorzhitsky, p. 278). He was a Biblical scholar and wrote many original interpretations of the Torah from his young years on. His article on religious law, based on "Shi'budad'Reb Nossn" ("The Subjugation of Reb Nossn"), was printed in the collection "Ohel Toyro" ("Tent of the Law") by the gaon Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhl Rabinovitch; his three-part article on "Tomei sheNikhnas laMikdosh" ("The Unclean Who Enters the Temple") appeared in the collection "KnessesYisroel," volumes 12, 13, and 14, published in Vilna, 5692 (1931-32). Grozovsky and Berenshteyn were the brilliant students of the gaon Rabbi Moishe Feinstein (mentioned earlier, in detail), who brought them from Uzdato Starobin. May God avenge their blood!

Yehoyshua Dovid Kustanowitz-Povarsky from Lyuban, author of the book "Yeshuas Dovid" ("The Salvation of David"), which deals with "Khoyshen Mishpot" (the fourth part of Joseph Karo's massive and seminal summary of Jewish law, the Shulkhn Orukh), published in Belogorye (Ed.: possibly Bilgoray), 5693 (1932-33). He is presently one of the heads of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.

Another who was an excellent Bible scholar was Yehuda Leyb Rakhmilovitsh. He studied in the yeshivas of Slutsk, Shklov and Amtzislov (Mtsislavl). A relative of Dr. Nakhmen Rakhmilovitsh of Kovna, Lithuania, he himself was from Starobin, and was the rabbi of the town of Ivatsevichi (Iwacewicze), where he perished.

Meanwhile the Soviet government was growing stronger. It closed the institutions of Jewish religious education and wiped out all Jewish community life. With that, the glory of Starobin was lost forever.

In the United States there are many families who came from Starobin. Among the better known ones are the following: Rabbi Avrohom Chinitz, and his sons, who also served in the rabbinate. His brother, Rabbi Dovid Chinitz-Chazanovitsh, who was the head of the Ostrog (Oistroh) Yeshiva in Wolyn, and who perished there. Rabbi Meyir Chinitz, whose melodious renderings of Jewish song was well known in the provinces of Lithuania, Latvia, White Russia, and Poland, and who served as cantor in Kovel, Lida, Nesvizh and Slutsk. Crowds flocked to hear his chanting and prayers. In his last days he served as cantor in Tshernigov. Rabbi Shakhna Chinitz served as rabbi in the Khevras Shas b'Talmud Toyro Tiferes haGRA (a rabbinical school named for the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyohu of Vilna) in Brownsville (Brooklyn, N.Y.). He died on 29 Iyar 5690 (1930). Others include: the soyfer (religious scribe) Mr. Khayim Lifshitz (Ed.: possibly Lipshitz), and his brothers – Rabbi Yankev Lifshitz, the shoykhet (ritual slaughterer), and Rabbi Binyomin Lifshitz – all grandsons of Rabbi Zelig (son of Z'ev) Chinitz, one of the distinguished individuals at the Beis Medresh on the edge of town; Rabbi Yitzkhok Yankev Mendelson (Ed.: possibly Mendelsohn or Mendelssohn) and his brother Simkha (Felix), who was one of the great Reform rabbis; the Hebrew writer Aharon Domnitz in Baltimore, son of Rabbi Asher the Melamed (religious teacher); and the teacher Dov-Ber Brodetsky in Chicago

Before the Second World War we had heard reports from Starobin that the Soviet government had drained the swamps in the area and had illuminated the town with electricity. But we also knew full well that it had drained the lifeblood out of our magnificent community and had extinguished the last sparks of the Torah's light in our little town until nothing remained.

When the brutal soldiers of Hitler, may his name be blotted out, arrived in Starobin, they found only lonely shadows in the form of human beings; their soul, their essence, had already been taken from them. When the murderers brought these vestiges of humanity to their deaths, they did not destroy the mighty spirit of our beloved shteteleh, which was still alive and vibrant in the wings that carried her children to scattered shores, and which exhorted them to carry on their great inheritance and to perpetuate Starobin's name for all generations.

[****Postscript from the Editors of the Slutsk Yizkor Book


[The accompanying Hebrew letter was the last one received by Rabbi Yoysef Leyb Kaplan, from his father Reb Moshe Nomi's (Moishe Khayim Kapchitz) in Starobin. For reasons that are well known, the forwarded letter was long in getting to us and could not be included in the Hebrew section of the Yizkor Book. {Ed. note: The Yizkor Book was completed around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a possible explanation for the disruption in mail service.} We have decided to break format and include it in the Yiddish section, because of its importance; it provides a last insight into the life both of the great Torah scholar, Moshe Nomi's, and of Starobin Jews in general, in the second decade of this century.

["With God's blessing ["On the fourth day (Ed.: possibly, Wednesday) of Seder BiN'soa HaAron (Ed.: probably following the Feast of Shavuot) 5686 (1926)

["Great blessings and success and peace to my dear son and esteemed rabbi and teacher Yoysef Leyb, and the members of your household. May all of them merit God's blessing and may you draw nakhas (parental pleasure) from their accomplishments.

["First off, I want to let you know that last week I received your lovely letter, together with the lovely writings from my wonderful grandchildren. A heartfelt thank-you to all.

["What I will say to you, my children, is that your letters give life to my soul. I can't describe to you my joy upon reading your letter, for my soul longs to see you and to know how you are. May the Master of Rewards enrich you for your kindness.

["It will not be a great surprise for you to learn of a great dread that I have been feeling. I will tell you my story and then I will take final stock of its results: What is there that remains of all the efforts and toil of my life in this world? – First, concerning my son B.: it is something like two years that I have not heard from him, yet I have heard through others that he has wealth and property. I'll tell you the truth, I get no nakhas from his wealth. Thank God I don't have any need for his support or his gifts. Over my son D., I have anguish in full measure, for he has been cast out to a foreign land and cannot return home, and there he remains naked and penniless. From my son Elya I've experienced only pain till now. His wife fell ill about three years ago and he has gone into great debt, to the point where he has had to sell his livestock and fine clothing, and ended up in prison. He signed over his store with all its machinery and tools, and was left idle, earning nothing, until I managed to gather together 100 silver rubles, which I gave him to buy a machine so he could get back to work.

Despite all that, he remains deeply in debt. Who knows when he will crawl out from under his debts, for the outlay is great and the income minimal. The businessmen of our town have all become "have-nots" (Ed. note: literally, "descenders"; probably a biblical reference to the Israelites, Jacob, his sons and entourage, who were "descenders" into Egypt for handouts when drought enveloped their land). In Starobin, Elya is not alone in his situation; there are three others trying to patch things back together. (Ed. note: the phrase in Hebrew is, literally, "there are three other quilters." Either this is figurative, hence the above interpretation, or it is literal, in which case it refers to Elya's specific line of business, and his possible competitors; the Soviets' "New Economic Plan", initiated by Lenin, was still begrudgingly allowing such activity.)

["After all the accounting, I am left with nothing from all the fruits of my entire life's work. Only when I receive a letter from you do I experience any contentment, and for that reason I beg of you and of my lovely grandchildren – may they live long lives – not to hold back from doing the kindness of looking in on me with your letters, and describing to me how your studies are progressing, how your daily lives are faring. And may God grant you all the strength to learn and to do God's will with a full heart.

["Be aware, my dear son, that every day, up until now, I had looked forward perhaps to be able to travel to the Holy Land, or at least to America, so that the following words might be fulfilled for me: "And Joseph will set his hand upon thine eyes." (Ed. note: This quotation is now a second reference in the letter to the biblical story of Jacob and his son Joseph, and the descent of the Israelites into Egypt (Gen. 46:4). Its inclusion is poignant, for like Jacob, Moshe Nomi's has a son Joseph (Yoysef) whom he has not seen for a lifetime. In the quotation, God is giving comfort to a dispirited Jacob by promising him that he will see his son Joseph before he dies, and that Joseph will perform the tender and respectful act of placing his hand over Jacob's eyes upon the latter's death, as has been the custom from the time of Jacob and Joseph, and earlier. Through this quotation, Moshe Nomi's is revealing that, like the biblical Jacob, he has been longing only to be taken to his own son Joseph in that faraway land, that he might see him once more before he dies.)

["But now I understand that my hope was a deception and that I must remain in this defiled land without any mainstay. To obtain a "pass" (Ed.: probably "passport"), one needs to pay 300 silver rubles. My strength is diminishing daily, and my eyes are growing weak. After Passover I traveled to an eye doctor in Slutsk who did a number of tests and then told me I had no need of eyeglasses. Instead he gave me eyedrops. It has been four weeks that I have been using them, daily, and I see no improvement from them.

In addition, my speech has become disjointed and my voice weak, so that only with great effort can I stand before the congregation chanting from the Torah. There is no one to replace me.

[" 'It is not given to man to know the day of his...' If it takes a full month until you receive news from here, by then the Days of Ultimate Judgment will have passed, and there will have been no one to plead my case (on high). Therefore I lay my supplication before you, that starting now you study a chapter of Mishna each day and lead synagogue prayers at least once a day – provided that, if possible, this mitzvah would not prevent other mourners from performing their own filial duties. (Ed. note: Judaism maintains that pious acts performed by the child of a deceased, such as the study of holy books or the leading of public prayer, reflect positively on the deceased and increase his or her chances of being judged favorably by the One True Judge. Timing is crucial for the deceased, inasmuch as stages of progress in his or her fate in the World-to-Come parallel the stages of mourning by those he or she has left behind: the first week {Shiva}, the first month {Shloshim}, the first year {completion of daily Kaddish}.)

["Your father, who blesses you with every goodness – Moishe Khayim Kapchitz"

[Exactly four years after Reb Moshe Nomi's wrote this letter, he went to his eternal rest, on 15 Sivan 5690 (Spring, 1930) and was buried in the town cemetery. Reb Moshe's wife, Sora Rivka bas Moishe Dov, died four years later, on 9 Teyves 5694 (Winter 1933-4). Upon their headstones were engraved loving and respectful Hebrew inscriptions, sent by their son Rabbi Yoysef Leyb Kaplan, Pittsburgh, U.S.A.]

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