He made a name for himself as a literary critic and his essays on Hebrew literature exerted considerable influence on his contemporaries. In his essays he fought for the raising of cultural standards and against the ornate and unnatural pseudo-Biblical style employed by most of the "Haskala" Hebrew writers. He also wrote books on modern methods for teaching Hebrew and Russian.
Thanks to his activities he enjoyed great popularity in Plotzk and although the extreme religious circles regarded him with suspicion, his personality was respected by the general Jewish public and his home served as an important cultural center.
The Jewish population of Plotzk celebrated his 70th birthday in 1910.
Avraham Yaacov Papierna is considered the most illustrious of the three great Jewish literary critics
of his time in Poland, who guided Hebrew literature onto new ways.
As a young man he began to practice Law but soon decided to devote his life to education. Upon leaving his job as an assistant in an advocate's firm in Plotzk, he studied to become a teacher. When offered the directorship of a Lodz Jewish religious school, he accepted this challenge enthusiastically and wrote in his diary: "a new epoch begins in my life".
Kahanstam was soon regarded as a central figure of Hebrew education. He showed a lively interest in his pupils' social background and was very active in social work.
From Lodz he moved to Petersburg, where he spent nine years in the Jewish educational sphere. During all those years he was constantly in conflict with sponsors, administrators and other officials who had no understanding of sound educational principles. In 1907 he moved to Grodno where he founded and directed the "Pedagogical Courses of Grodno", whose influence on Hebrew education was outstanding.
Students and teachers who were privileged to study under Aharon ben Moshe Kahanstam admired his fine personality and a number of them published in Tel-Aviv in 1936 a book called: "Rishonim" (The First), dedicated to their unforgettable teacher and leader. These memories contain details about his devotion to the cause of Hebrew education, his influence on all those who came into contact with him, his struggles and zeal for progressive teaching methods, and the appreciation of the assistance he gave Jewish girls who aspired to the teaching profession from which they were barred in those years.
His last stage was the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, where he became the guardian of Hebrew education till the last minute of his life. He succeeded in ignoring the existence of the Bolsheviks who tried and finally succeeded to liquidate all national and Hebrew schools in Russia.
When he died in 1920, one of the mourners, although an opponent, stated: "With the death of Aharon ben Moshe Kahanstam the conscience of the Hebrew teacher has passed away".
"Although the venues of his influential and blessed activities were
outside Plotzk", says the author of this article, "we can't publish
the Plotzk Memorial Book without paying tribute to a great son of our
New winds of freedom and equality, finally culminating in the French Revolution, began to blow even in the hermetically closed world of Polish and Russian Jewry, which frowned on any secular education whatsoever. The Talmud was the sole source of knowledge, when Rabbi Y. L. Margolies took upon himself to spread the knowledge of Nature amongst the Jews, for which he was not even attacked by the most orthodox, due to the great authority which he enjoyed. Margolies was labeled by Aharon Zeitlin as an "anti-Mendelsonian enlightener", i.e. a "Maskil" who remained within the religious camp. Dr. J. Zinberg describes him in his "Literary History of the Jews" as a fighter for the ideals of enlightenment and against the forces of darkness. Dr. Joseph Klausner, as well as Ben Zion Katz in his "History of the Enlightenment of the Jews in Russia" quotes him as advocating the coexistence of secular knowledge and science with piety and the fear of God.
Rabbi Y. L. Margolies was the author of nine books, mostly dealing with Natural
Sciences, Philosophy, Grammar and others. His foremost work, "Or
Olam", first appeared in 1777 and saw several editions. In this book he showed
himself to be a follower of the Aristotelian school of philosophy, which in his
opinion is not in conflict with the Law of Moses. In his book "Tal Orot
" (Pressburg, 1843), he comes out in favor of a more tolerant and liberal
attitude towards the Christian nations, amongst which the Jews dwelled, and
preaches higher moral and ethical standards in the relationship between the
well-to-do and the poorer segments of the Jewish communities. His fearless
stand in the forefront of humanitarian and social reform made him widely known,
far beyond the confines of Plotzk, so that he was well remembered as a
spiritual leader in Poland for many decades after his death in Frankfurt on the
Oder in 1811 (or 1818).
He collected pious sayings of the Hassidic Rabbi of Przysucha, whom he revered, in a book which was published after his death. Several other books of his were published by his grandson several years before the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1940, when the Nazis were about to convert the old Jewish cemetery of Plotzk
into a garden and use the tombstones for street paving, some of his adherers
went to the cemetery (103 years after his death) and transferred his remains to
another place. The author adds that in spite of the long time which had elapsed
since the burial of Zysza Plotzker, his bones had remained intact
Rabbi Shmuel published two books : "The pillars of the World" (Amude Olam), Berlin 1741, and "Samuel's Belt" (Hagurath Shmuel), Frankfurt on the Oder.
His book "Amude Olam" contains several interesting biographical notes, amongst which we find the description of a ritual-murder accusation leveled against the Jews of Poznan as a result of which two-third of the Jewish community, together with Rabbi Shmuel, had to flee from this city.
After lengthy negotiations the matter was finally brought to an end when the
Chancellor of Poland forced six witnesses from the Polish aristocracy to
testify to the innocence of the accused Jews of Poznan.
Having served in Plotzk for a period of ten years, he remained ever after faithful to the town by giving the title "Rabbi of Plotzk" in all the 25 books written by him. He was known among the Jews as the "Plotzker Rav".
After leaving Plotzk he served the community of Praga, near Warsaw, after which time he retired in order to devote his latter years solely to the writing of books. Most of them were actually published only after he passed away in 1833, a number of them reaching several editions. Some of the greatest Polish Rabbis were pupils of Rabbi Zunz; most famous amongst them the founder of the Chassidic Dynasty of "Ger", Rabbi Itche Meir Alter, the "Baal Hidushey Harim".
Many stories about Reb Leibele Charif made the round amongst the common
people and it was widely believed that all his blessings and wishes would
come true. One of these tales concerns Rabbi Avramele of Ciechanow.
After his death in 1875 several of his books such as "Abraham's
Virtues" were printed. The popular image of the Rabbi motivated his
great-grandson Zysche Landau, a poet who was born in Plotzk, to dedicate
one of his poems to the memory of that great man, 40 years after he had
Exceptional wisdom and knowledge, simplicity and humility were the outstanding
characteristics of Rabbi Graubart. Great love for and understanding of the
average simple Jew motivated him in all his Halakhicdecisions. He
gave the Hovevei Zion unofficial support. One year before his
death in 1912 he also participated in the Founding Conference of the Agudath
Israel movement which took place in Kattovitz. Rabbi Graubart passed away in
1913 at Bedzin, where his son Rabbi Yekutiel succeeded him until his immigration
to the U.S., where he served as rabbi in Brooklyn, Chicago and Canada. A daughter
of Rabbi Graubart, Rosa Jacobovitz, was well known in Poland after the first World
War as a Yiddish poetess. One of her poems is dedicated to "My Father".
The community received him with great joy, but became divided in their loyalty to him, as soon as he had preached his first Sabbath sermon in which he demanded the strictest possible observance of the day of rest. The more enlightened opposed him vehemently, whilst the faithful were very happy to have him as spiritual guide. During his 6 years of tenure of office in Plotzk (1856-1862), Rabbi Eleazar was constantly embroiled in various frictions with the Gabayimof the community; so that he had no interest in renewing his contract and went on to serve in Pultusk and Sochaczew. His life-work "Hidushey H'Redak" was published after his death (1913) by his son Yehoshua.
One of Rabbi Elazar's young pupils was a student from Wyshogrod, Nahum Sokolov,
who describes in his memories the movement of the "Enlightenment",
which had penetrated the community and changed its old-worldly atmosphere, a
fact which made Rabbi Elazar's position there so complicated.
When he arrived in town the Chassidim immediately fought him vigorously, so that he was forced to leave Plotzk for Lomza. An epidemic, which broke out soon thereafter was regarded as a punishment of Heaven and a delegation of notables was sent to Lomza to persuade the Rabbi to return to his flock. From then on his position in the community was considerably strengthened, although the Chassidim never adopted a friendly attitude towards him. He persisted in introducing modern teaching methods and other progressive innovations in the local Talmud-Torah. The Chassidim retaliated by denouncing him to the Russian authorities, which almost led to his arrest.
The establishment of a Jewish hospital in town and various improvements in the
situation of the poor are to his credit. He served the community for 17 years
until he could not bear the communal friction anymore and accepted in 1880 a
call for Mariampol, where he passed away in 1893.
In 1891, with the foundation of a branch of the "Hovevei Zion" movement in Plotzk, formal Zionist activities began.
The author quotes excerpts from the then famous Hebrew periodical
"Hamelitz", reporting on Zionist conventions and daily Zionist
activities, including money-raising campaigns which took place in Plotzk.
I. Grinbaum, and A. Becker (from Lithuania) who had settled in Plotzk, were the founders and initiators of that group. The latter became soon leader of the younger generation, on which he exerted great influence.
The above-mentioned "Hamelitz" dedicates a special review to that event and mentions the obligation undertaken by members of the group to pay between 10 and 25 "kopeikas" (Russian coin) every month.
The same periodical published an article at the beginning of this century from
which we learn that the local Zionists earnestly endeavored to assume
responsibility for the affairs of the Jewish community (Kehila) in
accordance with the Zionist aim and slogan of "Kibbush Hakehilot"
(Conquest of the Communities).
Under the influence of the "Haskala" (Enlightenment) ideas, some families began to send their children to general secondary schools but had to fight for their right to do so with conservative groups who considered general education as the first step towards the repudiation of Judaism. The problem of writing on Sabbath-days hindered many parents, faithful to the Jewish religion, from sending their children to "general" schools.
We also find in these periodicals letters about the financial difficulties encountered by the Jewish community in maintaining its schools and paying the teachers' salaries. In order to overcome those difficulties we learn from the "Hamelitz" the communal leaders even agreed to organize a theatre-show in order to collect some funds.
But in spite of the "Haskala" movement the rabbis were very popular with the general public and leaders of the community showed them great respect.
In the "Hamelitz" of 1890 we read an interesting story about a rabbi
who successfully passed an examination in Russian. The periodical adds that the
examiners admired his "thorough knowledge of the Russian language".
There existed in Plotzk a society whose members volunteered to visit sick people at the hospital as well as to distribute among them tea and sugar. The society "Bikur Holim" did a fine job in preventing a typhus epidemic in 1867.
Artisans were organized in various professional unions who aimed at rendering social aid to members.
In another issue of "Hamelitz" we read about a legacy of a rich woman
(5000 Russian rubles) for building an asylum for old people, unable to earn
their living. The establishment of that institution was very important as from
other sources we learn that in those days many Jews in Plotzk reached a very
A certain Niemski used in his book, while describing the beauty of the town,
offending expressions with regard to the Jews of Plotzk and their way of life,
calling them "a caravan of Gipsy-Jews" etc.
Not far from Plotzk two important industrial centers, Warsaw and Lodz, attracted many jobless Jewish young people who tried to find employment as factory workers in those towns. This was not too easy because even Jewish industrialists were not always willing to employ them out of fear of negative reactions from Christian workers.
The Jewish emigrants had to sell all their belongings in order to be able to
buy boat-tickets to the U. S. A. or to cover at least their travel-expenses to
Berlin. Their sufferings on the way to America, not having any hope to earn
their living where they were born are described in the periodicals of that
A perusal of the Hebrew press at the outset of the 20th century convinces us that the members of the Jewish community of Plotzk were among the first who adjusted themselves to the new era of Jewish national renaissance.
It appears that young Sokolov was greatly influenced in his time by the Jewish
atmosphere of the community, its youth, Jewish national movements, rabbis and
centers of religious and secular education. Nahum Sokolov, throughout his life,
even while a resident of great European capitals, remembered his childhood in
Plotzk. In one of his letters to his daughter he reveals in nostalgic expressions
his great affection for "his beloved Plotzk".
The classical assumption that the disappearance of the Jews from the economic,
cultural and social life of the town would create a vacuum did not come true.
Itzhak Grinbaum was the Guest Speaker at a Memorial meeting of the Plotzk Association, which was held in 1951 in Tel Aviv. On this occasion he delivered a thoughtful speech, containing many reminiscences of the town in which he spend nine years of study at the local gymnasium.
Mentioning the various cultural and educational institutions, he drew loving
portraits of the teachers Shmuel Penson and A. Y. Papierna, the revolutionary leader
Josef Kwiatek and others, who left their imprint on the minds of the young generation, and
thanks to whom the Jewish Youth in Plotzk became spiritually elevated and
intellectually more broad-minded.
The attitude shown by the above to general and secular Jewish education was at that time quite different from that of other rabbis. He understood the modern spirit of the Jewish youth well and knew that their assimilatory trends would not be checked by "Chadarim" and "Yeshivot" alone. For that reason Rabbi Zlotnik saw in the establishment of Jewish secondary schools a stronghold of Judaism. He demanded from his teachers' devotion to their extraordinary responsibilities. "We are now on the eve" said the rabbi, "of the establishment of Jewish secondary schools and you, the teachers, have to be pioneers in this field, and in the future you will be recognized for your work".
His speech contains a few sentiments directed to the Christian population. He explains that for the good of both Jews and Christians primary education should be separate because just as it is impossible to give Christian children a good Christian education in Jewish schools Jewish religious education is possible only in schools established exclusively for Jewish children.
The late Rabbi Zlotnik expressed his hope that one day a Jewish central institute for higher education a university would be established. The rabbi expressed already then, in 1917, his longings for a Hebrew University to rise in Jerusalem.
He concluded his words to his pupils by expressing his hope that they would
adapt themselves through the influence of the new school to the aim of
returning to their homeland Eretz Israel.
The second chapter describes the various groups of Jewish orthodox youth who gathered in the local Beit Hamidrash. Some of those young people later became famous in Jewish life in Poland and elsewhere, among them Rabbi Zlotnik-Avida and others.
The third chapter is dedicated to the new ideas of progress, within both secular and religious Zionism, which shaped the ideologies of those young people. The author mentions the activities of Itzhak Grinbaum, Rabbi Lifshitz and others.
The second part of this article deals with the assimilationist groups of the
Plotzk Jewish community (the Kempner family and others) and with the people who
lived in the vicinity of the "Iron Gate" a market place where
simple folk (tailors, butchers, fishmongers) lived and worked. The author
nostalgically describes these types of Jews, who added a special flavor to
the multifaced Jewish population of Plotzk.
|Drawing by Yaacov Guterman
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