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The Town and its Residents

A. Till the First World War

Segments of Memories

by Abba Gordin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I was born in the town of Michaliszki. This was my first birth, as I was born a second time in Smorgon. That was my literary birth. I began to take up the writer's craft in Smorgon. That city, Smorgon, is dear to me because my cradle, the cradle of creativity, stood there.

 

A. We left Ostrów

The city was full of rumors. They complained about the children of the rabbi, who sinned and led the youth to sin, removing them from the faith in their Maker, bringing them in to a bad crowd called “Ivriya,” introducing them to the malignant illness of Zionism, Heaven save us.

On the other hand, there was nothing with which to complain about the children of the rabbi. One could not place the mantle of wantonness upon them. They wore long kapotes [cloaks] – kosher even for the stringent, wore Jewish caps, and grew curly peyos [side curls] in accordance with the religion of Moses and Israel.” They did not denigrate even the smallest custom. The clear sign of entering into a bad crowd was lightheadedness toward girls. The rabbi's sons were innocent of such sins. They set a covenant with their eyes, and why would they pay attention to a girl. Abba, the middle of the rabbi's children, was so dedicated, with all his soul and all his senses, to Hebrew and Zionism, to the point where he had no time or a scintilla of energy to dedicate to anything else. For Abba and Zeev [another son of the Rabbi], it was as if the better sex did not even exist.

In accordance with the understanding of the Hassidim of Ostrów, the casting off the yoke of Heaven was bound tightly with “licentiousness” and interest and connection with girls, one could not imagine such a sin with them and there were those Hassidim who even defended the rabbi's sons and the purity of their name, not allowing any denigration.

Reb Ben-Zion, the head of the Gerrer Hassidim, was among such defenders. He was a veteran student of the head of the Gerrer dynasty, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, who was a student and son-in-law of Reb Mendele of Kock.

In the Gerrer shtibel, from which the accusation against the rabbi's sons emanated, Reb Ben-Zion stood up and declared in a loud and angry voice, “I will slap the face of anyone who is so brazen as to utter one derogatory word against the son of Rabbi .”

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In his eyes, the murmuring about them was false rumors.

Reb Ben-Zion's wife, Mrs. Chana Gittel, would come to visit the rabbi's wife. During a friendly conversation, she informed her that people were talking badly about Bluma the rabbi's eldest daughter. They were saying that she was teaching Hebrew to the daughters of important householders. She, Chana Gittel, did not believe that Bluma, a modest, proper, and G-d fearing Jewish daughter, would do such a deed, that ought not to be done.

Reb Ben-Zion came on a regular visit to the rabbi, discussed city issues with him, and strolled with him for long and short walks, [often] delving into a difficult Talmudic discussion on Tractate Taharot. And after all this, incidentally told the rabbi about what was going on in the shtibel[1]. Abba was present on that occasion, and was astonished at the great naivete of Reb Ben-Zion, who looked at the eyes and not at the heart, and placed his full faith in the sons of his friend, the rabbi, without investigation or inquiry.

Rabbi Yehuda-Leib listened to Ben-Zion's words, and was silent. However his face became cold. He knew very well that this was not slander. The words were completely true.

The rabbi began to seek think of ways to avert the evil, and to extricate himself from this crisis. It is clear that he could not leave the city before the storm broke regarding the venomous situation of his sons and household and the Hebrew spoken in the Sephardic pronunciation was heard within the walls of his house[2]].

He thought silently, did not say anything, but rather arose and did something. He traveled, so to speak, to visit his father-in-law Rabbi Sender of Niestaniszki, in order to obtain a rabbinic post in Lithuania. He placed his eyes upon Smorgon, Vilna District, which was close to Niestaniszki.

It was in this manner that he received the writ of rabbinical post from the holy community of Smorgon.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib returned from his journey with the news: to prepare to leave Ostrów and move to Smorgon.

The Rebbetzin was not particularly satisfied, knowing that “there is no honor for a prophet in his native land,” and Smorgon was sort of the city of her birth. She suspected that they would not honor her appropriately, in accordance with what she was accustomed to. However, the situation could not be put off. There was no choice – they had to leave the city of Ostrów quickly. Even the rabbi was not satisfied. The existing conditions would mean that a change of place would lead to a change of fortune. It would be a form of salvation.

Abba, Zeev, and the sisters were in “seventh heaven” from great joy. They went from darkness to a great light. They would be liberated from the Hassidim who live in darkness, and would no longer have to be “Marranos.” In Smorgon, they would have the opportunity of conducting Hebrew and Zionist publicity in the open without disturbance, and without complaints.

 

B. To Freedom and Disappointment

The rabbi, Rebbetzin, daughters, and youngest son went first. Abba and Zeev were last, and traveled alone.

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Abba took leave from his impoverished group, especially from his dear friend Shmuel Szwarc, whom he left behind to take his place and continue his holy work. Szwarc was full of agony and worry. In a tearful voice he said, “Now that you are leaving the city, zealousness will increase here. Your father , the rabbi of the city, had a restraining effect on the zealots. They could not do whatever they want in the community. They were afraid of the rabbi. Now, we remain as a flock of sheep among lurking wolves. They will tear us up, and nobody will be there to save us.”

Abba and Zeev traveled via Białystok and reached the Smorgon station safely.

The winter was at its coldest point. They were both wearing new suits, new coats, and hats. It was possible to wish them “titchadesh[3]] from head to toe. The sun was shining. The day was bright. The cold was freezing but refreshing. The snow crunched under their feet and shone in splendor, like countless pearls and diamonds sparkling over the fields on both sides of the steel tracks.

Both of them enjoyed walks. Walking a mile or two was their only physical outlet. They did not aspire simply to athletics. When they had to take advice from each other or to deliberate over some difficult matter, they would go out to stroll. They would solve the matter outside the city in accordance with the advice of the Gemara (Berachot 8). There, there was no wall with ears, and one can be sure that nobody is lurking behind the door or room.

They would stroll frequently even in Ostrów where strolling was considered as a “lighthearted pursuit” unfitting for a lad occupied in Torah. Sometimes, they would even go as far as the forest. There, they would go into seclusion and discuss amongst themselves in Russian to practice that foreign language without fear that their words would fall upon a pious ear.

In any case, their primary aim was a stroll for the sake of a stroll. The other reasons served as a pretext to justify their desire.

Since the snow was so sparkly that it blinded the eyes, and the skies were spiced with their blue, our “mighty ones” said not to go home to see the face of their parents, sisters, and brothers, but rather to set out through the sea of snow and splendor. They left the house of poor paths and went out afar to walk through the frozen snow covering the village streams. A group of policemen and gendarmes were standing next to the tracks, where the path crossed them. When Abba and Zeev approached them, they made way for them to cross with great politeness.

Of course, Abba and Zeev noticed the servants of the Czar, but they did not place any special importance on their gathering beside the railway tracks. Since they let them cross, and also because they treated them with honor, they did not try to figure out what the “satraps” were doing on such a cold day in the field.

They delved deeply into their conversation, which was no idle conversation, but rather a discussion as to how they should conduct their pure Zionist and Hebrew publicity in this new place, without any intermixture of religion. They valued Smorgon as an enlightened city, in which they would be free to continue their work without clashing with the unenlightened zealots. However, they would yet encounter

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numerous difficulties in their home. They would have to play the “Marrano” game for more time yet, and not in a restricted manner, for the “rabbi's home” forged their steps.

An hour or two passed. The cold took its toll, penetrating through their coats, which were only a half or a third fit for the winter, reminding them that the time had come to return – that if they were to tarry, evening would fall and searching for the rabbi's house in the darkness of evening in an unfamiliar place would not be among the most pleasant of things.

When they approached the guards, the latter ones did not greet them as they had expected based on their early experience. Rather, they spread around them, surrounded them as if with an iron circle, and arrested them.

They questions rained forth quickly and urgently.

“From where did you come?”

“Where are you going?”

“Who are you?”

The questions were known to those asked. They were taken from Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3[4]], but the answers were different, not in accordance with the “writ.”

They did not come from a putrid drop, but rather from a very large city, and they were not at all prepared to give an accounting.

The nostrils of the gendarmes were opened wide. They smelled the smell of explosives in the answer. Explosions.

Abba unintentionally removed his right glove. The gendarmes who had grabbed hold of his arm and were leading him as if to a wedding, suddenly let go, and jumped behind him with an acrobatic leap. At first, Abba did not know the meaning of their reaction. Why were the gendarmes so afraid? However, it immediately became clear to him: Since they were coming from Białystok, and Białystok was a den of terrorist anarchists, [they suspected] that he had a bomb in his pocket, and the gendarmes felt “fortunate is the man who is constantly afraid”[5]] and they were suspicious of the anarchists of Białystok.

In short, a comic-tragic situation of perverted girls and twisted explanations played itself out here.

“Why? Just for a stroll?”

“In such bloodcurdling cold? Who do you think you are fooling? We know you and we recognize you”.

The truth was what does not make sense, what is not logical. Even if it is perfectly true, nobody would believe it.

What type of a crazy person would go out on a stroll on such a cold day. Furthermore, if they were coming from a far journey, they would go home immediately. Something like this deviates from the norm. The gendarmes had to know that there were two “characters” here, people who do not follow they normal path and do not act in accordance with generally accepted norms. Could they imagine that they caught two “prisoners” who had miraculously escaped from prison, and were celebrating their freedom at this time, both from a spiritual and a clothing perspective. They quickly freed themselves from the foolish Hassidim who regarded their manner of speaking

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as an unforgiveable capital crime. Now they could speak Hebrew and Russian to their hearts content – without complaint or outcry! They removed their dirty clothes, their kapotes and gartels, their hats and strange socks. Could the gendarmes have imagined that standing before them are two “Marranos” from the middle ages who were saved from the talons of the inquisition, and were now in Amsterdam in free Holland?

The following is what took place. Nikolai II, Czar of all the states of Russia, wished to travel on that railway line this day or the next. The two brothers did not read the daily newspaper while they were on their journey, and did not know what was taking place in the country.

They were dedicated to Hebrew and Zionism with heart and soul. They often reviewed the story of Herzl and the lessons therein: A king should not seek the “status of a teacher of young children.” Rather, they should obtain land, found a Jewish state, and not attain the “Greek” revolution through vinegar. Jews had to occupy themselves with one thing, and to place their entire interest there. They had to concentrate their willpower and all their thoughts – to liberation, complete redemption, leaving the destruction, freeing themselves from the enslavement to the exile – politically, spiritually, and culturally. To this end, every Jewish person must enlist all strands of their energy, every drop of blood flowing through their veins.

Both were imprisoned.

They swallowed their first morsel of food of “redemption.”

This was the reception they received in free Smorgon.

 

C. Free

How should they inform their parents that they were imprisoned, all because of some misunderstanding? However, this communication was already done by others.

Smorgon was a major Jewish city. The Bund operated there. Other revolutionary activity took place there. Smorgon had a tradition of Sinitski, a known revolutionary who belonged to the Populist Party, which was now in exile in Siberia. There were tanning workshops and factories for the working of hides in Smorgon. The agents went to the edges of Russia with their merchandise. Nevertheless, Smorgon was a typical Jewish town in all its detail. It was a town in which everybody knew everybody else, and every detail of fresh news would immediately spread, go from mouth to mouth on the streets, alleyways, shops and stalls, in the Beis Midrashes and kloizes. Nothing would be hidden. It was a given that everything hidden would be revealed, and every secret would be disclosed.

And, a frightening and startling event such as this took place here. In the afternoon, two lads were led through the city under the heavy guard of gendarmes.

The question was immediately asked: Who are they? What did they do? Why were they captured by the government? The Bundists knew all their members, as did the Social Democrats of the city. Therefore, these dandy lads were from the outside. They immediately surmised that they are probably the children of the rabbi who had recently arrived, for they were awaiting their arrival that day.

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When then rabbi found about the matter, he approached the city mediator, Yehuda Folkisz. He was known as a communal who stood in contact with the local and government officials. He used to blind their eyes with “secret gifts,” whether from private individuals or the community – as an agent of the holy community.

In short, the conundrum was solved, and the strolling “criminals” were “freed” after spending the night in complicated Smorgon negotiations.

They returned home. The joy was great in their home, but not for long.

The friction lost its bitterness and sharpness. Zionism and Hebrew were not forbidden matters in Smorgon. However, extreme transgressions leading toward complete secularism or uncompromising atheism were not considered acceptable ideas, whether in the house of the rabbi or in the homes of the city notables. And the two sons of the rabbi had become heretics, opponents to the Diaspora way of life. They rejected the holy, well-rooted customs.

They maintained the externals of traditional Judaism. They washed their hands, seemingly recited their blessings, whispered the grace after meals, apparently prayed and put on their tefillin, as if forced by a demon.

How could they cast this burden off of their shoulders? This was a fundamental question that did not leave from them daily or given them rest.

 

D. The Announcers

The status of the “Marranos” was difficult. They wrenched their souls with the fulfilment of religious texts. They were tired of bearing such a heavy burden. However, they did not have the strength to cast off the practical commandments. They did not have the spiritual strength to break away from their father. However, to continue to bear the yoke for an unlimited period – they could not endure. It was impossible that times of wrath, and difficult and desperate battles would not come. They must gird their strength and be prepared to manage without gift and without prayer, but rather with battle[6]] – a battle over a problem more difficult than all civil wars.

What will be will be. From Egypt, from the dark Hassidic town, they extricated themselves from the fortress – even though they did not reach the open area. Nevertheless, they breathed freely. Now, the dual battle – they would connect with their father who would not receive support from the environment, from the Jew surrounding him.

They thought about their situation seriously. They did not give themselves false hopes. They realized that the patience of their father and mother would reach a certain point and stop. No rabbi, even the most enlightened, would make peace with militant, strong atheism. They must take good counsel, and hatch a well-thought-through strategic plan.

During their stroll, they discussed how they should act when they reached home. Therefore, they tarried in the field. They did not want to arrive unprepared and depend on improvisation. They regarded their imprisonment as an iniquitous event perpetrated by gendarmes ensconced in darkness. However, this imprisonment gave them a fateful hint, foreseeing and pointing to their pending luck.

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The first thing was to capture the Beis Midrash lads. They would come as if to a public prayer service. If they were already heretics, they would take advantage of their situation, use it to their benefit, and see if there were studying lads who could be “enlightened” and extricated from the pit.

How? They had to use discrete and well thought methods of publicity. They would use Bialik's poem “Hamatmid.” It would act as a wedge. This poem would certainly attract the hearts of the Beis Midrash students.

They found two excellent students, one was the Genius of Godleib, and the other was younger than him. He was nimble and shrewd, and his name was Warszawski. They did not eat their meals on a rotation basis as did the “patrons,” but rather received monthly support from the community such that they could solve their financial problems in a meager fashion and prepare themselves for the day that they would receive rabbinical ordination, and later, fine, gracious brides from wealthy families.

The Genius of Godleib would go backward, tending toward “black melancholy.” He did not speak but rather strung his words like tarred strings. He went far with the rabbinical decisors and was on the threshold of receiving rabbinical ordination, and a bride that would come along with support from the table of the father-in-law. Further on, he had bright prospects: if G-d desires and the father-in-law would make the right contacts, he might receive a rabbinical post in a small town the length of a yawn.

Warszawski had bright hair, took joy in life, and had speaking talents of the sort of a “preacher”. He was even developed in the art of homey conversation.

The brothers Abba and Zeev became friendly with the two lads. Bialik did a good service for them. He was the iron ram croaking at the spiritual fortress of the ghetto.

The two lads would frequent the house of the rabbi, and also got to know the rabbi's daughters. The Genius of Godleib even attempted to court the elder, Bluma, in a refined fashion, but was not successful. The lads began to study Hebrew diligently, and willingly practice Hebrew speaking.

Warszawski almost became the “assistant” of the brothers in their work of explanation and publicity, in winning over souls for Zionism and Hebrew from amongst the rest of the lads.

The third lad, upon whom they stormed to win him over and bring him under the Zionist-Hebrew canopy was Chaim Yisrael. He was the son of a Hassidic Rebbe. He was G-d fearing, with enthusiastic devotion. He was far from a scholar, but he occupied his bench in the Beis Midrash willingly. He was a “patron” in the full sense of the term. He ate his meals on a rotation basis, as was customary. His father “the good Jew” had passed away, and his only son was raised by relatives as an orphan. He was exacting in both the light and difficult commandments. The publicity toward secular Zionism and Hebrew was very difficult for the brothers. Chaim Yisrael was a hard nut that would not be easy to crack. Abba invited him to their house. After much urging, he came shyly, stayed a bit,

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and it seems that he felt himself in chains. He especially felt himself bound in iron chains in the presence of the older daughters of the rabbi. Through the united efforts of Abba, Zeev, Bluma, and Rachel, he was finally won over from this trap of zealous orthodoxy. He became a secular Hebraist and Zionist. When he received the “new religion” he transferred all his burning zeal and boundless dedication to it.

The brothers found in him a particularly effective assistant.

There was only one point on which he did not give in. This was the question of Zion. All of their logical and revolutionary reasons about the benefits of Uganda were not effective with him. When he was pushed against the wall in the heat of the debate, he would admit that they were logically correct. However, when they met him the next day, they found that he was again a Zionist for Zion, not only partially, but fully, limb of his limbs and flesh of his flesh. He was connected by his belly to the Holy City of Jerusalem, to Mount Carmel, and to the other holy historical places. Late at night, when he left the rabbi's house after a lengthy discussion, he seemed to be a convinced Ugandist, but through the course of one night, all of his Ugandism flew away, and he returned to his previous beliefs, ready to dedicate his entire soul on the altar of the chosen Land.

Under the influence of the publicity of the brothers, he stopped observing the Sabbath, rejected the festivals, ceased praying, and even lost his belief in G-d – but he did not betray his love of Zion. It was impossible to uproot that love from his heart, literally to the end of his soul. It was as if he was connected to the soil of the Holy Land, and breathed its air. It was the place of his life in the full sense of the term.

 

E. Demonstrations

This was the second activity of the Gordin brothers in Smorgon.

They gathered the children of the cheders and Talmud Torah, and arranged a public gathering every Friday afternoon, where they taught them Hebrew. They organized them into small groups, and directed them to go out together on the Sabbath when the Jews of Smorgon would go out to stroll on the only wooden sidewalk on the main street. Their instructions were to mix in with the crowd and speak Hebrew out loud as a form of demonstration, to give the impression that Hebrew is a living language among the youth of Smorgon.

Chaim Yisrael Lezer was the head of the brothers in this activity. He was the chief commander of these demonstrations. It was as if he was created for that task.

Abba announced that he was prepared to teach Hebrew to all the private Jewish Russian teachers, an even to the melamdim [religious teachers of young children] Anyone who hungered [to know] should come and learn. They would receive free lessons.

Everything developed as planned. However, even here in free Smorgon, they began to murmur about

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the rabbi's sons, who removed the Beis Midrash lads from the knowledge of their Creator, and were destroying the remnant with their publicity toward secular Hebrew.

Several important householders, headed by the banker Brodna, complained that the rabbi's sons were using the kloiz for organizing gatherings of cheder and Talmud Torah students. They claimed: the kloiz is a holy place, and these gatherings are regarding secularism leading to heresy. It is an idol in the sanctuary! Brodna got angry. These gatherings destroy the schoolchildren. Instead of Torah and the observance of the commandments, they are taught to mumble Hebrew in a gentile accent. Such should not be done in the kloiz in which he serves as first gabbai [trustee] He will stand in the breach. You must purge the evil from your midst[7]].

At the urging of the brothers, Chaim Yisrael gathered a group of youths who chased Brodna out of the kloiz. He will learn a lesson, and will know that he is not the highest authority, and is not the ruler. The kloiz is not his private property.

This daring act was set up as a scandal. They blamed the sons of the rabbi. They claimed that their hand was moved by these brazen ones, for without their incitement, they would not have dared to embarrass this unfortunate “patron” at the head of the community, and chase him out of the kloiz in which he worshipped and sustained in all matters. However, they could not prove that Chaim Yisrael was an emissary of the sons of the rabbi for this act of deceit.

The brothers acted innocent and quiet as if they did not know anything about what took place.

Their father the rabbi did not react. It is possible that he was indeed satisfied at the impingement on the honor of this strongman who was haughty, who was sure of his wealth, and who conducted himself with excessive glory. He instilled fear more than he feared sin.

Further, a non-insignificant portion of the householders who were manufacturers and tanners regarded the rabbi's sons as a positive force, as a sort of counterbalance to the social forces leading to frequent strikes in the workshops. They determined that the rabbi's sons were fulfilling an effective role by turning some of the youth away from revolutionary activity. Let blessing fall upon them. They noted the daughters of Rabbi Moshe Gincburg, especially the eldest Liba, who disseminated the Socialist doctrine in Smorgon. She was one of the top students of a man named Sinicki, a Byelorussian, who had been exiled by the authorities to a far off land for his destructive activities. It was good and fitting that the rabbi's sons disseminated Zionism and Hebrew.

Sinicki had a plot with a fruit orchard and vegetable garden behind the city. He built a spending house in the Swiss architectural form in the garden, which was surrounded by a fence. In an attic of the house, he taught the doctrine of populist Socialism to the progressive sons and daughters of Smorgon, as an addition to the art of conducting strikes.

In comparison to the curse that Liba, the daughter of the Hassidic rabbi, was disseminating in the city, the activity of the sons of the new rabbi was literally a blessing from G-d.

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F. The “Bachelor” Teacher

A rumor spread like good news that a German language teacher named Katriel Shoub was coming to settle in Smorgon. He lived in Switzerland, and concluded his course of studies in Berlin. He knew German and its literature fluently and did not demand a high price for a private lesson.

Abba and Zeev went to their mother to intercede. They knew German more or less, but now an important teacher was coming straight from Berlin. He would shorten the path toward fluency in this language and especially in its literature. They wanted to take two private lessons a week. The lessons would not cost a lot of money.

The mother gave her assent and finance this educational endeavor. The same day, they spoke to Katriel and came to an agreement, eagerly enjoying the first lesson on the spot. This was not a lesson in exact pedagogical-educational terms. He discussed with them the purity of the German language and read sections of the classics to them. Schiller's plays were especially dear to the teacher. He loved to read them. To him, the task of reading was almost at an artistic level. His voice was sweet, and his method of speaking was clear and sharp.

They became friendly with their teacher after several lessons. His father was a shochet and bodek [ritual slaughterer and checker of slaughtered meat] by profession, from which his name Shoub, the acronym for shochet and bodek, came. Katriel was a native of a small town. His soul loved philosophy, and he intended to become a philosopher of no less stature than Immanuel Kant. He went to Germany, suffered from want, ate bread with salt, slept on a bench, and toiled in philosophy for many years – and he did not even reach Kant's ankles. Katriel longed for Jews and was overtaken by a Jewish environment. The foreign country became revolting to him. He returned and stayed in Vilna. One of his friends gave him good advice: go to Smorgon, a bustling city filled with practical social and cultural life. There you will be able to give enough private lessons to provide for your livelihood.

He heeded the advice and came to Smorgon.

Katriel was not at all a pedagogue. However, the brothers did not require such. They had already absorbed the complex and pedantic German grammar, and were fluent in it. Their desire was to practice speaking and to enrich their vocabulary some. Katriel helped them with this to the best of his knowledge. They invited him to visit them, and he accepted their invitation willingly. Katriel visited and befriended the rabbi's daughters. They taught him Hebrew.

He had two male students, no more – the brothers Abba and Zeev. However, he had more female students – thirteen in number. On Friday nights, he would gather all his students and give them a reading, as a free bonus. Lovely girls would gather at the fine literary event. They were like a bundle of charming and aromatic flowers. They were lovely Jewish daughters, not sullied by poverty. His students came from the middle class, not the poor families. The brothers Abba and Zeev came to the readings, but did not take this opportunity to get to know the “lovely ones.” “In my eyes, they are like white geese.” (Tractate Brachot, 20).

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They stopped taking the lessons because their father made his usual complaint: I do not have to pay money to turn my sons into gentiles. The few rubles which are spent in vain can bring benefit elsewhere. Let us give them to charity.

Their father did not value teachers in general. According to his understanding, study is connected to desire, and someone who desires learning has no need of a teacher. Diligence and persistence are the best teachers. He did not hold by the adage, “make for yourself a rabbi”[8]]. He changed it to the following: “Make yourself into a rabbi.” The best student is the best independent teacher.

He told his children, “You know enough German, and if you find you do not know some word, look it up in the dictionary.” There were Russian and German dictionaries in their house. They continued to be invited to Katriel's readings even though they stopped being his students. The teacher's esteem increased as the size of the gathering increased. They were considered to be among his students. They continued their friendly relations, and he continued to be invited to their home often.

Everything went properly. The popularity of the teacher increased, and the number of female students increased. More than one maiden saw him as the fulfillment of her dreams. He was handsome, dark, had an upright posture, was manly, broad shouldered, and built like a butcher. His mannerisms were pleasant, he was exacting in politeness, he was foreign born, stimulating, and exotic.

It was as if Germany had a character in Smorgon. People learned the language for its own sake, for the sake of the teacher.

Then the disaster came suddenly, like lightning on a day with clear skies. He mentioned in his broken Russian.

“My married one is coming”. “Married one” instead of saying wife.

The mockers in the city repeated the strange expression “married one is coming”. There was no end to the mockery. A few girls groaned silently and bandaged their broken hearts. Woe to their dream that disappeared like smoke.

Bakunin[9]] would say: a revolutionary who gets married immediately loses 50% of his joy of battle. He destroyed half of his revolutionary tendencies.

Since the teacher was married, half of his charm of attraction disappeared. He lost his enchantment. Who needs German in Smorgon? To the extent that it is needed for the matriculation exams, German is available to any student. Is there any “Jew from the land of the Jews” who does not require that language? When Ovarov (Avar-Av in the flowery language of Y.L.G[10]), the Russian education minister, asked the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin whether he hears German, the Rosh Yeshiva responded, “bevadai[11], thinking he was using a proper German word.

Who was Katriel Shoub's wife? She was dark, beautiful, and graceful, with dreamy black eyes. She never interjected a word into their conversations. She spoke Yiddish, and did not know other languages. She did not know how to read or write. Indeed, where did he find her? She was already pregnant.

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Where, how, when? The questions came out all at once.

According to his words, she was a maid at an inn in Vilna in which he was staying. He returned from Germany full of longing, and a charming Jewish girl stood before him. Should she pass her over and not pay attention. He married her. He did not go in the ways of Kant the bachelor, but rather in the ways of Heine who chose Mathilde.

The girls of Smorgon could not forgive Shoub for his crime of non-bachelorhood. However, the anger was even greater when they found out that his “helpmeet” [wife apparently] was lacking elementary education. They saw shame in his decision. He embarrassed all the enlightened girls of the city.

The lessons stopped. He was left without a staff of bread in the true sense of the term, without food for one meal. In the meantime, his wife gave birth to a son. He had no money with which to purchase diapers or a cradle.

He went around with faded clothing. His pants had holes in the backside. Yet, his enthusiastic smile did not leave his face for a moment. His strength of heart and sense of self-worth did not abandon him.

He was an activist in Poalei Zion during the tumultuous years of 1905-1906. He rose high in the party hierarchy, and became its chief spokesman. He reached the pinnacle of leadership.

He left his wife and young son to groan in Smorgon[12].

 

G. The Tallit Katan[13] and the Great Dispute

At this time, life was flowing quietly in the house of the rabbi of the free city of Smorgon. But this was the calm before the storm, that was liable to break sooner or later. Too many contradictions and contrasts existed, and one could not avoid the explosion.

The distance between the children and the parents continued to widen. The kulturkampf that began in the zealously Hassidic Ostrów continued secretly and without an audience, as if an underground warrior. It is true that Smorgon was a modern, Lithuanian city, but one must maintain tradition to an expected degree in the house of a rabbi. It was impossible to push it to the sides definitively, with the push passing in peace.

The Rebbetzin, Chaya Esther Sara, found the tallit katan of the youngest son, Moshe, by chance, lying under his bed, casted aside like a rejected object. What a disgrace this discovery was for this important piece of Jewish clothing! He was dragged after his older and wiser brothers. On his own, he would not be so brazen as to denigrate this commandment of tzitzit [wearing of fringed garments] about which is written “and you shall see, and you shall remember”[14]. She was not lazy, and she made a search that showed her that the tallit katans of the older sons were in the same disgraceful situation – that is, under their beds among the rags. A shudder overtook her, and after the shudder – astonishment. She had not imagined that her dear sons had cast off the yoke to that extent. Her soul suffered from much agony, anger, and pain.

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At that moment, the rabbi entered, returning from the Shacharit service in the Beis Midrash. She told him what she had discovered.

The rabbi immediately garbed himself in anger, called Moshke and began an investigation and inquisition. He gave him two ringing smacks on the cheek in front of all the children. Abba got angry, approached his father calmly, turned his cheek to him, and called out in anger:

“Smack! – and a curse word emanated from his mouth involuntarily.

He was astonished at the sound of the curse word emanating from his mouth. But can anyone return a word that came from one's mouth? This came from the great anger he had toward his father for not joining the Zionist camp. Abba regarded this as “careerism.” Abba was convinced that a complete idealist would sacrifice his wife and children on the altar for the ideal of the nation, without any hesitation at all.

The father was shaken to the depths of his soul by the denigration. He was frightened by the spiritual and cultural gap that had opened between his sons and himself, to the point that one was so brazen as to curse him.

What had taken place in his home, in the nest of his family? How had this son fallen so drastically. He transgressed with such coarseness the commandment of honoring one's father , which is one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Sinai. How did he sin against his family such that one of them poured such denigrating invective upon him?!

He felt himself wounded, as if a poison arrow had struck his heart. He immersed himself in dark, bleak thoughts.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib was a democrat by nature and character. He did not enjoy being a sole judge, standing on his opinions. He would say, “Even The Holy One Blessed Be He took council with the ministering angels (Tractate Sanhedrin 38, Bereishit Rabba portion 8) and did not rely on His own knowledge and abilities. How much more so should flesh and blood do so. He had to ask for the advice of his friends and acquaintances. How flimsy is the knowledge of man, that he can err and commit a travesty especially when it affects himself. When one has a dispute with one's friend, one is not permitted to consider his opinion as the final verdict, to which there is no appeal.”

Even as a judge, and serving as a judge is one of the tasks of a city rabbi, he would bring in arbitrators when disputants came before him.

Therefore, since he has an issue with his sons, and he knew that they were Hebrew Zionists, he would summon an honorable Zionist from the Mizrachi organization[15] of the city, who is acceptable to his friends. He would place his complaint before him, and he [the arbitrator] would adjudicate between he and his sons who had turned away from the straight path, and would issue his verdict.

The Zionist from Mizrachi in Smorgon was considered to be a proper person with a straight intellect.

The rabbi invited him to serve as a judge. Only Abba was invited to the judgement, as he was the one generally [accused] guilty. The rabbi began to complain about his son to the judge. He turned straight to Abba:

“Have you forgotten the commandment of honoring one's father that graces the Ten Commandments? This is a sublime Divine certificate. Is it possible for Abba to be wanton about this? Does he not talk about living in accordance with set principles, and is not simply a brazen person following an evil heart.

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Since his father laid his stake on the verse “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20, 12; Deuteronomy 5:16), Abba answered him in brief with a strong sense of conviction.

“There are other positive commandments:”

“Honor your son and your daughter.”

“Is that so? Is that so? From where do you get that? This is the first time in my life that I hear that commandment. On what basis do you tie that commandment? Who is the authority that issued such a command? And is it possible to arrange relations between parents and their children based on that? Who raises whom? Who sustains whom? Do not the parents sustain their children and educate them, and not the children to their parents”

“If that is so, we are obligated to express gratitude toward you, the parents. Who asked for you to give birth to children? Did you not bring us into being for your own benefit? We are your children forever. And now that we exist and have our own free will and opinions, you want to enslave us, to treat us like indentured servants![16] No and no! The young generation has rights and duties. Its rights are granted by virtue of the new consciousness, through knowledge that a young man is considered a man. A son or daughter is not property such as a part of the private property of the parents. They are not 'objects.' The parents have no ownership of them. They cannot do to them as they wish. They are not clay devoid of will and understanding, and the parents are not the potters to knead them as they wish, lengthening them at their will and shortening them at their will.[17]

Abba began to discuss impromptu the theory of the battle of generations in the history of humankind. He cited a statement of the sages (Tractate Kiddushin, 31): When G-d said (Exodus 20), “I am… And there will be [no other]”, the nations of the world said: He is expounding for His own honor. When He said, “Honor your father and your mother,” they retracted and admitted to the first commandments.” A covenant was struck between the Father in Heaven and the earthly father. They unite to oppress their children. The parents are obligated to respect their sons and daughter no less than the sons and daughters are obligated to respect their parents.

The father and judge allowed Abba to develop his ideas. They did not interrupt him with even one comment or auxiliary statement. When he finished, his father said in anger and with an anguished heart.

“Empty ideas, nonsensical words. They have no dawn. They will lead to the loss of the human race.”
His father thought a great deal about the ideas printed and disseminated among the youth during the new time that fulfilled the adage, “The young will act arrogantly toward the elderly, and [similarly], the downtrodden to the honorable.” However, he comforted himself with the though that just as they [the new ideas] came through the wind, a wind of breaches, they will pass and disappear when another wind comes by.

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H. The Rabbi and the Beggars

Rabbi Yehuda Leib had a good disposition. His world stood on two things, on Torah and on good deeds – meaning charity, donations to the poor, and gifts to the destitute.

Thus was his daily routine.

He went to worship in the Beis Midrash, not overly early. He was not among those who got up early, but rather among those who stayed up late. He often fulfilled the verse, “Arise, cry out at night, at the beginning of the watches” (Lamentations 2:19). He continued his studies until after midnight. He remembered well the words of the sages: “By day, the L-rd will command His lovingkindness, and in the night His song shall be with me, even a prayer to the G-d of my life.”[18] Everyone who occupies himself with Torah at night, G-d will place a strand of grace upon him during the day, as it says (Psalms 42): By day, the L-rd will command his lovingkindness. Why does G-d command His Lovingkindness? Because at night, His song is with him. (Tractate Chagiga, 12).

He was among the diligent ones. He studied day and night. He did not know how to sit idle. His pride was his “ledger.” He had all his times in his hands. He knew what he did at every hour in the day. He did not even waste one minute. He counted his minutes literally as a person counts his money, hiding it and guarding it from thieves. His mouth never desisted from learning. His thoughts were all directed to words of Torah or novel Torah ideas that he wrote down. All the books in his many-volume library were covered with notes in the margins. He could not bear an idle conversation. He repeated the [Talmudic] statement (Tractate Yoma 19): “Rabba says: someone who carries on an idle conversation violates a positive commandment, for it says (Deuteronomy 6): 'And you shall speak about them' and not about idle matters. Rav Acha the son of Yaakov said, He violates a negative commandment, as it says (Kohelet 1), 'All things toil to weariness; man cannot utter it.'[19]

A person is obligated to speak in matters of Torah and Widsom, and even in matters of literature, which is in the category of Agadata [Talmudic lore], even about the affairs of the world, practical matters. A person must fulfil the verse “And you shall toil in it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). This is how explained that verse, not deviating from its simple meaning: A person is obligated to toil in the Torah of G-d day and night – in this Torah of which only a small portion is written with letters. The rest of the portions are written by the stars in their heavenly paths, and by the rivers, streams, lakes , springs, oceans, mountains, valleys, human beings, beasts of the field, winged birds, insects, crawling creatures and bugs. The entire Torah is identified with practicality, reality, and creation. “Fortunate is man who occupies himself with Torah day and night, for all these are phenomena and ways of “The words of the Living G-d” (Tractate Eruvin 13). G-d adds up in gematria to Nature[20], for the value of each of those words adds up to 86.

In general, he did not occupy himself with gematria. He did not value them, other than this gematria that he held in esteem.

He did not elongate his prayers.

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He returned from the Beis Midrash, and entered the “court of law.” He placed his cane in the corner, and put down his tallis and tefillin bag.

At this point, the room was filled to the brim with beggars of all types. Some were equipped with “documents” from the rabbis of their cities, legitimate or forged. The rabbi called these documents “collection documents” with light mockery.

He came to the first one, who was sitting next to the door. He asked him, half seriously and half in jest:

“Do you have a document?”
The person showed him the “document” in which it was written that he was “burned” or was collecting for a poor bride – i.e. for his daughter who had come of age.

The rabbi pretended to read the document. In truth, he was glancing at the signature below. He asked, with tone half in jest:

“And how much, dear Jew, do I owe you?”
He received whatever he asked for. The small sums varied between ten and twenty coins. They were never greater than twenty, and never smaller than ten.

This is how he went from one to the next. When he finished his daily “circuit”, he called out with satisfaction: “I paid everyone, I do not owe anything to anyone.”

The courtroom emptied.

Only then did he enter the dining room to eat his morning meal.

 

I. Farewell

Abba was very vexed from the incident that impinged on the honor of his father, whom he appreciated and respected. He was also angry at him and condemned him for not affiliating with Mizrachi, as Rabbi Reines[21] had done, and for not dedicating his oratory and preaching skill to this ideal. He was a great orator, one of the few among the rabbis of his generation. Even though he appreciated and valued his talents, the tension grew due to the fact that he remained outside of the camp fighting for Zionism. The relationship between Abba and his father was ambivalent: significant reverence, but significant denigration that stemmed from the essence of the reverence, for one was dependent on the other. He regarded his father as sinning in defection, in escaping from the battle. He could not forgive him for standing afar when every Jewish person was obligated to enlist and come to the service of the army fighting for the redemption of their nation – for not passing by this historical opportunity. If not now, when?

Indeed, he denigrated the honor of his father in a coarse manner. However, was this not at a time of anger, when people do not control their speech? He judged himself favorably.

Father had smacked his young son on the cheek, who did not bear the full

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responsibility for his actions and omissions due to his youth. He followed after his brothers who were years older than he was. Abba saw himself as dutybound to come to his aid, to help his weak brother. This has two meanings – both ideological and philosophically. His holy duty was to stand at his side during his time of difficulty, when he was attacked and punished for no transgression. The assistance and protection took on the form of exposing his cheek to the smacker and calling out: I am guilty. Smack me! I am responsible for him.

Is it possible to solve problems of convincing, of fundamental ideological difference, by smacking cheeks?! This was not a case of wantonness, of lack of restraint, breaking boundaries, or casting off the yoke. This was a clear case of an ideological dispute, a clash of outlooks, a clear desire to be consistent, to behave stringently as an enlightened person, as a Jew fighting for political and cultural liberation, of the new Jew who places his Judaism on pure nationalism as opposed to religiosity that had lost its luster -- i.e. behaving in accordance with specific principles without deviating right or left, principles of Hebrew historiography built on a mountain of arcane customs. Rather than bringing proofs to contradict their viewpoints, his father resorted to a slap on the cheek. Is this the path?! Had his father been a dark zealot, immersed in pious darkness, who does not know a thing about what was going on around him, about what was taking place in Jewish life, who does not know the essence of the streams and aspirations storming through the Jewish street, and not only of the Jews, Abba would not have been so angry. He would have been able to forgive him, claiming that he does not know in what era he is living. However, his father the rabbi had secular knowledge, was expert in philosophical problems, and was comfortable with Russian and German literature. How could he react in such a non-cultural way to the deeds of his sons, who had made it clear that they would not obey him, and would not accept the authority of old, Diaspora legalism, ways of life that were forged in the stifling atmosphere of the ghettos. “If you live in darkness and say dark things,” they did dark deeds.

No, Abba could not forgive his enlightened father. However, he could not utter such denigrating statements, even though his father had not transgressed the current custom in the most severe fashion. However, Abba had crossed a threshold and transgressed all bounds of politeness. He regretted and felt pangs of conscience. But to go to his father and beg forgiveness – certainly not! His father had to beg forgiveness from him. They both sinned against each other. Since matters had reached this point, it was evident that they could not live under one roof. They must separate.

Abba would leave his father's house.

Abba and Zeev reached this decision during a long stroll and an exhaustive deliberation.

Zeev traveled to Warsaw. Abba prepared to travel to Dvinsk [Daugavpils].

Why did he choose Dvinsk, a city that he knew only by name and was hard to find on the map? This is the answer.

The Rebbetzin felt guilty to some degree for the dispute taking place at home. She

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did not grasp at that time the depth and breadth of the chasm that opened between the two generations. She could not stand idly by this irreparable schism, for then she would silently accept the revelation she discovered regarding the tallit katan. She sought peace under all conditions and circumstances. Peace is greater than religious truth, and she pushed aside most of the practical commandments. Her sons had joined a bad crowd. This was a punishment from Heaven. The hand of the wanton times was involved in this. However, they are dear children, diligent, sitting and studying day and night. Secular studies are also not for naught. They are also involved in communal affairs, issues of the oppressed, downtrodden people, in accordance with their understanding. They are strange children, not concerned with their own good. They are complete wicked people, while simultaneously behaving like complete righteous people, exacting in their observance of “their commandments.” “This is crooked as a spade” but their bent crookedness had a unique depth. They were prepared to give their lives for “their sins” without any benefit to themselves. They were sinners “for a righteous cause.” They cast off the Yoke of Heaven to place a much more difficult yoke on their necks. Praying, putting on tefillin, reciting the Grace after Meals were considered as violations of negative commandments just as Orthodox people are diligent at keeping the laws of the Code of Jewish Law. They were curiosities, and their behavior was strange. All of their deeds were for the sake of heaven, but their heaven was different. They lived in accordance with the Code of Jewish Law[22], but their table was different. What is forbidden to us is permitted to them; and what is permitted to us they consider strictly forbidden.

Her heart, the heart of a mother, was agonized that they were forced to part. Her heart oozed blood. What could she do for her home? Could she try to find a compromise between the two sides? To mend the schisms? To promote peace amongst the disputants? How could she do this when the two sides were prepared to give up their lives[23] so as not to transgress? They would not give in. They were stubborn. She had great influence over her husband. He loved her. Through the force of love, she could lead him to compromise, but her sons would not listen to her. They were zealous for their beliefs more than their father. They would let themselves be killed over a shoe strap. They would not compromise on the jot of a 'yod' [24] of their doctrine that was given by Herzl and Ben Yehuda[25].

She was tormented by the tortures of hell. Up until now, she was happy with motherhood. Her sons did not abandon her or leave. Other sons went out to places of Torah and traveled to study in Yeshivas. To her sons, the Yeshiva took place at home. They studied Torah from their father.

However, if it was decreed that they must part, and it cannot be retracted, let the parting be for a brief period. She recommended the city of Dvinsk to Abba since there are relatives there, who would receive him with open arms.

That is how it was. Abba left to Dvinsk. To the untrained eye, the parting was cold and tense. However, how painful and agonizing it was, it also tore at the strands of the heart!

Abba left home full of suitcases laden with a bounty of bedding, clothing, and shoes.

Yet, what was his spiritual luggage?

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He knew Hebrew well, and was expert in all areas of old and new literature. He knew Russian and German.

He would not lose his way. He would teach for pay, and busy himself with Hebrew and Zionist publicity, as well as volunteer work. I did not foresee that the effort would be in vain.

 

J. Leaving and Returning

He went to Dvinsk. He passed through Krâslava. He lived in Vilkomir, where he met elders who recalled Lilienblum, his “sin of his youth.”

He took notice of the life of the Jews with which he came in contact in his role as a private Hebrew teacher.

The old way of life existed with the force of faith, despite the cracks in the walls. The new life had not yet begun to sprout. The young, new Jews who based the existence of the nation on three principles: the nation, the Hebrew language, and bustle, was not found even among faithful seekers.

However, he was certain that this “new Jew” would come. They would sprout from the ground. It was a necessity of the historical times. He, Abba, did not even take one rearward pace. He saw the assimilation taking effect on the youth both in the big cities and small towns. He now took on a new form – a revolutionary. It was clear to him that it was bound to fail in Russia as it had failed in the Western countries. For is not assimilation a very ancient concept. “These are idol worshippers and those are idol worshipers.” “That which comes to your spirit, that you say that we will be like the gentiles, will not be.” The end course of assimilation is deportation from the country or annihilation by a nation in which it seems that the Jews are invading and setting up roots within their culture. Jews have tried this means of assimilation many times as a solution to the question of their oppression, and met with bitter disappointment. This time as well, bitter disappointment awaits.

The new life contains a form of grafting of the body and the soul of the nation of the People of Israel. This grafting that was effected by the Talmud and its commentaries, the various Codes of Jewish Law until the latter halachic decisors, was good for its time. It saved the nation from physical and cultural annihilation. However, the gain is outweighed by the loss, for it barely saved our nation from death. With a way of life that has no freedom of thought, no constant progress, but rather frozen tradition, is like the preservation of old wine that turns to vinegar over the years in worn out and broken vessels – there is no compromise no matter what. The “young Jew” – that is Abba as one of its representatives – will not compromise. The command of the historical times of the Nation of Israel is the creation of new forms, and the forging of new content into those forms. The Nation of Israel stands at the threshold of renaissance. It will renew its youth as an eagle. Out with all the rust, all the rot and mold that has collected during the long exile.

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He was imprisoned in Vilkomir. He participated in storming the jail and freed political prisoners.

He was freed before Passover, the Festival of Freedom. He returned home to Smorgon calmed, but not appeased and not tending toward compromise.

Passover passed quickly, as if one night chased the next, and one night the next.

Letters came to him from Vilkomir, asking him to return. They prepared for him lessons in the homes of the honorable people of the town. They even obtained for him living quarters in the bosom of a family. In short, they were waiting for him…impatiently.

Then the following took place:

His father called him to his room, and engaged him in a lengthy conversation. He detailed Abba's weak point. His father knew well that the strongest desire of his sons was to learn, and therefore, it would be good for he, Abba, to remain. Nobody would disturb him. He would be able to immerse himself in his studies. Why should he leave the home and suffer in a strange place, wasting his precious time giving classes to dull children? He should concern himself with wasting days. It is forbidden to do such a thing.

The mother knew of the letters that were received from Vilkomir, and she was concerned about two things a) that he might be caught by a girl who was not appropriate for him. b) that he might “intermix with strange things,” be captured by the government, and deported to Siberia.

His father claimed, while they were all sitting at the table eating lunch, that Abba and Zeev could spend their entire time at study. That is how the sons of Rabbi Meisels of Łódź spend their time. With respect to Hebrew and Zionism, he apparently lowered the thermometer by a few degrees. If they dedicate all their time to acquire scientific knowledge, he would have no opinion about the painful issue of faithfulness to the Jewish religion. They could act in accordance with their best judgment with respect to Biblical and rabbinical laws. Even if it is said of them that they observe the commandments, how much time does such observance take? Ten minutes to put on tefillin. A few minutes to read the Shema. A few minutes to recite Pesukei Dezimra [the early part of the Shacharit service], and Shmone Esrei – and it is finished. Study is more important than prayer. He himself is not counted among the pilgrims, he does not abandon eternal life and occupy himself with temporal life.

Abba and Zeev remained.

Abba realized that he would waste time from learning in Vilkomir. This is a sin at any age, and at his age, this is a loss.

Abba and Zeev set times to study mathematics, geometry, and algebra. They also dealt with literary matters that soften the heart, and are the brokers of lust.

Abba was a fan of Spencer. He read his book “Education” over again in Russian translation. He judged: since he was an autodidact, having studied without a teacher or guide, he now can be a teacher and student in one person, and he must know how to teach himself, to invent pedagogy and become acquainted didactics if he wishes to succeed and see benefit from his studies.

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K. The Rebbetzin Prepares Provisions for Her Journey

It was 1907. The Rebbetzin was busy all the days of the weeks. She was occupied in charitable pursuits, especially in giving of charity in a discreet fashion. She did not collect for any philanthropic organization. Everything that she did was through her own initiative. She gave donations with an open hand, even beyond her financial ability. She had “materialistic” intentions and possibilities, so to speak.

She sat and thought about her situation: She had no merit of ancestors. However, the merit of her husband was greater than the world. But what could she derive, in actuality, from this merit? That is to say: to be his footstool in the Garden of Eden – that footstool would be below her honor and self-worth. She was proud to live in the World To Come on the “account of the wealthy person” her husband, and to merit crumbs from his table, to grab leftovers from the food served to him. She wanted her own account and her own merit. The merit of children? Behold, see what befell her fate. She knew their low level. They had turned away from the straight path, and apparently were not thinking of returning. She hoped that she would not bear their sins, “Fathers do not die for their sons,”[26] and that includes mothers. Was she guilty at all? Even though she was a woman and a Jewish Rebbetzin, the education of her children was fully in the hands of their father and under his supervision. How could she dare to mix in, even with a slight hint or a minor point, in a matter that is completely the monopoly of men? He taught them Torah. He tested them. They had been very diligent students and G-d fearing. All the people of the town were blessed by them when they were 13 years old. There were women in Ostrów who came to them and requested a blessing as if they were “child” Hassidim. The disaster came later. Their heart turned inside of them. It was as if a foolish spirit overtook them; Heaven save us.

And what type of a home does she have? From one side, her husband, the genius and Tzadik, a pillar of the world. From the other hand – there was a village full of gentiles. A short time ago, her mother came to visit her. Chiena Dreiza was astonished at the behavior in the home of her daughter and son-in-law. They get up in the morning, wash quickly, and immediately, without delay, sit down to eat breakfast: buns, milk, sour cream, butter, cocoa, eggs. Has such a thing been heard and seen? She was astonished. Is this how they conduct themselves in the home of the rabbi? Even an impure uncircumcised one crosses himself before sitting down to eat. She managed to reassure her mother with great difficulty. She pleaded with her to stop complaining, so that they will not enter again into a dispute. Her children were victims of the times that had gone off their path. She was concerned for their well-being, lest they become intermixed in affairs of the state, be arrested, and sentenced to harsh labor.

They saved the older one from army service. The solution cost 300 silver rubles. How did this happen? He was saved by an “angel” – that is, a person with a blemish sent in his stead. He received a white certificate. Everything was set in place by the “elder” from Sol, the sole official who remained in the entire Vilna district. He was a drunkard, but he appreciated rabbis. The matter of the angel was straightforward and practical. They exchange the pictures that come with a signature, tied in a crimson thread. They register in some remote corner where they do not recognize the candidate for draft. The angel comes and stands in his place and name. Since he is unfit, they reject him. The rest is done by the registrar. He exchanges

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the photograph, an everything falls into place. Of course, he received a fee for his extra efforts. The angel serves this role several times, year after year – however each time in a different place and under a different name. “Being an angel” is his trade, the source of his livelihood. He is not in danger. He is sure that he will be freed, for he is injured in all his limbs.

This is the way they saved Jews from the hands of “Ivan.” But one can fall into the hands of Esau in other ways. Several mothers were bereaved of their children who were sent to the gallows, and several wept for their sons and daughter who were locked in jail or deported to a far-off land.

She thanks G-d seven times a day for instilling a love of study into her children, so they do not have free time for any other matters.

However, how can she arrange her life in the World To Come and the Garden of Eden? Only one means remained to her, and that is charity, which saves from death, and leads to eternal life and a share in the World To Come. But how meager are her possibilities. Her heart was as open as the entrance to a hall to anyone oppressed and suffering, but her hand did not have the means. She was not a wealthy woman. She limited her food and clothing. She did not allow herself any external luxury. Everything that she saved from her stomach and wardrobe was distributed to poor men and women – such as fish for the Sabbath, to others, challas for the two Sabbath loaves. She knew the hidden needy people who were wasting away in their poverty and whose suffering was not public. They thought that their poverty was embarrassing. She gave the names and places of residence of the “recipients” to the fish seller and the butcher, and ordered them to keep it a guarded secret. They would send their portions to them every Sabbath eve, and not tell them who the donor and benefactor was.

However, all this was not enough. The small handful did not satisfy her appetite for giving. The Holy One Blessed Be He did not give her wealth, for had He done so, she would have provided sustenance for all the poor people of the area, all the orphans and widows. However G-d kept wealth and poverty from her. She stood in between those two economic extremes. Is there any wealthy rabbi with an abundance of property? Is the source of his livelihood not something that can be counted and measured, and there is no blessing on something that can be counted or measured? They live on a set salary.

Therefore, what could she do? She dedicated herself to charity. She donated with all her energy. She cared for the sick. There was no shortage of sick people during the winter season. Typhus and pneumonia epidemics spread during all the cold months, increasing the agony in the houses of the poor and on the narrow alleyways filled with trash.

She would leave her house early in the morning and return at dark. She did not concern herself with communicable diseases. She was an emissary for a good deed, and emissaries for good deeds are not injured. They are protected. If, Heaven forbid, sin takes its toll and she contracts a disease, she would accept her affliction with love. This is a part of the good deed, to sacrifice her single soul to save the souls of many – this was her duty.

The Rebbetzin's mindset was not directed toward running and sustaining her household. In the city, there were

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so many houses of poverty and want, with forlorn families with nobody to concern themselves with them or to rectify their economic disgrace. Could she turn her eyes and thoughts from these many poor wretches and place her eyes on the small number of members of her household. The latter, thank G-d, were not short anything. Did they eat their bread in a meager fashion? Their table was full of all good. And the former were hungry for bread, Heaven save us, freezing from cold in the winter. They had no firewood. They slept on doleful beds, and they had nobody to change their bed during their illness. They had no money to pay for a doctor, and they had nothing with which to purchase medicine from the pharmacy. They came first. She preferred them to the members of her household. She did not have to worry after herself. The holy community concerned themselves with them.

 

L. The Rebbetzin Died

The Rebbetzin got sick. She lay on her bed for a few days. Her fever worsened. Two doctors tended to her – one Jewish and the other gentile. However, her situation worsened. Their diagnosis was incorrect. They thought it was pneumonia, but she was suffering from typhoid fever.

Her illness was serious. Her daughters and sons guarded her bed day and night. They divided up their days. Each of them stood guard at their designated turn.

Dr. Szabat from Vilna was summoned by telegram. He came. He gave the correct diagnosis, but he could not help. He was too late. He remained at the sickbed all night.

To our surprise, father noticed that her hair whitened overnight. That means that she used to die her hair. The doctor conducted himself strangely. He specifically spoke Russian. He did not even utter one Yiddish expression. Apparently, he was concerned lest his prestige as a doctor be lessened. He even attempted to speak Russian to the sick woman, even though he knew he was in the house of the rabbi, and was tending to the Rebbetzin. However, there was not much to talk about with her…

He returned early in the morning. He received 25 silver rubles for his visit.

Mother was dying. All the members of the household stood around her bed. These were her last moments on earth. It seemed as if she wished to part from her children and husband, and to deliver a testament to her household, but she could not express her will even with a small gesture or movement. This was the concluding moment of her life which was one large prayer, “A prayer of the afflicted when he grows weak”[27] Perhaps it was her will to give over to us the names of those who were in need… to concern ourselves with them and ask us to provide what is lacking on Sabbaths and festivals. However, she was prevented from doing this.

At the time of the departure of her soul
Father gave a brief speech.

“She is dying because of you, for the sins of her sons and daughters. Now the time has come for you to return from your evil ways, to return to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to return to the Beis Midrash, to return to the Gemara and the observance of commandments. Promise that from this day onward, you will go in the way of G-d,
[Page 208]
and cleave to his commandments – perhaps He will have mercy. Even when a sword is resting on the neck, there is still hope. Repent, and save your mother.
Abba was angry. He blamed his father for desecrating the holiness of the movement at which life and death meet and separate. On the other hand, he was astonished to see how great his father's dedication was to the sanctity of G-d and traditional faith, such that nothing can stand between it. Now he realized the greatness of the sacrifice that father dedicated on the altar of patience, as he saw their deeds and omissions of his sons, as he saw them trampling with their heels on his holy matters. And Abba held himself back, as if he was closing his eyes and being silent, controlling himself. He, his father, a servant of G-d, was falling to the depths of hell with his eyes on the one hand and ascending to the heights of heaven on the other. He surpassed all transient human bounds that have no actual existence, as he reached himself to the peak of godliness, to the definitive feeling of eternity, that he was above all physical, reality restricted by time and place. He, Abba, swore in his heart to follow his father in his traditions and ideals. No barricade could block the path as he forges his way. Such coarse, wild zealousness, and refined nobility – who merits such!

As they were about to be orphaned, they were full of sorrow, grief, and mourning, with the sense of impending disaster; they were feeling helpless, as they were standing face to face with the most terrible enigma, that breaks their body and souls with crisis – the death of a mother – at such a time he attacks them, that is he wishes to save them. He wants to exact from them a promise that they would return to their Father in Heaven, the Merciful Father, whose children they and their mother are, to whom the change and progress of generation is meaningless.

Mother died at the end of 1907. She was 48 years old when she breathed out her pure soul.

All the people of Smorgon accompanied her to her final rest. A crowd of widows and orphan followed her bier. They wailed and cried bitterly for their loss, the loss of their mother and patron.

Zeev, Abba and Moshe recited Kaddish next to the grave. Father restrained himself with all his strength from bursting out crying. No! He would not shed even one tear. He would not sob before the funeral crowd. His soul would weep and tremble secretly, but he would control his eyes. He stifled his tears.

The children sat Shiva. They read the book of Job. A prayer quorum gathered in the rabbi's home throughout the seven days. The three sons recited Kaddish three times a day.

“The time of human tribulation is a fitting time for one's G-d.” Father now became a strongman. He wanted to utilize the confusion of his children, the sorrow of their souls. He went on the offensive against all their views. An opportunity came his way, and he would not waste it. If not now, when? His preaching increased. He demanded, he commanded, and he did not let up. They would sit Shiva in accordance with law and custom. They would rend their garments. Now they had to learn chapters of Mishnah for the elevation of the soul
[Page 209]
of their righteous mother who was taken prematurely. Their father grabbed a great deal. The recitation of Kaddish. Public prayer three times a day in the Beis Midrash was a small thing. This was the beginning, the first steps on the path to repentance. They must return to G-d and the Code of Jewish Law, to traditional Jewish life.
Abba might have given in. His intention was to continue reciting Kaddish, and fulfil the other maximal demands of Father, and to turn a deaf ear. However, Zeev rebelled. He claimed, since their father is not satisfied with their concessions, he does not grasp the magnitude of their sacrifice, and how much spiritual health and life these concessions cost them. He demands more and more: give, give, and he is [still] not satisfied. They must retract from them, return to following their principles, and vow to refrain from Diaspora customs. Their father must not think that they are like clay in the hands of the potter, that their tragedy could softened them, and that he could knead and chew them to his will, as if their spine was broken by their grief and agony. The hammer of tribulation smashes class and forges iron.

Abba agreed that Zeev was correct.

The period of concessions ended.

When their mother died, the children lost their father as well – Abba said. At that moment, they decided to leave the home, but not the city of Smorgon.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A place for communal Jewish prayer Return
  2. Pronouncing Hebrew in the Sephardic style was considered a divergence from eastern European Ashkenazic tradition and was considered a clear sign of Zionist affiliation. Return
  3. A good wish for someone wearing new clothes or attaining new property. Return
  4. See Pirkei Avot 3:2. Return
  5. Proverbs 28:14 Return
  6. A reference to the rabbinical commentary that Jacob approached his meeting with Esau though gifts, prayer, and a preparation for war. See Rashi's comment on Genesis 33:9. Return
  7. Deuteronomy 17:7 Return
  8. Pirkei Avot 1:6 Return
  9. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakunin Return
  10. Yehuda Leib Gordon Return
  11. “Of course” in Hebrew. Return
  12. Likely due to Katriel's frequent travel, the wife and daughter groaned while he was away. Return
  13. A fringed undergarment typically worn under the shirt, in keeping with the Biblical commandment. Return
  14. Numbers 15:39. Return
  15. Mizrachi is the Orthodox branch of Zionism, otherwise known as Religious Zionism. Return
  16. Referring to the Hebrew slave whose ear is pierced if he does not want to leave his master after six years. Return
  17. This sentence is a paraphrasing of the Ki Hinei Kachomer hymn of Yom Kippur eve. See https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/140751/jewish/Ki-Hinei-Kachomer.htm Return
  18. Psalms 42:9. Translation from Mechon Mamre: https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2642.htm Return
  19. Translation from Mechon Mamre (verse 8): https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt3101.htm Return
  20. Gematria is an exegetical system of assigning numbers to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and deriving equivalencies. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gematria Return
  21. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitzchak_Yaacov_Reines Return
  22. In Hebrew, the Code of Jewish Law is known as Shulchan Aruch, literally The Set Table. Return
  23. So to speak. Return
  24. The smallest part of the smallest letter. Return
  25. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the force behind the revival of the Hebrew language. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliezer_Ben-Yehuda Return
  26. Deuteronomy 24:6. Return
  27. Psalms 102:1 Return

 

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