by Avraham Reisen
Translated by Lillian Leavitt
About My Shtetl
I walk into the old Shul,
Where are all the young men
Where is that tall leader
Where are all those voices?
Good of you to visit, welcome guest,
Nowadays they strive and compete
Dark red shirts they are wearing.
Now and then they hold a party,
Life there is a harried bustle.
Sheets of rain outdoors
Mother murmurs softly
Window panes are foggy
Father sits sadly,
A Homey Tune
There would not remain a single memory
Every detail, every piece of beauty
The tiniest of houses
Every glimmer of a lamp
Every well in every court yard
A Street Back Home
A warm day at the end of summer,
A carpenter, the neighbor next door
No need to ask permission,
Her husband searches in vain for business.
I feel like a little boy
I feel like a little boy
All that remains is my shtetl,
The schoolyard -most beautiful -
Our little stream gurgles clear and happy,
Do You Remember Them
Do you remember the downhome people
The horse dealers, those nimble guys
Do you remember those who stumbled?
Back home, the years were never counted
The name Spring was never mentioned;
As for that golden time when
Winter's almost here… the winds sharply blew
November/December would deliver frosts
by M. Ivenski
Translated by Pamela Russ
I discovered that the Koidanov residents (landsleit) here in America are publishing a book about the history of the Jewish community in Koidanov. When I heard the word Koidanov, my soul was drawn close, and a wave of dear memories enveloped me.
I am not from Koidanov, but I was there many times. In Koidanov, there lived the very prominent rebbe, Rebbe Areleh. Yes, he was great in prominence, but small in physical stature. His influence on his khassidim was tremendous. Even though it's been at least fifty-four years since I have been with him, still his influence has not yet completely worn off. Once a khassid, always a khassid.
The khassidim would not say that they were going to see the Rebbe; they would say that they were going to Koidanov. The town of Koidanov in itself held a piece of holiness. That which Jerusalem once was to all the Jews, Koidanov was to all the khassidim who took to the roads to see their rebbes who had settled in Koidanov. And if the number of khassidim in Koidanov was not really large - since the numbers couldn't really grow in Lithuania - they were certainly huge in quality. Koidanov khassidus was a new direction, even in the intellectual Lithuanian khassidus.
I remember Koidanov very well. Naturally, in the merit of the Rebbe, I was in Koidanov as a young boy, when the light of God still lit up my soul, and the impressions were still fresh in my mind. My father, may he rest in peace, a fiery Koidanov khassid
would go to the Rebbe and would take along his children, the boys, even before bar mitzvah age, to celebrate the first time they would put on tefillin, and to entice them into the world of doing mitzvos. And the mitzvah of greeting the Rebbe himself, was the biggest one of all. By doing this mitzvah, my father wanted to implant the spirit into his children's hearts, and give them something that would protect them from evil winds. And maybe he wasn't so wrong in his thinking.
I was in Koidanov several times, and even once after I had been reading non-kosher (non-Jewish, popular, fiction) books. The Rebbe forbade the reading of these books, but he wasn't alone with this - also the Russian police forbade reading these types of books. Once, I even had a disagreement with the Rebbe. At the time, I didn't realize it, but now I think the Rebbe won the dispute
I see Koidanov before my eyes. The city, or the town, had a unique charm. In America, the cities seem to be molded from one form, as the saying goes: All the Greeks have one face. (Alle Yevonim hobn eyn ponim.) But the old Jewish cities and towns that are - woe is to us - no longer here, each had an individual face. Each city had its own physiognomy, a face filled with its own distinctions.
Maybe Koidanov looks so charming to me now because we would go to the Rebbe to lift our souls. As far as I can remember, there was no train station in Koidanov, only a stop over (polstanok). The train would stop there for only one minute. For Rosh Hashannah a few hundred khassidim would take advantage of this train. From the stop over place to the town was a few viorst (slightly longer than a kilometer), and on a few trips there were many minyanim (quorums of ten men). Some would go on foot. The road to the town would be filled with khassidic songs - old songs, new songs, songs such as the Koidanov Yismekhu be'malkhuskho, and other songs. And so, we are what we are, and we are khassidim. In such as state of exaltation, probably each tree looks like the aishel Avrohom (lit: Abraham's orchard, referring to the tree under which Abraham the Patriarch sat and learned); each hut as ohel Yitzkhak (Isaac's tent); and every structure as Jacob's ladder that goes straight to heaven. This was the road to the Rebbe. But even without this, I do remember that Koidanov had its own charm, and is a city that has left strong impressions.
The city itself, with the few winding streets, with the market, with
the batei medrashim (houses of study), and (to separate, le'havdil) the tall, white church, no matter how interesting she was, was only the corridor to the heavenly palace. And in those years, the Rebbe's court was a lot more important than the most beautiful palace.
In the center of the Rebbe's court, was the little khassidic synagogue (shteibel), the Rebbe's shul. Near to that was the residence of the honored Rebbe himself. In the Rebbe's court, the Rebbetzen (his wife), a heavy-set, attractive, respected woman, would distribute honey cake after the prayers were completed. Around the residence of the Rebbe lived his married children, three sons and two daughters. In those years that I was in Koidanov, the sons lived in separate houses: Reb Yoisef'ke, who later became a Rav, Reb Nekhemiah'le, and Reb Berele. I don't exactly remember the names of Reb Areleh's two sons-in-law. I do remember that one had a handsome black beard, and the other was still a young man, too young to even have sprouted a beard. He had long, wavy side curls (peyos) that reached his shoulders. He had come from Poland, and I think his name was Reb Zalman'ke. Reb Areleh also had another son, an unusual one, Reb Shlomo Khaim'ke, still a young boy. The khassidim used to say that this boy's soul came from the same well as that of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the khassidic movement). This boy, Reb Shlomo Khaim'ke, died young, while Reb Areleh was still alive.
Yes, I remember Koidanov very well, and I confess that it is imprinted in my heart. When I found out that a book was to be published about the history of Koidanov, the spirit of the Koidanov khassidim in general awakened in me, and more specifically, the spirit of Reb Areleh himself. And a deep wish befell me to write about Reb Areleh of Koidanov on my own level. So I approached the prominent residents of Koidanov, such as Avrom Reisen, with the intention of writing about Reb Areleh from my own perspective. Reisen approved of my plan, so I will attempt to give a description of the famous Rebbe according to the description of someone who lost himself in another route in life, but who remembers the Rebbe's gatherings very clearly.
In relation to this plan
I received a letter from Rav Naftoli Tzvi Glikman, may he live long, a son-in-law of Reb Nekhemia, of blessed memory. Rav Glikman holds the esteemed position of being the chief Rav of Koidanov, and is referred to as the Sosnowice-Koidanov Rebbe.
I tremble from this letter that is, by the way, written in a beautiful, rich Yiddish. Here are a few lines.
On the recommendation of our prominent fellow countryman Reb Avrohom Reisen, I would like to introduce myself. I understand that our friend and khassid Reb Zalman Leyb Ivenski from Slonim is from your family, and because you are undertaking to write about my great father-in-law, Rav Aharon of Koidanov, we can supply you with all kinds of details which his close friend, without me even knowing him, Naftoli Tzvi Glikman, knows as well.
Yes, Reb Zalman Leyb Ivenski, who was head of the community in Slonim, was my older brother. I did not attain the level of khassidus (piety) that my brother did, the one who had the dream that Reb Aharon had passed on. I was raised in a khassidic atmosphere and remember many details about Reb Aharon, may his memory be blessed. I thank the leader Rav Naftali Tzvi Glikman very much for his wish to meet me, and very soon I will make use of this very friendly invitation. But I would like to write about the great Reb Aharon without the influence of the sons of the holy one. I would like to describe the Rebbe, as an ordinary person, of flesh and blood, as I understood him.
Reb Areleh of Koidanov actually descends from the holy Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the khassidic movement in the 1700s). The golden chain for the Koidanov Jews began with Reb Mordekhai Lekhewiczer, who died in the year 5571 (1811). The dates may not be completely reliable.
Reb Mordekhai Lekhewiczer, of blessed memory, is a descendent of Lithuanian khassidim. Reb Shloime Karliner had a great influence on Reb Lekhwiczer, whose disciples were Reb Uri Strelisker, whom they called the Seraf (holy angel), Reb Yehuda Tzvi Strettiner, and Reb Mordekhai Lekhwiczer.
Rebbe Mordekhai Lekhwiczer didn't only make the system of Reb Shloime Karliner accessible to the people, but he also mixed in a new system: The most important thing for him was self-sacrifice and prayer. He told the story about a legendary bird that sang so beautifully, it lost its own soul through the music. That's the type of self-sacrifice that we must have when we pray, Reb Mordekhai would say.
Reb Mordekhai's son was Reb Noakh Lekhwiczer (according to the information in the archives, he died in the year 5594 ). Reb Noakh started yet another road in khassidus. When someone close to him asked him why he doesn't follow his father's ways, he replied: Of course I'm following my father's ways! He chose a new direction in khassidus, and that's what I am doing. A thought that Reb Noakh used to love to repeat was: You're not allowed to fool anyone. You can't fool God, and the one who fools others, himself remains a fool.
A nephew of Reb Noakh was Reb Shloime Khaim. He is the first in the Koidanov golden chain. Reb Shloime Khaim used to say to his children: Don't think that your father was a zaddik (righteous man) or a benevolent Jew; but I was never a liar. The only thing that I did want to be was an honest Jew, and that is what I strove for.
The Rebbes of Koidanov also had a new direction in khassidus. The main thing for them was love for God, and love for fellow man. Love to God, and love to Jews. The Koidanov khassidim used to say: The Rebbe's miracles were not the greatest things for us; it was especially when the miracles did not occur, that we first understand the greatness of the Rebbe. About miracles they would say: Only the children of Kham (Adam's son) look for miracles.
The Koidanov khassidim may not have looked for miracles, but Reb Shloim'ke, the grandson of Reb Shloime Khaim, said in his book Divrei Shalom, that his grandfather talked down an angel. So the question arises, how can you beat an angel? So a miracle like that, it turns out, is actually very strange
but there must be some truth in that since even angels are punished for bothering the Jews.
Reb Shloime Khaim's son was Reb Borukh Mordekhai. The Koidanov khassidim would call Reb Shloime Khaim the Senior (Alter) Rebbe, and Reb Borukh Mordekhai, the Middle Rebbe. The ruling Rebbe in those days as far as I can remember was Reb Areleh. In those years, he was called the Rebbe Shlit'a (may he have long years), meaning he was alive then. As far as I can remember, they would say Reb Areleh, may he live.
Rebbe Areleh had a brother, Reb Shloime'ke who lived in Lida. His book (sefer) mentioned above Divrei Shalom (words of peace) had the accreditation from the great Rebbe of Lida, the one who was revered by the other rabbis, the genius (Hagaon) Reb Mordekhai Meltzer. Reb Shloim'ke, a man of integrity, and was the rabbi in several cities in Volyn. For the teachers who were under Reb Mordekhai Lekhwiczer, the most important thing was praying, but learning Torah was also a great thing. Reb Shloim'ke was a rabbi of many cities. The Koidanov Rebbe, Reb Areleh was a genius in reading. Even the non-khassidic rabbis acknowledged this. The main thing was that he was smart a world scholar.
My goal is not to tell of the miracles that the khassidim would tell of Reb Areleh. As Y.L. Peretz (a Yiddish writer and storyteller) titled one of his stories, Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher (If Not Even Higher), the truth is that the stories I know from the Rebbe are much higher than any supernatural miracle. The Koidanov khassidim used to say that if the Rebbe would not have preformed any miracles, one would know even more so how great he was.
Reb Areleh had to have an operation on, as his khassidim said, a fist (growth) on his cheek. The growth had to be removed by a surgeon. The Rebbe took no anesthesia. For the entire duration of the operation, the Rebbe did not utter a single groan. The surgeon was amazed. This is not a human being; this is an angel! the surgeon cried.
When they told the Rebbe the tragic news that his youngest son, Reb Shloime Khaim, whom he loved the most of all his children, had died. It was actually on a Shabbos.
At that time, the Rebbe was conducting a tisch (a gathering with his khassidim at a table [tisch]), he became angry at the khassid who brought him the news. He said: Nu, nu, it's Shabbos! (One is not permitted to bear bad tidings on Shabbos, nor is one permitted to mourn or show any signs of mourning.) The Rebbe continued to conduct his gathering. The death of his son most likely brought his own death closer, but Shabbos is a day when one is not permitted to be sad. [So he carried on.]
The Koidanov khassidim had their own special Yom Tov (holiday), the 27th day of Shevat. On that day, Reb Areleh was freed from a conspiracy of being handed over to the police, just as the Lubavitcher Reb Shloime (Schneur) Zalman. They said of Reb Areleh that he was a rebel (traitor to the government). It cost the khassidim a lot of many to get the best lawyers. One khassid, by the name of Moishe Kiever, brought in the then famous lawyer Kupernik. But it wasn't necessary. The Rebbe himself, with poise and intelligent responses through an interpreter, made a powerful impression in the judge and jury. After little deliberation, the Rebbe was freed even before the lawyers had the opportunity to speak.
Among the Koidanov khassidim and during Reb Areleh's times, there were some colorful khassidim. There was a tallis (prayer shawl) -maker from Vilna, Reb Mikhel Friedman, as holy as a Kabbalist, who was an expert on all religious philosophy books, and knew the Kuzari [one of most famous works of the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, completed around 1140; presents a dialogue between King Bulan of the Khazars and a rabbi] by heart, along with Khovos Halevovos [Duties of the Heart, the primary work of the Jewish philosopher and rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, who lived in Spain in the first half of the eleventh century]. Aside from that, he also learned the Shaar Hayikhud [Gate of Unity, written by Rebbe Dov Ber, the middle Lubavitch Rebbe, late 1700s], something which the khassidim no longer learned (it was destroyed in Minsk by the Bolsheviks as a book that discussed plots and conspiracies). Reb Meyer Smorganer, the brother of Vernik the editor of the Morgen Zhurnal (newspaper) - Vernik remained a Koidanov khassid - was also a great scholar and Kabbalist. But, he was more of a politician than scholar. Reb Zalman Kiever, a wealthy man, would give much money to the Rebbe. The most interesting khassid was Reb Aron Kasyoiker. This was a Jew who was a genius in all branches of science and philosophy and was nonetheless a fiery Koidanov khassid. He was a type like Dr. Aron Marcus of Hamburg (early 1900s, fervent Zionist who tried to encourage the Orthodox to move to Israel). Reb Areleh would say of him that he extracted the fine from the coarse. This Reb Kasyoiker was a heretic as a young man and that the Rebbe brought him back to a good mindset is a fact. I don't know what happened to this interesting individual.
If Reb Areleh would have this type of khassidim today, one can imagine from which dough these khassidim would have been kneaded. The Rebbe was a small, thin man, with eyes that would see right through to the soul. He had a magnetic capacity to hypnotize his khassidim.
The traditions of Reb Mordekhai were very dear. First, he was very devout in his prayers, which actually penetrated you. He would say Petach Eliyahu (a kabbalistic prayer said primarily by Sefardim) the philosophical piece of the Zohar (the central book of Kabbalah), with an extraordinary sweetness. You, God, are One, but not according to mathematical calculations; You are the reason for all reasons, and the most mysterious of all mystical ways, and with all our thoughts, we can't even begin to comprehend you. Today, the piece of the Zohar, ke'gavnoand how sweet were the words: as the Shabbos arrives (kad ayil shabbato), and the faces are illuminated with a higher light (ve'anpeho nehirin be'zehiru ayil ponai). All the khassidim were illuminated with this type of light when the Rebbe took Shabbos upon himself.
The Rosh Hashanah prayers were another thing entirely. The khassidim would sell their goats to be able to go to the Koidanov Rebbe. Forget about how many of the khassidim came on foot!
On Rosh Hashanah there were several hundred khassidim. The little shul (shteibel) in Koidanov, as far as I remember, was not that big, but people managed and crowded in. khassidim used to say that in the Koidanov shteibel, the same miracle happened as did in the Temple - there was very little space to move, but when the people had to bow down in prayer, there was enough space to prostrate oneself completely.
After maariv (evening prayers) on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Areleh would pass through each row of khassidim and in a quiet voice, he would strongly say a few times: Jews, a happy and sweet year, and a peaceful and long life. And all the khassidim would respond in one voice: To you too!
This resonated incredibly in my young ears, just as soldiers would answer to their commander: Pleased to take orders from you!
The first night of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Areleh would not have his tisch (gathering with his khassidim). There were long tables, there was food, and the khassidim would grab the leftover foods (shirayim) from one another, not from the Rebbe (as is done at all other gatherings of rebbes and their khassidim). This grabbing stays with my in my stomach. In general, I'm not one who grabs anything, and the first time on Rosh Hashanah in Koidanov, I walked away hungry. The organizer of this event found a piece of cold fish and a glass of milk for me. I remembered the holiday foods back home, and my heart constricted. But, I didn't cry. After all, I'm in Koidanov!
The Rebbe prayed mussaf, the afternoon services. It was all tears and pleas, and in the middle of this, the khassidim would burst into song: and we will all come to serve you, God. The Rebbe would sit down, and the khassidim would do a dance (hupka), so in our towns we called the khassidim skokunkes (race horses, gallopers).
Reb Areleh had an incredible influence on his khassidim. There sits a khassid and is crying. He has come to the Rebbe with a heavy heart. He is sick, and weighed down by poverty and other problems. He is crying and cannot eat even one bite. The Rebbe approaches the khassid and says: Eli asked of Khana, 'Why are you crying and why are you not eating?' A problem can be broken either with tears or with food. Why have you chosen the means of crying? Go eat something. The khassid went to eat something and his depression left him.
Rebbe Areleh of Koidanov did not allow any depression near him. He was always joyous and light with his words, even though he had many problems. Generally, Reb Areleh loved a spicy joke, a joke that would burn like fire.
When a Rav asked him why no tachanun (mournful prayer of supplication said regularly except on holidays and festive events) is said when the Rebbe comes, the Rebbe replied because when the Rebbe comes to town, it's like a circumcision with the Rebbe cutting up his khassidim [with his words and presence]. Then it becomes an issue of loss of monies. After that joke, he became serious
and said that according to kabbalistic interpretations, nowadays one doesn't have to recite takhanun at all. Because it is Friday night (figuratively), the end of the 6000 years [according to kabbala, that is the length of the world's intended existence], soon the ultimate Shabbos will be here. We are now in the times of the Messiah (Moshiakh).
Reb Yoisef'ke, his son, told the following joke in his father's name: When [Theodore] Herzl introduced Zionism, Reb Areleh was still alive. Reb Areleh listened to one of Herzl's followers. He sighed and said: Yes, the times of the Messiah have definitely arrived. When a groom is going under the canopy (chuppa), the white doves go ahead of him. If the good-for-nothings run away, it's a sign that they are already taking the groom to the ultimate wedding ceremony (metaphor for the final redemption of the Jews by the Messiah). The groom is on his way, one can already hear the Messiah's steps.
Reb Areleh was very sharp with this humor. Once, a Rav was telling over some dialectics of Torah. The khassidim weren't impressed and didn't want to hear this. So, the Rebbe said: Let him finish. He doesn't want to transgress on the law of 'one is not permitted to hold oneself back [one must go to the bathroom if one feels the urge].
This witty, warm Reb Areleh was one of the greatest khassidic Rebbes. Koidanov khassidus established a new direction. It is a fine blend of Torah and religious practice. Reb Areleh of Koidanov breathed a new spirit of life into Lithuanian khassidus.
by Elahan Henle Kirhan
Translated by Lillian Leavitt
|This poem and song is made for singing Friday nights.
We want the holy Sabbath
This is how our people should rejoice:
Sing this song Shabbes morning with no worries in mind.
The Sabbath day is a splendid bride
Sing this song as the Sabbath departs
The holy Sabbath is a wonderful repose
Dear God, you honor the whole world.
by Avraham Reisen
Translated by Lillian Leavitt
Once upon a time, far back into my childhood, my father, Kalman Reisen, a grain dealer by profession and flax merchant, devoted himself to writing Hebraic songs to quench his spiritual thirst. He was, therefore, known throughout the town, especially among the tradesmen with whom he closely worked binders who tied up the bundles of flax at Motl Singer's, or Mote Dushkes as he was known, using his wife's name. I, however, wonder, and I do remember, as if in a well lit dream, that although Moteh Singer, the great flax merchant was very stern, he was known for his refined, Jewish, personal virtues. All said and done, the binders, about 8 or ten of them, loved him. When these particular men found out that their meal provider was turning 50, they began to plan a party for him. I don't remember the celebration they were planning being called a called a party. I remember only that the main serving for the celebration was ordered from my dear spiritually rich father, the great learned one and the master of the Holy Tongue, in the form of a poem. According to the story the binders told, this poem was talked about for years ..even after my father, Kalman Reisen, may his memory be a blessing, tried to send the brushed and bound up flax to Liebzig by himself, because Moteh Singer had somehow became fixated about paying the right price for it, and since the flax was not the great treasure that my father thought it was and had therefore paid as such for it ..
I wrote about that event many years later in my story Flax, adding some imaginary details. As a Socialist, of course, I took up the cause of the weaker side my father and exaggerated, as you might expect, the capriciousness of the rich merchant, Moteh Singer.
I remember my father's, may he rest in peace, unsuccessful business ventures first, flax, then linseed, then oats, which in the beginning did rise, become more expensive and in my father's further opinion would rise still more to even a ruble a pood (ED: Russian measure of weight). In any case, that's how he interpreted the daily trajectory in the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz and coincidently, it actually rose that high. But my father believed that it would rise even more, until the price of oats it being right before Passover- started to fall, lower and lower, until it fell back to its original price of the previous year. .
I still remember those times when my father used to sigh at night, and in his anquish, not be able to fall asleep. He would eventually get up in the middle of the night and so, as to not wake up the family which was still sleeping, write by the light of the small lamp write poems in Yiddish. In the morning, not well rested but very happy with his creations, he'd read them aloud to Mother and to us older children. Mother would beam at every poem; her critique was very mild. Furthermore, she wanted to soothe the great stress he was going through because of his financial losses in the oats deal, which she also felt terrible about. It was, actually, no small matter. They had simply been trying to eke out a livelihood and ended up losing over 500 rubles an entire dowry for their then already grown, although only 16 year old daughter, Rivke.
Of all the Yiddish poems that he wrote in those sleepless nights around 1886, I, a boy of about 9 or 10, later remembered and do to this day, the poem Hamavdil Ben Kodesh Lkhavel. I remembered those poems even when I got to Kovno. There in Kovno , as a soldier and a musician, I collected Yiddish folksongs. Wanting to do my father a favor, I included among my collected songs, my father's Hamavdil, with his signature, in Russian, alongside the name of the collector. Otherwise it would not have been a folksong, but rather the poem of an individual.
As I recall it, my father, may he rest in peace, was very pleased with that. He saw one of his songs, yes, true that it was in Yiddish, i.e,, jargon, which in his time, being a Hebraist, was no great honor - but nonetheless, published! My father was a wise man, very wise, with very sharp refined sensibilities, but the strong desire to be published was there for him. And he had been published in Hebrew. He had had a great number of poems published which were excellent by any standards.
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