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[Page 451]

4. Figures

 

The Gaon[1] of Nesvizh

By Dr. A. Koralnik

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

There are names that live eternally in our consciousness, that follow you like devoted friends, that ring in you like bells – awaken, encourage, remind. Some names, even very great, sometimes change, the bells become recast, melted. Aristotle's bell continually rang for thousands of years throughout the cultural world, from Samarkand where the great Arabic doctor Ibn Sina [Avicenna] lived, to Cordova in Spain where Ibn Rushd [Averroes] and the Rambam [Maimonides] were born; from Rome to Paris and the green island of Ireland – Aristotle was the teacher all over, the leader, the guide, and the center of all debates.

Aristotle's ring was blunted and the bell of Plato began to be heard. And his metallic ring is no longer heard. Other names, other tones entered the cultural consciousness. Above all, [Emmanuel] Kant, wherever we turn, wherever we pivot – we hear him everywhere. If you want to understand the world using the thoughts of the small professor from Königsberg [Kant], who never left his city, who lived modestly and in poverty in his small town – you must first go through [his works].

 

nes451.jpg
Shlomo (Solomon) Maimon

 

And there are more such names. And you stand amazed, you look into the face of the subjugator, of the dictator, you look with astonishment and reverence and bow your head with humility: a holiness, a greatness, a grace, the grace of brilliance.

I do not know what this is; I will not even try to broach the problem. Many psychologists and researchers undertook research on the question and were never successful. What do we know in general about the secret called the human personality? Where is the key to find out: why does one differ from the other? How does it happen that in one family, with the same father, the fruit of one branch, there are such basically different children? One is a normal, usual, simple person and the other is extraordinary and exceptional?

But I am busy with another question. It is a problem that is just as difficult to solve, about one who is called a genius. It is a question of brilliance. A pure Jewish one and, therefore, so complicated, multifaceted.

Why have we so few inspired people and so many brilliant men? So few in proportion to the length of our historical life, so many gaonim [geniuses, outstanding intellects] in proportion to the number of Jews, because this is very characteristic of Jews: at every step, so many highly gifted, enormously capable, ingenious, forward-looking people, heads loaded with knowledge, minds sharp as a knife, intellects like freight elevators that play with the heaviest loads, balance them in the air.

Names come to mind – names from the very ancient times. The learned ones mentioned in the Talmud who produced such penetrating, forceful analysis, as almost no one after them – gaonim such as Reb Saadia, such as the Rambam, such as Rashi, such as Reb Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller [Tosafos Yom Tov], such as the Rashbam, up to close to us, to the Vilna Gaon, the Baal haTanya [Shneur Zalman of Ladi – the founder of Chabad] and still closer.

A gallery of spiritual lineage that is rare in the world and yet placed against the gallery of other peoples, something so remarkable, strange, exotic. Max Brod, the Prague novelist, once attempted to place two such figures, one near the other. One a gaon, the other with an ingenious nature. Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer and his student Johannes Kepler. Tycho Brahe was sharper, a more capable imaginer than Kepler. He also was in his way a gaon. However, Kepler, the quiet, the more modest, the naïve one was genial. Tycho Brahe understood. Kepler created. And ingeniousness in the last analysis is creativity.

However, the gaon does not create. The gaon is not naïve, the gaon is too smart to create. He has everything that is needed for greatness except the last: the capability to be in the “now,” to tarry in the world of chaos and pull out of it form.

And perhaps, this is the stumbling block for the Jewish gaon: he is afraid of chaos; he does not dare create.

* * *

These are random thoughts that emerged for me when reading a remarkable, ancient book, as fresh if it had been written last night: The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon (translated to a very good Yiddish by A.Y. Goldszmidt in Vilna).

[Page 452]

And more than this book itself, which already was long known in its German original, the picture of Solomon Maimon captivated me. A picture from the 18th century (Maimon was born in 1754 near Nesvizh and died in 1800 in the house of the Silesian magnate, Count [von] Kalckreuth). A smooth, shaved face, a braid that dangled from his collar, the garb of the 18th century, a sharp expression in his facial features and a great resemblance to [Emmanuel] Kant.

I looked at the picture and before my eyes the man, Solomon Maimon the migrant from old Poland, stood as if alive. The gaon from Nesvizh, who had absorbed all of the knowledge, all of the questions; the scholar, the thinker, the unworldly person, lonely and not understood.

I see him as he walks around in his small shtetele [town], broken, tattered, with half broken boots, studies Kabbalah with a preacher, sits with him all night with a chapter, and does not let him sleep and drives the young wife of the poor preacher to despair. I see him as he comes home, catches blows from his angry mother-in-law, curses from his boorish, hateful wife, sneaks under the bed of his mother-in-law at night, pinches her until she is blue and green and almost frightened to death. And here he goes with his friend – also a poor man and idler, both still boys and both married and fathers of children – through the fields and speculates about God and the world. He, the thinker; the friend – Lapidus, a poet.

Or here he stands in the abandoned castle of the Polish nobleman with a crayon in his hand and draws the pictures of the old tapestries. And then I see him on the streets of the provincial Königsberg, of the petty bourgeois Berlin, of Hamburg – always hungry, alone. Persecuted and deeply, deeply unfortunate.

He knows everyone: Mendelssohn, the affable follower of the Enlightenment, the “enlightened one,” but Mendelssohn was afraid of Maimon's sharpness. Maimon was too brilliant for him. Mendelssohn is a commentator, not more than an intermediary between Jewry and German culture, moderate and mediocre. And Maimon was broken, destroyed, a slaughtering knife with a very small scratch.[2] He is a “Sinai and Oker Harim” – moved mountains in order to bring them together.[3] The Rambam and Kant, Kabbalah and exact science. Maimon understood too much, so much that he elevated himself above all viewpoints. He thought so critically that even the brilliant Kant could no longer follow him. And how could the mediocre Mendelssohn do it?

Maimon wrote books in Hebrew. No one wanted to publish them. He wrote books in German, an analysis of Kantian philosophy, an attempt at a new logic and so on, but very few read the books. Too difficult, too deep, and too negative.

He died young. And his name was almost immediately forgotten. Only a legend, a shadow, no longer a spiritual reality.

From time to time, a researcher or someone else remembers him. The modern logicians renewed his memory. He even was quoted by the rare reader, only in a specially designated book about logic.

However, he is also remembered as one of those who wanted something, [was] excited, pensive and did not achieve it.

A Kant-like face and yet not a Kantian man. Brilliant, but not a genius.

Maimon tells about his remarkable qualities. From his youth on, he said, he loved to paint and if he had lived under other conditions, perhaps he would have become a great painter – but only of sketches, reflections, beginnings, not of finished and completed works. He grasped that he could craft the outlines, but could not carry them out, did not have the patience. That means he did not have the sense of the figure, nor the urge for the form. That means – he was not creative.

Several hundred years earlier, he would surely have become a second [Abraham] Ibn Ezra, a great, insightful thinker; 100 years later, in a new European atmosphere, he would have been a sort of [Otto] Weininger, fanatic, sharp, penetrating and more paradoxical than radical.

But at the time in the 18th century, when there was a giant struggle by the culture to create new content and form – he could not find a place, not in German culture, which began to build itself, not in the Jewish one, which began to crumble. A vagabond with the body – and even more, a vagabond, an immigrant from his soul.

* * *

I think that among the Jews, a new spiritual period also began. The time of prophecy returned, some kind of fresh air, an urge for creativity, and little by little, the character of the Jewish gaon disappeared.

We still did not have any inspiration – except Einstein, a truly spiritual genius. However, we no longer had the gaon. Mediocrity – however, better this way, a liberation that could lead to a revival.

We must now count the gaonim. They are part of history for us and there is no doubt that in the great and remarkable Jewish gallery near the Vilner Gaon hangs the picture of the last gaon, the gaon from Nesvizh – Solomon Maimon.

(Der Tog [The Day], New York, the 19th of May 1928)


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Scholar noted for his wisdom Return
  2. A knife used for kosher slaughtering cannot have any imperfections. Return
  3. Sinai represents a person with a deep knowledge of Jewish law; Oker Harim – an uprooter of mountains – refers to someone with analytical reasoning who uses logic to reach conclusions. Return


[Page 453]

The Engraver Hershko Leibowicz from Nesvizh
(1700-1770)

by Yosef Sandel

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

During the Feudal Era until the beginning of the rytownikes, painting and sculpture in Europe exclusively served the church and holders of power, that is, the king and the magnates [wealthy and influential noblemen]. Etching was the only reproduction technique of that period, thanks to which the educated strata of the bourgeoisie could become acquainted with the artworks of the great masters. Books also were illustrated with etchings. Their title pages and illustrations were works of artists, and thanks to them we can appreciate the visual arts culture of the given time. Jewish books that were published in the 16th to 18th centuries in Krakow, Żółkiew [Zhovkva], and Lublin had title pages decorated with various ornaments, illuminations and other drawings. Engraving played an extraordinary role as reproductive art, until they began to make use of lithography, zincography and photography.

At the beginning of the second half of the 18th century, we encounter in Poland extraordinary works of the copper-engraving art. This is the ancestral lineage book which consists of 165 family portraits of one of the most powerful magnate families in the country – the Radziwill Dukes.

This book was published in the year 1758 and contained an extensive forward in the Latin language. However, this book did not make any mention of the creator of these 165 etched portraits. The author of all of the etchings was a modest, provincial Jew who lived in the years 1700-1770 at the estate of the great magnate, Duke Michal Radziwill and was named Hershko Leibowicz.

Hershko Leibowicz was an engraver who did not have his equal in Poland in the 18th century. It seems simply unbelievable that a person from a secluded province, who probably had not left his birthplace, would be in a position to master the technique of engraving on hard metal. An investigation still has not shown who supported him in his creations as an almost anonymous artist. When Leibowicz was born – probably in 1700 – the great Polish engraver, Jeremiasz Falck, had already been dead for 23 years. Even at that, Falck, as is known, spent the last decade of his live abroad. It is not impossible that Leibowicz saw several works by Falck in the Radziwill's picture gallery. It may also be that these works actually inspired Leibowicz to begin his artistic creations.

Tomasz Makowski (1549-1616), who lived before the time of Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł (1549-1616), can be considered one of the engravers who, like Leibowicz, were connected with Nesvizh. Makowski was an engraver and cartographer. He accompanied the above mentioned Radziwill on his trip to Palestine and he later illustrated the book that the other one wrote under the title, Dos Oyle-Regl Zeyn tsu der Heyliker Erd [The Pilgrimage to the Holy Land]. The book was published in Krakow in 1607. Leibowicz probably saw the book and it may be that the engravings that were in it had an effect on his creations.

Hershko Leibowicz's artistic activity falls during the time when the Duke Radziwill-Rybeńko lived.

It is possible that they entrusted the engraving of the family portraits because of a suggestion of Rybeńko's wife, Urszula of the Wiśniowieckis (1705-1753). She was for that time a very educated woman. She translated French dramatic works into Polish and renewed the activity of the printing shop that belonged to the Radziwills and had been inactive for a long time. She enlarged the castle library to 20,000 volumes.

It is still not known how it was possible for a simple Jew to be entrusted with creating the family portraits of the Radziwill magnates. Possibly, because he already was employed in forming magnificent guipure lace, clasps, jabots, broches. But it is most interesting that the character of each personality that Leibowicz brought out expressed the person's characteristic traits. Thus, Leibowicz created 165 portraits, which later entered the original book of lineage that was printed in 1756 in the duchy's printing shop in Nesvizh. Nowhere in the extensive Latin introduction to the portrait book, which was written by the manager of the Radziwill gallery, Franciszek Woche, can be found the name of the creator of all of the engraved portraits and there are not even any clues about him. Only two signatures, one of which is found on the first engraving, the second on the last, provide evidence that Leibowicz is the creator of the engravings. The signature conveyed:

H. Leybowicz Sculp. Nieswissii

Paging through this book of portraits, which was printed very carefully and beautifully, we marvel at the great effort that the artist placed in his creation, which should have raised the glory of one of the then, most powerful families in Poland. This original book of lineage, whose first copy was designated for the Radziwill family itself, was completed on parchment, magnificently bound and provided with a gilded, princely crest. Later, when it was printed in further editions, it was well-known throughout Europe. It was found in every European imperial or princely castle. But no one was interested in the creator of these valuable engraved portraits. This was not an exceptional case because many great magnates made use of the talent of those subjugated to them. There are many great such examples. One of the most extreme cases was described by

[Page 454]

Johann Bernoulli, a famous art expert of the 18th century. Traveling through Poland, he found several splendid marble sculptures in Branicki's palace in Bialystok that depicted the regal hetman [commander or leader] Branicki. When he asked whose creation this sculpture was, he learned that the sculpture had been created by a Bialystok Jew who was still alive. Bernoulli became more interested in this artist and it was learned that he [the artist] was unemployed and lived in great need.

Hershko Leibowicz was in a fortunate situation, because sometimes – although in a most modest place – he placed his signature [on his work].

Not having any exact information about the life and creations of this phenomenal engraver from Nesvizh, except for the works mentioned that adorned the Radziwill family [estate], it is worth giving the opinions of two esteemed personalities (they also come from the Radziwill estates in the area of Nesvizh), of the philosopher, Solomon Maimon (1753-1800) and the poet, [Władysław] Syrokomla. Only Syrokomla mentions Leibowicz. In his autobiography (1792), which he presented to King Stanisław Augustus, Maimon only describes the Radziwill palace, where Leibowicz worked on the etched portraits for so many years.

The opinions of the two mentioned writers partially illuminates for us the conditions in which Hershko Leibowicz lived and worked.

Maimon, writing about his childhood years, remembered that he always was drawn to the magnificent Nesvizh castle. He would often sneak inside and wander through the giant, empty, unheated rooms where he copied the patterns of the tapestries on the walls. Once they even found him half-frozen in one of the rooms with a pencil and paper in his frozen-stiff fingers. Although Maimon lived at the same time as Leibowicz, he does not mention him in his autobiography. It is possible that in his wandering through the castle he did not go to the rooms in which Leibowicz worked or his visits took place during the hours when the etcher was not at work.

Syrokomla also published his book, Amolike Wanderungen iber Meyne Gegntn [Past Wanderings through My Environs], in 1853, remembering the magnificent Nesvizh castle. Describing the royal salon, which was located on the third floor and served as an eating room and for welcoming guests, he writes of the extraordinary wealth. He also remembers the Hetman salon, that is, the gallery in which the family portraits of the Radziwills were found. This probably was the room in which Leibowicz had engraved his portrait etchings. Syrokomila, thinking about the portraits of the Hetmen, Polish and Lithuanian, said that a number of those whose portraits appear there are dignified men; on the contrary, others “taught their children how to use power in order to oppress the poor.”

The portrait book of the Radziwill family was published for the second time in 1875 in Petersburg. And although the book made a great impression, again very little mention was made about Leibowicz. Here and there, attempts were even made to clarify who this engraver was, but mostly they were satisfied with establishing that the 165 portrait engravings of the Radziwill princes were created by a Nesvizh Jew, Hershko Leibowicz. In 1879, in the journal, Klasi [Class], Wójcicki, in an obituary about Jan (Salomon) Minheimer, the famous Polish engraver and wood carver, mentions Vit Stwosz [Veit Stoss – German sculpture], Jan Ziarnko [Polish printmaker] and Jacenty Jagiełło, who illustrated books in Krakow in the years 1620-1665. He included Hershko Leibowicz among them, too. In this note, he wrote, “In this unassuming circle of artists, Hershko Leibowicz, a Jew who with his woodcuts decorated this work, which was published in Vilna during the first half of the 18th century.” Wójcicki writes further in his necrology that the collection of 165 portraits of the Radziwill family belongs among the most pertinent work of this artist. [Samuel] Orgelbrand's Encyclopedia, mentioning Leibowicz, says: “A Jew, one of the most famous Polish engravers of the 18th century, who lived in Nesvizh. In the court of Duke Radziwill. Among many of his works, the collection of 165 drawings, which present the members of this family, who lived from 1346 to 1780 (an error in the last date, which should be 1758 – S.) stands out. There are two editions of this work. Both are rarities.” Julian Kołaczkowski, the author of the Verterbukh fun Poylishe Kupershtikher [Dictionary of Polish Engravers],[1] mentions Leibowicz in this work in the following way: “Leibowicz H., born in Nesvizh, (1700-1770), engraved many portraits and other things. He also created 105 (an error – S.) portraits of the Radziwill Dukes.”

From these notes about Leibowicz, the first that appear in Polish publications, we can in truth conclude that Leibowicz created many engravings, but they do not conclusively say which. We learn from them that Leibowicz was [also] a woodcarver.

Citing the notes about Hersko Leibowicz that were written by Edward Rastawiecki in his Verterbukh fun Poylishe Kupershtikher,[2] we read on page 171 of the dictionary the following: “Leibowicz, Hersh, according to Sobieszczanski – a woodcarver, a Jew, worked in Nesvizh at the court of Duke Radziwill during the first half of the 18th century, principally on ornamental books.”

[Page 455]

Then Rastawiecki cited a memorial book in honor of the Duchess Anna Sanguszko.

The cultural historian, Stanisław Wasylewski, describes in his work, Bei der Firshtin [With the Duchess], his impression of the work of Hershko Leibowicz in the following manner:

“I found a great book in the corner of the old library that I could barely drag to the table. The parchment was imposingly heavy, creased by dampness over the course of centuries. On the volume [covered in] real pig leather, which was probably removed from two young piglets, a golden princely crest once shone; now it is pale and rubbed off. Paging through the collection, I noticed that the etchings interest us more than the history of the family. How carefully these etchings were completed; how the magnificently woven clothing delights the eye. A true exhibition of attire: great coats, kontusz [outer garment worn by noblemen] and ermines, girlish frills and Italian velvet, satin, serge, velvet, fur hats, heavy armor, French sandals and sabots [clogs]. It was a great deal of work for the creator of these pieces. Who this was no longer known because the works were not signed. Only the signature of the publisher was in the book – the manager of the Nesvizh collection, Herr [Marcin Franciszek] Wobe. Much later and almost accidentally, I found the name of the copper etcher. He was not Dutch and not Italian. He did not possess a beautiful name and he saw very little of the world. He was only named Hersh Leibowicz, a modest Jew from the abandoned, small Nesvizh houses, where he was born and where he died. Perhaps he held a lease of one of the princely farms; perhaps, he traded in rabbit skins – it is unknown. During his free minutes, this extraordinary Jew took to such work, which must have evoked wonder among the Lithuanian Jews; he etched on a tinplate. Certainly, they laughed at him in the suburb; certainly, they shook their heads with pity, saying, ‘The Hershko. Unfortunately, he is deranged…’”

Hershko Leibowicz lived for 70 years. In addition to the portraits of the Radziwills, he also did a drawing for the work, Speeches and Eulogies at the Funeral of Anna née Sanguszko Radziwill, Vilna 1750. This drawing contains the only trace of the author – the signature:

H. Leybowicz Sculp. Nieswisii.

When in 1750 the print shop of the Radziwills arose in Nesvizh on the basis of privileges from the king, Leibowicz received a strict order that he should prepare a beautiful etching for the first book that would be printed by the print shop. This was the already mentioned book of Speeches and Eulogies. A certain foreign painter, Maurici Peteti [Maurizio Pedetti], drew the innermost part of the Jesuit church during the funeral of the Princess Anna. Leibowicz engraved this drawing very beautifully on a metal sheet. It appears that this work must have satisfied the taste of the Nesvizh magnate because not long after he received a very prestigious proposal. The Duke, the Pan [Lord], ordered that the Jew be allowed into the castle and be settled in the Hetman salon. “Aha! – thought the court members – what kind of times are these – some sort of a Jew in the Hetman salon!.” However, the Duke, the Hetman, further ordered: “Let Leibowicz sit there for as long as it takes to complete all 165 portraits in tin and let Herr Wobe explain to him which work he should make more beautiful, which middling. And when he finishes, let us put together a book to the glory of our ancestors and for the memory for further generations.” Hershko probably had great trouble creating 165 portraits, some of which were so ugly, may God protect us. However, he made what he had been ordered to do. He made them in a way that they appear as if someone had not made them in dark, ignorant Poland in the time of the Saxons. He did not wonder at all that they had forgotten to have him sign his works – because how was this possible, Hershko Leibowicz being near Hetmen and senators.

And later, they forgot about the artist from the Nesvizh suburbs, who enlarged the small family of our engravers. It is worth raising him from oblivion and may the art historian have in his heart the matter of Hershko Leibowicz the engraver.

Thus, Stanislaw Wasylewski, for whom it truly lay in his heart, wrote about Hershko Leibowicz and about his work and about his praiseworthy actions for Polish engraving; the effort should be made to research the history of this remarkable talent. Until then, nothing had been done in this matter.

Leibowicz treated every individual portrait with a great deal of virtuosity and individually interpreted each personality. The technique of engraving reached great mastery with him. Some of his pieces excelled with their particular softness of line and form and the contradictions of light and shadows clash in them. In many pieces can be noticed variety and artistry. This happens mostly in the expression of the engravings that represent the last of the Radziwills, who lived at the same time as Leibowicz. It is possible that these were carried out based on the engraver's own studies [of his subjects].

Leibowicz's 165 works show an artist, an engraver in various phases of his creating. Taking into account the demands of the piece-work, that the points and lines that come out of the engraving tool on the copperplate must be carried out in an extraordinarily precise [manner] – we can assume that completing a portrait demanded two to three months of work during a six-to-eight-hour workday. Leibowicz spent twenty-plus years on the portraits.

The power of the Radziwill Polish magnate family has long passed by. The estate, which belonged to the Radziwills for so many centuries, was transferred

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to the grandchildren of the hundred thousand peasants who were once exploited by this magnate. Hersh Leibowicz, who lived during the dark time of feudalism, in reality, recorded these Radziwills in his work with their many titles, but those magnates do not evoke our interest and their memory does not remain in Poland. The memory of Hersh Leibowicz, the magnificent engraver and artist who enriched the culture of the Polish people, will remain.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Verterbukh fun Poylishe Kupershtikher un Fremde, velkhe Voynen in Poyln, oder velkhe Haltn Zikh Do Tseytveylik, fun di Eltste biz di Neyeste Tseytn, vi a Beyshteyer tsu der Geshikhte fun der Kunst in Poyln [Dictionary of Polish Engravers and Foreigners, Who Live in Poland, or Who Are Here Temporarily, from the Oldest to the Newest Times, as a Contribution to the History of Art in Poland]. Created by Julian Kołaczkowski, Lemberg, Society under the name Szewszenki, under the managing committee of F. Sarnicki, 1874. Return
  2. Verterbukh fun Poylishe Kupershtikher un oykh Fremde, Bazesene, oder azelkhe, vos Arbetn Tseytveylik in Poyln [Dictionary of Polish Engravers as well as Foreigners, Resident Here, or Those Who Temporarily Work in Poland], Edward Rastawiecki: publication of the Friends of the Sciences Society, Poznan, 1886. Return


Leibowicz Hersh (Herszek)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

One of the most significant Polish rytownikes [engravers] of the 18th century lived in Nesvizh at the court of Duke Radziwill. Among many of his creations with Relic, excels: the collection of personalities from the Radziwill family that consists of 165 drawings of family members who lived from 1346 to 1780. There are two publications of this work, but [they are] very rare.

(Entsyklopedia Powszechna [Universal Encyclopedia] – General Encyclopedia, 16th volume, Warsaw 1864, p. 824.)


Undzer Foter Shomer[1]

by Miriam Shomer-Cunzer

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

(Two chapters, 1 and 2, from the book with the same name. The author – Shomer's daughter, Miriam Shomer-Zunser. [Shomer was the pen-name of the novelist, Nahum Meir Schaikewitz].)

 

Forefathers

In the first quarter of the rytownikes, in the city of Nesvizh, Minsk gubernia [administrative subdivision], lived a Jew with the name, Reb Gavriel Goldberg. In his time, he was considered a very rich man. He traded in freight; his ships sailed across the River Neman and far, farther – all the way to the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Reb Gavriel was still an energetic man in his deep sixties and it appeared that there was not a more fortunate man than he in the world. But, in truth, it was not so, because he and his wife did not have any children.

At that time among Jews, having a child, a kaddish [one who can recite the memorial prayer for a parent], was as necessary as life. Dying without a kaddish meant that a Jew's house and name would be forgotten, that a branch of the Jewish people would be cut off. This strongly tormented Reb Gavriel and he also did not want to leave his large fortune to a stranger.

He thought about his life with great concern: his wife was the same age as he was. They had been married for almost 50 years, but she did not bear him a child during the entire time. He did not want to divorce her. However, now, when his life would soon reach the age of 70, it hurt him very much that he had not merited to have a child.

Reb Gavriel consulted with his friends, but he encountered a difference of opinion. One group reminded him of his age and also spoke of fairness in regard to his wife. The other group argued that the Jewish people stand higher than a wife, even if she is loved and valued. Those who were concerned with the wrong to the Jewish people gave Reb Gavriel hope that with a younger wife he could bring joy to the Jewish people. And after a long struggle with himself, he finally decided that he would divorce his wife.

The old man began to look into receiving a get [a religious divorce]. But here he struck against the iron wall of Jewish law, that says, that a man may divorce (give a get to) his wife if 10 years after the marriage she has not borne him a child. However, if he has not done it at 10 years, he cannot divorce her later on these same grounds.

The rich man, Reb Gavriel, was not accustomed to not being able to do something and, particularly, in a matter which so deeply touched his life. It did not please him that the Nesvizher rabbinate did not approve of his wishes. But, yes, wealth or no wealth, kaddish or no kaddish – they were stubborn and did not want to give their agreement.

Reb Gavriel was very enraged. It should be understood that for many years he had generously distributed tzedakah [charity]. There was no synagogue, no house of prayer, no mikvah [ritual bath] and no poorhouse where his hundreds could not be found, but now permission for his request could not be found? He begged, promised to take care of his wife fairly. However, it did not help. There being no choice, Reb Gavriel carried out the divorce procedure in another city and began to carry on a struggle to free himself of his wife.

The story of Reb Gavriel's get so agitated Nesvizh that it was recorded in the Pinkas [community record book] there. At that time, such an occurrence stirred up the existing life. Famous rabbis from the surrounding cities and shtetlekh [towns] were drawn into the quarrel.

Reb Gavriel went from one beis din [religious court] to another. The entire matter revolved around the interpretation of the law under the specific circumstances. Several rabbis even believed that Reb Gavriel was correct, but none of them wanted to take upon themselves the carrying out of the get. Finally, the Nesvizh Rabbi, Reb Nakhum-Meir, dared to allow Reb Gavriel to give a get to his wife and allowed him to marry again.

The story did not end with this. The old wife did not want to accept the get in her hand. She also did not want to touch the 10,000 rubles that was pledged to her.

However, Reb Gavriel did not hear her, and several months

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after his divorce, he married a 16-year-old girl. She was named Sorke.

Reb Gavriel already was 69 years old. The wedding was a quiet one; only those closest [to the family] and a few guests [attended]. Rabbi, Reb Nahum-Meir, himself performed the marriage ceremony.

The burden that the rabbi took upon himself was heavy. He made the mood of those who had assembled around him difficult. Standing at the khupe [wedding canopy], he suddenly called out: “If the wedding is against the will of God, Gavriel may your wife remain barren, unfruitful, like the sand in the desert; however, if I have followed God's will may your bond be blessed with children, and you, Gavriel, should even have the merit to make the weddings for the youngest of them. Everyone, say Amen!” The wedding guests answered, “Amen” and ran away in dread. Sorke remained standing as if petrified by the rabbi's words.

It is said that Nesvizh in the coming months began to watch Sorke. It did not take long and a rumor arose that “Sorke was frowning.” They began to tell secrets that Sorke was no longer going to the mikvah [ritual bath]. The shtetl believed that one of two things was true: either Sorke no longer lived with her husband or that she was pregnant. The latter was shown to be the truth.

When the news reached Gavriel's old wife, she accepted the get. She saw God's will in the coming of the child. She gathered her things, took the money, which had been pledged to her, and traveled to Eretz-Yisroel to die. She could not give any children to her people, but at least her old bones would rest in the earth of the Holy Land.

They began to speculate in Nesvizh: – a boy or a girl? A kaddish or not? It actually was not a kaddish, but a girl.

She was given the name Hodes; the first child of the couple later was the mother of the one who was known as the Shomer. He was given the name Nahum-Meir, after the rabbi who had married Gavriel and Sorke.

From the beginning, the 16-year-old Sorke looked at her marriage to the old Reb Gavriel as a Godly-thing. If it was destined that she provide him with a generation of children, she had the right to hold her head high and be proud of her good fortune. The birth of each child was a sort of “Amen” to the Rabbi Nahum-Meir's oath.

Sorke bore 10 children for her husband – sons and daughters. Reb Gavriel reached the high age of over 100 years. He lived to make the weddings for all of his children including the very youngest.

It is even said that the grandmother Sorke reproached herself for marrying off her youngest son, Avraham. If she had not married him off, she argued, her old one [Gavriel] would have lived and lived – who knows for how long.

Sorke lived with her husband nearly forty years. During that time, she took over his businesses and became the boss of not only their house, but also over the cargo ships that traveled to distant lands.

Sorke was a clever woman. She could fit in in every milieu. Trading in goods from other countries, she learned other languages. She could speak German, Russian and Polish. She looked after her old husband and left him to his studying. She alone raised her 10 children with a strict but warm hand. Her house was a sort of matriarchy in which she reigned. Her sons and daughters helped her in the businesses. Under her supervision, Reb Gavriel's ships doubled and Gavriel's Sorke, as she was called, became a very well-known personality, not only in Nesvizh, but throughout the area.

When Hodes was ready to be married, her mother looked for a husband for her who would fit into this life, which her mother had designated for her.

Hodes was a picture-beautiful girl and she was extraordinarily educated for that time. Like her mother, she knew how to speak, to read and to write several languages. She also could play the guitar. In addition to all of this, her upbringing was strictly Orthodox, religious.

In Sorke's eyes, Hodes' greatest quality was her suitability for commerce. Therefore, she looked for a match for her daughter in which the husband would be a scholar; he would be busy with the fine points of studying and to have enough money to be able to provide Hodes with her own proper business.

Sorke actually chose a certain Yitzhak-Ayzik Szajkewicz for her daughter, a son of prosperous forest traders. The match was just as Sorke wanted. The groom was a quiet, learned dreamer and, may he live for 120 years, one of the inheritors of his grandfather, Eliahu-Leib's very large fortune.

After the wedding, Hodes opened a large import business, which she ran with an iron hand. Everything went as she wished. Everything, except one thing, but an important one. Over time, Yitzhak-Ayzik developed not at all the way his wife and mother-in-law wished. He stopped nodding over his [religious] books and began dreaming about the redemption of the Jewish people from exile.

His dream would hardly have disturbed Hodes if her husband had not been so impractical. However, he created hardships for her with his idealism. He took money from the business and loaned or gave it away to everyone who asked. He believed and trusted everyone. Hodes was patient, watched and did not forbid him to do it because after everything, Yitzhak-Ayzik was the father of her children.

Meanwhile, Eliahu-Lieb died and left a sum of over 50,000 rubles for his heirs. While Yitzhak-Ayzik's father, one of Eliahu-Leib three sons, was no longer alive, his portion of the inheritance was supposed to go him, to Yitzhak-Ayzik. However, the impractical man allowed himself to be cheated of his portion of the inheritance by his rich uncles. Hodes was furious. According to her commonsense, it seemed that there was no greater shame for a man than to let himself be so badly fooled. In losing his inheritance, Yitzhak-Ayzik also lost the appeal and favor in

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his wife's eyes. The family peace was disturbed from then on.

Where there is no peace, there is no blessing. The conflict between Hodes and her husband led to a destruction of their income. Hodes had to close the business and the yoke of the means of support fell on Yitzhak-Ayzik. During his hardship, his uncle, Avraham Szajkewicz, who had cheated him of his inheritance, came to his aid. Uncle Avraham arranged for a position for him as the manager at a whiskey brewery to which he was connected. However, Yitzhak-Ayzik was not suited to this work. His Uncle Avraham sent him to the shtetl [town] of Kharol [Karalina? 54°48' N 28°10' E], where he became an “inspector” of other excise tax collectors. Yitzhak-Ayzik was unsuitable for this office. From Kharol he went to the village of Narasim [Naroshi? 53°48' N 24°30' E] and became an excise tax collector. From Narasim he went to Viszenka [? 53°12' N 29°35' E] and then to Janki [? 54°52' N 27°48' E].

Yitzhak-Ayzik tormented himself for four years until he was able to bring his family to him [in Janki].

 

Childhood

Meanwhile, in Nesvizh, Yitzhak-Ayzik's son Nahum-Meir (he was born on the 18th of December, 1846) was raised under the supervision of his ninety-something year-old grandfather Gavriel. This was a good-looking child, with pitch-black hair and blue-green eyes, with a short nose – like his father's – and white skin like his mother. He went to kheder [religious primary school], was a good student and started to learn Gemora [Talmud] at six years of age, but he was strongly drawn to the outdoors. The green fields, the aromatic forests – how could they be equated with the crowded, dark kheder? The boy, now a little older, began to run around over the hills and the valleys barefoot and dreamy. His friends, seeing his white body, gave him the name “White Feet,” His teacher could not tolerate how the young boy wandered around. He was not happy with how the Gem-ra-yingl [boy who studies the Talmud] tore himself away from studying; he whipped him in the old manner.

Nahum-Meir was not a fortunate child. His mother was busy earning a living; his good father was not at home. The story of [his father] being cheated out of the inheritance saddened their days. His grandmother Sorke, no longer as rich as before, was occupied with her businesses. The teacher with the whip embittered his childish life. The only consolation that remained for the boy was his old grandfather, Gavriel. And Nahum-Meir had another consolation – telling stories. Sitting on his grandfather's knee, the young child would pour out his heart and fantasize about his errors [made in kheder] through various stories. His grandfather loved him. He had great love for Nakhum-Meir – named after the one who had given him great luck. The old one would lay his strong hand on the child's small head and say: “Tell me, my child, tell me.” And the small one would first tell him, his grandfather alone, and then also his friends – the boys who gathered around to hear his stories.

When his father, Yitzhak-Ayzik, later called his wife and children to come to Viszenka where he was then living, it was with regret that Nahum-Meir left his grandfather, the fields and forests around Nesvizh and the river. However, he consoled himself that he would have his father around him, and it would be a new world, new houses, new streets, new people, and a new teacher, who, perhaps, would not use the whip. However, it was not destined for there to be a good teacher for him. The child was sent to a teacher in Kharol, where he lived oyf kest [his meals were provided by residents of the town].

The new teacher was not better than the old one. He not only flogged with a whip like the old teacher, he also did not provide enough to eat. The teacher's wife gave orders to the student as if to a servant:

– Nahum-Meir, clean up the room! Nahum-Meir, carry out the slop pail! Nahum-Meir, chop the wood for the oven!

When he did not obey, he was beaten until bloody. The boy's life in this house became dark and bitter.

One evening, it was during the winter, the teacher's wife asked the student to go to the store to buy something. There was a blizzard outside and it was said in the shtetl that wolves were walking around the streets. The boy was afraid to go outside. He refused to go. The teacher's wife in great fury grabbed a stick and began to beat him. The teacher helped until the child was almost killed. Blood flowed. The child's shouting was heard in the street. Two men ran in to save him. The men actually were the boy's maternal uncles, Yehiel Wigodski from Bobruisk and Yosef Miszkind from Minsk, who had come to Kharol to seek him. Saving their unfortunate nephew, the uncles gave the teacher and his wife a dressing down, took the boy from their house, and brought him back home to his parents.

Yitzhak-Ayzik decided not to send his poor child to any kheder. However, Hodes did not agree: a child must go to a kheder; if not, God knows what will become of him! She looked for a teacher in another town and again sent him away. There he suffered from poverty and want and became mangy, sleeping on a pack of rags. Hodes had to bring her son home to Janki where Yitzhak-Ayzik was looking for a new means of earning a living. Meanwhile, Nahum-Meir stopped going to kheder.

The most fortunate time of his young life now began for him. Free from kheder, Nahum-Meir began to study and read what he wanted. He read the entire Tanakh [Torah, Writings, Prophets] in [Moses] Mendelsohn's German translation as well as popular historical writings – Josephus and She'erit Yisroel [The Remnant of Israel].

A year later, Yitzhak-Ayzik and his family again came to Nesvizh. Nahum-Meir was then 11 years old. He did not want to again grow peyes [side curls], put on a kapote [long, black coat worn by pious men] and return to the teachers and rabbis who he hated so much. However, he could not help himself: thus had his mother demanded. However, the great sorrow that again enveloped the boy diminished suddenly a short time later through a very new and wonderful experience.

Until now, two extraordinary elements were mixed in the life of young Nahum-Meir, which

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strongly affected his imagination. First, the wonderful stories that were still told about his grandfather, Gavriel, and his grandmother, Sorke; second, the misfortune that occurred with his father – the story about the cheating of his inheritance. Now there was a third influence – this was his Grandmother Sorke's attic.

During the time Sorke was busy with fruit, merchants from foreign lands were in contact with her about business matters. It would happen often that a merchant would forget an old suitcase, a strange hat, a wild coat, a book, a paper and so on. Sorke would gather the things and hide them in the attic until merchants would send for them or come themselves to take them. Little by little, bundles of strange things were collected in the attic. The Grandmother Sorke never dreamed that this attic would become a place for her first grandchild, where his fantasy could float and fly to ecstasy.

One day, the grandmother's grandchild, Hodes' brat, Nahum-Meir, went astray in the attic. He saw a treasure there, which only children and poets can appreciate: ancient hats, old Sephardic canisters, instruments, clothing that was worn by people from distant, strange lands. This immense treasure aroused the power of presentation of the young story teller. However, he immediately found an even greater treasure – books! Books published in foreign languages, languages he could read because his mother and grandmother had taught him. There were German, Russian and Polish books that were written histories of loves and murder and of world wars! Wonderful things that he had never heard of in kheder [religious primary school].

Among these books was one that completely engrossed the young Nahum-Meir. This was a translation of a French book with the strange name, Paris Mystery [Les Mystères de Paris], written by a writer with the curious name Eugene Sue! The effect that the book had on him was enormous. The 11-year-old boy reread it many times until the book with its form and its style entered his agitated soul and gave him the wings of his imagination.

Nahum-Meir was almost not seen from the first moment that he found the hidden treasures. He lay hidden in the wonderful books every free moment. Until one Shabbos [Sabbath], his mother quietly followed him and grabbed him by the hand. In her anger, the pious Hodes slapped her son and, forgetting that it was the holy day of Shabbos, she tore the “unkosher book” to pieces. After this, the members of the household watched the child prodigy [said ironically] with a thousand eyes.

Nahum-Meir was very embittered until God helped and Yitzhak-Ayzik, the only one who sympathized with his son, received a position in the shtetl orchestra. There, for the first time in his life, Nahum-Meir was destined to receive a teacher whom he came to love – a teacher, a follower of the Enlightenment, who would quietly give him novels to read: Abraham Mapu's Ahabat Zion [Love of Zion] and Ashmat Shomron [Guilt of Samaria] in a very wonderful Hebrew. However, his pious mother learned of this and took him away from his dear teacher. His father, the apikoyres [nonbeliever], sympathized with his son but he could not help him.

A few years later, the young man lived with the orchestra and then began his wandering from one yeshiva [religious secondary school] to another.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Our Father Shomer Return


Falk Heylperin [Halperin]
(5th of December 1876 – 8th of March 1945)

by B. Tsh.

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Born in Nesvizh, White Russia. His father was a gardener and a son-in-law of a rich shoemaker, in whose home Halperin was raised. [He] studied at a kheder, yeshivus and, for a time, in the tailors' kloyz [small synagogue usually belonging to a particular group] in Minsk. Then, he started general studies, was a teacher “on speculation” (with the Jewish community), then took exams to become a teacher, worked in Minsk for a year in a school under the leadership of the well-known Grigory Gershuni [one of the founders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party], then, as a teacher of Hebrew in the local Talmud Torah [primary religious school for poor boys], from which he was removed in 1905 for bringing Yiddish into the Talmud Torah as a subject and for trying to organize the teachers to fight for reforms in the neglected teaching institution. Halperin then left for Vilna, where he worked at the Hebrew girls' school, Yehudiya; in 1906, he traveled to Petersburg. There he became a teacher at the school of the Khevre Mefitse Haskole [Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment] and was removed by the trustees for organizing a group to study Yiddish literature. After he left Petersburg, he was active as a Hebrew-Yiddish teacher in schools in Simferopol, Warsaw, and again in Vilna. During the First World War, as a plenipotentiary from the Moscow division of Mefitse Haskole, he organized and led (in 1916) a Yiddish school for refugees in Tambov – a model school in its time. He was one of the organizers of the first congress of Yiddishist teachers in Tambov (1916), secretary of the Yidisher Shul-lige [Yiddish School League] (later, Culture League) in Kiev (1917). In 1918 he was the school instructor of the Jewish Ministry in Ukraine, then teacher at the Ekaterinoslav gymnazie [secular secondary school] in Bron, where Yiddish was the language of instruction. He returned to Vilna in 1921, where he was active as a teacher of Hebrew and Yiddish at the gymnazie of Sofye Gurevitch, at the Yiddish teachers' seminary of Tsentraler Bildungs-Komitet (Tsentraler Bildungs-Komitet [Central Educational Committee), among others.

Halperin began his literary activity in Hebrew in around 1900 in Hatsfira [The Siren]; after this, he worked at the Hebrew Hatsofe [The Spectator], Hazman [The Times], Luakh Ahlasaf [Ahlasaf's Almanac], and Hashelah [The Weapon], and so on, as well as in the Russian-Yiddish Voskod [Sunrise] and Erveiskala Zhizn [Jewish Life]. Around 1906, Halperin began to write short stories in Yiddish and they were published in the Vilna Folkstsaytung [People's Newspaper], Dos Yudishe Folk [The Jewish People], Di Folks-Shtime [The People's Voice]; he later took part in various newspapers and journals – in Warsaw and Vilna,

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such as: Fraynd [Friend], Di Vokh [The Week], Vilner Tog [Vilna Day], Di Naye Shul [The New School], Bikher-Velt [Book World], Literarishe Bleter [Literary Pages], where he published commentary, critical and pedagogical articles, as well as stories and features. Halperin edited the first Yiddish children's journal, Grineke Boymelekh [Small Green Trees]; from its founding by the Kletskin Publishing Company to the First World War until 1923, and he also was a member of the editorial board of the monthly journal, Lebn un Visnshaft [Life and Science]. Published in book form: Ertselungen [Short Stories], 1 vol. Shrebrek Publishing, Vilna, 1910, 168 pages; Oyfn Shvel [On the Threshold], short stories, Di Velt [The World] Publishing, Ekaterinoslav 1918, 78 pages; Mayselekh far Shul-Kinder [Stories for School Children], Star Hebrew Book Co., N.Y., 1927; Mayses fun Fartseytn [Stories from the Past], vol. 1, Vilna 1930, 250 pages (includes 1) prayers, miniature pieces and three pictures, first published in Der Yidisher Velt [The Jewish World], 1. 1915, staged at the Kiev Yiddish State Theater and in Vilna; 2), poem in six pictures; 3), Kinigin Miriam [Queen Miriam], a tragedy from the time of King Hurdus [Herod], translated into Polish by Ahron Mark and performed in the Polish theater Reduta; translated into Hebrew later by Avigdor Hameiri and presented in a Hebrew theater in Tel Aviv). In addition, Halperin founded a children's publishing house (Natur un Mentsch [Nature and Man) in 1918 in Ekaterinoslav (with Vilter), which published booklets for children, such as: Lamed Vovnik [one of the 36 righteous men in the world] (children's play), Holand un Belgye [Holland and Belgium], Loyfndike Feygl [Running Bird], a children's collection, Vinter [Winter]. Halperin published a series of children's stories with the Jewish Literary Union in Vilna, such as: Mitn Tatn in Vald [In the Woods with Father], A Mame [A Mother], Botsianes [Storks], Mitsraim [Egypt], Der Nitshokhn [The Victory], Regndl [Drizzle], Bloyer Mai [Blue May], Der Kleyner Kishefmakherl [The Small Sorcerer], Zhako, Dem Khan's Ring [The Khan's Ring], and so on.

Halperin also did the following translations to Yiddish: Nikolai Rubakin, Groyse Gesheenishn fun Farsheydene Tseytn and Felker [Great Events from Various Times and People], Vilna 1923, 205 pages; Pyotr Kogan: (1) Geshikhte fun di Mayrev-Eyropeishe Literaturn [History of the Western European Writers], vol. 1, Vilna, 1924, 360 pages; vol. 2 Vilna 1925, 360 pages, (2) Di Geshikhte fun der Grikhisher Literatur [The History of Greek Literature], Vilna, 1927, 291 pages; B. Disraeli-Beaconsfield, Dovid Alroi [David Alroy], Vilna, 1924, 149 pages; Knut Hamsun: (1) Roza, Warsaw, 1929, 239 pages, (2) Dos Letste Kapitl [The Last Chapter], Vilna, 1928, 536 pages, and (3) Benoni, Vilna, 1930, 292 pages; Leo Tolstoy, Dekabristn [Decemberists], Vilna, 1930, 236 pages; N. V. Gogol, Shriftn [Writings], Vilna, 1926; Gustav Karpeles, Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Literatur [History of the Jewish Literature], Vilna, 1927, 421 pages; Friedrich Schiller: (1) Vilhelm Tel [William Tell], Vilna, 1929, 196 pages, (2) Yungfroy fun Orlean [The Maid of Orlean], Vilna, 1929, 234 pages, (3) Intrige and Libe [Intrigue and Love], Vilna, 1929, and (4) Farshverung fun Fiesco in Genua [Fiesco's Conspiracy in Genoa], Vilna, 1929, 244 pages; G. V. Plekhanov, Fun Utopie to Visnshaft [From Utopia to Science], Vilna, 1936, 288 pages. He also translated stories by the Brothers Grimm, [Hans Christian] Andersen, and others.

An important part of Halperin's energy was given to the Yiddish and Hebrew school, both as a teacher and as an author of the greatest number of Yiddish and Hebrew schoolbooks, such as: the alphabet books, Dos Vort [The Work] (B. Kletskin publishing house, Vilna, 1923); the chrestomathy – Ershte Trit, Feste Trit [First Step, Strong Step]; Di Praktishe Gramatik fun der Yidisher Shprakh [Practical Grammar of the Yiddish Language] (together with M. Weinreich); in Hebrew – the textbooks, Ivrit [Hebrew], Prozdor laSifrut [Corridor of Literature], Avoda Atsmit [Self-Employment], HaSefer [The Book], and so on.

F. Halperin worked with the writers of “Young Vilna.” For a time, he was president of the Yiddish Pen Club. In 1938, he immigrated to Eretz-Yisroel, where he continued his pedagogical and writing activities and, among others, wrote his book, Shimshon haGibor beYalduto [Samson the Mighty in his Youth]. He died in the Land of Israel.

(Leksikon fun der Neyer Yidisher Literatur [Lexicon of the New Yiddish Literature], volume 3, New York 1960. Volume 1 New York 1956. Sources:

Z. Reisen, Leksikon, v.1, column 829-832; Y. Rapoport, Literarishe Bleter [Literary Pages], 1 April 1927 and 17th January 1934; Y. Tsinberg, Bikher-Velt [Book World], Warsaw, August 1928; D. Czarni, Tsukunft [Future], January 1920, October and December 1935; A. Mark, Literarishe Bleter [Literary Pages], 16 January, 1931: Le, Vilner Tog [Vilna Day], 20 February 1931; N. Gros, Tog [Day], N.Y., 19 July 1931; A. Abtshuk, Etyuden un Materialn [Studies and Materials], Kharkov, 1934, page 25; B. Mark, Literarishe Bleter, Warsaw, 30 October 1936; A For Gezunt [Travel Well], Vilner Tog, 4 February 1839; M. Ravitsh, Mayn Leksikon [My Lexicon], vol. 1, Montreal, 1945 and vol. 3, 1938, page 474; A. Shulman, Getseltn [Tents], New York, May-June 1945, pages 88-89; necrologies in: Sefer haShana shel haItonaim [Journalists' Yearbook], Tel Aviv, 5715 [1955], page 345; Nayvelt [New World] Tel Aviv 11 March 1945; Keneder Adler [Canadian Eagle], Montreal, 11 May 1945: Yidishe Kultur [Jewish Culture], New York, July 1945, and so on; A. Golomb, Di Goldene Keyt [The Golden Chain], no. 21, Tel Aviv, 1955; Z. Doyer, Davar [Words], Tel Aviv, 18 March 1955; (biography on page 517); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun Kheder un ‘Shkoles’ biz Tsisho [From Religious Primary School and Secular Primary School to Tsisho [Tsentrale Yidishe Shul Organizatsye – Central Jewish School Organization, a system of schools organized by the Bund], Mexico, 1956. Index.


Lipowski Nakhum
(1874-24th December 1928)

by Y. Kh.

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Born in Nesvizh, White Russia (Belarus), studied in the Vilna Talmud Torah [religious elementary school for poor boys] and yeshivus [religious secondary schools]. After acquiring a secular education, he left for Moscow, undertook dramatic courses at the Philharmonia; then became a bit player at the Moscow Kleynem Teater [Small Theater]; 1891 he became a member of a Jewish traveling troupe; then entered A.R. Kaminski's troupe; later became a Russian actor. Left for Germany in 1904; became an early auditor of classes at the Darmstadt Technical School, where he developed his phenomenal memory through experiments and made stage appearances to show his accomplishments. After returning to Russia, [he] organized the Vilna Yiddishe Folks-Teater [Jewish People's Theater], which existed until the First World War. After the war, [he] was a member of the diplomatic corps in independent Lithuania. Created a plan for an eternal calendar (his calendar for 200 years, 1826-2025, was published in the illustrated supplement of the Forverts, New York, 28th December 1924). [He] appeared with his phenomenal memory experiments at a series of European and American universities. In 1924, he revived the Yiddishe Folks-Teater. Lipowski would often translate plays into Yiddish from other languages. The one-act plays were published in separate editions: Zi Hot Bezigt [She Conquered], Di Damen-shpilke [The Woman's Pin], Der Damen Shneyder [The Seamstress], An Advokat oyf a Halbe Sho [A Lawyer for Half an Hour], Mit a Gelegnheyt [With an Opportunity] – all published in Vilna, the year unspecified. [He] died in Vilna.

Z. Zylbercwajg, Teater Leksikon [Theater Lexicon], vol. 2; B. Kutsher, Geveyn Amol Warsze [There Once Was Warsaw], Paris, 1955, p. 228.
(Leksikon fun der Neyer Yidisher Literatur [Lexicon of the New Yiddish Literature], New York, 1963.)


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Beker Yosef
(Itinerant Road of a Nesvizh Yiddish Writer-Intellectual)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Born in the year 1881 in Nesvizh, White Russia [now Belarus]. His father was a gardener. He [Yosef] studied in a kheder [religious primary school] and in a yeshiva [religious secondary school] until he was 13 or 14. He received his first secular education in a Russian folks-shul [public school]. His journalistic activity began with an article, “Di Folks-shprakh un ir Badeytung” [“The People's Language and its Significance”] in the monthly journal Dos Lebn [The Life], number 4, 1905. Later, he was the Petersburg Duma [Russian parliament] correspondent for the Warsaw Der Veg [The Way]. In 1906, he visited Siedlce after the pogrom and described the events in the Bundist Folks-Tsaytung [People's Newspaper] (Vilna). He was then a co-worker at the Warsaw Moment. Edited the Odessa daily newspaper Sholem Aleichem [Peace Be Upon You – interpreted as Hello]. Returned to Warsaw and was a co-worker at Fraynd [Friend] and later at Dos Lebn.

In 1913, he published articles in the Vokhenblat [weekly newspaper] (of Fraynd) about the question of the Jewish folks-shul [public school], about Jewish public education in Poland, about the language question in Greece[1], and so on. He also was a co-worker at Der Yiddishe Veker [The Jewish Alarm] and, as a correspondent of the newspaper, traveled to Petersburg and there was a co-worker in the Russian press. Later, he was assistant secretary of the Petersburg Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community]. He was a co-worker at the Petrograder Togblat [Petersburg Daily Newspaper] before and after the Revolution of 1917. He withdrew from the newspaper when it became Zionist. Was a co-worker at Maxim Gorky's daily newspaper Novaya Zhizn [New Life] until its failure in 1918.

He visited Lithuania and White Russia during the time of the First World War and he wrote of his impressions in the Vilner Pinkas [Vilna Chronicile] (under the editorship of Zalman Reizen). He was the editor of the Vilna Tog [Day] in 1920-1921. Then he left for Riga and edited the Russian daily newspaper Novyi Put [New Path] there. In 1923, he again traveled to Leningrad and became a co-worker in the Soviet-Russian press. His further fate is unknown.

In book form: Lita un di Litviner [Lithuania and the Lithuanians] (Vilna 1920); Di Groyse Rusishe Revolutsie [The Great Russian Revolution] 1 volume. Fun Februar biz Oktober 1917 [From February to October 1917] (Vilna 1920). In Russian, Di Deitshn in Pskov, Krim, Lite [The Germans in Pskov, Crimea, Lithuania], Leningrad 1925.

Pseudonyms: Y. Beri Bertus, Dr. Rozenberg, and so on.

(Leksikon fun der Neyer Yidisher Literatur [Lexicon of the New Yiddish Literature], New York 1956 – first volume.)


Translator's Footnote

  1. Controversy over which version of Greek should be adopted as the national language Return


My Grandfather Falk

by Falk Halperin

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Rebbe Shmuel Gitkes threw off his kapote [kaftan]; all of the shoemakers with the grandfathers also threw off their kapotes and they went to dance, almost breaking the floor. How much whiskey had been drunk, only the tavern-owner and Grandfather Falk knew. He – because he paid. They were drunk and no less than Rebbe Shmuel Gitkes began to sing songs oyf goyish [in a non-Jewish language].

From then on, the good friendship between Rebbe Shmuel Gitkes and my grandfather was transformed into a sincere, mutual affection.

Rebbe Shmuel Gitkes later moved to the Kazimier kloyz [small synagogue]. This almost was like a rabbinate; but Niome, who had ordination, already was somewhat in charge and he became rebbe at the shoemakers' synagogue and immediately opened a yeshiva [religious secondary school] there.

Now, when my grandfather lay on his sick bed and praised the beauty of life, his clan in the area between the synagogue courtyard and the valley had spread to five houses, also taking into account the shoemakers' synagogue, but not his own house, where he lived with the family of his son Yoshe and with Yoshe's only daughter, who had a husband, Avreml, a little daughter, Sima, and a year-old son, Berl.

The valley was ruled by the Falk tribe.

* * *

We cannot know if my grandfather Falk was clearly aware in his late seventies that he had carried out his mission in the world and he no longer had anything to do here; that his clan would increase and be fruitful without him, fill the valley, spread itself over other parts of the city, through the country and even cross the ocean to other parts of the earth. It may be that he did not have that awareness, but external consciousness was there without doubt. When he lay down at Chanukah time and Rebbe Shmuel Gitkes came to him to visit and console the sick person: – No matter, Rebbe Falk, you will get well, the Lord God is a healer of the sick.

– Rebbe, I have no complaints to God.

My grandfather then already knew what the end of lying in bed would be. However, he did not speak about it to anyone, except the Kazimirer [Shmuel Gitkes].

The Kazimirer would visit very often. At first, my grandfather would make the effort and sit in honor of the rabbi. Later, it was difficult for him. The rebbe, with his tall, bent back and his head that appeared very long because of his high hat with its fur flaps, which he wore both in the summer and in the winter, and because of his long peyes [side curls] and small beard, bent over the bed and they would talk together for hours.

In addition to the Kazimirer, my grandfather would quietly and in secret speak with his son, Reb Benyamin, the head of the yeshiva. My grandfather thought highly of Reb Benyamin's common sense and only to him had he revealed the secret, what he thought about his illness. He did not even say anything to Etka. Every Shabbos, after praying, every son with their sons had to come for a

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blessing and after dinner, the daughters-in-law and the girls and the children would nosily elbow their way in, and a daughter-in-law often would issue a rebuke:

– Quieter, your grandfather cannot hear!

My grandfather would respond:

– Daughter, you cannot hear this, but I can.

And to the children:

– Play, like your girlfriends. Noise, even more noise, even more joy.

It was the same with the workers: they would sing and Yoshe would give a sign to work quietly; my grandfather Falk immediately clapped [to the singing] with boney fingers and joked.

– Why have they suddenly become quiet? Eh? Did you ask for this, Yoshe?

Also, now, as my grandfather sat propped up by pillows and uttered such fine complements, the workers on the other side of the wall sang Yosef haTzadik's [Joseph the righteous – the biblical Joseph,] words from the Purim play that had been presented here in the shoemaker's synagogue not long ago by the yeshiva-bokhirim [young men at the religious secondary school] at Rebbe Benyamin's yeshiva.

“You should not touch me with your snakes and scorpions; my brothers should lead me back to our old father Jakob.”

For a second, my grandfather listened to the noise of the children outside, to the squealing of the sparrows on the rooftops, and to the singing of his own workers. He gave a short sigh and knocked on the wall.

– Yoshe, send your mother in to me.

When she came, he asked her to bring the cast iron pots to him.

– Why the cast iron pots suddenly in the middle of the week? My grandmother wondered.

– Do not ask me any questions. If you knew everything, you would quickly grow old, my grandfather smiled.

My grandfather considered the cast iron pots and ordered: boil them off, clean them, burn them out. Meanwhile, my grandmother understood why he needed the cast iron pots and began to wipe her eyes. My grandfather laughed at her:

– Why are you crying, foolish woman! I want the pots ready because if they are not ready, do you think there will be something better?

This was the first time that my grandfather had given my grandmother a hint about what they had to expect.

Then my grandfather asked that Shmuel Gershon be sent for; he had sewn shrouds for the peasants and once [he had sewn] shrouds for a distinguished corpse. When Gershon came, my grandfather asked everyone to leave and he and the tailor whispered to each other for a short time. Then Shmuel Gershon went out to the street and brought two pieces of linen from which to choose. My grandfather chose the better kind and asked that as many as were needed be cut.

– But do not economize Shmuel Gershonke – he said – it is better that there be leftovers than having to patch them together. I want the clothing to be in the latest style; let them not laugh at the old shoemaker there.

Shmuel Gershon took off a measure [of linen] and sat down to sew; my grandfather watched the tailor's fingers run up and down over the scratchy linen.

– Look at that, Shmuel Gershonke – he smiled – do not cheat now. There is no more [linen]. Because if you do [cheat], it [the shrouds] will creep up; there will be no one there to fix it.

But Shmuel Gershon tried hard. The garment was good; my grandfather was satisfied.

After the [visit from his] five sons and after the whiskey, he first asked that [someone] go and as the shrouds were ready, he called everyone into the room and asked them to drink a l'chaim [toast – to life] to him. Chaim Levi, the first-born son, drank; Nakhum, the second son, drank, but Yoshe, the third son, a man with a weak heart, could not drink. His hands began to shake and his face grimace; the glass danced between his fingers and the whiskey spilled on the ground. The eyebrows on my grandfather's parchment face moved together. He looked severely at his son and ordered:

– Drink!

Yoshe moved to the side, tried to hold in his tears. A cry also was heard from the large room where meanwhile the women had gathered.

– Drink, Yoshe! – my grandfather ordered – you are impeding the line [of my sons].

Yoshe did not drink; the women burst into louder sobs.

Then my grandfather asked [everyone] to have something to eat. He immediately sat down and said:

– Listen, women, and you Yoshe, listen too: today is a celebration; you should not disturb my celebration!

And then to only Yoshe:

– I have issued a decree for you on honoring your father. You should trinkn lChaim [drink a toast] to me at my celebration.

Yoshe choked on the whiskey, but he drank.

After the younger one, the workers, the daughters-in-law, children who followed their mothers, drank lChaim, they received cake.

It was just as if a sheva-brukhes [post-wedding reception where the seven wedding blessings are recited] was being celebrated here.

* * *

In the evening, Rebbe Shmuel Gutkes came and wrote the will. Grandfather thought, time will tell who he owed money, who owed him money. The whole account with his beautiful life was finished in his head, which he was ready to leave.

When everything was registered and charity was distributed to everyone, he asked that another 50 rubles be added for the old middle-class house of prayer for an iron bimah [lectern].

– Rebbe, you think, of course, that I am speaking from a fever, he said to the rebbe. No, thank God. My head is clear, as if I were 20 years old. Everyone, what is 50 rubles to the middle class? Understand me; rarely, only rarely, did I spend the night in the middle-class house of prayer, under the bimah, among the shaimos [old discarded documents and pages from the holy books]. Then, the wooden bimah already was

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rotten. There you are, I now want to pay for a place to sleep. May the middle class not say that Falk the shoemaker spent the night in their house of prayer without paying…

Thus, Grandfather Falk settled accounts with the middle class in the city and with his ancestral house of prayer.

After this, he lived more than a day. He had an easy death. In the middle of the tumult of the hammers in the workshop and under the song of the sparrows outside the window, he easily exhaled his soul. On his face remained a satisfied expression, as if he were saying:

– A beautiful world, a fine world… It is worth living in this world.

* * *

There was a minyon [group of 10 men required for organized prayer] in the house [where the shiva mourning period was being observed until the holiday. A stranger did not have to be dragged in from the street. It was crowded in the house with their own – almost like the Jews who left Egypt with daughters-in-law and sons-in law.

The Falk tribe could do without a living father. The Falk tribe could transform its patriarch into a legend.

Grandmother Etka told me these legends. I knew her. Not my grandfather. I was named after him.

How many are there in the tribe, I do not know. In America alone there can be quite a few hundred.

If I would meet one of them, he would not even recognize me, even though the same ancestry nourished us. Many of them certainly have not heard legends about their origins.

(Dos Neye Vort [The New Word], Warsaw, no. 72 17th March 1937)


Rebbe Meirke

by Falk Halperin

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

When you go through the gates of the cemetery, you are enveloped at once by a deep shadow from wide-branched maples and lindens that do not let even one sunbeam reach the ground through their thickness. You walk through small alleys between the bushes; your eyes seek graves and headstones; your ears strain to hear laments and sighs. Your heart prepares itself for a sad mood, but the earth beneath your feet is covered with fresh grass and the greens in the thick branches at the pinnacle pour out over your head – a thousand-piece choir of birds, a living and joyful one and you unwillingly feel a joy in your heart. You think that you are strolling in an old, wild abandoned park, somewhere in the ancient courtyard of an old illustrious princely family; you think that once here, among the high, healthy tree trunks, certainly a happy life murmurs and you yourself do as you pleased in life, are happy. You feel as if you are alive and you are happy with your life. You forget that the young grass under your feet hides with its freshness the old, buried headstones.

You go… But various twisted patterns of sunbeams, of hundred-year-old maples and lindens rise in the shadows on the grass, they restrain you even less along the way. Further on – lower plum and cherry trees, more frequent creeping bushes over the ground. Further – everything sparser, even fewer shadows, even more sun.

Now you are out from the shadows under a group of pear trees and a total sea of sunshine pours over you with hot sunbeams on all sides. A field opens up for you, so wide and long, as far as the eye can see and thoroughly covered in mountains and hills, in gravestones in all colors and all sizes. Infrequently, a thin thorn bush raises itself over the grass with immature prickles, infrequently sparkling over the headstones like a white-limed wall without doors. The bird-song rings as if from heaven, or from under the earth, deaf and reticent: the grass cuddles itself wearily and faints toward the headstones. The graves stand unmoving, sunken in a deep, quiet rest…

Facing you – a quiet, unconscious rest in the sun, behind you – a happy, noisy life in shadows. Here you stand on the boundary of the old and the new cemeteries. Walk 10 steps from here – 15 to the right; you will come to a brick wall near a lonely, low pear tree. This wall is not like all of those that stand there between the graves. It is large, tall, wide and it has a wide door on the north side, a small window with iron bars on the west side. Go inside through the door, you see a large area where there is enough space for five buildings. Four bare walls, grey, with long, simple unpainted seats around and around. A low ceiling above and a hill of sand – a row of pushkes [charity boxes] for various charities; in the sand – many notes buried, from which know-it-all jokes stick out in the air; around the sand – piles of many broken wooden swords, and many in every corner.

It is quiet at the gate, half dark. A cool wind embraces you with a cold shudder. You consider that nothing around you reminds you of ostentation and the pleasure of this world.

Everything is quiet, silent, everything still, sunken in on itself. It also seems that this corner is fenced off from the entire world, that this quiet life that rests here has no connection with the other [world] from which you came. You do not know from where the quiet world which rests here came – from the hill of sand or from the shadows in the corners. But you feel that the quiet life rests here and [you] are afraid of disturbing its rest. You enter quietly, silently; in awe you consider everything and exit very quietly.

And like you, no one has any influence on this solitary life. Alone, in its own boundaries, following its own rules – it endures here once a year, on the 15th of Kislev [date the Greeks desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem in 167 B.C.E.], the Khevre Kadishe [burial society] sits

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on the old bench, recites Selikhot [penitential prayers] and leaves. Once a year, on Tisha b'Av [9th of Av – fast day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem], children come, stand around the hills of sand, break their wooden weapons and leave. They come quietly; they leave quietly. And leaving, they all feel that they have been in another world, in another life; one thinks: of a life that once was; another thinks: of a life that is still present; but everyone is equally afraid and feels, not unreasonably, that the life in which they just have been is holy, hidden, and is frightening.

If you want to read the stone tablet that was bricked into the wall from outside under the window, in order to learn who this tzadek [righteous man] was, to whom everyone comes with prayers, adults with broken hearts at home, children – with weapons that they smash here – your efforts are useless. The stone wore out years ago; no letters remain on it.

If you want to know who the tzadek was, go back to the shtetl and ask. Once, when I was a small child, even I the novice could immediately tell:

– Once there was a rabbi in the city, a great tzadek. His name was Rebbe Meirke…

So, the Rebbe Meirke once lived. This is certain; that there is a grave present is a sign that there was a man on the earth. But how he lived, how long he lived and what he did with his life until he died, this children we did not know. When we would gather to talk about the old, former times, the tzadek would appear in our fantasy in the image of our rabbi, for whom we would stand when we saw him in the distance and who we would run to say gut Shabbos [good Sabbath] after praying. [He was] a tall, good-looking Jew, with a long white beard, with beautifully curled peyos [side-curls], in a long satin garment; on the street [he wore] a hairy shtreiml [fur hat worn by Hasidim]; in the house and in synagogue – he wore a velvet yarmulke [skull cap] on his head. He ruled on questions during the day, held din-Torahs [religious court cases] and at night, when everyone was asleep…

Our rabbi was not a tzadek; yet Reb Meirke was a tzadek. What does a tzadek do when everyone is asleep? And from the stories that we have we know about lamed-vovnikes [36 righteous men mentioned in the Talmud]. We have gathered material in which our fantasies created the image of Reb Meirke: at night, when everyone is asleep, he studies the Torah. Angels descend from heaven to him in his room to hear Torah from his mouth. Only a few angels come; there is not enough room for everyone inside. Many remain outside. They besiege the roof, fall to the walls, and trembling, devour every reverberation from the tzadek's mouth. Thus, the house remains filled on all sides with solemn angels, like a large, fiery mountain, for the entire night, until morning when people begin to get up for work and the angels return to heaven – reciting songs of praise to God. The tzadek then goes to sleep and after a short rest, when he gets up to pray, he tells

 

nes464.jpg
Jews on Wilenski Street return after a funeral.
A conversation by old people; the children play opposite them.

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no one and no one knows and no one thinks of where he spent the night.

But we knew how to fantasize. Speaking thus about Reb Meirke, we would look at each other with uncertain glances: perhaps, it was not the way we imagined? We would ask older people and they could not tell us anything. Reb Meirke's life was not described in the old pinkesim [communal record books]. Old grandfathers and grandmothers heard nothing about Reb Meirke's life from their grandfathers and grandmothers. The history of his death darkened his luster and the history of his life finally was pushed out of the memories of the later generations. We did not even know in which time the tzadek lived. We were only told: in the old days, hundreds of years ago, when the entire world was different, our shtetl [town] had a different appearance and life in it had another appearance. The house of prayer was always packed with scholars. Opposite the synagogue, across the synagogue courtyard, where the valley is now, there was not another row of destroyed, Jewish houses – a castle stood there.

The castle – its history, this is the history of Reb Meirke's death. Therefore, we knew so much and precisely about it. On the shore of the river that runs under the houses in the valley, it stood surrounded by strong walls, with strong iron gates, armed on all sides with frightening armaments. In one corner of the castle, right opposite the synagogue, behind the strong walls stood a tall tower with large copper bells, with a golden peak. When someone came near the city from the east or the west, from the north and south, from a few miles when there was no sign of the other buildings, one had to notice the golden pinnacle of the tower and how it sparkled in the clouds. If this was a Jew; he would sadly lower his eyes to the ground and quietly recite a prayer. If [this was] a gentile – he would cross himself in fear. In the entire area there was no stronger building than the castle nor one higher than its tower and all residents of the area served the ruler of the castle as slaves and paid heavy taxes. But the Jews of our city even more than any other residents of the area served as slaves and paid rent to the castle. However, the rulers would oppress them without mercy. It would happen to them in the middle of Yom Kippur; the rulers in the castle would attack the synagogue with the abusive and foul language of the drunk, with provocative laughter from thoughtless peasants and this confused the thoughts of the worshippers. In the past, on Shabbos [Sabbath] the villains would ride in and invade the congregation, grab the richest Jew, pull him on a horse and ride away with him to the field, very far outside the city. They would drag Jewish daughters into the dark forests. In the thick grain in the fields or in secret rooms in the castle itself, they would imprison them there and torture [them]…

And after the many other torments they inflicted, the Jews and tzadekim kept silent, whether they did not want to burden the Master of the Universe, as long as they still had the strength to suffer the exile, or the Satan was very powerful and did not permit it from heaven; but no one did anything; everyone was silent and Reb Meirke also was silent his entire life until the measure of suffering was filled.

And the measure suddenly became overflowing. The residents of the castle began to devise cruelty that had never been thought of by any enemy. The Satan himself settled in the castle in the person of a great prince and taught the villains what they should do.

And this is what the Satan's advice was: The road from the city to the Jewish cemetery went past the castle; the villains asked that the large bells, which hung in the high tower, be rung every time a funeral passed. Jewish souls ascended to heaven stamped with the peal of the bells. The guardian angel of Jews would see the signature and repel the Jewish souls: Go, you are not Jews. The souls would come to the guardian angel of the non-Jewish world. He would see the signature of the confession and repentance, which they had recited before their death, and would reject them: Go, you are from the seed of our father Abraham.

Thus would Jewish souls wander around from one guardian angel to another, not finding repose anywhere and finally would go down to the earth, assembling in the anteroom of the synagogue, frightening the people in the streets, pulling relatives and pious Jews from their sleep, crying and asking that they be given redress.

My great-grandmother, as she told the story, would say:

– The edict was the worst edict and not for the dead alone, but also for the living. The corpses could not be good supplicants in heaven for those on earth. How can we, the living, raise our head in the world if our deceased relatives cannot help us in the other world?

And then Reb Meirke could not be silent. He told the shamosim [synagogue sextons] to ask for unceasing fasting for three days in all synagogues, reciting Slikhot [penitential prayers] and reading Vayakhel [Torah portion beginning, “And he assembled…”]. He himself spent the entire three days in his room, did not let anyone approach him, not even his wife and children. He came out on the fourth day, dressed in his Shabbos clothing and left for the castle.

Why did he have to go to the castle? Did he not know with the Godly spirit of a prophet that the regime would not listen to him?

But the tzadek did not want to give the Satan any pretext for having any complaints, ostensibly that they had not been warned.

And Reb Meirke went to them. Eminent townspeople accompanied him and stopped, waiting near the iron gate, hoping that he would bring out salvation. But, in a short time, he came out and sent them home.

– Go, Jews, ask God, recite prayers, we need a great deal of mercy…

He permitted one minyon [quorum of 10 men] of only the oldest men

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to be with him; he took them with him, he confined himself with them and he said to them:

– Gentlemen, we know that God is a great One, His ways are hidden from us. We probably deserve his punishments. We are not allowed to protest against His deeds, God forbid. And given as we are all in His hands and He could call us to account at any second, therefore, I ask of you that when the Blessed Name [God] will want to take me from you, you place a jug of clean water on the mitah [board on which the deceased is placed] and lay a Book of Psalms nearby, open to the place where He will open it. But you should not, God forbid, look into the Psalms when you open it so that no mishap occurs. When my funeral passes the castle, you should place the mitah on the ground. You should not be disturbed at dishonoring the corpse and you should stand until you yourselves understand.

Then he shook hands with them [as a sign] that they would carry out everything he had said exactly, said goodbye to them and sent them home… When they left, he immersed himself in ritual purification, changed into clean clothing, called his wife and children, left a will for them, blessed them, said goodbye and asked them to leave. Finished with everything and everyone, he stretched out on his bed and died.

And his funeral was in the morning. The entire city, small and large, walked after the mitah, accompanying their rabbi to his burial. The entire area from the synagogue to the castle was crowded with the congregation. On the fortified walls of the castle, the wicked gathered, ready to welcome the funeral with the peels of its bells. They did not even treat the righteous man with respect. Probably the devil had had an effect on them…

And when the mitah was beside the tower, the bells began at once to rage and then it happened… The old men who were carrying the mitah placed their burden on the ground… Surrounded by the congregation, the sacred remains rose from the mitah, oysgegosn negl-vaser [poured water over the tips of the fingers, done in the morning before reciting prayers], and recited a few verses of Psalms.

And at the same second, with the residents inside, the walls of the castle with the tower, with the gilded pinnacles began to descend lower and lower. Lower, until they were entirely devoured by the earth.

Then Reb Meirke lay down and died again. The funeral went on its way, but a strong wind began; it stormed for three days and strengthened in the city and in the surrounding area.

And when the storm calmed, the spot where the castle stood remained smooth and empty, as if nothing had ever stood there.

* * *

Thus, Reb Meirke died. Only his memory remains among the living.

When the Great War [World War I] was in the country, high and low hills were heaped up, on which, in time, grass grew.

These green, hilly places on the shore of the river that separates the synagogue courtyard from a row of low, grey Jewish ruins – this is the valley at the end of the Cemetery Street in our shtetl. In one of the low ruins was our kheder [religious primary school]. And when the teacher would excuse us from the table, we would play here on the green hills near the edge of the river.

We would run around barefoot over the grass, jump on the hills and roll down the hill, splashing in the clear water of the river. Happy, glowing and noisily, here we would carry around our young joy of life from hill to hill, from small valley to small valley, from the dryness on the shore to the waters of the river, which would give us a nice present for our free mood: another blue sky with another shining sun on its surface.

And just as the depth of the water would give us another sun as in the sky, thus would the depth of the hills give us another life, as on the earth, and even nicer…

In the summer evenings, the sun would sometimes flare up opposite the hills of the valley, like a glowing ember of coal and painted the sky and the earth and the entire world with a rose-red color. High in the distance, clouds in the shape of miracle creatures with large strange limbs would slowly swim around, changing their appearance from people to fiery swords to angels with flaming wings. In the fields on the other side of the river, the stalks shook and quietly whispered, the brook would also, from time to time, splash something that would steer clear and speak straight to the heart. We children would have some fear and it would be good for us. We could not leave the valley and we wanted to play. Wonderful stories which we had heard from the old grandfathers and grandmothers, from our teachers and friends would emerge. With a throbbing heart, we would tell the stories, longing for the wonder in them and often here on the grass itself quieting our longing… We would look to the hills and listen to them.

– Do you hear? – we would ask each other.

– And you?

– Of course…

– One, two, three… We would begin to count to show that we heard.

And we did really hear. Clearly, sharply, the sound of the large bells would reach our ears. I do not know if from under the earth or from our own hearts – be we heard and the sound would enter our souls and make them full and large and wide, as they would roll unendingly, merge with past generations and the stories of the valley would become a reality for us on the green hills, on the shores of the river.

Ringing under the earth were the same bells that were sunken there. When the great wonder with Reb Meirke happened. The regime in the castle has not had any rest since. They tear their hair, their ears burst from the noise that cannot stop ringing even in the quiet weather, when a twig does not move on

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the trees and no grass [moves] on the earth; we knew when we laid our ears to the ground that we heard the sound of the abyss.

(From the book, Dertseylungen [Short Stories], first volume.
Shlomo Szrebek publishing house-bookstore, Vilna)


The Poresh

by Shlomo Damesek

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I sit in the Poreshim [plural of poresh – recluse, one who spends all of his time in a synagogue studying sacred texts] Shul [synagogue] that is located in an upper room of the large Kalter [cold] Synagogue and study Gemora [the Talmud].

Only the early morning prayers are recited in the Poreshim Synagogue. After very early prayers until Minkhah [afternoon prayers], very few people now come to the shtibl [small, one room synagogue]. The only one who sits here studying in addition to me is the Shvartser Poresh [the dark recluse – indicating the color of his hair].

Several years earlier, the sweet voices of young men who were studying Gemora with Reb Yosef, the great scholar and tzadek [righteous man], were heard here in the Poreshim Shul.

While he still was alive, legends circulated about his piety, traits, and behavior. In his older years he was a dayan [religious judge] in Nesvizh. Reb Yosef had a closed mouth – spoke few words. Thus, the one to whom Reb Yosef spoke several words considered it a privilege. Reb Yosef was the rebbe in the Poreshim Shul, where he would sit and study most of the day.

Dozens of years ago the upper room here was packed with poreshim – young people, scholars, who left their wives and children in the shtetlekh [towns] and came to study in Nesvizh. They sat here in the shul and studied zealously day and night.

Although now poreshim no longer study here and the shul stands empty almost the entire day, it has not lost its honor of being called the Poreshim Shul. Thus, the only poresh, who remained as a trace of that golden time – der Shvartser Poresh, although he is no longer a poresh, because his wife and children live with him in Nesvizh, also is called a poresh. He also is no longer a shvartser [dark one] because the hair on his head and beard turned white a long time ago.

I love to observe the recluse's behavior and his traits and listen to his bold, sweetly sad melodies while studying Gemora.

The poresh is just a “pile of bones.” He has done penance and fasted for most of the days of his life. He always walks bent over, stooped as if the heavy load of the bitter life in exile lay on him. His face expresses deep sorrow, but his eyes burn with a holy fire.

Der Shvartser Poresh is also a mystic. He sits for hours engrossed in the Zohar [Kabbalistic text] and other books of Kabbalah and goes deeply into the mysteries of the Torah.

It is said about the poresh: night after night, when he remains alone in the old house of prayer, where he always prays Maariv [evening prayer], he recites in a frightening manner the midnight prayers in memory of the destruction of the Temples. He makes a procession around the belemer [the reading desk from which the Torah is read], falls into the Torah ark, cries, and laments to God the bitter fate of the Jews who are plagued in the dark exile. He pours out his heart about the terrible persecutions that the subjugators and oppressors issue daily. The melodies of the poresh in observing the custom [of midnight prayers] are dreadfully sad and his sighs and tears break one's heart.

And it is further told about the poresh: very often at night he goes to the cemetery and prays in the ohel [monument over the grave of a prominent person] and the graves of the rabbi-tzadekim [righteous men]. He wakens the tzadekim to worship and to ask for mercy before the Divine Throne for the Jews who are being persecuted and tortured.

The heart of the poresh is suffused with Jewish pain. Many of the unfortunate and despondent ones from the shtetl come to him at the Poreshim Shul and pour out their broken hearts to him. They ask him to pray for them, or for those they love and their closest ones.

The poresh strengthens the spirit of those suffering and encourages them with his blessings and words of consolation.

He helps individuals for small sums of money that he receives for this purpose from good-hearted, well-to-do members of the middle class.

* * *

At the time of the outbreak of the First World War, the old poresh's concerns were multiplied.

Soldiers and reservists were housed in the large barracks in our city of Nesvizh. There were a large number of Jews among them and where did a Jewish soldier or someone taken into the reserves drop in when he had a free

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hour from the barracks? He rushed into the house of prayer or the Poreshim Shul where he was among fellow Jews and where he could pray to God for himself and his household, which he had left without any support when the order for military recruitment was issued.

The poresh expressed great compassion toward the Jewish zapaśnikes [reservists]. He consoled them and strengthened their faith that God the Shomer-Yisroel [Keeper of Israel] watches over His children, that He is always with them and will help them.

In addition to words of consolation, the poresh helped the Jewish soldiers in any way he could. He gathered a little money for their sake so that they could send help to their families.

The poresh provided the pious soldiers with kosher food so they would not need to eat from the [non-kosher] pot.

The old poresh went through all of the houses of prayer on the eve of Passover to make sure they did not recite the evening prayers until every Jewish soldier was invited to the two Sedorim [plural of Seder – Passover ritual meals]. He wanted those far from their homes to feel the flavor of the holiday in the warm surrounding of a Jewish home.

They felt great gratitude to the poresh who took care of them like a devoted father takes care of his children.

When a Jewish soldier was placed in the register of those who had to leave for the front, he came to the Poreshim Shul to receive a blessing and to say goodbye to the old poresh.

Here I see a zapaśnik [wrestler], a Jew aged 35, standing near the poresh. He has left a wife and five small children at home. In addition, he has an old father whom he has to support. Now they are all suffering from need and poverty.

The soldier pours out his heart to the poresh, says that they are sending him away to the fields of slaughter.

The old poresh was completely unsettled, broken. His face was pale and his eyes full of worry, but he consoled and encouraged the Jews.

He took the soldier's hand in his warm hand, pressed it with love for the last time. He blessed the soldier and strengthened his mood. He reminded him that God, blessed be He, does not abandon those who have hope in Him, and also in the most difficult hour, a Jew must not despair of mercy.

The poresh quietly placed a little small change in the soldier's pocket and pressed his hand. Meanwhile, he recited the chapter of Psalms: “I lift my eyes to the mountain, from where will come my help?” and said with him the words: “God will protect your going and coming, from now to eternity.”

Then after the soldier kissed the Torah scrolls, he sat a while on the bench near the door, kissed the mezuzah [small box containing a piece of parchment with the central Jewish prayer, Shema Yisroel - Hear, O Israel] and left the Poreshim Shul.

First then, heavy sighs broke from the poresh's heart. He shed boiling hot tears, prayed to God that He have mercy and protect the children of Israel [the Jews]. And with a melody that was soaked in deep sadness, he asked:

“Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and suffer not Israel to perish, those who say, Hear, O Israel.”

“Guardian of one nation, guard the remnant of that one nation.” He repeated this prayer may times with that melody that calls for and asks for mercy.

The reverberation of the prayer was carried into the void of the Poreshim Shul for a long, long time.

So the poresh left the Poreshim Shul to engage in a mitzvah [commandment, often translated as “good deed”]. I remained sitting alone. I was riveted to my spot.

The prayer with its mystical, sad melody, still rings in my ears, saturated with the endless love of the Jewish people:

“O Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and suffer not Israel to perish…

Adar 5675 [1915]

From the book, In Yene Yohrn [In Those Years] (Notes and Pictures from My Home City Nesvizh), published by students and friends, New York, 5711-1950, p. 160.


Moshe Eliezer Eizenstadt

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Yiddish writer and activist, born in 1870 in Nesvizh, studied in the Volocziner Yeshiva [religious secondary school], received his higher education in Berlin, where he simultaneously attended the Hochschule [specialized college] for Jewish Knowledge, from which he graduated with the title Doctor of Philosophy. In 1889, M. Eizenstadt was designated as the general rabbi in Rostov-on-Don. While still a student, he published a Yiddish intermittent publication, popular columns, short stories, critical notes, correspondence and articles of commentary. His last work was dedicated to the questions of education. Published as a separate publication: Me-Ḥayyei Benei Lita) [Sketches of the Jewish Life in Lithuania] – short stories from the life of the Lithuanian Jews in Warsaw, 1893, translated into Russian and German. 2) Biblical criticism in the Talmudic literature (his doctoral dissertation), 1898. 3) Yiddish translation of the first part of Dr. Dembo's book about ritual slaughter, Warsaw 1896. 4) Yiddish translation of the [Daniel Abramovich] Chwolson's article, “Alte Gedrukte Yidishe Bikher” [Old Published Yiddish Books], under the heading Reshit Ma'ase HaDfus [B'Yisrael] [Old Printed Jewish Books], Warsaw 1897.

(Yevreykaya Entsyklopedia [Jewish Encyclopedia], 1st volume, p. 483, Petersburg, 1913)


Dr. Moshe Eliezer Eizenstadt

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Rabbi and scholar. Born in 1869[1] in Nesvizh, White Russia [Belarus]. Studied at the Volocziner Yeshiva; from 1899

[Page 469]

studied philosophy and Oriental studies at the Berlin University. He was a rabbi in Rostov-on-Don and from 1910 in Petersburg. [He] settled in Paris in 1924, where he was the rabbi of the Eastern Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community]. He took part in Hebrew, Russian-Jewish, German and Yiddish periodicals, mainly about matters of Jewish education; also published several work in Hebrew, such as Dr. Dembo's work about ritual slaughter, Professor D[aniel Abramovich] Chwolson's Reshit Ma'ase HaDfus B'Yisrael [Old Printed Jewish Books], (Be-shuvi el Erets Moladeti [On My Return to My Homeland], Me-Ḥayyei Benei Lita) Sketches of Jewish Life in Lithuania, in Yiddish – a short story, “Nokh der Sreyfe” [“After the Fire”] (Vilna 1901), in Russian – an anthology for Jewish children, Nashim Detyam [Our Children] with M. Daiches (1911).

(General Yiddish Encyclopedia, Paris 1935, volume 2, p. 173.)

* * *

Born in Nesvizh [on the] 13th of January 1869 – [died on the] 27th of November 1943.

At 13 he already was writing articles in HaMelitz [The Protector – first Hebrew language newspaper in Russian Empire] and HaTzifera [The Siren – Hebrew language newspaper]. Studied in the Volocziner Yeshiva [religious secondary school] and from 1889 studied at the Berlin University and at the Hochschule far der Visnshaft fun Yidntum [school of high learning for the science of Jewry]. Received the title of Doctor for a dissertation about biblical criticism in the Talmudic literature. For a time, he was a teacher of Jewish subjects in a number of gymnazies [secondary schools] in Russian, then became the rabbi in Rostov-on-Don and starting in 1910 in Petersburg. Has written short stories, critiques, and journalistic articles in Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and German publications since his student years. Published a skit in Yiddish in Hoyz-Freynd [House Friend], 5, under the title, “Vu Zeynen Zey” [“Where Are They?]. Took part in Yud [Jew] with a series of articles about education; also in Freynd/Der Tog [Friend/The Day], Sh. Prug's Luakh Fir Erd-Arbeyter [Calendar for Agricultural Workers]. Worked on a great work in Yiddish – Di Einleitung in Talmud [The Introduction to the Talmud]. Later emigrated to Paris and after Hitler's entry into France in 1942, came to America. Died in New York.

Z. Reizen, Leksikon, vol. 2. 1: Algemeine Entsyklopedia [General Encyclopedia], vol. 2

(Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur [Lexicon of the New Yiddish Literature], 1st volume)


Translator's Footnote

  1. The two articles above about Moshe Eliezer Eizenstadt give different dates for his birth and graduations. Return

 

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