Translated from the Yiddish by Sol Krongelb
Translator's note: This translation essentially follows the author's original style and structure. Some Russian and Yiddish words have been carried over without translation to help convey the flavor of the original. In many cases, the original text provides the definition; when deemed necessary, a translation has been added in brackets. Where I was able to, I have added explanatory footnotes for some of the customs which may not be familiar to the contemporary English reader.
Katonah, New York
Hlusk 1 was a small shtetl in the province of Minsk. Jews constituted about three quarters of the general population. 2 The 25 per cent Christians (meshchanes) 3 spoke Yiddish mixed with Hebrew words and lived on good, neighborly terms with the Jews, except for Sunday or a holiday, when they got themselves drunk and broke their Jewish neighbors' windows and not infrequently beat them, but not by any means because of anti-Semitism but just to pass the time.
Hlusk was no different from the other surrounding shtetlach [plural of shtetl] mostly poor people (except for a few wealthy individuals); crooked houses; dirty, unpaved streets. The principal livelihood was derived from the market, for which the poor peasant-farmers came to town 2 or 3 times during the week. At the market there were 120 stores arranged one opposite the other in 4 rows, besides some ten or so stores in the side streets near the market. The remaining Jews engaged themselves in shoemaking, tailoring and other small trades. There were also many wagon drivers who would transport parshoinen (that's how they called their passengers) to and from the railroad. The nearest railroad was in Bobruisk, 50 viorst4 away.
There was great competition in all aspects of earning a living. The shopkeepers would drag the peasants by their garments into their own shops. Even the kheder5 teachers competed in the tuition fee and in their flattery of the balebatim6. Only one person in the shtetl had no competition Reb Noah Itche Khloneh's 7. He was the only candle maker in the shtetl and surrounding region, and therefore he was also called Reb Noah Lichtmacher [Candle maker].
Reb Noah was one of the most pious and respected balebatim in Hlusk. True, he was not wealthy. In winter, when a lot of slaughtering was done and there was enough tallow to make candles with an excess to send to the soap factories in Bobruisk, there was an income. But when the summer arrived, it was not so good because practically no slaughtering was done, and Reb Noah, along with the shochtim8 and butchers, had no livelihood. So in the summer, Reb Noah became a sodovnik, that is, he rented a fruit-orchard from a poritz [land owner] and, if G-d helped, and the trees were not overrun with worms, and there was not too much rain and hail, they got by till winter.
Hlusk had a yeshiva where some ten or so young men studied. The head of the yeshiva was the renowned gaon Baruch Ber Lebowitz, zl.
Because of the yeshiva there were a lot of aidyms af kest9 which the wealthier balebatim took [as husbands] for their daughters. Many of the Hlusker yeshiva students are now prominent rabbis in America.
In 1905-1906 after the revolution there appeared in Hlusk, as in many other cities, groups of ruffians [known as] the Black Hundreds who incited the meshchanes and peasants in the surrounding hamlets against the Jews. The Hlusker Poali Zion formed a self-defense [movement] against pogroms.
One of the principal leaders of the self-defense [movement] was Nissan, Reb Noah Lichtmacher's son. Nissan was a real ben Noach10, a young man, 17 years old, tall, strong, bold and energetic. He was assigned to manage the entire self-defense arsenal. Nissan hid all the arms somewhere in his father's house, but when the police began to make obysken11 in Jewish houses, he transferred the arms to the rabbi's synagogue and stashed it in the attic under some old, torn holy books. And it happened one day that the chimney sweep was in the synagogue attic cleaning the chimney and found the whole arsenal. This occurred in the summer in the time between the afternoon and evening prayers. 12
Reb Noah was studying a page of gemorah with the other Jews. The chimney-sweep told of the treasure he found. After a short deliberation among the synagogue Jews and Reb Noah, it was decided that all the arms which were discovered should be thrown into Bobe Penyeh Liebe's well. (For decades, she [Penyeh Liebe] was the only Jewish midwife, and everyone called her Bobe.) Said and done! After maariv [the evening prayer] the entire arsenal was submerged in the well.
The arms could not be retrieved from the well unless all the water was drawn out, so the [self-defense] group came up with an idea. They spread the word that a dead cat was found in the well, and the well had to be cleansed.
They found a time when Reb Noah was away, performed the cleansing of the well and rescued the arsenal of the Hlusker self-defense.
Translated by Hershl Hartman
Reb [a term of respect] Borekh-Ber words that were uttered with trepidation.
This was a name that had great weight in the rabbinic world he was a gaon [Torah genius], a sage, a man of outstanding ethics. Among his students he was known as Rabbi Borekh-Berl the meaning of his name implying a bear that does not frighten, does not scare a person off . His loving glance was full of warmth, it drew hundreds of students close to him. In him they found encouragement, help and hope. His modest gaze reflected the pain and sorrow of those learnèd in the holy writings.
When he taught a lesson in Talmud in his unique manner, and a student would pose a question, he would struggle with it, to demonstrate that the question was truly a difficult matter. He would pause in thought for a couple of minutes, then reply earnestly and joyously, My son, that's a good question! You truly deserve congratulations! The students would look at each other in wonder. After the lesson they would ask, Rabbi! You surely know that his question was not a solid question, so why waste time struggling with it? To which he would reply, You must show the learner that you are interested in him. He must be encouraged, strengthened. If you were to turn away a student's question contemptuously, he would be crestfallen and would not raise a question again.
Once there was a rabbi who came to him and presented a bit of his own original Torah insight. Reb Borekh-Ber listened, nodded his head in agreement and said, These are new ideas you have formulated, and they are quite good. When the rabbi departed, the students said to him: Rabbi! Who better than you would know that these Torah 'insights' of his are not original, that he took them from Reb Akiva Eger?
Reb Borekh-Ber answered innocently, If the rabbi had known that Reb Akiva Eger had already come up with these ideas, he would no doubt have given him the credit, [for he surely knows the aphorism] 'Whoever quotes something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world.' Obviously he had not been aware of Reb Akiva Eger's insights. Yet fortuitously, he reached the same conclusions as the sage. If so, he, too, deserves blessing.
[Photo caption: Rabbi Shloyme Polyatshek, of blessèd memory (the Maytshiter Prodigy)]
The Maytshiter Prodigy a title given the Gaon Shloyme Polyatshek head of the yeshiva in Lida and one in New York, spent his last years at Yitzhok Elkhonen Yeshiva [Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, at Yeshiva University]. When he was in Vilna [Vilnius] he attended the Knesses Beys-Yitzhok Yeshiva. [When the Maytshiter Prodigy visited one time,] Reb Borekh-Ber did not want to teach any lessons in Torah [in his presence], declaring that he
[Photo caption: Rabbi Borekh-Ber Leybovitsh]
and the Maytshiter Prodigy had both been students of Reb Khayim Brisker, but that Reb Shloyme had continued studying with Reb Khayim [after Borekh-Ber had stopped]. How then could he, Borekh-Ber, permit himself to teach Torah in the presence of the Maytshiter Prodigy, whose insights and lessons would surely be superior? Consequently, Reb Borekh-Ber did not teach a Torah lesson that day, but instead spent time with the Maytshiter Prodigy, taking pleasure in hearing Reb Khayim Brisker's last Torah insights and in reminiscing together about this great gaon.
Both of these rabbis, Reb Borekh-Ber and the Maytshiter Prodigy counted among the most revered of their generation had many hand-written manuscripts [of their teachings]. Naturally they were asked why they held back from publishing this original work, which would surely be of interest to the rabbinic and scholarly world. They replied as follows: Wonderful manuscripts were left by our rabbi, the great Reb Khayim Brisker, that are languishing and waiting for redemption. How can we think of publishing our own writings as long as our rabbi's holy words are themselves not in print?
Both men were known as fierce admirers of their rabbi's teachings. The Maytshiter Prodigy, together with the head of the Yeshiva of Mir, his friend Rabbi Eliezer Finkel, were deeply involved in helping ultimately to publish Rabbi Khayim Brisker's writings.
In the end, the works of all three Reb Khayim, Reb Shloyme, and Reb Borekh-Ber were published, over a number of years: Insights of Reb Khayim Halevi was published in Brisk in the year 5696 [1936-37], and Insights of Reb Shloyme Polyatshek, in New York, in 5710 [1950-51]. Reb Borekh-Ber's works on the Talmud were published collectively under the title The Blessing of Samuel. They are very popular among students of Torah in yeshivas everywhere. Reb Borekh-Ber, of blessèd memory, is considered to have been one of the greatest heads of yeshiva of the last generation and almost all the great heads of yeshiva across the world are his former students.
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