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[Page 82]

My Town and My Family

by Gavriel Katz

Translated by Rabbi Manis Friedman

I am not disposed to wallowing in memories because they involve so much pain, but the memories exist and press on the strings of the heart. Repressed, but alive and well. Any moment, the slightest touch, and they start to take on flesh and form. In various ways the book of memories is opened, and they begin to flow precise and detailed, as if they happened yesterday. And there before my eyes are the people and events, and I am back in the atmosphere of Nesvizh.

Apparently, of all the papers and documents of the community and Jewish institutions that existed for so many years in this city, nothing remains. The only source of information rests in the memory of the people who were miraculously saved from the Nazis or who fortunately left the city before it was occupied. These people are still alive with memories of the city as it was then, in the 1920s and 1930s.

In recording our memories, we honor the events and the lives as they were, and are now destroyed. But every person remembers the city differently. Although we experienced the same things, no one can free himself of his subject reactions when writing of events that were so personal. Years have gone, generations have passed, and the new generation of children and grandchildren of the Jews of Nesvizh know very little of the history of their ancestor's community. And those of the old generation are becoming fewer and fewer.

Between thick forests, lakes and green fields, lay my city Nesvizh. Home to the noble Prince Radziwill. There was a castle there from the days of the Crusades[1]. On the walls and giant tablets, on its multicolored windows and on broad gates were pictures from the times of the Napoleonic war and of Polish kings. The stream and the park beside the castle drew many spectators, primarily on shabbos and yomtov. In the garden there were various ancient trees, flowers and plants. At the foot of the castle flowed a brook, and on moonlit nights people came to admire the brook, the castle and the woods. It was all splendid.

In the center of the city was the large market place and city hall. The dark, narrow streets and ancient homes created a world full of mystery. Here lived 1,000 Jewish families, approximately half of the city's population. The Jews maintained stores, factories, butcher shops, textile shops, and paint shops. There were woodworkers and glassblowers, restaurants and bakeries. There were sellers of wheat, lumber, and vegetables, and other peddlers. Some of these would travel the surrounding villages, buying and selling their goods. Some of them were tailors, or shoemakers, cobblers or carpenters, and wagon drivers.

The Jews of Nesvizh were Torah scholars. They were Chassidim, pious, intelligent, warm, kind, with many children, bli ayin horah (may no evil eye befall them). The young students were budding geniuses with bright minds, who could quote whole pages of the Talmud by heart. The daughters were exceptional in their good character, modest and attractive.

Early on Fridays, there was the bustle of activity in preparation for shabbos. The innocent Jewish girls, charming, resplendent in their holiday clothing, stood at the doors of their homes to greet those returning from shul. In every window is the shine of shabbos candles. Shabbat shalom, Shabbat shalom. Every corner of the house shined, the table covered with a gleaming, snow–white tablecloth, with silver goblets, challah, and Kiddush wine.

The house was filled with the aroma of the delicacies and everyone was singing “Shalom aleichem malachei hashalom,” – angels of peace, angels of heaven. After the traditional shabbos meal, the boys and the girls went off to their youth groups, all in various directions. A quiet descended upon the city on shabbos day. Stores were closed, work was suspended. After a shabbos nap, the pleasant sounds of the study of a chapter of Mishna could be heard, the reciting of Tehillim, all mixed with the sound of children studying their weekly Torah portion. Jewish girls strolling in the streets leading to the park, speaking softly, and when passing a young man, they lowered their eyes modestly, smiling bashfully. Especially festive were the holidays, the nights of the seder on Pesach, the Days of Awe, Sukkos, Shavuos, Chanukah and Purim. Each holiday with its special foods, games, and character.

I see with my mind's eye my father's home. It's one of the few brick buildings in the city. My father sold lumber, and did very well. His free time was devoted to community affairs. He was a member of the education board of the Tarbut school in which three of his sons and one of his daughters studied. He was on the board of the bank, an officer in the Chassidic shul, and a member of the community council. In his daily business dealings, he met many of the non–Jewish businessmen of the surrounding villages. Their relationship was one of great respect.

My mother, a quiet, modest woman, accepted graciously all that happened in the family, educating her children and worrying for all of their needs.

Although a small town, Nesvizh became a commercial center, with the city Horodziej on one side and Kletzk on the other, with scattered towns, large and small, filled mostly with farmers and field workers. Nesvizh was a very pretty city, straight streets with one–floor homes, surrounded by gardens, courtyards and grass. The Radziwill castle was one of the more impressive buildings in all of Poland, drawing many visitors from surrounding cities. The main street, Valenska, which led to the market place, was almost all Jewish. The marketplace itself was surrounded by Jewish owned stores, and city and community organizations.

Parallel to the main street was Studenska street, that led to the main road leading to Horodziej. That's where the train station was that led to the rest of the world. This street was where the churches stood, Catholic and Protestant. On Sundays and on Christian holidays, the city would be full of Catholics from the surrounding area and soldiers. In morning hours of each Sunday, military marches, accompanied by military bands, were the main attraction.

The early education for Jewish children was in the cheder. For high school they continued in the Tarbut (Jewish public school) or the government run schools.

The sense of increased anti–Semitism on the part of the Poles and the Russians strengthened our desire to make aliyah, as chalutzim in the kibbutz or as students in the Hebrew university. We felt very strongly that there was no alternative but to start a new independent life, in the land of our ancestors. Every one of us making aliyah strove to sink roots and be able to bring the rest of our family to Israel. To our great disappointment, we did not all merit to do this, as most of us lost our families – parents, brothers, sisters, and friends – in the Holocaust. A long arduous journey, full of pain, the suffering of exile, the threat of the Shoah and the longing for geulah (redemption) engulfed the Jews of Nesvizh until that bitter day, when they were all taken out to be killed in the ghetto. Once in the land of Israel, the immigrants from Nesvizh participated in the War of Independence, in all branches of the military, in the police force, the Palmach, and, after the establishment of the Jewish state, the Tzahal.


Translator's Footnote

  1. The Radziwill Castle was built starting in the late 1500s. No documentation has been found of an earlier castle dating back to the time of the Crusades. Return


[Page 85]

A Jewish City
(from “From the Book of My Life,” NY 5717 [1957])

by Mordechai Ze'ev Raisin

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

… Nesvizh was a small city in Russian Poland with a population of fewer than ten thousand, most of them Jews. The Jews were mostly poor. If there was found among them a man whose property amounted to one thousand rubles, he was already considered a wealthy man. The few wealthy whose wealth came either from inheritance, or who saved it little by little, saved on expenses as much as possible, and built themselves houses or stores, and stores that they rented to others. They told me that the village still stands even now, after the German conquest and the Holocaust that came to them, but the Jewish population was destroyed entirely by the barbarians.

The city stood next to a river whose name I do not remember, and it's possible that it did not have a name and was called only by the name “the river.” I remember it only by this name. Next to that same river, over the course of years, a new Jewish neighborhood grew whose name was [in Yiddish]“The New City [Hebrew in parentheses].” Across the river was found “The Schloss,” the amazing castle building that was erected already a few hundred years ago, which was the holding of the princes from the Radziwell family (about Nesvizh and its Jews and their relationship to the Duke Radziwell, L. Leivanda wrote a nice story in Russian that was translated into Hebrew by A.S. Friedberg by the name “Alarm and Terror”[1] and was published in “Congregation Israel” in Warsaw in the year 5646 [1886]). The place was entirely distinguished by the beauty of its vineyards and gardens with the flowers and the trees that were nourished by the trained hands of expert gardeners. In the days of summer, it was possible to see the graceful barbarians rowing on the river. The townspeople were allowed to enter to walk in the grove that was around the castle, especially during the time when the Duke and his family went on their travels, and we the Jewish youths dared to swim in the river during the summer season, but most of us preferred to swim in the little “Alba” river that was, if my memory is not mistaken, closer to the city. In proximity to the castle stood a Catholic prayer–house, which was elegant in its architecture, in the Gothic style, with its tower and its big colored glass windows. In the inner city was found another Christian prayer–house of the Russian Orthodox church (Pravoslavit in Russian). This building was less elegant and adorned in comparison to the Catholic church. Between these two faiths, many of whom lived in the neighborhoods and villages that were adjacent to the city, they filled the two houses on Sunday and on their festivals when their great bells rang and the noise of the commotion was heard throughout the city and outside of it. Except for these days, the two houses stood quiet and neglected on all the remaining days of the week.

Despite the fact that the Christian population was almost equal to the Jewish population, Nesvizh was essentially a Jewish city, in its Yiddish language, in the course of its communal life, and in the religious manner that was recognized in everything. Despite the two Christian prayer houses, which left almost no impression on the life of the city, there were found about nine or ten Jewish synagogues that were not distinguished at all in their architecture, and most of them were simple wooden houses, but they were open every day, from an early hour of the morning until an hour late in the evening. There was not an hour of the day when people were not found there, whether for prayer or for the sake of study. At the times for prayer these were full of worshippers, but also in the rest of the hours there were present not a few who came to learn a lesson in Gemara or to read other books. There were also some of the yeshiva boys there who competed in some of the pages that they assigned to themselves as a daily law, and on every Thursday night of the week it was their custom to withhold sleep from their eyes and spend the whole night learning.

(In the summer of the year 1925, 32 years after I left Nesvizh, I returned to the city of my birth for a visit, and I was very struck by the prayer houses, that they were abandoned and closed with a barricade on the weekdays. Except for the Sabbath day, the sound of communal prayer was not heard in them, and no one was seen learning or arguing aggressively with each other over halakha. The wonderful poem of Bialik, “On the Threshold of the Study House,” rose up in my memory and the image of the entire city, which had so changed for the worse, reminded me of “How the city sits alone.”[2] When I entered into the “New Study House” and I saw the place on the eastern side of the house in which my father, may his memory be for a blessing, prayed, and from whom I learned what and how to pray in the old siddur [prayer book], the matter touched my heart and brought me to tears.)

If the Christians were the farmers that worked the earth of the landscape, or were government officials, the judges and the policemen and the clerks, the Jews were those who made the village a place of activity, full of life and energy. They were the merchants that brought to the sleepy village a breeze from the outside and connected her to the great outside world and from them came the artisans and the experts in all work, the house–builders, the roofers, the glaziers, the blacksmiths, the tailors, the shoemakers, the bookbinders, the wagon masters, and on and on. There were also Jewish lawyers and doctors that remained from the days of Tsar Alexander II. The approach of Alexander III, who ruled in the time of which I am speaking, was to lower the Jews to the lowest step possible, and to limit the numbers of youth to learn a profession. It was required of the Jews to serve in the army and pay taxes, and at the same time they lacked all rights. And if the Jews continued to go on their regular course, married wives and fathered sons and daughters, this was possible only because of the essential strength of the Jewish masses who were fruitful and multiplied[3] despite all. One of the means to the continuation of Jewish existence was the “khabar” (bribe), which all of the “tshinovniki” (officials high and low) were drenched in, and all of them were made wealthy on account of the Jews.

And in my words on the synagogues of the Jews of Nesvizh it is correct to mention that there was almost no social class or profession that did not have a prayer house of its own. The Jews were split and divided not only into Mitnagdim and Hasidim,[4] but also into the various type of workers, and in addition to the great houses of prayer they also had “shtiblach” [small houses of prayer], in which they assembled three times a day for prayer, and if boys from the yeshivas came there to learn Gemara, there were also some who came to learn “Chumash[5] with Rashi”[6], or to read and meditate on the Psalms. There were “Tehillim [Psalms] Societies” in the city, and they had their own Rebbeim who volunteered to lead the men in these sacred studies. There were almost no total ignoramuses who did not know how to read in the prayerbook, and if there were found “am ha'aratzot” [ignoramuses] like these who did not know or who forgot the form of the aleph–bais [Hebrew alphabet], then there were those who sat at the end of the table and listened to those who were more educated, and even repeated the prayers after them. For the most part they all knew how to “pass before the ark.”[7]

Nesvizh always prided herself on her lineage as a place of Torah from which emerged some of the Torah greats, “Geonim”[8] and rabbis who sat on her Rabbinic chair, and from it went to other places and became well–known as the great luminaries in the rabbinic world.

All across Russia, Poland and Lithuania, the congregations competed to acquire for themselves the rabbis that were considered in their time the most extolled. It is told that Rebbe Yitzchak Elchanan, Head of all the Members of the Diaspora of the Charedi [“ultra–Orthodox”] Jews of his time, began his rabbinate in Nesvizh. He was young when he was chosen for the rabbinate there, even if his name already preceded him, and many were the cities that envied Nesvizh, and a few of them attempted to entice the young rabbi to come to them, but his heart was not drawn to the big cities, and after the better salary, precisely in Nesvizh he found the rest and the opportunity to ponder the Torah as he desired. In the morning one day when the villagers were awakening from their sleep, they found to their amazement that their popular rabbi had disappeared and was not to be found, and the meaning of the riddle quickly became known to them. The rabbi did not leave the city of his own accord, but was compelled. On the day before his disappearance there arrived in the city a group of men that were staying in the one hotel that was in the city. They came from the adjacent city of Novogrodok Navahrudak today], and at a late hour of the night

[Page 86]

they burst into the rabbi's house and led him by force to their city. I am not guaranteeing the truth of this story in all its details, but it testifies to how much the Jews of a hundred years ago were zealous for the honor of the Torah and the rabbinate to the point where they permitted themselves to reach unkosher [improper] means like these.

In the days of the enlightenment period, which began from the time of Moses Mendelssohn, Nesvizh became famous as one of the strongholds of the tendency towards secularism and European culture. Shlomo Maimon was a son of Nesvizh, about which he told much in his autobiography.

He fled from it, and after a few adventures he reached Germany and there he became one of the students and close associates of Emmanuel Kant. The Yiddish storyteller Nachum Meir Sheikevitz (Shomer) also came from Nesvizh. In our generation it is correct to mention Dr. Moshe Elazar Eisenstadt, who was the rabbi in St. Petersburg and Paris before his arrival in New York, where he died. Dr. Nisan Torov, was one of our best Hebrew writers; he specialized particularly in the theory of psychology, and in his essays of the psychology of suicide, was the first to address this field in the new Hebrew literature. Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Zalman Raisin, who served more than thirty years in the Reform rabbinate of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote many books in English and Hebrew, and was one of the important ones in the leadership of Reform Judaism, and the writer Shlomo Damesek, may he live a long life, who composed a number of books and interesting depictions of Nesvizh. Dr. Morris Raphael Cohen will also be remembered here, the philosophy professor in City College in New York and in the university in Chicago. He was not, however, born in Nesvizh but in a place adjacent to it, spent a few years in that same village, and in it received his Jewish education. In his time, Dr. Cohen, who raised up hundreds of students, was known as one of the best and most excellent teachers of philosophy in the United States, and was beloved by a number of the sages and philosophers in America.

Despite the tyrannical Tzarist regime, and the many restrictions that were placed on the Jews of Russia at that time, their happiness was unbounded compared to what happened to them and their children during the Bolshevik revolution in the year 1917, and afterwards. In the eighties and nineties of the previous century the Jews there were entirely free in matters that pertained to matters of religion and education. They lived their religious lives without any government interference which, apparently, still gave them encouragement in this area. The government, it seems, knew that there was nothing to fear from the Haredi Orthodox, but from those who were free–thinkers and godless, from whom emerged the revolutionaries and the nihilists. This was especially true vis––vis the Jews in the small cities in Lithuania and Poland. There remain for me a number of memories of the freedom in matters of their religion that the Jews of Nesvizh and other villages like these knew. They not only had many synagogues but also houses of education for religious studies and Hebrew, “cheders,” houses of “talmud torah” and yeshivas. And if the Christians held religious demonstrations and marches in the streets of the city, with their icons and their priests walking at the head dressed in their official garments, indeed the Jews did not lag behind in their own demonstrations, on holidays like Simchat Torah, Chanukah and Purim, since then they permitted themselves to dance in the streets after drinking hard liquor. In the warm summer days, they had the custom of publicly celebrating the weddings of their sons and daughters. For the most part these celebrations were on Friday afternoons, and the ritual “presentation of the wedding canopy” on that same day became a public matter in which all the townspeople participated. They led the bride and groom in the streets of the city to the synagogue, where facing its entrance the rabbi or the judge arranged the “kiddushin [betrothal ceremony preceding the wedding].” The musicians played joyful or melancholy tunes, and for we youngsters who were at that time free from the cheder this was a truly useless day. And I was among the mischievous who went around and interfered with the in–laws, spun the wretched groom when he stood under the wedding canopy waiting for the bride to come, and it was that we stuck pins and needles into his shins or thighs, and the wretch did not know who was the guilty one, but he did not dare to desecrate the sanctity of the moment or become angry at the mischievous one that had done the thing.

The synagogue and its sacred worship awakened in us feelings of deep and most exalted faith. Outside of our homes and the “cheder,” the synagogue was the one place that was closest to us and we the youths felt that it belonged to us like the human dwelling place belongs to the one that dwells in it. We spent most of our time in this house. The “shul” [synagogue] served centrally for a number of helpful things for all of the people of the city. Aside from its principal purpose, as a house of prayer or a house of study, it served also as a sort of clubhouse in which Jews lived their social lives. In a small village that had no newspapers, no theatres, and no concerts, the synagogue filled the lack. A famous chazzan or storyteller that came from someplace near or far found the “shul” ready to receive him with open arms. It served also as a shelter for the poor, who came to the village to beg and go from door to door.[9] In the synagogue were reflected a number of the problems that at times occupied the public, and many of us remember “the Lyszanka sages” who in the winter days used to sit around the big oven to get warm and then they would discuss the political questions that reached them from the great world, and about the wars that were then in the world. A wretched woman who thought herself deprived by the congregation in some way was not prevented from coming into the men's section in the morning of the Sabbath day and to prevent the Torah reading, and this was a dramatic sight to see the woman who had the strength of spirit to stand before the Holy Ark and not move from her place until the rabbi or the gabbai[10] promised her that they would call a gathering to look into the matter of her complaint. The poor who could not afford to pay for a room in the inn when they came to the village from somewhere found shelter in the synagogue in which they slept on the ground with their tallis bag under their heads, and found charitable women who offered them warm food once a day.

And, as in a few villages in that same region, Nesvizh also had one that was called “the city crazy person [in Yiddish, shtadt–meshugener].” A person who was like that mostly came to the village from outside. And even though he appeared crazy, it was very possible that he was not at all insane. There were also among them those that pretended to be crazy in order to evade the military service, which was so loathsome to the Jews, or who were sick of physical labor and chose a life of craziness in order to refrain from all social responsibility. There were not found in Nesvizh and the other villages hospitals for mental illness, and it was simple for people like this to make themselves a public burden. For the most part, the Jews related to them with patience and out of indifference, in keeping with “merciful sons of merciful fathers [Jews].” And also for crazy people of this kind the synagogue was the first shelter that they found when they came to the village.

“The town crazy person” in my time in Nesvizh was a man by the name of Meir Leib. According to what I remember, he found himself an empty place in the women's section during the weekdays. There he slept, and there the compassionate women found him who fed him and the rest of the beggars daily. He was a tall man with a long beard. Each and every day he rose early in order to join the minyan of worshippers, and even helped to serve in the fulfillment of his obligation. I remember one day in a heat wave in the middle of [the months of] Tamuz or Av, our rabbi freed us from his cheder at an early hour because of the great heat. Together in a group with other youths I went to the market in the center of town, and then I saw an awful and terrifying sight. The one policeman of the city, whose name was “Nazila” (the little nose) since the bone of his nose had been broken in some way, and had never healed until he became flat–nosed – this “Nazila” stood over Meir Leib who was laying on the ground and entirely naked as the day he was born, and beat him blow after blow with the sheaf of his sword. It seemed to me that on account of the great heat the insane one had dropped his rags and was walking in the market in his nakedness, and because of this the policeman wreaked upon the wretched the vengeance of an ethical society. At the screams of Meir Leib, who was bleeding all over from his many wounds, a big crowd gathered, but no man dared to protest against this act of cruelty, until one was found who remembered the one remedy for the Jews in every bad event – the bribe. He dropped a few coins into

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the palm of the “Nazila,” and Meir Leib fled for his life into the nearby synagogue.

About this Meir Leib they told – and I do not know what the truth is in this matter – that one Shabbat after the reading of the Torah, he went up on the bima[11] and announced: “Gentlemen, here I am honored to inform you that I intend to leave Nesvizh and go to another place, and I deliver this announcement to you so that you will find for yourselves another crazy person.” I heard some say that some of the worshippers enticed the insane one to do this thing in order to joke a little, and this testifies to the degree to which the boredom in this quiet village had reached.

At a late hour on Shabbat afternoon, when our mother finished reading in her section of the “Teitch [Yiddish] Chumash” she was accustomed to remind us, her husband and her children, that the time had arrived to go to the synagogue for the afternoon and evening prayers. We knew that before us there was a very wonderful experience in our religious lives. In the half darkness of the Sabbath day that was growing nearer to its end, before the hour of the prayer, Father studied “the world” in the Gemara or in the “Ein Yaakov”[12] but he especially loved the book of Psalms that he knew by heart.

All participated in the saying of the wonderful songs of David the King of Israel [Book of Psalms] and Heman and Yedutun[13], and the rest of the psalmists who have no parallel for beauty or splendor, and the prayers, and the confessions, and the hymns, that were born out of humanity's longing for God, over the course of several thousands of years. This was a dramatic and fitting way of parting from the day which was, more than any other cause, useful to establish the Jews as a religious community. So passed a long hour, not of prayer but of the singing of the Psalms, until the darkness gained power, and the time came for “Motza'ay Shabbat” [the end of the Sabbath], when they prayed the evening prayers and the chazzan, or one of the assembled, sang the “Havdalah” [blessings that officially end the Sabbath] with which, in an impressive way, was divided between holy and ordinary. But not always was the matter of Shabbat and its dominion completed with this. It was as if the Jews refused to separate from the distinguished guest whose name was Sabbath, and they did not hasten to return home, rather, they left the house very slowly. And with the appearance of the moon in the sky then they further delayed in the courtyard of the prayer house for some time for the sake of “Kiddush Levana” [sanctification of the moon]. If strangers were there who did not know the meaning of this strange ritual, the dances in the presence of the moon, and the sayings of “Shalom Aleichem” [peace be unto you, part of the sanctification ritual], they could believe that this was nothing but a remnant of some ancient idolatrous custom. Our good father explained to us, while walking home, that this was an ancient custom in the framework of Judaism, and an additional form to feel thanks to God for his giving us the small light to light up the night[14], as we bless him for his giving of the sun to light up the day.

More than sixty years ago Nesvizh was a biblical city, “tanakh–it” [Biblical], outside the land of Israel, if it is permitted to say that. The place was full of patriarchal images. The men all had long beards with curled forelocks, and the women were also distinguished by their dress, which had an oriental style. The married women among them all wore wigs after they had shaved their hair at the times of their marriages – in order not to bring the men to trial[15]… and all of them wrapped themselves in big long headscarves. In the small villages, the men were not known by their family names, and some of them did not even know what their family names were, which came to them by royal decree. They were known to each other by the shape of their body, by a deformity that they had or even by their field of livelihood that he or his wife had, and she was a “woman of valor”[16] who engaged in commerce or labor and supported the house. So there were men who were known by names like Kalman the Long, Shlomo the Tall, Nachum the Dwarf, Chaim the husband of Nechama the Baker, and other names like these. But in addition to their personal names, there was another name of distinction, the title of “Reb.” There was not a man who was not known by this honorific. Reb Moshe, Reb Gedaliah, Reb Naftali. Even Zechariah the Tailor, Zalman the Shoemaker, Gavriel the Water Carrier, Itshe Yitzchak the Chimney Cleaner, was honored with the description “Reb,” when he was called to go up to the Torah on Shabbat or a holy day. The meaning of the matter was that “all the nation of God is holy”[17], and all of the Jews are holy seed;[18] the title “Reb” is appropriate for all of them whether they are learned in Torah or not. The names that I mentioned here are not exactly the names of people that were. But the situation was as I have described.

The teachers in whose “cheders” I learned Torah were three: and with each of them I learned from two to three “periods.” The first, with whom I began my learning, was Reb Nachman, and there is a dim memory in my mind of the day on which my mother brought me to him. I was only about four or five years old. With him I learned the aleph–bais and a little from the book of Genesis. That day was an honored event in my life, an important experience when Reb Nachman taught us, the babies, the aleph, and commanded us to recite the word “aleph” in a loud voice, and then there rained down on us from some hidden hand a dew of sweets and candies, in order to endear the Torah to us, this is the Torah whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.[19] The cheder was a narrow hall which was not distinguished by its cleanliness, a portion of the dwelling place of the Rebbe, and there prevailed in it a dimness even when the sun was shining outside. It did not at all suit the function of a school for tender children, and our health and the light of our eyes suffered for it. In the winter they heated it by a big oven that stood in the middle of the room, and sometimes smoke came out of its chimney. But Reb Nachman was a polite person who related affectionately to the children that were turned over to his authority, and he regarded his work as a holy task. He was patient towards all of the ten or twelve children that he taught. He migrated to America in the nineties of the previous century, and here he stopped being a teacher and became a pants presser in one of the “sweat–shops” [in parentheses, spelled out phonetically as if in Yiddish] of the New York ghetto. I met with him in 1936 when he was already a grand old man and the time was short before his death.

After two years with Reb Nachman my mother turned me over to another teacher whose name was Reb Shimon Hen (the Rooster). They called him by this name because in addition to his trade as a teacher he was also a chazzan in one of the synagogues, and in his voice there was a crowing that resembled that of a rooster when it called. As a teacher Reb Shimon was strict with his students and exacting with them in the studies of Tanakh that he taught them. For every simple mistake he pinched their cheeks and sometimes also struck their flesh with whips. The youths were afraid of him and did not like him, and amongst themselves mimicked his ways and his way of singing, for he had a custom of singing the chapters of the Tanakh that he taught. There were those who also imitated his rooster call. In this discussion Reb Simon was very sensitive, and the children knew that they had to be careful, and not even to mention the name of this unfortunate bird. I too knew this and precisely because I knew it and decided to be careful, I fell into the trap. And it happened like this:

At that time we learned the weekly portion [of the Torah], which was Parashat Vayishlach. On the story about the matter of the meeting between Jacob and Esau, Rashi adds in his explanation: “the rooster called.” Reb Shimon was a punctilious person with regard to Rashi, every time that we learned the weekly portion, some of the youths among us had the custom to prepare the lesson with Rashi in addition to the portion itself. The word “rooster” stood out then to our ears, and all of us felt the danger that was expected for us in the event that one of us would burst out in laughter in its reading. We bit our lips and with our hands, with all our might, we gripped the bench that we were sitting on in order to conquer the inclination to laugh that had a hold on us, and all of us succeeded in the matter – except for me. It was as if the laugh that percolated in my throat came out of its own accord, and when it burst out it was as if it gave the extra to the rest of the children. For a few minutes, the unified laughter of ten youths rolled through the space of the cheder, all of them on account of the rooster, that is to say, on account of the teacher. Suddenly silence prevailed, a silence that came because of fear. We saw the face of Reb Shimon and it had turned yellow and whitened from anger. A little more and the insulted teacher raised himself up from his place, and as if he felt that I was the one who had started the matter, “the head of the rebels,” approached me with the fire of fury in his eyes. [in Yiddish]“Mottke, are you laughing at me?” They were the only words that came out of his mouth, then began slaps across the cheek; he began with me and he finished with the rest of the boys.

My third teacher, Reb Gershon Ze'ev Damesek, the father of the well–known Hebrew writer Shlomo Damesek, was one of the best teachers in the city, and to him

[Page 88]

I owe much for my Hebrew knowledge. With him I learned Gemara and I still remember his way of explaining the argument “the merchants of Lod” in [Talmud Tractate] Bava Metzia that was so hard to understand for a ten–year–old boy like me at that time, and then with his help it came to me to grasp the matter. Reb Gershon Ze'ev was a courteous person with a sensitive spirit with which he related to his students and his role as a teacher with all of the affection and enthusiasm that was possible. He taught us, except for Talmud, the grammar of the Hebrew language and the Bible, which we reviewed almost entirely under his direction. I wrote my first Hebrew compositions while I was still in his cheder, and he reviewed them and advised me how to write. He too came to America, in his middle age, and honored me with visits to my house in Brooklyn, where I served as “Rabbi” in one of the big temples. I met with him a few times in the same city in which he died, in good old age, about ten years ago.

I do not know how the spirit came over my good mother that she suddenly decided to take me out of the “cheder” and to put me into the “Russian” school that was opened in Nesvizh for the children of the Jews. My mother who was not in all her days observant of the mitzvot, took pride in her “lineage” as a granddaughter of the Tzaddik Reb Zalmanka, and in her heart she always kept nested the hope to see her sons educated in the Torah and God–fearing and fit to be rabbis in Israel. It is possible that she thought that I would not fulfill this hope of hers, and since my brother Yaakov Zalman was already at that time learning in the yeshiva of Mir, and on him she hung all her hopes for the future (he was more beloved to her for his diligence in Torah, and because he was more committed to doing the practical mitzvot), she thought that it would be good if I became more sophisticated in outside [secular] studies while Yaakov Zalman was committed to Talmud and the Torah of Israel. In the Russian school, which was really limited to only Jewish children, I learned the Russian language, arithmetic, geography and a little of the history of the Russian nation. But I did not completely stop my Hebrew studies, and I continued to visit in the cheder of Reb Gershon Ze'ev Damesek in the afternoon hours. But the fact that I had become a student in a school for outside studies that were so different from what I had learned in the “cheder,” opened for me new horizons. During all of my youth I had felt myself as a child of another world and full of interest because of the innovation that was in it. In the school, at whose head stood at that time a man named Friedman, we were forced to use only the Russian language, and in this way I learned to speak fluently in that language. And I remember that when I came to New York about a year and a half after that, and I was then twelve years old, and I went to see the supervisor of the trade school from the foundation of Dr. Baron de Hirsch, for I intended then to enter it, I used Russian because I was embarrassed to speak Yiddish. The supervisor, who was a Jew and knew Russian, spent some time with me and expressed satisfaction with my good knowledge of that language. To my fortune, or to my tragedy, nothing came of it, I did not use the opportunity to learn something of the trades that support those who have them, and I was put on the path that led me to another purpose, that of “Rabbi” …


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Jeremiah 15:8 “Their widows shall be more numerous than the sands of the seas. I will bring against them– young men and mothers together– a destroyer at noonday. I will bring down suddenly upon them alarm and terror.” Return
  2. About Jerusalem – Lamentations 1:1 “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; the princess among states Is become a thrall.” Return
  3. Genesis 1:28, the commandment to humanity: “God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it…” Return
  4. opponents and adherents to the Hasidic movement, respectively Return
  5. Five books, or Torah. Return
  6. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, principal commentator on the Torah, who lived in the 12th century CE Return
  7. The ark in a synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept. To pass before the ark means to lead the Amidah, the standing prayer, also known as the 18 benedictions or the shemonah esray. Return
  8. Although used to refer to the Jewish head of one of the Babylonian academies at Sura and Pumbedita from about 589–1038 CE, it is also used as a title of honor for an eminent religious scholar and judicial authority. Return
  9. Asking for tzedakah. Return
  10. charged with making sure that all synagogue services run smoothly Return
  11. The raised platform in the synagogue where the prayer leader stands. Return
  12. compilation of Rabbinic literature from the 16th century CE Return
  13. 1 Chronicles 25:1 “David and the officers of the army set apart for service the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied to the accompaniment of lyres, harps, and cymbals…” Return
  14. Genesis 1: 16 “God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.” Return
  15. In traditional forms of Judaism, it is thought that the sight of women's hair is arousing to men, and so married women cover their hair, or shave and cover their heads, in order to protect men from this arousal. Return
  16. Proverbs 31:10 –31 “What a rare find is a capable wife! Her worth is far beyond that of rubies…” Return
  17. Deuteronomy 14:2 “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God.” Return
  18. Ezra 9:2 “For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of those lands.” Return
  19. Proverbs 3:17. Return

 

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