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[Page 95]

Figures in town

 

The Appearance of the High Priest Mareh Cohen[1]

by Dr. Yisrael Machtey

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

(In memory of my grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu son of Yosef, ritual slaughterer and meat inspector– May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing! (2 Tishrei 5609/1849 – 11 Elul 5698/ 1938)

“ … like the likeness of the rainbow amid the cloud:
Like a rose placed in a lovely garden:
Like the purity of the turban placed on the turban pure:
Like the one who sat in concealment, pleading before the King:
was the appearance of the High Priest.
[2]

From earliest times and onward the residents of our small town related to the days of the month of Elul[3] with respect and seriousness: the Days of Awe are coming into actuality and are drawing near. The sound of the shofar[4] was heard and we would get up early in the morning (yes, often the children too!) to recite Slichot[5]. Majesty and mystery surrounded these prayers which were said before dawn. My grandfather would get up early, but I, who was attached to him, tried not to lag behind him and take part in the service. When I was still a child, my grandfather served as the shofar blower in the new synagogue and during the month of Elul he would practice on various shofars to produce clear and beautiful sounds.

My grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu, was born on the second day of Rosh HaShana[6] in the year 5609/1848 in Steibtz, where he grew up, was active and died at the ripe old age of 90. In his moving article in the Dvar[7] yearbook of 5712/ 1952, Zalman Shazar[8] writes that my grandfather was not only a ritual slaughterer and meat inspector and chief circumciser, but also a Torah reader in the synagogue, shofar blower and prayer leader. In addition, he was a matchmaker for lucky couples and matchmaker for the rabbinate, stone cutter for gravestones and a rabbi on behalf of our small town. I hardly saw him working in these “professions”, for in my time he no longer cut stones for gravestone monuments and no longer served as prayer leader (except on days when he had a yahrzeit[9]) and he seldom served as a public Torah reader. For the rest he served until the day he died, mainly in ritual slaughtering and circumcision, although the latter did not provide him with a source of livelihood.

The Jewish New Year was a double holiday for us: the day the world was created and my grandfather's birthday. When he returned from the synagogue on the eve of the holiday, the red watermelon (a rare delicacy for us), the honey and the challos[10] for the kiddush[11] were already awaiting us on the table, and the blessing “for a good and sweet year” had a double meaning: wishes for a happy New Year and wishes and blessings for the head of the family.

On those days when my grandfather also served as shofar blower, the Jewish New Year was for us not only the day when the world was created, but also the day when the ram's horn was sounded. We would proudly watch my grandfather ascend to the bimah[12], wrap himself in his prayer shawl, in preparation

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Rabbi Eliyahu, ritual slaughterer and meat inspector – May his memory be for a blessing!

 

for Lamenatzeach[13], and with some trepidation and holding our breath, we would wait for the following: Would he be successful? Would the shofar's sound be distorted? Would lovely and clear sounds come forth? And would the tekiah gedolah[14] be really long? Would it reach the heights of the Heavens, to the footstool of the Creator of the World? And while he was standing there on the bimah, this man of short stature became head and shoulders above all people, as one who pleads before the Creator. Like the High Priest on his shift, his appearance was “like the image of a rainbow amid the cloud”. The tekiah–shevarim–truah[15] would cry out to God on High and break open hearts and souls. And suddenly he lowered the sound! For a moment our hearts were besieged by fear: Did he fail? Of course not! It was a short delay, understandable for his age and once again the polished sounds quickly burst forth and the stone was rolled off our hearts.

The Eve of the Day of Atonement was not like it is now. It was the most awesome day, even more awesome than the Day of Atonement itself. From the afternoon, you felt in the street that the Day of Atonement had indeed come. In the street in more senses than one: for Jews and Christians alike. Nullification of Vows in the morning, “kapporos[16] with the mysterious words: “Children of man, who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, words which we didn't understand as pupils, but from which the odor of death reeked. The exceptional afternoon service in which there was “For the sins we have sinned” in the 18 Benedictions of the daily prayer. In the rear of the synagogue, alongside long tables, emissaries of mitzvos[17] were seated with bowls for collecting money for providing for a poor bride and for acts of charity and other things, and I, too, helped with the “propaganda” for contributions. Sometimes new worshippers came in, those who arrived late for the afternoon service with the congregation, which didn't prevent them from beginning to pray the 18 Benedictions prayer aloud[18] in order to make us stand up for the kedusha[19].

The last meal before the Fast is finished. The candles are burning. We drink our last glass of tea and we children approach Grandfather, wearing a kittel[20], for the traditional blessing. Evening falls slowly. Silence reigns in the street, and only our steps are heard in the street and even these steps are not heard, since most of us are wearing overshoes or rubber shoes. Everyone turns into the synagogue and at that moment the verse engraved upon the doorpost of the main gate, “For My House will be called a House of Prayer for all people”[21] takes on a deeper significance… Tefilla Zaka[22], after which Grandfather and the notables of the congregation, holding the Torah scrolls, surround the cantor as he recites Kol Nidrei[23]. He is 'wrapped in the majesty of our ancestors as he stands thus, “like the purity that was placed on the turban pure”.

Grandfather was exempt from inserting a peg for the “sukka[24] at the conclusion of the Holy Day, for, as far as I recall, we had a permanent sukka, but inserting a pole for the opening of the roof and arranging the schach[25] – that was his job and we gladly helped him in that task.

Pomp and circumstance were his lot on the Festival and on the Intermediate Days. He dressed modestly and with unpretentiousness on weekdays. He was very shy and retiring, moderate, loving people and forgiving of his few opponents. He was a somber person who didn't look somber, but still you could see it. And he wasn't heard, but still you could hear him. It seems to me that the question which, I think Idel Tunik, one of the town elders, addressed to him characterizes his temperament: “Rabbi Eli, have you ever gotten angry in your lifetime?” When I was small, I indeed believed that my grandfather was one of the “36 Righteous Men”[26] and that he would live forever.

I don't remember his many dear friends. Simply, he was the oldest of them all. (The only one who was older than him and whom I remember was Yona Rubin, who died at the beginning of the 30's at the age, according to what people say, of 105 or more.) One of the few he was closest to and whom I remember was the rabbi of the new synagogue, Rabbi Moshe Neifeld. In my opinion, my grandfather's decline and slowing down started from the time of Rabbi Neifeld's death in the mid 30's.

He served as a circumciser with a quick and sure hand until his last days, and he practiced this profession not as a way of earning a livelihood but only for the sake of performing a commandment. By the way, I don't recall my grandfather ever resorting to deceitfulness in any matter. With regard to one instance of “deceitfulness”, he used to recount the following: This occurred around 1906. His son, my Uncle Aharon, was then studying the art of circumcision and my grandfather wanted to set him up to “work”. Naturally, it was not an easy thing to bring a new circumciser into the small town, and the first father of the baby undergoing circumcision (incidentally, he didn't know my grandfather) refused categorically to allow anyone to “practice” on his son. Therefore, my grandfather gave orders not to reveal to the father of the baby undergoing circumcision who the apprentice was, as it were, and who the circumciser was. And so it was: My uncle circumcised the baby under my grandfather's supervision to the satisfaction of both sides.

He was old and his old age enchanted us. We loved to listen to his stories of days gone by, and he had various amusing stories to tell, most of which, however, were serious and mysterious such as the story about an old man who suddenly heard a voice calling him to the synagogue: when he got there, he was called by the voice without a body to go up to the Torah. He went up, recited the blessing and then went down and died a short time later. Or, for example, the story that led to the cancellation of the permanent death–bed that was in the cold synagogue. And this was the story: Moshe Aginsky (Baba Baskin's grandfather), who was on his way to pray in the synagogue in the morning twilight, suddenly saw a white form jumping down from the “bed”. The explanation that this was a white goat which had found its night's rest in the “bed” was to no avail. The man got scared, fell ill and died shortly after and, from that time on, they would make every deceased person a “bed” of his own. And, it seems to me, that with the death of the chief of the fire fighters in Steibtz, Reb Shmuel Tunik, a permanent “bed” was reintroduced.

The Chanukah candles flickered like golden stars there in the old house. By the way, the beginning of winter was accompanied by a special ceremony: putting in double windows, filling a layer of insulation between the two windows with glasses to absorb the moisture and gluing it with paper dampened with milk. Despite the large space that both windows occupied, there was still enough room on the windowsill for a menorah[27]. For the most part, a Chanukah menorah here is very simple. The main thing, of course, is the candles, the “dreidel[28],

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giving gifts of Chanukah money and, of course, potato pancakes smeared with goose fat. The geese were fattened especially for the coming winter. When Grandfather recited the blessings over the candles and the miracles, and when he would recite the Shehecheyanu[29] blessing (and he could also add from the 18 Benedictions prayer: “for the salvation and for the mighty deeds and for the redemptions”), the mischievous flames of the candles winked at us and turned into miniature fireworks. One day led to another, and candles come after candles: one, two, five, seven, eight, and when the last candles died out, suddenly something seemed to be missing at the double window, and the winter night seemed darker and more foreboding…. although the church bells rang out joyfully in advance of the new civil year. With joy and happiness, the sleds slid along to the ringing of the horses' bells: going to “meet” the new year. Not only Christians but quite a few Jews as well celebrated this event: the period of balls and the carnival.

This was already no longer my grandfather's world. As soon as the Chanukah candles went out, the month of Tevet came to the world. The Fast of the 10th of Tevet approached, a reminder of the beginning of the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

The days of the months of Shvat and Adar – special commandments on their behalf: preparation of wines for Passover (in which my Uncle Aharon was mostly engaged) and the baking of matzos[30]. How happy we were to stay in the bakery and to see how a matza is made from start to finish. The wrapped matzos were put in a box and placed on the baking oven so they wouldn't get wet[31]. A special chapter of laws for matzos was the preparation of matza–meal[32] and small pieces of matza were crushed using a large wooden mortar, very hard work which has since passed from this world.

 

Sto097b.jpg
 


The community administration in Steibtz
informs the Jewish residents that the highly
respected and meritorious man
from the local population

RABBI ELIYAHU

– May the memory of the righteous be blessed! –

Ritual slaughterer and meat inspector
passed away today, September 7, (11 Elul 5698)
at the age of 90.

The funeral will take place today at 3:00 p.m.
Kindly pay your last respects to the deceased.

The community administration in Steibtz.


 

Sto097a.jpg
Rabbi Eliyahu and his son, Aharon Machtey

 

And so we reached the great day: the Eve of the Passover Festival. On that day I had special rights: In the morning, my grandfather would complete a certain tractate of the Gemara with me, as I was a first–born son. After that, we would go to the town bath house for the ritual cleansing of utensils and the burning of a large wooden spoon in which there was leavened food – breadcrumbs gathered the evening before.

The night of the Passover seder[33] was the loveliest, most beloved and most festive of all the holidays. Grandfather would become a king, sitting at the head of the table dressed in his kittel with the men – his sons and grandsons – to his left and the women to his right. The Haggadah[34] was not just the retelling of events connected with Passover. We were allowed to stop reading in the middle in order to ask questions, make a sharp remark or an interpretation, and it made no difference if we repeated nearly the same things every year: we always waited for them and they always seemed new to us like the new utensils and the new clothes and the renewing Festival of Spring.

We all used to recite the blessing of sanctification over the wine – all the men, even we children, made a blessing over the wine from the time we reached the age of performing mitzvos. On the other hand, we were not eager (at any rate, I wasn't) to “steal” the afikomen[35]. It seemed to me that this thing detracted from the festivity. We recited the Haggadah in unison, and the reading was accompanied by cheerful melodies such as “And it came to pass at midnight” and the like. And here I have to reveal a secret which I was afraid to tell: the “secret” is related to the song Chad Gadya[36]. When we would get to the words “and the Angel of Death came and slew the slaughterer”, I would secretly look at my grandfather's face to see his reaction, and I would try to get through this part quickly – I was simply afraid.

My grandfather had a special claim in the new synagogue: he would insist on counting the Omer , and the congregation would repeat the counting after him. It seems to me that this was the only instance in which he willfully stood out in the synagogue. Normally, he was a very modest person. It was customary, for example, that if the rabbi was not in the synagogue, the prayer leader would wait before repeating the 18 Benedictions prayer until my grandfather finished his own 18 Benedictions prayer, which took him a long time to complete, On weekdays, in order not keep the congregation waiting, my grandfather would withdraw to the side of the synagogue behind the pulpit to recite his 18 Benedictions prayer, and by doing so would free the prayer leader from waiting for him to finish.

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The counting of the Omer[37] in the year 5698/ 1938 was the counting of my grandfather's life. At that period of time, Leib Baruchanski, the second to my grandfather according to his age, and two years younger than him, passed away. This affected him to the depth of his soul. Instead of his scoffing–optimistic saying: “People comprise a group that is bound to die, but I don't belong to that group”, this time he said, “Now I see that there is not everlastingness.”, as if he saw his own end drawing near.

From that time on, his condition worsened. Cancer began to gnaw at his body. Nevertheless, he didn't stop his usual life routine at home, in ritual slaughtering and in circumcision. While working in his yard repairing the fence, he was called to perform a circumcision. He went there without delay and circumcised the baby. At the very moment he finished that holy work of fulfilling a commandment, he felt ill. He was taken home and three days later on the 11th of Elul, 5698 [September 7, 1938], he returned his pure soul to his Creator, about two weeks before his 90th birthday.

The funeral was the biggest of funerals which I remember and his grave was dug next to his friend, Rabbi Moshe Neifeld.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Mareh Cohen – “Appearance of the High Priest”– Liturgical poem recited at the Day of Atonement service recalling the magnificence of the High Priest officiating in the Holy Temple on the Day of Atonement Return
  2. From the liturgical poem, “Appearance of the High Priest” as he performed the sacrificial service in the Holy Temple on the Day of Atonement Return
  3. Elul – the month preceding the Jewish New Year Return
  4. Shofar – ram's horn Return
  5. Slichot – penitential prayers Return
  6. Rosh Hashana – Jewish New Year Return
  7. Dvar – Israeli newspaper Return
  8. Zalman Shazar – native of Steibtz and former President of the State of Israel Return
  9. Yahrzeit – anniversary of a death Return
  10. Challos – special loaves of bread for the Sabbath and holidays Return
  11. Kiddush – benediction sanctifying the Sabbath and Festivals Return
  12. Bimah – platform where the Torah is read Return
  13. Lamenatzeach – Psalm 47, recited 7 times before the blowing of the shofar Return
  14. tekiah gedolah – final long blast Return
  15. tekiah–shevarim–truah – various shofar blasts Return
  16. kapporos – expiatory sacrifice of a chicken Return
  17. mitzvos – good deeds Return
  18. and not silently as usual Return
  19. kedusha – sanctification of God's name Return
  20. kittel – white robe Return
  21. Isaiah, 56:8 Return
  22. Tefilla Zaka – prayer asking for acquittal of sin recited before “Kol NidreiReturn
  23. Kol Nidrei – All vows shall be considered null and void Return
  24. Sukka – booth Return
  25. Schach – branches for covering the “sukkaReturn
  26. The 36 Righteous Men – due to whose merit the world exists Return
  27. menorah –Chanukah lamp Return
  28. dreidel – Spinning top Return
  29. Shehecheyanu – “Who has kept us alive” Return
  30. Matza – Matzos (pl) – unleavened bread Return
  31. (causing them to ferment) Return
  32. Matza–meal – Flour made from matza Return
  33. Seder – service Return
  34. Haggadah – book containing the order of the service for Passover night Return
  35. Afikoman – piece of matza hidden for the children to find Return
  36. Chad Gadya – “One Kid” Return
  37. Omer – counting each of the 49 days from Passover to Pentecost Return


Alter the Teacher[1]

by Menachem Halevi

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Words at the opening of the library in his name on 17th September 1953)

With awe and reverence, I raise the image of my father-in-law, of blessed memory – the most honorable of men, who elevated himself from the midst of his people by his own strength, and when amongst his people, he rose above and inspired every person who came into contact with him.

“The Teacher” – this is who he was, and the term of endearment remained. In his town, he carried on his shoulders,

 

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Alter Yosselevitz

 

all the concerns for the Land of Israel. Like the toil of ants, gathering crumb by crumb, he gathered and educated student by student, until he transformed most of the small town that, until his arrival, was far removed from Hebrew and Zionism, into a huge Hebrew camp. We found in Tosefta[2]: “greater than the sages – is his name”. And for those who called him “The Teacher”- even his name was superfluous.

We are here at the modest ceremony, at the opening of a library in his name. At times, I saw him handing out books to readers – in the only Hebrew library that existed in his school, that was established mainly with his meagre savings (i.e. and his many debts . . .) – I often saw him advising a reader on what book to select, and if this was a past student of his – he would “test” him with a greater expression of empathy, on everything. Of course, with his many public dealings in the town, he could have given the role of librarian to someone else, but he rarely did this. He had to feel the Hebrew pulse that he established with his own hands, in the Hebrew town.

He was a general Zionist – to distinguish from the “General Zionist” political party. For him the term “General Zionist” referred to the individual, who was a Zionist in all his being, Zionism without affiliation, Zionism “with all your soul and with all your might”[3]. This was constructive Zionism, a love of Israel, above politics.

He did not own a house, but whoever saw him pass by a building that was being erected, could recognize the constructive details in his soul – he would linger over every aspect: if the bricks were not sufficiently burnt, if the carpentry was not perfect enough. He suddenly became an expert on painting, as if the house actually belonged to him. At times, when I saw him standing like this, alongside a house that was being built, I felt that he was building the Jewish nation, building the Land of Israel in his imagination.

Many of the residents of his town differed in their opinion to his view of Zionism, especially among the Leftists. I do not know how many of these whom Providence left alive, fulfilled what they preached to him in the town. Of one thing I am sure: if my father-in-law was with us now, although he was not one of those who mumbled the words of the Rabbis, - he would understand and physically affirm, that the State could not be built without a change in values, without positioning an economic and cultural pyramid, a heritage of the exile, on a firm base. Because his Zionism was such a vital part of his life, he was even willing to become a socialist – and put it into practice . . . .

And he was not only Der Lehrer - “The Teacher”; he was a helpful teacher, a true teacher: his home was open to all kinds of people, of all types and classes – from the simple tailor to the daughter of a rich man. All came to ask his counsel, came to speak of their troubled souls. He was an 'institution' in the small town.

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The Opening Ceremony of the Library[4]

 

The master of the prophets[5], when he stood on Mount Abarim[6], wept and pleaded to be permitted to enter the heathen Land of Israel, and when the teacher Alter stood on the threshold of the Covenant Between the Pieces[7], rejected his children's request to come to the Hebrew Land of Israel, two or three times, for “to whom can I leave the small town, the school” – he wrote.

The man who elevated himself by his own strength and inspired all who came into contact with him – did not want to make Aliyah[8], he felt that he was unable to leave; but with all the House of Israel, with the martyrs in Europe, - he ascended . . . In a small note that miraculously reached us during the days of the occupation, he wrote: “My place is here among the people of my small town. Their fate – is my fate. Farewell”.

This modest library will be used – alongside the modest projects that his students, his children and grandchildren have established by being in Israel, and the fact that buildings are being erected in different settlements – this seal will be stamped into every book – a modest memory to a modest man, a descendant of the “Children of Moses”, in a world that was, and is no longer.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Refers to Alter Yosselevitz. Return
  2. Tosefta – supplement to the Mishnah. Return
  3. Quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5 – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. This is also part of the Shma prayer. Return
  4. The sign in the background reads: The Stoibtz Association – In the name of Yitzchak Yosselevitz, of blessed memory, LIBRARY. Return
  5. Refers to Moses. Return
  6. Har Abarim is a mountain range across Jordan, to the east and south of the Dead Sea, extending from Mount Nebo, its highest point. Mount Nebo is traditionally the place overlooking the Land of Israel where Moses died and was buried. Return
  7. The Covenant Between the Pieces, or, The Covenant Between the Parts is referred to in Genesis 15. The ancient method of making a covenant was to cut an animal in half and the contracting parties to pass through the portions of the slain animal. The parties were then thought to be united by the bond of common blood. The covenant referred to in Genesis is between God and Abraham, where God announces that the descendants of Abraham will inherit the Land of Israel. (Explanation from the Hertz Pentateuch). Return
  8. To make Aliyah – to go up and live in the Land of Israel. Return


 

In Memory

by Moshe Bar' Natan Akon

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Unfortunately I left my beloved town of Steibtz in 1897 at the age of 14. But I can still reminisce and recall those people of Steibtz, of blessed memory, whom many of the Holocaust survivors do not remember.

I always thought that the artisans were simple Jews, knowing at the most to read the Psalms between Mincha[1] and Maariv[2] and no more. I discovered I was mistaken. For example: A tailor named Mishka der Schneider, of blessed memory, lived in Yordzika Street. They called him Mishka der Rav. He studied laws of the Shulchan Arukh[3] every day before the minyan[4] of people in the Great Synagogue and explained them in good taste. I loved being with him and hearing his explanations of religion and law. Who from the people of Steibtz does not remember R' Yedidia der Shuster[5] of blessed memory, who they would always call by the name Rabbi Yochanan Sandlar behind his back? He studied Gemara[6] and Mishnayot[7] together with two more people, one of them my father R' Natan of blessed memory, and the other R' Yitzak Shmuel Epshtein of blessed memory, and, as the Rabbi the Gaon R' Shlomo Mordechai Brodny of blessed memory told me, they excelled in their studies.

Next to my parents' house there was the shop of another great scholar, a performer of good deeds, who lived in modesty, R' Moshe Melamed. Even in his shop he spent day and night “on Torah study and on service to God”. At the head of the first row in the synagogue sat R' Yisrael-Issar Eizenberg of blessed memory, and together with his sons Yosef and Chaim, we studied Masechet Nezikin[8] and although he was a great scholar he did not make a livelihood from the Torah, but dealt in selling beer. Every morning after prayers he studied the Talmud[9] until 11a.m. We studied with the Dayan[10] of Steibtz, Rabbi R' Yehoshua Midivitzky of blessed memory who moved to Baranovich, and at the age of seventy made aliyah[11] to Jerusalem where he died in 5695 (1934). Amongst us there was one pupil called Haim Tzornogovovisky who, at the age of fifteen, was already proficient in Nezikin. And I also remember well Mr. Zalman Rubashov, the President of the State of Israel, of whom all the people of Israel are proud.

Last but not least, I mourn bitterly the death of my dear friend Alter Yossilevicz, whom I knew well and who was a dear teacher who devoted himself to encourage Zionism and instilled Torah learning in young children in Steibtz.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Mincha is the afternoon prayer service. Return
  2. Maariv is a Jewish prayer service held in the evening or night. Return
  3. Shulchan Arukh: [The prepared table] – authoritative code of Jewish Laws, written by Yosef Karo (1488-1575). Return
  4. minyan is the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. Return
  5. der Shuster The Shoemaker. Return
  6. Gemara is a commentary on the Mishna (compilation of Oral Laws). Return
  7. Mishnayot is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the “Oral Torah”. Return
  8. Masechet Nezikin: Tractate on Damages (Torts). Return
  9. Talmud is the administrative body of Jewish tradition comprising the Mishnah and Gemara. Return
  10. Dayan: Religious judge. Return
  11. aliyah is the immigration of Jews to Israel. Return


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Nachum R' Elihas

by Getzel Reiser

Translated by Ann Belinsky

R' Nachum Elihas had an extraordinary personality. “Even a child is known by his deeds”[1] – and when he was of Bar Mitzvah age he already exhibited exceptional wisdom. Over time he become strange to many, a type of hermit and parush (one who leaves his home to study Torah), distancing himself completely from all the “mundane delights”.

R' Nachum'kah became elevated in this personality, and the people of Steibtz knew that he was great in Torah and in his piety, but his ways were hidden.

His life and activity were like a puzzle: he would seclude himself on certain dates, did not trust even of the slaughtering of R'Eliyahu the ritual slaughterer and would himself slaughter a chicken for Shabbat.

His relationship with the community was limited and his meeting with them was only whilst walking to the mikveh (ritual bath) to purify himself for Shabbat.

He slept little, and would study Torah for many hours at night.

He was a quiet person in his nature but in his few discussions with the great Torah scholars in our town, his tremendous knowledge was realized and there was always satisfaction in his administration of justice.

He was a pleasant person and admired by all the townspeople.

In an hour of sorrow or anxiety and on difficult days, many from the town would turn to him to receive advice and a blessing.

Especially at the beginning of the First World War, there was much panic among the townspeople. Many began to seek his statements, as they saw in him a God-fearing personage, great in Torah and during the riots they found much encouragement in his words. Many of those enlisting received his blessing.

R' Nachum lived in solitude and poverty. He owned a spare lot in the neighborhood of the Yursidkim and he donated it to the needs of the Talmud Torah.

One of the townspeople says that after the First World War they found him studying Torah in one of the synagogues in Minsk, since then nothing is known of his fate or the story of his life.

May his memory be blessed!

Translator's Footnote

  1. Proverbs, 20.11. Return

 


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The Model Teacher

(Sketches for the portrait of the teacher,
Alter Yosselevitz - of blessed memory)

by Dov Ben-Yerucham

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

At the very start of progressive Hebrew education in our town, several young teachers, imbued with the spirit of revival, were active in it. Prominent among them was the dynamic image of Alter Yosselevitz, thanks to whose efforts a young generation possessing nationalistic ideals was educated.

Alter Yosselevitz appeared in our town at the beginning of the present (20th) century, and as soon as he came, he obtained excellent results.

There was some contrast between him and a melamed[1] of the old cheder[2], and the children of our town enjoyed the endearing teacher who imparted his words in a voice so quiet and clear, which captivated their heart.

The personal life of the teacher Alter Yosselevitz could serve as a canvas for an extensive story not because the events of his life were so interesting, but rather because the man was absorbed and imbued - with all his soul - with the vision of rebirth.

What were the façade of our town and the life of the Jews in it like in the previous century and somewhat at the beginning of the present (20th century)? Many Jews began streaming into our small town from adjacent small towns, among who were some educated people who were troubled by the question of education of the young generation.

New faces appeared on the public stage and religious education slowly began to lose its hegemony because people appeared who demanded changes and a new approach to problems of education, and it was as if the expression of this struggle which stirred itself for revival was found in the personality of Alter Yosselevitz.

And it was not so easy. The rabbis and gabbays[3] were still in full control of the town, and the public's work in the life of the community was mainly expressed in the selection of rabbis, gabbays and burial society directors. There was no yeshiva[4] in Steibtz itself, but there were large yeshivas, such as Mir and Volozhin, in the surrounding areas, which influenced the thoughts and opinions in our small town.

The following incident can serve as an example of the way of life in Steibtz:

Mr. Yitzchak Berger a speaker who belonged to the Enlightenment movement from Minsk came to Steibtz (his children live in Israel, one of whom was a member of the Knesset[5], Herzl Berger, of blessed memory). According to the instructions of the town rabbi, Mr. Berger was not allowed to deliver a speech in the synagogue, and Shaul, the public bath attendant, was the leader of those who objected. He shouted that they should not let him speak. One of the public figures from Steibtz begged for mercy and actually pleaded: “The man is an important speaker who has come from far, from Minsk.” Nothing was to any avail, however, until the chairman used a successful tactic and knocked on the prayer leader's stand and said: “How will you dare not permit an important owner of a three-story building on Zacharovsky Street in Minsk to speak?” The objectors immediately kept quiet and the speaker captivated the audience's heart with his interesting talk. At that time, Alter Yosselevitz had come from a small town, Lubtch, and was then a yeshiva student who was caught up with the Enlightenment and Zionism.

At that same period, the rabbis were opposed to Zionism and still had great influence. Children of wealthy families were drawn to assimilation, Russian influence and aspired to become a “doctor”, an “engineer” and to integrate into Russian society. The Bund[6] struck roots and succeeded in drawing to its side, children of workers and craftsmen. Yosselevitz the teacher told me he was severely beaten when he began teaching the Bible in Hebrew.

Education in our small town was in the hands of the melamdim in the cheders where, according to the well-known system of selection, children of important people studied separately from children of craftsmen. School was in session from morning to evening. During the long winter nights, the children returned home with lanterns in their hands.

Yosselevitz the Teacher established the first modern Hebrew school in our town and introduced various improvements.

One of his innovations was that he accepted children regardless of their origin and social status, for “From children of the poor, Torah will go forth”.[7]

Several chapters of the public-social and nationalistic development of our town are connected with the name of Alter Yosselevitz.

Alter Yosselevitz founded the first youth movement, called Bnot Zion (“Daughters of Zion”) in our town.

It is very strange that the first youth movement in our town was called “Daughters of Zion” and not “Sons of Zion”, and one explanation of this matter is to be found in an interesting psychoanalytic reason.

In the small towns in our area, the parties and youth movements were successful if they managed to attract individuals with skills and influence. A youth movement developed if the pretty girls in the town joined the movement, and then the movement was assured of the participation of the other gender. The Pirchei Zion and Poalei Zion[8] and other parties branched out from the youth clubs of the movements. The activity of the Keren Kayemet[9] was also connected to the name of Alter Yosselevitz as he was the main public worker of the Keren Kayemet who was concerned with distributing JNF charity boxes in every house and with collecting money for the redemption of the land.

In his pedagogical work which went on for dozens of years, Alter Yosselevitz worked hard, together with other teachers, to create the special atmosphere for the absorption of the ideas and aspirations of the revival.

Alter Yosselevitz's life events are tightly connected to the life of our small town.

During the First World War, the front came close to our town and all men in their forties were enlisted. Every so often, reports of casualties among the residents of our town reached us.

In 1915 the big fire broke out in our town. The fire came from the west, from Eli Yona Kitivitz's sawmill. A strong wind was raging. Most of the houses of the Jewish settlement were completely burned down. Firefighters who arrived from surrounding towns could not gain control of the terrible fire. Many of the Jews of Steibtz left and moved to Minsk and to far-off Russia. Fear overtook the remaining few in the town when refugees began arriving from Poland and the environs of Baranovicz and Brisk. In those hectic times of flight and wandering from place to place, the Jews of Steibtz welcomed the refugees and offered them help. Yosselevitz and his family moved to Minsk. He had connections with the best of the intellectual community

[Page 113]

of Minsk in those days and his house was a meeting place for activists.

Literary evenings, readings and also various debates about Hebrew vs. Yiddish, the fate of the Land of Israel, the question of where Russia was headed took place in his house. When the Yiddishists would prove that Mendele and Shalom Aleichem[10] were more original in Yiddish, Yosselevitz would open Shalom Aleichem's story Mottel Peysi dem Chazans, which he read with enthusiasm and with lovely declamation in Hebrew, and say, “Granted it's in Hebrew, but doesn't it sound as nice as in Yiddish?”

Public activity in Steibtz fell silent during World War One. Many people left our small town fearing pogroms when the Cossacks passed through. Bombings and the roaring of canons were heard in the town. The war front was near Turetz and Baranovicz.

Spring arrived. The revolution broke out. Days of hope and expectation came when most of the young people, especially those from important families, became enthusiastic about the revolution, and many even enlisted in the Red Army and in the communist movement. Voleh and Shaya Rozovski. Leibl Neifeld, Grontze Kanterovitz, Yankel and Shalom Reichman volunteered to serve in the Red Army, but the Bund spoke up against it. Chaim Dvoretzky celebrated his victory and the Yiddish school in memory of Medem[11] was founded. A large library as well as a Yiddish theatre were opened. Zissel Dvoretzky, Chatshe (Dudu) Roditsky, Voleh Rozovski and Dovid Kumak performed with great talent. The Zionist movement in Steibtz was then on the decline. The Poalei Zion party died out. Youth movements no longer existed.

Although there was a Zionist awakening on the Jewish street as a result of the Balfour Declaration, and a pioneering emigration also began to the Land of Israel, in Stoibtz however, there was no leader, teacher or guide. And suddenly, in 1921, Alter Yosselevitz came to Stoibtz, fresh, and full of energy, with an enthusiasm for activity, that he approached with devotion.

His first activity was the establishment of the Tarbut[12] School, while Talmud Torah[13] was still in the hands of those who preferred Yiddish as the language of instruction, and the battle between the two camps was fierce.

And here was something which characterized the Jews of Steibtz. Residents from all levels of society joined that battle and of all people, Orthodox Jews and supporters of Rabbi Lieberman, were among those who fought on behalf of the Tarbut School. I remember my father, a follower of Rabbi Lieberman, saying that he was ready for a bloody battle, which was due to the personal influence of Alter Yosselevitz.

Cultural life in our small town started to blossom profusely with the establishment of the Tarbut School, and with the arrival of Yosselevitz widespread and diverse activity got under way. There were parties on Chanukah, Purim, 11th of Adar[14], Lag BaOmer[15], 20th of Tamuz[16]; fund raising for the Keren Kayemet and the Keren HaYesod[17]. Speakers began arriving in Steibtz, among whom were cultural activists who would bring new poems and it was pleasant to take part in these poetry evenings, and Yosselevitz's face then shone with joy.

One of the radiant speakers who came for a visit to Steibtz was Zalman Rubashov (Shazar[18]).

A rumor spread in the town that a certain “doctor”, a native of Steibtz, would speak. The meeting took place in the synagogue, which was completely filled. With the fervor of youth and with special pathos, Zalman described the situation of the Land of Israel. Attention was drawn to the many hopes dependent on the Balfour Declaration. Only one person tried to interrupt, and that was Dr. Sirkin, who asked. “How will you establish a Jewish State when the British are there?” In reply, Zalman Shazar told about the work of the Jewish “pioneers”- work which was stronger than the British cannons. I remember when Zalman walked on the hill next to the Russian Orthodox Church and looked over the town of Steibtz, the place of his childhood. What he was thinking about then was hard to guess: childhood, parents, and beginnings in Pirchei Zion, Poalei Zion, meetings, and debates. I didn't want to disturb his thoughts. I stood there for about a half an hour and didn't dare go over to him, although I wanted to clarify some questions about my going to live in the Land of Israel.

“What is your opinion, Comrade Zalman? Will I be able to manage in some cooperative?” I asked him. And Zalman replied, “Why a cooperative of all things? Maybe a kibbutz[19], moshav[20] or factory is more appealing to you. First you have to go the Land of Israel and then you can think about what to do.” During our conversation, he said to me; “Do you know why I'm wandering here between the hills? -- Because Rabbi Leib Ahar'eh once lived around here and I wanted to meet his daughters. They were once with me in Pirchei Zion and I accompanied him to Rabbi Ahar'eh's daughters' home. ”

Yosselevitz the Teacher met with Zalman Shazar-Rubashov after they had not seen each other for many years. Zalman had already managed to be in the big, wide world.

The two of them met: one was one of the leaders of a world-wide movement, and the other, a local leader, but they had a common past. Behind closed doors, a debate about Yiddish vs. Hebrew, work in the Diaspora, matters pertaining to the Land of Israel, nationalism and socialism went on between them throughout the night.

Although Yosselevitz was from proletarian origin, he had a General Zionist world outlook. He would say; “You want socialism, but it's time is not precisely now. There must first be a concentration of Jews in the Land of their Forefathers, and when we have our Hebrew State, you will be like all the nations - each one according to his position and world outlook.”

I was enthralled with Yosselevitz's faithfulness to his idea. Through his way of education, he raised an entire generation of our small town which was already drawn to Zionism - Weren't most of the people from Steibtz who went to live in the Land of Israel influenced by him?

Zalman was a follower of Borochov[21] and he explained proletarian Zionism according to Borochov's outlook.

When Zalman came on a visit to Steibtz, all the Zionist parties revived. The Tarbut School was a workshop for young people, including the youth of Poalei Zion, the Kochav HaNotzetz led by Hirshel Kumak and Issar Rabinovitz, HaShomer HaTzair, “Hitachdut”, “Gordonia”, a sports movement directed by Yosef Machtei, “Hechalutz”, WIZO and General Zionists[22], etc. etc.

Steibtz became a Zionist town with elections for the Zionist Congresses. Steibtz stood out in selling shekels in relatively greater proportion to the other small towns in the surroundings. The library received a content of Hebrew books.

And new emigration to our country[23] began. When I left Steibtz and said goodbye to my teacher, he asked me to meet with one of his friends from Minsk living in the Land of Israel, to send his regards to Dr. Shapira. In 1921 I met with Dr. Shapira at Hadassah Hospital

[Page 114]

in Tel Aviv. He was very interested in Yosselevitz's life.

Yosselevitz was not privileged to see the Land of Israel. He dedicated his soul to the Zionist enterprise for 50 years. During the destruction of Jewish Steibtz, he hid in a pit for several days, but the Germans found him and he met his death there singing Hatikvah[24]. Yosselevitz, the praiseworthy teacher, did not have the privilege of seeing his sons and daughter realizing his life's undertaking with complete faithfulness.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Melamed - teacher of young children. Return
  2. Cheder - religious elementary one-room school. Return
  3. Gabbays - synagogue officials. Return
  4. Yeshiva - rabbinic high school or college. Return
  5. Knesset - The Israeli Parliament. Return
  6. Bund - Jewish socialist organization, 1897-1920. Return
  7. Based on “From Zion, Torah will go forth.” Isaiah, 2:3. Return
  8. Pirchei Zion and Poalei Zion – Zionist youth movement and party. Return
  9. Keren Kayemet - Jewish National Fund (JNF). Return
  10. Mendele and Shalom Aleichem - Yiddish writers. Return
  11. Vladimir Davidovich Medem, né Grinberg; (30 July 1879 in Liepâja, Russian Empire – 9 January 1923 in New York City), was a Russian Jewish politician and ideologue of the Jewish Labour Bund. (Wikipedia). Return
  12. Tarbut – Culture. A chain of Jewish schools where subjects were taught in Hebrew. Return
  13. Talmud Torah - Jewish religious education. Return
  14. 11th Adar – date of the fall of Tel Hai. Return
  15. Lag BaOmer - a minor Jewish holiday occurring on the Gregorian calendar about April-May. Return
  16. 20th Tamuz –date of the death of Theodor Herzl. Return
  17. Keren HaYesod - Fund for the Foundation of the Land of Israel, United Israel Appeal. Return
  18. Zalman Shazar - third President of the State of Israel, 1963-73. Return
  19. Kibbutz - collective community traditionally based on agriculture. Return
  20. Moshav - type of collective agricultural community or settlement of individual farms. Return
  21. Dov Ber Borochov - Marxist Zionist and one of the founders of the Labor Party, 1881-1917. Return
  22. All the above were Zionist youth movements and organizations. Return
  23. Our country - Pre-state Israel. Return
  24. Hatikvah - “The Hope” - national anthem of the State of Israel. Return

 

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