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{Pages 388-396}

Writers of Slutsk and Vicinity

 

Writers of Slutsk and its Environs

Translated by Hershl Hartman

 

Abramovitsh, Sholem Yankif (Mendele Moykher-Sforim)
(2/1/1836 – 12/8/1917)

Born as the seventh child in Kopulye, Minsk region. The exact date of his birth is questionable: family tradition gives it as December 20 (old style calendar), 1836. However, his 75th birthday was observed on December 20, 1917.[1] His father, reb Khayim Moyshe Broyde (Mendele adopted the family name Abramovitsh later for reasons that are bound up with the spurious “granting of civil rights to Jews” and, it is said, after Limping Avreml[2], was one of the most prominent householders in the shtetl.[3]

By the age of 14, Abr.[amovitsh] was well-learnéd in Talmud and rabbinic literature; however, the Tanakh [Hebrew bible], which he knew by heart by the age of nine, held a special place in his fantasies. His father died when he was but 14 and his relatives sent him off to study, first in Timkevitsh, a small hamlet near Kapulye, then to Slutsk, where he barely subsisted for two years.

For a certain time he studied in Vilna, in Rameyle's yeshiva and in the Gaon's[4] House of Study.

– Returning to Kapulye he took up studies in the besmedrish [house of study]. At that time there arrived in Kapulye a certain itinerant beggar, Limping Avreml (the prototype for fishke der krumer [Fishke the Lame, one of Mendele's novels]). His marvelous tales and wonders about prosperity in Volin [Volihynia] in southern Russia fired up the fantasy of the 17 year-old Abr., who decided to follow this Avreml into the wide world. They wandered through towns and villages, through Lithuania and the entire southwestern area of Russia, through Volin, Ukraine and Podolye, spending nights in the alms-houses or houses of study and begging from door to door. This journey in the brokendown wagon drawn by a scrawny horse laid the foundation for Mendele Moykher-Sforim's di klyatshe [The Old Mare], with which he travels through the entire Jewish pale [of settlement], in its length and breadth.

– In Kamenets he begins to visit with the Hebrew and Yiddish author Avrom- Ber Gottlober [1811-1899], whose daughters teach him Russian, German and mathematics. He passes the examination for teachers, and in 1856 he was appointed as a teacher in the Kamenets [secular] Jewish government school.

His first literary work [in Hebrew] is published without his knowledge by Gottlober in “hamagid[5] in 5617 [1857], A Letter on the Subject of Education. He then moves to Berditshev, where he publishes a collection of articles under the title mishpat shalom[6] and another collection, eyn mishpat [? not recorded among Mendele's works]. His Hebrew novel Fathers and Sons was translated into Russian by Leyb Binshtok in 1867; the Yiddish translation, by B. Eplboym, did not appear until 1923.

The second period of Abr.'s creativity began with his writings in Yiddish under the later popular and beloved name, Mendele Moykher Sforim [Mendele the Bookseller].

– Abr. occupies first place in Yiddish literature. He is not only the first great Yiddish writer who drew from the deepest sources – from folk-life, folk-culture and nature – but is generally the first great artist to create in Yiddish. To the extent that Yiddish literature existed prior to Abr., it – with unimportant exceptions – had mainly religious and didactic purposes. He finally overcame those tendencies of his generation and raised Yiddish literature from its primitive state to a high level of purely artistic creation.

 

Papirna, Avraham Ya'akov
Born in Kapulye, 2 Elul 1840-1918

On his father's side, a great-grandson of the wealthy man and court-pleader R' Yisroyl Shershever; on his mother's, a grandson of the Kapulye Rabbi r' Suskind, under whose supervision he was raised. Under the influence of the haskala[7] P[apirna], already married, left for Zhitomir, completed the [royal government] Rabbiner School in Vilna. He taught at the [secular] Jewish school in Zakrotshin for a few years and in 1870-1909 taught religion in the gymnazyes [public high schools] in Plotsk and was principal of the local Jewish school. One of the most prominent representatives of the haskala movement in Russia, a fine stylist in Hebrew. Starting in 1862, participated in the Hebrew and Russian-Jewish press, publishing poetry, articles, historical essays. Of particular interest is his satirical poem mishley ha'zman [Proverbs of the Time] (1893). He wrote textbooks in Hebrew and Russian. His zikhranot [Memories] are among the best works in Jewish memoir-literature.

His collected writings, kol ksavi [all the writings of] Avraham Ya'akov Papirna were published in Hebrew.

 

Yehuda Gravovski (Gur)

Born 2/28/1862 in Fahast. His father Yeheshayu Reuven was a trader.

Studied in kheyder [elementary religious school] and in the Volozhne yeshiva. Among the first hovevey tsiyon [Lovers of Zion – pre-Zionist settlers], came to the Land of Israel in 1887. Was a laborer in Rishon L'Tsiyon and an employee in Danin's store.

From 1889 – a teacher in Ekron and from 1891 – in Zikron Yakov.

Among the first to teach Hebrew in Hebrew. Among the founders of the first teachers' organization. One of the overseers of the Anglo-Palestine Bank.

Published many newspaper articles, wrote textbooks, such as beys seyfer ivri [House of the Hebrew Book] (three parts), translations from world literature (Dickens, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, [Hans Christian] Anderson). Published dictionaries (with the participation of Prof. Kloyzner), 1903, with the participation of D. Yelin, 1920; Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, 1934-5. Died in Tel Aviv 1937.

 

Avrom Zinger
(1864-1920)

Born in Kapulye. Orphaned at age 10, studied in Minsk, Slutsk, Pinsk, Nesvizh, “ate days” [see footnote 5, pp. 273-274), devoted himself to the Enlightenment in his free time. Starting in 1885, published stories and articles in [Hebrew] “hamelits,” [The Defender] “ha'asif,” [Harvest-time] “kneses yisroyl,” [Jewish People] etc. Also critiques, among them one against Y[itskhok] L[eybush] Perets.[8] Later also wrote stories and articles in [Yiddish] “der yud,” [The Jew], “der tog,” [The Day], “undzer lebn” [Our Life]. From 1888, lived in Warsaw, where he was a teacher of Hebrew.

When the city was evacuated by the Russians [during World War I], he returned to Kapulye.

Died in Bobruisk.

 

Avraham Epshteyn (Aba Arikha)

Born in Slutsk 1877. Wrote for [Hebrew] “hatsofa,” [The Observer] “hatsfira,” [The Dawn] “hamelits,” [The Defender] “hazman” [The Time].

In Slutsk, edited the “slutsk sheygets,” [Slutsk Wiseguy] (a humorous publication). One of the best Hebrew teachers. A teacher at the Slutsk “kheyder mesukn,” [modern religious school] for a short time.

A teacher in Alterman's and Yekhiyel Halperin's Froebel [early childhood education] courses[9]. Lived in Warsaw and Odessa. Published feuilletons, stories and children's poems. An outstanding critic. He attained his proper place in l iterature in America, where he lived for 30 years. His articles and essays came out in [Hebrew] book-form, titled “sofrim evrim b'amerike,” [Jewish Writers in .America] published by “dvir” [Holy of Holies] in Tel Aviv, two volumes

Died in New York, 1953.

 

Zalman Epshteyn (Shlomo Halkushi)

Writer since 1879. Born in Lyuban on the eve of Rosh Hashana, 5621 (1860), died in 1936.

Studied in kheyder, in the Volozhin yeshiva in 1875. Bookkeeper in Odessa, 1870-1904.

One of the founders of “bney moshe” [Sons of Moses] and secretary of its Odessa committee.

[Lived in] Peterburg 1904 – 1914 – 1916 – 1919.

Active in educational matters; a delegate to the 11th Zionist Congress.

In erets-yisroyl [Land of Israel] from 1925. Died in Tel Aviv in 1937. Involved as a publicist in the Hebrew press and published descriptions and memoirs in “hamelits,” [The Defender], “hatsfira,” [The Dawn], “hashluakh,” [The Emissary], “ha'arets” [The Land].

Also wrote in Yiddish from time to time.

Published a collection of his writing in 1905; “azkorot yitskhak” [In Memory of Isaac], dedicated to his murdered son, Isaac, in 1927; Lilenblum's monograph in 1934.

 

Z. Vendorf
(5.1.1879 – )

Pseudonym of Zalman Vendrovski. Born in Slutsk into the family of a ritual slaughterers. Until the age of 13 studied in kheyder and yeshiva, and, with private tutors, Hebrew and Russian. At the age of 18 went to Lodz, worked in a kerchief factory while studying dentistry and attempting to write poems and stories. In 1900, he published in [Yiddish] “der yud” [The Jew] a few letters about Jewish social matters in Lodz, but soon left for England, was a laborer on a cattle boat, worked at a small soda-water factory, learned English quickly in his free time and became acquainted with English literature, peddling sheet music all over England and Scotland. Wrote for the Glasgow “yidishe tsaytung” [Yiddish Newspaper] and the London “yidisher ekspres” [Yiddish Express]; published stories in “der arbayter fraynd” [The Worker's Friend] and in the Labor Zionist weekly “der vanderer” [The Vagabond]. Earned his living at countless jobs, from that of a teacher at a talmud-toyre [modern elementary religious school] to a tour guide in London; from a librarian to a porter at an exhibition, from a peddler in the villages to a typesetter in a printshop. In June 1905 arrived illegally in Moscow [after the failed revolution] and earned a living teaching English, then left for America. Engaged in all sorts of trades. Settled in New York on the staff of the [Yiddish] “morgn zhurnal” [Morning Journal – orthodox daily] and “amerikaner” [The American]. Wrote for the F. A. S. [fraye arbeter shtime – Voice of Free Labor – anarchist weekly]; invited to join the staff of “haynt” [Today] and “yidisher tageblat” [Yiddish Daily Newspaper] and lived in Warsaw from 1908 until June, 1915.

In “haynt” he edited the section called “Jewish towns and shtetlakh,” wrote feuilletons, stories, contributed to various newspapers and journals.

Left Warsaw in June. 1915, worked as a director of the Committee for Aid to Jews dislocated by the war, participated in the Society to Spread Enlightenment, and “Aza,” the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society. After the March [1917] revolution, invited to join the editorial staff of the newspaper of the Jewish People's Party in Petersburg. The newspaper never appeared, due to disagreements.

As a representative of “yekofo” [acronym of above-mentioned aid committee], made a three-month journey to the Urals and Siberia to investigate the situation of the Galician Jews who were exiled by the Czarist army as spies [during world War I]. He returned to Moscow from Irkutsk after the October revolution, becoming an official of the commissariat of the “natsmindn” [abbr. for the Commisssion for National Minorities] and, later, director of its division for press and literature for communication. At the same time, wrote for several Russian publications. Published correspondence and reports first for “der tog” in New York, later for “forverts” [Forward – largest Yiddish daily in the U.S.], the London “tsayt,” [Time], for the Warsaw “moment” [Moment]. In book form, published “Humoresques and Stories,” Warsaw, 1911. Two volumes, “pravozhitelstvo” [Permission] (Yehuda publishers, 1912), “Laughter Through Tears.” His stories and humoresques were translated into many languages.

 

Shloyme Rabinovitsh

Born in Uretshe. At age four, moved with his parents to Minsk where his father, an Enlightener and a free-thinker, was a railroad expediter. He was arrested in 1899 by Zubatov for his activity in the Bund, served a year in Moscow prisons and then exiled to Olyakminski in the Yakut region [Siberia] from which he returned in 1904.[10] He was active in Minsk as an official of the Russian Social Democratic Party (“iskra”) [the spark]. In 1907 he escaped the gendarmerie and went to America.

He began to write in Avrom Reyzin's [leading American-Yiddish poet] “dos fraye land” [the Free Land], then contributed to “tsukunft,” “fraynd,” “veker” [respectively: Future, Friend, Awakener – all radical Yiddish journals]. Published skits in the English [Socialist] newspaper, Sunday Call.

 

Yakov Kahan

Born in 1881 in Slutsk. Lived in Zgerzh, Lodz, Moscow, Warsaw. Obtained his PhD from Bern University [Switzerland]. Edited “The New Hebrew,” “Anchor” [?], “Thorn Bush,” “The Era.” Came to Erets-Yisroyl in 1934. Edited “Gathering.” Translated Goethe's writings.

His collected works, in 12 volumes, were published by Masada.

Awarded prizes in the names of: Byalik, Tshernikhovski, Israel, Paris. Died in Tel Aviv on shabes, 29 Heshvan, 5721, 1960.

 

Roza Simkhovitsh

Born in Slutsk into an aristocratic wealthy family. Her father, Shmuel, was one of the greatest scholars in Lithuania, in addition to being a great Enlightener, knowledgeable in general [non-Jewish] literature. He left after his death some manuscripts on halakha [rabbinic law], wrote many articles in the “Petersburg Herald.” In 1894 he was a member of the rabbinic commission in Petersburg and was invited to sit on the rabbinic councils of Vienna and Warsaw. However he did not wish to make of his learning an “ax for [? ?].

Her brother was the famous Hebraist and historian Dr. Y. N. Simkhoni (1884-1926) and she received a good Jewish and general education in her parents' home, learning Hebrew and other languages.

After her father's death in 1896, she and her family moved to Minsk, where she joined the Socialist movement at a young age. She was arrested at 16. Thanks to her relatives' many connections, she was freed on condition that she go abroad. She studied in Geneva at the Jean Jacques Rousseau Pedagogical Institute and also at the university's philosophy department.

In 1919 she was director of the Froebel [kindergarten] courses in Vilna (of the Central Yiddish Education Committee, “aza” and “yekofo” [see above]). In 1921 she directed the established Yiddish Teachers' Seminary, played a major role in the modern [secular] Jewish school movement, delivered lectures on pedagogical and humanist themes. Her literary activity is associated with her co-editing of the pedagogical monthly, “The New [Yiddish] School,” where, in 1921 she published several articles, such as: [on] Jan Amos Kaminski and others. She led the section on “German Pedagogical Journals.” Was co-editor of the parents' journal “School and Home.” For certain times, she lived in Vienna and Berlin.

 

Professor Meyer Waxman

Born in Slutsk in 1882, studied in famous yeshivas, and by 18 obtained [Orthodox] rabbinic ordination. Coming to America, he graduated with highest honors as [Reform] rabbi. He worked diligently to achieve two more university diplomas, both from the world-famous Columbia University. In 1912 – a Master of Arts degree, and in 1916 – Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

Dr. Meyer Waxman was professor at the House of Torah Study [Hebrew Theological College] in Chicago, where he taught tanakh [the Hebrew bible], Jewish history and philosophy. In 1958 he retired and settled in New York.

Dr. Meyer Waxman is one of the most honored scholars, writers and thinkers that American Jewry has produced. He is the author of fifteen varied works, is mainly famous in both the Jewish and general world for his huge four [read: six]-volume history of Jewish literature, written in English. Dr. Meyer Waxman's A History of Jewish Literature in English consists of six volumes that contain 5,000 (five thousand) pages. The six volumes describe in detail the spiritual creations of the Jewish people since the tanakh was completed: from the Talmud and its commentaries, rabbinic literature, kabala, proverbs, Hasidism, the Enlightenment, [modern] Hebrew literature, literature in Yiddish up to the present day.

Among Dr. Meyer Waxman's works can also be found “A Handbook of Judaism” [?]; Jewish exegesis; a translation [with introduction] of “Rome and Jerusalem” by Moses Hess; his “ketuvim nevkharim” [selected works] in several volumes and his most recent collection of essays, “On the Roads of Jewish Literature and Thought,” which appeared in Tel Aviv and for which Dr. Waxman was awarded the Lamed [Scholar] prize.

Dr. Meyer Waxman also wrote a great deal in Yiddish and published extensive series of articles. He also wrote for “ha'olam,” [The World], “hatkufah” [The Era] and contributes to “hadoar” [The Post], and “batziron” [?] as well a number of English publications and a number of important encyclopedias.

 

Sh. I. Naumov

Born in Kapulye into a well-pedigreed family. Obtained a good Jewish and secular education. Emigrated to America around 1905. Participated in [Yiddish] “yidisher kemfer” [Jewish Fighter] in “forshteyer” [Representative] and mainly in “kalifornyer yidishe shtime” [California Jewish Voice], in “progres” [Progress], Los Angeles, in the Pacific “folks-tsaytung” [People's Newspaper]. Also wrote articles and feuilletons under the pen names Ben Nokhem, Ish Nemi, Itshke Kapulyer, Moyshe.

 

Dr. Faytl Lifshits (Private docent in a Swiss university)

Born – 1876 in Slutsk. Published the following important articles:
  1. “What is Political Economy?”, “haolam” [The World], Vol. 1, 1912, nr. 32.
  2. Political Economy in Accordance With Its Systems and Trends.

 

Dr. A. Damnitsh

Born 20 Tevet, 5644 (1884) in Romanova. His education in Talmud and Enlightenment literature was at the hands of his father, R' Osher, an erudite Jew [religiously] and an Enlightener, besides. Studied in the yeshivas of Slutsk and Minsk. In Minsk he headed up the society “Zion and Its Language,” devoted to having its members speak Hebrew.

On his arrival in America in 1906 he continued his Hebrew and Zionist activism. Was the first secretary of the “histadrut ivrit” [Hebrew League] in America, founded in 1908. Since 1919, settled in Baltimore and practices his dental profession. Publishes poems and stories in various newspapers and journals.

 

I. D. Berkovitsh

Born 1885 in Slutsk. Received a traditional Jewish education; studied Talmud, but unhappy with its dry laws, sought to still his fantasies in its stories and in the stories and legends of post-Talmudic literature. Later, as a teacher of Hebrew, he began to devote himself to auto-didacticism and became acquainted with European literature. Settled in Lodz, he debuted in “eyn ha'tsofe” [No Outlook?] with the stories “Yom Kipur Eve” and “Flogging.” In that same year he was awarded first prize in the literary contest of “ha'tsofe” for his story, “My Swinish Liquor” [?] which made his name in Hebrew literature and he then devoted himself entirely to literary activity.

In 1905, invited to Vilna to edit the belletristic section of “ha'zman.” Following the pogroms of 1905 he emigrated to New York, where his pare nts had previously settled. He was unable, however, to fit into Jewish life in America and returned to Europe with his father-in-law, Sholom Aleichem and thereafter lived with the family of the great Yiddish humorist in Nervi (Italy), Switzerland, Germany, etc., publishing from time to time in Hebrew and Yiddish journals and translating Sholom Aleichem's works into Hebrew.

After the outbreak of the World War, returned with Sh. A's family to N. Y. In 1919-20 edited the monthly “miklet” [Place of Refuge] (from Shtibl publishers), contributes inter alia in “tsukunft” [Future], where he published some stories, (the last of them “From Both Worlds,” 1924, Vol. VIII) and the dramas “landslayt” – Town Folk (one-act play, 1921, vol. II) and “untern tseylem” – “Beneath The Cross” (three act drama, 1925, vols. III-V).

B[erkovitsh] is among the most important representatives of the realistic school in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. He is most interested in the experiences of people who cannot fit into their environments, or who find themselves in unusual circumstances; he has a sharp eye for the minor details of lifestyles and demonstrates profundity of psychological analysis in describing the pains of his weak, grey heroes, mostly – ordinary people who are often comical in their pitiful helplessness. His style of writing and his tendency toward humor reflect a certain influence of Sh. A., whom he so masterfully translated into Hebrew. In his pogrom-story, “Among The Sick,” one of his best works, B. portrays the entire tragedy of pogrom-terror, raising the comic occurrences in the hospital to symbolic meaning. He also dealt with pogrom-psychology in his drama “Beneath The Cross,” which was produced under the title “Moshkele Hog”[11] to great success in 1923 by Maurice Schwartz's “Art Theatre” and was also played in the Yiddish theater in Warsaw. “landslayt” was also successfully produced in N.Y.

His books: the novella “ugerkes” [Cucumbers] (Resnick & Kaplan, N.Y., 1909, 53 pp.); Collected Works (The Dawn publishers, Warsaw, 5670, 269 pp.); some of those stories and several others are included in his B[erkovitsh] Stories (5670, 199 pp.) of which “Fra Adam” was recently published under the title “From The Impoverished Nest” (tsukunft 1923, vol. XII). The Hebrew publishing house Small Texts, N.Y. also put out a series of two-folio booklets of B's, such as “Purim Play,” [“?”], “David's God in America,” [? a series of other titles too confused to permit accurate translation, including an apparent translation from Anton Chekov]. Some of his stories were translated into Russian, Polish, German, English (by Helena Frank), French (by L. Blumenfeld), Spanish (by Settled in the Land of Israel in 1928. In 1929 co-edited with F. Lakhaver the [?]. Five volumes of his collected works (“sipurim umakhzot”) [Stories and Plays] were awarded the Bialek Prize, 5712 – 1952, Israel Prize 5718. For translating Sholom Aleichem's works (vols. 1-10), awarded the Tshernikhovski Prize 5704.

He received the same prize in 5796 [!sic] for his translation of Sholom Aleichem's “Yosele Solovey” [Little Joseph the Nightingale] and “a maynse bli sof” [Story Without End]. Among B 's works in Israel are: “In Messiah's Time” and “Menakhem Mendl in The Land of Israel.”[12]

 

Yefroyim [Ephraim] A. Lisitski

Born in Minsk on the 15th [t”u] of Shvat, 5645, 1885. His mother died when he was seven years old and after his father's re-marriage they moved to Slutsk. His father left from there to America, but he and his stepmother remained in Slutsk for nine more years. Here he obtained his education in kheyder and yeshiva. He came to America at the age of 15-1/2, studied at the yeshiva of Reb Itskhak Elkhonen and began to teach Hebrew. He spent three years in a remote village in Canada as a melamed [elementary religious teacher] and then went to Milwaukee. Entered the university there and studied pharmacy and chemistry. But he was more interested in teaching.

Since then he has taught in Buffalo and Milwaukee until he settled in New Orleans.

He has published seven books of Hebrew poetry and a very interesting biographical book, “toldot adam” – The Story of a Man.

His lyrics reflect pessimism and disappointment.

On the one hand, he demands justice, as an individual, for his stolen life in the world at large; on the other, he demands the rights of the Jewish totality from its oppressors.

 

R' Yehuda Leyb Davidson

Born in Kapulye. His father, R' Ber Kapulyer, excelled in learning and researching philosophy and mathematics. At the age of 12, Yehuda Davidson left the Mir yeshiva for Karelitsh, Minsk. His first article, “lekadem pney haroah” [?On The Ancient Face of Evil] was published in four installments in “hakol” [The Call]. Then he moved to Warsaw. Supported himself teaching Hebrew.

Studied medicine. At the suggestion of the Polish writer Klemens Yunasha, he translated into Polish “mesoes benyomin hashlishi”.[13]

The books were quickly sold out. Dr. Davidson was well-known in Warsaw.

 

Mikhal Frenkl

Poet and Jewish-American critic. Died at the age of 62.

He was a grandchild of Mendele. Born in Kapulye, emigrated to America at the dawn of the current [20th] century. He traveled the world and settled temporarily in Paris in 1926. There he advised and encouraged Henry Miller to devote himself to literature. Together with Miller he published a book on philosophical treatises about Hamlet.

After World War II he moved to London.

His wife was the well-known French artist Daphne Mouchoux [?].

 

Zalman Ratner

Born May 15, 1885 in Starobin, as the son of a drygoods retailer. Studied in kheyder to the age of twelve, then attended a [secular] beginners' school in Slutsk. From the age of ten [sic] on, worked at various jobs in Minsk. 1918-23, managed the Yiddish book depository in Moscow. Since 1924 – employed by the State trading office in Moscow. He put together the bibliography of Yiddish books produced in the Soviet Union during the years 1917-1923 (a list of 1,500 books and brochures).

In the anthology “On The Roads to The New School,” 1928, he published a list of all the Yiddish books that appeared in the Soviet Union in the year 1927.

 

Zelig Ratner

Born in Slutsk in 1885, wrote Yiddish poems and also was editor in New York of the newspaper “Ruski Golos” (Russian Voice).

 

Yitzhak Epstein

Graduated Lausanne University in 1905; Doctorate in Literature in 1915; a writer, a linguist, pedagogue-psychologist. One of the first teachers in the new yishuv [pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine]; teacher in the Teachers Seminary; a frequent lecturer on the Hebrew language on Israel radio. Brother of Zalman Epstein, born in Lyuban.

Studied in a kheyder, in the Odessa modern school, at Lausanne University, 1902-05.

In the Land of Israel since 1886 (one of the six sent by the Lovers of Zion [pre- Zionist settler movement] to study agriculture). 1891-1902, teacher in Safat; in Rosh Pineh and Metullah he introduced the system of [learning] “Hebrew in Hebrew.”

In 1915-19, director of a school in Salonika; 1919-1923 – director of a teacher's seminary in Tel Aviv for teachers and Froebelists [kindergarten teachers]. One of the first to emphasize the importance of considering the question of relations with the Arabs and becoming close to them. One of the founders of “brit shalom” [Peace Alliance]. Lecturer and instructor in various theatre studios in Israel. Published research papers on various topics: education, Hebrew language, pedagogy and psychology; published the book “Hebrew in Hebrew.” Died in 1963.

 

Rokhl Faygenberg (Amri)

Born in 1885 in Lyuban. In the Land of Israel since 1924. A folk-story teller in Yiddish and Hebrew. She provided much help to the defense of [Samuel] Schwarzbard with her voluminous material on the pogroms in Ukraine.[14] She wrote stories about actual Jewish life in Poland. Her first book, “Childhood Years,” made a strong impression. In “megiles dubova” [Scroll of Dubova] she described the destruction of Dubova in Ukraine; published [Yiddish] “On Foreign Roads,” [in Hebrew] “Not Here Nor There,” “In Days of Rage,” “On The Shores of the Dniester,” “Through The Years,” “[?] Without Love” (about life in the Land of Israel). “The Last Stage” (about Jewish life in Poland).

Wrote and writes articles from time to time about current matters: the youth, the Jewish woman, building the Land.

Edited: “The People In Its Land” (1948-49). Translated into Yiddish the writings of the Russian-Jewish writer Semyon Yushkevitsh.

 

Maurice Hindus

Born near Slutsk [in Bolshoye Bikovo]. Well-known English journalist. Staff writer for “New York Herald Tribune.”

His book in English, “House Without a Roof,” appeared in 1961, published by Doubleday.

 

Rabbi Professor Simkhe Asaf (Osovski)

Born in Lyuban, 9 Tamuz 5649 (1889). Studied in kheyder and in the yeshivas of Slutsk and Telz (5665 – 5668) and received ordination. During the years (5670-71) served as rabbi in Lyuban.

During 5674-79 he headed the Odessa yeshiva, founded by Rabbi r' Khayim Tshernovitsh (young rabbi).

He began his scientific-literary work in Odessa and published his first articles in “hashiluakh” [?The Dismissal] and “rishumot” [The Records].

He had been an active Zionist in the Telz yeshiva and, in Odessa, he joined the activists in the Zionist movement and was elected a member of the Zionist City Committee.

He arrived in the Land of Israel in 1921 and was appointed as a teacher of Talmud in the “Mizrachi” [religious Zionist] teachers' seminary in Jerusalem. He published many research articles and books about the sects in Israel, educational methods, religious courts, relations between Torah-centers in the Land of Israel and those abroad.

Upon the founding of the Hebrew University in 5685 (1925), he was appointed as a lecturer and later a professor of Gaonic and Rabbinic Literature.

Was active in Mizrachi and its representative on the [pre-State] Government Council. Member of the governing board of the Mizrachi schools; member of the honor-courts of the World Zionist Organization and of the Mizrachi organization; vice-chair of the Historical-Ethnographic Society in the Land of Israel; member of the Language Academy and executive committee of Hebrew University. Vice-chair of the “B'nai Brith” order, etc.

Upon the creation of the Jewish State he was elected to the Supreme Court and rector of Hebrew University.

He published many important books.

Died at the age of 64, 9 Heshvan, 5714 (1953).

 

Mordkhe Lipe-Gorin

Born in 1890 in Slutsk. Resident of New York. In 1935 published [in Yiddish] “Songs of the Road,” as well as poetry in English.

 

Nokhem Khinitsh

Born in 1895 in the village “Rizitse” near Slutsk. Studied at yeshivas in Slutsk and Lide. Graduated from the pedagogical school in Grodne. Wrote in [Yiddish journals] “California Voice,” “Chicago,” “Literary Pages,” [and] in the Canadian Yiddish press. [Here follows a list of of 10 Hebrew journals.] Published an anthology “khayi avoda” [My Life's Work], edited the yisker books for Luninetse and Kobrin; collected material for the yisker books of Brisk, Minsk.

 

Elye Shulman

Born in Slutsk. Graduated from City University of New York.

Author of “History of Yiddish Literature in America, 1879-1905,” “yung vilna” [young poets' group in pre-war Vilna], and of various monographs and reminiscences about Yiddish literature.

 

Avrom Regelson

Poet and critic. Born in Hlusk 1896. Came to America with his family at the age of 11. Was a teacher. His first poems were published in “miklet” [Refuge], New York. Published articles and reviews in American and Land of Israel newspapers.

His poem “Cain and Abel” was published in 5692.

While in Israel he was on the staff of “Davar” and “Davar liyeladim” [respectively, The Word and The Children's Word].

He returned to America in 1936. Upon returning to Israel in 1949 he worked at the book publisher “am oved” [Working People] and then on the staff of “al hamishmar” [On Guard].

Regelson is rooted in American literature in English. Many of his books of poems, translations, reviews and commentary were published in New York and Tel Aviv.

 

Katsenelson, Borekh

Born – 12/21/1900 in Slutsk. Studied in kheyder and in the yeshiva but became acquainted with [modern] Hebrew literature early on, began to write poetry. Under the influence of the [Russian] revolution, went over to writing poems in Yiddish, published in the Minsk “shtern” [Star], 1919, and “farn folk” [For the People], 1920.

Came to America in late 1921 and was employed as a Hebrew teacher. Published poems in [Yiddish journals] “The American,” “Yiddish Daily Newspaper,” Winnipeg “Yiddish Word,” “Free Voice of Labor,” “The Big Stick” [humor journal], “Arising,” “The Pen” and others. Also a series of critical articles (in “The Pen”). In the Land of Israel since 1934, three of his volumes of poetry were published there.

 

I. D. Abramski

Son of the famous Rabbi r' Yekheskl [Ezekiel] Abramski. Spent a short time studying in Slutsk, lives in Jerusalem. Wrote for almost all the daily newspapers in Israel, as well as three literary journals.

 

Khayim Lif

Born in Starobin. Studied at the Slutsk yeshiva. Published articles in various Hebrew newspapers, co-editor of two journals.

 

Nisenzon, Arn

Born 1897 in the little village of Tshipeli, near Slutsk, to poor [but] selfemployed parents. His father was a miller and a leaseholder of a field. Emigrated to America in 1911.

Published poems in [Yiddish journals] “The Jewish People,” “Free Voice of Labor,” “Future,” “The Pen,” “The Time,” “Truth.” Also wrote essays. Was coeditor of the [Yiddish] journal “The Beginning.”

A volume of his poetry, “Hundreds of Songs,” was released (“Our Journal” publishers, N.Y. 1920.) A collection of his poems, titled “Meters,” was published in 1925. His work is distinguished mainly by the maturity of its form and style.

 

Valenrad, Ruvn

Hebrew writer, born in Vizne. Studied in kheyder, yeshiva, and then in the Slutsk [government] middle-school. Came to the Land of Israel in 1920. Worked on the roads of Tiberia and Kfar-Ezekiel. Left the Land of Israel for France and then on to America. Worked in factories while studying at New York University and Columbia.

Teacher of Hebrew literature at Brooklyn college.

His stories are dedicated to the lives of Eastern European immigrants who become rooted in their new home. Six of his books in Hebrew have appeared todate by publishers in New York and Israel.

 

Authors, Translators and Editorial Staffers

Yisroyl Levin

Born 1876, in a village near Romanova. Hebrew teacher in Boston. Wrote for New York [Yiddish] “Daily Newspaper.” Translated Tshernikhovski's poems into Yiddish, as well as “Psalms” and “Song of Songs.”

 

Sh. Nakhmani (Nakhmanovitsh]

Born in Hrazova in 1884. Studied in yeshivas of Slutsk and Minsk. One of the founders of “kheyder mesukn” [modern kheyder] in Slutsk. Teacher in Israel since 1913. Translated some 20 books from Russian into Hebrew, issued by three publishing houses. Wrote for “Pamphlets,” “The Word.”

 

Zvi Asaf

Born in Lyuban 1902. Studied in yeshivas of Slutsk and Odessa. Secretary of the printers' union in Israel. One of the editors of “Echoes of the Presses,” “World of the Presses.”

 

Shimon Maharshak

Born 1904 in in Slutsk. Graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Teacher in the Tel Aviv commercial school “geulah” [redemption]. Published “Algebra,” a three-part text book.

 

Rabbi Nisn Waxman

Born 1905 in Starobin. Studied in the Slutsk, Mir and Slobodka yeshivas, as well as in the yeshiva of R' Isaac Elkhonen. In the course of 12 years was a rabbi in Lakewood [N.J.] near New York. Wrote for [Hebrew] “Forts,” [Yiddish] “The Jewish Light,” New York, “The Word,” Vilna. Published various works, such as “Good Aspects of the Torah,” “Deborah's Palm Tree” with interpretations and historical commentaries, and still others.

 

Avrom Asaf

Born in Lyuban 1906. Studied in kheyder, graduated from the Mizrachi teachers' seminary in Israel. Director of the [secular Jewish] Dubnow Folk-school. Edited “Sabbath Book,” “Days of Awe.” Also published texts for various classes.

 

Sh. Bet-Zvi (Baskin)

Born 1906 in Slutsk. Engineer, teacher at the Tel Aviv “Max Fine” high school. Wrote for [Hebrew] “Not Yet,” “The Generation,” “Seasons.”

 

Shmarye Barhan

Son of Nokhem Dan the yeshiva head. Born in Slutsk 1896. Member of the collective Degania A. Studied in the Slutsk yeshiva, at the Odessa [secular Jewish] teachers' seminary. Edited the [Hebrew] books “In Battle,” “The Path of Degania A.”

 

Zvi Hagbati (Khazanovitsh)

Born 1907 in Slutsk. Member of the collective “Fountain.” Edited some 30 compilation-pamphlets published by the collective. Wrote for “On Ascent,” “Young Worker.”

 

Shmuel Damnitsh

Born in Romanova. Wrote for [Yiddish] “California Voice,” “Chicago” and other publications. (This list is ordered chronologically, assembled according to Zalman Reyzin's Lexicon [of Yiddish Literature] and other sources.)


Footnotes

  1. Beyond the six-year discrepancy noted here, Mendele averred that he may have been born even earlier, in the late 1820s. Unlike strictly recorded dates of death for purposes of yortsayt – memorial observance, birthdays were insignificant in Jewish tradition. Return
  2. Avreml is a diminutive of Avrom or Abram, hence Abramovitish: son of Abram. Return
  3. Actually, a collector of taxes on meat, candles and other necessities. One of Mendele's novels, di takse (The Tax), is a virulent attack on the practice. Return
  4. Genius of Vilna, Elijah ben Solomon (1720-97), a determined opponent of Hasidism, whose efforts prevented that movement from engulfing Lithuanian Jewry. Return
  5. The Announcer, weekly Hebrew journal of the Enlightenment, published 1856-1892. Return
  6. “The Judgement of Peace;” it can also mean “The Judgement of Sholem,” i.e., of Sholem Yankif Abramovitsh – Mendele. Return
  7. Enlightenment, which brought modern scientific and cultural ideas into the Pale of Settlement. Return
  8. Usually given as I. L. Peretz (1852-1915). See The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, Vol. III, I. L. Peretz, Pangloss Press, 1996. Return
  9. Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) developed the concept of and coined the word, “kindergarten.” Return
  10. The Bund – General Jewish Workers' Alliance (bund) of Russia, Poland and Lithuania – was a major revolutionary movement. Zubatov headed the Czar's secret police. Return
  11. “Moshkele” is a diminutive of the insulting general name, Moshke, referring to all Jewish males by Russian anti-Semites. Return
  12. Manakhem Mendl is a Sholom Aleichem character (Tevye the Dairyman's brother-in-law) who fails at all his schemes to earn a living. Return
  13. The Travels of Benjamin the Third, perhaps the most famous work of Mendele Moykher Sforim, patterned after Cervantes' Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Return
  14. Schwarzbard was a young Ukrainian Jew whose family was among the estimated 200,000 Jews wiped out by pogromist bands, including those of General Petlura, during the postrevolution civil war. He traveled in 1927 to Paris where Petlura had taken refuge, tracked him down and shot him dead. His trial was a worldwide sensation and ended in acquittal by a jury that took only minutes to decide the case. Return


{Pages 397-399}

Slutsk in Yiddish Literature

Mendele Moykher Sforim

Excerpts from “Shloyme Reb Khayim's”

Translated by Hershl Hartman

A

In the Slutsk Yeshiva

…Shloymele, whose good fortune brought him days and nights of places to eat and sleep, also in time achieved charm and grace in the eyes of all the yeshiva[1] boys. Even the senior students there were won over and allowed him into the group. “Khart,”[2] a scamp who delighted in throwing wet rags around, letting out farts, a unique fellow, became Shloyme's companion – studying with him as a comrade, it was called. “Khart,” as it turned out, was by nature a gem, a golden character with warm, deeply internalized feelings of compassion, of love that often burst forth in pearly, trembling tears in his eyes and a quietly sorrowful sigh on his lips – quite a fine little fellow but, alas, poor and lonely. Shloymele's great good fortunes, eating and drinking in companionship, did not aid his studies. He was led astray from the learning that he had wanted and needed to achieve. In truth, such fortunes were more ill than good, to be wished on all one's enemies; yet “days,”[3] even when eaten in the kitchen, exiled under an angry cook, were still better than pas bimelekh,[4] bread and salt; thin, watery krupnik, groat-soup, better than mayim b'mshure, water in small measure; sleeping on a warm “lezhanke” [warming-oven cot] much better than le'al ha'erets tishn, sleeping on the bare earth, and sometimes suffering that thing that a sated, sinning person desires – all of this is better than the bitter life of one who hungers, who suffers need.

As for Shloymele's life in Slutsk – which lasted about two years including an interruption mid-way – it is worth pausing just a bit on certain aspects…

Shloymele remembers those wintery evenings in the yeshiva. The sun, after its mournful, short pass, would set on an array of the colorfully-playing, thickly outstretched clouds. Its last rays penetrate inside the yeshiva through its thick, frosted windows, and flutter on the opposite wall with all the impressed reflections of the semi- and somehow variously frost-embellished, decorated panes. Outdoors the cold rages, smolders. Indoors it is cold – dim. The scattered boys have just started to re-gather, each of them rubbing his hands, saying “Ah, ah.” The warming-oven is alight. Two boys – among those who'd remained: one of them luckless, lacking a “day,” and the other who had one, had brought along a few potatoes for supper – they kneel at the open door [of the oven] facing the fire, each paying attention to his sinful bowl where a single groat races angrily, up and down, drumming: tyokh, tyokh, tyokh! The fire crackles, illuminating their faces and of those around them. A brightly-burning log sticks out of the oven, sending out flaming tongues, erupting haughtily near the door with gleaming embers, blaring out, at the end, “pip-pip-fff,” like the long blast of the shoyfer [shofar]![5] It grows warm, the crowd is happy. They pass time with stories, with sayings, with jests. The boys who have bowls take to eating – “Arise, Jews, in a momentous hour!” The 'priests' go off to eat 'the offering' – to slurp their groat-soup!…And the boys slurp, working diligently, accompanying every spoonful from the bowl to their mouths with a song of their lips, giving the onlookers wolfish appetites. Those scratch themselves; they lick their lips in great desire. On Wednesdays, Sholymele sits here, too, in the midst of them, eating 'the offering' of the little bread loaf that Yente the market-wife would give him that day. He eats it very seriously, piously, in a sort of “leshem yikhud” [cabbalistic invocation of deity's name], being as careful as a ritual guard that not a single crumb fall, heaven forbid.

That little loaf is truly dear, it must be treated like “an offering baked on a griddle,” like a pancake fried in butter, dearer than the best “day,” considering with what flaming love for God and his Torah the loaf was given. A pair of doves, the [Temple] sacrifice of a poor man, is considered by God equal to the fat bull of Bashan – the last possession of a poor man, alas!

…The first evil hour befell Shloymele on his “day” at a well-to-do householder's, there in the kitchen where he entered, as was the habit of a yeshiva-boy come to eat supper.

In a corner of the kitchen a grease candle sputtered. A woman with a red, twisted nose, with fat lips, a wide mouth, missing two front teeth, puttered around the stove, humming, murmuring angrily, for no special reason, avoiding looking at Shloymele's corner, as if he weren't there. Shloymele sits as though on needles, his soul expiring as he waits. The kitchen door squeaks, opens constantly. Any moment, he thinks, the redemption, the supper, will arrive – but nothing; the servants go to and fro. He sits and is almost consumed by his waiting. It is late, time to go to his rest in the place where he spends the night. They're awaiting him with yesterday's still-not-completed stories, and also with newly-fresh ones. He is noticeable by his yeshiva-boy movements – rising up once in a while, a scratch, a sigh, a cough, a sniff of the nose – and she: nothing! She keeps on murmuring as though she were arguing with someone, wishing Pharoah's plagues upon his head. Just then, as though sprung from the earth, there appeared before Shloymele's eyes a bright-colored picture of his life, past and present. And right in the midst of that he heard simultaneously a woman's voice, sounding like the cook's, calling and saying: “Go, little boy, go wash up. Little boy!” Shloymele washes his hands in his tears, raising his hands angrily, resentfully with “raise your hands,” not, God forbid, against God, but against his dark fate and the woman with the red nose.

He manages a bite of bread, a sip of groat-soup, says the blessing, cutting it short, says goodnight to the four walls and leaves quickly, muddled, not kissing the mezuze,[6] extremely upset, sad, unhappy with himself or anyone; oh-and-woe – he thinks angrily in his thoughts – to him, to his luck, to what he has experienced! A ward, a yeshiva-boy, “eating days,” unfortunately…Oh-and woe to his standing with his fellow-yeshiva boys, poor lads. Oh-and-woe to his privilege of going from door to door with the rabbi, poor-gathering alms in the little sack, as well as to the privilege of wandering about, sleeping on the warm lezhanke…great gifts…prospects – great prospects…

B

Reb Yoyne [Jonah]

…Among all its wonders, the wealthy Slutsker, reb Yoyne, rightly occupies a handsome spot. See him all at once: his house, his activities; regard him and imagine him! Asingle-story wooden house with a small porch a few steps high at the entrance, and a row of medium-high windows, glass eyes lining both sides, looking out on a large, fenced-in yard. And by that name, “reb Yoyne's yard,” his home is known in the town. At one side of the yard there stands a tall, very attractive synagogue; that is, a house of study. A large crowd prays there – both family members and other Jews. There, too, both young and old sit and study day and night. Thus it was during his lifetime and later, in his son's time – a quorum of learnéd Jews, agéd and young men, would be paid wages to study constantly. Wages were also paid to a yeshiva-head to teach a portion of the Talmud with commentaries to the learnéd audience there, every morning after prayers.

Friday evenings the yard takes on a sort of new appearance: a holiday-like face, a pillar-of-fire of many burning candles in the synagogue, in the house, streaming through the windows and illuminating, spreading across the yard in every little corner. It feels as though, somehow, the good angels – servants of Him Above, sent from heaven by the Holy-One-blesséd-be-He – hover above there, awaiting the rich man and his children at their departure from the synagogue, to accompany them home. There in the house, in a bright, large salon, displayed before the residents and for scores of guests, poor people, affluent Jews, are shabes [Sabbath]-laden tables with everything wonderful – with blessing-candles in trios, in seven-branched silver candelabras, on expensively veneered credenzas. Wine sparkles, pearly in hand-cut, big-bellied, long-necked flagons, reflecting rainbow-colors into crystal kidush[7] cups. At each diner's place, the snow-white tablecloth is set with a pair of newly-baked rolls, looking like new-born chicks. Seeing all this it seems to one that a new soul is born, the neshome yiseyre [second soul of the Sabbath]. One feels that here is the Sabbath, here comes the belovéd bride, now we go to greet her, having welcomed her in the synagogue with boyi b'sholem [Come in Peace], singing lekho dodi [Come, Belovéd], loudly, passionately.

In such a manner did the rich man serve God and His Torah. However, as a resident and as a Jew, a son of his people, he also served the town and All Israel. He had partners in this. Certainly, a large share came from him. Nevertheless, he did not allow his general charity to displace specifics, like those among us who limit themselves to making the blessing over wine, and so forth. That is, his charity for the mass did not exclude needy individuals. Each of them individually obtained coins from him: wandering paupers of all sorts; beggars of this and that type, carrying alms-sacks; those lacking alms-sacks: fire-victims, abandoned wives, ne'er-do-wells with rabbinic notes and without them – no matter, everyone received his farthing. To say nothing of local folk: the town's unknown poor; quiet, “secret recipients,” that is, who received food and drink hospitably, in the manner of our father Abraham.

There is the picture, dear Jews, an old-fashioned picture! A rarity, these days…Look at this, if you will: there, in the yard, directly across from the rich man's house – you see it? – a significant structure, long, windowless, with a pair of large, wide-open gates, like someone belted, sleeves rolled up, arms akimbo, hands outstretched, taking something from inside and handing it over to a pushing crowd outside, men, women loaded with packages, candles and bottles; this is – do you hear, dear Jews? – this is a storehouse of foodstuffs and other needful things from which the rich man's “person” in charge of this, distributes goods every Thursday to certain poor folk for their Sabbath. And those pitifully, badly fallen into poverty, ashamed to put out their hands, are sent aid to their homes in secret and honorably.

Keep looking, Jews, a bit farther!

At a side of the yard, a separate wing occupies a large area. Its chimneys emit pillars of smoke; servants, women, girls in white aprons, their heads covered in clean white cloths, rush about very busily, carrying pots, tableware, back and forth. A tall man, strong – look at him – a large-boned fellow, stands at the door. He issues commands and admits people who come and go one after the other – just listen to what an old-time rich man can do: establishing a kitchen for cooking and baking to feed, every day, hungry people, along with lonely prayerhouse habitués, impoverished, weakened, alas! Yes, this is Slutsk's rich man's open kitchen for the poor and hungry! Not expecting, God forbid, honors for himself, nor any reward: Not even thinking that someday a portrait will be drawn of him – this very portrait!

And that one doing the commanding over there – he is the neighbor's husband, of that woman who lives in the second room in the house of the minyan [prayer-quorum]. Her husband, unable to tear himself from the kitchen as so much work there constantly depends on him, is able to come home only once a week for a few hours, bringing all sorts of good things. His basket overflows with good, tasty things, toward which, the more he tastes of them, Shloyme's heart and eyes are drawn ever more strongly. And the Evil Spirit, the guardian, sits hidden here in the basket among the goodies, encouraging Shloyme to be where a houseful of people are praying, keeping him from studying for the time being…


Footnotes

  1. Schools for advanced studies in Bible, Talmud and rabbinic commentaries. Graduates could obtain rabbinic ordination or certification for other religious roles. Students were traditionally though minimally supported by local communities. Return
  2. Possibly, an engraver. Return
  3. “Eating days,” as described herein, involved yeshiva students taking supper at a different home each evening. Rarely did the student have seven homes on which to rely. Return
  4. Here and below, Mendele uses the Hebrew or Aramaic word/phrase from, respectively, the Bible or Talmud, or the Russian term, then provides the Yiddish translation. When he fails to do so, the translator has provided the meaning in brackets. Return
  5. Ceremonial ram's horn. Return
  6. Lit., doorpost. A case containing parchment on which are written verses from Deuteronomy, affixed to doorways. Return
  7. Cups reserved to hold wine used in making the blessing (kiddish) over wine. Return


{Pages 399-401}

“Memoirs of a Jewish Revolutionary”

(In the Slutsk Prison)

Beynish Mikhalevitsh

Translated by Hershl Hartman

– I, along with a group of some 15 people, was sent to the Slutsk prison.

The prison there was considered to be one of the strictest, where those guilty of the most serious sins were confined. Criminals would shudder at the mention of the word “Slutsk,” as its conditions were so rigid. In Kopyl we had encountered a Bundist[1] organization. Its representatives approached us during the convoy, presented us with an earthenware pot of tea and consulted with us about their party matters. We spent a day there at rest.

And after a week's time, spent in open fields and freshly-flowering woods, we [the convoy] approached the town of Slutsk.

The sun in our hearts is extinguished, the source of words is stopped-up: silently, lost in thought, with dragging feet and terrible tiredness, we approached our new housing – the famous Slutsk prison.

We stand in a tense mood in the office of the Slutsk prison. Some guards and a clerk regard us with angry curiosity. They're awaiting the natshalnik [warden]. The door opens. Breathing hard, a short-chubby little man with oxen eyes, bearded and with thick, hairy hands, comes running in. He regards us angrily from toes to top, emits an incomprehensible sound and hastily seizes our
papers.

Meanwhile, somewhere in a far-off corner, a soldier drops his rifle. The nervous little creature in an official uniform shudders in great cowardice. This gave him a comic appearance and one of our women laughed out loud. The warden's eyes turn red with anger, he comes running up quickly to our corner and begins to shout, addressing us in the familiar form and cursing coarsely. As soon as he's finished, he receives a polite response from all of us. This seems to
confuse him, he regards us all with widened eyes and addresses the chief guard of the convoy:

“What kind of people are these?” “Politicals,” the other replies. The warden flips quickly through our papers. “Under control of the Justice Minister,” “Under the Interior Minister,” “At the Police Department.” Apparently, all these institutions evoked great respect in this Slutsk satrap who had never seen prisoners who had not been convicted by order of an investigative judge or a district judge. He now speaks not a word to us. He quietly instructs the chief guard where to take us.

We find ourselves in a separate corridor. There are no criminals here. Everything is freshly-painted, white and clean. However, we are each locked into a separate cell and we are not permitted to communicate with each other.

We decide to strike the iron while it is still hot and to immediately put pressure on the warden before he has properly oriented himself as to who we are. We start the familiar music of banging on doors and shouting. The warden comes running in confusion and asks what we demand. He has no idea what to do with us and asks us to wait a few hours.

In a short time, our cell is filled with the town's power structure. The bailiff; a young prosecutor fresh from the university; a military man, and even the head of the Slutsk nobility. Their spokesman is the young assistant prosecutor. We put forward our demands: we want to be able to communicate with each other; we want our own kitchen, books, yard and other privileges. He asks about the regime we were under in Minsk and we tell him about it without embellishments. He assures us that things will not be worse here, he agrees to all our demands and adds that this is all temporary: he will correspond about all this with the gendarmerie. After this conversation the warden was completely lost. He actually turned the entire upper floor over to us. We were completely autonomous there and arranged things to our own hearts' content. When the criminals were not there, we would spend all day in the prison yard, strolling, amusing ourselves and organizing various sports. We ordered a complete croquet set and played with it for hours at a time. We would horse around, laugh and shout as though we were somewhere on an open field outside of town.

More than once the warden would call me out to his home (I remained in the role of staroste [village chief] here, too) and would plead with me to keep down the noise. “I've given you,” he pleaded, “the yard, the office. At least let me sleep at night.” He lived next door to the prison. It was only at night that we were locked into cells, though each of us could choose which room he wanted.

Then, some few weeks later, the warden called me in and told me confidentially that orders had been received from Minsk to rein us in somewhat and to institute a stricter regime over us. He, however, does not want to come in conflict with us and asks therefore that we be careful and not expose him. His submissiveness to us is explained not only by his cowardice, though he had a great dose of that. There was another reason here. We had brought with us a large sum of cash, which was deposited in the main office. The warden quickly spent it. It reached the point that we often did not get the most needed foodstuffs. When I would complain about this to the chief guard, he would whisper the secret that the warden does not give him any money and that the butchers, bakers and grocers no longer will extend him credit.

I recall this episode: That day, a dentist had extracted one of my teeth. That night, drinking hot tea caused a vein in my mouth to open and blood began to flow. I did not want to awaken any of my comrades and waited for it to subside. The flow, however, did not cease and I almost died of blood-loss. The awakening comrades began banging on the door and demanding a doctor. He came in the morning; afterwards, I had to stay in bed for several days. It was impossible for me to eat anything. I could drink tea. One of the women comrades who attended to me (our women were allowed to come into our section) sent the chief guard for a lemon. He returns and reports that the grocer will not sell it without cash payment. This is too much and my “warmhearted sister” sends for the warden. She [verbally] assaults him in great anger. He stands there, lost, begs her not to shout and runs off himself to the store and brings back a lemon…

His entire family was dysfunctional, made up of degenerates. He would play cards with anyone, his wife would have attacks of drunkenness and would keep drinking for days on end, and his son, a young high-schooler, would steal into the prison before dawn and sell the prisoners used decks of cards and liquor.

Though the warden waved us off and left us entirely on our own, he was brutally despotic toward the criminal inmates. He would call them by no other name than “animal” and often kicked them. Most of the inmates were small, weak little people, village peasants, horse thieves and accidental law-breakers. They did not have the spirit to stand up to the strict regime of the sick despot. When, sometimes, some serious criminals were brought there from elsewhere, he would keep them in solitary confinement and would torture them so badly that they would lose any ability to protest. A good life there was limited to some richer thieves and officials who had misappropriated government funds and who had larger amounts of cash deposited with the warden.

A short time after our arrival in Slutsk a great, very important event took place in the nation's political life – the Russo-Japanese War [1904-05]. We learned about it soon after the outbreak through the criminal inmates, to whom had been read, right after Sunday prayers, the official condemnation of the treacherous enemy. We recognized intuitively that this would have gigantic significance for revolutionary developments in Russia and we began to take a feverish interest in all its details. We could no longer live without a newspaper. We therefore called in the local prosecutor and demanded from him that he allow us to receive a newspaper, because of the unusual developments in the country. The prosecutor saw in this clear evidence of our patriotism and promised to send us the Petersburg newspaper published by Lord Ukhtomski. He would not permit any more “left” newspaper.

But no sooner had we legalized the reading of a newspaper in prison than the guards, for a pittance, were not afraid to bring us other newspapers. After a year of newspaper-hunger, I would devour two-three newspapers daily. Every new report on the course of the war would shake us up and cause intense discussion among us. Behind the thick walls of the Slutsk prison we seemed to hear directly the strong blows suffered by Czarism as a result of its defeats on
the battlefields of Manchuria and [of its Baltic fleet] in the deep seas of Tsushima [May 27, 1905]. Impatiently, we awaited every dawn to learn of some new upheavals.

On a bleak winter morning the Slutsk prosecutor and an elderly Justice official from Minsk appeared and invited us into a large room for a conversation. They began about the treacherous Japanese, talked about the great struggle awaiting the country, and, at the end, simply proposed that we enlist in the army as volunteers. They assured us that we would not be sent to the front,
that this would be simply an act of peacemaking between the government and those groups who sought the well-being of Russia in their own way. All of us unanimously and categorically rejected the proposal.

As we later learned, this was an attempt by the then-dictator [W. K. von] Plehve[2] to entice all the “politicals” into the patriotic mainstream and the same proposal that was made to us had been made to all the [political] prisoners and exiles in all of Russia. But it is noteworthy that of all the thousands of “politicals,” there was only a single exiled person who agreed to volunteer for the army. All the others turned away, despising the bloody hand that the all-Russian despot offered them.


Footnotes

  1. Installed after the March, 1917, overthrow of the Czar, supplanted by the Bolsheviks in the October (November 7, current calendar) Revolution. Return
  2. Czarist Interior Minister, responsible for the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, with whom Theodor Herzl a few months later negotiated support for Zionism as a means of reducing the Jewish population in Russia. See Laquer, Walter, A History of Zionism, Schocken Books, 1976. Return


{Page 403}

Slutsk My Little Hamlet [shtetele]

(A folk song)

Abraham Epstein

Translated by Hershl Hartman

1.

I remember the little shtetele,
Where I first saw the light of day,
Where, as a child, I went to kheyder.
Where I was born, where I was brought up.

Refrain:

Slutsk, oh Slutsk, my shtetele, how I yearn for you,
Deep in my heart, you home of mine, you lie there.
A cradle hanging from a string, and a broken little bed;
And yet you are so dear to me, Slutsk, oh Slutsk, my shtetele.

2.

Everyday, carrying beygl [bagels], our mother went into the market –
So the children might have bread to eat;
And our father would flog us with his leather whip
So that we children would study well.

(Refrain)

3.

On Friday nights our mother would bless the candles,
And our father would go off to the House of Prayer.
From there he'd bring home strangers for the Sabbath-meal
And lovely zmires [Sabbath-songs] would be sung.

(Refrain)


{Pages 404-406}

Cucumbers

I. D. Berkovitsh [Berkowitz][1]

Translated by Hershl Hartman

The key time of the cucumber harvest had arrived. These were days during which, from the earliest morning until late at night, a strange, uneasy tumult ruled the house, a strange commotion, a dashing-about, a running of starving, distraught people who had suddenly seen a light. Mother was more distraught than all the others. During those days it was as if she were being steamed and roasted. She did not eat nor drink, neither rested nor slept, and paid no attention to housekeeping. All she knew was: cucumbers.

When Rifke awakes from sleep before dawn, she finds Mother already on her feet. Barefoot, with unruly hair and a naked bosom, Mother appears out of the dark sleeping area quietly, as unremarked as a shadow; she stands in the half-light thinking to herself and puts both hands into her tousled hair and starts to scratch vigorously, using her nails. Then she goes quietly into the kitchen, stands at the little window and thinks again, sighs over something, and it seems to Rifke that Mother hadn't slept at all. She had stood all night in some dark corner, loaded with worries, thinking her thoughts there, waiting and waiting for daylight to appear.

Mother doesn't stand at the window for long. A splash into the slop-bucket is heard. Mother quickly pours out nail-water[2], returns again to the dark sleeping area and begins to wake Father, quietly at first, then more and more loudly.

“Elye, wake up! Elye, you've slept enough. Elye, do you hear me? It's time to get up. Elye, you'll have time to sleep-in on shabes [Sabbath]. Elye, why do you pretend not to hear me? Elye, what sort of sleepy-headedness has he taken on all of a sudden, as if he hasn't slept for five days?…Lord of the Universe! There are a couple of loads of cucumbers out in the garden since yesterday, and he doesn't so much as care a hair about them…El-i-ye!”

“Ha? What?” Father awakens with a sleepy, hoarse voice.

“Ha? What?” Mother mimics him, angry now. “It's as though he's not from here…Have you forgotten yesterday's three loads of cucumbers?”

“Cucumbers – shmucumbers! It's still the middle of the night outside!”

“He's turning cucumbers into shmucumbers! There you go! Have you got anything better, my fine breadwinner? Have you ever seen such a habit: just a sleep-addict?…He's slept, I guess, all night long. Enough! How long is a person supposed to sleep? Do you have to bathe in sleep?”

For a while, Mother falls silent. Then her voice is heard, suddenly changed, softer, as though she is speaking to herself in the dark, quietly, heartfelt, thoughtfully:

“As for me, bless His Name, I haven't slept all night long. I know that we're, I believe, supposedly preoccupied, but sleep doesn't come, after all. Such strange thoughts creep into my head, some dreams…A dream isn't more, it's correct to say, than a thought-up thing, but still…There I lay about an hour ago, I think, not sleeping at all: but then the door opens and my father, peace to him, appears, wearing his yarmulke [skullcap] and white stockings, as he always did…Elye! You're back to sleep! What is one to do with him? No! Whatever will be, will be! I am not ever going back to the garden! Let them drag off whatever is there, let the pigs come in, let all the hard work be ruined, let three loads of cucumbers turn rotten…Three loads of cucumbers! I am leaving, it's not my thing, let him and his children beat their heads against the wall! Elye!”

Finally, Father appears out of the sleeping area, dressed all in white, barefoot, tall, angry. He comes into the room where Rifke sleeps, where the shutters are closed, coughing and sighing and mumbling something, puttering around in the dark until he finds the tobacco and begins to roll a cigar. He leans up against the commode, stretched up, not moving, and is silent, thinks of something, smokes the cigar and at every puff the lit end glows in the dark, illuminating his sleepy, angry face and his long, tousled beard.

Mother meanwhile is busy in the fore-house, opening wide the doors, dragging some loaded sacks, not resting. Through the open doors a cool fresh breeze blows in from the street and under the blanket; a beam of light shines and trembles on the wall in the dark little room – and Rifke tosses from one side to the other in her bed, buries her face in the pillow, wanting to drive off angry thoughts, but she can't.

Mother's voice is heard from the fore-house:

“Elye, d'you hear? You've already grabbed your pipe? Ay, ay, that pipe! I'm going to the garden. Finish your pipe there and come along. Don't forget that there are three loads of cucumbers lying there!”

“Well, and tea? Who will make my tea?” asks Father in a hoarse voice and inhales the cigar, lighting up his tall white figure and his hurt, darkened face.

“Now here's something new: tea…he lacks nothing more than tea! I tell him 'cucumbers' – so he answers 'tea'…I seem to have awoken him, my lord, so that he might sit down and have tea! This one doesn't even have any shame at all: in a time like this, tea…just a little nothing – tea? Someone might think he was born in tea…get dressed there and come out here! When the children awake, they will make both tea for you and pain for my enemies – oh, heavens, what will ever become of him?”

When Rifke arrives in the garden under her parasol she finds Father and Mother standing near a small open gate alongside a large pile of cucumbers. Avromtsi, reddened with sunburn, stands in a large wagon, and a peasant with a goat-like beard and a linen shirt hanging over his trousers carries over to him heavy sacks full of cucumbers and loudly empties them into the wagon.

Rifke is crestfallen and stands there, not knowing what to do. She looks around at the large, broad garden, at its long growing beds, covered in foliage drying and baking under the sun; at the peasant women, seen from afar in groups with their hoes, and her earlier bright thoughts disperse like smoke under the skies. Heat and quiet pervade the surroundings, as far as the eye can see. At times, a song issues forth from a group of peasant women, quickly caught up by the other groups. The peasant women pause in their labors for a moment, lean on their hoes in the growing beds and throw their heads back. Strong village voices pour, lamenting, across the urban fields, over the long, green growing beds, under the light blue skies. Suddenly the song is cut off mid-course: some young peasant woman lets out a strange shriek, there's resounding laughter, echoing from the far-off fields, and all becomes quiet again, while the burning sun rules over the stillness…Father stands, holding his cane near the pile of cucumbers, somehow lost in thought. Heavy beads of sweat roll off his forehead. His bearded, embittered face stares off into the void, as though he were listening to something.

But Mother won't allow him to stand there.

“Elye, you're lost in thought again?…And who will go to the marketplace?”

Rifke approaches her mother.

“Mama, I came to do something.”

Mother stands there, worried, and does not reply.

“Five loads of cucumbers have been sent off. This will be the sixth.”

The time of cucumbers had passed and a cold, wet winter arrived with its frigid winds and with fine, cold rains. In the little street, under the low, foggy sky, lay a loose mud puddle; around the fruit gardens, in small, glittering little ponds, withered, orphaned, fallen little leaves skittered about. Men appeared wearing warm fur coats, carrying huge umbrellas, and women, bent over, in raggedy head-shawls, chased after gangs of wet, honking geese, pursued and driven by the wind and rain. Householders in checked cotton caftans ventured out with their tools to survey their houses, adding earth to the protective piles around the foundations, smearing clay around the windows; near them, in the courtyards, stand the cows: lost, morose, like useless wives, stretching their necks, raising their cow-heads to the fogged-in sky and emitting a fearful, long “me-e-eh,” mourning the fine, warm summer and its bright sun, its green fields, that have disappeared like smoke…

And the gardens had not yet been harvested. The earth had nursed-up the cold, wintery rain and borne rotten carrots and beets; on the beaten heads of cabbages, every morning heavy, cold drops of water were driven by the wind.


Footnotes

  1. Known best as Sholom Aleichem's son-in-law who chronicled his more-famous relative and translated his works into Hebrew, Berkovitsh was also a prominent Yiddish writer in his own right. Return
  2. negl-vaser: the perfunctory fulfillment of the morning hand-washing required by Jewish custom. Return


Y. L. Perets in Slutsk

Nokhem Khinitsh

Translated by Hershl Hartman

At the end of summer, 1913, a rumor spread in Slutsk that Y. L. Perets and Yankif Dinezon[1] would be coming to visit. Impatiently, their arrival from Starave, a nearby village (35 vyorst [Russian mile] from town) was awaited; they had been staying there at the summer home of B. A. Kletskin, an owner of the large local glass factory. Kletskin, the well-known publisher, was known among the Jews of the surrounding villages as a non-believer [apikoyres, Epicurean].

Y. L. Perets and Yankif Dinezon did arrive one sunny morning. Their names were beloved among Jews.

Attempts to organize a public lecture by Perets were not successful. The police had received a report that the lecturer was not kosher – a Socialist.[2] Nevertheless, a banquet to welcome the honorable guests was arranged at the home of the richest Jew in town, Leybush Gutsayt. There were around 50 guests from among the “elite.” Leybush Gutsayt, a Zionist and a lover of Hebrew, personally invited me to attend.

The hall was overflowing; there was no room to be seated. Russian was heard from all directions and the atmosphere was foreign, isolated. The guests were welcomed in both Russian and Yiddish. Slowly, a more festive mood developed. Everyone's eyes were on the cheerful, energetic Perets, and on the goodhumored, silent Dinezon. The final greeting in Hebrew by the local teacher Ruven'ke Altman somewhat confused minds and vexed spirits. He briefly and clearly recalled and referred to the Talmudic legend that “in the times to come” the synagogues would be torn out from their places and be transferred physically to the Land of Israel. The Talmudic legend could not abide the idea that the dead would roll through [underground] caves to the Land, but that the synagogues, the spiritual centers, would remain in Exile [the Diaspora]. He, the speaker, believes that Perets's works must find their rightful place in Hebrew translation in the land of Jewish hopes – the Land of Israel.

The audience grew bored, not understanding a single word. But Perets's eyes twinkled. He felt that he was under a sharp attack.

Pale, with a tremulous voice, he began (I wrote down his words at the time): “I thank you all for the expected honor and attention that you have given me here. But I must note to the last greeter that I am not among those who disparage life in the Diaspora. In addition, I cannot agree that my creative works must be ripped from Yiddish and translated specifically into Hebrew, as eternal works that will find their true place in the Land of Israel. I want to be sure that you do not misunderstand me: I am not an opponent of Hebrew, which is still dear to me. And here is the evidence: I have written in Hebrew and I still do from time to time. But, what then? I am not a chauvinist who says that eternity and the rightful place is only in Hebrew and in the Land of Israel…Permit me to say that the struggle and the constant irritations between the “ists”[3] upsets me and causes me great pain and sorrow. Is Yiddish, then, a slave to slaughtered? I protest most strongly against such an attitude. The time has now come for us to proclaim publicly: Enough of playing with minor matters and empty phrases. Let each go his own way to seek his own truth! Let the forces grow, the spirits soar of those who create and produce. I must again stress that Jewish literature is in the folk-language [Yiddish]. I have no objection to my works being translated into Hebrew. But without hidden objectives, incantations, signs that create bad blood over what is prime and what is secondary…

“Honored guests! I hope you will forgive me for these words that I find necessary to say openly and clearly: Read in Yiddish, in Hebrew, but do read, become acquainted with our treasures and values of great range; then you will see how rich we are, but that we do not know how to use those riches and the folk-treasure. So we follow the instruction of King Solomon: cut it in half! And we cut halves, thirds, and quarters of our living body.”

Pale and tired, he sat down next to his friend Dinezon. When they tried to get Dinezon to speak, he smilingly said: “I have nothing to add and nothing new to say. I am in fullest agreement with my friend, Perets.”

(Published in undzer folk [Our People, Yiddish], number 5, October 14, 1931, New York; ha'olam [The World, Hebrew], number 13, March, 1933, London.


Footnotes

  1. Y(itzhok) L(eybush) Perets, also known as I(saac) L(oeb) Peretz and Jacob Dinezon. The former is considered to be one of the triumvirate of classic modern Yiddish writers, known for his stories, poems and essays in the Yiddish press and for mentoring many outstanding Yiddish novelists, playwrights and poets. Dinezon, a vastly popular (in the 1880s) author of sentimental novels, campaigned for modern educational methods in religious elementary schools; those that followed his urgings were often dubbed “Dinezon schools.” Return
  2. Perets was, indeed, disbarred from practicing his legal profession on that charge. He actually maintained a sympathetic but critical view of Jewish Socialist advocates. Return
  3. i.e., Hebraists and Yiddishists – advocates of one language over the other. Perets participated in the Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi) Conference in 1908 that, after much debate, declared Yiddish to be “a language of the Jewish people” rather than “the language…” Return


{Pages 406-407}

The Last

I. D. Berkovitsh (Berkowitz)

(A chapter of the story of that name)

Translated by Hershl Hartman

Introduction:

I wrote the story “The Last” in 1908, while visiting my parents in Brownsville [Brooklyn], New York. My father, peace to him, told me an ancient story about rabbis in Slutsk that he had heard as a youngster while studying at a yeshiva in Slutsk, or perhaps Starobin. He dearly wanted me to convert the story into a “description.” I fulfilled his wish and before returning to Europe I wrote it in my own style, naming it as “An Old Story From An Old pinkes [Civic Record].” I did not refer to the city by its real name, Slutsk, but as “Muravanka,” (after The Muravankes [ant hills], the tiny synagogues that clustered about the large Cold Synagogue in Slutsk). The story was printed then in the New York “Amerikaner,” and in the Peterburg “Fraynd,” as well as in a volume of my “Collected Works.” Later, when I adapted it into Hebrew as “ha'akhron” [The Last], I left out the first chapter – so that it appears here as an unknown fragment, because my “Collected Works” in Yiddish are now forgotten, a literary rarity.

I. D. B.

For generations upon generations, they were rabbis in the old, poor, covered-in- grey-honors of the Jewish community of Muravanka, lost in deep, dark woods. For generations they were famous all over, far and near, wherever a Yiddish word might reach, wherever the voice of the Torah resounds loudly in the old, warm Houses of Prayer.[1]

They were talked about everywhere, as one would talk about wonders at a time when wonders no longer occur, as one would talk of consolation at a time when hopes have been lost long, long ago. They also spoke of them as great-grandchildren would of their great-grandfather's riches that no longer exist in this world, and of the great old-fashioned, seven-branched candelabra that he had left them from the good old times.

Because they illuminated their surroundings just as an old-fashioned seven-branched candelabra, burning in the darkness – this old family of the famous Muravanka rabbis. This was back in ancient, far-off times. Then, Muravanka still lay sunken in the midst of the huge, dark Lithuanian forests. The old, low, moss-covered houses still stood amidst broad, green gardens; the gardens then still yielded beets and onions, thick hops still twirled and aged on the fences. In those times, fine Jewish householders still walked about in linen coats and smoked pipes filled with dried cabbage-leaves. The forest provided sustenance, yielding resin during the week. Jewish homes dined on corn bread and barley soup. When a family added a new infant – there was no need to worry. They merely praised God and took up the pail, went to the well and drew up water, added another quart to the barley-soup vessel – and the newborn creature of God's creation was assured of his own provender.

And when a Jew's daughter reached maturity, and there was no dowry available to bring her forth – he would take up a walking stick, put on a white shirt with a broad, starched and pressed collar, say the “prayers for the road” and go off on foot to Volin [Wolin], to that blessed wonderland where the speech spoken uses i [instead of u] and the food eaten even on a midweek Wednesday is khale [eggbread] with saffron, if not with honey.

There, in Volin, on a Friday night, strolling about his brightly-lit halls, is the rich Voliner proprietor, a heavy-set, meaty Jew, hairy, with a broad yellow beard, with a creased silken sash across his broad, solid loins – strolling in his self-conscious wealth and proclaiming sholem aleykhem [peace be with you] in his clipped, i-accented speech, joyous, lively, in a sing-song and with a snap of his fingers. The Lithuanian guest – whether a teacher or a preacher – the emaciated, dry, Jewish stranger with his black, piercing stranger's eyes, would sit in a far-off corner, only moving his lips slowly, looking only at the ground. Perhaps this was because he felt very crestfallen in this bright, decorated hall, and perhaps it was because he remembered his far-off home and his wife and children and his grown daughter, and because his remote home had suddenly become strangely dear to him, with its dark, hard-working Jews who pump resin from the forest all week long, with its old, warmly-heated Houses of Prayer, with its famous giants of the Torah who bend, holding candles in their hands, over the large, heavy books of the gemora [Talmud].

And here at the table, among the aromatic gefilte [stuffed] fish and the chicken soup with its thick “eyes” [fat globules], the angry silent guest would break his silence and speak in detail about his own corner in Lithuania.

“But we have us our own rabbis here! Nnu!…”

He would reply with fire and with profound pride, sharply and clearly, with love and deep yearning. His piercing dark eyes would ignite and glow, throwing off sparks. The guest would tell of those old giants and their brilliant minds, with iron-fast patience, who do not leave off studying either by day nor by night, who take only a half-hour nap during a full night-and-day, who fall like tired lions on their fists, with their wave-like beards on the open Talmud volumes, while the large lamp burns quietly as a guard over their heads and wakes them again to study. At dawn, when the congregation arrives, it walks about within its own confines, fearing to cast a glance at their corner, because their gazes then are sharp and burning.

“That's how studying is done among us, in Lithuania!”

The thick, hairy Volin proprietor, sweaty, good-humored, a believer, would listen intently to those wonderful stories, meanwhile slowly undoing the sash around his Sabbath-cloak, unbuttoning the waistcoat on his rich belly and puff up his cheeks, shaking his head back and forth, because one could believe anything about Litvakes [Lithuanian Jews].

Later, when the rich Volin Jew, through a once-in-a-blue moon miracle, found himself in Lithuania, he had to satisfy his curiosity by gazing upon the Lithuanian giant of learning. However, he stood before in him in fear and with wonder in his heart, as one sometimes stands before a tall, hard stone wall, barely seeing its top. Somehow, he feared the thick, dark eyebrows, the sharp, penetrating glances, the strict, deeply furrowed forehead, seemingly carved in stone. He was somehow confused by the hard, cold persistence of their words, that drill holes [into one's consciousness] and bore deep and know of no mercy.

Because in those deeply creased foreheads and under those dark, thick eyebrows shone the eternally-burning shkhine [Divine Presence].

Those were the famous Muravanker rabbis.

*

The Muravanker were an old dynasty of rabbis, a long chain of deeply learned men that continued from generation unto generation. They were all tall, strong, broad-boned Jews, all of advanced age, with thick curly beards. It was only infrequently that a hair of their beards would become silvered. They were all of them stern and silent who heard all and saw all, but who spoke more with their thick eyebrows and with the deeply-etched creases in their foreheads than with their mouths. When a Muravanker rabbi issued forth the word “nu,” [well…] – that sufficed.

Their rabbinic status was passed down by inheritance, from father to child, and in addition to the rabbinic chair and the 18 gilden per week salary, the son would inherit from his father a tall, old, candle-charred prayer-lectern in the old House of Prayer, at the edge of the Holy Ark; a thick, heavy, pitted, carved cane and an old Sabbath-robe of glossy material which, when worn on a bright summer's day, shines in the sun and “shouts” aloud.

They had arrived in Muravanka generations ago, when the town was still ruled by the old, wild haydamaks [Cossack tribal leaders] with fearfully grey mustaches and with large, angry dogs.


Footnote

  1. bote-midroshim; sing., besmedrish; lit: houses where commentaries on the Bible and biblical stories were taught. Variously rendered as House(s) of Prayer, or of Study. Not to be confused with shul (pl. shuln) – in Southern Yiddish: shil, shiln – generally rendered in English with the Greek-origin word, synagogue. A besmedrish served a relatively small group of less-learned men; its limited space allowed for easy heating by a warming-stove. Return

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