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[Page 169]

Personae

 

[Page 171]

The Wertheim Dynasty
(The history of the rabbinic seat in Bendery)

by I. L. Toibman [Yonatan]

Translated by Ala Gamulka

 

A tree with many branches!

The story would be incomplete if it did not include the tale about grandfather's daughter. He was the Hassidic Rabbi from Brone in Volyn. Much was said about her beauty and intelligence. She was ordered to hide when the Polish doctor Leiman would come. She also knew the laws in the Shulchan Aruch without having learned Torah. She was unschooled, but was quite intelligent.

Miriam–Rivkale came to Bessarabia and raised outstanding sons and daughters.

If truth be told, the word “Bessarabia” frightened grandfather since no one from our village in Volyn had ever gone there. No one really knew where Bessarabia was located in Russia. It was only known that it was further than Odessa, somewhere in Wallachia.

My grandfather was keen on joining the dynasty of the “elder rabbi” from Bendery– that was R. Arieh Leib, brother of R. Moshe–Zvi from Saravan. However, he was hesitant because of the great distance. Bessarabia! He sought advice, but eventually he agreed to the match. He knew that the father of this family, R. Arieh Leib, was the son–in–law of the Maggid R. Nahum from Chernobyl of his own dynasty.

For years there were stories about the fancy wedding that went on for a month and involved many villages and towns from near and far. It was nicknamed “the great wedding”.

The owner of the estate gave the two families two carriages drawn by four horses in order to greet the groom and his family. They waited in the inn owned by R. Shaya. Several drivers who resembled Cossacks with their hair styles rode to meet the guests and brought them to the town gates. Grandfather and others came in the carriages to greet them. They went around the marketplace and the Red House seven times. The groom's family were housed in the homes of the wealthier members of the community.

No one knows how many turkeys and fattened geese were brought by the followers from the villages. They were served at many meals where the guessing continued as to the number of guests that had come to the big meal after the ceremony. The numbers varied between a 101 and 150.

The groom's family brought with them two melodies. One was that of Adon Olam which is quite sad at the beginning and at the end. The second melody began with sadness and crying, but ended with happiness.

The two tunes were absorbed in the community and could be heard throughout Volyn. They were sung by the followers of Stolin–Karlin and by those from Trisk– each in its own way. Klezmer bands played them at many happy occasions in Volyn.

After the Seven Blessings the guests left and returned to their homes. It is reported that saying good–bye to the bride was akin to that of our matriarch Rebecca. There were no camels and the nanny stayed home. She did cry a great deal because she was going so far away – to distant Bendery in Bessarabia.

Grandfather was quite emotional at this moment and worried about his daughter. It may be that this was just a father who would miss his beloved daughter. It may also be that his heart told him that she would die at a young age and he would only know about it in his old age. In any case saying good–bye was difficult.

She stood in the doorway with tears in her eyes and put her hand on the mezuzah. Grandfather blessed her and wished her to be happy. She left and went to Bendery.

[Page 172]

Bendery

According to many, Bessarabia is likened in its scenery, temperament and climate to Eretz Israel since it located in the area between the Dniester and the Prut. Thus, Bendery can be compared to Yaffo.

As you enter Bendery you stand on a hill and see the ruined fortress. It is as if you see all of Bessarabia.

This land is part of a brown prairie, watered by the rivers and dew. Most of the year the land is laden with produce, wheat, vines and fields full of sheep and cattle.

It is morning time. The marketplace is filled with farmers and their heavy baskets. You can find all types of plums still covered in frost, citrus fruit, red apples whose seeds are sonorous. The large square is strewn with cloth bags filled with grapes of different kinds. They are to be sent to distant places. These bags are emptied into warehouses owned by Jews who will export the grapes. High piles of watermelons and pumpkins are everywhere. No one fears that they will be stolen.

In one of the lanes one sees a skinny Jew with his talit under his arm. He is probably one of the idlers in town who can be found in the marketplace. They go from table to table, handle the poultry and the newly–caught fish, squeeze the watermelons with all their might and sniff the fragrant yellow watermelons. They select the best and return home with heavy bags.

You can hear sounds of happiness from the saloons. These are farmers who are now drunk. They are happy to have sold their produce. They sing to Russia and Moldova, Volga, Doyna. These tunes touch the Jewish soul. They have been around since the days of the Baal Shem Tov who used to wander in these areas. The cantors sang them and also the Chassidim in Shtipenshti and Hosh. They were brought to the “big wedding” by the in–laws to grandfather's house.

Heinich the cantor, a sickly Jew, also chanted the tune and adapted it to different prayers from the High Holidays.

*

The Rabbi's court and the magnificent synagogue are located in the busy marketplace. All visitors look at this building which reminds them of those edifices depicted on silken challah covers received from yeshivas in Jerusalem. There are two towers on both sides of the Western Wall with polished cornices and tips and protuberances reminding us of the Tower of David. There is beautiful Jerusalem stone. The interior of the synagogue is different from any others. An artist was brought from Odessa and he painted some of the walls and towers of Eretz Israel, the Western Wall and the Old city gate. The painting almost calls out:”if I forget thee, Jerusalem…”

*

Rabbi Itzikel and his son Rabbi Shloimenu – he is so young that his silver talit still has its original folds – are planning to make Aliyah. They have a few followers among the wealthy members in the synagogue. Among them is R. Leib Brodsky, an aristocratic Jew who is extremely knowledgeable in sacred texts such as “moreh nevuchim”, “Kuzari” and others.

The whole synagogue is ready to go to the Holy city of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Itzikel and his followers were true lovers of Zion even before religious Zionists appeared on the scene. They were all well–versed in ancient sayings praising Eretz Israel. This aristocratic rabbinic family also spoke of Sinai and the Mount Moria even though the former was secular and the latter religious in meaning.

[Page 173]

For generations the longing for Zion did not have a name. From time to time an emissary from the Holy Land would visit. He came from the Meir Baal Haness yeshiva and had the scent of the beloved land. Everyone congregated around him because he had been fortunate enough to step on the Holy Land. There was always an atmosphere of festivity when the emissary came.

Six generations had lived in this court. The time spanned about 140 years in this home attached to the synagogue and its women's section.

*

 

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The front of the synagogue of Rabbi Itzikel, z”l

 

How did the father of this dynasty of Rabbi Aryeh–Leib from Ukraine reach Bendery in Bessarabia?

The story is that he was brought to Bendery by a businessman who had visited him in his village in Podolia. The new transplant grew roots and produced fruit.

What did this businessman from Bendery see in the young man to bring him to the new place? He did it on his own, without consultation.

There is a family record, written in 1774 that says that the appointed rabbi was a ‘king in Bendery’. He was allotted a salary of two rubles per week.

There is a basis for the conclusion that the new rabbi filled the role of leader of the Chassidim and had many followers. He was also a teacher and a judge and served as a model for his generation and those to come.

In the second family record, given to the son of Rabbi Aryeh–Leib, it is written that Shimon–Shlomo would be appointed his successor. This was decided by his followers, of which there were many.

In the ledger of the Hevra Kaddisha of 1844 we find several sections that give information about the daily life of the Jews of Bendery. These Jews were generous to those less fortunate and led a kosher life. They were true Chassidim. Even those who could not read were encouraged to recite Psalms since the Rabbi believed that it was good for the soul.

In winter, on Friday night after midnight, the old beadle dressed in furs and a leather belt around his waist, walks outside and bangs on the windows and wakes everyone. They are being summoned to come to the synagogue to recite Psalms.

[Page 174]

The hour is early, the town clock has struck three, but most of the Psalm reciters have already slept 7 hours after the meal. One can hear the doors creaking and young people meeting their friends on the dark street and walking together. They walk in the frozen mud. Jokers say that this walk is mentioned in the Psalms– we tread timorously in the House of God.

 

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Rabbi Itzikel Wertheim, z”l

 

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Ledger of the Psalm Society in Bendery showing some signatures [1844]

 

In summertime there were people who went to the Dniester to immerse themselves in the fresh and clear water. They would return with their robes and towels to the synagogue. They did so in spite of the fact that there is a prohibition against inappropriate dress when seeing the king even if it is only to chant psalms.

The black soil of Bessarabia was plowed by many true believers and the seeds of popular Chassidism and real belief were sown.

 

The daughter in the house

The daughter of the Rabbi from Volyn came as a bride to the home of her in–laws in Bendery, Bessarabia.

Her letters to her grandfather speak of her strong feelings of homesickness and her observations of life in Bendery. In spite of the fact that there was a rumor that there was an abundance of fruit and vegetables in Bendery – unavailable in Volyn– it was not so. There were grapes on the Shabbat table for the “shecheyanyu” blessing on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but there were only four or five per person. Even those few disappeared immediately. On Succot there were baskets of the grapes brought into the house and wine was plentiful. The people here are so different and one has to get used to them.

These thoughts were written to her father in her letters. Her father replied with love and was thrilled to hear news of new grandchildren. He would send congratulations, give a list of names and enclose gifts of money.

Some years passed and she died. Five sons and five daughters followed her coffin. The house had burned down.

[Page 175]

A spark from the candles lit for Shavuot fell in the courtyard and all the buildings were burned. Rabbi Itzikel died three days later. It was a hint that there was a new order in the dynasty. Everything was burned and only the chair at the head of the table was saved. On the chair was a sign with the inscription: this is the chair of the sainted holy man.

The new leader is Rabbi Shimon–Shlomo Wertheim. He resembled his father Rabbi Itzikel. His face reflected intelligence and knowledge.

If Rabbi Itzikel was one who looked into the past, then Rabbi Shimon–Shlomo always faced the future – to the coming generations of rabbis. Again there were three generations in the courtyard that had now been rebuilt.

 

ben175.jpg
Rabbi Shimon–Shlomo Wertheim, z”l

 

The three generations were: the father, called Rabbi Shloimenu by our townspeople, his son, Ben Porat Yosef – Rabbi Yossele with the golden curls and the grandson Ahrale. These were the three parts of the dynasty.

The courtyard was filled with new melodies, sons and daughters and many friends.

One son, very handsome and sporting a beard, was brought up in a strict way. He gave speeches in excellent Hebrew at Lovers of Zion meetings and was a delegate to the Congress. The father watched him with love and trepidation that he should not change too much.

Another Rabbi had expressed concern over the behavior of the sons and the father explained that his way was that of Jacob: ‘I will move along slowly at the tempo of the flock and the pace of the children’ [Genesis 33:14]. He added the interpretation of Avrabanel: Go children and heed my words. It does not say come children. The younger generation has a heavy load on its back and they do not need to be taught morals. One must understand their ways that are strewn with obstacles and to go with them step by step and to teach them love of God.

Another son who is clean–shaven ended up in America and there he was one of the great leaders of Zeirei Zion. He travelled everywhere and encouraged the youth to build Eretz Israel.

The Rabbi's daughters followed many paths– Kiev, Odessa, courses for kindergarten teachers, nursing school, preparation for Eretz Israel. They loved their father who encouraged them. They always returned home to celebrate holidays and then they left again.

The oldest son served as a rabbi in many important cities and, before Mizrahi, he founded the ‘Ultra–religious Zionist Organization.’

Father and son, together with Rabbi Fishman from nearby Ungani, planned Zionist programs for rabbis to encourage them to endorse the movement.

The rabbi's courtyard consisted of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch on one side and an unconditional love for Zion on the other side.

This partnership of the two rabbis– questions and answers about what is permitted and what is not, special “tables” for the followers, rabbinic decisions– was outstanding. There is a story told about our rabbi that shows that he was even greater than the “old rabbi”: the latter, when a woman was brought before him that the dibbuk [evil spirit] entered her– banished the dibbuk. However, the former when confronted with the same issue, banished both the woman and the dibbuk.

In the rabbi's study there is a green desk with a telephone. The Beit Din meets regularly and there is activity all day.

At home, on the eastern wall there is a picture – Panorama of the Holy Land. During Kiddush and Havdalah on Shabbat and Holidays all eyes are focused on it.

In 1903, after the Kishinev pogroms, Rabbi Shimon–Shlomo traveled to Paris where he negotiated with the representatives of the Baron about settling 50 agricultural families from Bessarabia in Eretz Israel. He encouraged them to leave and make Aliyah. He understood full well that he was undertaking a great responsibility for the lives of many people.

In Paris the Rabbi held a meeting of Jews from Eastern Europe and Dr. Max Nordau highly regarded the “grand rabbi” from Bendery.

[Page 176]

Nordau offered his assistance and promised that the Rabbi's request will be looked at most carefully. However, a telegram arrived with the following words:”Palestine impossible, we agree to Anatolia”.

On his way back from Paris, the Rabbi visited his grandfather–in–law and this represented the strengthening of family relations. Everyone was impressed that he was going to Paris– so far away. The Rabbi spoke about the magnificent city and its chief rabbi, R. Tzadok Hacohen. He described him as an outstanding rabbi and a most observant man. They spoke about Rashi and other sages of Paris.

The visit represented the first time that electric light was seen in grandfather's village. The guest ordered the closing of doors and took out a small utensil from his pocket. He pushed a button and there was light!

The guest also had a copy of the newspaper “Hatzfira” and grandfather looked at the headline which said:”The Jews of Russia do not yet have equal rights”.

Grandfather asked:” Firstly, what does this mean? Secondly, we are sworn in and are careful not to harm the honor of the state…”

When WWI broke out, the Rabbi was in Eretz Israel. When he stepped on the holy terrain he felt a yearning. Have passed Lydda, Ramle, Beitar and said “each name excites my soul”. He is unable to contain his emotions in these special moments of his life. He occasionally asks himself:”How did I earn this privilege? I did not see any sheaves of wheat. The one who sees sheaves of wheat in his dreams can achieve redemption”. He finds an answer in his letter:”I was privileged because of my ancestors who came from the tribe of Judah–Kalev Ben Yefuneh. My ancestors and I are absolved from any blame from the sin of the spies”.

He arrives at the Western Wall and he writes:”We wish to see the goodness of God if he so desires. We should no longer spill our blood on foreign lands. I will respond if called upon”.

He finally returned to Bendery after a lengthy round–about route. He gladdened hearts in describing the Holy Land…

The sons and daughters are scattered in various countries. They all desire to be in Eretz Israel to bask in the light of Zion.

His daughter Pnina is the first to make Aliyah. Her soft hands are used for working the land in Ein Ganim. She then was a nurse in hospitals in Safed and Jerusalem where she also cared for her patients with words of encouragement and comfort. She never had her own family, but spent her life inside white walls. After her comes the second daughter and then a son who filled a role as a mediator, almost like a rabbi. He was followed by the third daughter.

The father imbued in his children an unconditional love of Eretz Israel. The rabbi died knowing his children were in the Holy Land.

The special chair stands near the table as if it is urging continuity. It represents generations of those who used it for so many years.

The oldest son, Yosef, served as a rabbi in a large community in Poland. There were two communities who fought over who should get him and they went to a Beit Din over the issue. The community of Ostro felt the rabbi could not refuse to serve them. However, the community of Khrovshov maintained that his grandfather had served them in the past.

The decision by a Rabbi from Rovno was in favor of Khrovshov.

Rabbi Yosef had many sons and daughters. His followers were from Beltz and Gur, but he was a Zionist and a member of Mizrahi. He was the eldest son and he saw himself as responsible for filling the empty place in Bendery. He sent his son, R. Ahrale, to take his place for awhile.

Soon the branch came back to the trunk. The son came back to his father's house, but he wanted to sail to Eretz Israel from a Romanian port. Bendery was closer to Eretz Israel.

On the first day of Tevet, 1940, the Russians entered Bessarabia. From Tiraspol, on the other side of the Dniester, one hears:”we will be with you in the spring”. It was obvious that under this regime there will no longer be a rabbinic tradition. R. Yosef appointed his son–in–law as the keeper of the seal and he himself made Aliyah.

On his last winter morning in the Diaspora he went to the graves of the five generations, said good–bye to the Zionists in the cemetery and recited Psalms. He announced: 'Dear grandfather. I was fortunate to sit in your seat and my father's seat for six years. I did my best not to shame you. The time has come for me to make Aliyah with my family. I am going to the land you wanted to reach. I am certain I am following your orders…”

[Page 177]

It seems that of all the Zionists in the “tent” the saddest grave is that of the mother – the daughter of the Volyn grandfather.

The newcomers came to Jerusalem and the inherited seat moved together with the painting.

The dynasty continued…

[From Nof vegeza – scenery and trunk]

 

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Shimon–Shlomo Wertheim and his family

 

[Page 178]

R. Yosele Wertheim

by I.L. Toibman [Yonatan] Z”L

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The diminutive of the name, assigned to children in the courtyards of the Tzadikim, was typical of the bearer. It evokes sweetness and goodness deeply rooted in love for other Jews and it always emanated from his countenance – from his first steps until his last day in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

 

ben178.jpg
The Rabbi's Synagogue

 

Built in 1886 by Rabbi Itzikel, z”l and renovated in 1936–7

His image and personality were formed in his father, Rabbi Shlomo–Shimon's house and during the lifetime of his grandfather R. Itzikel. They had both been the town rabbis and taught Rabbi Yosele Torah and wisdom. His father encouraged in him love of Zion while his grandfather was an example of a scholar and a Chassid. Although Yosele admired his grandfather and thought him to be a Chasid, he, himself, was also one.

Rabbi Yosele used to tell a childhood story that occurred during Succot while he was involved in a game of nuts. He suddenly looked up and saw his grandfather sitting alone in the succah and after gazing at him, he could no longer return to his game. The memory of this event stayed with him forever.

During those days, when the father and grandfather were still alive, the handsome young Jew followed a life of Torah and work. He would not enjoy the love, loyalty and goodness without blessing God. He was eager to perform deeds for Eretz Israel.

Some years before the formation of Mizrahi, Yosele founded the “Ultra Orthodox party for Eretz Israel. He spoke in many synagogues and had many followers who loved Zion like him.

In the Wertheim house it was not enough to love Zion– it was time to make Aliyah. The son was as avid as the father to disseminate the idea of Aliyah to everyone around them.

Yosele received his rabbinic smicha (ordination) from one of the greatest rabbis and by then he already had a family. He served the community of Ostilo. His wife came from there. He was only 24 years old at the time. He was the rabbi of a Chassidic Polish village where there were many factions and dynasties interested in gaining his favor.

The young rabbi, a Zionist and the scion of rabbis found himself in a difficult situation. He tried to be independent without giving up crucial ideals.

[Page 179]

These were not easy times, but his people loved him unconditionally and encouraged him constantly.

Mizrahi was founded and a framework was established. He was one of the first to join. He traveled to many towns, spoke to the congregants and participated in many conferences. He was also a member of the executive committee of Mizrahi and his reputation preceded him. He was a well–educated rabbi who had a love of Zion.

His village became too small for his activities and he looked for a larger forum. He was interested in the position of rabbi in Ostro – a large and important community in Volyn.

These were times of pogroms and the Jews in Russia suffered greatly.

Ostro now became a border town – near the Russian border. He served as the rabbi of Ostro for some years and was highly respected and loved.

He took a chance in helping to hide people in his attic and subsequently providing them with proper documents so that they would be saved. The chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, the late Rabbi Aronson, was one of those saved. Others were journalists, writers, famous or not so famous cantors and simply Jews who came to his door wearing summer clothes in the dead of winter. His home emitted warmth and gave them refuge.

These refugees were able to convalesce in his home and were encouraged to rebuild their lives. It was not in vain that these people blessed him as Ben Porat Yosef.

Years went by and the Jews of Poland were struggling with the new regime. The rabbi was concerned about his congregants, but he always smiled and comforted others.

His father, Rabbi Shimon–Shlomo, died and his seat was now available. It called Rabbi Yosele to return home. He knew it would not be an easy job after his years in Poland, but he knew it was his duty to continue the dynasty. Bendery will be his last stop in the Diaspora– it is closer to Eretz Israel.

Rabbi Yosele spent six years as the rabbi of Bendery. The Jews of Bessarabia suffered much in those years and Rabbi Yosele took care of his flock. His Shabbat sermons in his synagogue were inspirational and lasted the full week. He encouraged everyone to make Aliyah.

Thunder announcing the coming war was already heard and he was fortunate to be able to save himself in time.

On the first day of Tevet, 1940, Rabbi Yosele went to the cemetery and visited the graves of five generations, said goodbye and made Aliyah.

It was amazing to see how ready he was to go to Eretz Israel and to accept whatever awaited him there. “I am ready to just be a beadle in any synagogue in the holy city of Jerusalem. I do not need anything else”– so he said.

Rabbi Yosele was fortunate to have his own synagogue with his followers who came to hear him speak and teach. He was very happy. He said:”How much luckier am I than my ancestors who dreamed of making Aliyah until their last moment!” He felt this way to his last day. This was a terrible day for all of us.

He was on his death–bed in “Hadassah” and looked towards the Mount of Olives where he would be buried.

He told the writer of these lines: “I cannot dictate where I should be buried. Any place in this holy city will do.”

May dear Rabbi Yosele rest comfortably in his humble grave in the land of his dreams, on Mount of Olives. May his memory be blessed.

[Hatzofe– 3.5.1946]


[Page 180]

Dr. Shlomo Bendersky

Translated by Ala Gamulka

 

ben180.jpg
Dr. Shlomo Bendersky

 

He was born in Kishinev in 1866. When he was young he founded, with Meir Dizengoff, the first group of Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion] and he was a member of the group of university students called Nes Ziona in Odessa. He was studying science at the university there [together with Zvi Belkovsky and Shimshon Rozenboim]. He then studied medicine in Budapest and after graduation he lectured at the university there. In 1897 he came to the Bendery area to serve as a doctor.

He was a dedicated Zionist and was a delegate to the Third Zionist Congress in Basel in 1899. He was elected to the steering committee of Bessarabia–Volyn. He was also a community leader in charitable organizations.

He contracted Typhus while looking after patients and died on the 18 day of Cheshvan, 1908.

[From the book “Pa'amei Hage'ula” by A. Tzantziper [Refa'eli], Page 102]

 

Circular sent by Dr. Shlomo Bendersky

[Written in Hebrew in his capacity as a Zionist leader in Bessarabia–Volyn]

Dear Friend!

The Hebrew Colonial Bank informs us, via the Vienna Executive committee, that you are representing the bank. I am addressing you, dear sir, not as a bank representative, but, moreover, as someone who is dealing with the new movement of rebuilding the land in Eretz Israel, Our unadulterated love for our people and our strong belief in our hopes for the future have given us the strength to fight hatred and to create a treasure that will be unparalleled,

We do not want to lose time due to politics and our hopes must not be postponed. We see in this bank something that would help us in fulfilling our aspirations and reaching our goals. Our wish is to resurrect life in the land of our ancestors. We do not want to miss the opportunity at this time.

For all these reasons I am asking you, dear friend, not to lose any time and to continue to work on our behalf by distributing bonds and collecting the funds thus generated.

We know you are on our side and that your love for our cause has propelled you to found the bank last year. Your help will allow us to perfect our work and will encourage our brethren to devote themselves to our cause. God willing, we will succeed in our plans…

Bender,
12 Nissan, 1900

 

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