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Rabbi Mordechai Minkovitch (New York)*



My first introduction into Drohitchin

I was born in Butan, near Slonim, but I was lucky enough to meet my wife in Drohitchin, and I was therefore connected to life in Drohitchin, where I spent a large part of my life, raised a family and shared all the joys and sorrows of the Jews of Drohitchin.

        My first introduction to Drohitchin was as a newlywed in the summer of 1902. The shtetl superficially looked like any other town in Polesia, but was distinctive in one respect: it didn't have streets paved with cobblestones as did many other towns in the area. Also, the weather in the summer was bearable. You walked in sand and dirt, while the dust blew in your eyes, but was dry. Therefore, when winter arrived, people were virtually sinking into the mud, and during the winter, both men and women had to wear high boots. Together with everybody else, I had to trek through the deep mud. Only in 1910, when the Russian government put in a sidewalk, did Drohitchin seem like a proper city.

        When I arrived in Drohitchin, I met three young newly-ordained rabbis who were engaged in Torah study and awaiting appointment to rabbinical positions. One was my brother-in-law, Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Miller (he was from Kletsk). The second was Rabbi Isaac Yaakov Kalenkovitch, the Rebbe's son-in-law. The third was Rabbi David Mordechai Yudovsky, a non-chassid, who originally came from a small town near Brisk.

        Rabbi Yudovsky lived very modestly and spartanly. Most of the time he stayed at home and studied by himself. Whenever I tried to speak with him, I was never successful in doing so. I once found him studying in the New House of Study, and attempted to strike up a conversation with him. However, since I noticed that he was displeased with my questions, as if he suspected me of something, I ended the conversation and left.

        In those days Rabbi Menachem Reichman was the community rabbi in Drohitchin. Rabbi Reichman was already quite elderly and very hard of hearing. It was extremely difficult to converse with him. His innocence and honesty was spread across his face. His wife was a real righteous woman. She would go through town and collect money for the poor, and supported a teacher (R. Izik) for the poor children.


Establishment of the Talmud study group

        Since I was R. Moshe Poritsker's second son-in-law and ordained, my father-in-law purchased a spot for me to study and pray in the Old House of Study.

* These edited excerpts are taken from the family biography of the Author [Editor]

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He probably did this to avoid the Evil Eye by not having both sons-in-law located in the New House of Study. Joining the Old House of Study was very beneficial. After getting to know the householders and scholars of the Old House of Study, I was asked to teach a class in Talmud to the congregants, which I was only happy to do. Until them the late R. Moshe Velvel studied the Jewish legal text, Chayei Adam with a few men. The main founders of the Talmud study group were R. Yisrael Ephraim's (Yisrael Tilles), R. Zalman Bunyes and others. The Old House of Study started to come alive. The Talmud study group steadily grew stronger and larger. Our Talmud class between the Afternoon [Minchah] and Evening [Ma'ariv] prayers became popular throughout town, and always drew more participants.

        When we completed our first tractate of the Talmud, we celebrated the occasion with a beautiful meal in R. Yitzchak Avigdor's home. Years later, when we completed the entire Talmud, there was a great celebration in the Old House of Study that lasted a whole week. The synagogue was decorated, and festive meals were served every day, where the appropriate blessings were pronounced. Everybody had a real enjoyable time.

[Photo:] The street after the bridge, leading to the Sand.

        The Talmud study group continued during the First World War. After the retreating Russian army burned down all the synagogues, the Talmud study group moved to the only remaining chassidic synagogue. I continued the Talmud study group until I left for the United States in 1924. I gave my final class in my home to an overflow crowd. As the wagons stood on the street ready to depart for the train station, the class participants arrived with copies of the Talmud and lamps; I taught my final page of Talmud to them. The study group then offered me a thank-you letter signed by all of the participants in recognition for my lectures over the previous 23 years. Then the participants started a joyous dance and accompanied me with song all the way to the train station on my way to the United States.


The rabbinical disputes

        There is an old saying: "Too many isn't healthy." Drohitchin was known as a fine shtetl and a quiet place. No one argued, and everyone lived together in peace. However, Satan found an opening to create conflict in the community. The reason was the young ordained rabbis, as mentioned previously, who were waiting for rabbinical positions. What happened was that the elderly rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Reichman, decided to move to Palestine with his wife, and handed over his position to his son-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Yaakov Kalenkovitch. The old rabbi's opponents came out in the open, recommending that the position be filled by the non-chassid, Rabbi David Mordechai. The friends and family of the third ordained rabbi, Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Miller, suggested a third choice. However, a wise Jew suggested appointing Rabbi Miller as the head rabbinical judge, and Rabbi Isaac as the community rabbi. Thus, there were now two groups: one group was with Rabbi Isaac, and the other was for Rabbi David. Since neither side wanted to give in, and each stuck by their candidate, a sharp dispute erupted in Drohitchin, leading to violence and informing to the non-Jewish authorities.

        There was a scoffer who gave names to both camps: he called R. Isaac the "Russian rabbi," and R. David Mordechai the "Polish rabbi." This is also how he referred to both groups: the "Russian" group and the "Polish" group – even though all the Jews were Russian Jews. This stayed this way the entire time. The Russian rabbi prayed in the Old House of Study, and the Polish rabbi prayed in the New House of Study. The Polish group had the upper hand, and it never happened that either of the rabbis would end up in the synagogue of the other.

        Where did I fit in all this? Even though I was also ordained, I could have had a group of my own in

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