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The Old Days

[Page 13]

The History of Radoshkowitz

according to the book “Memoirs of a Lithuanian Rabbi”

by Bezalel Isaacson

Translated by Elisabeth Ruderman

The first written account of Radoshkowitz dates from the end of the eighteenth century. It was written by Rabbi Shlomo David, who was then the head of the Yeshiva of Radoshkowitz. He used to scribble notes at the edges of whatever text he was studying. These comments concerned private and public affairs and wound up being passed down from generation to generation.

From these we learn that at the time of Catherine the Great, Radoshkowitz was a thriving town. At one point there was a plan to build a major highway linking Vilna, Minsk, and Smolensk. This highway was supposed to run through northern Radoshkowitz. On one hand it would bring great economic prosperity; on the other, it threatened to cut through the Jewish cemetery. But the plan never materialized.

The town consisted mostly of small shopkeepers. There were a few well-to-do landlords and a couple of rich men who leased forest tracks and employed many people. The actual workers were gentiles and the clerks were Jewish. These employers provided housing and a decent living for their employees.

The townspeople had to pay taxes to the government. In addition they had to contribute heavily for the needs of the community: the yeshiva and its students, the synagogue, the rabbi, two mohalim, and hordes of poor people, both from their own community and others. From the remaining texts we learn that people complained about the high assessments imposed on them to cover unexpected community needs.

These writings also reflect the social gap between the esteemed Torah scholars and their students, and the lower, uneducated classes. It was a big honor for a rich man to marry his daughter to one of the yeshiva students and thus enable him to continue his studies without worrying about making a living.

Travelling salesmen (book sellers) brought news about the world in general and from the Jewish world in particular. At the time (the end of the 18th century) a rift began in the Jewish world between the Hassidim and their opponents. No such rift developed in Radoshkowitz.

Most problems of daily life were ruled on by the rabbi. One case involved a grain merchant who wanted to hire a worker who was a Cohen. The merchant learned from a yeshiva student, that the Shulchan Aruch clearly forbids the use of a Cohen in such work, because it would be sacrilegious. The merchant couldn't decide what to do. The question was brought to the rabbi, who allowed the employment of the Cohen on the grounds that if he were not employed, he would end up relying on charity, which would be a worse sacrilege.

Another question of employment arose when the caretaker of the bathhouse died, leaving a widow and three children. The leaders of the community wanted to hire his fourteen year old son, in order to ensure the livelihood of the family. Others questioned this appointment because the boy's name was "Shalom," which is one of the names of God. Would it not be sacrilegious to use that name in a place where people undressed? Again the rabbi found a practical solution. He suggested that, instead of "Shalom", they use the German translation, "Fried." A notice was posted at the synagogues and at the entrance to the bathhouse, that in the future, Shalom, while in the bathhouse, should be called, "Fried."

This only demonstrates how religion shaped matters of everyday life. Another story, which demonstrates the degree of religiosity and modesty of some, is that of Reb Shimcha Neta, who broke an arm and a leg when he fell. According to the sages, while a couple is having sex, no creature, not even a fly or a mosquito, should be present. But there was a fly in the room. So he climbed on some furniture while trying to kill it, fell, and was injured. He poured his heart out to the rabbi that now he was unable to satisfy his wife. The rabbi's reaction was, "If all the Jews were as righteous as this young man, the redemption would already have come."

[Page 35]

Shimshon, “The Shabbes Goy”

Translated by Elisabeth Ruderman

Shimshon was a giant, like his biblical namesake. He was knowledgeable of Halacha and the duties of the Shabbes goy. Every Shabbat, early in the morning, he would come to the Beit Midrash and start a fire, then do the same at the synagogue. Then he would go to the houses of those who had no gentile employee and do whatever was necessary.

He once came to the rescue of the whole community when word got around that the rope, marking the "eruv," had been cut by some gentile rascals, no doubt, and every one on their way home from synagogue froze in place. When Shimson heard of it, he rushed to tie the rope together again and thus, saved the day.

On Erev Pesach, I would sell my chametz to Shimshon, as did many other Jews, and he knew to return the bill of sale when Pesach was over.

He was also responsible for giving people bad news (a duty performed by a goy). And he did it with delicacy and sensitivity.

He also performed many duties which were not the duties of a goy. He provided us with tree branches and decorations for Succoth, he took part in our Purim celebrations, dressed up as Haman, and ended up being invited to our homes to partake of meats and drinks.

He spoke Yiddish and knew our laws and customs. At the same time he was an observant Christian.

We paid Shimshon for all he was doing for us, as a community and as individuals. He was also part of any celebration and was given food from the table. He was also given chickens when their kashrut was in question.

It was sad that Shimshon died suddenly. One day he just did not wake up.

[Page 44]

The Town at the End of the 19th Century

by Ester Bessin

Translated by Elisabeth Ruderman

I first came to Radoshkowitz at the age of ten, with my father, who took the post of rabbi. In the following years I came to know and to love it. The main street stretches diagonally from north to south. The street is tree-lined, and is part of the road from Vilna to Minsk. The side streets lead to fields and forests and some nondescript gentile neighborhoods. In the center are the markets and stores, and until the big fire (1851) some of the wealthiest residences stood there. They were replaced by plain, walled buildings which fit into the drab business section.

Opposite, at the low end, stretched the spiritual center: synagogues and houses of learning (Baytai Midrash). The old synagogue, tall and always dark, was a remnant of the Gothic era. It was in poor condition, and many a boy climbed through its unsafe back rooms for a smoke near the tower. On the day of the big fire, this building went up in flames and burned like a huge torch. After a big effort to collect funds for a new building, it was replaced with one made of stone and plaster, which in a short time developed holes and cracks, which were never tended to.

Minsk, forty kilometers away, a town steeped in modern trade and culture, left its imprint on Radoshkowitz. Our people were pleasant; Hebrew and general education were part of us. Private Hebrew teachers and government public schools where Russian was taught, coexisted. Meetings with the gentile lords were short and cordial. They discussed meat, tariffs, profit distribution, repair of the bath house, etc. And in the evening people would meet in each others' homes for conversation, to play cards, etc. The young would roam the countryside and were very fond of swimming in the rivers.

There was a feeling of satisfaction and calm which generally prevailed. And when I would return to Radoshkowitz from studies away, and see from afar the top of the Catholic church, a sense of peace and contentment would envelop me as I was coming home.

A dozen years passed. The church still stands as a reminder of the loss which will never return.

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