Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein The city of Slutsk stands before my eyes exactly as I saw it in my young years when I studied in the Slutsk Musar [moral] -Yeshiva, where the great Gaon Reb Jakov-David was the yeshiva dean. Now I do not have any material, no notes at hand and I will limit myself to a couple of crumbs dug up from my memory. I am grateful to the editors of Sefer Slutsk who moved me to search the long ago past.
Although I was only young then, I had already studied one year in the Slobodker Yeshiva and was even famous it is really not nice to talk about it now as the Bialystoker genius. Therefore when the request came from the Slutsker rabbi, the mashgiach Reb Note Hirsch, who was the big boss in the yeshiva, called me and he told me a secret. He was thinking of sending a group of his best students in the yeshiva, but he had also thought of sending with them a couple of young boys who he believed would help establish the yeshiva there. He wanted me to be one of them.
His speech greatly inspired me, and I was the youngest of the Slobodker group to be sent to Slutsk.
A journey of a day and a night took us as far as Baranovici. We sat there on the train to Lyakhovichi where we arrived early in the morning. It was late autumn. The fields were sunk in mud. A large stagecoach pulled by two horses, not heroes, took us from Lyakhovichi to Slutsk.
The journey lasted about ten to twelve hours, if not more a long trip. The passengers who filled the stagecoach were for the most part Jews. It was a cold night so people were wrapped in fur coats with lambskin hats on their heads. In our area these hats were called kutshmes. The highway was narrow and wound between fields and forests throughout the entire gloomy road. We also went through villages. The dress of the peasants was White Russian colorful scarves on the wives' heads and the men wore large coats of coarse cloth. All of them went around in bast shoes, tied around and laced up the foot.
I see the road and the stagecoach before my eyes. Jewish merchants, storekeepers, are traveling. They talk about leather and about oats and among them, a young boy traveling to study Torah in far away Slutsk. I was at the time around Bar-Mitzvah age. From traveling and shaking so long one becomes bored. One wants some fresh air. The driver knew this. From time to time he stops the horses. They will drink and also must be given oats. Meanwhile he let his passengers out on the highway to freshen up a little, to breathe. Everyone takes a rest and then, back on the stagecoach and we travel further until we have, thank G-d, arrived in Slutsk.
Der Ridvaz Rabbi Reb Jakov David Willowvski
In Slutsk, as in all the Musar Yeshivas, the students did not have any days without eating. It was against the doctrine of the Musarniks. They stuck me in a room with another young boy at Raubke, the grain merchant's son. My roommate was a younger boy called Layzerke Telzer. His parents were poor and they would send him a couple of rubles a month for his rent and for Krupnik [barley soup] with potatoes. In Slutsk this was called fish-potatoes.
I was listened to by the yeshiva dean and immediately accepted. My studies began at the yeshiva.
I cannot forget this. When I move my eyes and look in the distance, I see the large Musar Yeshiva in Slutsk. There were two or three hundred students. All the benches were used; each student was at his bookstand, from the Eastern wall to the anteroom of the synagogue and the water-barrel, each one over a Gemore. Each one was studying out loud, and each one was studying something different, but the voices poured together. One did not see the time go, from the early hours of the morning to noon, from noon to evening and it is already soon time for evening prayers. One grabbed a bite to eat in between-a piece of bread with yogurt or with a glass of water. Then one rocked some more, sang and with others at the table, studied from the tannaim [teachers and scholars who contributed to the Mishnah, etc.], the amoraim [Rabbinic Jewish teachers -3rd and 4th centuries - produced the Gemore for the Talmuds]. Some were studying Tosefos [Talmud commentaries-12th and 14th century], some Rashi [Torah scholar unequaled in commentaries]. Each one sang a different melody, yelled his Gemore differently, asked his questions out loud, found the answers alone and screamed them out.
The yeshiva dean arrives and runs through the rows of students, between the benches, stops at a bookstand, looks at what the boy is studying. He gives a report with a question, waits for an answer. If the answer is good, a pinch of the cheek, a slap on the shoulder, and he runs further. The Torah, gemore, pilpul [subtle argumentation] the genius, the Slutsker Rabbi, chased among the benches of the yeshiva students.
Once a week Reb Jakov David gave a lesson for the yeshiva students. He stood at his bookstand or on the bima [pulpit]. The yeshiva students stood around and listened and swallowed the Torah that came out of his mouth. A difficult Torah, a difficult Talmud debate, but it all becomes clear, it becomes easier, understandable. At the end he turns to the students, saying: And now ask questions, whoever has a question, should ask. The questions fly from all sides, one after the other and the yeshiva dean grabs them all together. Then as if they are in a sack, he takes them back out one at a time, question after question, and answer after answer, and the heart feels better, one becomes smarter and the world seems nicer...
It was a wonderful time. So it appears now from afar, beyond the mass of years. A mishmar [all night study session] in the Slutsker Musar-Yeshiva. It is night; all the yeshiva students are already asleep in their quarters. Only a part-ten assiduous yeshiva students studies at night a mishmar. All around the yeshiva it is quiet and dark. Only in the yeshiva, over some of the bookstands, burns a light and by this light a Gemore and over the Gemore a student.
And so one rocked, one studied and one sang. It was difficult to understand, one was quiet, absorbed in thought, and then one came up with answer and banged the table in joy and one rocked some more
And I hear my own voice intertwining the language of the Gemore with Yiddish, combining together the melody with a soulful yell. And not only were the students bewitched, but it often happened that a Slutsker boss would be in the yeshiva. He was drawn there because he wanted to see how the young boys studied in his yeshiva. The boss would stand still between the benches, looking at the religious boys, at the faces of the students. He stroked a head, a shoulder, smiled, was pleased, pulled out of a large pocket an apple, a pear and gave it as a gift and said, with his Slutsker pronunciation: Child, refresh yourself, take a little.
There are no more Slutsk bosses. No more deep pockets with half-frozen apples. No more voice saying: Child refresh yourself
Still I remember the resonance, the echo. Once there was and is no more.
As I already said, I lived with the grain merchant Raubke. There it was another world, other images, another life. Around Raubke's grain barns stood large, long, wide stalls. The peasants from the White Russian villages would drive in there when they brought sacks of grain to sell to Raubke. The peasants with sacks stood at the scales. The grain was weighed, measured, calculated. The men bargained, fought and slapped each on the back as if all of White Russia wanted to come here. They had no time to wait; they clapped their hands around a monopole bottle to test it. They said l'chaim. The gentiles drank and it hurt my eyes they ate fatty pieces of pork. Then it seemed that the entire world would be impure from the peasants' pork.
The peasants would leave their wagons in Raubke's courtyard and come into the large rooms of Raubke's house. They sat on the floor and on chairs. Large samovars of tea were there and they ate and drank. Half-undressed, they were smeared with a salve, because every second one of them was sick. Raubke's large hall had turned into a hospital.
They hit the ornament of the samovar; the village gentiles drank glass after glass of tea, wiping away sweat with a handkerchief, which ran down their faces. And already half-drunk, they sang and yelled, and it became noisy and joyous in the rooms of Raubke, the grain merchant.
By haggling with the yeshiva dean, I obtained residence with the Jewish landowner, Turov, whose large estate was in back of the city. He had large orchards and fields. In his old age, sitting in his large house with the fruit trees, he did a good deed he allowed his rooms to be used by a couple of yeshiva students and did not charge them rent. It was my luck to live in Turov's house. The garden and the trees full of fruit, the river in the middle of the orchard all this I see in my memory. The respected Turov with his gray beard with two points, one on each side an emperor's beard sat on his chair, with a cushion at his back, and asked his lodger, the yeshiva student, if he would teach him a little Torah.
Whether I understand or not, he would say, In any case it is a great pleasure to hear Torah.
From time to time, from the doorstep of the yeshiva, the road led to the Zionist Tchaina. I do not remember the name of the street in Slutsk (Hafashker Street, maybe) where the Zionist Tchaina was located. But I see it in detail before my eyes, a wooden house. One could not go into the Tchaina from the street but from an inside hallway. The first time I went to the Tchaina it was as if I had stepped into another world. It seemed to me that it was very bright. Flashlights were on. The rooms-a large one and a couple of smaller one-were full of people, mostly young men and women, and for a yeshiva student at that time, it was a bizarre thing, women and men together. And they talked and yelled and laughed and had fun how different this was from the Musar-yeshiva!
In the evenings the yeshiva became quiet and gloomy. The Musar melody, the piece Kholves-halvoves [The Duties of the Hearts] that we sang and the large, wide, long room, only deepened the sorrow. But here in Tchaina there was no musar, no sadness. One did not rock at a bookstand. One yelled, had fun. One laughed and sang Hebrew songs. I heard it the first time. I heard a song, immediately picked it up, hummed it and sang the tune with them, and the words brought me into the Zionist world.
I also did not resist Socialist agitation. Someone pointed out the student, the Socialist agitator. I asked that he come to see he and he did. He even came to see me at home. He accompanied me to and from the yeshiva and told me a lot of wonderful things: People were going to make over the world. People were going to overthrow the Tsar and strike down the Cherto. Jews would have rights and there would not be any pogroms. There would not be any poor and rich, everybody would be equal.
The echoes of the names from that time swim around me, what the student, the Socialist had told me, and one name was above them all: Sofia Ferovskaya. It grew to a fantastic, holy status by men being sent to the gallows.
And since then I heard more. I heard the repercussions from the cities, Bobruisk and Minsk. In Bobruisk, a large Jewish library was made. A yeshiva student by the name of Kirschner built it. The number of books sounded fantastic, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand books! And I would have to read all of them. It took us an entire winter, an entire summer to learn one Gemore. And imagine thousands of books in the new library in Brobruisk!
From Minsk there was also fantastic news. There were already strikes by the workers. There, people were already demonstrating in the streets. Russian revolutionaries were coming to meet with them-and the entire world will burn!
I left my yeshiva bench and went to Minsk.
I write these words now and feel once again the wonderful spirit of that time. It was a time when ideologies struggled in the minds and hearts of the yeshiva students in Slutsk, together with everyone throughout Russia.
From the Zionist Tchaina they were drawn to another road-to the banks of the Slutsk River. There one bathed, swam in the river, played in boats. Entire groups would be there. I learned to swim and float. I swam until late in the evening, exhilarated and encouraged. Yes, it was good, it was worthwhile living in the world!
There was no wealth, no comfort, no prosperity. It was either the bookstands in the yeshiva, or the tables in Tchaina, or a walk through the streets, or swimming in the Slutsk River. Youthful days in Slutsk-whoever had them has also lost them!
As luck would have it, Russia's revolution wrenched me from the yeshiva. I left the Slutsk Yeshiva and returned home to Bialystok, my hometown. No more Gemore, no more Torah, no more Musar and Musar melodies. One must work for the revolution. One must overturn the world. One must make a new Jewish life.
I remember an interesting detail from those years. I was already in Bialystok. The old sexton from grinem besmedresh came to me and said that I should come to the besmedresh as I was needed. For what? I asked. He did not answer. It was an order: Ask no questions and come.
I went. I did not know who had sent for me. When I arrived I was taken to a table with holy books on it. I saw Reb Yakov David Slutsker. How did he get to Bialystok? What was he doing here? What does he want with me? The questions were churning in my mind. I had thought that the Gaon Reb Yakov David was now a long way from here, but there he was, staying a couple of days in Bialystok.
I went to the Gaon and I acknowledged him. My heart was pounding. Every limb was trembling.
Shalom Aleichem, Rabbi, I said.
He did not answer me immediately, nor stretch out his hand right away, only looked at me, and I still see the sorrow in his eyes. He did not ask me what I was doing, if I was studying or not. He only looked at me for a long time, shook his head and in the end said a couple of words.
Jankel, you still have time to repent.
He did have to say what repentance he meant. I had understood. When men sit in the grinem besmedresh at the long table with religious books and Reb Yakov David Slutsker was speaking to you, and he calls to you to repent, you know what kind of repentance he means.
I left the table and did not repent, in any case not the kind of repentance that the Gaon Reb Yakov David wanted.
Now when I write these words, I still hear the echo of Reb Yakov David's words:
You still have time to repent.
Translated by Tamara Selden
After a long trip by train to Baranavichi, and then by coach, I saw for the first time on a foggy Autumn night, which hung like a white mantle of thin feathers, the city of Slutsk. The flickering lights from street lamps and fireplaces in houses created an outstanding panorama. It impressed my childish soul as a magical moment. It was symbolic of Slutsker of old ways and learning. This image has remained in my heart until this very day.
On the first day, with my father's letter in hand, I went to see the Peimer family. I wanted to see with my own eyes the learning passion which made them world renowned. Waiting was my first disappointment in Slutsk. It was not possible for them to see me then. I walked around and noticed an impoverished house, which made me see the tragedy of that which always lays between the generation ascending and the generation descending.
The prominence that shone on Slutsk at that time was derived from the presence of the Gaon R'av Jacob Vilavski, or as he was known by the shortened name Ridb'n.
On my first Slutsker day, a strong urge to see all the houses of study overcame me and I went to the Court school. There I saw the imposing figure of Ridb'n, dressed in a holiday kaputa, trimmed with purple feathers and golden threads. On his head he wore a fur hat. He held a large open book in his hands and his eyes were engrossed in its words. He stood by a legendary stone. I looked at him with great curiosity, and he sensed that someone was nearby. He closed his book and called to me.
He wanted to know who I was; not much more than a young boy. When he heard I was coming to Slutsk to study in the Yeshiva, so far from Skud, then he spoke to me as a grownup. His words have always remained with me. His serious demeanor lightened and he spoke to me with ease. He spoke from the heart to a strange boy. The words seemed like a lamentation. He had not been in Slutsk for two years. He had traveled to America and now there was nothing for him to do in Slutsk. He would soon return to America.
He had been in America twice: The first time to receive help with publishing his book on the commentaries of the Jerusalem Talmud; the second time with the goal to remain in the new world. The outcome was quite different and he was torn between the two places.
For ten years he had been the rabbi in Slutsk and the name the Slutsker rabbi gave him a great reputation. An entire folklore grew about him but he became the adversary of the Peimer family of that city.
The Ridb'n favoredthe House of Shahmy. It was compatible with his character: strict, unbending, difficult, and aggressive.
The House of Peimer's custom was to follow Hillel: light, soft, interpretive, not punishing or angry, with good conversation and stories.
As for a fighter in a war situation, the whole world was a battlefield. And so it was with him. The fate of the Slutskers was discussed in far away America with the Ridb'n. A conference of aristocratic, important scholars assembled in Philadelphia to hear him speak, with the hope that he would bring order to the Jewish home in the New World.
However, strong opponentswere against him. The same conflicts that existed in Slutsk had traveled to America. Soon he found a position in Chicago. His philosophy of learning was also rejected there and he went from place to place. He wanted to establish something similar to what he had had in Lithuania and Slutsk. Finally he decided to end his travail and go to Israel. There he would continue writing his commentaries on the Talmud Yerushalmi.
Destiny brought me tohim once more in an unexpected meeting in America.
It was the year 1905,on East Broadway in New York City. Each day thousands of Jewish children from Russia arrived, many from Yeshivas in Lithuania. It reminded me of my Slutsker Yeshiva generation, and as if in a magical story, I suddenly saw the Ridb'n. He was dressed in the same holiday clothing, a satin kaputa trimmed with gold and feathers. He wore a fur hat and had an open book in his hand. He was standing near Seward Park, as he had stood near the stone in Slutsk. I felt as if I were in a dream. I approached him, reminded him ofSlutsk, and he remembered me. Ridb'n spoke with cutting words. In America he was a leftover. He was an exile in the New World. He claimed that soon he would gather the Slutsker fighters and take leave with new energy.
Warmed by the rare inner charm of R'av Easer Zalman Meltzer's personality, the unique character of the Slutsker Yeshiva gleamed. Students even came from cities which had their own larger and sometimes more historic Yeshivas, and these usually went by the name of the town. In Slutsk there were also many different Yeshivas, but without a doubt the Yeshiva of R'av Meltzer was the most outstanding in the city.
R'av Meltzer possessed three blessed attributes:
First, love, plain love of the entire generation of young Jews, as much as the love of his own children; love with concern that nothing bad should happen to them; love with a Talmudic tension, from which they will receive great pleasure. R'av Meltzer often said: when you learn you are surrounded by the Shechinah [Editor's note: defined as the glory or radiance of God or God's presence] and the melody of learning. Then the Jewish heart sings. Can there be greater joy?[Page 325]
Second, a rare belief in the psychological strength of the student of the Gemorrah. This student can be trusted. He will not desert the holy tradition of his people. He will protect it with his life. It is not necessary to stand over him with an iron discipline, and constantly threaten him with punishment. He must be encouraged to look into each book andhe alone will select what is significant, although he may be suspected of not choosing properly. R'av Meltzer was the greatest defender of this approach. He was an outstanding figure for the entire young generation and hopeful that they would learn what was morally relevant.
Third, his modesty, his holy indefinability, his pattern for teachers that they not be boastful. He believed that those who are able to and those who are willing to teach are equals.
These characteristics of R'av Easer Zalman Meltzer became the hallmark of the Yeshiva in evolutionary development, which did not follow the path of the other Yeshivas.
In the Yeshiva there were three levels of study; those students with rabbinical training who are ready to become rabbis; those deep into Talmudic law and custom, who already have a specific direction; and those who study Gemorrah. Eachstudied by himself, and each is engrossed in his own choiceand has his own melody. Completededication of the heart is required. Their inner being bursts and sings and the voices join together as a choir of philosophic dialogue. In that way the students intertwine their spirituality. It is a dramatic experience.
The Yeshiva isnot a static place. The students mingle around the lectern on theplatform. One passes on to the other what he has learned. They move about in friendship and speak and learn; the older with the younger. Questions and answers fly back and forth, and the teacher must deal with many naive questions of the new students who want to draw from his wealth of knowledge. It is a loving spiritual dialogue.
All generations are united by R'av Meltzer. Then there are general battles with those who challenge him. Before he comes to a point in his thinking, they question him and he immediately answers. They ask again and then the battle is between the questioners. They go back and forth to see who is more humorous, foolish, ironic, clever with satire and who sings out his questions. R'av Meltzer battles with everyone and calms those who question with great heat. They are very dear to him.
Slutsk followed the tradition of Valazshin, so that the voice of Torah will never leave the Yeshiva, and learning will continue for twenty four hours; day and night, it should be filled with learning. Slutsk did not use this system immediately. First it began with one session on Thursday night each week. Next three days and nights, summer and winter. Those who did not study properly did not have a spiritual enlightenment. Those who did were alone in the Yeshiva. Each sat at their Gemorrah and there was only enough light to allow reading. Each sang his own melody in the dim light, full of feeling, as if the Shechinah herself was crying somewhere in the shadows. Some students became silent as they listened to the various melodies of their fellow students.
It is summer. The night is ending and the sky grows lighter. The starlight is slowly extinguished. Soon it will be daytime. The windows are open and a cool breeze wafts through the room. It feels as if the grasses are secretly seeding. Each blade has had a night of rest and soon the sun will shine and the grass will grow in return. In the heart of each student there is no smile. Loneliness gnaws at him. Sadness pervades him. His melody must always bring a tear from the Shechinah.
Winter is the image which follows such sober thought. In the long winter nights the soul is a glowing ember and recollection. The Yeshiva, with a light coming through the window stands in heavy snow. The snow continues to pile up continuously.
The majesty had a crown which belonged to Jewish learning.
Others remembered the teaching of ethics in the dusk of the Sabbath evening when powerful poetic images were unfolded. Afterwards some would meet in Astraveh and take a Sabbath walk. They were nicely dressed but some did not wear their fringes. They did not have long sideburns. They were the young students and wore a variety of hats. This reflected changing times. The older people stared at them. They walked from Astraveh to the broader streetsand from there to the home of R'av Meltzer. Theywent in pairs or groups of three and four in a linea march of beauty to honor the Sabbath. The setting sun and the sky were different and so was the earth. The students went to R'av Meltzer's house with respectand reverence. When he left to go to the House of Prayer, they followed him. They would hear his stories and poems and this stirred their emotions and created an inner excitement.
The melody of ethics began very softly, then rose higher and higher until it almost was a scream of pleasure of the heart of each one to the Father of mercy.
With their faces to the wall they often broke down in tears. Some had a tremor in their voice and some a lament. Each one had his own ethic in accordance with his own concerns and quandaries.
When it was dark, R'av Meltzer stood facing everyone and the students knew that he was going to give a special lesson in ethics. Each Sabbath hepresented a different point from ethical philosophy accompanied by a poetic and visionary Torah portion. He told a story about a Cabalistic mystic or a founder of Ethicslife stories with wonderful examples in them to unite the Cabala and Ethics. R'avMeltzer paced the floor with spiritual elegance. The students sensed in themselves an elite soul and they prayed. Afterwards a new week of learning began during the day and in the quiet of he night
At that time a light of brotherhood (1902-1904) pervaded the Slutsker Yeshiva like a flaming soul. Such spirit rarely came into the lives of the students. It was called Light of Shabbatand concerned providing a Sabbath table for the commuting students, one that would be available for the entire semester and even the entire year.
The local students had to get grants and family support for meals so as not to stand at a different door each night like a beggar asking for food. They needed to have pride in themselves and not feel poor and hungry. Most of them came from poor homes where there was barely enough to eat. Their mothers and fathers made many sacrifices to feed their sons whose Yeshiva attendance was a source of great family pride.
Sometimes they sent packages to the them with things they were able to afford; tea, a sack of sugar. A dear beloved sister helped a great deal, fulfilling the historic role of young Jewish daughters who assisted the studentsof the Torah.
Daughters were the firstto leave their parents and go to England and America. From time to time, the student would receive a letter with some money from his weary traveling sister, often younger than he. His job was to study and be a joy to their mother and father. The entire money account forthe Yeshiva student's life revolved around kopecks for housing, a day'sfood, etc. Usually four Yeshiva students were in one room, and the places were called stations. The owners themselves were poor mothers living in a bitter slum. They cooked for the students making a heavy Slutsker barley soup, or radishes with chicken fat. The rest of the week they often lived on bread and tea, except for the Sabbath. The Sabbath had to be different. It was the Queen, the bride, the entire beauty of Jewish life. On the Sabbath they must be at a table with a challah, wine, and a piece of meat. They would sing hymns together. A group known as the Lights of Sabbath found families in town to provide this dinner for the students. There had to be spirituality at the Sabbath table. The Yeshiva man was the representative of the Jewish world.
It was an exciting time for the entire city. At the Sabbath table of so many Slutsker homes, a few hundred Yeshiva students discussed the higher meaning of the Sabbath. There was a special atmosphere in Slutsk that gave the discussion a great historic character.
Slutsk also had aRussian gymnasium, which brought students from Minsk and other communities. Among them were children from well-to-do Jewish homes who wanted to go there to study certain subjects. Others never went to the gymnasium because they were poor Jews and could not pass theexaminations. They did, however, remain inSlutsk and were taught by private tutors who helped them prepare for the examinations for four subjects, one of which was pharmacy. Slutsk was filled with students who either chose the Yeshiva or, ifthey could, went to the gymnasium.
A rumor began that anyone interested in the Yeshiva was a foolish person and that the spiritual life had no future. The Yeshiva student has no ambition for modern civilization and world culture. He is an impractical person and clung to the old ways.
Others disagreed and felt that Yiddish studies would provide a good life for world Jewry.
Once, right after the Kishinev pogrom, we said prayers for the murdered Jews. This was really a protest against the terrible darkness that befell Jewish life in Czarist Russia for many generations. It was known that on that day students from the gymnasium came, as well as from the Yeshiva. It was a rare scene. A city advocate stood near the Torah and talked about the pogrom, and stated that the entire world rang with it. One of the Yeshiva students recited the Kaddish. Another reciteda famous poem written by H.N. Bialik called City Massacre. The poem was printed in a small booklet which was distributedthroughout Slutsk. During thereading a woeful cry broke out. We were so struck by this poem, frozen to the spot. Our eyes burned and teeth chattered.
Another momentlater that summer. Again an unforgettable scene.
Dr. Theodore Hertzel came to Russia to talk about Zionism. When he was in Vilna at that historic time a rumor reached us that he had been shot. When this news arrived all the Jews assembled in the town at the Post Officeon the broad street. People often went there to hear world news each day. It was said that at the Post Office one learned everything. Jews ran there in the middle of the dayto hear about Dr. Hertzel. They left their stores, workers left their jobs and students ceased studying.
After the conference, groups of delegatescame to visit Slutsk on their way home. They had heard about the young Jews who gathered in Slutsk at the Yeshiva and gymnasium and wanted to observe. Every day there were guests in the Yeshiva. The guests did not participate in Russian Jewish life. I remember the great crowd that came to hear a sermon given by Isaac Raynes in the great synagogue ofSlutsk. Many students also came. He had a reputation as a modern rabbi. The Orthodox Jews had a dim view of him. However, a rabbi is a rabbi, so even the very religious came to hear him with great respect. He was held in high esteem and considered an outstanding speaker.
Because of the guests that sought out Slutsk, the Yeshiva people became interested in every aspect ofZionism. More information was needed and soughtinthe town library, where books in Yiddish and Hebrew were available. In addition, they had the journal Hashluach which published writings by Echad Ha'am. Afterwards the teachers at the Yeshiva discussed him and also Dr. Harold Klausner and Dr. Simon Bernfeld, who were among the most important writers in the journal.
The library became a significant place in the city. It was the center for leaders of the Enlightenment and Hebrew teachers. There were young writers who later became well known; novelists, dramatists and translators of Sholem Aleichem into Hebrew. I.D. Berkowitz, a young looking teacher with olive skin and large round eyes, intelligence beaming from them, was a favorite with the students forthe literature he taught. After he left Slutsk they heard of his large literary following and his wonderful storytelling. The story Moshe'kele Khazir created a holiday, a worldly atmosphere for the Yeshiva population. For the Slutsker students he opened a door to modern Yiddish literature, which let them wander in its garden. Theywould grow along with all that bloomed there.
At the same time I believe there was the beginning of the explosion of writers who described Jewish cultural life. Many of them were born in Slutsk.Meyer Waxman was one who wrote in English about Hebrew and Yiddish literature, thinking, and ethics with a glowing sagacity.
Also many crafts were developed in our generation at that time.
A young man dressed in a gray student's coat with shiny buttons and a cape over his shoulders appears in the doorway. He wears a round white hat and resembles a military officer. He had been passing by and heard our voices so late on such a night that he decided to take a look. Could he talk to us? His name is Aaron Singalovski.
The future Doctor Singalovski, talented speaker for Jewish socialist groups on an international level, is an excellent representative for European Jewry.
A dialogue between us ensues. He is a stranger to Slutsk; a traveler with the hope of entering the gymnasium. What are you and your friend studying? He asks many questions; do you know about ethics, and who were the great Talmudic philosophers? Do you know about the Gaonim and the Cabalists? We are not intimidated by all these questions. We speak of the people from the time of the Gemorrah and their greatness and humanity. We speak of the difficult lives of those who received the mystical tradition. Some were rabbis, blacksmiths, shoemakers, woodcutters, upholsterers, and at the same time teachers and poets. Our guest is impressed with our knowledge of the mystical rabbi Shlomo Alkabatz, poet of the Sabbath song L'cha Dode. R'av Easer Zalman Meltzer had translated it for us. He is the forerunner of Moser. Singalovski likes what he hears. He sits with us until the morning and comes a second and third time.
Later he is to found an organization in Slutsk for students and teachers, Sons of Judah. It will be a society whose purpose is getting together to learn from one another through discourse about morals and ethics, Gemorrah images, world ideas, and Socialism. We will learn about the Bund and Hersh Lekert, in Vilna and Minsk as well as Zionism. In a drop of water we will see the ocean and all of G-d's rainfall. In the Slutsker Sons of Judah we will see the future for our generation.
Slutsk of that time enchanted all of us who had her in our blood, and we took her away with us over all the seas. She took us to diverse political and social movements; some in cultural occupations, literature, journalism, and some in science (picture at top of second column-Hillel Dobrav and Aaron Singalovski) and college life in the free world.
On some of my journeys, my experience with meeting people, and seeing one phenomenal land after another, Slutsk stood out on my world map. In 1933 I came to Slutsk during the Soviet terror and year of hunger. Earlier I had had an opportunity to once again appreciate Slutsk. I had been in Israel and was a Sabbath guest in the Jerusalem home of Rabbi Meltzer. He was at that time the great Torah scholar there. I became weak seeing his beautiful new home. I met another famous Slutsker, I.D. Berkavitch, well known for the Hebrew literature which was to become part of the new state of Israel. I recalled the excellent Slutsker library and visited the Ridb'n's grave site in Safed. Slutsk was ever present everywhere I traveled .
I arrived in Slutsk from Bobruisk. The Soviet police power had cut her to pieces. They said I could go no further. Everything was controlled by the military. I was close to the city. If my automobile could go five more minutes more, I would be at Astraveh where the Yeshiva was located. I know the way and carried a map showing all the places I had ever been. The Soviet soldier was friendly. He took my papers and said he would help me. He took me to a military post and asked if there were Jews in Slutsk? One soldier carried a club and had a rope tied around him. He looked me over. One remarked that the Slutsk that once was is no more. That Slutsk died long ago.
I thought to myself that it died at the hands of this enemy.
Is the synagogue still there in the middle of the town? Is the stone still there?
The soldier with the rope around him said Slutsk is a military camp. Everywhere there were stalls with military horses. I felt as if my heart tore. So this was the end of our long ago Slutsk which now only remains in memory.
Translated by Tamara Selden There was a State school with Russian studies for Jewish boys in Slutsk. Officially it was considered to be a government school. It was supervised by the Vilna education system. If this was regulated by the government, I do not remember. The teachers held diplomas from the Vilna Teacher's Institute, and wore uniforms with decorative buttons and hats with ribbons. The students wore black rubashkes [gowns] and hats that had a shiny point. The school was comprised of four classes, plus a special preparation class. The courses were: Russian language, arithmetic, Russian history and geography. Later around 1903 they added algebra, geometry and eventually Jewish religion. We then also had singing: Russian patriotic songs, children's folk songs. A non orthodox rabbi would speak to the students about patriotic Russian concepts.
Originally the school was in the beautiful home of the Solovecheks on Sadavah Street. Later it was moved to another place which belonged to a German whose name was Gerleh, near Astraveh Street, not far from a house with a cloister. There were five classrooms with benches for the students. In each room there were pictures of the Kaiser and Kaiserina on the walls. In addition, there was a teacher's room, a library, and a private office for the Principal. The school had a courtyard, where the students did gymnastics under the supervision of an instructor in an unusual uniforman amazing sight for former cheder boys from Slutsk.
Most of the students came from comfortable homes and were students who did not show the ability to study in the Yeshiva. There were those who had the ambition to become Russian teachers or externs to supervise examinations in the Slutsker gymnasium.
As I went into the school, after finishing my usual Jewish studies, a new remarkable world opened up for me. The official language had to be Russian. My skill in this language was very limited. All I knew was the White Russian language of the peasants, which I picked up in the streets. At first I was laughed at, but it did not take long for me to improve and speak as well as my friends.
Speaking Russian disciplined the former Yeshiva students and kept them in good order. They were respectful of their teachers in their uniforms , and worked hard at their studies. However, among the students there were free souls, brats, mockers, who sneakily ridiculed the teachers and gave them nicknames in Yiddish. Thus, the teacher Rosenthal was called rabbit because he was short and round. Another was called hunchback nose, and other such names. Even the other students found this amusing.
These were the days of the first revolution in Russia (1904-1905). The buntarisher spirit captured the entire land and even blundered into our Yevrehiskaye school, particularly in our last class. When the gymnasts from the town gymnasium went out on strike, because nine friends had been locked out for revolutionary leanings, we joined them in sympathy with all the other organized revolutionary groups. We marched to the doors of the gymnasium and tried to bring those who had been driven out back inside. In the end soldiers with guns were posted at the doors. One of us was wounded and ran to us all bloodied.
When the demonstration ended we all went our separate ways. The school was closed. Some of the students resumed their studies in other places. Some followed the example of their fathers and went to work. Most left for America with the great Jewish immigration tide, after the October pogroms in 1905. In America I met several friends from the school.
Finally, we were reminded of the good things in the school. Mr. Levinson, who was the teacher of our last class, and was called by the bratty students, The Old One because he wore a beard, was a man of fine spirit. He was strongly attentive to each of his students who showed great curiosity and interest in higher learning. He concerned himself with their ability to look beyond the borders of the school. He gave them books to read from his private library that were part of classic Russian literature.
Translated by Tamara Selden The fact was that in later years, when I was already grown up and on the broad road to an independent life, I met friends and yeshiva students who had studied in Slutsk in the same year as I had. In the past there had been little opportunity for those of us from the gymnasium to get acquainted with those who attended the yeshiva.
I will never forget another time in my life, which I call the Slutsker period. It was tightly bound up with a strong and even dramatic time in my early years. It was the first time I tasted the experience of being a young Jewish man from old Czarist Russia who tried to take himself forward along the difficult path of gaining worldly knowledge. At that time it was extremely difficult for a young Jewish man to attend a Russian gymnasium.
In order to clearly prepare for the difficult path, I recall that in Russia the percentage form existed for Jews attending the gymnasium. This referred to the number of Jews as compared to the number of non Jews attending the government gymnasiums or other institutions.
In the government gymnasium they took Jewish students of wealthier parents, who by various means and tricks and paid protection were accepted.
Sholem Aleichem, as we know, exposed this tragic-comedy about such Jewish parents and the various procedures of getting their children into the gymnasium in Czarist Russia. I experienced the bitter taste of these procedures in my first attempt to become a student there.
I was not a child of wealthy parents, who had the luxury of giving money in order for me to be accepted at the gymnasium. I had to take another, more difficult path. I became an extern.
At that time everyone knew what it meant to be an extern. However it was so long ago that it seems proper to [left column-picture of Slutsk gymnasium] set forth here the peculiar Yiddish phenomenon which explains the term. It is useful for coming generations and for history as well, to understand, even though it has been written about before. Therefore I am prepared to explain this Jewish student situation which was known as extern.
The Jewish youths who did not have the possibility of attending a Russian gymnasium could study privately elsewhere. An examination was held every year at the gymnasium, which they were unable to take because of the anti Semitic percentage norm. So they established this special category of extern. I belonged to this G-d forsaken category. Why I describe it as G-d forsaken is not hard to figure out, if you knew every hardship, worry, and nervous tension which each of us experienced in trying to get a gymnasium diploma or a zrelasti as it was called in Russian.
The Russian students of the gymnasium looked askance a the Jewish education seekers, who used to haunt the place in the summer months from May to June in order to take examinations. Some teachers were blatantly anti Semitic and they made the examinations extremely difficult.
There was an accepted concept that the extern must know a great deal more than the usual gymnast in order to pass the exam. The cramming of all the facts in order to remember them well and to be outstanding truly was a torment, which only bright, patient, youthful minds could endure.
It often occurred that the work of an entire year was thrown away because of this. From one exam and one point of view, the examiner could fail the studentsometimes for a small detail because his memory failed in a critical moment of the examination, either in written or oral questions. The examiner claimed he had to hold the examination the next year including all the material, even though the student had passed certain sections.
In this way I also began the final stage of an extern at the Slutsker gymnasium in the years 1900 to 1905; and crept through several exams until the year 1906. I finally, through a miracle, completed the seventh class of the second Warsaw gymnasium on Navcalipkey Street with a medal. I was then able to become a member of the law faculty at Warsaw University, which I completed in four years.
When I completed Law School, I had a great deal of difficulty entering the legal profession because a Jew had to have a year of work as a help advocate, and did not have full rights in the profession.
The anti Semitic restrictions in Czarist Russia placed the Jews in lower class ranks which had many handicaps and restraints.
However, I remember Slutsk with warm feeling and gratitude and loss; it was there I gained [picture left columnthe Boulevard on the broad street] my first opportunity to enter into life with knowledgeable preparation. Later it opened a broad path to higher development in a profession with quality and status work. I am grateful to Slutsk for her contribution to my spiritual unveiling. I miss her especially because of the good experiences that made my younger years memorable and full of warmth.
Until the present day I think of my friends of those years, how I met different types of Jews. The scenes and pictures of Slutsker life are forever imprinted in my memory.
I remember several Jewish families because of my friendship with their sons and daughters.
I became very close to two Slutsker families; private advocates Dotner and Karfman. I also remember other Slutsker families: Witkin, owner of the pharmacy, and the families Kantorvitch and Getsav, the externs and their sons who were bright young people. Some of these young people completed all eight classes at the gymnasium for examinations.
Besides these close families, I also remember those who played a special role in Slutsk; for example, the very popular Jewish physician, Dr. Schildkraut. He drove through the streets in a wagon dispensing medical help and was married to a beautiful young woman from Nesvizh from the family Shvershinski. Their children were my good friends.
Until this very day, I still think of those large businesses which appeared to me to be great, rich and luxurious stores.
The marketplace was full of noise. It was called the Chausee [main street] and had the feel of constant hoo hah. Poor men and women dealt with cheaper items in order to earn a living.
I recall the breezy beautiful days of May and June when the boys and girls went for walks through the streets near the Slutsker Chausee. We talked easily and the flirting was warm and friendly. Our hearts fluttered, our eyes were full of fire, and there was never an end to walking. We never got tired. At night we had to prepare for our examinations.
Who ever got tired at that time in our youth? Who ever thought about what was healthy? We were young, strong, capable, and hot blood raced quickly in our veins.
Where have you gone, my distant beloved Slutsker years? Now it is as if it had been a dream. How far away are the years with my young proud friends, dressed in their gymnasium uniforms, and all the beautiful daughters, full of charm and teasing ways! They awoke love in us, passion and tenderness. I also remember the elderly Slutsker Jews, who rested in the evening after a long hard day of work.
After a number of years I departed from Slutsk, my second home. Later, destiny sent me back, but in another role. This would be my last and final sad departure from Slutsk.
It was several years after the Bolshevik Revolution. In the year 1921 many Jews were sent to various cities and towns, and I was sent to Slutsk to be a teacher. This was a big change from the previous experience of my youth. I was assigned by the Soviet educational commission to teach in the same gymnasium where I had once in the summer months, with trembling heart, taken the examination to become an extern.
For me it was a strange experience, standing in the same great rooms and teaching only Soviet students. They had come there without limitations or difficulties.
During my classes I would remember those terrible times I had in this place all those years ago. What would my present students know about how I suffered in this gymnasium?
I saw my role in Slutsk as a whimsical play about my life. There had been a bloody world war and after that a bloody revolution, in order for me, the Nesvizh Jew, to be here in a new role in this same place. In a way I felt that it was historic justice playing itself out before my eyes.
At that time in Soviet Russia the Commissariat decreed that mathematics be taught, despite the fact that we teachers had no time to prepare to teach it. My pre-Revolution education was centered in Russian language and literature. Those were the subjects I had taught in Petrograd.
There was a terrible shortage of teachers but the Government was not concerned about their ability to teach mathematics. The main concern was to fill the positions. How different this was compared to those earlier times when to become a teacher in a gymnasium in a specific subject required many years of intense dedication.
The situation was so different now. The Russians recruited every intellectual, every person with education, in order to further the work in various government institutions. The most intellectual people did not have any desire to become part of this system. But they had no other choice because they could not find work that was compatible with their education elsewhere. Everything was centrally controlled.
In the Soviet gymnasium I met some of my old teachers who had given me the examinations in my younger year as an extern. I sometimes reminded them of the miserable time the Jewish students had had with those examinations. Now we could feel equal. Now the examinations were the same for everyone. We were no longer excluded from the educational system.
However, there was not one bit of discipline in the gymnasium; just the opposite from the years of the Czarist government. The teachers had no control and work requirements were ignored by the students. Later the government introduced strict measures, but I had already left Russia.
Soviet Slutsk threw itself into the new world and a new life with great exuberance.
The memories of the past hung heavily on my shoulders and woke in me restlessness and negative thoughts. I felt dread for Jewish life in the cities and towns.
I did not find people I had known earlier. I felt lonesome and solitary in the same city which had played such a large role in my youth. It seemed empty and unfriendly. A strange feeling of loss overwhelmed me, but I could not foresee the terrible events of the Nazi era and the tragic loss of the Jews, who would become martyrs at the hands of the murdering Nazis. Yet, although this was before the time of Hitler's assault on Europe, I already felt something about the coming destruction.
Life in general deteriorated in Slutsk. The city was almost unrecognizable. The stores were empty of goods. The sidewalks, houses, and the marketplace were sad to see. People stood in line to buy various products. They looked old, worried, and gray.
Slutsk had achieved a different appearance after the tragic beginning of the war and revolution, and I felt as if I was a stranger in Slutsk, a place that had been such a meaningful part of my life.
My sister was already a widow and had great difficulty providing the bare necessities for her three daughters. There was only fear and worry in her cheerless home.
I left Slutsk with mixed feelings of worry, pain, and sadness. With a constricted heart my wife and I wandered even further from my birth city of Nesvizh, through Kletsk where my other two sisters lived with their families. There was an established Polish regime in charge.
There, as in Slutsk, I felt the suffocating sense of fear and impending doom.
An atmosphere pervaded the place which prevented people from living a normal life.
As I left Slutsk an important piece of my life was gone: a chapter full of drama and meaningful experiences
Now, after so many years of parting, I feel a deep longing for her. The name of Slutsk awakes in me a whole symphony of my past.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Slutsk, Belarus Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2022 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 25 Oct 2010 by LA