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[Page 281]

My Stolpcer Melamdim (Religious Teachers)

by Mordechai Machtey

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

The religious teachers played an important part in developing the future spiritual life of the shtetl.

I remember well my first teacher – he was Leib Inzelbuch (or as we called him in our shtetl – Leib Motshiches, by the name of his father Mordechai).

During my childhood years surnames only appeared on passports but did not come from the mouths of our local residents. We knew very little about the real family names, the nickname was the familiar name. As in the case of my father, being the ritual slaughterer, he used to receive letters addressed to Eliyahu Shuv.[1]

The “cheder[2]” institution and together with it, the religious teachers began to decline at the beginning of the 20th century and almost entirely declined after the death of Bonye the teacher and after the departure for Baranovicz of Reb Yehoshua, the associate of the Rabbi on legal matters. And in this way the ground was actually prepared for the then truly revolutionary accomplishments of Alter Yosselevicz in opening a mixed school for boys and girls, where instead of Chumash[3] they studied legends from the Bible. There was no separate room for the students. They studied in the cheder which also served as a dining room and a kitchen. At the time when the Rabbi and the children sat at the long table and studied, normal kitchen work took place in the front part of the room. In the winter the odours of the kitchen and the breathing of the students would blend. When the windows were hermetically sealed in order to keep the warmth in the room, then you could feel the true pleasant aroma. Of all the cheders in which I studied, I learned most in my first cheder with the elementary teacher, the teacher Leib Inzelbuch.

Without taking into consideration that Stoibtz was “blessed” with fires, for a long time the fire did not want to lick the “palace”. In my earliest childhood this old, crooked, rotten ruin, served as a “cheder” where small children received their first “education”.

The method used by the teachers to teach beginners consisted of three parts: (1) learning the letters and vowels; (2) learning to read; and (3) beginning Chumash.

When the students already knew the names of the letters and vowels they were then taught to blend them – kometz + aleph = aw, komtz + bet = baw, etc. After that they went on to “whispering” – that means instead of the student saying kometz aleph, kometz bet etc. aloud, he said only the aleph or the bet aloud and then quietly said (whispered) the name of the vowel and then shouted out “baw”. This lasted about half a semester and then they proceeded to read the siddur. As the term progressed they were already reading more fluently and were saying parts of the prayers and in the second half of the term they started Chumash. This is what they did so that after a year of study, the students were already reading well. I studied with the Rabbi for only one semester because my father, of blessed memory, made gravestones so I had already learned to read and I didn't have anything to do at the Rabbi's cheder.


Reb Chaim Yitzchak Borsuk

My second teacher was Reb Chaim Yitzchak Borsuk or Chaim Itshe the teacher. He was small, thin but lively and moved easily. From teaching alone he could not support his family so he traded a little in books. I think that he also read the newspapers “Ha'tzefira[4]” or “Ha'melitz[5]”. Where did he get the money to subscribe to a newspaper? – simple, until 1905 no one in Stoibtz subscribed to a newspaper on their own, but always in partnership with 3 or 4 others together, sometimes even more. It is understandable that this had an influence on the Rabbi. I can't remember if he used the whip on the students. I am inclined to believe that he did not. I think that he was not able to raise his voice and therefore perhaps, he didn't have many students because people were of the opinion that he, who spares the rod, spoils the child. A Rabbi who does not beat his students will not teach them much. In contrast he was loved by his students and they studied perhaps more diligently than those who studied with a Rabbi who used the whip. The books that he taught like Chumash, the Prophets and the Writings were loved by me.


Ya'akov Meir Tsarlich

My third teacher was Ya'akov Meir Tsarlich known as Ya'akov Meir or the ginger one because of his ginger beard and also to distinguish between a second Ya'akov Meir who was a part–time emissary and part–time teacher whom they called Ya'akov Meir the big one.

If Reb Chaim Itshe taught just a little Tanach and in addition a section of Mishnah then Reb Chaim Meir divided his time between Tanach and Gemorrah and paid more attention to Gemorrah. The cheder of Reb Ya'akov Meir was separated from the kitchen with a little wall without a door, yet still separated and the students could concentrate better as they were not distracted by what was going on in the kitchen.

Reb Ya'akov Meir himself, a Jew in his fifties with a high forehead and with the imposing

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figure of a learned scholar, was always hoarse and had a habit of frowning even when he was thinking about a minor matter. I used to try to imitate his frown but my young forehead resisted and by no means would it imitate this interesting figure. On the table stood a small samovar that contained I think 12 glasses. During our studies he would drink from it using only 1 or 2 squares of sugar. His teaching was calm, without anger. He did not use his hands or the belt to “beat” Torah into us.

His calm teaching manner, even though he was an ardent follower of Chassidism, can be ascribed perhaps also to the fact that his wife, Itke Frayde, helped to earn a living. He was therefore able to accept a smaller number of students, concentrate on them and involve them more so we had no time to fool around and therefore learned more.


Reb Binyamin Cohen, Bonye the teacher

My fourth teacher was Reb Bonye as he was called in the shtetl. He was a sickly Jew, weak, with constant heartburn for which he systematically used soda water. Besides this he suffered from a chronic cough that that used to plague him constantly. When he began to cough badly, he became very red. A feeling of pity engulfed us, as we watched him suffering. Reb Chaim taught Tanach almost exclusively, Reb Ya'akov Meir both things – that means Tanach and Gemorrah, Reb Yehoshuah and Reb Bonye taught exclusively Gemorrah. He was regarded in Stoibtz as the best Gemorrah teacher together with the associate of the Rabbi, Reb Yehoshuah Medvetken (see the Baranovicz Yizkor Book, the Dayan of Stoibtz), who had to take up teaching because from his dayanut[6] he did not have enough to live on. I think that not more than 8 to 10 students studied with Reb Bonye and this was the reason why my father, of blessed memory, sent me to study with him. The semester that we studied with him, we really achieved a lot. His merciless death brought an end to our studies and we moved on to our 5th teacher.


The Porush[7] from Koydanov

After the death of Reb Bonye, the question arose for our parents; Zamke's and mine, about our continued learning. From Reb Chaim Itshe to Reb Bonye the two of us had studied together and were the only ones whose parents wanted us to know Gemara well. (My father, may his memory be blessed, hoped that I would become a Rabbi and Reb Leib Rubashov also wanted his very talented son to be a great scholar). No Gemorrah teachers of the calibre of Reb Bonye remained. We were still too young to be sent to Mir[8] (we were then only 9=) so our parents started to look for a teacher. At that time there appeared in the Chassidic shtiebel a Jew, a recluse, from Koydanov, and our parents engaged him as our teacher.

When they engaged the recluse, the question arose about a place to learn. The local teachers taught in their homes. As opposed to this, the recluse didn't have his own home (if I am not mistaken he slept in the Chassidic shtiebel). Therefore our cheder moved from house to house. The first winter our cheder was in the house of Bashe Dvoretsky, the grandmother of Chaim Dvoretsky. As we were only 3 boys, actually only 2 because the third came for only one hour a day, we did not need a large room and this little cheder could accommodate only us and the Rabbi.

The second semester in the summer our cheder was in the house of Azriel Stelmach, the father of the late Jack Stilman. We were only 10 years old and the street was beckoning us; come and play children and enjoy your childhood years but the Rabbi was unyielding and did not let up from Gemorrah the entire time. For him, outside of Gemorrah, nothing existed. Once on my way to cheder I passed Itshe Tanchum's house from where the tune of the Tanach could be heard. It awakened in me a longing for a chapter of Tanach as we did with Reb Ya'akov Meir and I turned to the Rabbi with this request: Rabbi, teach us Tanach! To this he answered: and you already know Gemorrah?

In the third semester our cheder was already in the home of Arre the wagon driver. In comparison to this place our previous cheders were palaces. The house was not plastered and not even white–washed and the winter sun had no effect through the small little windows and darkness always reigned there. Only the two of us remained there because the Rabbi left to go to the home of the third boy. When the Rabbi left we occupied ourselves that is Zalman used the time to publish a newspaper. I remember how Zalman suggested that I should also write something but one has to have talent to write. For a few consecutive days I struggled until I wrote a few lines. In contrast Zalman wrote the whole “newspaper” on all sides of a large sheet of paper. Zalman only published two editions and then he became ill.

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That winter he no longer came to cheder and at the end of the term our studies with the recluse from Koydanov also came to an end.

We studied with the recluse for 1½ years. This is actually not altogether correct. I studied with him for 1½ years but not Zalman. After the break with the Rabbi (see the Recluse of Koydanov by Zalman Shazar), approximately in the middle of winter Zalman became ill and did not attend cheder again. Seeing that the third student studied only one hour a day, I remained alone in the cheder the whole day. The Rabbi taught me without a break from almost 8 in the morning to approximately 8 in the evening without considering that I was only 10½ years old. During the winter term he managed to finish teaching me the whole of tractate Chulin.

Including the 5 years that Zalman and I went from Rabbi to Rabbi, my cheder instruction now came to an end. Here our ways parted. I went to the yeshivot and him to other learning centers.

My notes however, would not be complete if I do not mention, even with a few words, the other teachers, those with whom I personally, did not study.

A Talmud Torah still existed alongside the cheders. It did not have its own fixed premises but they studied in two places, in the communal council room and in the women's synagogue in the great synagogue. The teacher there was Avrom Shapira, known as Avremel the Talmud Torah teacher. There was also a teacher Avrom Shmukler (great grandfather of Sonia Barishansky – Tunik) and in order to differentiate him from the Talmud Torah teacher, he was called the big Avremel.

He lived opposite Reb Ya'akov Meir and like him also taught Tanach and Gemorrah but gave more attention to teaching Gemorrah.

A separate place amongst the teachers was occupied by Reb Chaim Yitzchak Esterkin or Itshe Tanchum. He was both a teacher and a preacher. He was an outstanding speaker who used to charm his audience with his speaking. When he spoke in the little Yurezdik Bet Midrash, it was packed and there was no place inside so many people stood below the windows and “licked their fingers” from their enjoyment of his compelling parables. He was also a top–classics teacher and only taught Tanach. He had his own method of teaching so that the student quickly grasped the meaning. I remember what one of his students told me, how the Rabbi interpreted this verse from Jeremiah (ch. 2:13) “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me for the fountain of living waters.” With his specific melody he sang: “for my people have committed two evils – firstly they have forsaken me and secondly, I am still the fountain of living waters.” The students did not need any further explanations. He would probably have had a very big following as a teacher if not for his love of alcohol that affected him, leaving him with only a few students. With time he became only a preacher. It was told that before he gave a sermon he would have a drink from a bottle. So he was once asked: “Reb Yitzchak why do you drink so much?” He answered in Hebrew in his own specific melody “my tongue is like the pen of a quick scribe” – my tongue can be compared to the quill of a good writer that must be dipped so that it will write. I too am like that.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Shuv refers to a slaughterer and inspector. In Hebrew the word “shuv” is written with the letters “sh” and “b” which stand for “shochet” and “bodek”. Return
  2. Cheder is a traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language. Return
  3. Chumash is a term for Torah in printed form as opposed to the Torah scroll. Return
  4. ”Ha'tzefirah” was one of the first Hebrew newspapers of the 19th century. Return
  5. ”Ha'melitz” was the first Hebrew newspaper to appear in Russia, founded in 1860. Return
  6. A dayanut is an associate of the Rabbi to assist him and to be involved in legal matters – settling disputes and making judgments. Return
  7. A porush is a recluse, one who separates himself and devotes himself exclusively to the study of the sacred texts. Return
  8. Mir is a town in Poland, the home of the famous Mir Yeshiva. Return

A Bundle of Memories

by Aharon Chait

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

My parents, a remarkable couple in the old home

My shtetl is in ruins, away in smoke and flames, wiped out in the blood and marrow of our holy and pure ones.

My parents are dead: rooted out of our sinful earth.

The Nazi murderers, may their names be erased, killed my father. He was not even given the honour of resting in peace in his own grave. They desecrated his gravestone and ploughed over the mound of earth on the old cemetery.

Who knows whether an unclean Gentile foot treads on the kosher, holy letters of the elegant font on the gravestone, that is possibly set in the asphalt of a street, of my now entirely Christian shtetl?

My Mother dragged her old bundle of bones here to America and it was here that she turned over her purified soul to the Creator, a soul so clean and pure, just as she received it from Him, leaving behind in a local cemetery, a thin worn–out body that was not destined to have “love and pleasure” even after death.

And I, a lonely son, wandering around with nostalgic yearning between two continents whose soil holds my greatest treasure. An irony of fate and in addition a privilege that they, at last were brought to be buried amongst their people – others did not even have that “luxury” ……

I transport myself to the “holy place” of my own memory and I arrive at the “grave of my Fathers” so that here in this prayer book “Ma'aneh Lashon” (a book containing prayers recited at a grave) through the lines of the descriptions I say the “new Techinah”(a book of prayers specially for women) for Avrom the Vatnik and Tzivia the daughter of Ahre, may peace be upon them, who brought me and our family into the world.

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Reb Avrom and Tzivia


What was, was. It is no longer here but memories cannot be disturbed, they are unforced, immortal.


Stoibtz, my little shtetl Stoibtz!

A simple little town in the big wide world: a spot on the earth's sphere, a poor, respected corner, but for me it was a kingdom, a central point, a significant place – and above all – a home.

And from these very ashes and from the dust of my little shtetl, from between the colourfully rich panorama of Fathers and Mothers, my own parents stand out, most beloved and unforgettable.

The name of my Father, Avrom the Vatnik, Reb Itshe the Vatnik's son, was a name that engraved itself In the memory of generations: a name that brave sons of my home town, students and admirers, took with them on their journeys over the seven seas, escaping from military service, from hard labour, from prisons, from the czar “his lordship”, in search of good fortunes and bread, in freer lands, under lighter skies.

People remember Avron the Vatnik because he raised the youth of the shtetl on his knees and perhaps some of them still have a blue “bruise” from the “teacher's leather whip” . Together with the beatings on their bottoms he “beat” a considerable amount of Yiddishkeit into their heads. Oh, the lashes, the youth–lashes …

He was not only the teacher of parents, children and grandchildren but also Shliach Tsibur (the messenger of the community), the cantor of the shtetl, who with his tunes and his old traditional style of reciting prayers, would represent the congregation on the bimah, serving as their defender and asking for a good year.

Who can forget that slender, handsome, tall Jew with the little black, round beard who on the eve of the High Holy Days would soak his throat with Wissotzki tea and a lump of sugar? – these were the congregation's gift to the cantor and a treasured one, so that the Satan of destruction, the evil one, should not, G-d forbid, sneak in and make his voice hoarse. Who can omit from their memory of those days, the sight of Reb Avrom with a shawl wrapped around his neck so that no angry wind, Heaven forbid, should approach and do him harm? And who cannot remember his “ya'alot” and his “n'tanne Tokef” his “Hi'neni He'ani mi'ma'ash” that split all the heavens: his “tal”(prayer for dew) that caressed the air of the coming Spring or “geshem” (prayer for rain) that drizzled with the soaking wet of the autumn rains.

And Reb Avrom was not merely a person with a religious role but a teacher, a cantor and also an educated Jew, the “notary” of the shtetl, who distinguished himself with his calligraphic handwriting and his knowledge of accounting, Russian, German, Hebrew, a special expert in the forms of prayers of various kinds, of congratulations, epitaphs and a florid style of writing titles (illuminations) etc.

He was also known as the auditor in the shtetl bank where he would go very often to see to the accounts. He was also an active worker in the shtetl Gemillut Chesed where he helped to give out loans.

Reb Avrom was intimately involved in all aspects of shtetl life – an institution. and a community in one person.

Outwardly he also made an extraordinary impression. He was aristocratically neat, a dandy dresser with well–fitting clothes, a “goldfinch” as they called it in the shtetl. He impressed with his elegance. They used to say that on the coldest days Reb Avrom took in a handful of snow into his house to spruce up his clothes; at that time a primitive substitute for the current chemical cleaning.

Very often one would see Reb Avrom on a voluntary mission through the town to collect wheat money or ice for the town's ice–house, in order to provide for the needs of the community. It was also his function to estimate the yearly sale of the pews in the synagogue and to maintain the town's book of records.

And this remarkable Jew who dared to blend Torah and enlightenment, who created ambassadors from Stoibtz itself and throughout the entire world. From letters received from Argentina, South Africa, America etc, there would come greetings to the shtetl, describing how native wanderers in distant places used to gather to soothe their sadness with a tune or witticism of Reb Avrom.

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My grandfather Reb Ahre

A true wife, a life's companion not only in family life but also in her spiritual influence in the shtetl, was his wife, my G-d–fearing Mother – Tzivia the daughter of Ahre. They referred to her in this way out of respect for my grandfather Reb Ahre, a righteous man who was much loved in the shtetl and whose good qualities my Mother inherited and passed on.

Tzivia the daughter of Ahre, belonged to that type of small town ”lamed Vavnikkes” (one of the 36 most righteous souls in her generation) who are only seen through the concealed veil of their good deeds.

She was a true woman of valour, satisfied in years but young in spirit, one of the last Mohicans of a generation of righteous women who disappear from the surface.

Small in stature, thin and shrunken, she was however sharp of mind, big–hearted and very wise. Her fellow townsfolk of Stoibtz remember Tzivia, the daughter of Ahre, as a teacher who helped Reb Avrom to put together a system of teaching for a modern time, teaching and managing the “Cheder” (Hebrew school). When her exhausted husband used to rest from fatigue with a “prayer book, a Pentateuch or a pointer”, she would then take over the education of the children. She also taught domestic skills to girls and young women, special prayers for women, the Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch for women and a “tsenna u'r'enna” (a Haggadic interpretation of the Pentateuch in Yiddish).

Before their eyes, there stands the picture of Tzivia, the convenor of charity. This thin Jewish woman with the wig on her head and the bright warm look in her soft eyes, used to shuffle around


Stayptz Jewish Co–operative Folk Bank 1922 – 1926
First row at the top from right: Yechezkel Volfson, Aharon Machtey, Avrom Chait, Dovid Sveksvine, Yossel Moltshadsky, Berl Bruchansky
2nd row: Chaim Leib Kaplan, Natan Vinaver, Elimelech Milcenzon, Avrom Levin, Chaim Yitzchok Tseshler, Avrom Russak, Mordechai Machtey, Chaim Hirsh Akun
3rd row: Baruch Garmizze, Asher Akselrod, Eli Rabinovicz, Shlomo Harkavy, Eliakum Milcenzon, Isaac Borishansky, Shlomo Palay, Nachum Malbin, Yitzchok Katz

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the shtetl in the evenings and shake out loaves of bread for poor families from the folds of her apron. Then she would immediately disappear in the shadows in her modest way. The same sensitive ear would absorb the groans of a heavy heart: the same lips would whisper a prayer and a word of comfort for a bitter mood; the same hands would help poor brides, lonely orphans and abandoned widows. She would work alone and through the “Ladies Committee” in the town.

Tzivia the daughter of Ahre is also remembered as the town's wig–maker who would adorn the heads of observant women with a covering of modesty and enlighten hearts with faith in G-d's word.

Teaching, astuteness, modesty, charity, love of people, contentment and “Tsidduk Hadin” (a prayer said at a burial acknowledging Divine Judgement and the whim of fate). She took on the suffering of others out of love – together these attributes created a floral wreath of virtues. One often wondered how such a small body could maintain such a beautiful spirit that managed to do wonders on both sides of the ocean, in the old home as well as in America. Her love and charity for all Jews were outstanding.

A separate, special talent of my Mother's was her handwork, the embroidery and artistic weaving that she would present for charity. She was also granted the gift of a talent for writing and she left behind an unfinished diary. Her stamina knew no bounds and here in America she completed an English Elementary school in the evenings at the end of many days of hard work in running her household.

The knitting needle and the book were her inseparable companions until her last breath. She was constantly surrounded by people; she was their friend and adviser until her last day. She left the world in the midst of weaving a beautiful, kosher, holy life, in the middle of her hand–written lines between pen and paper, knitting needle and knitting, with a treasure of nine decades of fruitful and beautiful years.


The house of Avrom Chait


We grew up in this atmosphere between our parents. Our home was the mirror of the generation, the pulse of the shtetl. Our table was the stage for various ideological clashes, of modern winds, but also for words of Torah and ethics. The romantic storm of our time took place between the walls of our house.

This was one of the most light–filled, noble, ideal homes of our little town of Stoibtz, alongside the quiet waters of the Niemen River: a nest whose Fathers and Mothers are in the next world and the children and grandchildren carry the great inheritance and the sunny dreams over the great entire, world.


At the funeral of Hirsh Machtey
From right: Moshe Liss, Shaul Ginsburg, Mendl Machtey, Sarah Machtey, Moshe Yitzchok Bernshtein,
Fyve Liss, Rochl and Roshke Kushnir, Mandel Matshosky, Moshe Reiser, Liebe and Velvl Tunik, Yossl and Elly–Hendl Machtey, Minye–Golde Machtey, Feigl Machtey (Leibe's daughter),
Ruven Machtey, Chaye Machtey, Liebe Kantarovicz, Leibe Machtey, Feigl and Ettl Machtey, Bashe Machtey (Leibe's daughter)


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A. Two Communal Workers

by Getzl Reiser

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel Epshtein – Reb Leib Bruchansky, son of Esther – one would meet both of them at social and philanthropic institutions: in the Folk–Bank, on the committee for distributing wheat money before Passover together with the Rabbi of the town. They received visitors, arranged a place for them to stay for the Sabbath and matched the visitor to the host – for a preacher, or a visitor of imposing appearance; they searched for a wealthy home. In contrast common Jews were placed with a tradesman. When the Rabbi had to provide a larger some of money to a needy person who would receive it in secret, he called upon these two men – they would gather the sum of money required, like two friends and yet with different qualities. Since my youth I remember that Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel was friendly with Reb Yedidyah Russak. They were often seen in the Bet Midrash studying a page of Gemorrah together. Both used to go home with their prayer shawls under their arms yawning while giving their opinions on annotations to the Talmud by “our teacher Rabbi Shmuel Aydelsh”. Reb Yedidyah was a great scholar, one who feared G-d, a true “Yochanan the shoemaker” [1] who died young in the First World War.


Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel Epshtein


After the death of Reb Yedidyah, Reb Yitzchak formed a friendship with Reb Leib the son of Esther. Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel was a Gemorrah Jew, a scholar and an upright and honest man, virtuous and pure like a hammered piece of gold. After praying fervently, he would remain studying. Between Mincha and Ma'ariv he sat and studied with a candle in his hand at a wobbly lectern. He was an honest trader and shopkeeper and he liked to provide as many people as possible with a loan free of interest. He sent a son to the Land of Israel. He would receive visitors with respect yet he doubted whether he was fulfilling the commandment of hospitality according to the law. He used to ask Leibetzke (Bruchansky) not G-d forbid, to insult a poor man, not even a swindler. Thanks to the swindlers – Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel used to say – if not for them we would never be able to fulfil the great commandment of hospitality.

Reb Leib the son of Esther, a Jew learned in the Psalms, was in his youth a tradesman, building boats at the river, later a small–time trader who hung around the wealthy merchants and earned a living. One bright day he deliberated about his life and gave up his work. Having an income from rent, he began to buy a place in the world–to–come – he became a trustee in the Burial Society and devoted himself diligently to the great commandment of hospitality. When walking with a poor man he would organize a breakfast, a lunch or a Sabbath for him, but first he took him through a stern cross–examination with harsh words, in order to establish whether he was a decent man. Only then did he provide him with a place to eat or to sleep.

When he gathered donations for the needs of the community, they gave Leibtze the donation out of fear. He used to say: for me there are two kinds of communal leaders, those that give and those that take. He once told that he went with Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel to Reb Yoel Ginsburg, a market landlord, a very wealthy man, for a donation. It was after the rains and his boots were muddied. They came into the kitchen of his house – no one was there. Reb Yitzchak–Shmuel stood and waited but he Reb Leibetzke went further – there was no one in the dining room either so he crept into the lounge. There happened to sit Reb Yoel's wife comfortably in a soft chair reading a novel. When she saw him coming in with his muddied boots on her Persian rug she screamed: Reb Leib, You have a cheek, march out of here! Reb Leib did not G-d forbid, get a fright and proudly said: “Listen here landowner's wife, don't get so steamed up, at the cemetery we will all lay in the same way, on the same rug”. She, not having a choice, immediately gave him an appropriate donation in order to get rid of him as quickly as possible.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Yochanan Ha'sandlar (shoemaker) 2nd century, a great scholar, quoted in the Mishnah, one of the main students of Rabbi Akiva. Return

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B. Reb Leib Rozovsky the Warden
of the Yurezdikke Synagogue

by Getzl Reiser

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

Leibe Rozovsky was the warden of the Yurezdikke synagogue. When I think of him, I am reminded of an old story from the distant past. There stand before my eyes a generation of old, respected, calm, quiet, beloved Jews. He was a neighbor of mine and he used to tell that he was born in 1850 in the small little shtetl of Tzirn close to the town of Mir. His father was unable to provide him with much education. He studied in a cheder but unfortunately one could not learn much there. He studied for a few years in an old type of “cheder” and because he was an intelligent, Jewish people listened attentively to what he had to say in the synagogue when they discussed world politics.

In his youth he was a tradesman. His wife Frayde–Tamara was a respected Jewess of that generation. In addition she was a trustee of the Chevra Kaddishah, kept a respectable Jewish home and raised her children – a daughter Bashe and two sons Sholem and Yankel. They married Bashe to Hillel Simche–Zalman Akun and Sholem married Leah from Mir. They sent Yankel to America. Sholem and his wife both died very young and left a one–and–a–half year old child who is here with us – that is Chaim Rozovsky who remained a true orphan so Frayde–Tamara took him and raised him even better than if he were her own child.


Reb Leib and Frayde–Tamara Rozovsky


Reb Leib was a respected Jew, of good character. Twice he built the Yurezdikke synagogue from small sums of money that he collected from whomever he met in the street or from going from house to house accumulating money for the synagogue.

In the year 1907, after the great Malbin–fire, the small, old Yurezdikke synagogue burnt down together with the whole shtetl so it was almost impossible to even think about rebuilding the synagogue at that time. The synagogues on the synagogue courtyard were insured and the worshippers – Jews who were market traders, could also help out. In contrast, the Yurezdikke synagogue was not insured and the worshippers, Yurezdikke Jews, were tradesmen and not wealthy. The rebuilding of the synagogue was an undertaking that was dependant on great devotion. It required the collection of pennies to build the synagogue. Days and nights Reb Leib was busy rushing around until he lived to see the synagogue rebuilt in 1910: the benches, tables, the pulpit and the Holy Ark were knocked together provisionally from plain wooden boards.

The building looked poor and made a bad impression. Reb Leib could not rest. He travelled to Uzde and there he ordered a beautiful Holy Ark from specialists who knew the art of carving.

I still remember the joy of that evening when wagon drivers brought the Holy Ark on two wagons packed with straw so that the varnish would not, G-d forbid, rub off. Reb Leib received a gift of 25 Rouble from Ya'akov Isaac Rubin to pay for the Aron Kodesh. The celebration did not last long. In the last fire in 1915 the Yurezdikke synagogue burnt down again together with the whole shtetl. During the war years no one gave any thought to

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rebuilding houses. The leaders of the Yurezdikke synagogue erected temporary barracks from wooden boards and the synagogue was moved over to us in the barracks for a few years and then to Shlayme, the brick maker in Potshtovve Street.

In the year 1918, at the end of the war, Mayshel Tzirulnik, a delegate from America, came and brought money to repair the large synagogues on the synagogue courtyard and also the bath house, but the Yurezdikke synagogue was forgotten in America.

The responsibility fell again to Reb Leib – but where does one find the money? Reb Leib began to negotiate with the local committee and after a long struggle he received the first $500. He bought wood and again built the synagogue, but with a couple of metres wider and longer than before. He again collected donations to pay the tradesmen and they built the walls and the roof. Reb Leib was very happy. They would again have their synagogue in which to pray. The remaining money needed to complete the synagogue was raised by a niece and nephew of Reb Leib, Fanny and Phillip Cohen and their own son Yankel who lived in New York on Ludlow Street. All their fellow townsfolk from Stoibtz would gather in their hall in December for their annual meeting. They helped him a lot with money to complete the synagogue.

In order to express their gratitude and pay tribute to Reb Leib, the worshippers hired a painter and told him to paint a lion (English for leib) over the door of the synagogue with the inscription: “Woe, be strong as a tiger, swift as an eagle, and mighty as a lion”. [1]

In the year 1939, with the advance of the Soviets, they confiscated the synagogue courtyard and the synagogues and the Yurezdikke synagogue remained the only place of learning and prayer by virtue of the good deeds of Reb Leib Rozovsky.

Frayde–Tamara died in Cheshvan 1925. Reb Leib died on the first day of Sukkot 1932.

In honor of their memory.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Talmudic quotation from Avot chapter 5, verse 20. Return

C. The Kitayevicz Family

by Getzl Reiser

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

In the year 1906 the Kitayevicz family settled in Stoibtz. They came from Staritze, in the vicinity of Slutzke and bought a plot of sandy land at the corner of Vilna and Potshtovve Streets, very close to the Niemen River and near the cemetery.

The ground was infertile for hundreds of years until the arrival of the Kitayevicz family. The father of this extensive family, Reb Avrom–Yehoshua Kitayevicz, arrived with a ready plan to build a substantial enterprise here. Namely, a huge sawmill to saw logs from the forest into various boards and wooden tools, with a large steam–mill, which was, by its size, the first mill of its kind in the whole region.


Reb Avrom Yehoshuah Kitayevicz


Eliyahu Yonah Kitayevicz


[Page 290]

The entire area was, almost from the start, enclosed by a high fence made of wooden boards. It looked like a private residence. At the entrance gate on Vilna Street (that was always locked), stood a huge sign: “;Commercial Enterprise of the Kitayevicz Family”. At the gate the first little wooden house that was immediately built, housed the guard and Martin the coachman, a Gentile who served the family with integrity his whole life.


Asya, Yanne, Berta, Rochl Kitayevicz


Shimon Kitayevicz


Yashke Kitayevicz


Miriam Kitayevicz


In addition they built a whole row of stables and stalls for the horses and wagons. Later they built houses for the many branches of the large family and for the staff.

Their settling in the shtetl immediately provided the first signs of employment and subsistence in the shtetl and a great demand for tradesmen: carpenters, masons, joiners, locksmiths and blacksmiths, glazers and painters and the shops received big orders for various building materials. It was noticeable everywhere and in every domain, in the synagogues, in the street and in the houses of the poor. The donors and the socially active members of the community supported the poor very generously.

The father, Avrom–Yehoshua, with his patriarchal outlook and with a big white beard, was an ardent Koydanov Chassid and immediately became a frequent worshipper at the Chassidic shtiebl on the synagogue courtyard and soon became its warden.

[Page 291]

The family also supported the small synagogue on Potshtovve Street. The older son Eliyahu Yonah, the proprietor of the business, was for many years the head of the community until 1932. Shimon was a pharmacist – he bought the rights of the local pharmacy from the pharmacist Munvez, and remained for many years, the sole pharmacist in the shtetl. He participated in communal work and when necessary, acted as mediator for the community, with the Polish government. He was also full of love for the Land of Israel and was the only one of the whole family who was privileged to come to Israel.

Mulye Kaplan

by Chana Borsuk

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

In memory of a friend and a companion.

I feel that it is my duty to remember a friend of whose family no one has remained.

Around Stoibtz there were forests and fields with crops. There were green fields smelling of hay, grasses and flowers whose fragrance could be sensed in the air. The farmers' barns, were filled with all kinds of produce, were clearly visible.

On Saturday afternoons, Jewish families went out of the town to rest in the meadows on the fresh hay. For the youth, the barns were important places for meetings – legal ones and mostly illegal ones. Not far from the barns there was a small street that was called Yurezdikke. This was a street of hard–working people and of workers who barely made a living. Poverty was great. One would see small little houses with windows sealed with paper. Children ran around barefoot, half naked but Yurezdikke produced sons and daughters of whom we did not have to be ashamed. They were proud Jews and people who knew what they were fighting for. When I went there to collect for the Jewish National Fund – their pennies were dearer to me than from other wealthier quarters. They gave their last pennies with pride and love.

In one of those poor houses, a childhood friend – Mulye Kaplan, was born and raised in poverty, hunger and need. His mother's name was Shifre, the female bathhouse keeper, or the woman who administered absolutions to women, because an uncle of hers, Shaul the bath keeper, held the lease for the bathhouse. She worked there and took care of the women. In the winter she sold geese. In summer, I remember, she stood in the market place and sold a variety of vegetables. She was of middling height, a brunette and her hair was never combed. Four or five little children followed her, dressed only in little shirts and were barefoot. Their noses were always running. They were dark, thin little ones and one felt that these were children knew no joy and were raised in hardship. Their father was a tall Jew, a carpenter by trade, I think. He died young and the mother Shifre, had to make a living for her large family – six little children. It is understandable that in such circumstances these children looked for work at an early age.

Mulye learned carpentry. He himself was a tall young man with large feet and with a pair of long arms. He stammered when he spoke and also closed his eyes. He was of pleasant appearance and shy by nature as if he suffered from an inferiority complex when he was not among his own circle of acquaintances. This young boy, who did not have one good day in his youth and was raised in poverty, had to work hard from an early age in order to help at home.

Mulye began to think, searching and struggling for a better tomorrow for himself, for the Jewish working masses, for his brothers and sisters. He was one of the “Bund” fighters. He knew why, and for what he was fighting. He was a force in his own party which was at one time large, before the First World War Mulye was the librarian of our large library. He knew which book was suitable to recommend to each person.

Our house was not only a home for all those who took part in building and working for the Land of Israel, but also a home for each and everyone and Mulye Kaplan started coming to us.

The friends joked, can it be? I received him very warmly. He used to come to us every Friday after candle lighting. In the beginning he was shy but with time he felt good. We used to have a discussion for a few hours and it was interesting to talk to him. Then we decided not to deal with political issues so we reviewed books, had literary discussions and also talked about the news, the current weekly topics. Mulye was a walking encyclopaedia.

I believe that I was the only one, not of his circle, who used to meet with him, understood him well and could appreciate him. This man could have achieved so much if he would have had the opportunity.

As a strong opponent of his party, I was able to value and encourage him - this fighter, this bearer of culture.

Prior to my departure for the Land of Israel he came to say goodbye.

We talked a lot; I would like to convey a few of his words: “You are going, you have reached the goal to which you have aspired and I fight and strive”.

May his name be blessed!

[Page 292]

Shlomo and Chiene Ruchl Mirski

by Arye Leibl Mirski

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

I remember my father when I was a boy as young as 6 years old. For many years he was the head trustee of the Chevra Kaddishah. During the first World War when the battles were taking place around Stoibtz, he took upon himself the duty of travelling to the battle front to find if there were any fallen Jewish soldiers and bring them back for burial to a Jewish cemetery. This was a combination of great self–sacrifice and danger to life.

After the rise of the Polish State, when the border was established between Negoreloye – Stoibtz, many Jews smuggled themselves across the border from Russia in order to immigrate to another country or to the Land of Israel. Many of them were caught and arrested. My father, using his acquaintance with the Polish “Governor of the Province” at that time, Graf Tsopsky, was very active in freeing those who were arrested.

At the end of the World War chaos ruled in the shtetl and a depressed atmosphere prevailed. At night bandits attacked the shtetl and robbed Jewish shops. The night screams and cries for help would wake my father and he always readily went to help chase out the bandits and thieves.

Hunger reigned in the shtetl and my father was chosen by the town council to distribute food among the Jewish and White Russian populations. Of course, this was a thankless task because it was very difficult to please everyone.

My father was also a Torah reader in the Great Synagogue and for many years he was a loyal communal worker.

When the Gentiles wanted to take the Jewish pasture from us, my father participated in a delegation to Warsaw, to the Minister of the Interior and was successful in persuading him that we were in the right.

My mother Chiene Ruchl was also an active communal worker. She helped to establish the Women's committee in the shtetl whose task was to provide for widows, orphans and to marry off poor girls.

In honor of their memory.


Shlomo Mirski


[Page 293]

Elegy About Chazon Ishai

by Chaim Gradde

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

My Father, my Father, Israel's chariot and horseman.
He disappeared in a chariot of rays of light.
But in my tears he will continue to burn.
At least , not upon me , did he allow his cloak to fall.
I poured water on his hands in the past
And now I spill tears over his death endlessly.
The clairvoyant did not wait for the messenger of good tidings
Until he will herald the redemption with his shofar;
Likened to a bird with outstretched wings
That carries itself low across broad streams,
Until the silver–mirror unexpectedly crumbles
And falls down from a mountainous rift into the abyss:
The bird shoots out like an arrow from a bow;
Across walls of water, precipices and fields
And splits the clouds with wings widely outstretched –
And in this way too my guide, blessed with bright light
Predicted the misfortune. He left in time
And erected the tabernacle of the falling generation.
I heard his name sounding from a distance
As one hears a divine orchestra in a dream.

I know, that I caused my Rabbi pain
Because I did not want to stay in the house of G-d.
And my punishment was a cloud–burst, a storm
That began to chase me, wandering, like dust.
From one world to another, the storm chased me
And returned me to the land of my graves
So I should see that all that has remained of my home–town
Only the name, Vilna. Printed in old books
A lament and a weeping for the Jerusalem of Lithuania!
I looked into the house of the innocent–righteous
And my seven years, the years of a sabbatical,
In its tent, with people of truth and wisdom –
I wanted to see beyond its window panes,
Where even at night it was as if the sun had shone his smile
And what I saw numbed my faith.
I saw a crucifix in the palace.
I saw it in truth and not in a dream!
Since then I know: Vilna is forever ruined.
My heart is at war with G-d. I know no peace
Because G-d is also not limited to a temple.

My Rabbi however did not rebel against the decree,
And took from the decree the most difficult part:
To take upon himself the sufferings of each one,
And bless every ache, so that it will heal.
The rays are no longer attached to the sun
As his thoughts were attached to the heavens.
Yet the loneliness of those punished on earth
Did not allow him at night to dream in his bed.
Her survivors from the banks of the Bug and Narev,
And her escapees from the diaspora in Morocco!
In consoling you the Rabbi was strong,
In your need the Rabbi was learned.
Orphans from Lithuania and the desert of Yemen
Mourned at his grave in the earth of Zichron–Meir.
The Rabbi sent you candles for the Sabbath, to your homes,
The Rabbi covered you with the veil of a wedding canopy.
Also I, will cry like an orphan, fervently and bitterly.
A son's prayer for the dead, sobbing for that which troubles me;
My restlessness grew into a storm,
And I would have lost my way in the storm;
Then I saw his milky way passing over me,
And from the recent seven years, I saw him!
He stood over me, holy in his silence,
And with his silence he calmed in me the hell.

I saw him standing strong at his lectern,
As if he were standing beaming at Mount–Sinai.
And also in the promised land of all lands
He searched for the desert where G-d is present,
And where the Tishbi after his battle with strange Gods
Lay curled up on Mount Carmel –
(His shadow still lies there, and in his prayer he asks
That his scorched earth, be blessed with rain) –
Such is also the vision of a Lithuanian village
Lying sick and poor on a bed of iron,
His little bed besieged, in need of help
And with dread, asked him to do wonders.
His naked little bed – an altar, a displacement,
Where he slept with a Gemorrah pressed to his heart.
We slept both in one little forest–house,
Until I fled from the forest–house into the world.
His naked little bed and his body on the altar –
Dressed in a tallit and tefillin.
However far into the world I have strayed,
I go –
And will still go further – by the beauty of his compassion
He who was from the day of his birth, an angel
Who concealed his wings amongst people.
And in the reflection of his great love, I beam,
Though he did not want to bless my path in life.

Note: Rabbi Avrom Yeshaya Karelitz was known by the name of his work “Chazon Ish”.

It is to this man who was Chaim Gradde's teacher and mentor that he dedicates this poem. He was deeply influenced by Karelitz who was an outstanding Talmudic scholar and was beloved in Vilna for his scholarship, his modesty and compassion. Gradde was raised Orthodox and studied in a yeshiva as a teenager but ended up with a secular outlook, in part because of his poetic ambitions. By choosing a secular path in life, Gradde felt that he had disappointed Karelitz.

This poem reflects Gradde' regard for Karelitz – his kindness and compassion, his devotion and dignity. He laments the fact that he strayed and that Karelitz “did not bless my path in life”.


[Page 294]

Pillar of Fire

by Chaim Gradde

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

The pillar of fire[1] that remained burning after my Rabbi's death,
The pillar of light that shone in the days of my youth,
Grant me too in Autumn the reflection of your holiness,
Even if I have covered your image with shame.
I still see you standing immersed in the silence of the Shmoneh Esreh,[2]
As if you would even now plead for me in your prayers.
Not to let my life to lie bare in a desolate terrain
Even when, for me alone, my life is not a loss.

I am spent from longing when I begin to remember
How a faithful pillar of cloud¹ also accompanied me –
The cloud where my Mother's tears had gathered,
When she whispered a warm prayer upon my head.
The pillar of cloud protected me from stones and from arrows,
And it was beautiful – the most beautiful amongst marble-pillars:
Even when the pillar of fire distanced itself from me,
The cloud covered me with tears and purity.

At the other end of the world, where I escaped from death,
There my pillars of divine-presence met again,
Just as when the Rabbi called my Mother
And told her: that her son is bewitched by the sunshine.
He hid his gifted evil-inclination in a bird,
The forest enchanted him and misled him from the Gemorrah.[3]
The world is a temptation for him, and the books - a trial,
And he is wild with desire in the summer-nights of blue.

My Mother cried ashamed, the Rabbi was angry,
In vain they both taught me and warned me.
I raged until my youth quickly ended,
And my protectors no longer come to me often,
The pillar of cloud gradually ceased to appear,
Too old am I, that my Mother should still march to my footsteps,
Too long have I wandered and caused her pain:
But the pillar of light still appears and I still walk in its path.

The pillar of fire: the guide in the desert of my wanderings!
Because I bestowed upon myself all my talent and my spirit
To sing the song of a poor and pious community –
Save me from the barrenness in my heart and from its fever.
At least I did not give up my strength to the Torah,
I mended her torn parochet[4] with fine gold,
Oh, help me with the privilege of being the reviver of the dead
Of your fellow worshippers in their tattered prayer shawls.

I know, that I should already have been a guide,
But to a desolate generation that has no offspring, I belong,
I came too late. But not too late
For the day of the decree, that saturated me too with tears,
Angry, sick with longing, I began again,
but not with your humility, your trust and your faith.
From your image a pillar of fire emerged,
And I burnt hastily like a full barn.

When I came to know you, you were younger in years,
Than I am now, your sorrowful student and your applauder.
Because once I was not satisfied with being young,
So until now I could not tear myself away from my youth.
So many disasters have already befallen me,
Yet I am still not, in my greying old age, grown up.
Even my slavish faith to an old dream,
The old sins and penal images misled me.

In long winter nights of late, poor Sabbaths,
You convinced me, a young boy, an orphan,
That veracity and truth in life, are only in the Torah,
But your thousand-year tradition did not captivate me.
So you, holy one, lived in a circle of purity,
And I lived in a dream, in a mirror of the beauty.
Your radiating circle became a pillar of light,
And my hands were cut in the shattered mirror.

As a young boy, I brought home a dove clutched to my bosom,
So I went out into life with feathered verse,
I thought that poets glow like the morning-colors;
Now I know:
Poets sing because they are afraid to die,
Now I know too, that you,
The forest recluse, the silent one,
Did not possess my disquiet in the world,
        My thirst and curiosity,
Because you were filled with joy, beyond your brim,
And fear of death did not sadden even your last moments.

I cannot forget your words:
“Everything can be bought with silence.”
I cannot forget your place: a shadow under branches,
Where you, your book and the little tree in silence created
A tune – the world had not yet heard such a melody!
Your conscience was a deep lake in the mountains,
Where you could lock yourself into your own thoughts,
And in the fullness of your heart,
And the freshness of your modesty,
You lived within yourself with constant half-closed eyelids.

[Page 295]

Your student, however, walks about with hungry eyes.
Half the world I have already absorbed at a glance!
So many lamp-lights of towns, the blue and green of seas.
The gold of sunshine over snowy mountains,
The bronze of tree-trunks.
But when my burning eyelids fall,
Immediately the lights of all my bright journeys are extinguished,
And only your smile – your eternal light –
Illuminate for me familiar eyes
When in a strange world I must lie down to sleep.

When I deserted you, you remained my guardian angel,
You repeated a word of praise with a proverb as example,
That no matter what I choose to do, and I mean honestly that I must do this.
Though often I kiss a pious - spoilt mezuzah.[5]
Man, you said, is often keen to sin,
Because he, the apparent proud person,
        Has fallen greatly in his eyes,
But he that happens to fall anew
        On the same stone and protrusion
Must be forgiven, for he is not forgiving of himself.

This is how you spoke of me, the rebel among the students,
It is true, your principles are not lost.
I recognized the truth.
At least, three decades later,
As he who has one G-d only, has more than a hundred Gods,
I condemned myself to loneliness lest I die
Because I still sit on a threshold with Jewish kinds of mothers,
Because my spirit still lives in a tent of Shem and Ever,[6]
And from afar, Rabbi, I stretch myself over your grave.


  1. Pillar of Fire and Pillar of Cloud: The Torah tells us of the pillars that led the Jewish people in their wanderings in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. They were led by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. Return
  2. Shmoneh Esreh: The words mean 18. It is an important daily prayer originally of 18 blessings recited in silence while standing. Return
  3. Gemorrah: A component of the Talmud, source of Jewish law. Return
  4. Parochet: The curtain that covers the ark containing the scrolls of the Torah in the synagogue. Return
  5. Mezuzah: A small container fixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Enclosed is an important daily prayer called the “Shma” that is taken from the Torah. Return
  6. Shem and Ever: According to Jewish legend these two men were the teachers of the patriarch Jacob. Return


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