Leaders and ordinary members of the community
by E.V. Yerushalmi
Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki
All we know about the history of our town before the beginning of the XIX century, are stories about the Rabbis. From that time onwards we have information about the lives and habits of ordinary people and leaders of the Novogrudok community. The sources of that information are grave stones in the Novogrudok cemetery, written sources and the memories of persons who are still alive. The oldest of the prominent Jewish inhabitants, whose legible grave stone remained, was Reb Eliahu Bar Gershon, who was the brother of Rabbi Alexander Ziskind and Reb Moshe Harkavy, who both played prominent parts in the life of our town. The grave stone is dated 1822. Of the householders who lived in town from the forties to the late eighties of the XIX century, the biggest influence on the life of the town was exerted by two families: the Harkovies and the Kabaks. Two brothers were particularly prominent: Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, who died in 1850, and his brother Moshe Kabak. (Reb Moshe was the grandfather of the famous Hebrew novelist Dr Kabak, the author of Bmishol hatzar and other works). Rabbi Ziskind is mentioned in the chapter on Rabbis. We will now describe, among others, two prominent townsmen Reb Moshe Harkavy and Reb Yoysef Kabak.
Reb Moshe Harkavy
He was raised on the Torah, as were all his brothers, but he was an enterprising man and had chosen to become a merchant. He had a large wine and grocery store, which was well known in the whole district. One could buy there the dearest wines and the best delicatessen. The customers were mainly landowners from the surrounding district, who used to come often to Novogrudok to enjoy themselves and attend balls. He conducted himself in a modern manner: beautifully polished rooms, the merchandise arranged in good order with bookkeepers and salesmen in attendance, not at all as in a provincial town. His achnose (income) was considerable and he lived affluently. His demeanour was always that of a Jew and he always wore a yarmelke and was well dressed and tidy in his habits. Being a man of the world, he gave his children a worldly education, which was, non-the-less, in tune with a Jewish upbringing. He took a considerable interest in the affairs of the community and in matters of charity, to which, as a townsmen said, he gave a tithe of his achnose . He maintained his own kloyz (small synagogue) where the aristocrats of Novogrudok prayed, as did learned men and maskilim (followers of Haskala, meaning modern intellectuals). On the Sabbath, after the prayers, anyone from the kloyz who so desired, could come to his house for a kidish (a traditional drink). The tables were readied for them with all of the best. He was much esteemed and Reb Moyshe's name had the sound of authority in the town. He was also respected by the Russian officials and the land owners of the district. His contacts enabled him to be of help to the Jewish community (about his character see Otrivki, vospominania (Excepts, recollections) by Vladimir Harkavy in Perezytoie (Experiences) volume 4 pp 271-272. )
Bread was often distributed from his house to poor families. His wife Etl was in charge of the household expenses. She was the daughter of Reb Benjamin from Shereshov, of the Grodno gubernia. Reb Moishe died in 1877 at the age of 72. His wife died 5 years later.
Reb Yousef Kabak
It was said about him in town that he stemmed from a poor family. He worked his way up to wealth. It is not known if he had an education in his youth, but later, when he came to a maamed (position, status, class) he spent time studying Torah. He was dealing with land owners and had succeeded remarkably well. He was in his day the richest man in Novogrudok. Just as Reb Moshe Harkavy, he was loyal to his town and he was devoted to the community. Apart from his usual donations to charities, he was concerned about a special obligation - to provide three meals on every Sabbath for each needy family. He had his own kloyz (small synagogue), where every Saturday food was laid out on tables and served to anyone present. He died at an old age in 1880. His grave stone tells of his good deeds.
Apart from the Harkavies and the Kabaks, there were the Zamkovys, the Bailins, the Pikers, the Rabinoviches, the Chishins, Sapotnickis, the Israelits, the Sostkoviches, the Vagers and the Metropolitanskis.
Reb Moishe Frumkies Sapotnicki was of particular merit. He was one of the leaders of the town. He guarded the piety of the community, he made sure that the pupils of the Yeshiva and of the Talmid Torah did not waste time and did not get off the path of righteousness. He died in old age in 1898.
Pupils and teachers of the Torah
In the XIX century the study of the Torah in Novogrudok was at its summit. The whole youth of Novogrudok studied in the Talmud Torah and in the cheders (primary religious schools). There were also Yeshivot in Novogrudok, where local and out of town youths were studying. The students from other towns had eating days (i.e. they ate, by arrangement, in different houses on each day of the week). Many householders were learned. There were poorer people, who had no opportunity to study in their youth. They made an effort to study in their later years. There were those who with will to learn and hatmode (diligence), achieved the level of a learned person. The whole town was steeped in the study of the Torah. The Rashi Yeshivot lectured every day. The teachers taught children mikra, mishna and Gemora. Those desiring to learn were studying the Torah day and night in synagogues and kloyzn. People who were engaged all day in business and trade, had, after work and early in the morning, devoted many hours to the study of the Torah. Of the learned of Novogrudok and gdoilim (literally - great, eminent), it is appropriate to mention the following personalities:
HeyGimlReiz Maishe Mordichai
A giant in the study of the Torah, who died in 1847. He is mentioned in the book Kehilat Yankof by Reb Yankof the Rabbi of Karlin.
Harav Efraim Mordechai Epshtein
The mechaber (author) of the books Mira dchiya, a pirush [a commentary] on Pirkey avot and Machane Efraim, a pirush on Maharsha. He published responsa in the journal Haflas year B.
Reb Gershon Harkavy
A brother of the well known scholar the orientalist Dr Abram Eliahu Harkavy (about him see further). For a long time, until the end of the 80's (i.e. 1880's) he was the head of the Yeshiva. He lectured in the Great Synagogue. In about 1890 he left for Erets Israel, where he later took over the position of his father Reb Yankef (who died in 1894) as the head of the Yeshiva Etc Chaim in Jerusalem.
Reb Zelig Azriel
The head in the Yeshiva of the third class of the Talmud Torah (about him see a notes by Yosif Vaiter).
Reb Isser the Masmid [Diligant}
He was one of the nicest persons in town. He spent his time studying the Torah both by himself and with others. He distinguished himself by his tolerance of the young and the modern generation. The source of his income was a small grocery shop, which was managed by his wife, and from teaching the Talmud. He was teaching Gemora to older children of the wealthy and enlightened householders, who valued him for his mild nature and his teaching skill. Reb Isser belonged to the kloyz of Moishe Harkavy, of whom he was a favourite. The name masmid (diligent) speaks for itself. He was given it for his outstanding diligence in learning. He was very pious but not a fanatic. He was tolerant of the endeavours of the younger generation of the Haskola and was popular among them.
In 1880 Reb Isser went to live with his daughter in Roznoyi, Grodno gubernia, where he remained until 1903. From there he moved to his second daughter's home in Slonim. In the same year in Shmini Hazeret, he died aged 88 years.
Reb Hendel the Melamed
He was a teacher of Tanach and was known as a follower of Haskola. At that time, when all these that learned Tanach were studying it with the perushim (commentaries) of Rashi and with other accepted meforshim (commentators), Reb Hendel taught Tanach of Beor, using the German translation of Moshe Mendelson and his pupils. He was an exceptionally gentle and honest man. He was particularly liked by the younger generation.
Reb Nechemia de-Lion
He was a grandson of Leizer Bruchovich de-Lion, the chief contractor of powder and arms for the Russian army in the time of Tsar Alexander I. De Lion was also a member of a Jewish committee together with the contractor Zanenberg. At the time of Nicholas I, Leizer Bruchovich lost all his contracts.
Reb Nechemia de-Lion, his grandson, was the main contractor of a large Catholic monastery. He supplied all the needs of the monks and nuns. He would purchase from Moshe Harkavy 120 roubles worth of candles for a festival day. He was so trusted in the monastery and he could enter the cells of the monks and nuns unannounced. In the family de Lion, (later Yerusalemski - Yerushalmi), the following story is related: on one holiday evening Reb Nechemia de Lion entered the monastery and found the monks and nuns together, drunk and michutz leagader (literally - outside the fence, beyond the pale). He started to reprimand the monks and the nuns and said how would you look if one of the landowners, who donates thousands of roubles to the monastery, would come now. But the drunk and lewd monks and nuns did not understand a word he said. Then de Lion took off his belt, gave them a belting and locked them up in their cells. He did not release them till the next morning. The monks and nuns were very grateful to him.
The land owners used to place with Reb Nechemia tens of thousands of roubles of shalish (trust) money. He was a boirer (mediator) among them and his authority among the priests was higher than of the senior hierarchy.
On a particular market day, his son Reb Yoshe Cyres, asked him for a loan for the day. His father refused. But you have shalish money his son reminded him. Reb Nechamia was angered and said Do you expect me to take other peoples pikdoines (deposited) money? and he did not lend money to his son.
One day, after Reb Nechamia died, an old monk was passing the de Lion house and saw Reb Nechamia's daughter in law, Cyre Reb Yoshes, mending the roof. The monk told her Your father in law could have filled this house with gold, but he was too honest.
His son Yoshe son of Nachamie or Reb Yoshe Cyres, (because his mother was famous as an eishes chail ) was more of ayshev ohel (literally - sitter in a tent, meaning one who was sitting and learning) a Jew a lamdan (a man of learning). Business was conducted by his wife, Cyre. When Reb Yitzchak Elchanan left Novogrudok in 1864, he was asked by his mikorvim (followers) Rabbi, who are you leaving behind in charge of the town? Reb Yitzchak Elchanan answered I am leaving here two honest Jews Reb Iser Masmid and Reb Yoshe the son of Nechemie. Reb Leib, the shoiched (ritual slaughterer), was a son of Reb Yoshe (about him and his children see the memoirs of Yosef and William Uris, who were grandsons of Reb Leib). Leon Uris, the author of Exodus is the son of William and the great grandson of Reb Leib).
Enlightened citizens, maskelim and learned man.
Novogrudok was prominent not only as makom (place) of the Torah (i.e. place of learning), but also as a place of enlightenment and the haskole starting with the time of the enlightened Rabbi Reb Israel Leibl. From the end of the XVIII century the spirit of haskole and secular education was manifest there. From that time the learning of Hebrew and European languages, particularly German, had spread. It was not just the less observant, even the orthodox youths were studying general subjects. Reb Sa'adie the mohel (one who performs circumcisions) can be seen as an example. He was fluent in the Russian language.
Of the Novogrudok maskelim of the XIX century, who excelled in their education and learning we will mentioned the following personalities:
Reb Yoisef Bezalel Harkavy
A merchant, a man of learning, maskiel and a communal benefactor. He was a son in law of the eminent Reb Shmuel Strashun of Vilno, who established the world renowned Strashun library. At that time, Reb Yosif Bezalel had become the head of the well known printing house Ram. He died in 1873 at the age of 60.
(the son of the above mentioned Reb Eliahu)
Wladimir (Wolf) Harkavy
The son of Reb Yosif Bezalel, a man of learning and a maskil. He gained a university degree and was a prominent lawyer in Moscow, where he was a distinguished public figure in Jewish circles. He died on the 8th of September 1911. He wrote memoirs about his home town and his student days, which appeared in the Russian-Jewish annual Perezitoe (Experiences) (vol.4, pp 270-278).
The daughter of Reb Yoisef Bezalel and sister of Wladimir Harkavy. She married Dovid Ram, the son of the famous madpis (printer). Reb Yoisef Rubin Ram of Vilno. When her husband died she managed the business which assumed the name Haalmanah vehaachim (The widow and brothers) Ram. She died in 1904 in her 70's.
Dr Avrham Eliohu Harkavy
Born in Novogrudok in 1835, died in 1919 in St Petersburg. He lived in Novogrudok in his youth. He had a religious education. He was attracted later to the haskola. He entered the Vilno Rabbinical collage, which he completed in a short time by skipping years and enrolled in the St Petersburg University. (his detailed biography is in a book Dor vechachamav by Moshe Reinem, Krakow 1890 and in the Jewish Encyclopaedia vol. 6 pp 235-236).
Self-educated, he combined the knowledge of the Torah with wisdom. Was versed in chochmat Israel, knew several European languages (Russian, German and French) as well as oriental languages (particularly Arabic and Aramaic). He had an extensive library, which was available to anyone who craved for knowledge. All the young maskilim of the town who endeavoured to acquire an education gathered in his house. Gershon died in 1875 aged 52 years. In the Hamagid of that year (November 20) an obituary appeared written by the official Rabbi of Novogrudok, Chaim Yelin.
(The son of Reb Moshe Harkavy).
A son of Reb Gershon. An educated man and an activist, who participated in the works of the friendly society Shokdey Melocho. His aim was to educate the Jewish youth in the old Jewish spirit. He had written a brochure on this issue under the title A few words about our upbringing and education. He died in Vilno in 1919 aged 58 years.
Reb Fa'adia the scribe and the moel (Kantorovich)
A remarkable personality. He was both orthodox and worldly. Regardless of the fact that at in his days it was considered sacrilegious for pious Jews to learn a foreign language, he knew Russian, in which he wrote proshenes (petitions) for his fellow townsmen. He had, among other hashlamos (accomplishments), an aptitude for drawing. He wrote the Novogrudok Pinkas hakahal and also Pinkas Shogdey Melocho. On the front page there is one of his beautiful drawings Sha'ar. The booklet about the town was written by Reb Shmuel Matis, the booklet of Shogday Melocho by Avrohom Chasovschik. He was also a moel. His main income came from bookkeeping and writing of petitions. He died in the 1890's.
(A brother of Reb Nachemie de Lion).
The official Rabbi of Novogrudok from the beginning of the 70's to the late 80's of the XIX century. He was a man of letters and foreign languages. Apart from his official job, he taught both Jews and landowners from the surroundings German and French. He was a retiring and likable man.
Arke the melamed (teacher)
A teacher of Hebrew and German. He was a boki beshas (expert in Talmud) in Halachic authorities and responsa and books on philosophy. He was conversant with German literature. He was considered to be an apicoires (non-believer) and the older generation shunned him. But the young people turned to him. He taught them German and Hebrew and planted the spirit of hascola. Young pupils who came to him to study, did so beshtike (in secret, on the quite) from their pious parents. One of his pupils was Reb Shaptai Rabinovich a son of Reb Avreml, who lived in Boston. Arke was paralysed in his old age, but this did not stop him teaching.
Zvi Hirsh Shteihoise (Hirshele Shmae's')
A popular maskil. He was considered to be an apikoires, because he read modern Hebrew literature and made merry at the expense of the fanatics and batlonim. He was a hero of the youth and there were stories told of his pranks, when he was a student at the Yeshiva. In his late 70's he moved to a village and tilled the soil. He kept his good humour and inquiring mind till the last.
Oizer Fidler (Oizerke or Oizer the klezmer)
He played at weddings, and was an extraordinary performer, it is not known if he read music, but when he was playing he spoke to the sole. Tales were told about the magic performed on his fiddle. It was said that his fiddle cried, laughed and teased. It was said that he valued his talent. There were stories that he studied his art in Vilno. Oizerke was shem dawar (well known) beyond the boundaries of the town and he was engaged to play at wealthy weddings in the whole district. He was liked by all, the intelligentsia and simple folk, the rich and the poor. Without him weddings were not celebrated. He died in 1898 at the age of 78 years.
Yehoshua (Jules) Butenski
The son of Chackel the carpenter. A famed sculptor. As a child he learned how to carve and form figures. At the age of 13 he went to Pscov where he studied in the science high school. When he was in the fifth grade he was banished from Pscov, because the town was outside of the Pale of Settlement (ie outside of the area were Jews were allowed to live). At the age of 17 he went to Vienna to further his studies of sculpture. Later he moved to Paris, where the famous Jewish sculptor Antokolski took an interest in him. In Paris and later Barcelona he won prizes for his work. In 1904 he went to the States. He settled in New York where he opened a studio. He was a sculptor of Jewish subjects. Among his works were: a sculpture The world peace (or Eshayahu), which the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had purchased, The eternal wanderer, Jehuda Halevy Noson the wise and others. One of his sculptures depicts the soul leaving the matter. Butenski was an ardent Jewish patriot and Zionist. He was born in 1871.
The son of Reb Uri, Shmul Rabke's son in law. A portrait painter. He had a studio in Berlin.
Reb Shepsl the lekach (pastry) cook.
Who in our town did not know the good tempered and always smiling Reb Shepsl the lekach cook? Who among us does not remember the scene on a Friday night on the eve of Sabbath, when Reb Shepsel surrounded by a few dozen Yeshiva students, Talmud Tora pupils and other needy youths, was going from the Great Synagogue to the smaller houses of prayer looking for anyone who would take home one of the students for a Friday night's meal. His face beamed with pleasure, if he could place all students with hosts who would feed them. Having entered a shul with his machane (band) he would know with whom to place each of his oirach (guest). He knew which prospective host was looking forward to feed a choshevn oirach (an important guest, in this case a senior student) and which would prefer a talmud Toire (in this case a junior pupil). For some tens of years he secured a good Sabbath meal for all needy youngsters. This breed of a Jew disappeared with him.
Reb Avrom Yedida the tailor
Few of us in Novogrudok remember still the winter nights of yore and the early Sabbath mornings when they were lying in bed, snugly buried in their doonas, dreaming sweet dreams when suddenly a sweet, sad tune would wake them: Jews get up, get up to avoidas haboire (serve the Amighty) . That was Reb Avrom Yedida the tailor, who took it on himself to wake the Thilim (Psalms) fraternity early on Sabbath and pray Thilim, and at the same time wake up everybody to avoidas haboire Even in the coldest frosts and blizzards, even if it was dangerous to venture outside the house, Reb Avrom Yedida would go from one end of town to the other and wake everyone with his sweet voice. Nothing would stop him, not even if he was ill and should have stayed in bed he woke the people. Reb Avrom Yedida was also a famed machnis orchim (provider of hospitality) . On Friday nights 5-6 students from the Yeshiva sat at his table. During the week 2 pupils from the Talmid Torah ate at his table every day. When he died nobody replaced him. That sort of a Jew died out.
Pinie the water carrier
A broad, solidly built man, radiating physical strength, who, it was said, could lift an ox. He was a man of few words and was considered to be a mysterious person. Some even spoke of a connection with the world beyond - among the dead. Legends were spread that after midnight he would be summonsed by the dead for an aliya (call up to the Torah) in the big cold synagogue.
(as described by A.I.)
Nobody knew how old he was, his looks never changed. Nobody knew if he ever had a wife or children. Nobody knew where he lived. He was always seen bent under the weight of the yoke with two buckets, carrying water from the well to the houses. In the evening he would come to the Todres kloyz, take his seat behind the oven and stay till late at night.
Nobody would notice him, nobody was interested in him. People were shunning him, he was very dirty and was giving off a bad odour of decay. Nobody knew what he was muttering under his breath. Only seldom at the prayers would he suddenly come up in his wheezing sharp voice with an amen or baruch hu we baruch shmoi and fall silent again. As he got older he did not have the strength to carry water and he was replaced by Leitovich, the brigand from the forest, who was delivering water for tea in a barrel on a horse driven vehicle, from a stream in Peresike. At that time Pinie was sitting all day and all evening behind the oven in the kloyz. Some objected to the evil smell that he spread, but the old timers did not allow anyone to expel him. He is alone and a student of the Bible, we can not toss him into the street, they argued. That he was lonely I had no doubt, but I could not see how he could be a student of the Bible. But I was proven wrong. One day, after the prayers, father, as was his habit, stayed back in the kloyz and had a lively discussion on a religious subject with the Rabbi Ajzenberg, a musmach [man of the book] and a big maskil (man of knowledge), and Nachman Getzvan (a colossal lamdan (learned man) and a linguist, the mechaber (author) of the famous at the time siddur Al Naharod Barel (at the river of Babylon). They were all pondering, because they were missing [or they were short of] maamar chazal (talmudic learning), which they could not find, no matter how they tried. They were all searching and looking through the mountain of prayer books, that were lying before them on the table. I was waiting impatiently for the end of the discussion, so that we could go home to eat. Suddenly Pinie came up from his seat behind the oven, moved with his heavy footsteps to the three man engaged in the discussion, recited briefly a miomer (Talmudic except) and returned to his seat. The three looked at each other astounded, grabbed a book, looked up a certain paragraph and exclaimed this is a real yerushalmi. On the way home I asked father how Pinie could know things like that. My child, father said Pinie knows the shass barli (complete Babilonian Talmud) and is yerushalmi in all psokim (chapters) in philosophical books by heart. There is no other learned person and mashgiel (knowledgeable person) in town like he...
Later he was admitted by Polonski to the old people's home. They kept him there in separate quarters. In his corner he studied day and night. In the late hours of the night he murmured his prayers by heart.
In his youth he was a carpenter, but, as he was lazy, he gave up work. To tell the truth, he was not crazy, but, to be able to exist he pretended to be simple and did crazy things. With all that, he was thought to be appealing by the people of the town. He did not have a family life, and survived by doing occasional chores and from a pension, which he received from the town. One of his tasks was to bring a stretcher from the dead for which he was given a gildun or more [from gulden - a coin in imperial Germany and Austria]. He claimed the ownership of the coal, which was left in the ovens of the synagogues. He would sell it to the households for fuel in samovars. He would appropriate the misher (a tithe) of a bake. When the housewives were baking bread they had to bake a bun for Isroel. He kept promising, that in recompense he would make for them rolling pins, but this was seldom if ever done. On religious festivals he would invite himself to various households. Hospitality was never refused. In return he would mehane zain (entertain) with his crazy toires (stories), which were amusing. Here are some samples of his stories: It is said in the Tehilim (psalms): happy is the man who does not follow the eice fun di rashoim (advice of the evil ones) and did not stand or sit in the path of the sinners. Do what Zishe did. And he would answer his own puzzle: He hung. He would say: It is written in Pirkei Avot (ethics of our fathers): the one who accepts the oll Toire (burden, yoke of learning) is relieved of the oll malchut (yoke of the secular State) and the one who rejects the oll Toire is burdened with the oll malchut. Isroel used to mix up the quotes and would say: The one who accepts the oll Toire is free of oll malchut., and the one who accepts oll malchut. is free of oll Toire. And he would ask: what if he did not want to accept either oll Toire or oll malchut? Those listening to him would wonder what harifes was he about to display? But Isroel would let forth If he does not want to accept the oll Toire and not the oll malchut he will knock his head on the wall (meaning he will do himself injury to no avail). Isroel was also a joker, just like Motke Chabad (a legendary wit, who mocked the rich and favoured the poor). It was told that once, when there was no death in town, Isroel put up the mitta (bier) in the middle of the market place and left it there. Passers by asked him in astonishment who is the bier for?. It is for the town, answered Isroel I keep hearing that the town is dead, let it lie down and I will take it away. Once, at a Sabbath meal, the host asked him how he liked the food. Very good answered Isroel I wish you that when you will be invited for a meal your Sabbath repast would not be worse.
I heard the following stories about Isroel: on one occasion he disappeared from Novogrudok and nobody knew where he was. Some time later a young man from Novogrudok was passing through a town in Volyn and stopped there to celebrate the Sabbath. He noticed some agitation in town, Jews were running to the large Chasidic synagogue, all were in a hurry to meet a good Jew . The young man asked the owner of the achsania (inn) who the newcomer was, the owner looked at him bitul (askance) as if to say what does a dry Litvak know of the pleasures of the Chasidim? and replied that a famed good Jew came to town for the Sabbath. The young man became interested and wanted to see the good Jew. He went to the inn, fought his way through the throng and saw a familiar face. The stranger looked at the young man and also recognised him. The good Jew winked at him and led him to a detached room. The Chasids stood outside wondering why the Litvak deserved such an honour. When they faced each other, the young man said to the good Jew Isroelke (a dimunitive and somewhat belitteling form of Isroel), what are you doing here? But the other, instead of answering, poured out rude curses at the young man, who thought that Isroel was out of his mind. No, brother, I am not crazy, I am only making up for lost opportunities. For all those years I did not have anyone to open my heart to.
A middle aged, of medium sized, dressed in torn trousers through which one could see dirty legs, a military jacket and an uncovered brown chest, always with a butt of cigar in his mouth - this was the person. His name was given to him because of his occupation. He was the provider of information for the Chevre Kadishe (Burial Society). If somebody died, Arie would appear in the market place and would cry go to the mes-mitzvah, with the voice of an heroic tenor that was often similar to the sound of an old goat, but was heard over kilometres. Housewives with frightened faces would appear in the open doorways and would ask Arie, who died?. Arie replied Such and such died. His office was at the door of Leipuner's restaurant. Here he was always given a surfeit of bread, sausage, pork and, most importantly, half a bottle (of vodka), and boxes filled with butts of cigars from the mouth of the owner of the restaurant, the fat Leipuner.
Reb Tritl the soifer
Praying on Sabbath was always difficult for me. It occupied the best part of my only day of freedom. After the prayers were concluded, there were my father's conversations, which sometimes lasted for hours and caused me pain and anger. But when Reb Tritl the soifer was praying at the pulpit the time seemed to pass rapidly. He was not a chasn (cantor), nor a bal tfile (leader of the praying) he was a bal bechi, who brings on tears. He was praying by reciting the prayers, he was explaining every word, every posl, such that the words found their way to the hearts of the congregation and awakened the consciousness and the nicest feelings. Reb Tritl was particularly good at interpreting the prayers about Zion. He could be compared to the great poet Yehuda Halevy. It was not only metikes (pleasantness), it touched all feelings. This is why during his prayers even the biggest davronim (talkers) were silent. Even children set silently. Reb Tritl spoke to their soft hearts. But, when praying the Kol Nidre Maariv (the evening Kol Nidre prayer) Reb Tritl exceeded himself. The long, narrow Tadres synagoge was filled with the flames of hundreds of candles. The air was saturated with their holy smoke and the fear of the Yom ha Din (Day of Judgment). But when Reb Tritl's pleading, speaking voice would spread, everybody recovered and was of good heart. And not just at Kol Nidre but also at the sliches (Prayers of Pardon) which were said at the end of Maariv (evening prayer). He would put in this prayer all his soul. Because of his sliches, we, the children would remain in the synagogue till the end of Maariv. Some of the members of the congregation would leave the synagogue in a better mood and hope. Such a prayer must open the Shaare Rachamim (gates of mercy). After completing his Shliches Tzibur Reb Tritl would retreat quietly to his corner, next to the pulpit, so as not to be overwhelmed by the calls of Yise Koyach by the congregation, though they meant it sincerely. He was almost unnoticed in the synagogue, he seldom spoke, and even more seldom took part in political discussions. But when there was discussion about Israel, Reb Tritl could not hold back and would quietly join the participants and listened attentively. After the prayers he would often accompany my father and ask of news from over there from Israel, of the new settlers. My father would chat with him willingly and share all the news, which he obtained by reading and listening. I also benefited from these talks. All conversations with Reb Treitl took place on the way home. Because of the talks, father would not be detained in the synagogue. Once I had the pleasure of seeing Reb Treitl in our home. Father came back with a group of Jews, among them Reb Treitl. The guests were in a festive mood. Father served liquors, which he obtained together with Vysocki tea and sugar three times a year for Kriyat Hatora (reading of the Torah scrolls) and cake. At that time he produced an assignation of Jewish oises (letters), which he showed to his guests and each held them by the tips of their fingers and read with tears in their eyes the words Anglo-Palestinian bank. The guests drank some more and spoke wishing each other the same geule .
As he grew old Reb Tritl moved to the Meishev Zkeinim (Old Peoples home), which was rebuilt after the fire in the Yiddishe street. There too, he occupied a place of honour and presided at the table on the Sabbaths and holidays. His praying was remembered in the Todres kloyz for many years. In my memory he remained as one of the great personalities of my old, dear Novogrudok.
Reb Yoshe Hertzkes.
He lived in a small dilapidated house in the Chaser (Pig) lane. In the small quarters lived also his two daughters and their children. Thus, except for the long table, where we, the pupils, sat, there was no room to move in. In time he had to move to the Todres kloyz. When I joined his cheder (primary religious school) he was already old. I think that he was weak and that may have been his final term. He had no teeth left in his mouth. It was difficult, therefore, for me to understand his speech. And yet my best memories of my childhood were of the years in the cheder of Reb Yoshe. He was a melamed (teacher), who was doing God's work with faith. He looked upon his task as a heilige schliche (God sent) which was filled with mesires nefesh (total dedication). It was considered a schoos (a privilege) to attend his cheder, because he would admit only 10 pupils. Once, by mistake, two more pupils were enrolled. He did not admit them and asked for a Din Torah (religious court hearing) by the Rabbi to decide the issue. The Rabbi hot gepaskend (has given the verdict) that he should accept both pupils. He was a teacher of God's genod (blessing). He educated each pupil such that he would be able to reach a level where he could understand by himself a blat Gemore (a section of the Talmud). He would work systematically and easy. He would start by teaching his pupils the difficult Aramaic expressions. Then he would visualise and explain in a lively manner the sugia (problems which were the subjects to be studied) and by using the dialectic method, asking fitting questions he would lead the pupil to the right answer. At the same time the pupils would be guided to self education and would prepare the blat Gemore for his sheur (lesson). He would only correct the mistakes and would further the depth of knowledge of his pupils. Apart from Gemore he taught Nikud (punctuation). He was known as the best menaked (authority on punctuation) in town. There was no tiych (interpretation) or peirush (translation) in Radak or Ebenezara which Reb Yoshe could not explain. He would, with his pupils, interpret according to the klalim from dikduk (rules of grammar) of the Tanach. He taught Tanach in the hours before lunch, when the pupils were already weary. And he would arrange it such that he would embrace all the rules of the dikduc. At the same time he would introduce them to accept the Sifre dikduc , Talmud loshen Ivrit and More ha Loshon (teaching of the language). Reb Yoshe Hertzke's teaching in dikduc served me later in my studies of philosophy at the University. But, more than with his pedagogic virtues, he served his pupils with his Mides Tives (good deeds). One never heard from him a bad word about any Jew. He would not tolerate rechiles (vicious, malicious gossip). He would farcitert vern (tremble) at an oath. My father said of him that he has never sworn on anything, even if it was the truth. He was never involved in a Din Toyre, accept for the case mentioned above. The following story was told of him: He suffered much from a bad neighbour, but he never reciprocated. But the longer he kept silent the more the neighbour pursued him, till he altered his neighbour's attitude by his decency. A landlord owed money to Reb Yoshe's neighbour. But the neighbour was never allowed to get near to the landlord to redeem his money. One day Reb Yoshe saw the landlord in town and told his neighbour about it. The neighbour got back his money and from then on he became Reb Yoshe's best friend. Later Reb Yoshe moved to the Mashev Zkienim (old people's home). I used to visit him there and I liked his hearty Musar verter (moral words). On my last visit, before I left the town, he taught me Derech Eretz (respect) for a Jew with these words: three things should a Jew not have in excess but of the fourth he may have any amount: too much wealth which brings plenty of worries; too much wisdom, a Jew should not be too smart, because from too much chacires kumt men zu apikorses (if one is too smart one can become an unbeliever) and a Jew should not be too healthy for this is a esic far an akshen (a thing for the stubborn), but a Jew should study a lot of Torah as it is said: he is blessed who concentrates day and night. Even if I did not follow all of Reb Yoshe's dictums, his dear memory has remained for a long time in my mind.
(The help in translation by Les Kipen is acknowledged).
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