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Ordinary Conversations of Minskers

by Daniel Persky

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Rabbi Shlomo Pines

From the Ledger of the Chevra Kadisha [Burial Society]
The author immigrated to New York from Minsk. This segment, originally in Yiddish, is taken from the archives of the Bund in New York.
This took place on the way to Minsk, a short time after the death of the author of “Seder Hadorot”. There was a peddler in town who used to bring the merchandise of the merchants of Minsk to shopkeepers in the small towns, and return with their new orders.

One winter evening, the road was covered with deep snow, and it was very windy. There was a snowstorm. The wagon driver sat on his seat, urged on the horse and snatched a nap from time to time. Suddenly, the horse stopped and would not go on. The wagon driver woke up and grabbed the whip. However, the horse did not move from its place. The wagon driver began to look around the environment and he noticed the author of “Seder Hadorot” standing next to him – clad in his shrouds. Obviously, the Jew fainted.

When he came to, he heard the author of “Seder Hadorot” talking to him and saying: “Do not fear. Look at the side of the road and you will see a house with a candle burning in the window. When you approach the window, you will see a young girl sitting gloomily, immersed in her thoughts. Knock on the window, and when you see the girl through the window panes that are covered in ice, say to her three times: 'Grandfather sent me to tell you not to become an apostate'. Afterwards, return here”.

The frightened wagon driver was afraid to move. The author of “Seder Hadorot” pleaded with him. The wagon driver asked, “Who will guard my horse and sleigh?” The author of “Seder Hadorot” replied, “I will guard the horse and sleigh, but I am not permitted to go there”.

The peddler listened to him. He stated three times: “Grandfather sent me to tell you that you should not become an apostate”. He then heard hysterical weeping from inside. He ran with all of his strength to his sleigh, and found the author of “Seder Hadorot” holding on to the reins of the horse.

The “Seder Hadorot” told him, “You have done a great deed for me. How can I repay you?” The wagon driver answered him, “Rabbi, when my time comes, I wish to be buried next to you in the cemetery.” The “Seder Hadorot” replied, “You have asked something difficult, my son, but I will try to ensure that your wish is fulfilled. He immediately disappeared.

Years went by, and the wagon driver died. The Chevra Kadisha of Minsk used to bury the dead on the same day, even if the burial had to take place after midnight. The funeral of the wagon driver took place after midnight. It was a winter night. There was a storm with much snow. The people of the Chevra Kadisha reached the cemetery with a great deal of effort. The entire cemetery was covered with a white blanket of snow. No path, no route, and not even any gravestone could be seen.

The men of the Chevra Kadisha plodded along, and suddenly they saw a small area of ground available for the digging of a grave, as if it were intentionally cleared of snow. Freezing from the cold, they hastily dug the grave, buried the wagon driver, and hastened back to the city. In the ledger of the Chevra Kadisha they wrote that so-and-so was buried during a snowstorm, and the precise location of his grave is not known.

Time passed, and the matter was forgotten. A certain sage died, and they wished to honor him by

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burying him next to the canopy of the “Seder Hadorot”. The men of the Chevra Kadisha approached the place to dig a grave, and realized that somebody was already buried there. They rushed to the rabbi of the city to ask him what to do. The rabbi took the ledger of the Chevra Kadisha, and investigated what had happened on the night of the snowstorm when the wagon driver was buried. People who had remembered the incident had told it to the rabbi in full detail. There was no further doubt that the wagon driver had been buried next to the “Seder Hadorot”.

The men of the Chevra Kadisha wished to disinter the dead body and to move it to another grave. The rabbi prevented them from doing so. When he found out that the widow of the wagon driver was still alive, he commanded that she be brought to him.

The rabbi asked her, “My daughter, do you know how great a mitzvah your husband did?” The woman responded that he was a simple, unlearned Jew, who worshiped and observed the Sabbath. He did not defile himself with non-kosher food, and from time to time he enjoyed tippling.

When the rabbi thought about these words, he asked the woman to see if she could recall something special about her late husband. The woman then related:

One winter night, her husband returned home from his travels excited and emotional. He was trembling from fear, and he could not speak. When he regained his composure and had eaten his meal, he told her the story of the author of the “Seder Hadorot”. She did not believe his words, and mocked him. She was still certain that he had taken one drink too many at the inn, and he imagined something in his tipsy head.

The rabbi heard the words of the widow, and issued a command not to touch the grave of the wagon driver.

An Anthology of Nachum Chinitz

When Reb Yose-Ber of Brisk [1] died and was mourned throughout the Jewish Diaspora, the parnassim [communal administrators] of Minsk asked Rabbi Yisrael to eulogize him. Rabbi Yisrael declined and apologized that he did not feel well. The next day Wengrov, who was known as being a heretic and an apikoros, died in Minsk. His two sons had become apostates. Reb Yisrael attended the funeral and also eulogized him. A tumult went up in Minsk, “How could this be?”

Reb Yisrael answered: “I was able to eulogize Wengrov even as I was ill, for the grief would not affect my health. However to eulogize such a great man as Rabbi Yose-Ber, I would not have enough strength even if I were healthy…”

A story is told about Rabbi Avraham Maskil-Laeitan, regarding when he came down from a train with his suitcase in his hand. A man ran to him and said, “Let our rabbi give it to me, and I will carry it.”

Rabbi Avraham did not agree. He did not wish to bother any Jew.

The man pleaded, “Rabbi, allow me to perform the mitzvah of serving scholars.”

Rabbi Avraham smiled and said: “If I am a scholar, should I not perform the mitzvah upon myself?”

Rabbi Aryeh Leib (The author of “Shaagat Aryeh”) lectured in the Beis Midrash of Minsk. He expounded deep thoughts, and uprooted mountains with his sharp reasoning. The scholars of the city who were present could not understand the depth of his rhetoric. When he finished his lecture, the heads of the community and scholars approached him to wish him “Yasher Koach” [2].

He told them, “What is said of the wise men of Minsk is greater than what is said about the angels of Heaven”.

The listeners were surprised.

Rabbi Aryeh Leib told them: “Is it not said about the angels of Heaven (Ezekiel 1, 7), and their feet are like the feet of a calf, but as for you, your heads are also the heads of calves…”

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A shadchan [matchmaker] once came to Reb Zusia Rappaport, one of the notables of Minsk, regarding issues relating to the marriage of the child of the great scholars of the generation. Reb Zusia understood that the shadchan was coming on his own initiative, and pushed him off strongly.

The shadchan thundered, “Is it at all possible for you to find a better marriage relative than this?”

“Yes”, smiled Reb Zusia, “People who would not want to marry into my family, I can find better and greater ones than they…”

The notables of Minsk came to Reb Hirsch of Salant with an invitation to the rabbinate. He sent them to his wife to ask her opinion first. They showed the invitation with the rabbinical salary to the rebbetzin, and she immediately agreed.

The emissaries returned to Reb Hirsch with joy, “The rebbetzin agreed”. Reb Hirsch replied, “My wife, may she live, is fitting to become a rebbetzin in Minsk as she is a rebbetzin in Salant. However I, small and poor, know that I am not fit to be a rabbi in the small Salant. How much more so am I not fitting for the large and important community of Minsk…”

A story is told of Rabbi Tanchum of Minsk, that a wealthy man once came to him, a commoner who attained wealth, with his son-in-law who was supported at his table. He said: “Rabbi, this son-in-law of mine costs me much money. Let the rabbi scrutinize him!” [3]

The rabbi scrutinized him, and found the bottle to be empty.

Rabbi Tanchum said to the wealthy man, “I guarantee you that your son-in-law knows Torah”.

The wealthy man left him with a happy face.

After he left, one of those around asked Rabbi Tanchum, “Our Rabbi, what did you see in this young man that you were willing to guarantee his Torah? For in our eyes, we saw that he does not understand what the rabbis say.”

Rabbi Tanchum smiled and answered them, “Even I will say to you, what good is the guarantee? If the lender does not have the money to pay, I still have the guarantee. This is the same thing in this case. If this young man does not know Torah, I still have my own Talmud in my hands…”

Every Friday before candle lighting, Rabbi Yaakov Meir [Gorodinsky, elsewhere transliterated from the Polish as Grodzenski] went by the stores in Minsk and requested, “Brothers, shutter the stores!” The shopkeepers happily acceded to his request.

The situation was different on Sundays, when it came time to close the stores on account of the government regulations. The policeman asked the shopkeepers to close the stores, but when he left, the stores opened again. The policeman was astonished:

“I whistle and urge people on, and nobody listens to me. However, the fear of the old man with the peyos calling out “Brothers!”, that they listen to. Is it possible?!”

When Reb Yerucham Leib the “Great” was asked to come to Minsk to occupy the rabbinic seat, Yosef Brill, the Iyo”v from Minsk, wrote an unflattering article about him in the newspaper. When the “Great One” heard about this, he smiled and said:

“I believe that those who castigate me are very small. For they can only be read through Brill…” (Brill is 'glasses' in Yiddish).

Reb Yerucham Leib “the Great” of Minsk used to say:

“What is the difference between the rabbi of the Hassidim and the rabbi of the Misnagdim?”

“Regarding the rabbi of the Hassidim, nobody ever asked a question of him; regarding the rabbi of the Misnagdim, nobody ever answers him…”

When Rabbi Yerucham Yehuda Leib “the Great” sat on the rabbinic seat of Minsk, Rabbi Mordechai Somomonov, a wonderful scholar who was very wealthy, was not satisfied with him, and kept his distance from him. Once Rabbi Mordechai was invited to Volozhin to meet Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netz”iv. During

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a conversation, the Netz”iv asked him incidentally, “Why do you not become close with “the Great”?

Rabbi Mordechai answered him:

“What is the reason that one person becomes close with another? It is because every man is an entire world unto himself. When one man becomes close to another man – they join together to form a big world. However, the “Great” one of Minsk is a large world unto himself. Does he need to become close with me?…”

When Rabbi Yeucham Leib “the Great” of Minsk occupied the rabbinical seat in Seltets, two Jews came before him for adjudication regarding a liquor still.

Rabbi Yerucham Leib said to them, “I will confess the truth, I never in my life have seen a liquor still, and I do not know anything about its makeup and structure. They began to describe the entire matter of liquor distilling to him, including a description of all of the machinery, utensils, and accessories. Rabbi Yerucham Leib delved into the matter and began to pepper them with questions.

“Why do you not do so-and-so? A structure such as this would impart a beneficially sharp flavor to the liquor; and a structure such as that would increase the volume.”

The Jews did not believe their ears.

They said to him, “Our rabbi, we have been occupied in matters of liquor for so many years, and these ideas never entered out minds…”

Rabbi Leizer Rabinovitch loved to lie back up in the bathhouse and to call the “flogger” that he should increase the heat and flog him with a whip of twigs.

Once, after the flogging was finished, the flogger looked at the man to whom he administered the flogging, and his eyes darkened.

“My rabbi, I hereby beg your forgiveness. I did not see whom I was flogging.”

“It is nothing”, comforted Reb Leizer, “from my back, I am not your rabbi…”

Reb Leizer saw that Morgenstern was wearing torn and worn-out clothing. He recommended that he be dressed on the accounts of the community, and asked him how many Arshins [4] of cloth he needs? Morgenstern answered him, “Four Arshins”.

Reb Leizer was surprised, “Why do you need four Arshins?”

The drunken Morgenstern answered him, “I want to be Leizer (in Yiddish this means – ample) from my behind…”

When Reb Yehuda Leib Levin (Yhl”l) was a youth, his father brought him to Reb Eizil Charif to examine him on his studies. Reb Eizel asked him, “Who is your rebbe?”

The teacher of Brizai is my rebbe.

Reb Eizel knocked him on his shoulder and said:

“Your father did a fine thing by giving you over to him, for I am also his student. Let this be a principle for you: whoever has not studied with the teacher of Brizai is presumed to be an ignoramus. Go forth and learn, the Brizai teacher did not study with the Brizai teacher, and indeed he is a complete ignoramus…”

At the beginning of the 1890s, “Agudat Haelef” of Minsk purchased Ein-Zeitim in the Upper Galilee. As a short form, the members called their purchase Na”z (an acronym for Nachalat Ein Zeitim). After some time, it was proven that the purchase was in error, and all of the money that was invested in this enterprise was forfeited. One of the members of the group warned his fellow, and wrote to them, “The people will not see Nez… (from the verse in Isaiah 33, 19 “Et am noaz lo tireh” [5]).

It is told about Naftali Hertz Imber, the author of “Hatikva” [6], that he was somewhere with Grygory Gerhsuni, one of the chief warriors of the army of the Czar. Imber asked him, “What do you think of Hatikva?”

“It is a nice thing”, laughed Gershuni, and added, “With a gun at its side…”

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There was a well-known informer in Minsk by the name of Simcha, who was the cause of numerous troubles for the Jews of the city. When this informer died, the rabbi of the city said of him:

“Simcha leartzecha, sason leirecha!” [7].

Once, Czar Nicholas came to Minsk. One student of the Beis Midrash wanted to see the Czar and recite the blessing, “Blessed is He who distributed of his honor” [8], for such an opportunity does not present itself every day. Since as is known, the Czar was not happy with long cloaks and dangling peyos, he folded up the bottom of his garment, hid his peyos under his hat, held his hat with one hand and the bottom of his coat with the other, and ran to see the Czar. People saw him thus and laughed at him.

The youth wondered, “Why are you laughing?”

“I am going to greet the Czar, and I am required to fulfil his will. The Czar wants Jews to wear short clothing and to cut off the peyos from their heads. Therefore, I subdue my own will before his will. Tell me, is this laughable? He deserves thanks for the fact that he did not decree that Jews must wear German clothes.”

Shayka Peifer was invited to the wedding of wealthy people in Minsk. They said to him, “What's new? What has happened to you of late?: He asked them what is the weekly Torah portion. They answered, Beshalach.

He started to read, “And they traveled from Sukkot and camped in Rephidim” – “a serious illness will befall the wealthy people!”

They asked him, “And what is the meaning?”

He answered, “I believe it to be so even if it doesn't have a meaning.”

The rabbinical judge of the city once entered the cheder in which Daniel Persky studied during his childhood. The teacher pointed out young Daniel to him, and explained that he is an intelligent and sharp child. The judge asked him a question from the weekly Torah portion: why did our forefather Abraham not ask that Sodom and Gomorrah be saved if there were nine righteous people there?

“Because the portion ended too soon”, answered Daniel. “If it went on a bit longer, Abraham would have most certainly continued to ask…”

When Daniel Persky passed through London on his way to America during his youth, he visited Y. Ch. Brener.

“Who are you?”, Brener asked him.

“A reader of Hebrew and a lover of Hebrew from Minsk”, Persky answered him.

“This is the first time”, pointed out Brener, “that I am meeting a Hebrew who is not a writer!”

A. Litwin

A poor woman came to Rabbi David Tavli with a slaughtered chicken in her hand, in which no gallbladder could be found [9]. Rabbi David Tavli tasted the liver with the edge of his tongue, and did not detect any bitterness. He said to the woman, “I do not taste any bitter taste. Perhaps you can taste?”. The woman groaned, “It is bitter for me, it is bitter for me, in a way that cannot be described.”

Rabbi David Tavli groaned and said, “My daughter, if it is bitter for you – it is kosher…”

Smallpox broke out in Minsk. It spread and became an epidemic. One of the doctors came to Rabbi David Tavli to administer a vaccination. Rabbi David Tavli said, “Please vaccinate my maid first”.

“Why?”, he asked him, “Does not your life take priority?”

“It is only for this reason that the servant comes first”, he answered. “She is still young, and I am already old…”

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Rabbi Gershon Tanchum was one of the wonderful rabbis in Minsk approximately ninety years ago. He was a strict Jew, a great scholar, and he wrote (according to the testimony of Simcha the shoemaker) 33 compositions. He was weak for all of his life, and he was basically the first rabbi who used to go abroad every summer.

He was close to Rothschild of Frankfurt, who loved the rabbi and supported him.

Regarding Reb Gershon Tanchum and his closeness with “Roichilt” (as the women of Minsk used to say), many legends used to float around Minsk.

Once, Roichilt invited Reb Gershon Tanchum after the prayers on the Sabbath for glasses of whiskey and sweets. This was after the first meeting of the rabbi from Minsk with the millionaire from Frankfurt. Reb Gershon went with Roichilt through many halls and salons. His eyes could not see enough of these wonders of wonders.

We will see, Reb Gershon Tanchum thought, what is served for kiddush by “Roichilt”. I will have much to talk about in Minsk.

The entered the hall with the kiddush. The table was in the center of the salon. It was a simple table with a simple setup. There was a bottle of wine on it. There were glasses of wine around the table. Each glass was atop a simple earthenware dish. There was no trace of anything to eat. Reb Gershon was astonished at what he saw. Roichilt sat down, with his entire family next to him. The Jews – his proper guests were around him. Roichilt seated Reb Gershon Tanchum next to him.

The master of the house recited Kiddush. All of the guests and his sons did so following him. Reb Gershon Tanchum figured that they would shortly bring out some food. Roichilt and all of those at the table drank the wine. Reb Gershon Tanchum recited Kiddush with deep concentration, tasted from the cup and thought: evidently Roichilt's custom is to have Kiddush without food.

Then he was that Roichilt and all of those around him recited “Mezonot” [10], and then took the earthenware dishes in their hands and broke them.

The perturbed rabbi wished to shout out, “Shabbes! Shabbes!”. However, how surprised was the rabbi when he saw the entire gathering, including Roichilt, placing the broken “plates” in their mouths.

“Take also for yourself, rabbi, it is upon me… It won't harm you”, said Roichilt to him, as he broke apart the rabbi's plate and offered him the shards.

Reb Gershon Tanchum recited the blessing, and soon found out that the earthenware plates had the taste of the Garden of Eden.

Fires frequently broke out in Minsk. It was said that this was caused by the curse of the “Shaagat Aryeh”. When the rabbi was taken out of the city in a wagon hitched to oxen, he cursed the city that fires should break out there on an annual basis. However, the police did not think so. They believed that the Jews ignited houses and set portions of the city on fire.

One day, tells Simcha the shoemaker – a fire broke out on the Turchki Mountain. A poor teacher lived in that house. He took a pail of water and rushed to put it out. The police and firefighters arrived, and found the teacher on the roof when he still had life in him. His claim that he was trying to put out the fire was not accepted. Six Christians and the police chief swore that this teacher was the one who ignited the fire. He was condemned to death by shooting.

A confusion broke out in the city. When Reb Gershon Tanchum heard this, he was astonished, “Can it be? Death by shooting? Our father's fathers never heard of such a thing.” Reb Gershon Tanchum hastened to Rothschild. At that time, Czar Nikolai happened to be in Frankfurt, and the king stopped off to visit Rothschild.

Rothschild chatted with Nikolai. “These are the matters, my master the king! In Minsk, they sentenced an innocent Jew to death by shooting.” The king sent a telegram to ask what had happened. They answered him, “This is what happened, my master the king! Six Christians and the police chief swore that he is guilty.” The Czar was perplexed: one cannot refuse Rothschild. He knew that the poor teacher was innocent, but six

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Christians, the “important people” of the city, swore. It is impossible to cast aspersions on them… The Czar decreed that the teacher's sentence be commuted, and that he be exiled to Siberia.

From Yiddish by Nachum Chinitz

Daniel Charny

Moregenstern, the famous fool of Minsk, frequently visited the cheap kitchen. He would fill himself up with the rest of the poor people, and sit for hours on end in the teahouse and tell of his stories and experiences. To me it seemed that he was more drunk than crazy. However, he feigned madness in order to ensure that his listeners would pay for the cost of the liquor.

“Look, Jews, how did I become tipsy?”, he suddenly asked the dozens of tea drinkers.

“Indeed, the matter is simple! I once entered the 'Monopolka' to purchase a measure of liquor for Kiddush [11]. I examined many measures to determine which one should come first to my mouth. I did as Jacob our forefather did in his time, when many stones debated about upon which one should the righteous one rest his head [12]. I joined all of the measures together into a complete 'lug' [13] and drank it. After I drank such a fine quantity, I obviously fell into the sewer (rineh). I slept there, and in my dream, I went straight to the Land of Israel, as it says in the siddur, “And they came to Zion in song” [14].. And now I say to you, oh Jews, that this is as true as the day is true! The 'rineh' flows into the Svisloch river, and the Svisloch flows into the Brezina River, the Brezina flows into the Dnieper, the Dnieper into the Black Sea, and the Black Sea leads directly to the Land of Israel.”

“Are not the Jews like that?”, Morgenstern asked his audience, with enthusiasm on his face, as he was enjoying his state.

The tea drinkers egged him on, “You are correct Morgenstern, and the proper and fitting path for you is to go to the Land of Israel”.

“If that is the case, Jews, then give me something to purchase a lug of liquor, for I must make haste, as my soul desires to go to the Land of Israel!” He stuck out both hands to the poor tea drinkers, and every one of them gave him a half a coin, and some even a whole coin! I also gave Morgenstern a coin, for I truly enjoyed his stories and experiences. My brother Zalka, the manager of the teahouse, used to say “Now can you see the difference between a Jewish and Christian drunk? A gentile, when he becomes tipsy, turns into a thief. He breaks windowpanes, falls down, and strikes people to the right and left. However, a Jewish drunk dreams about the Land of Israel and the World to Come!”

Morgenstern took pride in how successful he generally was with Mrs. Cheitzkin, who did business with Wissotzky Tea, and gave him ten coins at once every Friday.

“You Jews must surely think that I turn to Mrs. Cheitzkin only for the ten coins – you are mistaken, with all due respect. Is she not the most beautiful one in the entire city, and it is literally a pleasure to look at her! And therefore, I once said to her: 'It is better that you should give me one coin every day rather than ten coins once a week.' Mrs. Cheitzkin asked me, 'Is it possible Morgenstern, that if I give you a coin every day – would you not be short four coins a week?' I pointed out to her that I am willing to lose four coins in order to be able to wish her good morning every day!”

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Morgenstern claimed that the entire world was crazy, and since it is impossible to run after crazy people throughout the wide world, they run after him…

“To this day, I do not understand why Minsk decided that Morgenstern was the town fool? Were there not true crazy people in Minsk?”, I once asked my uncle Yoshia Gruntfest, who knew and understood Minsk by heart, since he was the town middleman, and served as such for all of the business in Minsk.

My busy uncle answered me that all of the fools were imprisoned in jail.

“Why in jail?”, I asked him.

“Because they wish to destroy the Czar!”

“To remove the Czar from his rule, that is not craziness!” answered Aunt Itka, who read the “Friend” every day and was an expert in world politics. “If you saw the appearance of the group that wishes to unseat the Czar – you would not speak like that!”

In the meantime, my uncle explained me, that when he was once at the Vilna train station, he saw that a railway wagon was leaving Vilna full of prisoners who were being exiled to Siberia. Every one of them was bound in chains, as if they were murderers, Heaven forbid. It became clear that these were all young Jewish prisoners who were hungry and beaten. They were the friends of Hirsch Lekert, who shot the Vilna regional minister. It was literally heartbreaking to look at them. However, what can it help, for they were crazy!

“Shoemakers and tailors who wish to unseat the Czar, is this not madness?” My uncle turned to me with his frightful look, as if he waited for my answer and consent.

My aunt did not withhold herself from this conversation, and she uttered the following, “And to invest 100 rubles in a stock of the Zionist bank – is this not madness?”

My uncle became angry and mocked her rudely, for she was nothing but an animal in the form of a human – – –

I burst out crying, as if I had participated in the degradation of my aunt, for I was indeed pained that my uncle had embarrassed my good aunt. She approached me, hugged and kissed me, and said:

“And do you believe that Morgenstern was not right? He claimed that the entire world is mad, and since it is impossible to run after an entire world, they run after him…”

From Yiddish by Nachum Chinitz [15]

The Anthology of Tzvi Gordon

Morgenstern would walk through the streets, gather crowds and utter stories and jokes. The phonograph appeared in those years. People would listen to music with the aid of a horn in the ear. When the Russo-Japanese War finished with the victory of Japan, Morgenstern appeared on the streets of the city and declared, “From now the order of the phonograph has ended, for 'fonieh' (a Jewish slang name for Russians) has come down from its greatness, and is no longer considered 'graf' [16].

During this war, the Japanese downed “Sebastopol” a large ship of the Russian navy, along with its sailors and its captain Makarov. Morgenstern composed and publicized a telegram, as it were, from Captain Makarov in the depths of the sea to the headquarters of the Russian army, as follows: “The bottom of the sea is quiet. Japanese soldiers are not to be found. Our power here is great and mighty. We are impatiently waiting the arrival of the chief commander Koropatkin.”

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Dr. Luntz was known in Minsk as a veteran and expert doctor, although he was strict and stubborn in his relations with his patients. He sufficed himself with a brief and quick examination of the sick person. He would listen to the heartbeat, look at the tongue – and immediately write a prescription without allowing the patient to conduct any conversation. It once happened that two women left his room and stood behind the door. One complained to the other: “He is a strange doctor, he did not even say one word to us.” Luntz overheard this. He opened the door, called the women, invited her to come back in, sat her on the chair, and started asking a series of questions: What does her husband do? How many children does she have? How old is she? What type of furnishings does she have in her house? The questions and answers took about a quarter of an hour. Afterward, he turned to her and said, “Nu, now am I a good doctor? I spoke to you a great deal, does this make you feel better?”

When a certain sick person was visiting Dr. Luntz, she put her hand on the right side of her chest and complained, “Doctor, my heart hurts me!” Luntz glanced at her with eyes filled with anger and warned her, “Yenta (a derogatory nickname for a Jewess), do you not even know where your heart is in you! If your left side hurts, then come to me.”

Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, there was a famous and successful textile business in Minsk called “Miltzki and partners”. Mrs. Miltzki, a young and intelligent woman who was also conversant in Hebrew, ran this large business. Once, a shipment of woven cloth arrived from the factory of Poznanski the Jew from Lodz. A large portion of this shipment was already worn and ruined. She sent a letter to Poznanski saying, “whatever the locust has not eaten, the hail has left behind – that is what you sent me. Was I created to remove refuse from the land?” [17]

In 1905, during the first Russian Revolution, the army in Minsk, at the command of the ruler Kurlov, shot into a crowd that had gathered for a meeting on the grounds of the Libau – Romania train station. 45 people were killed, and many were wounded. A few days later, a bomb was thrown toward the home of the governor that was next to the small boulevard. It exploded next to the entrance of the house, and left a deep pit. The scoffer of Minsk called this incident by referring to the verse, “sin crouches at the door”.

A Jew from Minsk was sitting in the coach of a train going toward Minsk. Next to him was a Jew from another town who was travelling to Minsk. The latter turned to the Minsker in a scoffing and stinging manner and said, “Is it true what they say about you, that you are 'Minsker pigs'?” The Minsker answered him, “The Minskers are not pigs, but Minsk serves as a pen for all of the pigs of the region that come to visit us.”

The Socialists came to Rabbi Eliezer Rabinivitch, the rabbi of Minsk, explained their theory to him, and advised him to help them. Reb Eliezer said to them, “I agree, but let us split the work between us. You go and convince the rich to give, and I will go and influence the poor to take.

(from A. Droianov)

Reb Avraham Chaim Rosenberg, the author of “Otzar Sheimot”, opened a school in Minsk. The zealots of the Orthodox came to Reb Eliezer Moshe and said, “Rosenberg slaughters all of his students with a sharp and smooth knife.” Reb Eliezer Moshe answered them, “What complaint do you have against him? He who slaughters with a sharp and smooth knife, his slaughtering is kosher…”

(as said to the above.)

[Page 635]

Reb Yerucham Perlman, the “Great One” of Minsk, was once invited to the wedding of wealthy people. When they brought the bride to the Chupa [wedding canopy], the groom stretched out his hand to her and kissed her. The “Great One” immediately left the wedding ceremony and departed from the hall. The parents of the bride and groom immediately ran after him to assuage him. They said to him, “Our rabbi, what sin is there here, he is her husband, and she is proper”. The “Great One” answered them, “Everything is good and fine, except that 'in the eyes of all of Israel' is the end of the entire Torah” [18].

In the year 5704 [1944], B. Vladek visited the Land of Israel. He studied in the Yeshiva of Reb Shlomo Golombenchik in the “Maskil Laeitan” synagogue in Minsk during the years 1902-1903 along with David Zakai, one of the editors of “Davar”, and with the writer of these lines. When he visited the Land, Vladek took an interest in his former rabbi, Reb Shlomo, who at that time had lived in the land for many years. At his behest, David Zakai traveled to the rabbi in Jerusalem. After that, I also went to Reb Shlomo and asked him what impression he had of these students who had attained greatness in communal affairs, politics and literature. He answered me in fine language, “I raised children, and they rebelled against me” [19].

At the time of the elections for the founding meeting in Russia in 1918, at one of the electoral gatherings, the power behind the “Kaditim” lectured. Among his words, he boasted and said, “The Kaditim gave much more to the Jews of Russia than the Jewish Bund”. Then Yitzchak Berger, the well-known activist and speaker from Minsk, said with an ironic smile, “Did you hear? The Kaditim gave us more than the Bund. This reminds me of the popular Jewish adage, 'more than a corpse'”.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Yisrael Shaulzon was a famous cantor in Minsk. One Sabbath, he ascended the bima after Maftir to begin the Musaf service, he met with the person who had recited the Haftarah, who was descending the steps. The person who had recited the Haftarah stopped the cantor, patted him on the shoulders in a friendly manner, and asked, “What would you do Yisraelke, if I were in your place, starting the Musaf service as a cantor?”. Yisraelke answered quietly, “I would then be able to have the chance to castigate the cantor”.

Reb Izel Charif of Slonim was twelve years old when he married the daughter of Reb Yitzchak Fein of Minsk. His mother-in-law urged him out of the house every day, saying to him: “Your place is not here, it is in the Beis Midrash”. After some time, when his great name became famous, Reb Izel said, “May blessings be upon them, my father-in-law and mother-in-law. He made me sharp [20]. (Charif is the acronym for Chatan Reb Yitzchak Fein – the son-in-law of Reb Yitzchak Fein.), and she made me an expert.”

During one of the weddings of Minsk, when the jester Elyakim Cenzer, who later became the famous writer, finished his verses of jest, some of the wealthy relatives turned to him and urged him to continue on with these types of rhymes, for they enjoyed it very much. Cenzer answered them in rhyme, “I am the poor of the poor, the well has dried up” [21]. The guests did not accept this and urged him further. He replied again in verse: “I have nothing more – let everyone go dance”. When they urged him further, he answered with an angry tone, “And they traveled from Sukkot and encamped at Rephidim – let a fire come upon all of the wealthy people of Minsk! The gathered people were astonished and asked, “What type of wit is that? Cenzer answered, “I say this without jest, let the thunder hit them seriously!”

[Page 636]

Y. M. Rosenblum

Rabbi Dov Pines of blessed memory told me what he had heard from Reb Aryeh Huminer, who was a rabbi in Minsk. Once Reb Aryeh was invited to the home of Rabbi Tavli of blessed memory, who occupied the rabbinic seat of Minsk. They invited the rabbi to drink a glass of tea. The daughter of the rabbi brought two cups of tea, and left. The rabbi called, “Tzipa, bring me sugar”, and she did not answer. He called a second and a third time. When she did not answer the third call, he turned to Reb Aryeh and said, “Did you not hear that I called her three times and she did not answer me.” With the first call, I thought that there might be sugar in the house. With the second – perhaps there is a kopeck in her pocket, and she would go out to buy. With the third – perhaps she will obtain some coffee from the shopkeeper. However, since she did not answer three calls, I know that there is no sugar, there is no money, and the shopkeeper does not sell on credit. Therefore, we will drink tea without sugar.

The rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Rafael Shapiro of holy blessed memory came to Minsk at the beginning of the World War or prior to it. At that time, he served as a rabbi and yeshiva head in Volozhin. He stayed in the hotel of Reb Gershon Rips. He invited all of the supporters of the yeshiva for a meeting. Approximately ten people gathered in his room. He sat the entire time on an armchair in the corner of the room. We all sat around the table that was next to him and waited for him to say something, but he sat and was silent. After we sat there for a long period of time, Reb Dov Pines turned to me and said, “Rabbi, did you not invite us, perhaps you will tell us what is your desire?” He answered them, “And if I do not say anything, do you not understand?” With that, the meeting was over. We all understood that the coffers of the yeshiva were empty, and we spread out about town to collect donations.

M. Ivenski

Minsk is a city of greats . Even the rabbi of Minsk is called by the name “The Great One of Minsk”, as is known. One day, the following announcement was spread through the city, “On Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Rabbi will give a large lecture in the large Beis Midrash”. Everything in Minsk is done with the language of greatness.

Sh. Even-Shoshan

It is told that Reb Nachum Chaitman, would say the following cutting statement when he wanted to impose the sharpness of his tongue upon the Maskilim and those who are estranged from the holiness of Judaism.

“Before, they used to say: Careful, an illness; Now they say: in-flu-en-za!”

Before, they used to say, “Freethinking”. Now they say, in-tell-i-gent-sia!

It is told that Reb Michel Rabinovitch went out on a pleasant summer day to the home of one of our group who had changed his colors and already joined the Communist Party. As he was standing on the porch, Reb Michel began to rub his shoes strongly, since something stuck on them outside. The master of the house glanced at him with astonished eyes, “Why are you rubbing your shoes?” Reb Michel answered him, “I thought that I was entering a party”. The word “araingetratn” has two meanings in Yiddish: 'I entered', and “I tread upon'. Reb Michel said: “I thought that I was entering the party, but it also could have meant, “It seems to me that I entered a party.

[Page 637]

Daniel Persky

Special Yiddish words that were used by the Jews of Minsk remain in my mind. (Perhaps they were acceptable throughout White Russia.) Maniforga – cunning, intrigue, cheating (“Do not make any maniforgas”). Fliaga – sickly, depressed, weak of body, an evil visitation. Shmikele – (we obviously pronounced it as Smikele) – the brain in the skull (“He is missing smikele in the head”). Tsheche (a word used in the butcher shops) – a woman searching for bargains, who disputes the price at length. A bothersome shopper. Hinien – to hesitate, to waste time, to sit with the hands folded. (My mother would say to me, “Daniel, why do you hinien an entire day over the books?”). Gebn a Nerik – to dish out blows [22]. Drabeskes – fats and pieces of meat that were left over after the butcher or deveiner deveins the backside of a carcass [23]. Gehai – gall, brazenness (“A person needs to have the gehai to do such a thing”). Fundeven – to honor with delicacies on one's account (“Come in to the chartshevnia, I want to fundeven”). Rupet – to bother the mind, to arouse curiosity (“Something rupet me that I cannot understand”). Marodien – to do something carelessly and without grace. (My mother would say, “Daniel, why do you Marodien over the food?”). Marodnik – someone who is slow and careless in his deeds. Patoypen – to be accepted in the mind, to be clear and understood. (“It is not patoypet in my head”). Palut – frenzied and hurried, a person who is mixed up and absent-minded. (Our neighbor always used to complain about her husband, “He was always a palut and will die as a palut”). Stop – stop, interruption, end. (In our sausage factory father used to command, “Stop the machine!”). Kishenik – a wild youth who picks pockets. Pepke – fool, boor, someone lacking in wisdom (on our street, one homeowner was nicknamed Itshe Pepke. Chamole, Chamrok – coarse, a wild person (on our street, one householder was nicknamed Yoshe Chamrok). Shmagene – someone lacking luck, an unsuccessful person. Podele – to fabricate strange things about somebody, to make him into a mockery (“He made a podele of him”). Retonde – a cape, a sleeveless women's cloak. Baistruk (perhaps from an English root: bastard) – a bastard, foundling, castaway child.

In Minsk, they would say, for example, “The Falto is from King Savechki's time”. Thus was said about everything that was very old and outdated. If someone was against wasting money, he would say, “What am I? Count Potochki”. In such cases, some would say, “What am I? Chaim Luria”. Chaim Luria was the considered to be the chief wealthy man and philanthropist in the city. He interceded with the government when needed, and was a scholar. In our house and also in the homes of butchers and hide flayers (shinders), the following curse would be uttered: “Would it be that the lessee had as much energy as I have energy to work today”. The lessee was a wealthy man who would lease the Jewish meat tax from the city. The Jews of the city had to pay one kopeck per liter – and this was a burdensome yoke upon the poor. (This was the content of the book, “Di Takse” by Mendele Mocher Sefarim.)

Translator's Footnotes:
1 Rabbi Yose-Ber Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav. His descendant, bearing the same name, was the famed head of Yeshiva University until his death in the 1990s. Return
2“May you continue to have strength” – a traditional greeting given to someone after performing a public mitzvah. Return
3Literally, “Let the rabbi meditate about the bottle”, a Hebrew idiom. Return
4An Arshin is a Russian unit of measure, approximately 28 inches. Return
5“Thou shalt not see the fierce people” – a play on the word “noaz” – fierce. Return
6The Zionist and later the Israeli national anthem. Return
7This is a quotation, with one small change, from the High Holiday Liturgy: “Joy to your land and gladness to your city”. In this case, it means “Simcha (which is the word for joy) goes to his land, and there is gladness in the city. Return
8This is a portion of a blessing that is made upon seeing royalty. Return
9The absence of a gallbladder would render an animal non-kosher. Return
10The Kiddush blessing is recited on the eve of Sabbaths and festivals, as well as in a different form in the morning. It precedes a meal. However, if the main Sabbath meal is not immediately to be served during the daytime Kiddush, it must be followed by some food – generally grain-based food (i.e. cakes, cookies or the like) which require the “Mezonot” blessing. Return
11The measure is a 'Reviit', a halachic measure that defines the minimum volume of wine or liquor to be used for Kiddush. A reviit is somewhere from 3-5 ounces, depending on various opinions. Return
12According to a midrash, Jacob placed twelve stones under his head when he slept along the way during his flight to Charan to escape his brother Esau. The stones 'argued' with each other during the night, so to speak, and merged into one so that they would all have the honor. Return
13A 'lug' is a larger unit of measure. Return
14This is a play on words. In this verse, song is “rina”. The Yiddish word for sewer is “rineh”. Return
15This seems to be an error. It probably should say, “From Yiddish by Daniel Charny”. Return
16Graf is a Yiddish / German word for a nobleman. Return
17The phrase regarding the locust and the hail is a twisted paraphrase of a verse in Exodus describing the destruction caused by the plagues. The second phrase is a twisted paraphrase of a line of the Aleinu prayer. Return
18'In the eyes of all of Israel' is indeed the end of the last verse of Deuteronomy. Return
19A quotation from the first chapter of Isaiah. Return
20The word for 'sharp' is 'Charif'. Return
21This rhymes in the Yiddish, as do the following rhymes. The verse about travelling from Sukkot is a Biblical verse referring to the travels of the Israelites in the desert. Return
22The note in the text indicates that Nerik is a corruption of Neherag, which means to be killed. Return
23If the hindquarter of a kosher animal is to be eaten, it must be deveined and certain nerves must be removed. This is painstaking process known in Yiddish as treibering. Nowadays, many slaughterhouses simply sell the hindquarter of a slaughtered kosher animal to a non-kosher butcher, to avoid having to go through the deveining process. Return

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