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[Page 71]

On the Verge
of the 20th Century

 

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The Lusky family

First row: Gitl, Meir, Gele
Second row: Our grandmother, Eliezer, unknown
Third row: Leah, Leyb, Miriam
Fourth row: Motl, Yitzkhak, Yosef

 

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On the Verge of the 20th Century

Translated by Judy Montel

On the verge of the twentieth century, the community of Zhetl still shelters under the wings of tradition that shapes the life of the town and focuses its public activity in the study halls.

There were four study halls in Zhetl, all of them built in the area known as “Schulhoif” [synagogue/school courtyard], on the banks of the small stream “Pomreika”, across from the old cemetery and the fire-fighter's tower.

In the old study hall, the important people of the town gathered, the home-owners headed by Rabbi Damta. In the middle study hall – the liberal democracy, that still observes commandments but is progressive in spirit. In the new study hall, the proletariat of Zhetl gathered – those were artisans. Dozens of meters from them the chassidim had their center.

This differentiation was reflected also in the public life of the Zhetl community. From time to time, it suffered crises, which are best called by the traditional term “machloket” [Talmudic disagreements] on the basis of supporting a certain rabbi or doctor and so forth. Then the town divided into two camps, usually in the following way: home-owners on one side and artisans on the other.

On the verge of this century, new currents arrive in Zhetl. “Hibbat Zion,” Zionism and the revolutionary workers movement took hold there. As a result, alongside the study hall, the Zionist prayer group (minyan) appears, that preaches nationalism, and the revolutionary cell that is fighting to change the rules of the government in Russia.

The new forces heighten the social differentiation in the town and gradually move the center of gravity away from the study hall.

However, despite differences of opinion, the Jews of Zhetl find common ground in establishing institutions for charity, mutual aid and culture. A list of institutions such as aiding the ill, “Linat HaTzededk,” charity, burial society, volunteer fire-fighters demonstrate the highly developed public spirit amongst the Jews of Zhetl. Heading these institutions are sextons and committees who arrange for someone to sleep at the home of the ill, for an ice store, for inexpensive medications, for short-term charitable loans and for the means to put out fires.

In addition to the institutions extending aid there are also Torah study groups such as “Chevrat Shas” for those who study Talmud, the “'Ayn Ya'akov” society ('Ayn Ya'akov is a multi-volume collection of the story & legend material from the Talmud) as well as the Psalms society for the simple people.

However, alongside the cultural and social abundance, the economic recession is worrying. Both the public and the individual are fighting for their existence. The community's many requirements (paying the rabbi, the cantor and the ritual slaughterers) are barely covered by the taxes on the sale of yeast and meat.

And the condition of the individual is not much better. Our ancestors, the people of Zhetl, were tradesmen and artisans who depended on farmers for their livelihood. But the farmer's poverty impacted the economic state of the Jew of Zhetl.

Poverty on one hand and persecution by the government on the other, forced the youth of Zhetl to emigrate. Many went to America. A few – moved to the Land of Israel.


[Page 73]

Zhetl Fifty Years Ago

by Moishe Bitan – Bitensky (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Janie Respitz

It was the beginning of this century. I was a ten year old boy, a child from a well off home in Zhetl. This town was as similar as two drops of water to many other small secluded towns in White Russia and Lithuania.

 

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Moishe Bitan – Bitensky

 

Only two or three streets are worthy of being called “streets”; the rest were narrow winding alleys. The length of the town was not more than a few kilometres and the width – half of that. The town was divided in two parts. Except for a few one story brick houses, the rest were wooden small huts with sloping roofs covered with shingles.

At the marketplace which was situated in the middle of the town there was a long row of about a dozen shops selling all sorts of goods – “catchall” goods. The busiest day was Tuesday, market day, when peasant farmers came to town from the surrounding villages. There were no sidewalks at this time in Zhetl and people walked in the middle of the street.

On market days the people mingled together with the wagons, horses and livestock which were brought to sell. Various scents flew through the air. It was a mixture of city and village, field and store. In the evening as the famers prepared to return home, it was dangerous to be out on the street due to their drunkenness which filled the streets with shouts and wild songs. This is what Zhetl looked like on a market day.

On all other days the streets were empty, there was not a lot of revenue to be had and the shops would open only out of habit.

We would travel 12 kilometres to the train station in Novoliyenie on a sandy road with Jewish wagon drivers who earned their living on this route. These were simple Jews who tried to entertain their passengers with a joke, witticism or a nice story on this difficult journey. The peasants would transport freight to the trains.

 

Houses of Prayer and Study in Zhetl (Bes Medresh)

The spiritual life in Zhetl was concentrated around the synagogue courtyard where three Houses of Study stood beside each other: the “old”, “middle” and “new”.

The first two Houses of Study were in the same building and only a wide long corridor separated the two.

The largest was the old House of Study. This is where the elite came to pray, the wealthy Jews led by the rabbi. They occupied the seats along the entire eastern wall and the remaining spots until the Bimah (platform where services were conducted), which was in the middle of the room. Anyone who did not have a regular seat would pray behind the Bimah along the western wall and near the exit door as well as the less honourable householders whose social position in town was not distinguished.

The “middle” House of Study was smaller. This is where the middle –class came to pray. They were more equal without class differentiation and everyone had his regular place. Those who prayed there were considered to be the democratic, liberal intellectuals of our town. This was also, by the way, the Zionist House of Study as the leaders of the Zionist organization prayed there: Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky of blessed memory and Reb Aron Hersh Langbart, of blessed memory.

On Shabbes Nakhamu, which was considered the Zionist Sabbath, and on all the holidays they would give passionate sermons on Zionist themes after the reading of the Torah.

Mainly artisans prayed in the third House of Study – the “new” one. Their head Gabbai (manager of the synagogue) was Yosl the house painter. They had their own Talmud society, Mishnah society and psalm society.

The Hasidic house of prayer was not far from the synagogue courtyard. The Slonim and Kaidenov Hasidim prayed there. They were few in numbers and their influence in town was not significant. Although their customs and clothing were strange to us, we all respected them, especially us kids. Their enthusiasm, song and dance left an unforgettable impression. When their Rebbe would come, or on Simkhas Torah, their house of study would be filled with Misnagdim (non- Hasidim), particularly children.

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I would like to mention that the butchers in Zhetl, most of which were from the same family, were all Hasidim. Normally, Hasidim everywhere were simple, ignorant folk, but it was different in Zhetl. The Hasidim in Zhetl were for the most part learned capable men. I cannot explain this phenomenon but it is necessary to explore this matter.

 

Rabbis, Scholars and Teachers

Outwardly, topographically and architecturally, Zhetl was similar to other towns in White Russia, however culturally and socially she stood above the rest.

The rabbis of Zhetl, dating back to the Gaon of Vilna were known as great scholars and intellectuals. Fifty years ago, the chief rabbi of Zhetl was the genius and great scholar Reb Borukh Mirsky, of blessed memory. He was a supporter of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) and later a Zionist and had a great and positive influence on the Jewish community of Zhetl, particularly the founding of the Zionist association in Zhetl.

There were scholars among the business owners in Zhetl. Some of them became rabbis in towns near and far, after their business went under. Some became teachers in Zhetl and in other towns.

There are a few I would like to mention by name. First of all I would like to mention the great personality Reb Nosn Notteh HaKohen Zaytchik, of blessed memory. Very few of us remember him. I remember him from my youth. He was already an old man. He was extremely capable, studied with the Talmud society and was meticulous and devout.

Some years ago, in a small religious book store in Tel Aviv which sells old, rare books, I found an important book “Khadoshei Torah”, written by Rabbi Nosn Notteh Zaytchik, which his son, a rabbi in America published. I bought the book and brought it home with great joy. It serves as a memorial to a generation and period in our beloved Zhetl which was and will never return.

Among the greatest scholars from Zhetl was the genius Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch, of blessed memory, the son in law of Avrom Shloimeh Zhikavchin. As a child he was recognized as a prodigy from among the best boys at the Volozhin Yeshiva. He particularly excelled with his character. He lived in Zhetl for many years, and when his family grew and he had grown sons and daughters he moved to Zholudok and became the rabbi there. Before the First World War he was, with great honour, hired as the chief rabbi of Moscow. Being enlightened and talented, he held a distinguished position as an artist in Moscow.

From among other great scholars I remember Reb Khaim Reznikovsky, of blessed memory, Reb Avrom Leyb Iliovitch, of blessed memory, (I had the privilege to study with both) and Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky, of blessed memory, the leader of the Zionist Association in Zhetl, who moved to Eretz Yisrael with the third Aliyah and passed away in Israel in 1930.

It is worthwhile to mention, scholars from Zhetl stood above the teachers from other towns with their knowledge and their status in society. In my youth, when I read about religious teachers in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, who dominated their students with a whip, I could never compare them to the teachers who taught me in Zhetl. Our teachers were kind hearted and capable. They educated the children with love and understanding and we truly loved them. I remember them until today: Reb Avrom Veynshteyn, of blessed memory, (Avreyml Etes), Yekhezkl Slonimer, of blessed memory and many others whose names I do not recall.

Without exaggerating, I can say, every second Jew in Zhetl was educated in Torah, a member of the Talmud society, or at least the Mishnah society.

In those years we did not have a large Yeshiva in Zhetl, therefore many boys from Zhetl studied away from home and wherever they were, excelled as prodigies.

 

Zionists and the Zionist Association in Zhetl

I have already mentioned how Jews of Zhetl excelled in community liveliness. I want to take this opportunity to recall a few facts.

All Zionist and revolutionary parties existed in Zhetl in those years, beginning with the Zionist Association and ending with S.R.T (Socialist and Revolutionary Terrorists). There were many families where each child belonged to a different party. The fathers belonged to the Zionist Association, business owners and artisans. I already mentioned Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky and Reb Aron Hersh Langbart.

I also want to mention Reb Zalmen Dunyetz (Zhame Patchrer's son, Eliyahu, who was known in Zhetl as an activist) who excelled with a lot of passion and devotion to Zionist thought and to Zionist

[Page 75]

practical work. In my life, I never met a Jew who served the Zionist movement with such devotion and love like Reb Zalmen Dunyetz. He is etched in my memory and I feel a lot of love and respect toward him. Still in the diaspora he understood the secret of Zionist accomplishments. I think he accomplished Zionist goals in every hour of his life. In his old age, Reb Zalmen Dunyetz left his family and moved to the Land of Israel where he passed away. Unfortunately I do not have any information about the last period of his life in the Land of Israel.

The Zionist Association in those years was considered part of Mizrachi although not all its members belonged to Mizrachi. However they were all religious. Its main activities took place in the House of Study. On holidays the Zionist Association had its own quorum for prayers in a side room of the “middle” House of Study or in a room in the Talmud Torah. After prayers they would deliver sermons on daily issues and Zionism. The Association would also organize parties with a bit of whisky, and if a bottle of Carmel wine happened to drop by, they were thrilled with the scent and taste of the Land of Israel and the celebration was even greater.

The Zionist Association supported the Heder Metukan, (modernized religious school) which the teacher Reb Leyzer Mates opened in Zhetl. I went to that school right after I finished my course with my first teacher, Reb Notteh, of blessed memory. I doubt if it was really a modern school because they did not teach Hebrew in Hebrew.

 

Revolutionaries

As already stated, our fathers belong to the Zionist Association and the children – to socialist revolutionary parties: the Bund, S. R. left (terrorists) and the right (populist). The parties in Zhetl were well organized and mutually battled each other. Their activities were illegal and their meetings took place in the surrounding forests.

From among the Zhetl revolutionaries I remember Yitzkhak Rabinovitch (Feivl from Skidl's son), an enlightened young man who was sentenced to death for revolutionary activities in St. Petersburg.

Many revolutionaries from Zhetl were sent to forced labour and many ran away to America, after the Czarist gendarmes mercilessly chased them. I believe the membership of Zhetl youth in the revolutionary movement and the difficult material situation were the main reasons that caused the mass immigration of people from Zhetl to North America.

 

My Last Visit

In 1936, before I immigrated to the Land of Israel I visited Zhetl after many years in order to say goodbye to my younger sister Pesia, her six children and my extended family. I was very happy to see Zhetl had developed and progressed in many areas, externally rebuilt and hard to recognize. Socially and culturally the town pulsated: schools as well as Zionist youth groups, educated and organized in parties.

Who could have imagined, six years later, the Zhetl Jewish community would be annihilated, and only remnants of survivors in Israel would carry in their hearts the holy memory of their town: Zhetl.


Fifty Years Ago

Moshe Bitan

Translated by Judy Montel

The Zionist Association included some of the home-owners and artisans, the fathers. The heads of the Association were: Reb Menachem Vernikovski and Reb Heschel Langbort. I want to mention here another community activist, who I remember particularly for his Zionist fervor and his boundless dedication to Zionist activities and ideas, who is none other than Reb Zalmen Dunetz (Zchameh Patshter) of blessed memory. I never again met a Jew with such great enthusiasm and love of Zion as Reb Zalmen Dunetz. I had great admiration for this elevated man in my childhood. In my imagination I saw in him the best of Zionism. He is engraved in my memory with feelings of love and esteem for him. He knew the secret of Zionist fulfillment while he was still in the Diaspora. It was as if he was fulfilling Zionism all of his life. In his old age, he left his family and moved to the Land of Israel alone and solitary, and here he died.

The Zionist Association in Zhetl in those days was considered a “Mizrachi” Association, even if not everyone was stamped with the official seal of that organization, but all of the members of the Association were observant Jews. The activities of the Association were concentrated between the walls of the study hall. On holidays, they had a separate “minyan” (prayer group) in a side room of the middle study hall or in one of the rooms of the “Talmud Torah” school. After the prayers, the heads of the Association would speak about current affairs. They held nice parties at which they sang Zionist songs. If by chance a bottle of Carmel wine from the Land of Israel came into their hands, it made for a merry time, as they became intoxicated with the aroma and taste of the Land of Israel.


[Page 76]

I Left Zhetl in 1900

by Yitzkhak Gvori (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Janie Respitz

I, Itzke Avrom Yakov, the teacher's son, was born in Zhetyl in 1886. When I was 14 I moved to Vilna.

 

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Yitzkhak Gvori

 

My mother's name was Esther Rokhl. She was called “Bobbe” (Grandma) and was the midwife in Zhetl. I believe many of my townspeople who read these lines were held by my mother when they were born. I can only describe events that occurred until 1900, because that year, after Pesach, I left for Vilna.

 

Disputes Between Artisans and Business Owners

One year, those who prayed in the new House of Study, the artisans, revolted. What did they want? They also wanted to study a chapter of the Mishna every morning after prayers. They found a young man, a student in the Yeshiva, to study with them. He had to be paid; this is where the whole story begins.

The artisans from the middle (Translator's note: they probably meant new) House of Study wanted the town treasury to pay. The wealthy Jews from the old and middle Houses of Study claimed anyone who wanted to study should pay for it himself. This is how two sides were formed. One side was called the “the Rabbi's side” and the second was called “the artisans”. Both sides threw pitch and sulfur at each other. But the main battle was lead by the artisans and they, in addition, did not spare the rabbi, Reb Borukh Avrom.

 

The Artisans Bring a Second Doctor

In the meantime they realized Dr. Hirshkop, the only Jewish doctor was siding with the rabbi. Now the burden of the struggle was carried by the doctor.

The Artisans claimed Dr. Hirshkop was not really a doctor, but a lessee, a shoemaker who does not understand any illnesses and won't visit a poor patient. In short, a second doctor was needed.

They actually brought a second doctor from Vilna. His name was Rom and the battle intensified. The artisans agitated for the new doctor and claimed he understood better than Dr. Hirshkop.

They would attack Dr. Hirshkop in the middle of the street with insults to the extent that he was afraid to leave his house.

 

A Fire, Epidemic and Collapse

At the height of this battle a fire was ignited in the roof of the old House of Study. At the time we did not live far from the House of Study, the second house from the fire station, behind Gershon with the saw and Yosele Mendes. One of our walls bordered the old cemetery. When we saw the House of Study burning in the middle of the night, we assumed the artisans started it. The Rabbi declared a ban on the arsonist.

Meanwhile, an epidemic of dysentery began in town. There was practically not a single house untouched. Three children git sick in our home, me, an older sister and my little 4 year old sister. The little one actually died of dysentery.

They brought doctors from Lida and Dr. Hirshkop ran with them from house to house. Once again the artisans blamed the rabbi: they said it was due to the ban he instilled.

Once in the middle of the night we heard a bang, as if a bomb fell. My father ran outside and saw the roof of the old House of Study collapsed. They explained the old wooden beams had deteriorated from rain which poured on them. Thank God this happened in the middle of the night and no one was harmed. They immediately installed new beams and supported them with iron posts.

 

The Tragedy in the Women's Synagogue

Another thing happened during those years. Rabbi Diskin of blessed memory died and it was decided in Zhetl to offer a eulogy. Our rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom was a weak man and could not deliver the eulogy so they asked a preacher to do it. When this preacher came to Zhetl to preach he would fill the old House of Study.

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This was the 7th day of the month of Shevat (Late January - early February). When the artisans heard who would be delivering the eulogy, they put down their work. Storekeepers closed their shops, women in the market extinguished their braziers and everyone went to hear the eulogy. There was such a large crowd, the floor of the women's synagogue could not bear pressure and collapsed in the middle of the eulogy.

It was dark in the House of Study and when people heard the noise of the breaking boards they did not know what was happening. There was a double floor in the women's synagogue. The under layer broke and the upper layer remained intact. Someone turned on the light to see what was going on. The dust which rose due to the breakage of the floor looked like smoke. Someone shouted:

“It's burning!”

Nu, nothing else was needed. Thus began a stampede with everyone pushing. The men left through the windows and the women ran down the stairs. However they could not open the door - this is where the tragedy occurred.

They heard the women screaming: save us! The men ran to the door of the women's synagogue which exited toward the river. The door was bolted shut and could not be opened. They put up a ladder and went in through the window.

The women pushed one another. The men began to drag them from the steps. They found many who had fainted and had scratched faces and torn out hair. The main thing was: 12 women were dead. I remember two of them: one was the wife of Moishe Aron the stagecoach driver, Dvoyre, and the second was Yisroel Dvashke's daughter.

The funerals took place the following day. They brought all 12 women to the synagogue courtyard, eulogized them and buried them in one grave.

 

The Jews I Remember

From the rabbis I remember the rabbi I mentioned earlier, Reb Borukh Avrom. I remember Notteh Herzl's who was an angry Jew, who taught everyone in the morning after prayers at a table full of Jews in the middle House of Study. He would shout and swear. I remember: Reb Shmuel Avrom Shloime's, who later became a rabbi in Moscow, Reb Shmuel Khaim who later became a rabbi in Deretchin, Reb Idl Gabai from the old House of Study, a pious and quiet man, Reb Moishe Ayzhe, head of the Yeshiva and Talmud Torah. When he left for the Land of Israel his place was taken by Yisroel Avrom. I also remember Reb Yonah. He was replaced by Avrom Leyb Meylekh, the teacher from the Talmud Torah. In those years my father was also a teacher in the Talmud Torah. I remember Hinda Miriam's Velvl, the old bachelor Hinda Miriam's Mitzl, and the aristocratic Hinda Miriam, Hendl the pharmacist, Dovid the beer maker, Moishe Leyb the carpenter and his son Yosele Mendes, my first teacher.

 

Fires

I remember the fire of 1893, three days before Pesach. It began in Hinda Miriam's attic. People said Mitzl forgot to extinguish the samovar. Hinda Miriam's house burned together with Malke Motkes' store, Notteh Herzl's brick exterior wall and Dr. Hirshkop's home. The fire later reached Berke the tanner's stalls.

I remember another fire two years later. In the middle of Pesach a fire broke out on Novoredek Street, the area where Yisroel Dvoshke and Ayzhik lived. The fire broke out at the tall Khaim Itche's. It was night and no one knew how it got to Mateh the doctor's home. A burning wall collapsed and he was burned.

I remember another episode. It was a Tuesday, market day. A few gentiles went wild, led by Kanaval (that's what they called him), and they began to beat up Jews. One of the Jews they beat up was called Kheme the butcher. He walked around with his head bandaged for a long time after. The regional police superintendent came to help the Jews who were being beaten but the peasants wanted to beat him as well. He ran to Berek the tanner's stalls and hid on the roof. Afterwards the attackers were brought to trial.

 

A Story About Zhetl's Scribes

One more thing I remember. There were scribes in Zhetl who would write Torah scrolls, and Mezuzahs and send them to America. The American clients found out they were deceived with printed Mezuzahs, not handwritten and they threatened they would no longer purchase these items from Zhetl. The rabbi got involved and promised he would make sure this would not happen again.

The rabbi tried to make the scribes more pious. He hired a religious teacher to come every evening to Avrom Yakov the scribe at Moteh Velvl's house to study with them. One time, in the dark vestibule, they placed a piece of wood under the teacher's feet and he fell. Then they threw a bag over his head and beat him up. They did not study again after that.


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My Memories of Zhetl

by Avrom Shepetnitsky (Kfar Hasidim)

Translated by Janie Respitz

It is difficult to establish when Jews settled in Zhetl. Especially because the record book was burnt in one of the fires. However it is known that in our town there were old Jewish and Christian settlements. We have witnesses who said the old military barracks and their building materials, long and wide bricks of 20X50 centimetres, and the palace which burned down in 1908 and was renovated by the Russians, are witnesses to the old settlement.

Our parents used to say that Jewish settlement in Zhetl goes back 400 years. Also both Jewish cemeteries, the old and the new are witnesses of an old Jewish settlement. I remember in 1906–07 I read on a woman's tombstone that she died in 1528. The fact is only one tombstone was legible. The others were sunken and a sign that the settlement was very old. In my work about rabbis from Zhetl I let it be known that in the book “Kneset Yekhezkl” written by Rabbi Yekhezkl Katenelnboygn from Hamburg, there is a religious question posed by an abandoned woman from Zhetl 250 years ago.

 

I Am Saved From the Flood

Zhetl sits on two rivers: the Pomerayke and the Zhetlke. In a divorce decree the rabbis of Zhetl would write: Here in Zhetl on the Pomerayke River.

Zhetl suffered greatly from the flooding of the Pomerayke, which runs through the middle of the town, near the Houses of Study. I remember from the years 1902 –1912 Zhetl suffered three floods.

In 1912 on a rainy day I was sitting in the middle House of Study learning with the rabbi Reb Zvi Khurgin, of blessed memory. Suddenly we were sprayed with water which poured into the House of Study from the Pomerayke. Together with the head of the Yeshiva we climbed a ladder to the women's section. After an hour the water reached the height of the windows and we sat in the women's section from 11 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon when the water receded and we were out of danger.

 

Village Jews

I read in a Russian journal that at the beginning of this century there were 4000 residents in Zhetl, 75% Jews. However besides this, many Jews lived in the villages around Zhetl: in Kurfish, Yavar, Fintshitch, Novin, Haleli, Shilevanke, Girnik, Volayniki, Petruki, Sirplevitch, Khvinovitch, Potzavcizne, Nakrishki, Ramonovitch, Strele, Alexandrovitch, Zhibertayshchine, Khadzhelan and Gnayinsk. There were villages where a few Jewish families lived and they even had enough Jews for a Minyan. (A quorum of 10 Jews for prayer). This was the case in Nakrishak, Rahatna and Sirataychine. There were great scholars among these village Jews like, Reb Arye from Karol, Reb Leyb from Khabad, Reb Yisroel from Hantsh (Kaplinsky), Reb Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky from Dubrike, Reb Zalmen from Repetshch, Reb Eliezer from Sirataychine, Reb Berish from Zhizhayk, and many others.

Jews in the villages would lease fields, mills and also did business in trade and ran taverns. Their material situation was satisfactory but at the beginning of this century anti Semitism in the villages increased and the village Jews began to move to Zhetl.

Zhetl was a poor town. There were no factories in Zhetl and the majority of the Jews lived off small business and trade. When the village Jews moved to Zhetl they opened small shops and earning a living became difficult.

 

A Story About Kopeks and 800 Ruble

Witnesses can attest to the fact that in Zhetl money (groshn) was printed for poor people, who would go from house to house. There was a Jew who would print the money and sell them to the wealthier men, five groshn for one kopek. Given that outside of Zhetl there were no customers for these groshn, this same man would buy them back from the poor at six for one kopek, making a profit.

Disregarding their difficult situation, the Jews of Zhetl were decent and respectable. The fact I will now recount will serve as an example. One of the wandering paupers hid 800 ruble between logs of wood in the anteroom of the synagogue. Sunday, when the beadle Reb Moti Nokhem, a very poor man, took some wood to heat the room, he found the money. Reb Moti Nokhem immediately returned the money to the pauper and did not request a reward for his honesty.

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Zhetl's Ruskies

As in every generation, every town in our region had a nickname for its residents. For example, people from Dvaretz were called intestines, people from Deretch were called bad guys – from Lida, thieves, from Mayschet – sour milk, Novorodek – chicken eaters, from Slonim – fools, from Kazlaytch – goats; Jews from Zhetl were called Katzapes (a nickname for Russians “Ruskies”) as people from Zhetl excelled in bravery.

 

Karabke – Community Tax on Kosher Meat

Institutions in Zhetl were supported by indirect taxes or Karabke money. Two food items were taxed: meat and yeast. The meat tax was leased from the Russian government for a fee and collected for every Kosher slaughtered animal. This meat tax would pay for the rabbi, the ritual slaughterers and the cantor. The second tax on yeast would be leased from the Jewish community. These tax revenues would pay for the doctor. The yeast tax was also paid by Christians as the yeast business was run by Jews and there was nowhere else to buy yeast.

When the Jews of Zhetl had to be called to a meeting, the beadle Reb Nokhem Shloime, with his white beard would go through the streets with his sweet voice and called out:

Jews, Jews, come to the synagogue! He would repeat this many times until all of Zhetl would gather together.

The rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Halevy who was rabbi in Zhetl 100 years ago praises the Jews of Zhetl in his book “Emek Halacha” as scholars who supported him honourably. The rabbi Reb Zalmen Saratzky, in his book “Hadeah Ve HaDibur” part 2, mourns the Zhetl Jewish community which was rich with scribes and scholars.

Three Zhetl Jews, Reb Yehuda Idl Lusky of blessed memory, a great scholar who would blow the shofar in the old House of Study, Reb Dov Ber Zhizhayker and Reb Yisroel Dvashkes all immigrated to the Land of Israel at the beginning of this century.

Zhetl excelled with its scholars. Even the artisans had their own Talmud society and studied a page together every day. Besides the Talmud society there was also the Mishna society, Ein Yakov society and others.

An old shoemaker lived in Zhetl who was called the “children–maker” since he made shoes for children. Every day between afternoon and evening prayers he would go to the old House of Study and read Ein Yakov (a book of legends and parables not as difficult as Talmud).

Zhetl also had three Psalm societies. Every day and particularly Sabbath mornings they would come and recite psalms collectively. When a member of the society would die, his fellow members would come to his house and recite psalms until the funeral and after, during the thirty days of mourning they would gather three times a day to pray together.

 

Customs

It is necessary to note a few customs specific to Zhetl. For example, in all the towns around Zhetl they would forbid questioning a piece of evidence. In Zhetl, this would be permitted. However, in Zhetl they forbid ducks and geese with black beaks.

There was a custom in Zhetl that children did not attend their father's funeral. Before removing the corpse from his house, it would be announced by the manager of the Burial Society. After the burial a member of the Burial Society would ask forgiveness from the deceased and announce that he is freed from all societies.

 

The Zhetl Talmud Torah

In the early years of this century there were no schools in Zhetl. Children would learn religious studies with a Melamed (religious teacher). Russian and a bit of arithmetic would be taught by a tutor.

At the beginning of 1909 the Talmud Torah was founded in Zhetl where they would learn 8 hours a day, before and after lunch, Tanach (Bible), Gemara (commentary on the Bible) Hebrew, Russian, arithmetic and general subjects. The first directors and founders of the Talmud Torah were: Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky, Reb Zev Wolf Dvoretsky, Yisroel Moishe Ivenitsky, and Reb Yudl Podveliker. At the end of the semester the directors would examine the students and those who excelled received gifts.

 

The Zhetl Fire Station

Due to the large number of fires a good fire department was organized in Zhetl. Every firefighter had his assignment. The trumpeters would sound the “alarm” about the fire, others ran the pumps, and others ensured the fire would remain localized. Besides this there were horse riders. The first to arrive at the station would receive a prize of one ruble.

For a long time the chief of the fire station was the tax collector Yakovlev. He was a gentle person, a good friend of the Jews and really loved the town. He provided the fire fighters with brass helmets and would put a lot of his own money into the station. When he caught a Jew selling whisky, which was strictly forbidden at that time, he would punish him for the good of the station and cancel the protocol.

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Zhetl's Revolutionaries

Once, on a Tuesday, the Zhetl revolutionaries organized an attack on the tax collector's whisky business and confiscated about five thousand ruble. The same group organized in Novoliyenie an expropriation of the postal train which ran from Rovne to Vilna. This was not successful and a few of the revolutionaries were sent into exile.

I remember at a funeral of a revolutionary, his comrades carried red flags with revolutionary banners and at the same time forced the regional police superintendent and the gendarmes to keep order.

 

How Zhetl Was Saved From Anti – Semitism

At the time first Poles took over Zhetl, General Dombrovsky's soldiers wanted to go through the town. We knew these soldiers had carried out pogroms on the Jewish populations of Pinsk and Lida and we were afraid they would live it up in Zhetl.

Our rabbi Reb Zalmen Saratzky together with some of the wealthier men in town went to the Polish officer and in return for a nice bribe he promised to protect the town from anti Semitic soldiers. He did it the following way: he placed members of his entourage in a nearby forest and at night they shot rockets. The anti Semitic soldiers thought the rockets were being shot by Russians and they ran and took refuge in nearby villages. We later learned that they went wild in the villages and murdered a few peasants.

 

The Miracle of Reb Eli Delatitsher

In conclusion I want to recount a story I heard from Reb Zalmen Saratsky in the name of Reb Yisroel Ber the Zhetl gravedigger.

One day a woman from Vasilishok came to Yisroel Ber the gravedigger and told him her daughter ran off with a non – Jew. As soon as this occurred the unhappy mother went to Slonim to Reb Mordkhele, of blessed memory, to ask his advice. Reb Mordkhele advised her to go to Zhetl and pray at the grave of Reb Eli Delatitsher. While there, she should take two bricks. On one brick she should write the names of her daughter and husband, and on the second brick she should write the names of the non –Jewish boy and his father. When this is done, she must hide the bricks in the earth near the grave of Reb Eli Delatitsher.

Yisroel Ber the gravedigger helped the woman find the grave of Reb Eli Delatitsher and helped her hide the bricks as Reb Morkhele told her to do.

A few weeks later the woman returned and said her daughter left her non –Jewish man and returned home. However she can't find tranquility, does not sleep at night and suffers from terrible dreams. Once again she went to Reb Mordkhele in Slonim and he asked if she had taken anything from the grave. The woman admitted she took a small bag of earth from Reb Eli Delatitsher's grave, and kept it as a remedy.

Reb Mordkhele once again ordered her to return to Zhetl and return the bit of earth she took from the grave. The woman did as she was told and never returned to Zhetl, a sign that Reb Mordkhele's advice was helpful.


The Excellent City

by Rabbi Yitzkhak Veynshteyn (Jerusalem)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Zhetl was not your average town. It distinguished itself from all other towns with its specific character and dynamic. In Zhetl, there were individuals who were rarities in scholarship, business and the revolutionary domain.

You did not find dull types in Zhetl. Everything was dynamic. Established businessmen were great Torah scholars, really geniuses, who later held great rabbinic positions in the world, like the rabbi of Moscow Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Gnitzaysk rabbi, Reb Shmuel Khaim Reznikovsky and the Meml rabbi Reb Meir Yoselevitch. While in Zhetl, they were all businessmen.

In the Yeshivas, people from Zhetl excelled in talent and scholarship as well as community work. People from Zhetl were involved in a variety of activities, not to mention in the revolutionary domain. People said that Moscow and Zhetl were the two main centres of the revolution in Russia.

 

My Parents

I want to recall a few people from my childhood, first and foremost, my parents.

My parents were righteous in every sense of the word. My father, of blessed memory, Avrom Etes, was a Gemara teacher. My mother's name was Ette. She was a

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merchant, dealt with linens and helped support the family.

My father was similar to Khefetz Khaim. He excelled in guarding his tongue. On the Sabbath he said nothing except words from the Torah. In the House of study he would not utter a word. If he had to say something, he would go out into the corridor. Even at home and in the street, he spoke very little in order not to disparage Torah learning. He would never approach a group of people in the event they were speaking ill of someone.

He particularly stood out in charity and justice. He himself did not earn a lot, however he was always collecting. On Fridays, after he finished teaching his students, he would go through the town collecting donations.

Guests were always welcome in his home. There were often 3–4, even 5 guests. They would sleep on both couches, on the table, and when necessary the cupboard door would be removed and someone would sleep on it.

The boys studied all year in Yeshiva. One Friday I returned from the Mir Yeshiva and my father was not at home. I saw a man come in with a parcel under his arm. I realized he was coming from the public bath. He asked my mother, may she rest in peace, for a cup of tea. She told him she would bring it shortly. The man got angry and shouted that when a man returns from the bathhouse he must have a cup of tea. I looked at this man with amazement. That is when my father arrived. He asked the man why he was angry and after he told him my father looked at my mother and said in these words: “Ette, he's right!”

 

Reb Kaddish

A second episode. There was a certain Reb Kaddish in Zhetl, a great scholar, and a preacher who knew many languages. He was the teacher in the new House of Study for a long time. In his old age, after numerous family problems, he became nervous and imagined Zhaludke the pharmacist's two old sons and spinster daughter had a certain machine that gave him a toothache. He would make noises and curse the wicked and the murderers.

When things got worse, he would surround himself with boys who would recite an incantation and make him feel better. When he stood for the 18 benedictions he would simply wave his hand and we would all, as if in a choir recite the incantation with a melody.

He slept in the House of Study because he had no family. In his later years he was afraid to be in the House of Study so my parents took him in to our home. I would hear him scream in the middle of the night. My father would get out of bed, go to Reb Kaddish, recite the incantation and calm him down.

 

Reb Avrom Yitzkhak Labensky of Blessed Memory

There is no shortage of jokes about Reb Avrom Yitzkhak Labensky. He was a merchant with a very clever, prodigious mind. His expressions and jokes were popular.

Reb Notte Herzl's, may he rest in peace, was also a great Torah scholar, an author of a book, and the same age as Labensky. When these two would argue in the middle of the House of Study after prayers, sparks flew and the walls shook from their voices. When Reb Avrom Yitzkhak Labensky had an adversary he would shout that he is stupid. Someone asked him: “What's bothering you?” “Only I'm bothered, not him. A stupid person is like bad breath. It doesn't bother the proprietor, only those around him. The Master of the Universe should have created man with a defect and given one the choice to choose. He surely chose bad breath as others suffer from it.”

Reb Avrom had a business partner, Shpiglgloz from Grodno. During a conflict with him he offered two commentaries:

Whoever wants to lose money should hire workers and not supervise them, but if he wants to lose his heart, he should sit with them.

The second: he should use glass vessels, simple glass, but when he wants to ruin his heart he should use “Shpiglgloz” (mirror glass). (Translator's note: a play on words with the man's name).

When Reb Avrom Yitzkhak Labensky died Avryml the painter, who was the beadle of the new House of Study, was, as an artisan his opponent, but he went to his funeral. People asked him:

“Reb Avrom, you're going to Labensky's funeral?”

He replied: “I don't believe he died. I must see them bury him”.

 

They Are Obviously From Zhetl

In the year 5701 (1940) when I arrived in the Land of Israel I visited Kfar Saba. There I met a Jew from a village near Novogrudek. When he heard I was from Zhetl he told me that when wagon drivers and peddlers came from Zhetl he would serve them himself. He would not serve other wagon drivers. When my wife asked: “why do you serve the ones from Zhetl?” I replied: “After all, they are from Zhetl”.


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Navahredok Kollel[1] in Zhetl

Translated by Judy Montel

A part of the activities of Rabbi Yoseph Yozel Horowitz to found Yeshivas and Kollels for married students in Lithuania and in White Russia and to have them learn in the Mussar method of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, he opened a Yeshiva in Zhetl as well. Supporting him, in the founding of this Yeshiva, was the owner of a large estate near Zhetl, Reb Gershon Zoshiner, who had met him once when they travelled together by train. At Reb Yoseph Yozel's request, Reb Gershon Zoshiner built him an isolated house in his forest, so that he could learn in isolation.

The money to build the house was donated by the philanthropist Lachman of Berlin, who had been very influenced by Reb Yisrael Salanter while Reb Gershon Zoshiner took on the commitment of supplying Reb Yoseph Yozel's board.

For a very long time, nine years of asceticism, Reb Yozel lived in the forest and Reb Gershon's son in law, Reb Leib Wolf, would take books out to him in the isolated house and Reb Yoseph Yozel did not cease from memorizing and repeating his Talmudic studies and he became more and more learned from year to year.

Many great deeds and charities are told about that period in which Reb Yoseph Yozel lived in the forest. At the end of nine years, Reb Yozel was aroused to bring credit to many, and together with a group of students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, he began to found Kollels for excellent “avrechim”, so they could learn in group and would ascend the levels of Torah and instruction. These Kollels were founded by him in Navahredok, Zhetl, Lubtsh, Shavli, Dvinsk and Lida. In each place over 10 avrechim studied who were great in Torah. They received food from a special kitchen that was established there and in addition they received 6 rubles a month in order to support their families who were usually in a different village. Reb Yoseph Yozel did not sit in a Kollel for more than a month at a time, but went from one Kollel to the next, and thus he did throughout the entire year. In the month of Elul (prior to the high holidays), all of the Kollels would gather in one place. Thus, for example, once this conference took place in Zhetl, and another time in Slonim. In the middle of the year Rabbi Yoseph Yozel would bring guests, from among the best students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. In particular, he often invited Reb Yitzchak Blazer of Kovno, to influence the avrechim in the Kollels in the spirit of Mussar teachings.

In Elul, 5656 (1896), all of the avreichim of the Kollels gathered in the town of Zhetl, altogether 50 avreichim, and the great Rabbi Reb Yitzchak Blazer spoke words of motivation to them daily in the afternoon between the time for Mincha (the afternoon prayer) and Ma'ariv (the evening prayer), besides the classes he gave for small groups. After the holiday of Sukkot the members of the Kollels went back to their permanent places.

Around the same time, Rabbi Yoseph Yozel founded a central Yeshiva for young men according to his Mussar method in Navahredok which is near Zhetl, that over time had hundreds of young men. Thanks to this central Yeshiva, the Mussar Yeshivas of Reb Yozel were called “Navahredok Yeshivas.”

There was a time that because of the upheavals, most of the students at the Navahredok Yeshiva were transferred to Zhetl. It was after the death of Rabbi Yechiel Michl Epstein, author of “Aruch HaShulchan” (5668) [ca. 1908], when the Ga'on Avraham Aharon the Kohen Borshtein, the head of the rabbinical court of Tobrig (father of Re'uven Bareket from the central committee of the Histadrut[2]) was appointed to be a rabbi there. The man from Tobrig was among those who opposed the Mussar method and Reb Yosph Yozel feared for his Yeshiva in Navahredok. He decided to move the main branch of the Navahredok Yeshiva to Zhetl. And so he did. He gathered all the homeowners of Zhetl and told them about his plan. They paid off the debts of the Yeshiva and even committed to cover its expenses in the future. In 5669 (1909, about two-thirds of the Navahredok students were moved to Zhetl and only the oldest ones of the group, for whom there was no worry that they would be swallowed up in the disagreement in the town, stayed in Navahredok. Six months later the disagreements died down and the young men of Navahredok in the Zhetl Yeshiva returned to their original Yeshiva which carried on as it had in the past.

It must be noted that among the first young men to found the Navahredok Yeshiva was Reb Chaim Zelig of Zhetl(son in law of Rabbi Karlitz). With the increased enrollment of the Navahredok Yeshiva and Reb Yoseph Yozel's dedication to this central Yeshiva, the Kollel in Zhetl had fewer and fewer students and close to the outbreak of the First World War and it shut down.

(According to the book “Torah Institutions in Europe in their Building and Destruction,” New York, 1957. Article written by Y.L. Nekritz)

 

Zhetl, Grodno District 29 January 1909

Last Friday our town received about seventy students from the Kollel of Navahredok, which is under the supervision of the great Rabbi, Reb Yoseph Yozel Horowitz shilt”a. The reason for this is that in Navahredok right now there are upheavals and confusions about the rabbis that very much interfere with the work and study schedule and therefore, the said Rabbi decided to move the greater part of the community from Navahredok to the town of Zhetl, which is a distance of five “parsa'ot” (each parse is approximately 4 km, so a total distance of roughly 20 km).

The people of our town received them with respect and treated them with great fondness. And to show their approval, they pressed upon his palm an additional 800 rubles cash to divide between the students. And truly our town has taken a new appearance ever since these decent visitors arrived in our town.

Zimel Zimelevitch

“Hed Hazman,” No. 29, Vilna,1909.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. A Kollel is a study hall for post-Yeshiva, married students, also known as “avrechim”, “avrech,” sing. Return
  2. Histadrut: Jewish Workers Union Return

 

For These Are the People of Zhetl!

by Rabbi Yitzchak Weinstein

Translated by Judy Montel

I moved to the land of Israel in 5701 (1941). On my first visit to Kfar Saba I met a Jew who had moved here from a village near Navahredok. When he heard that I was from Zhetl, he was very excited and told me that when wagon drivers and peddlers used to arrive at his rural inn he would not take particular notice of them, but when those who arrived were from Zhetl, he himself would wait on them and serve their needs. And when his wife asked him – why do you do this? He responded to her: For these are the people of Zhetl!

 

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My Home Town

by Nekhemiah Aminoach (Kfar Avraham)
(Known at home as: Zvi Nekhemiah son of Reb Noakh Hakohen Razvazky)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Through the fog I see my town Zhetl clearer and more striking. In a period of world shock and division on the right and left, I see a bubbling, revolutionary town filled with Jewishness and humanity.

This is how I see you before my eyes. As you are, lively, dynamic with the clever intelligence of your Jews who play politics and play the roles of diplomats. I see your Jews embroiled in discussions about Port Arthur and General Stesl: about the occupation of eastern Prussia and General Renentkampf; about Verdun and Feten; about the Baron de Hirsch and Argentina; about Herzl and The Jewish State; about Nakhum Sokolov and “Hatzfira”; Gershoni and General Trepov, and similar topics. I am sure there were heated discussions about the occupation of Warsaw and the Nazi generals. These dear Jews did not know that this time as well the play would be a new repetition of the old tragedy from the time of Magentz and Vermeyze.

 

A Flower Among the Thorns

For hundreds of years, these dear Jews were rooted in this crowded valley where Zhetl was situated, on the shores of two small rivers: Zhetlke and Pomerayke which nobody in the world ever heard of. People could barely wet their feet in these rivers. However, these rivers would overflow damaging houses, tearing out trees and bridges as it is written in the bible: “As rivers flow”.

The Jews from my small town were exactly like the rivers. Small sheep suddenly turned into lions, rising to the top of revolutionary activity, disrupting and annihilating evil in their country and laying the foundation for a new order. Many young fighters and heroes from Zhetl can recount the history of the revolution in Czarist Russia in 1905–06.

In the middle of the highway, like a flower among thorns, among the gentile villages, materially poor and spiritually rich, my hometown bloomed. It was a Jewish town filled with Torah and wisdom among villages with dull, insensitive gentiles among whom there were many thieves and murderers who only looked for Jewish possessions and would become the devoted collaborators of the German murderers.

On the big highway named for Catherine the Great, between double rows of birch trees, tall trees with large branches, my town suddenly jumps out into the world, on a long narrow paved road which snaked uphill until the train station 12 kilometres away.

Floating in front of my spiritual eyes is the town as if I was actually seeing it now. I see it in past years when it was muddy and not paved. Jews trudging in the mud, through filthy streets to the House of Study to recite psalms and pray in the summer when dawn arose in the east, in autumn when it rained and on frosty wintery nights when the cold bit at your ears and nose.

 

Children Grew Up There

How much cleverness and how much profoundness did Jews produce in this town with the bizarre names: Zhetl, Zitl, Diatlava, Dzentzial.

Children once grew up there like weeds, wrapped in rags in summer and winter. Others were hatched as if from a golden egg that was warmed in a warming machine in order to play as chickens of pearl and fine gold…and from this they went into the world, young men and women who laid the foundation of a new society, great scholars, geniuses in Torah learning and science, writers, thinkers, people with important ideas and creators.

My town was especially rich in Yeshiva boys. Where did you not find them?! In Mir and Volozhin, in Ashishok and Slonim, in Slobodka and Radin, Maltch, Kletzk, Lida, Baranovitch and Telz. Everywhere you went you found a thin Yeshiva boy from Zhetl dressed in worn out clothes, a serious boy with smart eyes and a sharp mind, who solves complicated Talmudic questions and offers his own subtle arguments on Jewish law.

How numerous and strong were the revolutionary youth from this same small town! This was a

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steaming, boiling youth which demanded fairness and justice, not for themselves, but for the whole world. And today, if you want to do a spiritual appraisal of the Jewish ideals in Zhetl – ask yourself – why did my hometown gather all these strengths?

After the last total annihilation which devoured the towns and cities in Poland, Lithuania and Russia as fire destroys straw – you ask yourself astonished: was all the boiling, stormy life and colossal spiritual achievements of our parents and brothers futile?

A scene which I saw in my town is forever etched in my memory. Only today I understand that event. This scene solves for me the mystery of the futile hard effort and hard work which we dedicated to the world.

 

A Scene Etched in my Mind

It was a summer day in 1906. Jews were in the House of Study and were having conversations with the Master of the Universe and among themselves. Women and children sat on the earthen benches attached to the exterior of the houses and took in some fresh air after a long difficult work day. The whole town was dreamy and faint. The mystery of the past day and the unknown of the next day wrestled.

Suddenly, on the backdrop of the sunset he appeared, the man about whom we children heard so much about with excitement, wonder and admiration. He, whose name in those days was legendary. He, Khaim K. the revolutionary who the Czarist police had been searching for a very long time. He, a citizen of Zhetl who the non Jewish regime did not like. Khaim K., who according to our notion, the Jewish children, wanted to repair the world, but the evil gentiles stood in his way. On that evening, he suddenly appeared. He came from the big highway which led to the big world – to the broad colossal Czarist Russia.

He was wearing a long coat, almost to his ankles, a hat on his head. He was barefoot and his shoes were slung over his shoulder. He walked calmly yet with assurance. His lips were shut tight and his eyes looked straight into the world at large. This is how he strode through the town accompanied by two policemen.

He strode like the eternal wanderer, like the eternal revolutionary, like the eternal Jew. Like a living wandering tombstone of the Jewish unknown soldier, in a world where nations and states are born and then collapse. Where a regime disappears and a regime arises, and he, the eternal Jew, remains, demands and strides on to endless distances and breadth.

 

Where is that Khaim K.?

Later on he came to town, but now disappointed and broken, disappointed in himself and broken by others. He lived a quiet modest life, locked up in his four walls.

This was a totally different Khaim, a totally different person. Not the one I saw on the backdrop of the sunset. Now he was for me a Lithuanian Jew, a simple man. But the other Khaim K. was the picture of the eternally wandering Jew, who boils, demands, and warns about a new world that needs to be built – does that Khaim no longer exist? Has that self–assured young man, the proud child from my town, who distinguished himself at the downfall of the sinking world already left this world?

No, No! Never!

That young man from my hometown only changed his outer clothing. His inner being undressed and dressed again. He is still alive today in his full splendor and glory.

And we all stride along the old path, like before, accompanied by police who guard our steps. We walk behind everyone between sunrise and sunset, between day and night and we are disappointed every day in the gentiles and in ourselves, and we are broken…

My hometown Zhetl, the youth which were drawn from the old former source, are still alive, even after the non –Jews slaughtered millions. Young forces, effervescent revolutionaries which gathered in my hometown, the children who were saved from the slaughter, were brought to our old –new fatherland. No destroyer will succeed in annihilating you!

You are worthy. My hometown, Zhetl, a town from Lithuania, Russia and Poland, religion, national Zionist socialist Zhetl, should serve as a model of exile which has disappeared, in order to sprout anew with strong roots in our old – new fatherland, Israel.


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Zhetl Until 1905

by Zalmen Mirsky (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Janie Respitz

I would like to describe Zhetl according to the impression it left on me when I was a child between the ages of 5 –15. When I was fifteen I left Zhetl for the Land of Israel with my parents in the month of Adar (March), 1905.

The Jews of Zhetl were scholars. Even the artisans, including tailors, shoemakers and other labourers, would study a page of Gemara in the morning after prayers, between afternoon and evening prayers and the evening. They excelled in their piety, honesty and conscientiousness.

Zhetl's Jews were practical businessmen and established business relations in large cities. Among them there were many workers, scribes (who wrote Torah scrolls and Mezuzahs) and peddlers who would do business with the gentiles in nearby villages. There were also no shortages of taverns, iron works, textiles, foods and other articles.

The house where my family lived was surrounded on three sides by Christian houses. Jews and Christians lived together peacefully and I do not remember any conflicts between these two portions of the population.

 

Disputes

The Jews from this small town were divided in two camps: Misnagdim (Religious Jews who are not Hasidim) and Hasidim. There was no shortage of quarrels and fights because of a rabbi, a doctor and so on. I remember one case when the dispute between the two sides went so far that one side did a shameful thing. They exploded a still in a store belonging to someone from the other side and carried it to the authorities. Understandably the person was arrested and the town stewed over this abominable act.

 

The Rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky

The Misnagdim had three houses of Study. The local rabbi prayed in one of them. In my time it was the rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky, a great Talmudic scholar and a well known preacher. He was always a big hit with his sermons. On special Sabbaths the rabbi would preach and call his listeners to repentance and charity. The town beadle would accompany him from his home to the House of Study and then home again.

The rabbi mentioned above was an enlightened Jew. He knew Hebrew grammar well and was sympathetic to Zionism. My father, may he rest in peace, was one of his admirers and had great respect for him. He would defend his honour when someone offended him or when someone opposed the rabbi either on a private or a community matter.

The rabbi would organize a minyan (quorum of ten men to pray) in his house, and when he prayed the words sounded like pearls. My father and I were among those who went to the rabbi's house and belonged to the group that prayed in his minyan.

The rabbi's son Reb Tuvia Mirsky and his wife were childless. Thirty years ago they came to the Land of Israel and settled in Jerusalem.

 

Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky

The Misnagdim in town were for the most part Talmudic scholars, merchants, honourable business owners, town leaders. One of them was Menakhem Vernikovsky, a pharmacist, an enlightened Jew educated in Torah, knowledgeable in Hebrew grammar, a proficient Torah reader and a cantor. When Zionism began to spread through the Jewish streets, he became a supporter of the movement. Every Sabbath he would deliver a sermon in the House of Study about the weekly Torah portion and he would weave in some Zionist propaganda.

His daughters came to the Land of Israel 20 years ago. One of them, Helena married Shlomo Habibi, a talented person and a music lover. He opened a store of musical instruments and died one year ago.

 

The Hasidim of Zhetl

The Hasidim on the contrary were simple people, however very religious Jews, and prayed with great enthusiasm. Among them there was a butcher who was their regular cantor. He prayed particularly beautifully on the High Holidays.

During my time their Rebbe (a Hasidic rabbi) was Reb Shmulke from Slonim, who in his youth was a friend of father. Reb Shmuel became a Rebbe and my father, of blessed memory, became

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a scribe, and later sold Torah scrolls and Mezuzahs.

The Rebbe would visit Zhetl a few times a year. He was a stately Jew, who wore silk clothing, and shone like the sun. He would sit in his room secluded for meditation and would only emerge for prayer. On the Sabbath he would pray at the pulpit and read from the Torah. If I remember correctly, his reading did not move me due to his incorrect pronunciation and his strange accentuation of the words.

The Hasidim would prepare a table in honour of the Rebbe at their prayer house. They would eat, sing and push each other to be able to see the Rebbe and hear his teachings. A Sabbath like that would make a great impression on the Hasidim, as well as the other residents.

My father, of blessed memory, and I would often go on Saturdays and on the High Holidays to pray with the Hasidim. The prayers of the Misnagdim did not lure me, even though there were good prayer leaders among them like Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky. However their praying lacked the Hasidic enthusiasm and fervour.

 

Friday Nights in Zhetl

Friday afternoon, on the Sabbath eve, Jews would stop work early and close their shops and businesses. The town beadle, with his long broad beard, would stride through the streets before sunset calling out in his pleasant voice: “Jews – go to Shul! (Synagogue)”.

All the Jews in Zhetl would gather in the Houses of Study to welcome the Sabbath. The divine presence came to rest on the Jews and on the town. A rare stillness accompanied by Sabbath songs would fill the air. Poor people and those passing through town were invited for the Sabbath meal. The Jews in town would rest and gather strength for the week and worries that lay ahead.

 

The Revolutionary Youth in Zhetl

The quiet religious local life saturated in spirituality and tradition lasted until the period of revolutionary excitement, when Marxist ideology won the hearts of the young generation. The youth that was raised in Heders and Yeshivas devoted all their energy to the new doctrine. It went from one extreme to the other, from piety to free thinking, from passivity to revolting and fighting capitalism. They began to agitate against employers who became bloody enemies. They did not even stop at physical actions against employers.

One Saturday evening they threw stones into our house. Another time they entered our home with revolvers in their hands and demanded in the name of the town's revolutionary committee, 400 ruble. Thanks to the intervention of my father's friends who also belonged to socialist groups, the amount was decreased in half. Once they met my father on the street and threatened him with a death sentence.

This is how the unity was disrupted in town. The Houses of Study which were always filled with people praying and learning emptied and life was emptied of content. Workers and artisans began to emigrate, some to America, others to different countries.

These general events, pogroms and revolutionary turmoil in Russia affected the spiritual and material life of our small town.

 

We decided to Immigrate to the Land of Israel

A feeling of despair dominated and we could not find a way to escape the situation. We decided to leave for the Land of Israel. Our plan had to be carried out secretly so no one would sense we were relinquishing our business and leaving our workers in God's hands, since they would have never allowed this to happen. So, we started a rumour that we were returning to Slonim and will continue to run our business from there. Our workers could not oppose this.

Quietly, in a stressful mood, we left Zhetl by train to Odessa. In the month of Adar (March), 1906 we arrived in Jaffa.

 

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