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[Page 41-42]

Of Bygone Days

by Rabbi M. Halevi, Yavniel, Israel

If the author of the Song of Songs were to seek a phrase to characterize the town of Stavisht, he would certainly choose the words, I am dark but comely, daughters of Jerusalem. For indeed the outward appearance of the town was dark and dismal. If you would look at its inhabitants you would think: Here are the descendants of the exiles of ancient Judea, the signs of their wanderings and travail etched on their faces and reflected in their eyes, full of longing, deep concern for making a living, fear of the gentile, and readiness to flatter him or to be beaten.

The streets on which they lived lacked anything to please the eye. There was almost no sign of green. The rows of houses were crooked and dilapidated; there were no paved sidewalks; many of the houses had no courtyards or even gates, and their floors were of clay, freshened every Sabbath eve.

The impression of poverty given by the Jewish neighborhood was underscored by its juxtaposition with the beautiful grounds surrounding the palace of the Count – the landowner. Here the houses were well built, there were well-tended gardens, lawns and flowers, peace and beauty. Here were the homes of the many officials who worked in the splendid office of the Count, involved in managing his estates.

“I am with him in misfortune”. The Shekhinah [Divine Presence] too was in exile: the Bet Hamidrash , the Talnoye Kloyz, and the Makarov Kloyz were on the second floors of shops, with no boundaries between holy and secular.

“I am dark on the outside, as the tents of Kedar, but beautiful within, as the tent of Solomon”. The holy congregation distinguished itself and expressed its spirituality in three ways:

A. Zionism. This poor community bought 200 shares of the Colonial Bank. Two thousand pounds sterling was an enormous sum in Stavisht sixty years ago. When they read in the newspaper that Dr. Herzl had said that if he had the entire sum that had been promised for the bank it would help enormously in his negotiations with the rulers of Turkey, they sent a representative to Kiev to Professor Mandelshtam to ask him for details and to tell him that if this were indeed the case, they were prepared to make inordinate sacrifices, even to sell the pillows from under their heads, in order to help. The noble professor calmed them down and told them that matters had not yet come to such a pass.The Zionists in Stavisht built their own synagogue. Their by-laws were composed and written by Yaakov Koplivitski, whose Hebrew pen was that of a good scribe. I have not seen the pinkas but some of the by-laws were transmitted to me orally and they are:

What beautifully simple and egalitarian principles in the House of God!

I must here mention the names of those who left for Erets Yisrael in the days of the Second Aliyah, hoping to find a way to make a living there. They were: Shlomo Solgenik, Leyb Vaisman, and later, Eliyahu the stove builder. They returned, but their attempt reflects their longing for redemption.

In his book, Mi-yamim rishonim , A. Druyanov tells about the attempt by Yosef Kuderansky to purchase large tracts of land near Beersheva. For this purpose an organization was formed, Agudat Yisrael, and one of the branches was in Stavisht.

The Zionist spirit here was also the reason I was brought to Stavisht from Rabbi Reines yeshiva to serve as rabbi. To celebrate the occasion representatives from Zhashkov came to greet me, and among there were Eliyahu Dayan, a member of Ein Ganim, and one of the founders of Nahalal, as well as his brother, Shmuel Dayan, who had come from Deganya to visit his parents in Zhashkov, and stayed in the home of the Zionist rabbi for a few days.

The elders of Stavisht who were hasidim wondered: A Litvak, a Zionist, who does not belong to any hasidic sect, how will he teach Torah? But permit me to reveal that the young man, in his innocence, his ways, and his speech, quickly won the full support of the community.

B. The Talmud Torah. In those days, when the heder, in its old form, was the only popular way of education for most of the children in the Pale of Settlement, the Zionists of Stavisht established the Talmud Torah in modern form. It was in a suitable building, with a separate teacher for each class, with singing and with graduation certificates and under the supervision of the Kiev branch of the Hevrat Mefitse Haskala.

The first principal was Efrayim Fukson. The Talmud Torah cost its supporters a great deal of money. They were all members of the middle class who hoped that the success of the institution would bring returns on their investments. Here I should mention that Yitshak Besidski invested all of his money, 800 rubles, in the venture, a fortune in those days. I never heard the investors bemoan the loss of their funds.

In the book, “Naftule dor”, in the article on Prisoners of Zion, there is mention of Riva Besidski, daughter of Yitshak, as one of those imprisoned in Siberia.

C. Prayer. I came to Stavisht from Bielarus and was deeply impressed by the heartfelt liturgy of the Ukrainian Jews. Even the daily Minha was for them a time of singing of Psalms.

Every synagogue in Stavisht had a paid cantor. The cantors Shmuel of the Bet Hamidrash and Efrayim of Sha'ar Tsiyon chanted beautifully. The last named was a pupil of Zaydl Rovner and knew how to read music. He organized a choir of local boys who sang on the holidays. It seems to me that this was a unique phenomenon in the area.

In the summertime, after the Sabbath, a group of intellectuals would gather at my home for tea and discussions. Among them was Ya'akov Tsherkas, who had a sharp mind, loved the truth, and pursued justice. We talked about current events and matters concerning Jews. I would be expected to speak on Torah and the sayings of the sages.

After the important holidays we would have meetings of rivals, hasidim and Zionists. There was peaceful discussion, and we all sang together.

I remember one such evening, a time of enjoyment in this world. It was after Pesah, spring in nature and in one's heart. We sang the sweet strains of the Tal prayer and Efrayim the cantor sang the phrase, and you shall count from the day after Pesah etc. One of those assembled, a rather strange man named Ya'akov, about whom it was said that he had been of little faith, had left his home and wandered in foreign places including Egypt and Erets Yisrael, returned and became a Bratslav Hasid. He danced around excitedly singing, Praise His name in dance, and was joined by those singing and clapping their hands until he wore them out.

What a precious congregation, holy and modest! How it has been destroyed and ravished in the years of terror and murder!

[Page 45/46]

Rabbi in Stavisht for a Short Time

by Rabbi H. Isaac Reiter
Rabbi of the home for the aged of Brooklyn, on Howard and Dumont Avenues

We should thank God for the loving kindness to us Russian Jews, and especially Ukrainian Jews for allowing us to find a haven in the United States and especially in New York where there are about 2,500,000 Jews, among them many landslayt. We remember those of our landslayt who were martyred in the pogroms (about 600,000) in the years from 1919-1925, when whole towns and villages were wiped out by Petliura, Zeleny, Sokolovsky, and other bandits. Among these towns I must recall the town of Stavisht, Kiev Province. There I arrived as the son-in-law of my wife's noble and important parents, Avraham Gayfman and Sara Hirshl-Hanna. My father-in-law was a great scholar and a prominent person in town. I served in Stavisht as a rabbi without salary, especially after the rabbi, Rabbi Yitshak Avraham who was called “Pitsie Avraham” Gaysinski had left. At that time there were about 800 families, that is about 4,500 Jews.

sta047.jpg - [22 KB] - Rabbi  H. Isaac Reiter
Rabbi  H. Isaac Reiter
Rabbi of the home for the aged of Brooklyn,
on Howard and Dumont Avenues

Stavisht was considered a fine town. It had six synagogues and a fine Talmud Torah, a Bikur Holim [visiting the sick] and a hostel for poor wayfarers. There were four ritual slaughterers of whom two, Avraham and Ya'akov, were killed by the murderers. There were honest artisans, almost all of whom were Sabbath observers, four butchers, and upstanding householders with fine families. Rabbi Gaysinski was a great scholar and was very warm and friendly and especially skilled in the legal ramifications of debt and repayment.

I left Stavisht in 1913, to become a rabbi in Pogrebishche, Kiev Province, in place of my grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Moshe Reiter, who had served there for forty years. I served there until 1929 and God helped me leave for New York, where I and my family live.

My birthplace was also destroyed as were most of the small towns of the Ukraine. It would be good it there would be cities and towns built in Israel with the names of these holy places, as a memorial for our martyred brothers and sisters. If we could write all of the events of the years between Petliura and Hitler our grief and lamentations would be indescribable.

We pray that God will bring full redemption quickly.

[Page 49/50]

Fifty Years Ago

by Professor M. Haysinski
University of Paris, France

Stavisht, Tarashcha, Zhashkov, Pyatigory, Titiyev, Shvarts-Timeh [Belaya Tserkov]… towns and hamlets, where we studied, lived, worked, often suffered, but also rejoiced with our parents, brothers, sisters, friends. I remember mostly grey and dark memories, of life there, but I also remember moments of light and shining countenances, as if I had lived them only yesterday.

Stavisht …here is the “Main Street:” A wide street. On one side, before the bridge, a large pharmacy, then my friend Berl Besidski's house, a drug store, the Talnoye Kloyz, the post-office [post delivered by horses] with the first telephone in town, the Bet Hamidrash, more stores, another drugstore, the police station and then the Count's estate. This was another world with a wide boulevard, beautiful houses and gardens, where the Jewish young men and young women would promenade on a Saturday afternoon, cracking sunflower seeds. This was a whole different and foreign town, belonging to Count Branicki and the managers of his forests and fields, cities and towns. Nevertheless, when I visited the famous castles on the Loire in France in the 1930's (Chateaux de la Loire), and I saw that the castle in the city of Loush [Loches] belonged to Count Branicki, or his heirs, I had the urge to go in and carry on a conversation about Stavisht. After all, this was a man from back home, even though he was a Polish nobleman.

We return to our big Jewish street. On the other side was the post office, my friend Yosl's house, a big one, because his grandfather was an important egg merchant, who bought and sold all over the region of Kiev to Volochisk on the Austrian border. Then came the Makarov Kloyz, the market place and more stores. On all sides there were other streets with small, old houses, with a lot of mud, almost all year long. In these houses lived a few wealthy people and a great many poor artisans: tailors, cobblers, small merchants, butchers, carpenters, ritual slaughterers, cantors, rope makers, teachers.

Indeed my first memories of shining countenances are of my teachers. What they taught me has little to do with what I now teach. There are other students here in Paris, but “I have learned from all my teachers.” What I learned in Stavisht between the seventh and fifteenth years of my life has not been completely forgotten. And even that which I have forgotten is not completely lost, for nothing is lost in our world. Everything takes on a new form, and is found sooner or later. Cast your bread upon the waters.

I especially remember Reb Leyzer and Reb Lozer. I studied Bible with the first named, and Modern Hebrew with the second one. Reb Leyzer wore a long, not always clean, coat (may he forgive me in Paradise, where I am certain, he resides with all of my rebbes). He had many children and little income, quite a few students in a very small house, in which his wife plucked feathers almost at the table where we read and wrote. Reb Leyzer had little patience. e was often irritated and nervous. But I am certain that no one in Stavisht knew the Bible as well as he did and no one taught it with such devotion and with such a love of the Prophets, especially of Isaiah. Honesty, justice, and peace, the ideals which the prophet had expressed with enthusiasm have rarely found an exponent as devoted as Reb Leyzer.

Reb Lozer was very different. He was certainly not much richer than his colleague, but he dressed like a maskil [enlightened Jew]; with a short clean jacket, with pince-nez, and also, it seemed to me, with a somewhat clipped beard. He was quiet and calm as he taught us Hebrew grammar, discussed Hebrew poetry, and the periodical “Hatsefira, ” where he especially loved David Frishman's cogent and elegant articles and Nahum Sokolow's political analyses. Sometimes he would dictate difficult Hebrew texts to us. I usually wrote quite correctly. Once, however, I made an error, as did all of my classmates except for Reb Lozer's daughter, the only girl in our school. If my classmate, Reb Lozer's daughter, reads these lines, she should be assured that I have always had the greatest respect for her knowledge and I bow low before her.

Of all of my Stavisht teachers the greatest impression, naturally, was made by my grandfather, Rabbi Yitshak Avraham, son of Yisrael. I say “naturally” not because he was my grandfather, but because he was one of the strongest personalities I have ever known. I have met some very important people in my lifetime, but since a grandson cannot serve as a witness, let me only say that my grandfather taught me Gemara [part of the Talmud] and Shulhan Arukh [Code of Laws]. Unfortunately he had little time for me and he would send me to the Sokolovka Kloyz to study by myself. What I studied there in the long afternoon hours is another story, a personal one. I have not forgotten the Sokolovka Kloyz, just as I have not forgotten the other Stavisht synagogues. There are five continents on this globe, but Stavisht had six synagogues: The Big Shul, the Bet Hamidrash, the Talnoye Kloyz, the Makarov Kloyz, the Sokolovka Kloyz, and the Zionist Kloyz. Just as every continent is different from the others, so did every one of our synagogues have its own character, its own atmosphere, its own frequenters.

We should remember that in my youth the Bet Hamidrash or the kloyz was not just a house of prayer, where people came to mumble their prayers in haste, but also a center of social, cultural, and even political activity. Men would spend long hours there studying, chatting, discussing personal matters, community affairs, town politics about the slaughter house, the bath house, rabbis and ritual slaughterers, cantors and sextons. They would zealously discuss world politics: peace and war, Zionism and Bundism, faith and apostasy, the internal situation in Russia, the Beilis trial, the murder of Stolypin in the Kiev theater, and so on and so on.

I also knew the Talnoye Kloyz quite well. I would often go there to study, or play kvitlekh [home-made card games] with my friend Yosl, whom I have already mentioned. The Talnoye Kloyz was the most important one in Stavisht. It was the place where the “aristocracy” worshipped: men of prestige, wealth, clever merchants from important families, refined men with beautiful beards and silk kapotes [long coats].

On the other hand, the Big Shul was democratic, even proletarian. It had no rabbi or rebbe. There were many maskilim in the Zionist Kloyz, with short beards, sometimes even close-shaven, who read Hatsefira or Hazeman or the liberal Russian periodical Kievskaya Mysl'. Many of them sent their children to a modern Hebrew School where the poet Fukson taught, and some of them even sent their children to the Russian high-school.

At the beginning of this century one could meet in Stavisht people of every leaning from pious Hasidim who ate at the tables of the Skvira, Talnoye, or Sokolovka rebbes, to free thinkers and persons who would become well known in the worlds of science and politics in later years.

[Page 55/56]

My Grandfather, the Rabbi of Stavisht

by Hava Goldman
Hebron, Connecticut

Stavisht, Tarashcha Uyezd [district], Kiev Province, belonged to a Polish nobleman, Count Branicki. He spent most of his time abroad, but his estate manager was always in residence at the palace, as were the stewards who took care of his property. They were a source of income for the local Jews.

As in all small towns, there was a market place in the middle of the town, where the Jewish shopkeepers were. There were a few wealthy merchants who dealt in manufactured goods, from notions to groceries, but most of the Jews had small shops where they barely earned a meager living.

The best business was selling galoshes, because in Stavisht only the main street from Traktave to the Count's palace was paved, but on both sides all was mud. I remember the deep mud near my grandfather's house near the Sokolovka synagogue where he prayed. One had to be an acrobat to make it from one house to another on the various boards and stones over the mud, even with galoshes.

My grandfather, Rabbi Yitshak Avraham Gasinski, was the rabbi in Stavisht for forty years and was known all over the area as “Pitsie Avraham the rabbi.” Carriages would go from my birthplace Tarashcha daily to Stavisht and back. We would always go to my grandfather's house in Stavisht for the holidays. When I came I would always find a house full of people. The life of the town was centered in his home. Here came the parents of a couple to talk about a wedding; and here came a couple to get a divorce. Some people would give my grandfather their money to hold for them, when they bought a house or a store. Mostly they came to the religious court. As a child I loved to look on as both sides became wearied with arguing and yelling, when my grandfather would hand them a kerchief [to symbolize acceptance of the judgment] and say to them, “If you listen to me, I shall give you my decision.” My grandfather participated in every matter concerning the town. Even if someone had a headache he would go to the apothecary and ask for Pitsie Avraham's powder.

My grandfather showed his courage and devotion to his people after the revolution, in 1918-1919, when all over the Ukraine the dreadful pogroms broke out. In the beginning, when we heard about the pogroms in the nearby towns, my grandfather organized the young people of Stavisht to guard the town at night, so that the local gentiles would not rob. Some of the young folk were not too eager to walk around at night, but when they saw the old rabbi doing it, they were shamed into going along. But the local Jewish watch could not guard the town for long. The infamous hooligan Zeleny came with his hundreds of armed soldiers, and the town was full of them.

sta057.jpg - [19 KB] - Rabbi Yitshak-Avraham Haysinski
Rabbi Yitshak-Avraham Haysinski
may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing

All the Jews locked themselves in their houses and were afraid to look out, but my grandfather, heedless of my grandmother's and the children's weeping, went outside. He was immediately encircled by followers of Zeleny. He asked them to take him to the Ataman. My grandfather introduced himself to Zeleny as the rabbi of the town. Since the soldiers were guests, he wished to provide them with boots, sugar, salt, and much money, on condition that they would protect the town. A miracle occurred and the Ataman liked my grandfather's suggestion.

Accompanied by two soldiers my grandfather went from house to house and collected provisions for the dear guests. The pogromchiks took the gifts and nevertheless they also robbed, but they did not kill too many people. When they left town there were a total of eight Jews murdered, and this was considered good.

Just as the Zeleny forces left, they heard that a new band was coming, more dreadful than the first, and since nobody had any money or valuables left, they decided to leave town, and all the Jews, young and old, healthy and sick, started walking on foot to Volodarka, a small town not far away.

I believe that it is superfluous to describe the scene, how dreadful it was, for a town full of people to leave their homes and all within, and when they came to the town of Volodarka, it was no better. They discovered that Zeleny and his troops were there. Again my grandfather went to Zeleny and persuaded him to accept money in Volodarka, and to allow all of the Stavisht Jews to return home.

The bridge between Volodarka and Stavisht was broken, so they built a makeshift bridge and my grandfather stood by until the last of the Stavisht Jews had passed, then he and his family went home.

After many similar experiences, my grandfather, my grandmother and his family decided to flee to Romania. They then went to London and in 1928 they came to America.

[Page 59/60]

My Grandfather

by Arel, grandson of Eliyahu Shohet

When I started to read Yiddish literature in America, I discovered words and phrases written by Jewish classical writers, especially Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, which were familiar to me. I had heard them in my childhood from my grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu Shohet, or as they used to call him in Stavisht, Elye Velvl Khaves. My grandfather, may his memory be for a blessing, did not read Yiddish literature, but I am certain that if he had been born and had lived under different circumstances, he would have become a brilliant artist or writer.

He was skilled in telling a story with colorful descriptions, not only of the characters in the story, but also of the surroundings, of nature. If the story was set in a forest, he described the trees in glorious color. I later encountered in literature the folk sayings and proverbs that he used.

My first memory of my grandfather is when I was five years old. I remember how he wrapped me in a prayer shawl and carried me to Yosl Zyames to study the alef beys [Hebrew alphabet]. Along the way he told me a wonderful story, in his inimitable fashion. “My child,” he began, “I am carrying you now to enter upon the study of Torah. You knew the subject well, before you were born. Beside every Jewish child in his mother's womb there sits an angel who studies Torah with him, for Torah is the foundation of the Jewish people. But just as soon as the child is born, the angel taps him below the nostrils, and he forgets everything he has learned so far. It appears that those up above do not want it to be too easy for Jews. So, the child is told: 'Go and study! Study Torah, that is your calling. Only in this way will you be different from other nations.'” To prove the truth of his story, my grandfather showed me the cleft on my upper lip below the nostrils. “This is the sign of the tap the angel gave you,” he said.

sta061.jpg - [23 KB] - Eliahu Shohet, his wife Feyge, and their daughter Pesi
Eliahu Shohet, his wife Feyge, and their daughter Pesi

This story moved me to come to my grandfather's every Friday night. Saturday morning, while I was still in bed, he would tell me some of his wonderful stories, which I drank in thirstily.

It is from my grandfather that I inherited my great love for Jewish literature, novels and poetry. My grandfather also loved music very much. His house was not far from the Catholic church, and although he was a pious Jew, as were all Jews in town, he used to walk with me on a Sunday, so that no one would see us, to the entrance of the Church, to hear the organ music. He told me how the prophets [sic! the priests] sang and played instruments in the Holy Temple. He told me about this with such awesome descriptions, as if he himself had been there. Then we would go to the tree lined streets of the Count's estate and he would show me the gardens and the flowers and the peacocks all the while continuing to tell me beautiful stories.

Dear grandfather! I cannot thank you now for the dear words you planted within me and the love for my people and its literature. May these few words serve as a monument to your memory.

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