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[Columns 373-374]

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

 


Yisroel Dovid Yanovar,
may his memory be a blessing

Personalities
and Folksy Characters

 

Sholem Weiner,
may his memory be a blessing

[Columns 375-376]

Table of Contents

[Columns 377-378]

Avrom Yakov Stern

by Yakov Shatzki, may his memory be a blessing

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

 

 

From 1815–30 in Poland it was difficult to find a Jew who was more popular than Avrom Yakov Stern. His name came up often in both the German and the Polish press during that time. His aura carried with it a whiff of spice and the exotic. This quaint and religious Jew had an imposing presence with his fluency in several languages and his far–from–average knowledge of math and sciences. People would gawk upon seeing this Polish Jew, a mathematician and a polyglot, who was at the same time a paradigm of producing a harmonious relationship between Judaism and the non–Jewish world.

Of small stature with the face of a true patriarch, Rembrandt would have painted him with bright, cheerful eyes, a neat and tidy appearance with a long beard – Avrom Yakov Stern would attract the artists' gaze from the painting–worthy characteristics of his face alone.

In 1825 he was painted by Antoni Blank, one of the best Polish painters of portraits. In 1840 he was drawn by the artist Oleshchienski. An anonymous Polish painter immortalized Stern in a composition, where he stands with a yarmulke on his head and gives a fervent lecture at the meeting of the “Warsaw Society of Friends of Science.” The photo from the November Uprising (1930) was widely circulated in France and often reproduced. It functioned as a kind of propaganda to prove how good it was for the Jews in the short–lived but autonomous Congress Poland.

In 1835 a biographical album of famous Jews was published in Germany. Among the pictures in the book one could find a photo of Avrom Yakov Stern. The historian Jost wrote about it in a letter to Yakov Tugendhold, his helper at the Office of Censorship in Warsaw: “With great pleasure I became acquainted with the output of the mind of the famous Mr. Stern in the book, Die Berühmte Israeliten (The Famous Jews). This Mr. Stern has a brilliant mind – unless he's a complete toad, he has probably had a great deal of luck with women.”

In 1855, the great graphic artist, Jan Pivarski, made an engraving using Blank's portrait and added a short biography on the front of the picture. That picture was very popular in Poland and was hung on the walls of many Jewish and Polish homes.

As mentioned earlier, much was written about Avrom Stern during his lifetime. The appearance of an autodidact who doesn't just go away to join the “non–Jews”, though he could have, was impressive. Stern, who did not just assimilate into the wider world as was the case with Salomon Maimon and the Maskilim of his generation, a religious Jew fluent in several languages, who stayed a Jew through and through, in his dress and on his face, this great scholar – must have stirred up a mixture of astonishment and amazement. In Warsaw people used to tell all kinds of stories about him. This particular mathematician was prominent in political affairs and a legend in his own lifetime. We used to tell a story about how the Grand Duke Konstantin, the Governor General of Poland, was traveling in his coach and saw Stern from afar. He asks the driver to stop, calls out to him, and asks him to sing “Ma Yafit.”[1] The proud Stern replies to him in French, that he won't do it. Then the Russian Governor General then recalls that the last time he was in Warsaw, this was the little Jew from the Polish academy. So of course he doesn't need to sing for him.

In the dusk of his life, Stern used to tell his later son–in–law, the “Litvak,” Hayyim Selig Slonimski (1810–1904) certain episodes of his past. When he was in Germany (in 1813), in order to demonstrate the calculator that he invented, people looked at him like he was some kind of mysterious creature.

“I was with them,” Stern spoke about the German intellectual elite, “they wear short pants with socks, whereas I hid my socks under my pants, because they say that outside of Israel you shouldn't dress like that. They looked at me as if I were a wild creature – something not of this world! I want to explain to them my ideas on calculating, but they can't hear me, because they're just staring at me. Are my beard and sidelocks more important than multiplication? Is my yarmulke more important than my method for quick calculation?

 

Stern's Biography

Avrom Yakov Ben Chanoch Chenech Stern was born in 1768 in a small town, Hruibeshov, in the area of Lublin, not far from Zamość. Regarding his family and the years before he came to Warsaw, very little is known. Supposedly his parents were very poor. The son studied watch–making in Zamość. He studied for many years at the House of Learning. During his studies he made a name for himself as a prodigy. The surrounding Polish noblemen were amazed by his French and Polish. He also knew German, as his preparation of official documents can attest, but that fact did not even seem to be a noteworthy observation. Stern said that when there was a war between Poland and Austria in 1809, he was active on the Polish side for his proficiency in the “two languages”: the former (Austrian) and that of the new government. It is unfortunate that he does not elaborate on his precise role – it's quite possible that he was a translator. The property around the town of Hruibeshov came to be used by the famous Polish statesman, the Priest Stanislaw Staszic (1755–1826). The priest became very interested in the Jewish scholar and watch–maker, and while Stern was showing him the roughly–sketched designs of his calculating machine, Staszic sent him on his own dime to Warsaw with all the necessary recommendations, so that he could complete his training in mechanical engineering. That same year, Staszic made it possible for Stern to make a demonstration of his calculating machine for a meeting of the Mathematics section of the “Warsaw Society of Friends of Science.” The demonstration caused quite a sensation. The society published a communique in German. The Polish press wrote a great deal about the “Kaftan Jew,”[2] the country bumpkin that speaks and writes in perfect Polish and who sent in among his papers in Polish a popular explanation of his complicated calculating machine. The reports from the Polish press, as well as that of the German communique, were both printed in the same German publication. Stern was invited to demonstrate his findings for the Scientific Body of the Exterior. He visited Brody and Lviv, where the Maskilim prepared a warm welcome for him. From Galicia, Stern departed for Germany. No one is quite sure of his exact route. It seems certain that he visited Halle and Furth. Unfortunately we have not been able to find many details regarding this noteworthy trip. Stern himself years later shared some of the details with his son–in–law, Hayyim–Selig Slonimski. It was difficult to discern the sensationalist elements of his accomplishment from the main points of interest. This “wild creature” apparently left a lasting impression on non–Jews, even though the German Maskilim also extolled his praises. Stern was also in Furth, in order to see the local Yeshiva which had made a name for itself. Years later in collaboration with a Rabbinical School in Warsaw, he recalled his visit to that Yeshiva and used it as an exemplary model. Undoubtedly Stern would have met the head of the Yeshiva, the very old A. Yolid Poilin, who since 1789 was the rabbi of the old and well–known community. Both of them had a lot in common, they both struggled with the politics of the “enlightened” Jews. Stern once said that during his trip, he was advised to stay abroad. Yet he didn't take their advice. They promised him gifts and a significantly improving living situation if he were to stay. However he did not want to leave his “homeland”, as he referred to it. His sense of attachment to his place of origin was strongly developed. This pious Jew would take advantage of every possible opportunity to talk about Poland, which he described as “my homeland.” In this respect, however, he was not the first. Even the enlightened Jews made similar statements. It was common enough to recall the case of his fellow resident of Hrubieszow, Dr. Yakov, or Jacque Kalmanson (died in 1811), who declared himself a Polish citizen. He made this declaration however in French, because he did not know any Polish. Stern was the first religious Jew who openly declared Poland was his “homeland.”

 

Heavy Spirits

With such feelings, Stern came home. His protector and financier, the priest Staszic, welcomed him as a Jew which made a good name for Polish science while abroad. Stern was able to meet the powerful senator, Nowosilcow, who loved to bestow favors, even to those who didn't deserve them. He took it upon himself to introduce Stern, the “Jewish mechanic,” to Alexander I. That was in 1815. He was so impressed by the “Jewish curiosity” that spoke French, that he ordered Stern be paid a yearly salary of 200 Talarn (1,200 Polish Gilden).

That stipend alone was not enough for Stern to make a living. His wife, Sheindel, was the daughter of a wealthy scholar from Opoch, named Lipshitz, and as such, she probably could not forget those “good years” in her father's affluent household. They had five children together. Stern didn't have any other source of income except for the occasional private lessons, mostly for non–Jews, whom he taught math and astronomy. The subsidy that he received ended up going entirely towards the materials he needed to continue his findings, among which was included a faster plowing machine, which received keen interest from the Polish agricultural sector.

In 1817, Stern visited the city of Vilnius at the same time that Alexander I was also there. Thanks to the nobleman, Adam Czartoryski, the curator of the Lithuanian Region of Education, Stern was introduced once again before Alexander I. The czar listened to Stern's concerns and ordered that his salary be raised. When he came to collect his payment, not even Novosiltsov could help him. At that point Stern began to be overcome by difficult moods that even he couldn't fully grasp. His Polish and Chassidic friends did not want to help, largely because the hated Novoslitsov was involved. Staszic, the conservative, anti–semitic publicist, nevertheless continued supporting his protege. True, in 1816 he wrote that we need to settle Polish Jewish in Crimea or Bessarabia in order to “rescue” the Polish peasants from the Jewish innkeepers and the Polish merchants and tradesmen from “terrible competition.” He also thought that he could designate a few of those Jews who weren't harmful. Stern as such was considered one of those “useful Jews.” In him he saw first and foremost a Jew that could help in the development of the Polish technical sciences. As a priest, Staszic had more respect for a religious Jew than from the other enlightened Jews, many of whom he knew personally quite well. Stern was for Staszic, the Physiocrat, an important person because of his plans for a new plowing machine. In 1817, five years after the first report, Stern completed another project for a new calculating machine. As chairman of the Polish Society of Science, Stasciz set a date when Stern was supposed to give a report. A few of the members however were not happy about it, and thus requested that Stasciz remove his name from the list of speakers. They failed to include Stern among the official members of the organization in one of their resolutions. As a result, a group of liberal members wrote a letter of protest against their antisemitic colleagues. One of them, Count Alexander Hodkevich, a renowned chemist, wrote about the matter to the secretary of the society, Stanislaw Czaranocski: “The decision (not to admit Stern) will only show that we have no integrity and that we are ruled by deeply rooted prejudices. Regarding prejudices, I want to say that clothes aren't what make a man – on the contrary. Above all, educated people should distance themselves from that which is politically fashionable, and moreover not do that which is not decided on by group consensus. We should not be interested in Stern's position regarding Jews, rather we should follow what our own ordinances dictate, that is to say, spreading light among the people and bringing together all educated people in a common body without discriminating based on faith.”

Staszic took it upon himself to break the opposition, which was not really against Stern himself, but mostly against his Jewish clothing. Finally he made his presentation. According to the accepted levels of membership, Stern was accepted initially in 1818 as a member without rights, in 1821 as a member with passive rights, and in 1830 he achieved full, active rights. “In Warsaw, there was a light emanating from Stern's halo.”[3] Wrote a Polish contemporary in bold letters.

He becomes a member of the Bureau of Censorship for Jewish books and is considered the representative expert on all Jewish matters.

His role in censorship was more of a decorative one. Novosiltzov considered him to be more an expert on Jewish books than on censorship. In reality, Stern had a cultural organization that the radical non–religious Jews did not like. He was mild on academic and Maskilim texts but carefully strained (reviewed) Hassidic texts. Later he became so permissive, that the members of the government began to think that Stern himself was harmful because he was “sympathetic” to the “dark and fanatical Jews.” He managed to avoid the publishing of a Bible that was made via missionary efforts and aimed at Polish Jews. Stern wrote that since Jews have their own Bible, missionaries don't have to worry about the Jews.

Stern became the representative face of the Jewish community, without which there wouldn't have been any cultural celebrations in Warsaw.

In 1829 in Warsaw, we laid the cornerstone of a monument for Nicolaus Copernicus. Avrom Yakov Stern was also among the guests who were invited to inaugurate the celebratory act. At this particular moment, he signed his name using Hebrew letters. He explained that his intention was that if the act should ever be dug up, then at that moment one would see that Poles had been liberal and tolerant to Jews, as evidenced by the fact that they had invited a Jew to take part in a national Polish holiday.

 

Stern Unmasks Plagiarism

The national concept repeats itself throughout Sterns writings. He was concerned primarily with issues relating to territory – and not with ethno–national interests. Stern considered himself a Polish Jew and thought that everything related to Poland should interest a Jew who is born in that land. Quite quickly, Stern received an offer to formulate this idea in a more demonstrative manner. In 1819, Warsaw University invited the Italian priest Luigi Chiarini (1789–1832) as a professor of Hebrew. Chiarini was a bitter anti–semite, who even believed in blood libel. He was also elected president of the censorship committee for Hebrew books, and as such Stern had to work with him.

In 1829, Chiarni published a Polish translation of his Latin–Hebrew language dictionary. It was a terrible job – plagiarized from several other lexicographers. Among the educated Poles, there were not that many Hebraists at the time. One of them was the young Joachim Lelewel, who turned to Stern with the request that he share his opinion on the worth of that Italian's compilation.

Stern however was unable to openly take any steps against his “boss.” Instead he hid himself via a pen–name, “a lover of literature.” The handwritten expert opinion became a small book of 116 pages, where Stern demonstrated how Chiarni's dictionary was plagiarized, and in addition, that there were 900 errors in it.

The social position that Stern took in his introduction (“Our dear literature”) and the impressive summary of Chiarni's ignorance made a strong impression in Warsaw. The Warsaw Professor who was brought all the way up from Italy was demonstrably unmasked, and not from a secular Jew, but from a pious one. The liberal, educated Poles gave strong words of praise to Stern's publication. They especially liked the Polish explanations in the introduction, which seemed more in the style of a non–religious Jew. Lelewel wrote to Stern regarding his critical review, that Chiarini's “general compilation brought shame upon our generation.” Chiarni subsequently published an open letter asking that the author reveal his name. Stern did as he requested. Then Chiarni summoned Stern to a “literary duel”, that is, a public debate, which Stern accepted. However, when the location of the debate was set, Chiarini failed to show up. This raised the value of Stern's stock. In the circles of the Polish scholars, people began to think of Stern as the emancipator of Polish scientific honor.

In the meantime the November uprising broke out. The revolutionary Parliament abolished the Censorship Office and Stern was left without an income. A few good friends helped him out. Although Stern himself did not get involved in political matters, his two sons both served in the city's national guard. Regarding his character, his assistant, Yakov Tugenhold remarked that he did not go with the flow.

After the uprising, the Office of Censorship was eventually reopened, and Stern was able to work again. Old friends, especially the Polish astronomers and mathematicians of Warsaw, secretly supported him. In 1837, Stern received 1000 Gilden, which the Polish physicist Antoni Magier left for him in his will.

In 1836, Hayyim Selig Slonimski came to Warsaw, having recently gotten a divorce from his wife. Slonimski became a regular presence in Stern's household. Stern brought him together with the most important Polish astronomers and even helped Slonimski publish his “Toldot Hashamayim” (Warsaw, 1838) and wrote an introduction in Polish to the book.

Stern however was also envious of the young Slonimski and did not want to share with him his findings. In the beginning of 1842, Slonimski married Stern's youngest daughter, Sarah (1824–1897), and when Stern died that same year on the 3rd of February, Slonimski inherited his father–in–law's inventions. A Warsaw–based Mathematician and explorer, Avrom Stapel (1810–1880), later modified and reconstructed Stern's machines in his own name.

After his death, the government gave Stern's widow a yearly pension of 240 rubles. Their children had already been all married off. One son, Yitzchak, was a German teacher at a Gymnasium in the provinces.

The press wrote a great deal about Stern. Years later, his name was brought to life during the emigration to France. On the eve of the 1863 uprising, his life history was a symbol of “Polish–Jewish brotherhood,” and his spirit was invoked to highlight that partnership. The romantic biography was sensationalized by journalists, who were unable to bring forth any new details from his life story.

 

Stern's Cultural Ideology

The idea of state intervention in Jewish educational matters came from Stern's patron, the priest, Stanislaw Staszic. He convinced the Minister of Education, Count Stanislaw Potanski, to take an interest in creating Polish schools for Jewish children. The main goal was to create a public school for Jewish religious mentors, a kind of rabbinical school, that would become the foundation of a new Jewish cultural organization. Polish patriotism demanded that for that particular experiment, no foreign “experts” should be invited to participate in its formation.

As fate would have it, the responsibility of serving as the “historical emissary” for this project fell on Avrom Yakov Stern's shoulders. The selection process ranged from typical to sympathetic. The state officials wanted the younger Jew of the Maskilim, Yakov Tugendhold, to be more to their liking, since he represented that “progressive” ideology. That would have pleased a man such as Pototzki. But Stern was the ideal model of a Polish Jew, with an awareness of Polish geography, and a member of the Polish Scientific Academy, a Jew who followed all 613 commandments, who speaks Polish like a native, who gets along with state officials – who could have possibly been a better candidate?

Stern as such wanted to prepare a memorandum regarding the planned Rabbinical School. Without even seeking his prior consent, Stern was appointed as the director of the not–yet–existing institution.

The whole matter did not sit right with Stern. However he was requested to comply by two noblemen, plus his own patron Staszic and the Education Minister Pototzki. He accepted their proposal and sent out the memorandum. Unbeknownst to Stern, the government had already worked out their own project, and if Stern's project happened to align with theirs, then that would have been a great victory for the state. But Stern's plan was entirely different. He simply proposed the founding of a reformed yeshiva, probably along the lines of what he had seen in Furth. His project was not accepted, but he was nevertheless appointed as director in 1826. This was even the year that Staszic died, after which Stern no longer had such an influential supporter.

The fact that in 1818 Stern had given his approval for an elementary school for Jewish children did not mean that he would give in to the creation of a state–run rabbinical school. He only accepted that school in extenuating circumstances, especially in Warsaw, where it could be considered as a path to continue on from secondary education. He made one condition: that these schools would not include any study of Jewish texts. Properly speaking, Stern stood out from other religious non–Chassidic Jews, who would not want to hear about such a school at all. In 1820 he even managed to systematically obtain a subsidy for the schools from the income of the kosher meat taxes.

But the approval for the general schools for Jewish children as a continuation to secondary school religious training was still miles away from becoming a rabbinical school. To trust the state with the formation of rabbis seemed like a pretty dangerous proposition, even when the teachers would be religious and learned Jews. Stern wasn't only wanted as the director of the institution, but also in order to teach gemara[4]. As a temporary deputy for the committee on the “Council of Elementary Schools of the Faith of Moses,” he firmly stressed that we can't consider these schools as a substitute for a general Jewish education. He thought that Polish Jews do not need a rabbinical school, because no community is going to accept a rabbi that didn't learn in a Yeshiva and did not get their ordination from those rabbis who are authoritative in the eyes of Jews.

The government however could not distance themselves from someone who was such a symbolic figure as Avrom Stern, and as such they didn't even make an effort to find someone else as director. Meir Horowitz, a religious Jew and great scholar, was appointed as a teacher of Talmud and Assistant Director of the Rabbinical School. In practice the Rabbinical School was run by a steward, the leader of the radical Maskilim Jews, Anthony Eisenbaum (1791–1852). Stern was not a fan of Eisenbaum. During the year of 1822, Eisenbaum planned to distribute a Hebrew–Polish weekly paper, and he invited Stern to oversee the Hebrew section. Stern considered Eisenbaum as a man without scruples, and as such did not want to be a part of such a partnership. But Eisenbaum knew that Stern was more respectable than him, at least as an ideological symbol. He thought, however, that even the symbolic respectability that Stern could offer had its limitations.

Stern himself did not fully grasp that his respectability in Polish society and among the Polonized Jewish youth was first and foremost based on his seniority and life experience, because he would have a hard time impressing a scholar in a land famous for its Jewish learning. The situation was highly unusual. Stern wasn't at all involved in the Rabbinical School, but when someone came for advice in its formation, the inquiries were always directed toward him. As the Chairman of the Office of Censorship, and a known expert in Jewish affairs, and as a member of the state Jewish Committee, Stern had the moral sanction of Jews and Poles. There was a desire to show the outside world that when it comes to internal matters of the Rabbinical School, one shouldn't ask Tugenhold or Eisenbaum, but rather Stern, since the “Polish mathematician in a yarmulke” was the exclusive expert. This was an obvious political tactic that the naive Stern just didn't get.

Years before the Polish Uprising of 1830, there was a political trend that was starkly anti–liberal. Liberalism in general, and particularly pedagogical rationalism, was seen as one of the greatest dangers facing the country. Along with the growth of the political backlash, Stern's social capital grew, and not as a result of the current political climate, but as a result of the pedagogical situation. Stern really liked the writings of the far–from–friendly publications, which wrote that a “Jew with a beard is much better loved than a Jewish priest.”

In 1821 the former radical, Ksaveri Klemens Shaniavski (1764–1843) was voted as the Director of Censorship and Public Education. Shaniavski wanted to strengthen the Catholic component of Polish education. Shaniavski in any case defended traditional Jewish schooling, though he himself was far from being a philosemite.

The educational philosophy of Shaniavski and Stern merged in their modern approaches. Stern thought that education is good for exceptional people. Knowing the official language is simply a practical matter, and in any case should be limited to individuals or groups that need it for professional purposes. Shaniavski, the Catholic version of Stern, seconded Stern, the Jewish Shaniavski. After the uprising, Stern wrote in a memorandum in which he stated that the Jewish youth who participated in the uprising against the “legal authority”, were mostly students from the Rabbinical school. We can't prove that there wasn't a single student from a Yeshiva that wasn't involved in the conspiracy.

Stern's legitimization of authority made him out of touch from the youth, who like Anthony Eisenbaum, saw him as a kind of Polish–Jewish symbol. After the uprising, government officials began planning to reform the rabbinical school with a more conservative bent. No significant changes were made during Stern's tenure in connection with the rabbinical school. In a memorandum taken on the 14th of August 1833, Stern clarified that it is ideal for rabbis to know the official language of the land, but they did not need a rabbinical school to accomplish that goal.

That which is learned in the rabbinical school, wrote Stern with irony, is good for someone who wants to become a writer of literature. The students of the rabbinical school became riled up by the uprising not as a result of learning a page from the Talmud, but because they learned about the history of Rome, which is full of revolutions. Of course, he is in favor of a rabbinical school with a broad curriculum of rabbinical studies, with a bit of secular learning, such as Polish, German, and math. But for such a rabbinical school, we're in need of a different teacher, even for the non–Jewish studies. If the state is unable or unwilling to complete the task, then it would be preferably simply to convert the rabbinical school into a pedagogical preparatory school, under the condition that Jewish studies not be taught there.

Stern, however, was not among the stringently orthodox of his time period. He had to make certain concessions, small ones, modest and quiet, for the sake of practical necessity. For most of the Orthodox Jews however he was considered too much of a “heretic.” In his heart, Stern was half–Maskilim, if only from a logical point of view, whereas, as a wider movement, it frightened him. His weakness for the ideas of the Maskilim was expressed in his bad poetry, spontaneous odes, rhyming introductions and seals of approval, tombstone engravings, charades and riddles – in a word, the well–known rhyming acrobatics that was characteristic of the Maskilim followers in Poland. He even used to read the hackneyed fruits of his muse in the literary “salons” of Warsaw's Maskilim. In the palace of Hebrew poetry, Stern was no “star”, even though that was his pen name. Among the scholarly Maskilim, he had a lot of friends. During his tenure at the Office of Censorship, he gave his approval quite liberally to works by Maskilim, even though he was very strict with Hassidic books. Stern also had a high opinion of the “Science of Judaism.”[5] In 1820, an anonymous Polish historian turned to Jewish studies in Poland and helped gather material regarding the country's Jewish past. Stern called upon himself to continue this work. In 1823, he published a Polish translation of Nathan Hanover's Yeven Mezulah.[6] The same translation was later employed by the historian Joachim Lelewel, with whom Stern was closely acquainted.

This translation here – explains Stern in his introduction – is my debt to the “homeland's historical sciences,” just as the critical review of Chiarini's failed dictionary played tribute to “national” culture.

In this particular point, Stern stood out as different from his peers. There were greater scholars in Poland than Stern, but a religious Jew who knows several world languages and can also write in them – other than him, there wasn't anyone else in Poland who fit that description. The Maskilim Jews knew a lot less than Stern about the current trends in Jewish Studies. His approach to secular matters was purely utilitarian, and for that reason he found favor in the eyes of religious Jews. Along with the Maskilim, he found the studies of the secular world to be useful, but on an individual basis. However unlike the Maskilim, he did not compromise so easily with non–Jews on Jewish matters.

When Ephraim Finer (1800–1880), also a Polish Jew, came in 1836 to Warsaw in search of financial assistance for his planned German translation of the Talmud, Stern befriended him. In 1837, when negotiations were being made by the Office of Censorship to give a sum of money for publications, Stern supported the idea of translating classical religious Hebrew works into Polish. But these were constructive projects. He also, however, fought against Mendelson's Bible with commentary as a textbook in the Elementary School for Jewish children.

In time, Stern became a stumbling block for the Maskilim, although he did win over a number of Misnagdim,[7] and with them he became acquainted with the right wing of the Polish Haskala.

Stern's activity in the Office of Censorship did not find favor in the eyes of the great nobleman Konstantine, who had enjoyed stopping him in the middle of the street to have a chat in French. He sharply criticized the “wild Jew” who allowed the publication of “works of fantasy by sinister rabbis.” In time, Stern's censorship activity existed more or less solely on paper. The true censors were simply not supposed to be “bandits,” whereas the jovial Stern would ask as a favor that a particular book be allowed through, especially when one of his rhyming introductions was a part of it. It even came to pass that if a book happened to have a few empty pages, that the author or publisher would commission Stern to publish a few of his poems there. However when a Hasidic work showed up, then Stern took it upon himself to be the Jewish “bandit.”

As a member of the Jewish Committee and as a censor, Stern fought against German printing production. A reformist school of thought permeated the studies of Jewish religion and offended the religious misnagdim. He also fought against local authors who attempted to Christianize the Jewish religion. In other cases, he was more of a progressive, like most misnagdim in Poland. When it appeared that in 1841, German–Jewish journals would be allowed to enter Poland, Stern proposed, together with Yakov Tugenhold, a plan to publish such a journal in Polish. The Office of Censorship did not agree with the plan.

In his heart, Stern was a Misnagid with literary tendencies that were stronger than his political–ideological ones. Politically he was an anachronism, a typical product of an antiquated Poland. He had his nobleman sponsor, Stasciz. The noblemen were always correct, and so of course he took their side. Stasciz was really an anti–Semite, but not regarding “his Jews”, and Stern was one of them. He wasn't a “true philosopher”, as the Jew Holenderski wrote about him. Even when specifically asked by important scholars of the time, he didn't adhere to any particular school of thought, even though his son–in–law Hayyim Selig Slonimski wrote that he loves the philosophy of mathematics.

Politically, Stern was naive and primitive. He was no guiding force, and did not even pretend to label himself as such. In the various commissions for Jewish affairs, where he was invited to participate, his role was more decorative than practical. He hardly spoke up, but at the same time, people were enchanted by his Polish speeches.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. A Jewish song in Hebrew about the sabbath, generally sung on shabbos. Return
  2. This is a reference to the kapote, which was the long coat traditionally worn by religious Jewish men. Return
  3. This is a play on words in Yiddish, since the word for “star”, “forehead,” and Stern's name are all written and pronounced the same (shtern). “Halo” is light emanating from a person's head or an astral body, so it seemed the closest translation to shtern in this particular context. Return
  4. The Gemara is the component of the Talmud comprising rabbinical analysis of and commentary on the Mishnah. Return
  5. A school of thought among Jewish intellectuals in Germany beginning at the first half of the 18th century. Return
  6. An account of the Khmelnytsky Uprising, or massacre, where at least tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Jews were murdered in mid 17th–century Poland and Ukraine. Return
  7. The misnagdim (literally “opponents”) opposed the rise of Hasidism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Return

[Columns 407-408]

The first committee for the party, Agudas Yisroel
Sitting: Yitzchak Reizer, Dovid Zimerman, Leibel Silbermintz, Berl Lerer

 

The Great Rabbi Yochanan Twersky,
may he rest in peace
[1]

by Baruch Dovid Zimerman, Bnei Barak

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

The honorable Rabbi Yochanan Twersky became the new rabbi after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Wertheim, who left Romania in 1935. Practically speaking, Rabbi Yochanan Twersky did not settle into life in our town until 1936, and that was a result of opposition from the Radziner Hasidim, who were attempting to appoint the brother–in–law of their Rebbe, Rabbi England, the son of the Sosnovitzer Rebbe.

The conflict lingered on for nearly a year. In town there were rumors circulating about Rabbi Yochanan's miracles.

During the conflict, the Radziner Hasidim invited their candidate, Rabbi England, to town for shabbos, so that he could give a lecture in the synagogue, and thus influence the town.

The rabbi came on Thursday and stayed in Mr. Boyer's Hotel. Having been in the hotel for just a couple of hours, one of the walls in the room where he was staying, suddenly toppled over. Shortly thereafter that same Thursday night, the rabbi went home and removed himself as candidate for the Hrubieszow rabbinate.

Rabbi Yochanan, or as we called him, Rebbe Yochanchi, was from Trisk, and a son of Rebbe Mosheli, the rabbi of Lublin, and a grandson of the Maggid of Trisk.

He was born in the year 1900. He was educated largely at home by his father. Then he became the son–in–law of the Belz Rabbi Yesochar Dov, a brother–in–law of the last Belz rabbi, Rebbe Aherli, who recently passed away here in Israel.

As a son–in–law of the Belz rabbi, he perfected his knowledge of Torah, both the plain text and the hidden meanings, and by the time he was 36 he had already taken over the rabbinate in our town.

[Box on bottom of page, in Hebrew]

The last generations of Hrubieszow's rabbis:

Rabbi Yosef Mordechai Katzenellenbogen – 1818–1830
Rabbi Yosef Eliezer Gelernter – 1830–1864
Rabbi Yisorel Isser Yavetz – 1896–1924
Rabbi Yosef Wertheim – 1924–1935
Rabbi Yochanan Twersky – 1936–1939

Translator's Footnote:

  1. In honor of my sisters, Rekhl, Beyle, Pearl, and my brothers, Yisroel, Aryeh, and Shlomo. Return

[Columns 441-442]

Avrom the Long

Translated by Mira Rivka Blum

 

Avrom the Long was my teacher. I don't remember how old I was when I began to take on the yoke of the Torah, but I do remember this: it was a beautiful summer day - the lilacs were blooming and their scent was wafting through the breeze, and the sun was shining and awoke joy in each living being. Early in the morning I had been dressed up to the nines in fancy clothes fit for shabbos. Wrapping me up in a tallis, my father brought me to Avrom the Long in kheyder. Following his lead, next came my mother, bubbe and zeyde, their children and other relatives which were also in town.

All the children in the school were

[Columns 443-444]

already sitting down on benches around tables. Avrom the Long approached me with a smile, and examined me the way one evaluates an esrog[1] before purchasing it for Sukkos. He sat me down next to an open siddur, approached the door, removed a twig from a broom, cut it with a knife into a pointer, and started pointing at the letter “aleph” until “taf” [2], back and forth. Everyone stood around me and listened to me pronounce the letters. It was as quiet in the school as it is in a synagogue just before the blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana.

After I finished, all of my relatives started giving out candy, nuts, and honey cake to all the children. My father, the Rebbe, and all of my relatives made a toast (l'chaim) and wished the new student success in his studies - may he become a great scholar among the Jewish people. The women all cried with tears of joy.

My father took his tallis, wrapped up “the goods,” and we went back home. “That's enough for today,” he said.

Avrom the Long had three sons and one daughter, and their names were: Shimele the Helper, Gershon the Crooked, Leizer, and Menucha, who died under tragic circumstances.

Each of his children had their own specialty. After Avrom the Long drilled each student on the Aleph-Beis, he set him [the student] back on his feet and handed him over to the eldest son, Shimele. With him, the student would begin to work on his dots in order to learn the vowels of the Hebrew alphabet.

In the morning Shimele would go to the students, who lived far away, and would recite with them “Mode Ani,” [3] and would herd them like a gaggle of gooses, pardon the comparison, to the schoolhouse. Shimele had another speciality - reading “kriyas-shma” [4] for women who God had just blessed with a son.

On this point Avrom the Long was very exacting - rain or shine, and even if there was snow or thunder and lightning, he made sure that his children attended to women who had just given birth in order to recite “kriyas-shma,” which would bestow merit on the newborn, and ensure that no other teacher would end up becoming his teacher.

“ Long live the new mother[5] and the little boy!” Shimele would call out and the children would answer him: “amen!”

The second eldest son, Gershon the Crooked, used to go among the houses of the students with a small basket and the mothers of the children would give him food for the children, which they ate throughout the duration of the day at school. The basket was round and woven from twigs that the peasants used to gather in the fields. He used to lay all the food that he got in the basket: bread and butter, plum jam and goose schmaltz, rolls with butter and oil, bagels, egg bagels, and knishes with different fillings. On one side of the basket he kept the milchig (dairy), on the other side the fleishig (meat), and in the middle he placed the parve items. He had to remember not to mix them up or turn over the mothers' baked goods, because they each one kept track of their children and what they had sent for each one.

He carried the basket on his crooked back (that's why we called him Gershon the Crooked). Us children understood that God had made him that way so that he could be able to carry the food basket on his back to our school. He also used to make toy guns, bow and arrows on Lag B'Omer, and groggers for Purim.

The third son, Lazer, did not have any particular speciality. He used to help the Rebbe make a “package” if one of the students misbehaved really badly.[6] The “sinner” would be stretched out on the bench and given a good whipping on his backside.

There was a worse punishment: he would force the student to stand on the stove with his head going up the chimney. The classmate would cry and scream out of fear, but it wouldn't help one bit, he would have to serve out his sentence. When he was finally taken down off the stove, his face would be smeared with soot, and all the other children would laugh at him. That was much worse than being beaten - we all trembled with fear at the thought of that punishment.

His wife was, as we call it nowadays, a peddler of used goods,[7] and Lazer would help her carry the purchased items. Once she was able to purchase a gramophone, which played out of a large “trumpet,” similar to the large bell in the Russian church. Avrom did not allow her to sell the gramophone. He used the gramophone to make the new students happy, since they often did not want to stay in school. We used to gather around the gramophone and search for the precise location from which the sound was being emitted - but we never found it.

On a beautiful day, Avrom's wife came with a young Polish nobleman, who it turns out had paid a good price for it. Us children mourned the loss of the gramophone for a long time.

Avrom's daughter, Menukhe, was a beautiful girl, and a young shoemaker was in love with her. However it seems that his love was unrequited.

Once on a Friday the shoemaker finished work and got himself all dressed up. She had washed her hair and was wearing her shabbos clothes when she went for a walk with him to the market. At the market he told her:

“Lift up your head, there's something crawling on your neck.” As soon as she lifted her neck, he took out his shoe-cutting blade and slit her throat with it. She was found lying dead on the ground with the blade next to her.

Translator's Footnote:

  1. The citron fruit used in the rituals of Sukkos - many people pay a great deal of money to get the most beautiful fruit in stock, and thus each potential purchase would be examined with great care. Return
  2. The last letter of the alphabet, which would usually be pronounced in Yiddish/Ashkenazi Hebrew as an “s” rather than a “t” - for example the letter at the end of “shabbos” , “tallis” , etc. Return
  3. This is the very first prayer that one says upon waking up. Return
  4. Another prayer, including the “shma,” which is a declaration of faith general said twice per day, and is even supposed to be recited as one's final words. Return
  5. The word in Yiddish is not really “mother” , but “kimpeturin” , whose equivalent does not really exist in English. It refers to a woman in labor or who has just given birth (up to several months later). Return
  6. The 'package' may refer to a small bundle of thin branches to use for the whipping. Return
  7. The Yiddish says that she was a peddler of “old things” (alte zakhn), and when the author says that this is how we call it “nowadays,” he is referring to the fact that even today in Israel when Arabs go around gathering scrap metal or other used items, they use the Yiddish term “alte zakhn” to draw people's attention to come and donate their “old things.” Return

 

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