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[Page 426]

Self-Defense in Hlusk

(Hlusk, Belarus)

52°54' 28°41'

by Shmuel Lief (Miami Beach, Florida)

Translated from the Yiddish by Sol Krongelb

Translator's note: This translation essentially follows the author's original style and structure. Some Russian and Yiddish words have been carried over without translation to help convey the flavor of the original. In many cases, the original text provides the definition; when deemed necessary, a translation has been added in brackets. Where I was able to, I have added explanatory footnotes for some of the customs which may not be familiar to the contemporary English reader.

Katonah, New York
March 11, 2001

Hlusk[1] was a small shtetl in the province of Minsk. Jews constituted about three quarters of the general population.[2] The 25 per cent Christians (meshchanes)[3] spoke Yiddish mixed with Hebrew words and lived on good, neighborly terms with the Jews, except for Sunday or a holiday, when they got themselves drunk and broke their Jewish neighbors' windows and not infrequently beat them, but not by any means because of anti-Semitism but just to pass the time.

Hlusk was no different from the other surrounding shtetlach [plural of shtetl] – mostly poor people (except for a few wealthy individuals); crooked houses; dirty, unpaved streets. The principal livelihood was derived from the market, for which the poor peasant-farmers came to town 2 or 3 times during the week. At the market there were 120 stores arranged one opposite the other in 4 rows, besides some ten or so stores in the side streets near the market. The remaining Jews engaged themselves in shoemaking, tailoring and other small trades. There were also many wagon drivers who would transport parshoinen (that's how they called their passengers) to and from the railroad. The nearest railroad was in Bobruisk, 50 viorst[4] away.

There was great competition in all aspects of earning a living. The shopkeepers would drag the peasants by their garments into their own shops. Even the kheder[5] teachers competed in the tuition fee and in their flattery of the balebatim[6]. Only one person in the shtetl had no competition – Reb Noah Itche Khloneh's[7]. He was the only candle maker in the shtetl and surrounding region, and therefore he was also called Reb Noah Lichtmacher [Candle maker].

Reb Noah was one of the most pious and respected balebatim in Hlusk. True, he was not wealthy. In winter, when a lot of slaughtering was done and there was enough tallow to make candles with an excess to send to the soap factories in Bobruisk, there was an income. But when the summer arrived, it was not so good because practically no slaughtering was done, and Reb Noah, along with the shochtim[8] and butchers, had no livelihood. So in the summer, Reb Noah became a sodovnik, that is, he rented a fruit-orchard from a poritz [land owner] and, if G-d helped, and the trees were not overrun with worms, and there was not too much rain and hail, they got by till winter.

Hlusk had a yeshiva where some ten or so young men studied. The head of the yeshiva was the renowned gaon Baruch Ber Lebowitz, z”l.

Because of the yeshiva there were a lot of aidyms af kest[9] which the wealthier balebatim took [as husbands] for their daughters. Many of the Hlusker yeshiva students are now prominent rabbis in America.

In 1905-1906 after the revolution there appeared in Hlusk, as in many other cities, groups of ruffians [known as] the Black Hundreds who incited the meshchanes and peasants in the surrounding hamlets against the Jews. The Hlusker Poali Zion formed a self-defense [movement] against pogroms.

One of the principal leaders of the self-defense [movement] was Nissan, Reb Noah Lichtmacher's son. Nissan was a real ben Noach[10], a young man, 17 years old, tall, strong, bold and energetic. He was assigned to manage the entire self-defense arsenal. Nissan hid all the arms somewhere in his father's house, but when the police began to make “obysken”[11] in Jewish houses, he transferred the arms to the rabbi's synagogue and stashed it in the attic under some old, torn holy books. And it happened one day that the chimney sweep was in the synagogue attic cleaning the chimney and found the whole arsenal. This occurred in the summer in the time between the afternoon and evening prayers.[12]

Reb Noah was studying a page of gemorah with the other Jews. The chimney-sweep told of the treasure he found. After a short deliberation among the synagogue Jews and Reb Noah, it was decided that all the arms which were discovered should be thrown into Bobe Penyeh Liebe's well. (For decades, she [Penyeh Liebe] was the only Jewish midwife, and everyone called her Bobe.) Said and done! After maariv [the evening prayer] the entire arsenal was submerged in the well.

The arms could not be retrieved from the well unless all the water was drawn out, so the [self-defense] group came up with an idea. They spread the word that a dead cat was found in the well, and the well had to be cleansed.

They found a time when Reb Noah was away, performed the “cleansing” of the well and rescued the arsenal of the Hlusker self-defense.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. The current name is Glussk. Return
  2. According to the 1897 Russian census, Hlusk had a total population of 5,328 people, of which 3,801 were Jews. Return
  3. Jews, as well as all other Russian subjects, were classified as being a member of one of the following legally defined classes: guild merchants, townspeople or middle class (meshchane), artisans or agriculturists. (The two additional classifications, nobility and clergy, were not relevant to Jews.) Boonin (Harry D. Boonin, AVOTAYNU Vol. IX, No. 1, pp 18-25.) points out that "the words Middle Class may not correctly convey the poverty connected with the shtetl" and that almost all Jews appear to have been classed as meshchanes. The use of the word meshchanes in the present context appears to be an explicit reference to those Christians in Hlusk whose economic status was comparable to their Jewish neighbors. Return
  4. A viorst is a Russian measure of distance equal to about 3500 feet (about a kilometer). Return
  5. Kheder is the traditional Jewish elementary school. Kheder is the Hebrew word for room, and indeed, the kheder in the shtetl was often a one-room school. Return
  6. The word balebatim is derived from the Hebrew and literally means "masters of the house." The term connotes reputable, responsible persons who were the community leaders. Return
  7. Reb is a title of respect usually reserved for learned or otherwise respected individuals. It does not mean rabbi. Names of an individual associated with the person (e.g. a parent or spouse) would often be added to distinguish the person from others with the same name. Thus, Reb Noah could have been the son of Itche Kloneh's. As noted in the next sentence of the text, a person's occupation could also be added to his name as an identifier. Return
  8. The plural form of shochet, a person who slaughtered animals in accord with Jewish ritual requirements. Return
  9. An aydim is a son-in-law; kest means board (as in room and board). Study of the holy texts was highly regarded in the Jewish community, and it was a source of particular pride for a father to have his daughter married to a scholar. A father, if he had the means, might go so far as to provide financial support so that his son-in-law could devote himself to the study of Torah, in which case the son-in-law would be referred to as an aydim af kest. Return
  10. Ben Noach literally means son of Noah and is a term used to refer to non-Jews or gentiles. Gentiles, like all people, were bound by the covenant G-d made with Noah after the flood as described in Genesis, but only Jews were required to follow the laws of the Torah, which they later received at Sinai. In the context of the present article, the author is making a play on the fact that Nissan's father is named Noah while also suggesting that Nissan was the sort of person who took direct action to deal with a situation without much regard to how the Torah and Jewish tradition might teach us to act under those circumstances. Return
  11. Yiddishized plural of the Russian word obysk, which means a search of the premises. Return
  12. An observant Jew says the morning, afternoon and evening prayers daily within prescribed time periods which vary with the season. In order to accomplish the afternoon and evening prayers with only one trip to the synagogue, worshippers, especially during the short days of winter, would say the afternoon prayers as late in the afternoon as was permissible and then wait a brief while till it was time to say the evening prayer. The summer months, with their many hours of daylight, allowed considerable leeway as to when the afternoon prayers could be said. This fact, combined with the late sunset, gave rise to the summertime practice of saying the afternoon prayers somewhat before sundown and then engaging in study till it was time for the evening prayer. Against this background, the author's description of the time makes it perfectly natural for Reb Noah to have been in the synagogue studying with other Jews as described in the next paragraph. Return

[Page 427]

The Gaon Borekh-Ber Leybovitsh

by Kheyn

Translated by Hershl Hartman

“Reb [a term of respect] Borekh-Ber” – words that were uttered with trepidation.

This was a name that had great weight in the rabbinic world – he was a gaon [Torah genius], a sage, a man of outstanding ethics. Among his students he was known as Rabbi “Borekh-Berl” – the meaning of his name implying a bear that does not frighten, does not scare a person off[1] . His loving glance was full of warmth, it drew hundreds of students close to him. In him they found encouragement, help and hope. His modest gaze reflected the pain and sorrow of those learnèd in the holy writings.

When he taught a lesson in Talmud in his unique manner, and a student would pose a question, he would struggle with it, to demonstrate that the question was truly a difficult matter. He would pause in thought for a couple of minutes, then reply earnestly and joyously, “My son, that's a good question! You truly deserve congratulations!” The students would look at each other in wonder. After the lesson they would ask, “Rabbi! You surely know that his question was not a solid question, so why waste time struggling with it?” To which he would reply, “You must show the learner that you are interested in him. He must be encouraged, strengthened. If you were to turn away a student's question contemptuously, he would be crestfallen and would not raise a question again.”

Once there was a rabbi who came to him and presented a bit of his own original Torah insight. Reb Borekh-Ber listened, nodded his head in agreement and said, “These are new ideas you have formulated, and they are quite good.” When the rabbi departed, the students said to him: “Rabbi! Who better than you would know that these Torah 'insights' of his are not original, that he took them from Reb Akiva Eger?”

Reb Borekh-Ber answered innocently, “If the rabbi had known that Reb Akiva Eger had already come up with these ideas, he would no doubt have given him the credit, [for he surely knows the aphorism] 'Whoever quotes something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world.' Obviously he had not been aware of Reb Akiva Eger's insights. Yet fortuitously, he reached the same conclusions as the sage. If so, he, too, deserves blessing.”


Rabbi Shloyme Polyatshek[2], of blessèd memory (the Maytshiter Prodigy)


The Maytshiter Prodigy – a title given the Gaon Shloyme Polyatshek – head of the yeshiva in Lida and one in New York, spent his last years at Yitzhok Elkhonen Yeshiva [Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, at Yeshiva University]. When he was in Vilna [Vilnius] he attended the Knesses Beys-Yitzhok Yeshiva. [When the Maytshiter Prodigy visited one time,] Reb Borekh-Ber did not want to teach any lessons in Torah [in his presence], declaring that he


Rabbi Borekh-Ber Leybovitsh


and the Maytshiter Prodigy had both been students of Reb Khayim Brisker, but that Reb Shloyme had continued studying with Reb Khayim [after Borekh-Ber had stopped]. How then could he, Borekh-Ber, permit himself to teach Torah in the presence of the Maytshiter Prodigy, whose insights and lessons would surely be superior? Consequently, Reb Borekh-Ber did not teach a Torah lesson that day, but instead spent time with the Maytshiter Prodigy, taking pleasure in hearing Reb Khayim Brisker's last Torah insights and in reminiscing together about this great gaon.

Both of these rabbis, Reb Borekh-Ber and the Maytshiter Prodigy – counted among the most revered of their generation – had many hand-written manuscripts [of their teachings]. Naturally they were asked why they held back from publishing this original work, which would surely be of interest to the rabbinic and scholarly world. They replied as follows: “Wonderful manuscripts were left by our rabbi, the great Reb Khayim Brisker, that are languishing and waiting for redemption. How can we think of publishing our own writings as long as our rabbi's holy words are themselves not in print?”

Both men were known as fierce admirers of their rabbi's teachings. The Maytshiter Prodigy, together with the head of the Yeshiva of Mir, his friend Rabbi Eliezer Finkel, were deeply involved in helping ultimately to publish Rabbi Khayim Brisker's writings.

In the end, the works of all three – Reb Khayim, Reb Shloyme, and Reb Borekh-Ber – were published, over a number of years: Insights of Reb Khayim Halevi was published in Brisk in the year 5696 [1936-37], and Insights of Reb Shloyme Polyatshek, in New York, in 5710 [1950-51]. Reb Borekh-Ber's works on the Talmud were published collectively under the title The Blessing of Samuel[3]. They are very popular among students of Torah in yeshivas everywhere. Reb Borekh-Ber, of blessèd memory, is considered to have been one of the greatest heads of yeshiva of the last generation and almost all the great heads of yeshiva across the world are his former students.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. “Ber” means bear; the diminutive form, “Berl,” implies a cuddly cub. Return
  2. Descriptions of Polyatshek were written by his students, N. Chinitz [Khinitsh] in “HaTsfirah,” January 6, 1928, Warsaw; and Rabbi Nissen Waxman in “Talpiyos [Holy Towers],” Vol. 6, No. 1-2, New York. [This footnote was written by the author of this article.] Return
  3. The book title was in honor of Borekh-Ber’s father, Shmuel Leibovich (Leybovitsh). Return


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