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Hebrew

 

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Steibtz, My Town

by Zalman Shazar

Translated by Sulamith Schwartz Nardi[1]

 

Young sprouts, spring flowers –
Who can banish them from our hearts?
What we love in our young days–
Will forever remain alive.

From My Shtetl Stoibtz –Zalman Shazar[2]

 

Was my town Steibtz one of the most notable or outstanding, that its memory has not faded in my heart, despite all the changes that have happened since then? Were the years that I spent there so important that their echo has not diminished?[3]

I spent eleven years of my life–no more–in Steibtz. I was three when my parents brought me there, after a great fire swept through Mir, the nearby town that was my birthplace. And only a year after my bar mitzvah, Steibtz had become too limited for me and I began my wanderings to distant centers of learning. But those eleven years were the dawn of my youth, and the time of my heder studies. What I absorbed then was sealed in my spirit by the fire of love, and the inspiration of those first days has been with me ever since.

I have gone far from Steibtz and known many a town and city more important, wealthier, graced with more learning, more knowledge, and more of the wonders of the world. Yet this town of Steibtz is uniquely mine: nothing can take its place.

It was a simple little town, quite ordinary, not set apart by its learning, or charity, or educational institutions. On the contrary, it was Mir, not Steibtz, that boasted a famous yeshiva; it was in neighboring Koidenhove, and not in Steibtz, that a hasidic rabbi lived. I doubt very much whether at the time a single resident of Steibtz was famous outside the town limits. Its rich men were only of middling wealth, and it had very few truly erudite Jews.

I remember clearly that there were only four men in Steibtz who were called “Reb” both to their faces and when they were not present.

One of these was the saintly Reb Elinka, a wizened little man who looked like the dried fig of talmudic legend. I saw him every morning walking slowly from his low house up on Yurzdike to the Old Synagogue. As he passed by wrapped in his bald, old fur coat, with a woolen scarf around his neck, I knew that I was looking at holiness itself in all its gracious modesty.

There was Reb Yehoshua, the Gemorra teacher and dayan, religious judge, of the town. A bony, black–bearded, angry–eyed man, he ruled his pupils, grown boys though they were, with strap and cane. Their reward, it was said, was that all of them knew how to solve every problem in Tosphot. And there was Reb Ahre, pious beyond reproach, who taught artisans Hayei Adam in the synagogue; desperately poor himself, he was always collecting money to give to the needy. As for Reb Abraham, the husband of Dabrulia the pitchmaker, he had been blind from his youth and studied the Torah fervently all his life. The synagogue was his home, the town his source of support.

These were the four who were called “Reb” by everyone and always. They lived in different parts of the town. All of them wore plush hats even on weekdays, and even though they were poverty stricken and completely undemanding, they were the pride of the town and in the eyes of its simple workers rare and wonderful beings, virtually supermen.

No, Steibtz in those days was not a center of learning, but it was without doubt a center of work–a town of laborers, strong–armed and muscular men. Though Koidenhove had its hasidic rabbi, it had no river. Though Mir had its renowned yeshiva, it had no railroad. Steibtz had both. It lay on the banks of the River Nieman, which rose at nearby Pesuchna and was covered with rafts floating all the way to mighty Koenigsberg. And a railway line passed through Steibtz on the way from Brisk in Lithuania to Moscow. The noisy, bustling river bank in Steibtz was one of its unique features, too. The entire stretch, from the iron bridge to the ferry over the river, was shaded by trees and covered with parts of boats under construction, rafts ready to be launched, piles of lumber of all sizes and types, heaps of withes used like ropes to bind the rafts. From dawn till the stars came out workers toiled and sweated here. Often after reading conventional discussions of Jewish “parasitism” in the Diaspora, I have found myself wanting to beg the pardon of these long–gone workers of Steibtz whom I knew in my youth. I remember them patching holes in the sides of boats with rope and fiber; lying on their backs on the ground under larger boats, with huge wooden hammers and long iron files in their hands, closing up cracks from the morning to late hours of the night; hammering away and singing while the breezes blew from the turbulent river. Not all of them were young. There were white–bearded ones, too, with large families, fathers with children and sometimes grandchildren.

How horrified the whole town was that ghastly night when the scaffolding snapped and a boat fell on the workers,

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and Berel Chashe–Breinas was pulled out from underneath crushed to death, still holding a hammer in his hand! And that accusation of parasitism–fruit of the earnest desire to reform the Jewish economic structure–how totally undeserved it was in your case, carpenters and boat builders of Steibtz; planers of boards and fasteners of rafts; carters that worked along with your horses to drag logs from the woods and throw them into the Nieman; transporters of barrels of tar to the boats; loaders and unloaders, tossed by rain and storm and wind during the long, long hours of your working day!

 

B.

Our neighbors in their towns without river or forest ridiculed your earthy quality, your sturdiness and health. They themselves were pale and skinny, with shrunken stomachs: yeshiva students, house–bound, almost never exposed to light and air. Amazed at your appetite when you sat down to table at the end of a back–breaking day in sun and rain and wind, they called you Steibtzer Kishkes (”Guts”). It was the custom to give each town a nickname, and this one accurately expressed the attitude toward Steibtz. But it was the carters and butchers of Steibtz, feared as they were by the peasants in the vicinity, who saved our town from attack and rushed to the defense of the Jews in towns close by.

Yet these simple, unlearned people of Steibtz had the most profound reverence for learning and respect for the learned.

Though the yeshiva was in Mir, crumbs from its table nourished all the towns of the area. So the Batei Midrash, the houses of learning of Steibtz received many a young man on his way to or out of the yeshiva–some who had come from such a distance that they were too late for the opening of the term; others who had turned skeptic and been forced to leave the yeshiva; students soon to be ordained who wished to study by themselves for a year without interruption; youthful kabbalists in search of uncensored solitude. The artisans of the town took it upon themselves to find lodgings for the young men and “days” for them to eat regularly in various houses. There was no Bet Midrash in the town without students in it, and no synagogue where the sound of learning was not heard all day and even till the small hours of the night.

The Old and New Synagogues were the special province of the younger students, but the prushim, who had left their families in some far–off town, found their place in the hasidic shtiebel. Needing to send money home for the support of their wives, the prushim could not simply make do with the meals given them in private homes; they did some teaching besides–instruction in Gemorra to some respectable householder or some brilliant youngster who had no more to learn in the heder and had not yet reached the yeshiva but was studying by himself in a synagogue. The parush would stand behind him and guide him along the uncharted paths of the Talmud. Between afternoon and evening prayers you found a parush teaching a whole group of townsmen at the wooden table behind the stove in the Bet Midrash–one taught Hayei Adam in the Talmud Torah building, another Ein Yaakov in the shtiebel.

There was much studying in Steibtz. In the Old Synagogue a Gemorra lesson was led by the rabbi's young son–in–law, in the New Synagogue by Shlomo the shochet. In the artisans' Bet Midrash on Yurzdike, Iche Tanhums delighted his hearers by expounding chapters of the Bible in a sweetly sung melody and with the aid of sage and charming parables–to be sure, only on nights when Iche Tanhums was not engaged in reading from the Book of Job in the homes of mourners.

Aside from the yeshiva students and the prushim, for whom every hour of the day and night was a time for learning, not a few simple householders and artisans also set aside hours for study in the Bet Midrash. They would remain there after morning or evening prayers, entrenched at their stenders, each totally immersed in his book despite the bustling street outside and the worries of the market place and the river bank.

In the middle of the day Reb Shmuel Yehoshua, the shopkeeper, would come into the larger Bet Midrash. Though his shop was always full of customers, he could rely on his wife to manage the business. Opening a large Gemorra on the table behind the stove, he would try to recollect what he had learnt in Volozhin before his marriage.

And here was the blind Reb Abraham putting his soiled handkerchief on the open Gemorra he was studying from memory; he would beg one or another of the young men in the room to do him the kindness of looking up the commentary in Ktzot ha–Hoshen dealing with the page he had reached.

Then the tall Yoshe Frades would walk in. Shopkeeper though he was, he opened his volume of the Mishna and studied for a good full hour, reading in a loud voice. He simply disregarded the unkind comments to the effect that he was “working towards a eulogy.” Let the critics rail–he would go on “studying like a bell,” as they said in the town.

I was a child of the shtiebel, and though the shtiebel was very near the Great Synagogue, my relationship to the latter was quite distant. I occasionally went there with Father on Saturday afternoons before dark to hear some famous preacher who had come from far away. Even more rarely I went with Father to listen to the close of a service sung by some famous cantor whose coming had been announced in notices on the walls of the shtiebel. On such occasions, before the repetition of the Amidah, a little group of lovers of cantorial music would leave the shtiebel with their prayer shawls still on and make their way into the packed synagogue to hear the visiting cantor sing the Sanctification. There was still another reason for going to the synagogue: to hear a heart–breaking address in memory of a great man who had just died. As I look back now, I see that those memorial meetings served to link the otherwise isolated town with the rest of the grieving Jewish people.

The distance between us and the Great Synagogue was thus sometimes bridged by a festive prayer, at other times by an impressive sermon, a crucial dispute or a public assembly on the choice of a rabbi or other communal matters. The large and perpetually unfinished New Synagogue seemed even more distant. It was no less Mitnaged in nature than the older synagogue,

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but there was far less learning in it: the town rabbi did not pray in it, and the respected householders entered it most infrequently. There was an air of controversy about it as there always is about a new institution. The town's established citizens were to be found among the leadership of the Old Synagogue or in the shtiebel, while the recipients of funds sent by relatives in America or South Africa gathered in the New Synagogue. If we of the shtiebel entered the New Synagogue, it was to enjoy the trills of its new cantor at the end of the Sabbath service or to listen to a Zionist speaker ardently holding forth before a listening crowd on Sabbath eve.

The shtiebel was a completely different matter. It was my second home and all the worshippers in it seemed members of the family, whether they were Hasidim by birth and founders of the shtiebel or townsmen who had joined it later. Even as a small child I knew each one's gestures and foibles, troubles and ailments, and I wondered why my fellow–pupils in the heder did not sense the enormous distinction between worshippers in the shtiebel and outsiders. The members of the shtiebel were in fact constant visitors to our house. They came to Father for help when they were hard–pressed; Mother worried about them when they were ill. They drank tea with Father on Saturday nights; they danced with him till dawn on the night of Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Succot–they danced in the house and the shtiebel, the market place and the street. How different from each other and how close to each other they were, how torn by factionalism–and how dear all of them were to me!

 

C.

Old Reb Elinka and Reb Yehoshua, the teacher, sat as dayanim with the town rabbi in complicated cases and particularly when a divorce was under consideration. It was to Steibtz that the neighboring communities, too, brought divorce cases. On a day when a divorce was to be taken up Reb Elinka was invariably depressed. Bitter sighs punctuated his slow walk from his little house at the edge of Yurzdike to the rabbi's house where the court sat.

 

Sto021.jpg
The Rubashov (Shazar) Family

Sitting from Right: Yehuda Leib Rubashov (head of the family), Dr Avraham (at present in Israel), Mother – Sarah (née Ginzburg) and the daughter Raizel
Standing from Right: Miriam (Manya) Eizikolovski, Vitya, Zalman Shazar, Dr Kraina (Katya)

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And the Gemorra students of Reb Yehoshua were free of their teacher's high–handed domination that day and could do their studying by themselves in whatever synagogue they wished. The blind Reb Abraham profited by it all–there were so many bright, unoccupied children about, who could look up references in commentaries for him and help him solve problems that came to his mind as he studied Talmud from memory.

The shochtim, ritual slaughterers, followed after the dayanim in religious significance. There were two: Reb Eliahu and Reb Shloime. Though for decades, both in the slaughter house outside the town and in their own courtyards, they had slaughtered cattle for the butchers and fowl for the housewives and heard the cows groaning and seen the chickens writhing at their feet and flashed their rigorously sharpened knives and stained their long coats with blood–for all that, strangely enough, the two of them were the kindest of men and so gentle that they seemed incapable of hurting a fly. There was a vague sense of hostility between the two households, but the underlying kindliness of both shochtim seemed to smooth over the difficulties, and an outsider would never have suspected that there was any tension. Reb Eliahu's sphere of influence was the Old Synagogue, Reb Shloime's the New, and there was no open break between them.

Reb Eliahu was the veteran shochet of the two, but he was much more than a shochet. The town wits used to say that he had so many occupations you could people a whole community with him. Besides being a slaughterer, he was the reader in the Old Synagogue, he blew the shofar on the High Holy Days, he was the chief mohel performing circumcisions in the town, and he was renowned as a matchmaker, having good connections with the best match–makers in the country and serving all the wealthy families of the vicinity. He took the place of a Government–appointed rabbi, keeping a register of births and arranging certificates. In addition to all this, he spent hours every day cutting gravestones and carving ornamental designs on them: hands lifted in blessing in the case of a member of the priestly class; pitchers of water for libation in the case of a Levite; chopped down trees to indicate young lives that had been prematurely ended. And he carved rhymed eulogies in verse of his own composition on the stones: the Hebrew was most elegant and the letters at the beginning of the lines gave you the names of the dead.

He had still another truly unique occupation–nowadays we would say he operated an employment agency for rabbis. His net was flung far; he knew when a rabbinical post in some distant town became vacant either because the rabbi departed this life or because the laymen could no longer abide him. In each case he knew exactly whom to recommend, whether it was some rabbi who felt that he could not remain in the post he had, or a strange and wonderful parush about to enter the rabbinate. They all came knocking at his door–young rabbis, fathers–in–law with learned young sons–in–law, communal–minded householders, both intriguers and lovers of peace. Reb Eliahu found time for them despite his dozen diverse occupations. The match between rabbi and town was predetermined in the heavens, he insisted, exactly like the match between young man and girl. Tradition tells us that forty days before the birth of a child its future mate is announced on high: the assignment of rabbi to town is also announced, but out of reverence for learning, Reb Eliahu explained, the statement is made discreetly and the actual mating of the two is therefore harder to effect than the splitting of the Red Sea.

Clearly, Reb Eliahu's sources of income were many; some hard, some easy, some conventional, some unconventional. But the end result of them all was that he had the greatest difficulty in providing for his wife, his sons and daughters and sons–in–law and their children. All his long life he was a poor man. But he was a very dignified and serene poor man, a wise and gentle one. I spent much time in his home during my childhood, for his youngest son, Mottel, was my friend and my fellow–student from the time we entered heder till he left to study in the yeshiva at Maletz. Never once did I see Reb Eliahu imposing his will on his family. He was always mild and full of smiles–when he slaughtered chickens, when he circumcised infants, when he put the town register into order, when he sang liturgical tunes, when he hammered at stones. Reb Eliahu straddling the monuments in his yard was no different from Reb Eliahu tranquilly drinking tea at our table after evening prayers, listening to the conversation around him and thoughtfully discussing matches between young couples and problems of far–off and nearby communities in whose affairs he mixed with the same quiet deliberation that he mixed the tea Mother served him.

His voice was sweet and controlled when he read the Torah in the synagogue and prayed before the congregation on holidays. He was no cantor, to be sure, and he had no musical training, but he was master of the traditional melodies and the chant seemed to sing tenderly in his throat–Mother used to say, “There's a violin there, in his throat.” Though he was particularly devoted to the Great Synagogue, he felt as the shochet for the whole community that he must occasionally appear before the worshippers in the other synagogues.

In the shtiebel every Yom Kippur we looked forward to his coming and chanting the Musaf Service. When the reading from the Bible was finished in the Great Synagogue, he would put on his heavy coat over his robe and tallit (this was a precaution against catching a cold) and would slowly make his way in rubbers through the synagogue courtyard from the Old Synagogue to our shtiebel. Since we read fewer of the additional poetic pieces in the service, we were already waiting expectantly. A fresh new spirit entered with him. The tired congregants wrapped their prayer shawls more securely around themselves, sighed deeply, and prepared to listen to Reb Eliahu. And he in his white robe and light socks, his tallit drawn over his head, walked very slowly to the reader's lectern. Carefully he pulled a special shelf out of it to judge the distance at which he should stand, so that he would later be able to kneel without having to move from his place. His graying beard rose slightly out of the concealing folds of the tallit, and in imploring, anguished tones he sang the beginning of the Reader's Prayer: “O behold me, destitute of good works....” Then he grew still, and while all of us held our breaths, he chanted on in a low voice until suddenly he burst forth into a powerful outcry: “And rebuke Satan that he may not accuse me!”

Entreaty began again in measured tones–and then low trilling, as if he were diving far down, sobbing as he struggled to rise,

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till at last he emerged triumphantly out of the depths and his voice was loud and clear as he trod the beaten path of the Reader's Repetition of the Amidah.

How stirred one small boy was by this heartfelt praying!

Then we reached the sequence of “the sins that we have sinned,” and the whole congregation moved, each within his tallit, as the trees in a forest move when a storm passes over them. Reb Eliahu stirred, too, and then suddenly came to rest. During that momentary spell of calm between the storms, his warm voice sang out the entreaty, “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”

I could practically feel the taut, quivering strings of the violin in his throat, trembling with a spiritual vibration that plucked at our hearts…

During those moments it seemed to me impossible that this was the same Reb Eliahu whom we saw sitting at our table in deep discussion with my uncle while he drank tea with Mother; the same Reb Eliahu who stood in our hallway the day before Yom Kippur, covering the blood stains on his arms after he slaughtered the chickens to serve as symbolic atonement; and–even more incredible–the same Reb Eliahu who scolded my friend Mottel for not wanting to go to heder. I would have said that the Reb Eliahu standing before us in the shtiebel was the biblical “man clothed in linen,” pleading before our Father in Heaven, participating in the Heavenly Choir.

Actually, under his direction the whole congregation became a choir, singing together “And the Cohanim, ay, ay, ay…” When they did this and when Father left his seat to stand at Reb Eliahu's right, with the rebbe at his left, both of them hurrying to rise from their kneeling posture to help Reb Eliahu get up in perfect perpendicular stance like that of the ministering angels above–then I knew that the comparison in my mind was neither forced nor inappropriate…

 

D.

Very few in the town knew of the strained relationship between Reb Eliahu and the somewhat younger shochet, Reb Shloime; in fact there were almost no visible signs of tension. It had something to do, it seemed, with vested rights, and the percentage of the meat tax assigned to the slaughterer–subtle points which could hardly arouse public concern. That the wives of the two slaughterers were not on cordial terms, though they lived near each other, was perceptible, but the men themselves could be seen every weekday morning walking side by side like a pair of twins, each with his prayer shawl and phylacteries in a bag under his arm. They parted only when they reached the synagogue courtyard. Here the tall, lean, absent–minded Reb Shloime turned off to the New Synagogue, while Reb Eliahu, the shorter, older and more practical of the two, went on in his deliberate fashion to the Old Synagogue where the prayers never began till he arrived.

Curiously, when the Zionist movement came to Steibtz it supplied a legitimate, public reason for the old, almost impalpable conflict. Though Reb Eliahu did not actually become a Zionist, he never fought against the new ideology. He knew and never objected to the fact that his oldest son, Ahre, not only bought the shekel of membership in the Zionist Organization, but sold many a shekel to others. Reb Eliahu's relations with matchmakers and rabbinical circles in the outside world had taught him that Zionism was now to be accepted as a fact of life. Reb Shloime, however, was one of the fanatical opponents, and with Shaul of the bathhouse and other faithful disciples of the town rabbi, seized every opportunity to weaken and destroy the movement.

In Reb Eliahu's family Zionist activity was not confined to Ahre, the eldest son who later succeeded his father as shochet, stone cutter and registrar. Reb Eliahu's youngest son, my friend Mottel Machtey, was to become a leader of the Labor Zionist group in the town. On the other hand, Reb Shloime's eldest son, Yehoshua, went to study in the Slabodka Yeshiva where he became famous for his scholarship. When during World War I the rabbi of Steibtz left the town, Reb Yehoshua came to serve in his place. The result was that after the old rabbi returned from Saratov, the town was torn between supporters of the old rabbi and supporters of Reb Yehoshua. The controversy went on bitterly for years, one party being led by Reb Shloime and his family, and the other by Reb Eliahu and his.

Till the Holocaust came and “made peace” between them.

Actually, Reb Eliahu and Reb Shloime had each died at a ripe old age before the great cataclysm, but the conflict between their children continued until the evil times. Both their eldest sons found their eternal rest in the common grave the Jews of Steibtz were forced to dig for themselves the day after Yom Kippur in 1942.

Ahre, son of Reb Eliahu, had a son who settled in the Land of Israel and became a member of the Jewish Police Force: a son of this son was later to fall in the struggle for the Land. Ahre himself visited the Land only half a year before World War II began. He accepted a post as shochet in one of the quarters of Tel Aviv and returned to Steibtz–briefly, he thought–to wind up his affairs and make sure that the community would accept his son–in–law as shochet in his stead. But he was never to see Tel Aviv again.

As for Reb Yehoshua, the son of Reb Shloime, his position as rabbi of the community was no longer contested after the old rabbi passed away; he even established a sort of yeshiva. And from the very few survivors of Steibtz I heard how when the end came he wrapped himself in his prayer shawl, put on his phylacteries, and solemnly recited Vidui–the death bed confession–with all the people of the town. Reciting the Psalms, he walked before them all to meet death.


Footnotes:

  1. Reproduced from Morning Stars by Zalman Shazar, translated by Sulamith Schwartz Nardi, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1967 by The Jewish Publication Society of America. Originally published as Kochvei Boker, copyright 1950, 1966 by Am Oved Publishers, Tel Aviv. Return
  2. Translated from the Yiddish, which appears on Page 190. Return
  3. This introductory paragraph does not appear in Morning Stars, but was added by Zalman Shazar in this Yizkor Book. Return

 

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