by Rabbi Borukh Epstein
Translated by Odelia Alroy
In the previous century of the annals of the state, in the kingdom of the Czar Nicholas I, near the city of Bobruisk, the home of my great-grandfather and his family, the construction of a large fort, grand and strong, first-class and of impressive design was started; on it there were fortresses and enclosures, fearsome rocks and fortified walls, castles, lookouts, towers, ditches, hills and heaps, all were large and immense, huge and enormousno expense was spared, no expense was too great and no work was too difficult. The hands of several thousands did the work, numerous craftsmen and countless supervisors.
And there was much commotion in the city and its surroundings, due to the enormous amount of material that was required for this great undertakingand due to the many upper and mid-level administrators, craftsmen and artists, workers en masse who established their dwellings in the city, at the home of its inhabitants. These people earned their keep and some of that spread in different ways to the city people. And there was a saying among the Jewish inhabitants that in order for the town of Bobruisk to partake in the promise of the Torah that the poor shall not cease from the land it had to recruit some poor from other cities because it did not have its own poor at all.
Until today it has been given from generation to generation, fathers telling their sons of the peaceful yet busy life, loaded with satisfaction, pleasure and happiness, which accompany the wealth and G-d's blessing with a broad hand which flowed and flooded as a river into the town of Bobruisk; and the city bloomed and became beautiful and from day to day it grew in wealth and importance, and gave of its blessing also to the neighboring towns.
by Yosef Eisenshtadt
Translated by Odelia Alroy
When the fort was built in Bobruisk, the Jewish children used to congregate near the site and would look with curiosity at the construction. The Czar was supervising the construction from time to time, and the children used to push to where he stood. Grandpa Yitzhak would call the children and warn them in the following words: Children, don't enter the fire.
by Yehuda Levi Epstein
Translated by Odelia Alroy
In Vilna and its surroundings, the order of learning of our rabbi, Eliahu the gaon [genius], Hasid of blessed memory, already took hold, and after that, Rabbi Chaim edited and constructed this straight learning in his yeshiva in Volozhin. Not so in our city, as we were far away from there, the learners walked in darkness and not in light. And I also studied in this crooked and spoiled order until my relative, the expert Rabbi Yosef Grayower from Slutzk, may his memory be blessed, came to us, already tasted and absorbed the learning, and he illuminated my eyes until I saw a new world in front of me while studying the Berachot tractate with Rashi's commentary and other commentators, and I could study the Shulhan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law], Orach Haim [Manner of Life portion of the Shulhan Aruch] with commentaries, and understanding of each one of those commentators and why this one decides such, and the other such, each one according to his own method in the Gemara.
And the last one, who did the most, was the sharp Rabbi Tevel, of blessed memory, who was then only about 24 years old, and became famous later as a gaon in Israel, and he was one of the greatest students of the yeshiva of the genius Rabbi Chaim, of blessed memory, in Volozhin. They took Mr. Aba as a teacher for me in the year 1817, and although that rabbi was not much older than I was, I recognized his superiority and obeyed him, and his learning was clear and profound, and we studied together several tractates by his way, afterwards we agreed to study the Shas [the six books of Mishna] together in order to increase our knowledge. And Rabbi Tevel was in our house a year and a half, and we studied together until his name became famous and he was appointed rabbi in the city Shtoiftz [Stolbtsy].
And I became a merchant afterwards for a few years and despite that, my heart did not empty completely of my earlier learnings, and afterwards I was swept to the community of Brisk of Lita in 1833 and I was successful with the help of G-d over a number of years, as a contractor....
by Elikum Tsunzer
Translated by Odelia Alroy
A. A Teacher in a Village Near Bobruisk
In the beginning of Elul [the last month of the Jewish calendar, usually falling in August or September] (1870) I arrived in Bobruisk, the state of Minsk, after long wanderings and I was unable to find a lace maker there for whom I could work and earn my living. For a few days I went about the streets looking for something that didn't exist. Eventually I found help in the person of chazzan Joel Ihumener (a well know chazzan in those times), who came to daven for the holidays in Bobruisk. If there is no work for a lace maker, why not learn something from a chazzan? I thought, and went to Joel Ihumener. He listened to me and he found that I have a fine voice and a good ear. He hired me as singer for two rubles (what a prize) for all the holidays. He provided me with meals at the home of the gabbai [sexton] of the shul with permission to sleep on a bench in the shul during this time.
The holidays ended. The chazzan paid me the two rubles and let me go . Where? We both did not know. And anyway what was the force? The world is large enough, and there are many Jews, beware of the evil eye, what does it matter where I go !
But it was very cold after the holidays and I only had my summer clothes. And while I still had capital (the two rubles from Joel Ihumener) I bought at the market a fur coat. People with weak nerves could faint with fright from the words 'fur coat'. Therefore, I hurry to calm you with the explanation that in those times, a fur coat was called a fur coat if it had a fur collar. The other parts of this fur coat had not a hair of fur on them. There were fur coats which didn't even have a fur collar, just a promise of a collar. That means the hope that in the future, G-d willing, it will be covered by a piece of cat or fox.
In several days, after I had paraded my fur coat in the streets of Bobruisk, I met a man who lived five versts from the city. He was looking for a teacher for his children. I asked to fill the position and I was hired. My wages were 25 rubles for the whole term (six months) with the right to sleep on the warm oven.
There is a curse in this world, that a Jew eats so that he can live. For the Christians the curse is reversed, the Christian lives so that he can eat. My new boss discovered a new curse, not eating and not living, not living and eating. That's how I pushed away the time. And to pass the time takes a bit of bread, baked from flour which is made from oats and barley, a plate of groats into which they would pour a few drops of oil in order to enrich the troubles. During the weekdays no meat entered the house and they ate the cursed bread and the thin groats in which even the Jewish chappers [literally, snatchers; these were men enlisted by the community to find recruits to meet quotas imposed for the Czar's army] would have found it hard to catch a groat. But for Shabbos, the country dweller would bring a sheep's head and from this head even I would get excited about a meager bone. The same oil that was used for cooking was also used to light the house and before such light I would sit for six hours and would get hoarse, screaming at my three students who were no better at learning than the peasant village children. It is natural that after such difficulty after six hours with the three oxen, I would smell the groats like marzipan and I would grab it.
My clothes tore and it was then 25 degrees of frost, I almost got sick from cold. In order to dress a little better I asked my employers for my wages. Several times he weaseled with empty excuses. Pesach time he promised me the news that he wanted me for a second term. And then he would give me money, however much I needed. Not having an alternative I remained and went about the whole time naked and barefoot. Chol Hamoed Pesach I wrote my song The Eye in which I sang about my own problems.
On Shavuos he also weaseled out with lame excuses and after Shavuos when I started strongly to demand my money he found a clever way to get rid of me. He went to Bobruisk and came to the community and declared that if they paid him well, he would give them a soul. They paid him 25 rubles and gave him a snatcher and two Cossacks who would bring me to them.
Not knowing what danger was sweeping over me I searched out my corner and went to sleep. Suddenly I felt a thick hand grab my young body and shake me.
I awoke, opened my eyes and saw the three strangers. One held a lantern and shone it in my eyes.
What do you want? I asked.A fiery slap dazed me. They wrapped me in my torn clothes, three men and I into a wagon and brought me to Bobruisk. There they enlisted me in the army.
Nothing lad! Get up! answered the snatcher.
Get up? What for?
You will come with us to the city!
No, you'll see! Get dressed young man, but fast!
I don't want to, I don't want to go!
B. In the Barracks
In order to seek out the concealed, Czar Nicholas I ordered every Jew who had not registered to be recruited as a soldier. A concealed was one who didn't have a passport. And it is self-evident that those who had not registered couldn't get a passport. The order gave everyone the right to snatch a young man or boy who didn't have a passport and substitute him as a soldier for someone in his own family or for another family. For the leaders of the community in those dark times who always looked for ways to enrich themselves with Jewish blood, the order opened a new way of earning a living. Every Jewish community sent out its snatchers on all roads where they awaited their prey. Into their hands fell the unfortunate Jewish young men and small boys who didn't have passports. Others who had passports were unable to evade them. They would tear up the passports and capture the concealed.
The captured would be bound as sheep, brought to the city, and locked up in the barracks. There they would be held for weeks until the recruitment would begin with these unfortunates. They were not too fussy. If they were weak, sick, or had some defect, it didn't matter. They enlisted them as soldiers, dressed the soldiers in uniforms and march, serve the Czar! They awarded these souls to those families that paid a good amount and the deputies pocketed the money. Private parties also made a business out of this. They would snatch small children and sell them to the communal leaders. The period is known to us Jews as the time of the poyemanes [the snatched ones], that is, the time of the chappers [snatchers].
In those dark times, hundreds of these sales of Joseph occurred daily. The rabbis from the small villages gave their approval to this murder with the interpretation that the children of their own villages are more of a mitzvah to safeguard than strange children from strange villages. The greatest rabbis shed tears quietly about the open murderous acts, but they had to keep quiet for three reasons: first, it was an order of the Czar; second, they were afraid of the deputies who could have told off the rabbis if they had opposed the bloody murders, and thirdly, they were afraid of the decree which would have sent them to Siberia. Those were times when people sacrificed other people, often with the approval of the government.
And I was one of the unfortunate sacrifices when I was 14 years old. I sat in a barracks for five entire weeks. The community waited for the recruitment. I had no way of getting free. How? Where would help come from? What kind of miracle? For the poor sheep that lie in the slaughterhouse, there is no hope to remain alive. Whether they are traif or kosher they must go to slaughter and it was the same for me. Whatever, I will be a soldier I will have to serve the Cantonists [special school where underage children were trained until old enough for formal military service] for many years. They will give me to a muzhik [Russian peasant] in a village a thousand miles away in Siberia. There I will have to pasture pigs, chop wood in the forest, doing whatever the muzhik wants and getting beaten for every trifle. If I get out of this grave I will first begin the real hell with all its frights. The Russian army, the marching with 30 pounds on my shoulders, the fiery lashes, the blows, and the thousand other conditions. More than anything, it pained me when I remembered my unfortunate mother. The lonely, desolate widow. She lived with her husband for 21 years and when an angry fate took away her breadwinner, then she had only sufferings, because she never had any pleasure. Her only treasure were her two orphans, and she was robbed of both. Bad animals did all of this. And who? Not wild animals in the forest, only her own people, people with hearts of wolves!
With such thoughts I went around the entire time that I sat with the other Jewish sacrifices in the dark barracks. These very thoughts awakened my feelings and I remember sitting in the barracks. I wrote my poem, The Poyemantzes, which has 108 verses. The theme of this poem I took from the prophet Haggai.
The prophet Haggai came to the priests and asked them, Does a person or a government become holy when a person or a garment touches the holy meat of sacrifice?
No, it does not become holy! answered the priests.That's how it is with the entire people, Haggai called out painfully. No good, no clean, no holy thing clings to them, but the unclean do cling. This means that living among strange nations we learn not the good fine things but only the bad, the unclean. The decree from the Poyemantzes was proof for our Jews from that generation, but they came out badly in that trial. Since they snatched their own brothers and sold them into conversion and eternal trouble, they covered up for the whole world the true character of their customs.
And does a person or a garment become unclean when they touch something that is unclean? the prophet asked.
Yes certainly they become unclean! answered the priests.
That is, in short, the content of my poem The Poyemantzes or Brought to Trial and Judged Guilty. Not in my own blood did I dip my feather when I wrote this poem, but in the blood of all my unfortunate brothers; not my pain alone clings to the verses but one hears in the trembling laments and screams all of Israel.
And how sad, how heartbreaking was the picture of the barracks. Eighty lonely, pale, thin, hungry, half-clothed souls lying on the ground on a bit of dirty straw. The majority were torn from their mothers by a tyrannical hand and they don't yet comprehend the deep loneliness that awaits them in the future. Also here in the barracks not knowing their dark fate, they laugh, tease and play with each other. But the older ones looking at them forget their own troubles and cry lakes of tears. Twice a day the iron doors are opened and delegates of the community leaders bring several loaves of bread and several pots of soup that is dirty even for dogs. If anyone dares to demand or ask he gets grabbed by his hair and slammed against the wall with such force that his bones tremble and shake.
I want to go to my mother, cried a child aloud.It becomes night. Everyone lies down and reads the bedtime prayer. Others, the older ones, say the psalms by heart until they fall asleep. They are like a whole flock of sheep waiting to be slaughtered. They lay one on the other on the dirty straw, a disaster, a sorrow, and loneliness have united in one body. From moment to moment a heavy sigh escapes from the breast of a parent. The young sleep quite peacefully and happy smiles sweep over their pale faces. What are they dreaming about? Surely that they are sitting on their mothers' laps and the worried mother combs and curls their hair!
You'll see her in the next world, have patience answered the Jewish Antiochus and laughed .
Let me go home! I want to go back home! moans another little bird.
Wait a few days! roars the human tiger. You will have a big home! It stretches from Bobruisk until Archangelsk!
Among the eighty Poyemantzes [snatched ones] that went with me in the barracks there were some with very good singing voices. I formed a choir with ten and taught them my poem. We would sing it several times a day and no eye would be dry and no heart undisturbed when the sad melody and the words would pour over the barracks. Even the delegates with the stone hearts with iron nerves who guarded us day and night would cry with us.
Tisha B'Av passed and it soon came the night before the morning on which we were to be led to slaughter to Priam.
C. The Liberation
That help was closer to us than we reckoned, no one knew.
Purim (1855) about a half-year before I was caught and all the paymonik [snatched ones] were locked in the Bobruisk barracks. Czar Nicholas suddenly died. Alexander II ascended the Russian throne and the Paris Treaty was signed. The Crimean War ended. One of the first orders that Czar Alexander II gave was to free all paymanikes [snatched ones] from the barrack.
One night when we were sleeping in the barrack, we were awaked by a tumult in the street. The noise came from closer and closer to us and soon we heard them rapping on our iron doors and shutters.
Children, wake up! You are free, free! someone screamed.This news was for us like the blast of the shofar which woke the dead to bring them back to life. With a cry of joy we leaped from our empty barracks and washed and davened Hallel. I was the chazzan and my choir accompanied me. After Hallel we joined hands and danced a Jewish Karahod [a circle dance]. It was a tragic scene in which one had to laugh and cry. After the dance I wrote a song, The Savior, and I accompanied it with a fine melody.
A decree from the Czar that you should be let out! screamed a second.
Praise G-d children. Daven Hallel several voices screamed at once.
At 10 o'clock in the morning it was decided to release us from the barracks. The Bobruisker gevir [rich man] Reb Itzhak Rabinovitch lent 40 rubles to the synagogue for the mitzvah of opening the door of the barracks. A while before people assembled near the barracks, men and women, young and old, and with great impatience awaited the moment when the barracks would be opened and we would go free. Everyone blessed and lauded the good Czar Alexander II who issued the manifest that nullified many bitter edicts of his father.
The lucky moment came when the gevir, Itzhak Rabinovitch, with the appropriate blessing unlocked the door and the whole crowd sprung from the barracks. The town chazzan made a special blessing for the Czar and sang from Psalms. Then I and my choir stood on the table and sang my song, Brought to Trial and Found Guilty. The audience broke into a great cry, but the song had another effect. The audience was so roused against the community leaders that they would surely have ripped them to pieces if they had been there. However they were smarter than they were religious and they hid. At the request of leaders, I sang two of my sons, The Savior and Better Taken than Given, which slandered my employer the countryman who sold me to the community for 25 rubles instead of paying me my wages. The song evoked a storm of wild cries. There were many who wanted to run to that village and take revenge, but the gevir Itzhok Rabinovitch quieted them and gave them his guarantee that he would settle the score. Then they opened the door for us, all so and we left the barracks. The gevir, Itzhak Rabinovitch took me into his carriage and took me to his home.
In the first two weeks that I was in the gevir's house, I became a bit of a gevir. I was very nicely dressed and I had a capital of 100 rubles. My wealth, like my trouble, I got in a remarkable way. In time the gevir Itzhok Rabinovitch sent for my employer whose three geniuses I tutored and after he honored him with several fiery slaps, he told him to pay me 50 rubles in wages which was due me for two terms and the 25 rubles which he received from my soul from the community. This fine man argued that he was poor and could not pay but this did not help. The gevir sent two Cossacks to him and they took everything they found in his house. A few days later, he came with 75 rubles and redeemed his things. I suddenly became a rich man with a capital of 75 rubles! In that time and in my situation I believed that I was half a Rothschild. Besides, I received small sums of money from the guests who would visit the gevir and for whom I used to sing my three songs which I authored in the barracks.
by Avraham Yaakov Papirno
Translated by Odelia Alroy
After my father lost his position in the lumber trade in Bilovizh [Bialowieza, Poland], he finally decided, after 18 years of separation, to return to his family. The arena for activity in Kapoli [Kapyl] was too narrow for him, and after he finished up his dealings in Kapoli, he moved with his family to his native townBobruisk.
The transfer to the new place brought many worries to my parents, but above all, they were sorry because of my situation: I was already 19 years old and still unmarried, what a shame. And to hide this shame was impossible: on my cheek and chin already were seen with energy and chutzpah the hair of my beard exposing to many the breaking of the way of nature and good tradition. Special means were taken, that soon resulted in the desired outcome. I married the daughter of a rich sharecropper.
Bobruisk was controlled by conservatives, just as it was in Kapoli, but this orthodoxy was more varied, since the inhabitants were divided here into Hasidim and mitnagdim [Orthodox Jews] who competed with one another in their level of observance. While the mitnagdim of Bobruisk already made peace with the Hasidim (Chabad hasidim), each one of these two groups had its own synagogues and rabbis. The chief rabbi of the mitnagdim was then my uncle, Rabbi Eliahu Goldberg (the one who when he was young in Kapoli, left the service on Yom Kippur in order to take care of the severely ill who were left without care, in order to cook food for them. The chief rabbi of the Hasidim was Rabbi Hillel from Paritch, student and right hand of Rabbi Mendel from Lubavitch. The Hasidim used to travel to Rabbi Hillel as to a true tzaddik [righteous man], although he was known as a mere chozer [one who repeats], because he did not teach the people for himself but as a student of Rabbi Mendeli, as he repeated and explained his Torah teachings. Although Rabbi Eliahu and Rabbi Hillel differed very much in their religious outlooks, they respected one another, and they were also respected equally by the two communities, Hasidim and mitnagdim because of their complete reverence for God.
Despite the strict religious observance, life in Bobruisk was not so dark and monotonous as it was in Kapoli. Here too there was much poverty, but there were also many wealthy men. Because of the fort that stood in the city and plenty of forests in the area, many contractors and lumber traders lived in Bobruisk. They lived gregariously, often not out of love of luxury, but in order to appear wealthy the contractors often undertook deals that were much above their financial means; and if the deal was going to result in a loss, that could bring bankruptcy, the contractor undertook a second deal, hoping that the latter would save him; and if it turned out that the latter was useless too, he would seize the third deal, the fourth deal, and so on. To think where all of this would lead himhe had no time. For the time being it was necessary to say that the wheel should turn because if the wheel stopped, even for a moment, his status as a rich man would come to an end. In order for the wheel to turn, there was a need for credit, much credit, and for this the contractors had to pretend, to blind people by the wealth of their home, by the diamonds of their wives, with generous contributions, by expensive trips, etc.
In Bobruisk, there were then about ten hidden and open maskilim [enlightened men] with whom I soon became acquainted. All were dedicated devotees of the Enlightenment and Hebrew literature and in their homes all the current problems of Jewish life were discussed with enthusiasm, new books were critiqued, debates were conducted about important articles that appeared in Hebrew periodicals that began to be published
Periodicals! Such a novelty! Their publication, by itself, was one of the signs of the new times, and their relative success indicated that ideas of enlightenment generated roots among the people. The young Hebrew press served as a potent instrument in the hands of the enlightened to spread the new ideas among the masses. The first periodical, the weekly HaMagid [The Preacher], began its publication in Lyck, in Prussia, at the end of the 1850s; after it came HaCarmel [Mount Carmel] in Vilna, and HaMelitz [The Advocate] in Odessa. Needless to say, our circle received all of these. The day this or that periodical arrived was a true holiday for us. We couldn't wait for the periodical to be delivered and we rushed to the post office to receive them, and we used to read them while walking in the street. And how we read! We read with enthusiasm, we read from A to Z, from the headlines to the advertisements. Everything was important here; everything was written in a literary style, all was saturated with love to the divine Enlightenment. Not only serious articles and poetry, but also short reports about fire or about a bathhouse that collapsed in one of the obscure towns, had to end with the invocation of the necessity of the Enlightenment. The contributors were not paid a fee and none of them even thought to receive a fee for such a sacred deed; on the other hand, they had the moral satisfactionnot a trivial thing in those daysto see your own article printed in the periodical. Not just a poem, but also an ordinary report, made the author famous, to some extent immortal.
Soon I happily also became immortal. I wrote a letter to the editors of HaMelitz in which I described in dark colors the chevra kadisha [burial society] of Bobruisk, which was run by the conservatives, extremists, and the best of citizens. I dropped a letter in the mailbox, doubting and not hoping to be honored in its publication. How happy I was when I saw, when I opened after some time, a fresh edition of the HaMelitz, my fully printed letter and underneath my name and the name of my family; including all of its letters. King of the Universe! Is this a dream, a false imagination?
I grew in my own eyes, and it seemed to me that also in the eyes of others. It appeared to me that in the synagogue and on the street, everyone knew what became of me and they were looking at me with much respect.
However, as is well known, nothing is given in this world for nothing, and this happiness of mine was no different: I paid dearly for it. When the powerful members of the chevra kadisha found out about my report, they became enraged, especially because of the fact that I described and showed the greed and indifference of the chevra as the truth. A special meeting of the chevra kadisha was called, I was put on trial, and a severe punishment was decided upon, i.e. kvurat hamor [burial of a donkey], that means the cancellation of my right to attend funerals, and burial outside the cemetery fence. This terrible sentence was written in the book of the society so that others would know and be afraid, shocked me by its injustice and cruelty. But after I realized that I would not have to face this shameful burial now, but only after I decide to die, and quite probably [that] I might die elsewhere, outside the range of the hand of the chevra kadisha of Bobruisk, I relaxed. And out of this incident that caused great commotion in the city, only remained a proud realization of the author's honor that I received and the glory of the martyr for truth and justice.
After I came out to the arena with the powerful enemies of light, I waited for another opportunity to fight with them. This opportunity was not long in coming. The rabbi of the Hasidim in Bobruisk, Rabbi Hillel, whom I mentioned above, published a pastoral letter in which he forbade by excommunication, the Jewish women in the city from wearing crinolines. The reader may not know the meaning of this word, but at the end of the 1850s and the beginning of the 1860s, crinolines were in the mouths and before the eyes of all. They were women's dresses of bold appearance: very narrow on the hips, widening downward, ending at the bottom with a hoop made of fishbone or steel, that measured several harshins [about 28 inches]. They looked like a pyramid with a narrow tip, at the same time that the upper part of the body was widening, naturally or artificially, and it was like an upside-down pyramid standing on its tip; in short, this was a fantastic and elegant fashion, and the daughters of Zion, who since the days of the prophet Isaiah were enthusiastic followers of fashion, rushed immediately after this fashion passed the long way from Paris up to the Jewish quarters, to seize it with all their might, and as was their custom, they surpassed this by enlarging the circumference of this hoop immeasurably. However, there is nothing in the world that is perfect, and this wonderful fashion too was associated with a minor discomfort: when a lady sat down, and especially when she lay down, the hoop lifted up together with the dress. And this is the reason that our rabbi became angry about the evil desire awakened by the crinolines and published his pastoral letter. It isn't hard to describe the grief which overcame the daughters of the pretty gender among the Hasidic community when this prohibition was issued. This grief became stronger out of envy towards their neighbors, and friends of the mitnagdim [Orthodox] community, who were not subject to this command by Rabbi Hillel, and who continued to walk with crinolines. Out of compassion to the suffering by the pretty gender and out of anger at the interference by the clergy in the field of womanly clothing, that is none of their business, I described this incident in a venomous-humoristic tone in a letter to the editor of HaMelitz. Tzederboim rushed to print it along with a long and pointed comment of his own. The letter, as expected, led to a storm of rage among the Hasidim of Bobruisk. To my good fortune, I was careful this time, and giving up the glory of authors, I signed the letter with a false name, but everyone pointed to me as the author of the fresh article, and only the lack of decisive proof saved me from excommunication. My friends among the hidden enlightened and among the Hasidim warned me not to go out alone into the street at night.
The name apikoros [non-believer] stuck to me forever after my poem Emet veEmuna [Truth and Faith] appeared in the periodical HaCarmel, in which I compared the truth to the great light (the sun) and faith to the lesser light (the moon). To stay in Bobruisk with this name was quite inconvenient, so I decided to carry out my previous plan without delayto enter the rabbinical school, especially since the support period that my father allotted me was about to end.
It's now or never I thought, and when I received my wife's consent I began to prepare to leave.
by I. L. Katznelson
Translated by Mira Eckhaus
On that Passover (1865) something happened and the whole city was in disarray. A passer-by came to the city a few days before the holiday, and stayed the night in the audience room next to Reb Yehuda ben Yehiel's Beit Midrash. Even today his image is still clear to me. He was about thirty-five years old, tall and thin with a pointed face. He was always dressed in clean clothes and his whole appearance testified that the man had never went from door to door. According to the old custom practiced in all the cities of Israel, some of the visitors of the Beit Midrash invited him to eat bread with them on the first two days of Passover. However, on in the evening of the first day of Chol HaMoed, the man complained before one of the young men, that he had been tortured all day and had not eaten anything. The next day, some young men saw him coming out of a foreign bread bakery, and they started shouting loudly: chametz in Passover, chametz in Passover. And in a few moments, a large crowd of men and women gathered around the man, and they began to search in his pockets and found three round rolls. The rolls were hung on a string above his heart and they began to lead him from street to street. In front of him, naughty boys walked and shouted loudly: This is what will happen to the man who eats chametz on Passover. And behind him, countless boys (who were exempt from the cheder during Chol HaMoed), beat him mercilessly, threw dirt at him and tore his clothes, and moment by moment the crowd grew larger and larger and the noise grew louder and louder. This is how they led him through all the streets of the city from morning until evening. And at the time of Minchah prayer, they brought him to the Beit Midrash, where he was staying. The appearance of this miserable was terrible. His face was pale as death, his clothes were torn and covered in dirt, and all his bones were floating in fear. His torturers forced him to go up on to the stage and say before the congregation I have sinned and I have committed a crime. With weak legs, he got off the stage, went outside, and since then, his tracks were not known. In his bag, that, in his haste, was left in the audience room, they found nothing but two cloth shirts, Tallit and tefillin and the six section of the Mishnah in two volumes. This event left a very serious impression. Although the man planned to commit a very serious crime, he only planned and did not commit it. And they, the cruel religious zealots, spilled his blood like water, without asking what had brought him to think of committing such a crime. Yesterday, this innocent man was tortured and no one bothered to feed him matzah, and all the shops that sell matzah in town were closed. Did they really expect that he will die and not sin?…
My soul was suffering for this man, and when I saw him standing on the stage, and his wandering eyes express a very terrible agony of death, I could not withhold myself anymore and I said to my friend who was standing next to me: This is unparalleled cruelty, it is literally bloodshed.
And at this moment about ten fists rose in front of me, and one of the bad fist owners yelled at me: -And you think that it is permissible to eat chametz on Pesach? In which Shulchan Aruch did you learn this? Maybe it is said so in there a certificate in Israel, Damn him?
My friend helped me to dodge through the crowd and go outside. And since then, I never set foot on the threshold of that synagogue…
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