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6

 

Personalities in Riteve

Townsfolk

In the original memorial book on Riteve, a chapter was devoted to personalities, most of the the writers being anonymous. Comparatively few of the recollections were personal. Some related stories passed down by older members of the community, now dead, and were vague about dates, which had to be gleaned from internal evidence; others seem to have done some research in books of reference. The chapter was overlong and sometimes repetitive. It has been fairly heavily edited and an attempt has been made to arrange the personalities into their periods. It is hoped that this will give a better picture of the shtetl at different times in its history and point to personalities who were living in Riteve contemporaneously.

Lithuania was famous for its Jewish scholarship and, up to the time of the Holocaust, many notable scholars who had been bom or lived in Riteve were proudly remembered and comprise by far the majority of the personalities. Rabbis, heads of rabbinical courts and of various institutes of religious studies had yiches, an untranslatable Yiddish word (the closest one can come in English is‘status’). Values may have changed today, but a wealth of scholarship – not wealth in terms of worldly possessions – was what was most honoured by the Jews of Lithuania. The survivors of Riteve thus recalled not only scholars who lived and worked among them, but those born there who had moved out to any one of many other places in Lithuania, including the most important centres of rabbinical study, people about whom stories had been told up to the time of the Holocaust. They also noted marriages to scholars of the Torah – for family genealogies are important for yiches – and the publication of original commentaries on holy scripts.

Lithuania before the Holocaust was one of the most important centres in the world for Jewish scholarship. Through the stories of scholars associated in some way with Riteve, the very intensive study in the realm of Jewish thought may be perceived. Riteve was not unique in this respect. In every small town, no matter how small, there was a strong need for Jewish institutes and leaders, for studies and ordained teachers. Although some learned men made Aliyah to Israel, few emigrated to other parts of the world because it was hard to live as an observant Jew in the Diaspora. Only when we realise the enormity of the human treasures produced in one little town, do we begin to understand the scope of the losses caused by the Holocaust.

DP and MR

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Gavriel (Gabriel) Ben–Ze'ev Grod, born in Riteve in 1890, who was to become a famous composer, was the great–grandson of the noted early rabbi of Riteve, Baruch Bendet, whose original name was Grod.

Gabriel Grod's father, however, was Reb Z'eve Zvi, a rich merchant, which suggests that he took his mother's surname for professional reasons, possibly because of the alliteration of the name.

Gabriel Grod emigrated to Palestine in 1924

 

The earliest rabbis remembered

It is known that from very early times there was an important community in Riteve in the province of Kaidan, the largest province in Lithuania. The meetings of the Kaidan province sometimes took place in Riteve. The earliest rabbi recalled who served in the town was Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe who died in about 1775 – many other rabbis ministered there before him, details of whom have not survived. Typically, what is recalled of Rabbi Yaffe is his descent from another Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, author of Hale'vish (the attire), who lived in Plungyan, located near Telz in west Lithuania, and of his own distinguished descendant, his great–great–grandson Rabbi Benjamin Rabinowitch, rabbi of Wilkomir in 1905.1 To the Jews of Lithuania, these family connections were all important.

In 1910, when the book Nachlat Avot (Heritage of the Fathers) was published in Vilna.‘the great Rabbi Herz’ of Riteve was mentioned. Rabbi Naftali Herz was the head of the rabbinical court in Riteve and took a great interest in mystics and Kabbalah. It was observed that he was a ‘pious and modest scholar’ and four of his works were mentioned, one of which was on the Kabbalist ways of interpreting the Torah. But nothing further is known of him – not even his dates of birth and death. However, by 1842, Baruch Bendet was the rabbi in Riteve and head of the Rabbinic Court.2 His original name was Grod, and his great–grandson, Gavriel (Gabriel) Grod, was a famous composer, born in Riteve in 1890 and son of Reb Z'eve Zvi, a rich merchant and charitable Maskil. Gabriel Grod emigrated to Palestine in 1924.3

At the time the original book was written, Miriam Tsvik was able to recall the story of her great–grandfather, who was a rabbi in Riteve in the mid–19th century, at the time of the notorious lord, Irenaeus Oginski, and a contemporary of Rabbi Bendet.

 

Rabbi Itzchak Aharonowitz

Miriam Tsvik

My great–grandfather, Rabbi Itzchak, son of Menachem Aharonowitz, was an outstanding, aristocratic personality. He was an excellent Torah scholar, pure– hearted and G–d–fearing, yet very modest. He was known as‘Itcha the Judge’.

My mother would talk about him with great admiration. He served as rabbinic

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Rabbi Itzchak Ben–Nachum Menachem Ahronowitz was called ‘Reb Itcha the Judge’ and was a 19th century rabbi. No further information was provided about him in the orginal book, except that he was‘of Riteve’ and, several pages beyond his portrait, the title page of his book was given, seen right

 

judge for 75 years in Riteve. Even Oginski, the elder feudal lord, who was a cruel tyrant towards the Jews in our town, respected him and had his picture hanging above his bed, as a kind of talisman against evil!

In his youth. Itzchak would travel every week to visit the rabbi and greet him with a Sabbath blessing. The rabbi then blessed him and wished him honour and length of days. Both these blessings were realised, for he lived until the age of 95, leaving three daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, and a son who followed in his father's footsteps. Another son was a well–known merchant in Amsterdam.

One of Rabbi Aharonowitz's grandsons, Nachman Lipman Chananya, was head of the yeshiva at Varna, located in the district of Telz in west Lithuania. Among Rabbi Aharonowitz's works was a book of commentary known as Sefer Kesher Torah, which was published posthumously in 1904 by his family.

 

Rabbi Abraham Licht – first to go on Aliyah

The first Riteve–born Jew to go on Aliyah to the Land of Israel took this step during the time of rabbis Aharonowitz and Bendet. He was Rabbi Abraham Licht, son of Aharon Licht, and a great Torah scholar as well as being involved in communal affairs. He settled in Jerusalem probably just after the mid–19th century. Rabbi Abraham Licht made two missions abroad, one in 1863 and the other in 1869, and in Pressburg published the well–known religious, philosophical work, Akeidat Yizchak (the sacrifice of Isaac), written by Rabbi Isaac Ben Arama (1420–1494). Rabbi Ben Arama, who lived in Spain but died in Naples, used Aristotelian philosophy in order to establish the superiority of the Torah. The publication of this book included an original commentary by famous scholars. While he was engaged on his missions abroad, Rabbi Licht joined the newly formed Hibbat–Zion movement under Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher. Rabbi Kalisher (1795–1874) was actually an ideological predecessor of the Hibbat–Zion movement and is considered, together with the Sephardi Rabbi Alkalaim, a harbinger of modern Zionism. [Page 93]

 

Sefer Kesher Torah– title page from a book by Itzchak Ben–Nachum Menachem Aharonowitz of Riteve, published in Vilna 5667 (1906)

 

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Rabbi Aron Zalmanowicz
 
Rabbi Avraham Aron Burstein
Rabbi Chaim Zalman Ben–Eliyahu Leib Karon
 
Rabbi Joseph Ze'ev Lipovitz
Of these rabbis, only their photographs were provided in the original book. They appear to be from the period between the wars, which suggests that they were well known in Riteve at the time and that the first readers would have required no further information about them.

 

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The two doctors

Growing up during the years of rabbis Bendet and Aharonowitz were two boys born in Riteve who were both to become doctors. This must have been recalled with pride, partly because it was so difficult for a Lithuanian Jew to qualify in such a profession, but also because of their distinguished careers. The first was Mendel Yehuda Leib Shera, born in Riteve in 1849, the son of Rabbi Vol Shlomo Shera, who received a true Torah education from his father. He studied at Telz and was graduated as a teacher at the age of 17 by the rabbis of the yeshiva with whom he participated in settling rabbinic disputes in the vicinity.

After the death of his father at the age of 45, Mendel Leib Shera decided to become a doctor of medicine. For this purpose, and with a great deal of application, he obtained a matriculation certificate and went to Berlin to study medicine. He obtained help from Rabbi Dr Azriel Hildesheimer and, at the age of about 29, succeeded in obtaining the degree of a doctor of medicine in 1878. He returned to Petersburg where he worked in a clinic and obtained permission to practise as a doctor, happy in the realisation of his dream. He moved to Riga and became well known in his profession. He earned the respect of his colleagues and of his patients, many of whom streamed to him for specialised attention.

With all his great professional success, he still continued his scholarly pursuits and regularly devoted time to Torah study. He corresponded with rabbis and heads of yeshivot and his home was a meeting place for scholars. With the establishment of the world body of Agudat Israel, he was invited by the leaders of the German Orthodox Movement to be a member of their council and he became one of their advisers.‘This man of Riteve, a synthesis of scientific and traditional learning,’ wrote the anonymous writer in the original book,‘gained the honour and respect of the intellectual of Russia of that time.’

The second doctor was Elikum Yehuda Goldberg who was born in Kelm at a date unknown, but studied in Riteve during the mid–19th century and was most probably a contemporary of Dr Mendel Shera. It is not known where Dr Goldberg studied, but it was probably in Germany. He became a doctor in Zichron Ya'akov in the Land of Israel but, due to differences of opinion with officials of Baron Rothschild, he left there in 1885 for America. He settled in New York where he contributed greatly to Jewish learning. He wrote Talmudic commentary in which his vast learning was evident.

 

Getzel Zelikovitz – linguist and journalist

In 1865, about 25 years later than these two doctors, another boy was born in Riteve who was to follow a professional career, in this case the most unusual one of a specialist in Egyptian hieroglyphics – he was a notable linguist – and later

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as a writer. His name was Getzel Zelikovitz. In February 1913, on his fiftieth birthday, a tribute was paid to him and his efforts to maintain the Hebrew language by three professors, two rabbis, three judges, six publishers, nine fellow authors, the owners of the publishing company Yehuda Katzenelenbogen, two other individuals and no fewer than 30 Jewish and Hebrew organisations. This was commented on in an article on his life published in Hatzfira on 20 February 1913. Hatzfira wrote:‘G. Selikovitch was born in Riteve in 1863 where he received a traditional education in the Cheder and Yeshiva. His father Reb David wished his son to be a Rabbi and by the age of 13 he was already known as the "Riteve genius’. Under the influence of his well–educated mother, Rachel, he learned Russian, German and Hebrew. An inheritance from his grandfather enabled him to go to Paris where, with his talent for languages, he studied Semitic languages at the Sorbonne under Ernest Renan, Joseph Durenberg, Josef Halevi, Julius Aport and others.

In 1883 he went to Egypt as an interpreter of Arabic and English to the British Army. On his return to Paris in 1886 he continued his language studies and added hieroglyphics to his knowledge. At this time he started submitting articles and poetry to Ha–Melitz and Ha–Magid, both Hebrew newspapers. His travel memoirs were well known for their content and style. Later they appeared in a book published by the Tushiya Press.

In 1887, he travelled extensively in the Middle East and then to the United States. He was appointed faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania as lecturer in hieroglyphics. But he soon moved to New York where he became a journalist on the daily Yiddish paper Tagblat. He published profusely, both articles and humorous verse, under the pseudonym of ‘The Lithuanian Philosopher’. The need to please the news– paper's management was not to Zelikovitz's liking. He stated frankly that his popular articles in Yiddish were specifically written to please the publisher and not according to his own taste. He wrote, too, that his real love was Hebrew, and he found himself longing to be able to write in that language. But this was not possible in the prevailing conditions of the time'

 

Rabbi Mordechai Izchak Segal who, from his appearance, ministered to Riteve between the wars. No Information was provided about him so he was probably well known to the first readers.

 

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The philanthropist Feige Rachel Hirshowitz (in the white scarf) and her family. This photograph appears to have been taken in the late 1920s. She was a leader of the Women's Society and provided funds for the modern mikveh (see pages 60 and 77)

 

Rabbi Berl Ritover

Memories of Riteve move now to later in the 19th century. Rabbi Bendet's son– in–law was Rabbi Berl Ritover, one of the leaders of the community and a scholar who, like Rabbi Bendet's son, Yoel, gave scholarly Talmudic lessons in Riteve to the Shas (Mishnah) group, among whom were the most learned men of Riteve. Rabbi Ritover had yiches through his descent from the great genius of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu. Rabbi Ritover's daughter married Rabbi Isaac Gershon Berman of Riteve who was a Maskil of the traditional type and a writer.

 

Rabbi Isaac Gershon Berman

In Rabbi Berman we see some of the stirrings against the Musar movement, which had a strong following in Riteve. This was a movement of the individual towards strict ethical behaviour in the spirit of the Halachah, as against the dangers of the modern era. It arose in the 19th century, continuing into the 20th. In the Jewish culture of the Mitnagdim (opposers to Hassidism) in Lithuania. The attempt of the Musarniks to introduce this trend into the yeshivot of Lithuania gave rise to sharp criticism from their opponents, who feared that the study of

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Musar would result in a neglect of Torah study. Rabbi Berman published a critical article in Ha–Melitz against the Musar Rabbi Jozel Hurwitz, author of Hachorim (the holes), which created a great stir among the readers of the Hebrew press.

Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Geffen, rabbi in Riteve contemporaneously with Rabbi Berman, remained‘uninvolved during the days of the famous controversy between the Musar followers and us opponents, and did not openly come out in support of either side, nor did he make known his personal opinion on the matter’. Yet, wrote an anonymous author in the original book,‘he privately upheld the inclusion of Musar teaching in the yeshivot for the purpose ol strengthening and crystallising the spirituality of the students as a shield against the objectionable Haskalah movement which had begun to penetrate even the yeshiva circles’.

 

Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Geffen

Rabbi Geffen was a most distinguished scholar. He was born in Vabolnik, where his father, Rabbi Daven Ben Zion Geffen, was the rabbi, and was taught by his father. Even as a young boy, he stood out among his peers and later studied for some time in the small town of Eishyshok. He married the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Simcha Troyv, head of the rabbinical court of the prestigious community of Kaidan. For a number of years Rabbi Geffen sat in the house of learning in Kaidan, provided by his father–in–law, where he specialised in the theory and practice of teaching. Because of the greatness of his talents and expertise, he was made acting Moreh Tzedek. This appointment meant that he substituted for his father–in–law when the latter was absent from the city.

He later served for a time as the head of the yeshiva in Slobodka, Kovno which, founded in 1882, had become a large institution which attracted gifted young students from near and far. At this time, Rabbi Geffen lived in a lodging in Slobodka together with the spiritual leader of the yeshiva, the esteemed Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel who was later to become known as‘the Grandfather from Slobodka’. From here, Rabbi Geffen moved on to become rabbi of Yosvein, a young community near Kaidan. When Rabbi Avraham Hacohen moved from Riteve to Aniksht, Rabbi Geffen was appointed to Riteve, which was an important community.

While he was at Riteve, Rabbi Geffen's reputation as a brilliant scholar grew. His father–in–law, the rabbi of Kaidan, frequently used to invite him to sit with him and deliberate over difficult Halachic laws or give his opinion in complicated matters concerning prohibition and authorisation. Rabbi Geffen would find solutions to these complicated problems, displaying knowledge and sensitivity.

His fame reached the prodigy, the renowned Rabbi Joseph Rosin, head of the rabbinical court of Dvinsk, Latvia. From the beginning, Rabbi Rosin realized

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Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Geffen, rabbi of the town before the ministry of Rabbi Fundiler

 

Rabbi Geffen's potential and held him in the highest esteem. He recommended to the community of Freil, located near Dvinsk, that they hire Rabbi Geffen as chief head of the rabbinical court. However, Rabbi Yitzchak Elliyahu Geffen preferred to take up a position in the quiet, traditional town of Riteve, blessed with learned scholars. He remained in Riteve with these fellow scholars even after he began to receive propositions for better paying positions in more prestigious communities. He remained loyal to Riteve to his dying day.

As the rabbi of the town, his brother–in– law's son, the exceptional Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan, was under his direction for quite a time. The father of this prodigy, who died in the prime of life, had the same first names and was also an exceptional scholar. Rabbi Geffen directed his nephew's' studies from the very beginning, from the yeshiva boy of Telz and Slobodka to the head of the yeshiva in the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Dr Azriel Hildesheimer in Berlin. Dr Hildesheimer was a well–known 19th –century leader of German orthodox Jewry who led the struggle against the reform movement. The academy he founded was the most important of its kind in Western Europe.

During the First World War when the Jews of Riteve were expelled to the cities of central Russia, Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Geffen lived at Homel, where he gained the respect and esteem of the Jewish citizens, both Hassidim and Mitnagdim, of this large city. There he befriended Rabbi Dr Chaim Heller, who was also an emigre in Homel. From that time on, they kept up their friendship and correspondence, even when Rabbi Heller moved to Berlin, where he founded the‘Academy for Advanced Study of the Torah and Jewish Wisdom’ for outstanding Torah scholars.

Rabbi Geffen returned to Riteve. However, the negative effects of what he had experienced during the war depressed him greatly. He went to Koenigsberg together with his son, Rabbi Avraham Shimon Geffen, where he died in 1920.

 

Rabbi Avraham Shimon Geffen

Rabbi Avraham Shimon Geffen was born in Kaidan. For seven years he had an outstanding career at the famous Telz yeshiva where he was the pupil of the

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Rabbi Avraham Shimon Geffen, one of the dynasty of rabbis, weaver of the golden threads of the spirit of Israel in the United States. At the time of the publication of the original book, he was living in New York

 

Illustrious scholar, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon. Rabbi Avraham Geffen was a member of the prominent Talmudic circle headed by Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grudzenski, one of Lithuania's greatest rabbis, head of the‘Knesset Israel’ yeshiva in Slobodka, Kovno – an admired teacher who died in July 1944 during the liquidation of the ghetto of Kovno. This Talmudic circle brought together all the best students of the Lithuanian yeshivot. Rabbi Avraham Geffen married into a well–known Riteve family but did not exploit his Talmudic knowledge as a source of livelihood. Instead, he became a merchant and owner of a respectable household in Riteve. He ran the Mishnah (Shas) circle in his local community and gave lessons regularly. He was an active Zionist and head of the leaders of the Keren Hayesod in the whole of Lithuania. With the economic crisis of 1922–26, his affairs declined and he and his family emigrated to America. He became a rabbi in New York and made a great contribution to education in Torah and Mitzvot. He latter settled in Bnei Brak, Israel, and he and his wife were privileged to see the establishment of the State, an ideal which was very close to his heart.

 

Rabbis Baruch Marcus and Solomon Zalmonowitz

Two boys born in Riteve in 1870 were to become distinguished rabbis, although the careers of both were to take them far from Lithuania: Rabbi Baruch Marcus and Rabbi Solomon Zalmonowitz.

Baruch Marcus was the son of Rabbi Meir Falk Marcus. He became a graduate of both Slobodka yeshiva and the Talmud Torah of Kelm. In 1891, he went to the Land of Israel on a mission inspired by his teacher, Rabbi Simcha Zissel, to found a Musar institution in Jerusalem and was, in fact, the pioneer of the Musar movement there. He founded, and for 14 years directed, Yeshiva ‘Or Chadash’ (new light) in Jerusalem, but in 1906 was persuaded to accept the post

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of rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Haifa, which then numbered about 50 families. After a distinguished career, which included being one of the founders ol the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a member of its council, becoming instrumental in its legal deliberations, he died in Haifa in 1961.

About Rabbi Baruch Marcus's contemporary, Rabbi Solomon Zalmonowitz, there is a tradition that he was the model for Chaim Nachman Bialik's famous poem,‘The faithful Yeshiva student’. This poem became the symbol of generations of yeshiva students, absorbed in their studies, cut off from the surrounding world. Rabbi Zalmonowitz gained prominence as an exemplary and diligent student at the Telz and Volozchin yeshivot. Bialik was a student at Volozchin from 1890–91, at the same time as the Riteve scholar.

Rabbi Zalmonowitz served as rabbi and head of the Beit–Din in Safizishuk in the province of Kovno and, after this, in Dokshitz, which was a border town between the wars. In 1924, round about the same time as Rabbi Avraham Geffen went to the United States, he emigrated to Canada and served as rabbi in Montreal until the day of his death in 1941. He was chairman of the Rabbinical Committee of Montreal and an honorary member of the Association of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada. Although works of his appeared in HaPardess, a monthly journal on Torah subjects produced in Chicago, he left many manuscripts on learned Torah subjects which were never published.

The Musar movement

The Musar movement aimed for the education of the individual towards strict ethical behaviour in the spirit of the Halachah, as against the dangers of the modern era. It arose in the 19th century, continuing into the 20th century, in the Jewish culture of the Mitnagdim (opposers of Hassidism) in Lithuania, becoming a trend in its yeshivot. The attempt of the Musarniks to introduce this trend into the yeshivot in Lithuania gave rise to sharp criticism from their opponents who feared that the study of Musar would result in a neglect of Torah study.

As memories of personalities of Riteve turn towards the 20th century, we see the childhood memories of survivors of the Holocaust and shtetl‘characters’ and teachers are remembered.

 

Ya'acov Leviatan

Alter Levite

Ya'acov Leviatan was a marvel to all. He was known in Yiddish as Yankel der Lerer, namely Jacob the teacher. It was wonderful to see his meticulously clean

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Ya'acov Leviatan

 

appearance, when all the townsfolk found it difficult to keep their clothing from being soiled by the muddy streets. He, on the other hand, always sported polished shoes, which was regarded as a wonder.

He came to Riteve as a Hebrew teacher and not as a‘Melamed’, that familiar cheder teacher. He had accepted an invitation from the Zionists, followers of Herzl, to take up the post. The Zionists were regarded as dangerous rebels by the traditionalists, who feared their influence. Yankel spoke gently to the children and he did not use the cane, which was commonplace in the cheder. He introduced the use of spoken Hebrew. He sold the Keren Kayemet stamps and the shekels for Zionist funds, which were earmarked for buying land in Palestine from the Arabs for the settlers who would come from all over the world.

His opponents accused him of capturing souls, or wanting to convert Jewish children. Leviatan gave his own children unconventional names like Theodor Herzl, and he had the courage to say Kaddish in the synagogue when this‘strange’ man died. The orthodox element was so shocked to hear Herzl's name in a holy place that they made a terrible noise to disturb the prayer.

How did this man come to Riteve? He had been a teacher in Sweden, where he was one of the founders of the Zionist movement. He taught the children songs which contained a Zionist message, that is that the Jews should leave the wasteland of the Diaspora and go to Palestine. He brought with him books written in a style suitable for children, which his opponents regarded as dangerous,‘extraneous’ books.

He had difficulty in finding suitable premises for the new type of cheder which, by a play on the Hebrew words, was made to mean‘the dangerous’ cheder. The only accommodation was in a widow's house where she also had the candle factory, which gave off a stench. But the children were so enchanted by him and his new teaching methods that they did not notice the smell. They enjoyed the stories of the Bible presented in a realistic way. The Lag Ba'Omer outing into the forest with songs taught by the teacher expressed the Jewish yearning for freedom.

Unfortunately, Ya'acov Leviatan did not remain in Riteve. His wife's family in Copenhagen heard of him and his great abilities and he was offered a post there as secretary of the community in the big city, where he spent many years. This was a great loss to the enlightened members of the Riteve community for it was not easy to find another teacher who would be a friend and pedagogue to their children.

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Riteve ‘characters’ – Elka Ittes and others

Mirian Zvik

Elka lttes was a saintly lady whose concern it was that the poor should not lack food on the Sabbath. On Wednesdays and Thursdays she would go around to the housewives to collect donations ol bread, meat and so on for the needs of the poor she knew so well.

She would teach the women to read from the prayer book and also from the popular women's Bible Tze'enah Urenah. We would come to hear the words of the Torah from her lips. She lived modestly in one room that served as a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen. She had two sleeping benches, one at the window and one at the table. We, her students, sat around the table waiting to be examined by Elka, who sat there with her pointer in her hand.

Sometimes she would rope us in to help her prepare her husband's meal, which always consisted of yellow peas. While we sorted the peas, we would sing Yiddish songs like‘A Brivelle der Mame’ (a letter from Mama) or one of her favourites called‘Menshele’ (a small person). Between songs, she would be busy with the preparation for the meal and would shed a tear of happiness and contentment. She was blessed with two sons who were Torah scholars.

There were other lovable personalities in town like Sore the‘Drei Kop’ (chat– terbox, a nag, a nudnik) and Meir Yanke‘The Hare’ who would call people to the synagogue with the cry‘To Shul! To Shul! ’ When there was a funeral, he would knock on the doors, calling out ‘Kum zu die Levaya!’ (come to the funeral).

 

Riteve‘characters’ – Leib der Satnik

Rivka Zaltsman

Leib der Satnik was the courier of the bank and postman to the Jewish community. He was a wise and lovable man, loyal and honest. Even though he did not know foreign languages, he never made a mistake delivering invitations or letters.

I used to be very fond of him. He would tell me stories of the early days of the Oginskis since his family had been in Riteve for many generations. For his loyal service, he received a medal for excellence from the president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona.4 He was survived by many descendants spread throughout the world.

 

Two rabbis of the early 20th century: Rabbi Avraham Aaron Borstein and Rabbi Moshc Aharon Davidowitz

The Jews of Riteve followed with pride the careers of those associated with their town, whether they were born there or served there. One who was a rabbi there

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for a comparatively short time, probably around the turn of the century, was Rabbi Avraham Aaron Borstein, born in about 1867, a celebrated scholar who was considered third in the hierarchy of great rabbinic teachers, coming after Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveichik ard Rabbi Itzchak Yaacov Rabinowitz of Ponevezh. Being an individualist, however. Rabbi Borstein resigned as head of the yeshiva at Slobodka, Kovno,5 and became rabbi first at Zamut, then in turn at five other towns, Tsitovian, Riteve, Anikst, Shadove and Tavrig. Former students wanted him to return to teaching and so he founded a small centre of Talmudic study at Tabruk. He was finally to emigrate to Eretz Israel in the 1920s, but was a sick man as a result of his sufferings in the Ukraine where he was a refugee during the First World War. He died in 1926 aged only 59.

Another Riteve rabbi of the early years of the 20th century was Rabbi Moshe Aharon Davidowiiz, son of Rabhi Avli Movson, author of Ahavat Eitan on the Mishnah and its scholars. Rabbi Mosie Davidowitz's daughter, Ruth, married Rabbi Moshe Shurin (Mishuris) who, through this marriage, was eventually to live in Riteve.

 

Rabbi Moshe Shurin (Mishuris)

Rabbi Shurin was born in 1890 in Turtsin in the province of Volliymia, Russia.6 He studied under Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik in Brisk, and at the famous Mir yeshiva in northwest Byelorussia, founded by Rabbi Samuel Tiktinski in 1815. This yeshiva played a central role in the spiritual life of the community and became known among Jews in Eastern Europe. (Fortunately, before the German invasion during the Second World War, its students and rabbis all managed to escape and reach Shanghai, where they stayed in the local ghetto until the end of the war.) Moshe Shurin studied at Mir for two years and then spent a further two at the yeshiva at Novogrudok, also in northwest Byelorussia and one of the main yeshivot of the Musar movement. He was only 21 when he married and, after this, he continued improving his knowledge of Mishnah and Law at the Kollel of Kovno and was ordained as a rabbi by the great rabbis of Kovno and Slobodka. Rabbi Shapira, Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Leibowitz. Rabbi Shurin then accepted a post as rabbi in the small town of Navran, 14 kilometres from Telz, where, before the Holocaust, there lived only about 100 Jews. Soon after he took up this position, however, the First World War broke out and he moved to Riteve where his father–in–law still lived. It is not recorded whether or not the family had to leave during the war but, in 1916, Rabbi Shurin founded a yeshiva at Riteve which he ran for 12 years.

In 1928, he received a call to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States and, in his seven years of ministry in this place, he took advantage of the famous institutions of learning there to pass his matriculation and to complete two years

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of study at Harvard. During this time, he gave weekly lectures in Judaic subjects to the Jewish students. He then became a rabbi in the Bronx, New York. Throughout this period his family remained in Riteve.

In 1935, he emigrated to Israel, taking his family with him. He lived first in Jerusalem and then became an administrative organiser of the yeshiva of Petach Tikvah. Two years later, he returned to America without his family, who joined him in 1939 after the outbreak of the Second World War. Here he became a rabbi in the synagogue of the people of Slutsk (Landsleit) in New York, dying there in 1941.

Rabbi Moshe Shurin had six children, four daughters, Chaviva, Chasida, Ella and Dana, who all married rabbis and heads of yeshivot in America, and two sons, both rabbis, Aharon Ben–Zion, who was also an

 

Rabbi Moshe Shurin (Mishuris)

 

author, and Israel, who became a rabbi in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Rabbi Aharon Ben–Zion Shurin

Rabbi Aharon Ben–Zion Shurin7 was born in Riteve in 1913, probably at his grandparents' home as this was before the family's move. He studied at the cheder at Riteve and in the local yeshiva headed by his father, and later in TeIz and Ponevezh. He went to Israel with his parents in 1935. He studied in the yeshivot of Hebron and Petach Tikvah and also at a night school. While in Petach Tikvah, he played a part in its defence during the riots of the Arab Revolt from 1936–39 that broke out two weeks after his arrival. During this three–year period of disorder and violence, Arabs in Palestine revolted against both the Jews and the British administration.

In 1939, he was ordained by the great rabbis, Chief Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi Melzer and Rabbi Katz of Petach Tikvah. Rabbi Shurin went with his family to America in 1939 where he studied science for four years at Yeshiva University and also at Columbia. He also lectured on Hebrew language and literature at Yeshiva University. He edited the Hebrew section of a memorial book which was brought out in honour of the head of the institution, Rabbi Dr Dov Devel.

In 1942, Rabbi Shurin was appointed rabbi of the congregation of Slutsk in

[Page 106]

 

Rabbi Aharon Ben–Zion Shurin, living in New York at the time of the publication of the original book

 

New York, his late father's post, and two years later married Aliza, daughter of Rabbi Moshe Rivkin, head of Brooklyn Yeshiva Torah Va'Daat (Torah and knowledge). In 1945, he was appointed to the synagogue‘Torah Moshe’ in Brooklyn and was also head of the new Talmud Torah. He was a member of the Assembly of Rabbis of America and a member of the Jewish writers' and journalists' club of New York, named for YL Peretz. Also in 1945, he helped to found the organisation of workers, Agudat Israel, in America and was its first vice– president. Later he cut himself off from political activity.

His literary work had started in Lithuania with articles in the journal of Telz, and later in Kol Israel, a weekly newspaper of Agudat Israel in Jerusalem. In America, he wrote literary articles in Hebrew in two rabbinical monthlies and also in the Yiddish press, contributing to the orthodox press of the youth movement and editing its journal. Two of his articles were published in a special publication, one being a biography of Rabbi Fundiler for the original volume of this work (see below). From 1944 onwards, he wrote regularly for the daily Yiddish paper Forward about the love of Eretz Israel and the hallowed values to be found in Jewish thought and history. Many of his articles were signed by the author and others made use of his pseudonyms, either AB Roztan or YYD, the initials of his sons, Yaacov, Yosef and David.

Two famous Riteve rabbis, who built up the Riteve yeshiva and developed it into a well–respected institution of learning, were Rabbi Joseph Ze'ev Lipowitz and Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler. who worked together from 1912–1924. Rabbi Fundiler, however, who was Riteve's last rabbi, appears to have arrived before Rabbi Lipowitz and died with his people in the Holocaust.

 

Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler

Rabbi Ben–Zion Shurin

Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler was one of the greatest rabbinic personalities in the years before the Holocaust. He was among the leaders of the fourth generation of the

[Page 107]

Musar movement and exerted a great moral influence on his own generation. He was known as Rabbi Shmuel Brezner by his yeshiva associates because of the name of his birthplace, Brezin (Berezin).

He received his initial Musar instruction from his mentor, Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel (the ‘Grandfather of Slobodka’), and was also a pupil of the great teacher Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv at the Talmud Torah of Kelm. At Slobodka, he acquired the practical knowledge of Musar and its application in everyday life, whereas at Kelm he acquired its theoretical potential. Here he delved deeply into the study of the potential basis of man's soul. These two elements created a wonderful harmony in his personality.

Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler was born in Berezin in the province of Minsk in 1875. His father was Rabbi Isaac Fundiler, son of Rabbi Reuben Fundiler, and his mother's name was Hilda. While only an infant, he was brought before Rabbi Israel Salanter (of Salent) Lipkin, the leading rabbi of the Musar movement, and the great rabbi blessed him. His talents were recognised early and his parents spared no effort in acquiring the very best teachers for their son. He was sent to Slobodka to the yeshiva bearing the name of Rabbi Israel Salanter, namely‘Knesset Israel’. Here he came under the influence ol Rabbi Isaac Jacob Rabinowitz, known as Rabbi Itzel of Ponevezh, who was head of the yeshiva. Rabbi Finkel encouraged Rabbi Fundiler in his studies and he became his close associate. Rabbi Fundiler later supported Rabbi Finkel in the great dispute which raged at Slobodka on the issue of the inclusion of Musar studies in the curriculum ol the famous yeshivot of White Russia and Lithuania, namely Slutzsk, Mir, Telz and Slobodka itself.

(Rabbi Ben–Zion Shurin did not state where Rafchi Fundiler came to Riteve.Editors) He had a strong influence on Riteve and its institutions as he was respected by the business community as well as all other sections of the town. When, for example, the butchers came to him for a legal decision, he would delve into Halachic sources and deal leniently with them, so as to prevent pecuniary losses.

 

Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler, the last rabbi of Riteve

 

The yeshiva students enjoyed his classes in Gemara and also in Ethics. He gave outstanding sermons to the gen–

[Page 108]

–eral community. On Yom Kippur, he would lead the prayers for‘Ne'ila’ (the concluding service). He also read the Torah portions on Rosh Hashanah and, in particular, the portion from the Prophets which, on this particular day, deals with Hannah who was childless. This was a very poignant occasion since he and his wife were themselves childless.

Rabbi Fundiler devoted time and energy to the education of youth. He had a great understanding of the young, even though he had no children of his own, and when he recruited teachers for the boys' and girls' schools in Riteve, he looked for people who would teach with love and not with intimidation. He also opposed excessive party politicking, opposing the founding of parties, even religious parlies. He would say that strife was not a Jewish quality since strife leads to blind hatred which was the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. Although he yearned to emigrate to the Land of Israel, he did not attain his ideal.

 

Rabbi Joseph Ze'ev Lipowitz

Rabbi Joseph Ze'ev Lipowitz was the son of Rabbi Baruch Lipowitz of Treshner. in the district of Bialystok, who was a learned scholar and educated his son to follow in his footsteps. The young man studied at the Bialystok yeshiva, where he excelled. A turning point in his life was when, at the age of 16. he went to study at Slobodka with‘the Grandfather’ at Knesset Israel, where he came under the influence of the Musar movement. Under the tutelage ol Rabbi Mordecai Epstein, he was appointed to give the daily lesson to the townsfolk of Slobodka at the Chevra Shas, where there were ten minyanim (prayer quorums).

In 1912, he married the daughter of a well–to–do family in Riteve, where he settled, establishing a junior yeshiva and giving a daily lesson without any remuneration. Many ol his pupils later went on to yeshivot in other towns and were very successful. He and Rabbi Fundiler built up the Riteve yeshiva and developed it into a well–respected institution of learning. On the High Holidays, Rabbi Lipowitz would return to Slobodka and renew his relationship with the rabbis and yeshiva heads and also give lectures on the preliminary steps of the Musar movement.

He spent some time in Berlin where he attended the lectures of Rabbi Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt am Main, leader of German Orthodox Jewry. He was able to continue his Musar training with Hirsch's views and commentaries on the Bible.

In 1924, he settled his affairs and emigrated to Palestine where he settled in Tel Aviv and became a teacher in the Tachkemoni high school. Many Slobodka students also emigrated to Palestine with their rabbis, Moshe Epstein and Neta Hirsch. They established a yeshiva in Hebron, the city of the Patriarchs, and Rabbi Joseph Ze'ev was once again in their company on festivals while they

[Page 109]

 

 
The artist Avraham Izchak Goldberg, who was born in Riteve in 1910 and died in 1970. He studied painting at schools in Montreal, Canada and received a Decoration for Excellence from the directorate of the museum in Montreal. Before his emigraiion, he was a student at the Slobodka yeshiva and lived with a religious family. One day, the lady of the house noticed that Alter, as he was called, was drawing and she informed the head of the yeshiva. For this sin he was expelled from the yeshiva. His family was very upset, but his mother immediately approached the rabbi of the time, Rabbi Fundiler. The rabbi called Alter and granted the mother's request to allow him to return to the yeshiva on condition that he sign an agreement that he would not continue drawing. Alter's answer was unambiguous.‘Truly I will promise never to draw again: however, I will not sign an agreement.’

Above right: A self–portrait of the. artist. A photograph of him in a group taken, at the Hebrew School – see page 41 – and the list on page 36 indicate that he became a teacher there briefly before emigrating[*]

 

would frequent his home in Tel Aviv. When the Tel Aviv yeshiva‘Agudat Torah’ was established, he was among its teachers.

In 1926, a society of yeshiva graduates was formed on‘the Grandfathers’ initiative, and Rabbi Joseph Ze'ev was its moving spirit. His home in Lilienblum Street, Tel Aviv, was the centre of study and of minyanim for many years. He was among the founders of the Kollel‘Hechal Ha–Talmud’ (palace of the Talmud) and was instrumental in getting the philanthropists Pollak and Olitsky to contribute

[Page 110]

a suitable site for this venture. He was principal of Yeshiva‘Or Zoreach’ (a glowing light) at N've Shalom and lecturer to the Workers' Organisation of Agudat Israel in Tel Aviv. He was a great supporter of Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman's Talmudic enterprise, in memory of the Ponevezh yeshiva, at Bnei Brak. He was active in all the Ponevezh institutions in Israel and also in the field of memorialising Lithuanian Jewry, as for example at Kiryat Ponevezh.

He died in 1962 after a severe illness and was mourned by many. The orthodox press paid tribute to his numerous activities in Riteve, Ponevezh and, above all, in Israel. His friends had two of his works published: Nachlat Yosef, on the Book of Ruth, and a commentary on the Torah. In these two books the author quotes widely from the ideas of the Grandfather', Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, but he also adds original and logical arguments of his own.

 

Rabbi David |Dov| Zvi Heiman

Undoubtedly a pupil of rabbis Lipowitz and Fundiler was Rabbi David Zvi Heiman,8 born in Riteve in 1902. He was later to study at Slobodka and Telz and at Hebron in Eretz Israel. He was graduated as a rabbi in Jerusalem by the great rabbis Moshe Mordecai Epstein, Isar Zalman Melzer and Eliyahu Klotzkin. He emigrated to the United States in 1931 and became a rabbi in Minneapolis. In 1947, he was appointed head of the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Baltimore. He was also a member of the Association of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada and a member of the executive council of the Mizrachi organisation of America.

Before completely leaving the period before the First World War, Abraham Shabtai Movashovitz should be mentioned. An anonymous writer recollected him around 1909.

 

Abraham Shabtai Movashovitz

There are people whose lives seem to be a riddle, who seem strange in their ways. Such an unusual person was Abraham Shabtai Movashovitz, who lived in Riteve

 

Rabbi David [DOV] Zvi Heiman

 

[Page 111]

in the period of the Revival, when the Zionist movement became active. If one had seen him going about his business in Riteve dressed in farmer's clothes, one would not have realised that he was someone extraordinary. His clothing – high boots and a short jacket of leather – made him look like one of the masses. But whoever knew him, knew that he was a very refined person. He was born in Kupishik (a small town 40 kilometres east of Ponevezh), studied at Slobodka and qualified as a teacher. He was well acquainted with Hebrew literature and was a devoted Zionist.

He worked hard on behalf of the Hebrew school, both materially and spiritually. How sad that he died young after an operation in Koenigsberg. He was survived by his wife, three daughters ard a son. Many in Riteve honoured his memory and regarded highly his generous contributions to the building of the Hebrew school, which was a centre of culture in Riteve. His memory is enshrined as on a tombstone of marble, among the personalities of Riteve.

Athough Abraham Movashovitz qualified as a teacher, it seems unlikely that he followed this profession, or he would not have been able to make generous contributions to the Hebrew school nor would he have walked about the town dressed as a farmer. It is likely that he followed some sort of agricultural pursuit, possibly as a broker of agricultural produce. Editors.

 

Zalman Leib Levite – a teacher of the 1920s

Alter Levite (his brother)

Zalman Leib Levite, who was a man of great achievements and rare spirit, invested much energy in the Hebrew school the first in Riteve. In the days before Hebrew textbooks were published, he and Shimon Varkul and myself were involved in solving this problem. After much effort, some fairly simple methods were devised. One was a device used by the German underground at the end of the First World War, called a spirograph, in which the contents of the lesson were written in special ink on smooth paper and the written words would sink into the gelatine on the device. In our home, there would be meetings whose aim was to prepare the lessons by this method and copy them for the needs of the children.

Although Levite was not a qualified teacher, he fulfilled his duties with great dedication. I can still picture my brother in his classroom, teaching arithmetic and Hebrew. He married in Tavrig and the young couple emigrated to the Land of Israel.

[Page 112]

 

A photograph of Rabbi Joel Dov Saks, which appears to have been taken in the 1930s, was placed in the orginal book without explanation, suggesting that he was well known to the readers

 

Hillel Saks, another teacher of the 1920s

Alter Levite

Hillel Saks was bom in Riteve in 1899, the son of Riva and Simcha Saks. He excelled at school and was therefore sent to the Telz yeshiva where he also shone. He was gifted musically and played the mandolin which gave hours of pleasure to his audiences. He had a strong interest in people and a desire to improve their lot. After the First World War, he moved to Kovno and studied at the teachers' seminary of‘Tseirei Zion’. He taught in various places and was considered one ot the best teachers in Lithuania. During the Second World War, he died a martyr having suffered at the hands of the Nazis. May his blood be avenged.

Lastly, the touching reminiscence that Chanoch (Zundel) Prisman gave of her father, Rabbi Eliezer Ze'ev Prisman, a man born in Riteve who remained there and typified both the scholar and the townsman, for he became a shopkeeper and was also the typical keen Zionist.

 

Rabbi Eliezer Ze'ev Prisman

Chanoch (Zundel) Prisman

My father. Rabbi Eliezer Ze'ev Prisman, was born in Riteve. His father was Rabbi Yehoshua Klonimus Prisman. I did not know my grandfather, but he was reputed to have been a scholar and teacher in the Beit Midrash. My father absorbed from him his devotion to Torah and the fear of G–d. While I do not know the details of my father's youth, I assume that he studied at a cheder and at a yeshiva as did all the good students in Lithuania at that time.

During the dispute between the exponents of the Musar and their opponents

[Page 113]

 

Rabbi Joseph Itzikowitz by his son, Itzchak Itzikowitz.

Rabbi Joseph Itzikowitz was born in the city of Shvckshna in Riteve. He studied at yeshivot until the age of 21. He was exceptionally talented, an able reader and an outstanding cantor with a beautiful voice. For many years, he was the teacher in the Talmud Torah. He interested his pupils in the stories of the Talmud, which flowed like gathering spring. All his paths and his ways were holy. His faith was his guiding principle from his earliest youth until the last moment of his life. He was killed in the Holocaust together with the members of his family

 

in the Slobodka yeshiva, my father changed over from the‘Knesset Israel’ of the Musar movement to the‘Knesset Beit Yittchak’, which opposed the Musar faction. On leaving the yeshiva, he married my mother, Esther Gittel Bloch, from Plungyan. He then opened a shop for pharmaceutical products, where he earned his living up until the Holocaust that mowed down Lithuanian Jewry.

From his youth he was a Zionist supporter and member of the Hibbat Zion movement. He did not hide these Zionist sympathies even in his yeshiva days. With the rise of the Zionist organisation, he devoted himself to it wholeheartedly. He worked for the Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod and was also active in per– suading people to‘Take the Shekel’, namely to donate regularly a small sum that served as a sort of membership fee in the Zionist movement. His home was the centre for Zionist emissaries who came from the centre in Kovno to enlist members and collect contributions to its funds.

The orthodox element was opposed to Zionist activities, but my father resisted their opposition and even the obstacles they put in his way and remained loyal to the Zionist ideal. He saw in the Balfour Declaration an important step towards the complete redemption of the Jewish people and looked forward to the rise of an independent Jewish state.

How sad that his dream was not fulfilled. He did not live to see the establish–

[Page 114]

–ment of the State of Israel. Tragically he was murdered with all the inhabitants of Riteve by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators on Tamuz, 1941.

‘May his soul be bound up with life’ with all the martyrs of our people and may G–d avenge their blood.


Footnotes

  1. Article in Hapeless (the balance.) in 1905, a rabbinical monthly edited by Rabbi Eliyahu Akiva Rabinowitch, rabbi of Poltave. Quoted by the anonymous writer of the brief item on Rabbi Yaffe in the original book. Return
  2. This fact is known because in 1842 a book named Ateret Shaul (Crown of Shaul), written by Rabb: Shaul Luria, the head of the Rabbinic Court in Shavla, was published and, in a list of those endorsing it, is the name of Rabbi Bendel, son of Yoel, the rabbi of Riteve. Return
  3. His career was extensively described in the original book, but as a is available in musical reference works has been omitted from this account as his connection with Riteve was tenuous. Return
  4. Antanas Smetona, the president of Lithuania, governed with strong-arm methods from 1926 until 1940. Return
  5. A leading yeshiva in Eastern Europe which was dedicated to the ideals of the Musar movement. Return
  6. David Tidhar. Encyclopaedia of the Pioneers and the Builders of the Vishuv, Tel Aviv, 1959. Vol. 10, pp. 3743-3745. Return
  7. Ibid.Return
  8. Simcha Alberg. HaPardess (jubilee book). New York 1951, p. 97 Return


* Note from Shoshana Goldberg:

My Uncle Avram Izchak was indeed an artist, born in 1910 and died in 1970. He was my father's twin brother. However the details of the story pertaining to Alter (and the self portrait) relate to the oldest brother in the family Alter Goldberg. He is listed in the victims of Riteve. Avram and my father (Shimon Dovid) emigrated while in their teens. I can't say for a certainty but I suspect it was Alter who taught in the school. He never emigrated he perished with his mother (my grandmother), his wife and his 2 children in the Holocaust. Return

 

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