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Jewish Traditional and Religious Life
in Latvian Communities

by Abraham Godin

This account of Jewish traditional religious life in Latvia is divided into two sections: First, the period until the establishment of Independent Latvia and second, the years of the Independent State, i.e. 1920-1940.

 

I

The administrative limitations imposed by the Tsarist regime on the unrestricted movement of Jewish inhabitants had a decisive influence on the spiritual and religious life of Latvian Jewry, among whom, three separate groups existed by the end of the 19th century. These were: The Jews of Kurland and Livonia; those of Latgale and those of Riga.

Historical circumstances placed Kurland and Livonia outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement and the influx of new Jewish residents under the Tsar was severely restricted. Kurland Jews had been living in that region for hundreds of years. They and the Riga Jews who came from Kurland had little contact with the Jewish centres lying largely southeast and southwest. The majority of them remained true to the ancient Jewish way of life and traditions, but from around the middle of the 18th century, their spiritual character and culture tended to be somewhat Westernized, or more precisely, Germanised. Many of them did not understand most of the prayers they repeated three times a day, and this was more than offset by the influence of German culture, as remarked.

At the same time, the consciously and consistently traditional groups were influenced by the intense Jewish culture and learning of neighbouring Lithuania with its imposing list of Yeshivot and outstanding rabbinical authorities. Indeed, a considerable section of Kurland Jewry had originated in Lithuania and many of the Latvian rabbinical families had originated from that country with its anti-Hassidic ambience.

The spiritual transformation which took place in East European Jewry with the spread of the Hassidic Movement in the second half of the 18th century was scarcely to be noticed here. Hassidic communities established themselves only in a few towns such as Jacobstadt and Bausk, while a small Hassidic group was to be found in Schoenberg. The major split between Hassidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim in White Russia, left Kurland and Livonia almost untouched.

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What became known as Latgale under Independent Latvia had earlier been part of the Vitebsk Government District, and as such, lay within the Pale of Settlement. There, the local Jewish population took an active part in the seething life of Jewry as a whole throughout Tsarist Russia, while the Hassidic Movement spread swiftly in almost all the communities. It began with separate minyanim (prayer quorums) which followed Sephardi or Lurianic (Kabbalist) prayer usages. Later, these communities appointed their own rabbis and slaughterers. In communities where there were two rabbis, one of them was almost invariably a Hassid.

The only educational institution to be found in all Jewish communities, whether in Kurland and Livonia or in Latgale, was the Heder conducted by a private teacher, or the Talmud Torah, usually maintained by the community and providing several classes together. Rich and poor children alike were given the same religious education. For adults, the Bet Hamidrash or House of Study, served incidentally as a club and also had its ties with the Talmud Torah where no tuition fees needed to be paid. These Hadarim and Talmud Torahs were under the direct supervision of the Rabbis. Yeshivot, which are Higher Talmudic Academies, were to be found not only in Dvinsk but also in the little Kurland towns of Pilten, Sabilen and Grobin. Boys who showed they were to be apt and successful students were sent to the Lithuanian Yeshivot and also to those established by and for Hassidim, particularly at Liubavitch which was the seat of the leading Hassidic “dynasty” – the Schneurson family.

Every Bet Hamidrash provided regular courses in the Five Books of Moses, the laws governing daily Jewish life the texts of the Mishna and Gemara (which is the commentary and expansion of the Mishna, together they constitute the Talmud) and also “Ein Yaakov” which only contains the non-legal parts of the Talmud. The Hassidic prayer groups also provided courses in Hassidic thought and theory. Shopkeepers, craftsmen, manual labourers – all attended those courses which interest them. Each person belonged to one or more of the Hevrot or societies for reciting Psalms, studying Talmud as such or studying Mishna or Ein Yaakov only. This religious life had no clear-out organizational form. It was fluid but vital. In general, scarcely any fixed organizational forms then existed in Jewry.

Riga also lay outside the Pale of Settlement but in spite of all administrative regulations and restrictions, it served as a constant attractive force for White Russian Jewry. It was far easier to make a living there than in the poverty-stricken White Russian hamlets.

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By the middle of the 19th century, Riga had become the centre of the Russian timber export trade to the West. The saw-mills established there and in the vicinity were in Jewish hands. Every spring, thousands of Jews came into the city on rafts which floated down the rivers of north-east Russia. The timber specialists and sorters were Jews and included many who were familiar with traditional Hebrew literature, and others who were constant students and scholars. Some of these markers were among the first to establish Hassidic minyanim in Riga.

The presence of these Jews in the city during the summer months was all but officially recognized. Many White Russian Jews exploited the special facilities provided for qualified craftsmen. Ways and means were found to obtain the necessary certificates of craftsmen which secured the right of residence in Riga.

These new arrivals could be distinguished from the older population both by the long kapotes they wore, as against the more modern garb of the so-called people from Shlok consisting of long-term residents from Kurland, or the semi-military clothing of the Nikolai soldiers who had earned the right of residence anywhere in Russia following 25 years of military service. Almost without exception, the newcomers were Hassidim. It is true that Hassidim had been present in the city even earlier but they did not establish any separate minyanim of their own. The new Hassidic residents, however, could not rest satisfied with the synagogues already in existence because, as mentioned above, they employed another prayer usage. In addition, the available lessons and courses of study could not satisfy them. They studied not only Talmud and Jewish legalistic but also the work known as the “Sefer Hatanya” which contains the basic elements of what is known as the Habad School of Hassidim established by Rabbi Schneour Zalman of Liadi; while in addition, they spent must time transmitting the Hassidic tales, sayings and doctrines of the various Hassidic saints to one another.

Jews lived chiefly in the so-called Moscow suburb where the synagogues were also to be found. Of these, the oldest was called the “Alt-Neu Shul” as in Prague, while there was also the Soldier's Synagogue. Until World War II, the Holy Ark of the Soldiers' Synagogue contained a number of small Torah Scrolls which the Nikolai Soldiers had kept with them and used when they were with their regiments on military service. The Alt-Neu Shul was established in 1850, first in a wooden building that was later rebuilt in brick and is the way it is remembered by Jews who once lived in Riga.

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The Great “Choir” Synagogue in Gogol Street was built in 1871 and was the pride of the community. It also had a Bet Hamidrash of its own, the building of which housed the Bet Din or Rabbinical Court. Here the Rabbis of Riga used to meet twice a week in order to issue divorces or hear Din Torahs – cases decided in accordance with rabbinical law and practice.

The new arrivals applied to the authorities for permission to build another Synagogue, but it took years before their application was granted. In 1935, the “Reissish” or White Russian minyanim (the term used for the Hassidic Synagogue) celebrated their 50th anniversary. Moshe Isaac Hurwitz, an old-time Riga resident, told the writer of these lines that he remembered the meeting of the Riga Communal Administration in the wooden buildings next to the Choir Synagogue in Gogol Street, to which the Chief of the Riga Police came and announced that permission had been given to erect a building in the Elian Street where 3 minyanim would be housed under one roof. One of these was known as the Liubavitch minyan; the second as the Kapust minyan and the third as the Liadi minyan – all three centres being connected with the Schneurson Hassidic “dynasty”.

Little by little, the Jews began to leave the Moscow suburb and settled in other quarters. New synagogues and minyanim were established as a result. Large synagogues were erected in the Peitau Street in the Old City in 1906, in the Seilen Street and the Matvei Street. The latter was regarded as the centre of the Kapust Hassidim. Hassidic doctrine and lore were taught there by Rabbi Simeon Leib Kodesh. New minyanim were opened, the largest being in the Marian Street in the building of the “Bazar Berg” from which the minyan received its name. After the building of the Reissishe minyanim, the Bazar Berg minyan became Riga's Hassidic Centre. Those who prayed there included Reb Zalman Ber Dubin, father of the Riga Community Head and Seim Deputy, Moredechai Dubin.

This prayer-centre was known all over Latvia. M. Dubin was to be found praying with the early morning quorum every day and anyone who needed his help knew that he could find him there.

The total number of synagogues and minyanim came to some forty. Here we shall pause at some of the larger ones. These were: The Weidendamm minyan at n°9 Weidendamm Street; the Isaiah Berlin minyan whose building was donated by the well-known local philanthropist, Reb Isaiah Berlin. This building also housed the Moshav Zekenim or Old Age Home until the latter was transferred to the Pernau Street. At 112

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Suvorow Street, the Levitan's minyan could be found and established by Samuel Levitan. At the corner of Seilen and Shprenk Streets was Polotzki's minyan, also Hassidic. At 109 Milen Street was the Rogatchover Gaon minyan of whom more is said below. There were two more minyanim on the other bank of the River Dvina.

The 1905 Revolution brought about a complete transformation in the small Jewish towns. New organizations came into existence which aimed to secure an influence over the synagogues. As a result, Religious Jewry also began to organize itself. One of the first organizations to establish itself within the synagogue walls was called “Tiferet Bahurim” (Splendour of Youths). This organization engaged not only in the study of Torah but also in religious propaganda. It saw to it that the younger generation should continue studying at Heder, and combatted the new “anti-religious” ideas. Tiferet Bahurim Societies were established in many Latvian towns. In Riga, the Society was headed by Rabbi Joel Barantchik who later was to fight for the Religious School system.

 

II

As the result of World War I, the Jewish inhabitants of Kurland had to take the wanderer's staff in hand and abandon their homes. The Russian Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievitch, ordered the Jewish population to be expelled from Kurland. Communities with a history going back for centuries were liquidated overnight. A small proportion of the refugees succeeded in remaining in Riga but the greater majority were evacuated to Central Russia. Dvinsk suffered the identical fate.

To be sure, the Jews were not driven away from Latgale but the towns were subjected to heavy bombardment so that the greater part of the Jewish population simply fled. Those who were evacuated included Rabbi of Dvinsk and Rabbi Joseph Rosen who has already been mentioned above as the “Rogatchover Gaon” and who returned to Dvinsk in 1924.

World War I came to an end and Latvia became independent. The evacuated Jews were permitted to return to their former homes, but not all of them did so. Some remained in Russia. Those who did return found that the towns where they had once lived were in ruins, with few exceptions. Entire communities had vanished and it was necessary to start afresh, re-establishing communal institutions.

Vast changes took place in the field of education. The new State provided free schools for Jewish children, where the language of instruction

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was Hebrew or Yiddish. The Heder vanished to be replaced in Riga by the first religious schools in which the Bible, Talmud and Jewish laws were taught together with general subjects.

True, there was still one Heder which went by the name “Yagdil Torah” (He shall increase Torah), but the number of pupils in it was not particularly large. In 1921, thanks to the initiative of Rabbi Joel Barantchik, the Young Agudat Israel opened an elementary school at 3, Neva Street with parallel classes for boys and girls which went under the name: “Torah Ve-Derech Eretz” (Torah and Fitting Behaviour). A year later, Reb Meir Ritov, who became Riga's Municipal Counsellor between 1931-34, donated a building at 74, Schmieden Street. In 1925, this elementary school was transformed into a gymnasium and in 1927, Reb Ber Levitas presented a large house at 12, Kormanov Street for school purposes. These schools were headed by Shimon Wittenberg, Riga's Town Counsellor from 1928 to 1934 and spokesman for Jewish cultural affairs between 1934 and 1940. (He is now the head of the Liubavitcher Rabbi's Secretariat in New York). Torah Ve-Drech Eretz Schools were also opened in Liepaya, Daugavpils (Dvinsk), Rezhitze and elsewhere.

During the final years before the war, the buildings of the Riga community in Romanov (Latchplesha) Street, housed the so-called “Hadarim Metukanim” (Reformed or Improved Hadarim). With the aid of Mizrahi leaders, these were transformed into a religious elementary school and later into a secondary school called “Tushiya (Dexterity). This school was headed by A.J. Lederman and later by Engineer M. Rashal.

Both the Agudat Israel and Mizrahi School were in a less than satisfactory position compared to other Jewish educational institutions. The Riga Municipality had a left-wing majority and refrained from including these schools in the urban school system. (It can be noted, incidentally, that they were supported in this by left-wing Jewish counsellors). It was only when the Riga Municipality had counsellors belonging to the Agudat Israel, namely M. Dubin, S.J. Wittenberg, M. Ritov, M. Khodakov and Rabbi M. Nurock on behalf of the Mitzrahi, were these schools included in the Municipal Education system. Until then, they were compelled to struggle hard for their very existence. The Torah Ve-Derech Eretz Schools were aided considerably by Deputy M. Dubin, head of the Riga Community, while

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the Tushia Gymnasium was supported by the well-known local philanthropist, Abraham Sobolevitch.

The actual participation of the Jewish population in political life had the effect that three political parties were established whose programmes stressed the religious element. These were: The Agudat Israel, the Young Agudat Israel and the Mizrahi. They maintained youth organizations known respectively as “Tseirei Emunim”. (The Faithful Youth) and “Hashomer Hadati” (The Religious Guard). The Young Agudat Israel had branches in various provincial towns and held a General Conference in 1933. In the early 30's, the so-called “Folksheim” (Folk Home) Clubs began to be popular. A large part in organizing them was played by Rabbi Pinhas Teitz, son of the then Rabbi of Livenhof who is now Chief Rabbi of Elizabeth in the U.S.A.

After the change of government in 1934 and the liquidation of all political parties, the Agudat Israel expanded to include the Mizrahi, Torah Ve-Avoda, Young Agudat Israel and Folksheim in the “Mahane Israel” (Camp of Israel). At this time, there was a significant change in the Jewish school system where the study of religion became obligatory. An “Educational Fund for Torah Institutions” had already been established in 1933 in Riga and was headed by the long-time Chairman of the Aguda, A. Volshonok. As a measure against the profanation of the Sabbath, a “Shomrei Shabbat” (Sabbath Observer) Association was established with a bank of its own.

Religious students at the University of Latvia had their “Academic Centre” which actively participated in all Jewish student activities. A conference of Religious Students in the Baltic countries took place in Riga with the active participation of Advocate S.J. Wittenberg and Dr. Holzberg of Kovno, who is now in Jerusalem. In Riga as well as the provincial towns where Torah Ve-Derech Eretz schools had been established, Bet Yaakov (House of Jacob) and Benot Yaakov (Daughters of Jacob) Women's' organization were also set up. Riga had a separate society of Hassidic women called the “Ahot Temimim” (Sisters of the whole-hearted). These women's' organizations set out to strengthen the religious consciousness of Jewish women while the “Ahot Temimim” society also studied the basic elements of Hassidim.

 

III

Under Tsarist Russia, there had been no Yeshiva in Riga. Soon after the War in 1921 when the situation began to return to normal, Rabbi M.

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Zack established one which, for 20 years at the “Bazar Berg” minyan, students of the Riga Yeshiva became rabbis in due course in various Latvian towns. They included: Rabbi J. Tscherniak in Viliaki, Rabbi Isaac Gevartin in Kreutzburg, Rabbi Isaac Segal in Sabile, Rabbi A. Katz in Cesis (Wenden) and Rabbi S. Marein in Limbazshi. When the Rabbi of Liubavitch came to settle in Riga, a Hassidic Yeshiva was established under the name “Tomekhei Temimim” (supporters of the whole-hearted). Later, a second Tomekhei Temimim Yeshiva was established at Gostini (Glazmanka) which existed until 1940.

Mention should be made of the energetic and young Rabbi of Gostini, Rabbi J. Barkman and the Yeshiva supervisor, Rabbi J. Himmelstein who conducted the affairs of this institution.

“Bet Joseph” (House of Joseph) Yeshiva was established in Dvinsk in 1932. Many of the students as well as the heads of the Institution had crossed the frontier illegally from Poland into Latvia. Thanks to the initiative of Deputy Mordechai Dubin, however, the Latvian Government gave them all rights of residence. Branches of this Yeshiva were to be found in Rezhitze, other small towns of Latgale and even in Libau within Kurland. The Yeshiva was headed by Rabbi David Budnik. It should be noted that the Yeshivot of Latvia received grants from the State budget.

The communities of the country were headed by rabbis and leading scholars who were familiar with the whole Jewish world. In a brief survey of this kind, it is impossible to give a full report of those figures who, throughout the years, headed their communities. However, we shall pause to consider some of those who occupied rabbinical seats at the end of the last century and during the present one.

Up until 1831, the Chief Rabbi of Riga was Rabbi Ezekiel Matz. (The Chief Rabbi, incidentally, should not be confused with the Government-appointed “Crown Rabbi”). He was succeeded in 1832 by the Rabbi of Goldingen, Rabbi Aaron, son of Rabbi Elhanan who had studied under Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin. Then came his son-in-law, Rabbi Jacob Elijah Rivlin. From the end of the last century up until 1912, the Riga Rabbi was Rabbi Moshe Shapira, a son of the Gaon Rabbi Eizik Harif. Incidentally, the Israel press has recently reported that the works of Rabbi M. Shapira are now being reprinted.

Rabbi Leib Schneurson was the Hassidic Rabbi of the city until 1915. He was a member of the Hassidic “dynastic family” and was on very good terms with the then Rabbi of Liubavitch.

Under Independent Latvia, the Chief Rabbi of Riga was Rabbi Menahem –

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Mendel Zack, who had been born in the small Kurland town of Nairi, or Friedrichstadt. He was originally Rabbi in Kandava and was called to Riga in 1913. The second Rabbi from 1912-1935 was Rabbi M.M. Avin, a son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Shapira. In 1935 the Rabbi of Talsen, Rabbi Moshe Kilov, son-in-laws of Rabbi Zak, was appointed Riga Rabbi while Reb Raphael Cohen who had arrived in the city from Soviet Russia in 1934, was appointed Hassidic Rabbi. (In the U.S.S.R. he had for many years been Rabbi of Nevel and had gained a major reputation by his struggle against the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the communist party.

Apart from three official rabbis, almost all synagogues and minyanim had spiritual leaders of their own. Mention should be made here of Rabbi Hayyim Zeev Kharash who was officially registered as a Maggid or Preacher at the Peitau Synagogue but had received his rabbinical authorisation from both the Rogatchover Gaon and Reb Meir Simha of Dvinsk. Rabbi Elhanan David Brustin taught Midrash in several minyanim. He was also known as both a writer and public speaker. Rabbi Ephraim Gabbai gave a daily lesson in Talmud to the minyan at 112, Suvorov Street. The instructor at the Mizrahi minyan and for the “Malbish Arumim” (Clothe the Naked) society was Rabbi Baruch Eliezer Luria. Talmud and Hassidic doctrine were taught in several Minyanim by Rabbi Simeon Berliner. The leader in Talmud at the Zeilen Synagogue was Rabbi Joseph Naphtali Kaltun, while the study leader of the Young Agudat Israel was his son, Rabbi Abraham Pessah Kaltun.
A number of rabbis who had immigrated from the U.S.S.R. lived in Riga during the final years and before the annihilation of Latvian Jewry. Among these, mention should be made of Rabi Isaac Hurwitz known as “Itche the Matmid” (day and night student of Torah) who was a great scholar with an intelligent sense of what was significant in Hassidic teaching. In 1933, he visited the U.S.A. where he made a lasting impression as was shown by the entire Yiddish press of the country.

Among the Riga Shohtim (ritual slaughterers) there were a number who qualified as rabbis. These were Rabbi Zalman Vevier, Rabbi Mordechai Zelbovitch – author of works on Jewish law, and Rabbi Abraham Eliahu Osherov.

Dvinsk was privileged because both its rabbis were outstanding Geonim famed throughout the whole Jewish world. These were the Gaon Reb Meir Simha Cohen and the Gaon Reb Joseph Rosen, generally known as the Gaon of Rogatchov (the White Russian hamlet in which he was born). Reb Meir Simha was held to be the Rabbi of the Mitnagdim

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or anti-Hassidic groups. When the Hassidim of Dvinsk required a Rabbi, the well-to-do Hassidim headed by the major building contractor, Moshe Wittenberg – father of Reuben Wittenberg (deputy in the 1st and 2nd Latvian Seim), chose the then youthful Rabbi Joseph Rosen. Reb Meir Simha served as Rabbi in Dvinsk for almost fifty years and so did the Gaon of Rogatchov. Everybody who has lived in Dvinsk has countless tales to tell of these two great rabbis and it is scarcely necessary to add that their works are vital sources in Torah literature. The “Or Sameah” (Joyous Light) and “Mashak Hokhma” (Words of Wisdom) of Rabbi Meir Simha as well as the “Tsofnat Paaneah” (Decipherer of Hidden Things) and other works by the Gaon of Rogatchov will always be the pride of religious Jewry. Even in his earliest youth, the Gaon of Rogatchov was outstanding thanks to his keen mind and comprehensive knowledge of Talmudic and Rabbinical literature.

The last Riga rabbi after World War II died in 1957 when he was over 100 years of age. This was Rabbi Moshe David Masliansky who had been Rabbi in Valk, Estonia until World War II. He had attended the Volozhin Yeshiva and at one time, studied together with the Gaon of Rogatchov. He told the present writer that even before his Bar Mitzva (the Gaon studied at the Yeshiva between the ages of 11-15) he had been the most outstanding of all the students. Incidentally, the Head of the Yeshiva never gave him any rabbinical authorization, saying that he would be acceptable anyway.

In an application to the Ministry of the Interior, the Gaon of Rogatchov signed himself as “Rabbi” but told the present writer that he did so though he had never received any rabbinical authorization or qualification. Much has been written about the rare and outstanding quality of his scholarship and knowledge.

As is generally known, the Gaon knew by heart all that had ever been written in the entire literature of the Torah, from the Bible and Talmud until his own times. His work, “Tsofnat Paameah”, consists almost entirely of references, “see such-and-such a work”. Once it happened that a question arose in Warsaw regarding the ritual correctness of an eruv (token fence within which Jews might carry objects on the Sabbath day). One of the local rabbis remembered that the matter was referred to in the “Tsofnat Paameah”. He set out to obtain the works to which the Gaon had referred to on this matter but his large judicial table was too small to hold them all.

Reb Meir Simha characterized his colleague, the Rogatchover Gaon, in

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the following way: On one occasion a difficult problem was brought before him for decision. He told the questioner that he would have to toil all night long to give him the answer. “But step in to the Rogatchover and he will answer you on the spot”.

His gaze left a deep impression. Anybody who saw him once remembered him for the rest of his life – his lofty forehead, deep eyes and long curling locks. Incidentally, he made a deep impression on the last Russian Tsar who visited Dvinsk in 1915 and received delegations of the local population. The Jewish delegation was headed by the Gaon. Nobody can ever suspect that Nikolai II had any affection for Jews. So all those present were astonished to find that the Tsar devoted far more time to the Jewish delegation than to any other. It is reported that when he returned to Petrograd, the Tsar said that it was worth while taking a look at the Rabbi of Dvinsk. When the Gaon was evacuated to Petrograd in 1916, members of the royal family came to see him.

Reb Meir Simha used to pray at the community's Bet Hamidrash while the Gaon of Rogatchov prayed at the Planov Bet Hamidrash. It deserves to be mentioned that both of the Gaonim were registered at the Religious Department of the Ministry of Interior as assistants to the Rabbi of Dvinsk. The official Rabbi of Dvinsk was Rabbi Ratner who had been the Crown Rabbi of the city until the establishment of Independent Latvia.

The last two Rabbis of Dvinsk until World War II were Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Fuchs. The latter had been ordained by the Gaon of Rogatchov and dedicated himself to the Gaon's spiritual heritage.

In the smaller provincial towns, the officiating rabbis were known far beyond the frontiers of Latvia. During the second half of the last century, for example, the Rabbi of Bausk was Reb Mordechai Eliasberg who wrote 24 works. From 1897 to 1903, his successor as Rabbi of Bausk was Reb Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook who later became Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel. The last Rabbi of Bausk was Reb Moshe Shalom Stoll, author of several works on Rabbinical law and homiletics.

During a century and a quarter, the Tukum Community was headed by four generations of rabbis belonging to the Lichtenstein family. These were: Rabbi Mordechai, his son Rabi Eliezer, his son Rabbi Zvi and his son Rabbi Levi. Rabbi Mordechai Nurock, the long-standing deputy in the Latvian Seim, was a son of the Rabbi of Mitau, Rev Zvi Nurock and a grandson of Rabbi Eliezer Lichtenstein. His brother, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Ber Nurock was chief rabbi of Libau.

The Rabiner family produced outstanding scholars. Rabbi Mordechai

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Rabiner was the first Rabbi of Bausk at the commencement of the last century. His sons and grandsons were scholars who actively participated in religious life. In the religious circles of Riga during the two decades of Independent Latvia, the great-grandchildren of the first Rabbi of Bausk were well known. These were the brothers Rabiner: Rabbi Mordechai, a follower of the Mussar School who campaigned for the observance of the Sabbath and his brother Reb Zeev Arie, an active member of the Mizrahi and a religious writer who now resides in Tel-Aviv.

The Rabbi of Windau and later of Mitau was Reb Mordechai Uri Samunov. For almost thirty years as of 1897 onwards, his grandson Reb Ephraim Sumanov occupied the rabbinical chair and actively participated in the work of the Augudat Israel. He was a delegate to the 2nd Knesia Gedola of that party when it met in 1929.

Rabbis of the Zioni family occupied the rabbinical chair in the town of Liutzin for close to 150 years. The first of the family, Reb David Zioni, was invited to this office in 1806. The last Rabbi of Liutzin, who was killed in 1941, was the son-in-law of the first rabbi's grandson. This was Rabbi Eliezer Don-Yabia, known as an outstanding scholar.

For many years, the Rabbi of Schoenberg was Reb Naphtali Hertz Kliatzkin. Six of his seven sons also occupied rabbinical posts. The oldest, Reb Israel Isser Kliatzkin was Rabbi of Lievenhof.

Rabbi Levi Orchinsky, Rabbi of Mitau, published several volumes on the history of Jews in Kurland.

Rabbi Leib Saul Ginzburg, rabbi of Jacobstadt, was a descendant of Rabbi Jacob Ginzburg who was the teacher of Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller, known by his major commentary on the Mishna as the “Tossafot Yom-Tov” at the end of the 16th century.

Mention should also be made of Rabbi Jacob Grodsky, rabbi of Vorkliani, several of whose works have been published.

For 22 years, the Rabbi of Neiri (Friedrichstadt) was Reb Hayim Aaron Bezalel Paul who conducted the educational and charitable institutions of the town.

Rabbi Moshe Shkarota, the son-in-law of the outstanding Gaon Reb Moshe Mordechai Epstein, held the rabbinical seat in Rezhitze.

In Vishky, Reb Solomon Platzinsky was rabbi for 40 years. Shortly before World War II, he retired in favour of his son, Rabbi Jacob Meir Platzinsky.

The Gaon Reb Elhanan Wassermann, Vice-President of the Agudat Israel's Council of Great Scholar (Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah) and Head

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Of the Yeshiva in Baronovitch, came from Bausk and was known in the scholarly rabbinical world as “Reb Elhanan Boisker”.

In 1932, an all-Latvian Conference of Sabbath Observers was held in Riga and was attended by almost all the rabbis of the country. In fact, it turned into a Rabbinical Conference. Much attention was devoted at the time to the speech of Reb Joseph Isaac Scheurson, the Hassidic Rabbi of Liubavitch, who then resided in Riga. An Executive Committee was appointed with the Riga Rabbi M. Zach as Chairman and M. Khodakov as general secretary.

The events of June 1940 brought an end to Jewish communal life in Latvia. All religious organizations including the Community as such were liquidated. The archives of Deputy Mordechai Dubin, Chairman of the Riga Community which was in the Community Offices were confiscated. However, the synagogues and minyanim were allowed to function.

The terrible years of 1941-1944 in which Latvian Jewry was destroyed saw the end of the synagogues and minyanim as well. The Choir Synagogue in Gogol Street, the Seilen Synagogue, the Alt-Neu Synagogue, the Minyanim of Reissn and the Soldiers' Shool were all burnt.

When a handful of surviving Jews returned from the ghettoes, the labour camps and the evacuations, two synagogues were opened in Riga: These were the Peitau Shul and the Bazar-Berg Minyan. Minyanim were also established in Dvinsk, Tukum, Rezhitze and Liutzin. At present, only the Peitau Shul exists in Riga and there is one synagogue each in Dvinsk, Rezhitze and Liutzin.

A few years ago, the Tukum Synagogue was closed and the holy books were transferred to Riga. The Tukum Synagogue Library was one of which any large Jewish community might be proud. There, one could find everything that has been printed in the entire range of traditional Torah literature. Books from the first presses of Venice and Amsterdam going back to the 6th century could be found together with works printed in Vilna and Riga in 1940. Similar collections were to be found in almost all the synagogues and minyanim.

The People of the Book were always true to the Book even in their most harrowing Ghetto years and in the death camps.

Author's note: This account has been written in Israel in Tishri 5731 (October 1970). In preparing it, I have made ample use of the Hebrew “Yahadut Latvia”, the Memorial Volume published by the Society of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel, Tel-Aviv, 5713 (1953). I have also relied very considerably on my own memories.

 

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