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[Page 57]

Social Movements

Translated by Sheli Fain

 

Life in Kishinev was greatly influenced by its geographical location. The city is surrounded by a vast steppe and fertile lands. The steppe with its many trees and green fields resemble the squares of a beautiful quilt. The few low hills with a tree here and there create a very peaceful landscape where life is tranquil and where everything appears to move at a slow pace.

The landscape influenced indirectly the life of the people and the social movements in Kishinev. The Jewish population absorbed at lot of this rural life which left marks on all social, political and cultural aspects.

Kishinev did not have any large factories that usually generate unrest. The majority of the plants served the local agriculture, mainly processing the crops from the local farms which added to the rural character of the entire city and its surrounding neighborhoods and gardens.

This city–village did not have the same social movements that started to emerge in other large Jewish communities in Russia. Some movements started here, but the majority did not take roots, as Kishinev only served as a temporary shelter to these experiments. Only a few found a permanent ground and resisted in Kishinev because they were appropriate to the Jewish national character, the rest were immediately rejected.

For 150 years only two movements took roots in the Jewish community of Kishinev – Hasidism and Zionism, but the other movements that appeared for a short time in the public life of the Jewish community also contributed to strengthen the Jewish society of the city.

 

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Revolutionary Centers and Labor Organizations

At the beginning of the 19th century Kishinev was considered a remote place, lacking any sparks of revolution, unlike the rest of Russia. Kishinev served as a place of exile for many revolutionaries. The great poet Alexandre Pushkin was exiled here in 1825 and it was here that he met Jews for the first time.[1] Pushkin had a distorted and negative view of Jews, and he even portrayed them in his poems as criminals. It is here, in Kishinev, that he saw very quiet Jews, exactly the opposite of his preconception. He writes in his Kishinev journal: “Yesterday we had here the funeral of the Patriarch with all the pomp and circumstance, but from the entire crowd I loved the Jews. They filled the narrow streets, standing on the sidewalks in groups and formed a live landscape. They were respectful, even if I could see indifference on their faces.

It is not certain that Pushkin and other deportees were inspired by the quiet Jews, but we also do not know if they influenced the Jews of Kishinev.

The rule of the Hasidim in South Russia and especially in Kishinev continued until the 1880s and only then the stronghold of the Hasidim started to fall apart under the influence of various social currents.

During the 1870s, the revolutionary currents that were organized in the intellectual and working circles against the oppressive Tsarist regime found followers among the Jews of Russia's large cities and many Jewish groups participated in actions to change the regime. Only in the 1880s, in Kishinev, Jews and Christians began jointly organizing revolutionary groups. It is possible that there were not enough Jews or there was not enough support to have Jewish independent groups, but the Jewish contribution was very important and the Jews always had important functions in these groups.

We have to mention the famous Jewish revolutionary from the 1880s, Lev Bernstein–Cohen (Bernstein–Kogan) and his son Mitiya, who sacrificed their lives for the revolutionary movement in Russia.

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Lev (Lyova) Bernstein–Cohen was born in Kishinev and was active in many other Russian cities. In 1881 he was arrested and deported to Irkutsk in Siberia. In 1885 he was released and went to study at the University of Dorpat, together with his brother Yakov (Dr. Jacob Bernstein–Kogan)[2]. His friends from the underground contacted him at the university and after a short time he and his pregnant wife, Natasha, were arrested again. After many interventions she was released, but Lyova was sent back to Irkutsk. The prisoners in Irkutsk rioted and the gendarmes cruelly suppressed the revolt and killed the prisoners. Only 3 prisoners survived the massacre: Lev Bernstein–Cohen, Haustman and Zetov. They were tried by the military court and were given the death penalty. Lyova had a very tragic death. He was sick and wounded and could not walk. He was brought to the gallows in his bed and hanged. His brother, Yakov Bernstein–Cohen writes: “This force, that was my brother, could have devoted his talents and courage to improve the people lives and do a lot of good, if he would have lived in the right historical period.

Mitiya had the same tragic end like his father. Mityia (Matitiahu) never met his father because he was born when his father was in Siberia. In fact he was an orphan from the day he was born. He was only a few days old when he and his mother were deported to Siberia where they suffered poverty and hunger. Natasha tried to soften her cruel fate by loving her child and strived to raise and educate him. Mitiya was very talented and smart and a good student and went to study at university. After he got his law degree he became the lawyer of the Bank Azov–Don in Moscow and after that he was appointed director of the bank branch in Rostov. He had his father's blood in the veins and kept ties with the social revolutionary movement.

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He had a very tragic end; he was killed by the revolutionaries who suspected he collaborated with the authorities.[3]

In the 1890s, Kishinev was again a place of exile for revolutionaries. The exiles contributed to the development of revolutionary ideas and influenced the Jewish groups in town. One of the dissidents, a Bessarabian born named Moshe Hanzeshi, invested a lot of effort to organize revolutionary groups in Bessarabia and in Kishinev, but the beginnings were very modest. In 1901 a first social–democratic group appeared that tried to instil revolutionary ideas to the workers and tradesmen in Kishinev. In 1901 they published their first manifest demanding better conditions for the workers in the factories and for the artisans in the shops.

 

The Bund

The first Social Democratic party that was established in 1901 had Jewish and Russian members and the Bund became a branch of this party. Some activists of the Bund were convinced that the only way to reach their goals is to be part of a mixed Russian and Jewish party, while some Jewish revolutionaries in Kishinev were afraid that being part of the Social Democratic party will not serve the interests of the larger Jewish community that used Yiddish and that had specific needs. The majority thought that the Bund should represent and struggle only for the Jewish community. These arguments continued during 1901–1903 and only after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, it became clear, even in the minds of the leaders of the Bund, that it is necessary to leave the Russian Social Democrats and become an independent party. The Bund was very active during 1903–1905, when they accomplished a lot of social action among the workers groups in Kishinev. The Jewish national social interests became the most important topics of dispute during the members meetings (masavkes). This dispute contributed to the formation of a new competing party to the Bund, the “Young People of Zion” (Tzeirei Zion) and attracted many workers and artisans who did not agree with

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the Bund platform and the Bund lost a lot of ground among the Jewish workers of Kishinev. In order to regain control among the workers, the Bund organized a May Day demonstrations, which ended with many arrests. One of the biggest May Day demonstrations was in 1 May, 1905 when 400–500 people participated. The Bund had also a serious competition from the socialist revolutionaries who were members of the Social–Democratic Party. They opposed the Bund withdrawal and would not recognize it as a new party. We have to mention a few important Jewish figures In the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Nadejda Yevgenina Greenfeld, nee Kingshatz, born in 1887, was an activist in the Social Democratic party in Kishinev, but after a short period moved to Odessa. In January 1905 she was arrested. After her release in 1906, she returned to Kishinev and was elected in the party Central Committee in Kiev. In 1909 she was arrested again and deported to Arkhangelsk. Because of the poor health she was allowed to leave Russia, but in 1917 she returned to Kishinev. The Romanian authorities that persecuted the revolutionaries did not forget her past and in 1920 she disappeared from her home and after awful tortures she died.

A few months after the Kishinev Pogrom, a group from the Social Democratic party decided to murder von–Plehve, the minister who was the organizer of the riot and who was the most responsible for the loss of Jewish lives. The Jewish youth who carried the pain about the loss of their brothers and sisters decided to carry out the attempt on the life of the murderer. Sikorski, who came from Krynki near Bialystok, took upon himself this task and in 1904 together with E.S. Sazonov killed von–Plehve, the murderer of hundreds of Jews. The authorities arrested Sikorsky and deported him to Siberia. He was liberated only in 1917.

The year 1905 was full of action in the social revolutionary circles. Due to pressure from the revolutionary movement and from the defeat in the Japan War, the Tsar Nikolai II issued a Proclamation in 17 October 1905. This Proclamation promised a new regime in Russia and was received with lots of enthusiasm by the Jewish population who hoped it will improve their lives. The revolutionary movement came out from the underground and organized large demonstrations demanding the implementation of the changes promised in the Proclamation. On the other hand the police gathered all the names of the activists and a new period of persecutions and arrests followed. In October 1905 another Pogrom took place in Kishinev. The persecutions of the leftist parties

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increased during 1906–1907 and the Jewish parties were not spared either. The change came only after the revolution of 1917.

When the 1917 Revolution started the workers groups were very weak in Kishinev and many of the former members and leaders did not want to participate or take on new and important roles. During 1917–1918, the Bund tried to organize its members for the municipal elections and then for the Jewish community elections, but it did not succeed as its influence weakened and the new Zionist movement became more significant on the Jewish street.

After 1918, when Bessarabia became part of Romania, the Bund and the other revolutionary groups were forced to end their activities. A number of the Bund activists joined the underground communist group in Kishinev. This movement suffered enormous persecutions and tortures from the Romanian authorities. After the Bund was dismantled, many members joined cultural groups like the Yiddish schools and they formed the cultural organization the “Kultur–Lige” (The Culture League), but they did not have a lot of support from the intellectuals or from the rest of the Jewish population. They looked to another direction, to Zionism, and to the creation of a Jewish national home in Eretz Israel.

 

Agudat Israel Party

The religious people started to organize in order to oppose the new currents that appeared on the public stage. The first World Congress of Rabbis in 1903 helped formulate the need for a new organization. The representative of Kishinev to the Congress was Judge Zalman Preger, but the Congress did not have a lot of influence on the local religious groups. Only after 1917, the religious people formed Agudat Israel and the Non–Aligned Party in Kishinev as an answer to the many parties that competed for the Jewish membership and wanted to turn them into democratic supporters. The Agudat Israel and the Non–Aligned Party collaborated well and even run in the municipal and community elections on the same ticket. These two parties attempted to impose a religious regime on the community life and wanted to force their religious leadership on the Jews of Kishinev. Rabbi Judah Leib Zirelson (Tsirelson) was one of the leaders and the political soul of Agudat Israel. Agudat Israel tried to organize itself in a simple way: each Jew who goes to a synagogue

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was enlisted in the party and immediately they had more than ten thousand members. Even with this large membership, the results of the municipal and community elections were disappointing, as only a few hundred people voted for this party in the elections. The party weakened and retreated from the political arena. In 1921 it appears again, this time with the support of the Romanian authorities that liked its activities and considered to hand it over the leadership of the Jewish community. During 1921–1930 the Jewish Community became disappointed with the way Agudat Israel party run the community affairs. For more than 20 years Agudat Israel had a great influence in the life of the community and all efforts to remove them and replace them with a more democratic leadership were met with great opposition. They wanted to separate from the Zionist front and cooperate with other groups in order to stay in power. Until 1933, Agudat Israel conducted many actions against the Zionist movement, but with the rise of Hitler to power it change its attitude under the guidance by Rabbi I.L. Tsirelson. As early as 1935, Rabbi Tsirelson and the Agudat Israel party participated in the “Safety and Defence” (Bitsaron u'Bitakhon) group that had enlisted agents for Erez Israel in Kishinev. A large part of Agudat Israel membership in Kishinev, who earlier opposed the Zionists, started a rapprochement with this Zionist camp.

 

The Children of Israel of the New Testament

The tide of pogroms that took place in Russia in the 1880s created an atmosphere of despair in the Jewish communities. Many searched for solutions to the Jewish problem by approaching the Christian faith in the belief that it will erase the hatred toward the Jews. These experiments were not successful and disappeared, but at the time they created arguments and tumult in the Jewish street and even resulted in dividing the community.

The press paid attention to these developments of religious reform of the Russian Jewry, which lasted a very short time, (1881–1886) and it only attracted a limited number of people. There were three experiments that merit to be mentioned. In 1881, the writer, Jacob Gordin founded a sect in Yelizavetgrad named the Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood (Khevrat Rukhanit Mikrait). In 1882 Jacob Priluker started in Odessa

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the sect New Israel[4] (Noviy Izrail) and in 1884 in Kishinev, Joseph Rabinovich founded The Children of Israel of the New Testament sect with only a few Jewish members.

Who was Joseph Rabinovich? He was a strong willed man and his life was filled with adventure, crisis and complications. He was born in Orgheiev in a Hassidic family and in his youth he absorbed the teachings of the Hassidism. With his father, he visited the Rabbi from Beltsi and he became a devoted follower of the Rabbi and active among the Hassidim. When a new Maskil teacher came from Lithuania, Joseph became a devoted follower of the Haskalah movement. He helped found the Talmud Torah, hired appropriate teacher and taught Russian, which he knew very well. He came to Kishinev, the dream town of all Maskilim from the provincial towns. In Kishinev, Rabinovich joined the Haskalah groups that tried to find solutions to the Jewish problem after the Pogroms which started in the 1880s. Dr. L.A. Levintal organized a group to encourage the Jews of Bessarabia to work the land. The government opposed this initiative and then it became clear that the Jews should be encouraged to immigrate to America or to Eretz Israel. They decided to send a delegation to Eretz to survey the situation there. With funds collected by his friends, Rabinovich went to Eretz Israel, but he came back very disappointed. He became disappointed and depressed and retired for more than a year from the public life. His disillusion with the Jewish religion caused him to search for ways to get close to the Christians and he believed that only radical changes will stop the persecution of the Jews. He wrote a 13 paragraph article where he presented his new ideology. The protestant missionary priest Paltin encouraged him with this endeavor. Paltin did not like very much

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the 13 principles of Rabinovich, but wanted to profit from them and attract the Jews to his church. The principles of Rabinovich were: Jews should recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but this should not cancel the Jewish religion all together. The Jews will keep the Shabath and the Jewish holidays, continue practicing the circumcision and pray in Hebrew language. Paltin reported to London that a new sect was founded in Kishinev and the news was published in the Times of London. The news about the sect received a lot of publicity and many other newspapers reported these sensational information. The new principles and propaganda of Rabinovich did not convince the Jews of Kishinev and they considered him a trouble maker and a reactionary. Ha'Melitz that was the faithful voice of the Jewish people for many years published in 1884 a series of articles against the teachings of Rabinovich. The editor of Ha'Melitz, A. Zederboim who knew Rabinovich from the days when he attacked the English minister Oliphant, a good friend of Hovevei Zion, and accused him of missionary activities, sharply criticized these vile tendencies to cut the Jewish people from their roots and to deepen their tragedy. In the issue number 71 of 1884 the Ha'Melitz published the following editorial:

…“Among these wreckers, there is this old man who forgot his learning and his name is J. Rabinovich and he created a new sect The Christian Jews and he concocted religious principles for this new religion and created new rules for Passover. This comes to show that this old man's brains are so weaken that they even forgot the universal order. And we, at the beginning, treated him like the “three species” that are blessed by our sages with: Never become the left that pushes and the right that pulls. …He even tricked the esteemed professor Franz Delitzch to believe that this movement of Christian Jewry is developing in the entire Bessarabia and beyond (as it is written in the pamphlet published by this esteemed professor)…Despite all that and the many articles that appeared in Kishinev we did not refute this legend that spread already around the world. We did not want to be suspected that we deal with this matter and do not deny it, but today the denunciation came from the Christian representative in the city of Kishinev and was published in the Odessa Listok on 2, 14 September 1884, issue no. 199.

Franz Delitzch reacted against this severe criticism against the sect of Rabinovich in his journal Saat aus Hoffnung, published in Leipzig. Delitzch

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emphasised the need of rapprochement between the Jews and the Christians and is wondering why the Jewish community does not understand that. He does not believe the Kishinev writer who refused to acknowledge that 250 families joined the sect when it was published in the “Times”. F. Delitzch, who considered Rabinovich an important religious reformist who can help him, sent the missionary Faber to meet with Rabinovich. At the meeting with Faber, Rabinovich claimed that he has many followers as published in the “Times” and that the allegations in the “Odessa Listok” is contradicting the “Novorosiskiy Telegraph”, the newspaper that encouraged his sect. Delitzch continued to support Rabinovich. With the help of the missionary priest Paltin, Rabinovich received permission from the authorities to open his place of prayer called Bethlehem, but only a few members of his family participated. His brother Yankel helped him with this endeavor. The prayers were recited by Rabinovich in Hebrew and the sermons were done in Yiddish[5]. He also set up and cared for the special portion in the cemetery reserved for the sect membership.

At the beginning of 1885 Rabinovich was invited to Berlin by Wilkan, one of the heads of the mission, and from there he went to Leipzig. After many consultations, he decided to convert to the Lutheran religion, but his few followers distance themselves because they considered that he was a proselyte and not a serious religious reformist. He became more and more isolated from the community. Because he did not convert to Orthodoxy, the Russian authorities that supported him when he started the Jewish Christian sect deserted him. Rabinovich`s situation became very difficult when the head of the Synod, Povidonostsev, changed his position toward him. Paltin also abandoned him and he reported about the final failure of the sect in his report in 1887. Paltin`s report changed the support of the organizations and of the important people who once considered him a great reformer. Rabinovich died in 1889 depressed and alone. It is possible that just before he died he regretted this entire adventure and he might have looked for ways to return to Judaism.

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He approached some acquaintances and requested to be buried in the Jewish cemetery and not in the Christian–Jewish cemetery he helped establish, but the community refused and he is buried together with some other sect members on the outskirts of Kishinev in an isolated plot.

 

The Argentina movement

During 1890–1895 (5640–5645) the Jewish community of Kishinev started a large immigration to Argentina. The immigration to North America together with the immigration by members Hovevei Zion to Eretz Israel commenced some years before the Argentina movement.

What was so special about this movement?

The Baron Maurice (Moritz) Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 in London and his mission was to settle the majority of the Jewish population of Russia on the fertile lands of Argentina, thus ending their enormous sufferings under the Tsarist regime. The pogroms that intensified in Russia in the 1890s and the deportation of the Moscow Jews in 1891 supported the Baron Hirsch plan to transport a large number of Jews to Argentina. The local Jewish population became attracted to the movement as a solution to end their plight and to return to work the land, to establish agricultural settlements and live in the nature. The immigration to Eretz Israel was very limited and as the persecutions became more intense, a large number of the Jews of Kishinev and of Bessarabia became attracted to the Argentina movement. At the beginning of the movement the Jews were convinced that this will help solve the Jewish problem forever. The fascination did not last long and soon it was discovered that the reality is different from the dream.

A central committee of the Jewish Colonization Association was organized in Petersburg. They sent D. Feinberg to visit Kishinev in 1892 and to set up a local section of the Association and it was decided to speed up the immigration. About 3000 families left from Kishinev and from other towns in Bessarabia,

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(i.e. Izmail, Telenesti, Beltsi and other places).

The Hovevei Zion organization did all it could to prevent the immigration to Argentina and to encourage the immigration to Eretz Israel which was considered to be the only solution for the Jewish problem.

It didn't take even two years and the Jewish community became disillusioned. The great migration that came out of Russia did not find a solution in the colonies of Baron Hirsch in Argentina. The land that was purchased could not accommodate the thousands and the lines were so big that Baron Hirsch asked the communities to stop the migration in order to ease the suffering in the interim immigrant centres. After a year the news from the families reached home. The letters described the difficult conditions and the methods that the Baron Hirsch used to settle the people. Baron Hirsch feared that if the Jews congregate in a small area they will not work the land and they will return to be small shop keepers, therefore he planed that the farms will be at great distances from one other. This method did not please the settlers who felt very isolated and after a while a lot of them abandoned the farms. A great number of settlers wanted to return to Kishinev. The Argentina movement lost its attraction and after a while it stopped all together.

The famous Zionist activist, Zvi–Hirsch Masliansky visited Kishinev at the height of the Argentina movement and he wrote in his travel book[6] about the struggle between the Argentina movement sympathizers and the Hovevei Zion members whom he helped with their propaganda. Masliansky witnessed this stormy period in the life of the Jewish community of Kishinev and wrote:

I found a new movement in Kishinev, a movement that was small compared with Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion), but that created discussions and disagreements. It was called the “Argentina movement” that started in the capital by Baron Hirsch and his employees Zonental and Feinberg and that took over all the cities on Earth. Baron Hirsch was all of a sudden the new Saviour; his picture hang in all the Jewish homes, his name was blessed by all

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and Argentina was on all the Jewish minds. A lot of Jews neglected their businesses and were wandering in the markets and on the streets knocking on doors of businesses and asking when is the first group leaving in order to join them. Some even found explanations in the Bible and the Midrash about this real end of the Diaspora. They did not stop repeating the old verse “I create new sky and new land” and the proverb “the future of Eretz Israel is to disperse all over the universe.” It was a new era of Shabbetai Zvi. The kabbalists who knew Gematria did not stay idle and they came up with new values every day to support the immigration to Argentina.

After all this commotion came the real facts. In many towns they open agencies and councils and they started to enlist the travellers. The desire to leave attacked the Jews and it grew bigger by the day. Even the rich merchants neglected their businesses and read about Argentina. Only the Hovevei Zion opposed this movement. They considered it was a departure from their principles and a heresy. Others predicted from the beginning that this experiment will not succeed and they were right. The Hovevei Zion did all they could to convince the people that going to Argentina, such a distant and desolated place is a dangerous idea. This propaganda did not please those who wanted to go to Argentina, a place where the Jews are welcomed. And they split in two camps the “Palestinians” and the “Argentines.” This bitter disagreement between the camps ended sometimes in real fights. Even the authorities were aware of these clashes. The tsar Alexander III approved the Argentina movement and this agreement was signed on 9 Av (Tisha b'Av). The Hovevei Zion considered this the “Third Destruction” and they compared it to the Expulsion from Spain that happened four hundred years ago on the day of Tisha b'Av. But the false prophets of the Argentina movement explained, based on paragraphs from the Midrashim and other writings of the sages, that the “beginning of the redemption” will be on Tisha b”Av. I came to Kishinev during this raging period (Eidna derita). I found lots of businesses loyal to the Hovevei Zion. The leader of the Hovevei Zion was Dr. Bernstein–Cohen and he had two vice chairmen, the Hebrew writer Shlomo Dubinsky and Mr. Shlomo (Meir) Berliand. These two Shlomos worked very hard for the movement. They founded a company, The Wisdom Seekers, to educate the people and to instill the idea of Love of Zion (Hibbat Zion). In my sermon I mentioned the Argentina movement and in all my youthful sincerity I told the audience what I thought about the movement and the dangers it presented. I pointed out to them the difference that exists between Eretz Israel, our historical home gained with the blood of our ancestors and the distant and desolated country that our fathers and forefathers never heard about it. The “Argentines” were angry and ask the authorities to clear the way and to remove me. They asked and it was done.

The minister of the district issued a warrant arrest against me and I spent three days in jail. All this time the good people of the city and the members of Hovevei Zion tried to liberate me from jail, but it did not go that easy, as my offence was too big.

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My guardian angel was General Blumenfeld, a patriotic Jew and the district doctor. He intervened to the minister on my behalf and requested my release from jail. The minister agreed with the condition that I translate to him my sermon. I translated the sermon and I also gave him all my arguments on why I opposed the Argentina movement, that I considered it a danger for the Jews of Russia and that I thought it is my duty to warn them. The Minister ordered me to leave Kishinev and Bessarabia and added: “Better go and sell onions than to be a prophet. And you should know that Russia is the land of silence and not the land of talking””

This movement dwindled shortly after it started. The grey reality was soon uncovered. There were no conditions to settle the thousands of people in the agricultural world of Argentina; the majority of people did not follow this trend and after a while the immigration turned towards North America and to Eretz Israel. The immigration to Argentina continued many years after, but the people went to the urban centres and not to the agricultural colonies.


Footnotes

  1. Collection “Evreyiskaya Letopisi”(The Jewish Chronicle) Part I, Zaslavsky, D., Petersburg, 1921, pages 65–67 Return
  2. The Book of Bernstein–Cohen, (Sefer Bernstein–Cohen) pages 92–97 Return
  3. Mitiya's life and actions are described in a pamphlet written by his friends, entitled “Matvei son of Lev Bernstein–Cohen” Return
  4. The journal Ruskiy Evrey (The Russian Jew) no. 6, 1882 that appeared in Petersburg published an article detailing the fundamental ideas of New Israel sect: The sect recognized only the laws of Moses and it opposes the Talmud and many prayers. It suggested that Sunday should be the day of rest, instead of the Shabath, the Russian language should be the mother tongue of the Jews and in order to bring a rapprochement between the Jews and the Russians, the Jews should leave their businesses and become productive. Return
  5. J. Rabinovich lectures were published by Akselrod Publisher, Kishinev, 1893. Return
  6. The Writings of Zvi Hirsch Masliansky, vol. 3: Memoirs and Travels, p.11–15, Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, 1929 (5689) Return

 

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