by Professor Shaul Lieberman
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The author, born in 1898, is a professor of Talmudic and Midrashic literature in Jerusalem and New York.
He is one of the greatest of the Talmudic researchers, particularly on the Jerusalem Talmud. 
I arrived in Minsk in 1915, during the war. I had never seen such a Jewish city before. I was still young, but I looked around and saw that this city of Minsk was different than other cities that I had seen in my life. It was a city that was all Jewish. I barely saw any gentiles there.
I recall that one day I went with my uncle, my mother's brother, the elderly rabbi from Lahoysk, who was also the brother of the mother of the Chazon Ish. As we were walking, we arrived at a street that was nicknamed, Between the Stores. It was a hot summer day, and there were not that many customers at the stores. The storekeepers were sitting on chairs outside the stores to get some fresh air. My uncle had a splendid countenance. When we arrived at the edge of the street, all of the shopkeepers, one after another, stood up to honor him. We passed among them as a supervisor passing through a role call amongst rows of soldiers. I had never seen such a thing anywhere else. Even though the people did not know him, they stood on their feet in awe in honor of an elderly rabbi with a splendid countenance as he passed through the entire street. They did not sit down again until he had disappeared from their eyes on the other side of the street.
My relative, the Chazon Ish, was Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz. He left his town of Stolbtsy, where his wife had a store, and lived in Minsk. He lived on a street that was called Zamkovaya, in a dwelling that consisted of two small rooms, which was next to the synagogue that was called Rabbi Isser's Shtibel. By his clothes and appearance, the Chazon Ish looked like a typical tailor from a small town. When he first came to Reb Isser's Shtibel on a Sunday afternoon, Jews were sitting and studying at a Talmud class. Reb Avraham Yeshayahu was nearsighted. He took a Gemara and brought it close to his eyes. To the people there who did not know him, he left the impression as someone who was looking for something in the Gemara and peering as a chicken would to humans. Of course, they did not say anything to him. When the rest of the householders gathered, and they were ready to start the class, they needed the book that was in his hands. The shamash (beadle) approached him, took the book from his hands, and said to him: A simple Jew should be reciting Psalms, not peering into books. We need this Gemara to study here. The Chazon Ish did not pay attention to this, and nodded his head as a sign of agreement. The next day, when he came to worship in that synagogue, he stood behind the lectern, to the west side, as a guest. The shamash approached him and asked for his name, in order to honor him with an aliya to the Torah. He said, Avraham Yeshayahu the son of Reb Shmaryahu. The Shamash was astonished, and did not say anything. After he had concluded his blessings on the Torah, the shamash became very emotional, and begged his forgiveness in a weeping voice. The Chazon Ish did not understand at all what the shamash wanted from him. He had not taken affront at all, and believed that the shamash was correct. The Gemara did belong to the synagogue, and those who were sitting and studying needed the Gemara. Thus was how it was supposed to be. The shamash was also correct that a Jew is supposed to recite Psalms.
During those years, he would sit in his home in Minsk and study all day and night. His wife would come from Stolbtsy for the Sabbath. On occasion, a relative would come to visit him. On such occasions, out of concern for yichud, he would ask me to sleep over for the night. I slept at his home a few times. One night, when I woke up from my sleep, I saw him sitting in his bed with his yarmulka on his head. He did not light a candle, and was studying tractate Eruvin by heart.
I believed that those days were his best days, for he was not yet recognized. Only a few people knew who he was. The community did not know of his existence, and he enjoyed that fact very much. He was able to seclude himself and study. People did not bother him, and his mouth did not desist from study. His wife would send him what he needed to subsist, and he would subsist with a measure or carobs from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve. Things were different on the Sabbath, when his wife arrived from Stolbtsy, and they would honor the Sabbath with food and drink, as is commanded. He maintained no connection with any institution or Yeshiva. He did not teach anyone, did not visit anyone, but only sat in his house in solitude and studied. I would visit him frequently, since I was his relative. He published the books that he wrote with the pseudonym Chazon Ish. Ish (aleph yud shin) is the acronym for his name Avraham Yeshayahu. He published these books with his own funds. His wife earned a good living in her store. They had no children. He would publish the books himself and sell them. When people realized who the author was, he became famous.
He moved to Vilna two years later. There, his wife also had a large store, and they earned a good livelihood. His wife did not want to make aliya to the Land. How could she leave the store that provided abundant sustenance, and make aliya? Then the incident occurred. Thieves came one night and took everything. They emptied the store. He said that he had heard the thieves as they were coming, but was afraid to make a sound, lest they also engage in murder, and therefore he pretended to be sleeping. The next day, when they saw that nothing was left, he said, Now there are no more impediments to making aliya to the Land. They made aliya.
In my youth, I studied in the Slobodka Yeshiva, which had moved to Minsk during the war. The yeshiva students studied in the Synagogue of the Tatars (Tatarishe Shul). In the early days, the yeshiva students would eat on a rotation basis with the householders. This custom had already ceased in my days. Each yeshiva student received a stipend from the yeshiva to meet his needs. One rabbi in Moscow, Rabbi Kalmans, later a member of the office of the chief rabbinate of Jerusalem, was a wealthy Jew who owned a beer factory. He donated a great deal of money to the Slobodka Yeshiva during the time that it was located in Minsk. He would send 400 Rubles monthly to be divided among 10 selected yeshiva students, 40 Rubles per student. The directors of the Yeshiva claimed that more than 10 students could be supported with such a sum. However, he persisted, and answered, I want that 10 students will each receive 10 Rubles per week Thus it was. I was among the 10 students. This was a large sum. I was unable to spend even a third of this. Donations were collected, as was customary, to support the rest of the students. A large amount of money was collected in Minsk itself. Emissaries were also sent to many places.
We lived in private homes. I, for example, lived in the home of the Maggid of Minsk. I paid rent and also ate there. The housewife would cook lunch for us, and prepare a light meal for us for breakfast and supper. Thus did we study.
After this, at the beginning of 1917, we move to Kremenchug. The Yeshiva moved from Minsk out of fear of the approaching front. I recall the attacks by German aircraft. I saw with my own eyes how they dropped bombs, however not on the city itself. In those days, they were still not brazen enough to drop bombs on civilian settlements. They rather did so on cemeteries. The Germans conquered the city only in 1918. I was not in the city at the time. I was also not in Minsk at the time of the Polish conquest. I returned to the city only at the time of the Bolsheviks. I then married the daughter of the Rabbi of Minsk, who was my first wife of blessed memory.
In the home of my father-in-law, the Rabbi of Minsk, they mentioned to me one incident. In one neighborhood, a woman died in childbirth. Rumors were spread that she lived in a common law relationship with a Communist. After her death, the men of the Chevra Kadisha brought the coffin to the house of that Communist and told him, See what your evil deeds have caused. They said that they did this under order from the neighborhood rabbi. Shortly thereafter, they imprisoned all of the men as well as the neighborhood rabbi, and brought them to judgement. They also brought the chief rabbi, Rabbi Leizer to judgement. They interrogated and investigated, and finally freed the chief rabbi from having to appear in court. This is indeed what happened.
During the interrogation in court, one of the judges asked Rabbi Leizer, Tell me truth. Do you really believe that people are punished for the misdeeds of others? Was it necessary to bring the coffin of the woman who died in childbirth to the house of the Communist, given that the entire neighborhood was liable to be punished for the misdeeds of that Communist?
He answered them: Listen my masters, whether or not I believe this, I do not intend to answer. However, your eyes see that we are all punished due to anger over the misdeeds of a different person. I am an elderly man, and you have already dragged me here several times for interrogations. You are all busy people, sitting here in the courthouse for entire evenings, and wasting your time. I say this to you, neither I nor you are guilty for what the neighborhood rabbi did. Nevertheless, we are all being punished on account of anger over the misdeeds of one man. This is proof.
The rabbi was famous in the city as a scholar, and everyone related to him with great appreciation. When the judges heard these words, they burst out in laughter and freed him in peace, The rabbi can go, we will not bother you further. At the end of the matter, the neighborhood rabbi was sentenced to several months of imprisonment.
Here is another incident from the time that I lived in the home of my father-in-law, the Rabbi of Minsk. A shipment of 1,500 food parcels from America was received in the name of the Rabbi of Minsk, who was to distribute them as he saw fit. This was during the time of the famine, and the food parcels were of inestimable value. Is it a small thing in your eyes, a package that contains preserved milk and kosher meat in boxes? The Yevsekis held up the shipment and demanded that the rabbi sign that he had received the packages. When he refused, they threatened to send him to jail. The rabbi stood his ground: I will go to jail, but I will not sign for packages that I did not receive. Finally, they proposed a compromise to him, half and half. 750 for the rabbi to distribute as he sees fit, and 750 to the Yevsekis for their own Jews. Having no choice, the rabbi agreed, for he understood that his stubbornness would not get him anywhere. Even if he were to go to jail, he would not get the packages. The Yevsekis threatened to send the packages back. They were concerned that by giving over all of the food packages to the control of the rabbi during the time of famine, he would gain authority and great influence over the Jews who would be saved from the indignities of hunger solely through the help of the rabbi. Therefore, this was a sort of gentlemanly agreement, fifty-fifty. However, when the matter was to be actualized, things were delayed. Then, the rabbi stated that he would not sign as long as the packages were not in his hands. The rabbi asked me to bring the business to conclusion. There was one man among the Yevsekis, named Levin, with whom I had to conclude the business. I went to the city council. Jews and gentiles sat there. When I arrived, Levin began to scream at me and threaten me, of course in Yiddish. When one of the gentiles asked about the meaning of the shouts, he was explained in broken Russian what the matter was about. I took hold of the matter, and explained it to him in Russian. He talked to me in Yiddish, and I talked to in Russian. He became very angry and told me, Why do you speak Russian, do you know understand Yiddish? I turned to the rest of those assembled and asked them: Tell me please, is the Russian language not legal here? Is it forbidden for me to speak in Russian? Indeed, I know Yiddish, but here I prefer to express myself in Russian. If you object to this, I will speak in Yiddish.
The gentiles were enjoying this matter, and they answered, Certainly, certainly, it is permitted to speak Russian hear.
Levin became livid with anger. But I already had the upper hand, since I was able to express myself well and to contradict his claims. He began to stammer. The agreement was signed. At the signing of the agreement, I was suddenly asked, Do you have identity papers?
Yes, I answered, At home, but not here.
In the meantime, we will imprison you, said Levin.
I was transferred to a different room, and a female official was ordered to immediately fetch a policeman. The official smiled. When Levin left the room, the official told me, Leave immediately, before the policeman comes. I will say that I did not watch you closely enough, and you went home.
I knew in advance that they would not come to arrest me. Why would they suddenly come to arrest me? I had identity papers at home. He only wished to take revenge over his failure in this transaction.
The packages were given over the rabbi, and he distributed them to poor Jews who were members of the community and were in need of such. He had served as the rabbi of the city for many years, and knew all the people of the city very well. The principle was that support would only be given to those who were in need of such. 750 packages saved 750 families from hunger.
Here is another incident. One day, about a year after we got married, my wife's wedding ring was stolen. She was very distraught about this, for this was a wedding ring, and was of great importance to her. When the family members found out about this, they comforted here. Don't be distraught, they said, the ring will be returned. Thus did it take place. When I investigated the matter, I was told that there was a rabbi of the thieves in Minsk, named Peretz. When he found out that the wedding ring of the daughter of the Rabbi of Minsk had been stolen, he became very angry. He gathered the thieves together and warned them. Could you not find any other place to steal, other than the house of the rabbi?! Not only this, but the wedding ring of his daughter? Return the stolen object immediately!. However, the ring had been sold in the interim. The thieves went to the purchaser and reclaimed the ring. A child came to the house of the rabbi and returned the ring.
After my wedding, I was engaged in business and I also studied. This was before the era of the NEP, but they were not that concerned about those who were occupied in business, but rather about those who were occupied in Valyuta.
Rabbi Leizer received his salary from the communal coffers. Those were the days before the Bolsheviks began to persecute the Jewish religion and those who occupy themselves with Torah. They still had some respect for a rabbi, and especially for Rabbi Leizer, who was intelligent, upright, and active in communal matters for public benefit.
After the death of Rabbi Leizer, the entire communal council gathered together and chose Rabbi Gluskin, the son-in-law of Rabbi Leizer, as the new rabbi of the city.
by Mordechai Rabinowitz
The author (19021972) the son of Rav R'Eliezer Rabinowitz
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
My father, the Rav and great scholar, the Rabbi of the city of Minsk, R'Eliezer Rabinowitz zl, was known in the Wolozhin Yeshiva as the Iluy [genius] of Kiev. The Great One of Minsk, R'Yerucham Yehuda Leib zl, took him as husband for his daughter. After the death of The Great One, my father was elected as his successor, the chief Rabbi of Minsk.
We grew up 13 children in our home, 6 daughters and 7 sons. Father, sitting as a judge, issued logical and just verdicts and decisions in the most difficult cases that came before the religious court [Din Torah]. From near and far people came to him with disputes in matters of property and commerce. Father would complain that his fate appointed him to be Rav instead of Head of a Yeshiva, who could learn and teach Torah. Yet he was a great scholar. Early in the morning, my eyes still half asleep, I would hear his voice, studying in the melody of Talmud [gemara]. But soon people would begin to arrive and take him away from his study.
At the Convention of Rabbis in Petersburg, in 1908, my father won fame as a wise and sharp rabbi, way above others. On the holiday of Simchat Torah people from the synagogue would come to our house to celebrate. They would eat, drink and dance, and my father would occasionally join the amcha [simple folks] in the dance. He was a very modest man, and at the same time resolute and energetic. One day a butcher came to him and complained that his shop was closed because he sold nonkosher meat as kosher. Father was so angered at this sin and fraud, that he gave him a strong slap in the face. The butcher was so shocked that he burst in bitter tears…
I was ten years old when I was sent from my home to the little town Soli near Smorgon, to learn with the Rabbi an entire semester (from the end of the Sukkot Holiday to the eve of Passover). This was repeated several years. Later I studied in the Yeshivas of Mir and Slobodka. When I was about 18 I ran away to Kovno, from there to Berlin and from there I made Aliya to Eretz Israel in 1920.
Photograph: The structure (Ohel) above the tombs of Rabbi Eliezer Rabinowitz and his wife Feiga Rivka in the Jewish cemetery in Minsk
by Noah Shapira
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
The author, Dr. Noah Shapira (19001964) is the son of Rabbi Avraham Dober Shapira and the grandson (daughter's son) of The Great One of Minsk R'Yerucham Leib Perlman. He made Aliya in 1935. He was lecturer at BarIlan University, in Chemistry and in later years in the History of Science.
Photograph: R'Avraham Dober Shapira
R'Yerucham Yehuda Leib Perlman, The Great One of Minsk
After the death of Rabbi David Tevil, in 1861, the position of chief rabbi of Minsk remained unoccupied over 20 years, and only in 1883 the leaders of the community decided to elect R'Yerucham Yehuda Leib, the rabbi of Pruzhany, as the rabbi of the Holy Community of Minsk.
R'Yerucham Yehuda Leib was born in 1835 in the town Brisk (Lithuania) to poor and very pious parents. When he was in Cheder his excellent talents attracted the attention of his teachers and after his BarMitzva he went to Kovno to study. He was outstanding in his sharp mind, quick understanding, deep thought, exemplary memory and great diligence, and soon became known as The Genius from Brisk.
After three years in Kovno, he returned to Brisk and married R'Nachman Neumark's daughter, and a short time afterward he was appointed rabbi in the small town Soltz, and from there he relocated to Pruzhany, where he received the position of chief rabbi of the town.
He gained fame in the Torah study circles and in 1883, at the age of 48 he accepted the position of the Rabbi of Minsk. There he reached the peak of his activity and publicity. Minsk was visited by many rabbis and the new rabbi of Minsk was awarded the title the Great One of Minsk.
But there were rabbis who claimed a more distinct ancestral lineage than the Great One and envied him for his fast rise. It was told that once, at a meeting of rabbis, while they talked about secular matters, one of the participants intended to offend the genius. What did he do? He suggested to his listeners to speak, in turn, about some Torah subject [Divrei Torah] that he had heard from his father or father's father [the Great One came from a poor and simple family]. So they did. When it was the turn of the Great One to speak, a deadly silence fell upon the room and everybody waited nervously to hear what he would say. He said: And my father often told me, that it was not permitted to work on a piece of old and used clothing that belonged to someone else; you should use only new material, which belonged exclusively to you! and he continued with his own Divrei Torah and new commentaries.
He was always immersed in his world of studying the Law [Halacha], day and night, and was not much involved in earthly matters. His modesty and pleasant ways made him beloved by the members of the community. He died in 1896.
He wrote many commentaries on the Torah, but because he was so busy he did not have a chance to prepare his writings for print. After his death, his remarks and commentaries on the Mishna were published in 19051909 by the Romm publishing house in Vilna,
by the name Or Gadol [Great Light] and Yitron Ha'or [The Added Value of Light]. In 1914 his book Or Gadol Part 1 (on the Even Ha'ezer) was published, but because of the troubles of the war it was lost, and was printed again in 1924 in Vilna. After it disappeared again during of WWII, it was photocopied and printed in Tel Aviv in 1961.
R'Eliezer Rabinowitz, the soninlaw of the Great One inherited the position of chief Rabbi in town. He was born in 1859 in Mohilev. A year later the family moved to Kiev. In the Cheder he already was outstanding in his talents and amazing memory. He was sent to the Yeshiva in Slutsk, where one of the teachers was Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, and he was nicknamed the genius of Kiev. From Slutsk he went to study in the magnificent Yeshiva of Volozhin and there he was also immediately recognized among the most excellent students.
At the age of 21, The Great One of Minsk took him as husband for his eldest daughter. For some time he lived with his inlaws, as was the custom, then he was appointed Rabbi in the nearby town Smolevitch, where he manifested his talents as a spiritual leader.
After the death of his fatherinlaw, the Great One of Minsk, in 1896 R'Eliezer was called to take his place. He justified all the hopes that the members of his community had for him.
Jewish Minsk was at that time at the peak of its economic prosperity. The number of its Jews neared 59 thousand. The only economic assets of the Minsk region, which was relatively poor, were the forests, but communication means by water were lacking; the only relatively big river, the Berezina, was not connected to the outside world. The only railroad that passed through the region led to places that were not lacking in wood. Only when they built the RomaniLibava railroad, which passed through Minsk, was the city connected with Western Europe: through the excellent port of Libava on the Baltic Sea and through Vilna and the Prussian border could Minsk send its treasures abroad.
Minsk began developing at a fast rate: the population increased, the economic situation was much better, many elegant buildings were built and businesses prospered. However, there were still conflicts between business partners as well as between competitors, and the Jews refrained from settling their conflicts before nonJewish jurisdiction. The need was felt for a Rabbi and judge of a logical juridical understanding and power of issuing a verdict. Rabbi Eliezer fitted perfectly this need: his greatness in the knowledge of Halacha [Jewish Law], his quick perception, his general wisdom, his gentle manners and his power of persuasion all this made him perfectly suitable to serve as arbitrator between the parties, in their complicated business.
Rabbi Eliezer devoted himself to his community, lived its life and took care of all its needs. This was a heavy burden on Rabbi Eliezer's shoulders, since it was a big city and the needs were many and varied.
During WWI an additional burden was laid on his shoulders: Minsk was full of war refugees, among them famous rabbis and heads of Yeshivas as well as ordinary Jews who needed help in finding a place to live and means of existence. Yet he found time for matters outside of his town as well and was an active member of the Rabbis Council that had been established by the Ministry of the Interior in Petersburg.
After working hard all day, he devoted the night hours to study and writing, but none of his writings was published during his lifetime.
When the Bolshevik revolution arrived to Minsk, a fierce and stubborn war began, for the preservation of the values of the past. However, his strength failed him in this battle, and he returned his soul to his Maker on 3 Adar 5684 (1924).
R'Avraham Dober Shapira
Another rabbi of fame was the other soninlaw of the Great One of Minsk, R'Avraham Dober Shapira zl, the last rabbi of the great community of Kovno. The peak of his activity was his work with the Lithuanian Jewry, but for a long time he was connected with the city of Minsk and the nearby Smolewitz.
R'Avraham Dober Shapira was born in 1870 in the town Kobrin. His father was R'Zalman Sender zl; he was the grandson of R'Chaim, the founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva and a student of the GRA [The Vilna Gaon].
He received his Torah education at Volozhin, where he was called the Iluy of Kobrin. In 1894 the Great One of Minsk took him as husband of his daughter and two years he lived with his inlaws. In 1896, after the death of his fatherinlaw, when R'Eliezer was appointed as the Rabbi of Minsk, R'Avraham Dober took his place as the rabbi of Smolewitz.
He lived in this town 17 years and there he wrote his books, which brought him fame in the rabbinic world.
R'Avraham Dober was of a noble soul and countenance, of an excellent logical thinking and analytical capacity. He had a wide general education, knew European languages and possessed a clear style as a speaker and preacher.
As the Jews were expelled from Kovno, during WWI, R'Dober lived in Minsk until 1918. He died in the Kovno Ghetto on 23 Adar I 5703 . His activity for the benefit of the Lithuanian Jews is recorded in the history books of this country's Jewish population.
Chaim Nachman Shapira
R'Avraham Dober's son, Chaim Nachman Shapira zl philosopher, linguist, writer and researcher of Hebrew literature is connected to the city of Minsk as well, by his origin, childhood and adolescence. He was born in Minsk in 1895 and spent his childhood years in Smolewitz. His Jewish studies he acquired first in the cheder and later at his grandfather R'Zalman Sender zl and in other Yeshivas. Then he studied at the Berlin and Vienna universities and in the years 19251940 he was lecturer and professor of Semitic Languages at the Lithuanian University in Kovno and Vilna. He was active in the Zionist and Hebrew Movement in Lithuania.
Of his monumental book The History of the New Hebrew Literature only one volume appeared (580 pages), the other 10 volumes were destroyed by the Nazis. This book presents an original research of the factors that have influenced the history of the Modern Hebrew literature.
He was shot by the Nazis in the Kovno Ghetto, together with his entire family, in 1944.
R'Moshe Perlman, son of the Great One of Minsk, was an interesting figure. He was born in 1862 in Seltz. During his adolescence he studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva together with his brother, who served later as Rav in the town Gorod and was killed by the Nazis. He did not want to use the Rabbinic studies as his profession, and preferred to be a merchant in the town Telz. However, commerce was for him only a means to ensure his existence his inner spiritual life was rich and varied. He loved to take walks in nature, to look at how people made things, to observe and think. He was a philosopher by nature, an interesting and original conversation partner, his speech calm and his picturesque language fluent.
All his free time he devoted to the realization of the idea he had: to collect from the two Talmuds, the Midrash, the Zohar etc. all material concerning health and hygiene. Thanks to his great erudition in the Talmud,
he knew how to discover, in the various Tractates, words and hints that had a medical or hygienic meaning. With unlimited work and patience he connected article to article, expression to expression and word to word, until he had a complete and thorough creation. He had devoted to it several decades and the book, which he titled Midrash Harefu'ah [The Medical Midrash] was the song of his life. With the help of the poet Byalik, the book was published by the Dvir Publishing House in Tel Aviv. The first part was published in 1926 and, in the following years, parts 2 and 3, in the format of Sefer Ha'agada by Byalik and Ravnitzki.
The book Midrash Harefu'ah is a wonderful mosaic and can serve as an encyclopedia for anyone who is interested to learn about the range of knowledge of Our Sages in matters of medicine and hygiene.
R'Moshe Perlman died after a severe illness, in Kovno, and was buried there.
R'Meir Halperin belonged to the gallery of cherished Jews of past generations, who, in our time have disappeared entirely from the Jewish street.
His beginnings were in Pruzhany, where he served as melamed of the sons and daughters of the Rabbi of the town, who later became famous as The Great One of Minsk and with him he relocated to Minsk. He was a moderate man, of a gentle character, spoke little and weighed carefully every matter; he was shy, respected his fellow men and women and never had an argument with anyone. He was a Tzadik and Hassid, a great scholar, had a phenomenal memory but never sought to stand out. In Minsk, he opened a store of rabbinic literature, his clients being Torah students in town and surroundings. His shop was packed with books on Halacha and Agada [legend], as well as Kabbala, and he remembered the place on the shelf of any book, its contents and its value being able to serve his buyers as information office and encyclopedia at the same time.
The close contact with his clients made him aware of the need to write a book on initials and abbreviations, which are so common in rabbinic writing. So he wrote the book The Acrostic Signs and Terms, the first of its kind in its accuracy and comprehensiveness. The book contains also an extensive introduction, on the history of abbreviations and acrostics.
R'Meir was shortsighted; while he was in his shop, he constantly had a book in front of him, keeping it very close to his eyes. The business of the store was the responsibility of his soninlaw R'Michel Rabinowitz.
This pious man had the misfortune to spend time in the Minsk prison. This was the story: After the failure of the 1905 revolution, the secret police was looking for revolutionary literature that had been smuggled into the country. One day the police agents appeared in R'Meir's shop to search the place. For hours they searched and did not find anything suspect. As they were about to leave, one of those present in the store wanted to tease the agents and said: Have you looked at the packaging papers? Just to please him the agents looked at the pile of old newspapers and, to the astonishment of all they found several issues of a forbidden revolutionary newspaper. Since the business was registered on the name of R'Meir, he was brought before a judge and sentenced to two years in prison.
R'Meir's misery in the prison was great. He used the time to write a Concordance to the Talmud, but managed to collect the items of the first letter of the alphabet only his work was not completed. R'Meir died in Minsk on 24 Nissan 5683 (1923).
Photograph: The structure (Ohel) above the tombs of Rabbi Eliezer Rabinowitz and his wife Feiga Rivka in the Jewish cemetery in Minsk
by Moshe Bick
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
What Jew could sit calmly at home, when satisfaction and pleasure is awaiting him in the synagogue to hear the cantor Kufshtik and his choir singing the beautiful Jewish prayers, adding to it the blessing of the month [Birkat Rosh Hodesh]? Who needs Opera, if we have this?? We would run to the synagogue. These lines, from the well-known actor Herman Yablokov's Memoirs (Around the World with the Jewish Theater, Volume one, p. 214) help us remember the distant past, the time of the cantor R'Shlomo Kufshtik. Who needs Opera? this saying by Yablokov makes it necessary to research the matter deeper in order to understand the secret of the musical value of Cantor Kufshtik, especially when we consider that the city of Minsk, as well as the surrounding region, was, for generations, known for its Hazanut [cantorial music], of a traditional and unique style. The history of the Minsk Hazanut has not been written yet. In our research of the past we found R'Sender Polatchik, who was nicknamed R'Sender of Minsk which means that as a cantor he was influential in the city of Minsk, where he was born in 1786. It was said that the Sender style was outstanding and different from any other style in Hazanut; and it is correct to assume that his style developed on fertile soil, that is, its roots were set in an older Minsk tradition. We do know about another cantor, R'Israel Schavelson, who was also called Israel the Minsker, indicating that there was indeed a unique tradition of a Minsk cantorial style, different from other places. We know the names of yet other cantors: Avraham Shapira, Nachum Shlomo Halevi Gorelik, Yitzhak Shmuel Katzman, Matityahu Dorfman, Reuven Kazimirski, Shmuel S. Sigal, Aharon Horowitz, Simcha Deynov, Moshe Levinson cantors who were born in Minsk or vicinity. All were most probably influenced by the Minsk Hazanut, since their Minsk origin is stressed in their biographies. From all this we can gather that that in order to be a cantor in Minsk, one must have been blessed with a particular singing talent and a beautiful voice, and be absolutely knowledgeable in the cantorial art in general the religious rules etc. and in the special Minsk style as well.
The cantor Shlomo Kufshtik was not alone. At that time there was in Minsk another cantor, Moshe Levinson, a student of R'Israel the Minsker, a graduate of the Petersburg Consevatoire, who had studied in Odessa under Anton Nicolayev and in Kiev under Verardi. While he was cantor in Minsk, he also was professor at the local conservatoire.
Yablokov tells us that the Minsker Jews would run to the Great Bet Midrash to listen to Kufshtik we should understand that Kufshtik's style in prayer and song was not different from the common and accepted Minsk style, yet it was different from Moshe Levinson's Hazanut and the Choral Synagogue style. In Moshe Levinson's way of singing one could detect the European-Russian singing culture; Shlomo Kufshtik, on the other hand, was a born musical talent, of a popular Jewish mentality, an autodidact at least a half autodidact, since he learned also from his brother who was a student at the Vienna Conservatoire. In his childhood he was not a member of a synagogue choir so that he did not absorb any particular style of Hazanut; only when he grew up he chose that profession and won, in competition with other cantors, his place as cantor in the Great Bet Midrash of Minsk. All this is testimony to the spiritual and musical richness with which Shlomo Kufshtik's personality was blessed.
Shlomo Kufshtik (1878-1943) served 15 years as cantor in the Great Bet Midrash in Minsk, aided by a large choir, boys and adults, with the conductors S. Spector and Hammerman. In 1906 he made Aliya to Eretz Israel.
I collaborated with the cantor Shlomo Kufshtik twice, during the High Holidays [Yamim Nora'im] in Haifa. I was the conductor of a choir assembled specially for the High Holidays, and I had the privilege to observe closely his special musical and cantorial personality. He had a tenor voice which, although it shook the acoustics of the room with its powerful metallic sounds, it was at the same time gentle and malleable. His voice possessed Jewish warmth, spoke directly to the Jewish heart, expressed intimacy and suited the taste of the Jew in its folk spirituality.
by David Zakai, David Solomonov
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Yehuda (Julius) Zhochovitzki (of the family of the Tzadik R'Yeshaya Zhochovitzer) was born in 1868 in the town Ostroshitzki-Gorodok, near Minsk. He studied violin at the Imperial Conservatoire in Vienna, and when he graduated he returned to Russia and was all his life a teacher of violin in Minsk. He had many students, among them the famous violinist H. Solomonov, from Minsk as well. Since the establishment of the Belarus government, he was teacher at the Musical Institute in Minsk and in 1940 was awarded the title Privileged Pedagogue of the Belarus Republic.
He was a warmhearted man, of pleasant manners, a gifted teacher who was loved by his pupils and by his colleagues. He helped the students of poor families and guided the gifted, helping them to find their way through the complicated life.
At his older age he wrote his memoirs, as well as stories describing the life in his town of birth, Minsk pages of folklore and very interesting material on the history of the Jewish social life toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
He was imprisoned in the ghetto and perished together with his wife (Chana nee Slopian), their daughters and grandchildren.
Herman Hershel Solomonov (1875-1943)
He came from a family of poor musicians in Minsk. As a child he excelled in his talent was called wunderkind and charmed everybody with his playing. Upon the advice of his teacher Y. Zhochovitzki (later his brother-in-law) and under his guidance he went to Leipzig and, with the help of several philanthropists who supported the very talented student, he studied at the Royal Conservatoire and graduated, then he served as Konzertmeister of the well-known Leipzig Philharmonic (directed by Arthur Nikisch). In 1907 he went to the USA and lived there five years; was one of the Konzertmeisters of the New York Philharmonic and accompanied it on the tours across the country. He became famous; returned to Minsk and taught at the local Conservatoire.
During the Polish occupation he relocated to Vilna and was professor of violin at the local conservatoire. For some time he worked at the Jewish Musical Institute as well. He gave concerts in the big cities of Poland, with enthusiastic response. With the Soviet occupation in 1939, he returned to Minsk and began to teach at the Royal Conservatoire, participated in radio programs and gave wonderful concerts, as in the time of his youth.
He was imprisoned in the ghetto and perished together with his wife (Mania Slopian). Survivors told me that he would play for his imprisoned brothers and was a source of encouragement and hope.
Many famous players are among his students. They keep in their hearts the memory of their teacher, with respect and gratitude.
by Zvi Gordon
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Zvi ben Yitzhak-Aizik Gordon (1888-1959)
Made Aliya to Eretz Israel in 1925
The Klezmer songs
During the end of the last century (19th) and the beginning of this century, the years of my childhood in Minsk, a wedding was a special festivity, an old traditional ceremony veiled in splendor and holiness, which was to be performed in a certain way without adding or eliminating anything. Rich or poor everybody kept the rules strictly; Hassidim and Mitnagdim held hands in harmony. Religious people, who observed all the commandments and enlightened of free thinking performed the wedding exactly according to the Rabbi's instructions. The festive meal was prepared under the strict supervision of a religious man wearing a Yarmulke, with beard and side-curls, exactly as the Law demanded.
After the religious ceremony [Chupa], the Badchan [jester, entertainer] became the leader of the place (the poet Elyakum Zunser, well-known in his time, was for years the recognized ruling wedding entertainer in Minsk, until he left Russia). The role of the badchan was to add spice to the chain of traditional acts performed during generations, by jokes, funny remarks about daily life, comical songs for the pleasure of the public and moral sermons, in the tradition of entertaining and pleasing the bride. Then came the time of declaring aloud the name and family relation of those who brought gifts for the new couple, whether in money or useful household articles all accompanied by jokes and clever sayings. The badchan was also the one who introduced the choir or the musical band, telling them when and what to play. All this continued until the festive meal began. From then on, the badchan left the stage.
Minsk had three wedding halls: Bontchiks Hall, Tcherches Hall and Hall Passage. As far as music was concerned, the absolute leader was the Klezmer choir under the direction of Itze David, a wonderful violinist. His violin was, in the words of Byalik, a living and talking soul. He played with warmth and enthusiasm, his right hand going up and down with the rhythm and the fingers of his left hand furiously dancing on the strings. The sounds that he produced were sometimes making the walls tremble, sometimes they were soft and delicate like a silent prayer emerging from the soul and bringing tears in the eyes of the listeners. Sometimes, Itze David became so excited that he put his hands holding the violin on his back, and played blind without making the slightest mistake
Itze David's melodies were played at all weddings there was never a wedding that missed them. There were sad tunes that touched the hearts and there were happy and joyful tunes, exciting and dancing. The badchan would teach the young couple morals, reminding them of the seriousness and importance of the hour, explaining the moral duties that marriage imposes on them and urging them, in a fatherly soft voice, to do their soul-searching. This dramatic moment was usually accompanied by the bride's tears. And all this was followed by Itze David and his choir with a tune that tore all hearts and reached Sha'ar Harachamim [the Gates of Mercy]
The real happy songs and dances began after the Chupa ceremony and the breaking of the glass by the bridegroom, when waves of joy erupted from all hearts: dancing around the bride, happiness shining through her veil, and illumination by tens of colored candles in the hands of the guests. A spontaneous sense of joy engulfed the entire public, expressed by dancing, kissing the new couple and throwing kisses all around. The area between the corner where the ceremony had taken place and the eating hall was traversed not by walking but by dancing to the music of Itze David and his choir, their own feet also itching from the wonderful music and noisy harmony.
To this day my heart swells when I remember these tunes. They make my soul tremble and awaken in it a yearning for a world that exists no more and for the town of my youth, the distant cradle of my childhood.
R'Yakov from Telechan
As in every Hasidic Shtibel [Hasidic prayer room], in the Koydanow shtibel in Minsk (Alexandrovskaya Street, opposite the Mental Hospital) there was also a group of singers from the veteran local Hassidim, headed by the three brothers: R'Aizik, R'Noah and R'Nachum Gordon. Singing and playing was their exclusive right, except for the very few times when the famous Koydanow Court Musicians visited our town, or when some of the wandering singers who used to collect tunes from every source and spread them among the Koydanow Hassidim happened to pass by.
However, from the beginning of the twentieth century until the revolution, the Koydanow Hassidic community in Minsk had the privilege to host one of the generation's geniuses of Hassidic music, who was known by the name Yankel Telechaner.
He came to our town as a temporary guest but settled in town and remained there until his last years. All his life he had spent wandering, seeking a Rabbi with whom he could associate with all his soul, who could understand his pure Hassidic spirit, listen to the way he prayed and poured out his soul before his Father in Heaven, and find shelter from the impure atmosphere and the vanity of this world.
He passed through many places, stayed for some time in Karlin, was hosted in Stolin and relocated to Minsk. His soul was the soul of a wanderer, and it remained a puzzle and mystery. Always alone, serious, shut in a mysterious world and alien atmosphere, absorbed in the voices and sounds that filled his being.
In his extensive repertoire, the place that joyful songs occupied was very small. Most of his melodies were created for the prayers of the High Holidays [Yamim Nora'im, lit. Days of Awe], when the soul is tortured and turns to The Holy One asking for help and forgiveness. Sometimes the song would end in an encouraging tune, full of confidence that the prayer has indeed reached Heaven. Yet, it does not celebrate victory by loud and harsh sounds, but by a tone of satisfaction and thanks for the fatherly touch of the Divine Spirit.
Some tunes sound like a conversation between two friends, one powerful and the other
helpless, in need of support from the strong and powerful. The tune evolves slowly and calmly, a reminder of a shepherd's flute sounds echoing infinitely and soaring towards Heaven.
Sometimes the melody included an entire opera, which was telling, in musical sounds, a story about faith and commandments, good deeds and charity, but also about poverty and need. The music that began softly and calmly would rise sometimes to stormy and noisy waves of sound.
These were the melodies of R'Yakov from Telechan, melodies of faith and hope, waiting at the Gates of Mercy until the Voice would be heard: Salahti kidvarecha! [I have forgiven].
R'Yakov did not have a special seat in the Koydanov Hassidic synagogue in Minsk, although he was offered an honored seat at the Mizrach [East] wall of the synagogue. He would walk back and forth behind the Bimah, pray by himself not always with the congregation sometimes reading one passage again and again, as if trying to reach all its deep secrets. I would follow him and listed to every word. He was not only a great musician, but a great and unusual personality.
He did not read musical notes; he created his music fragment by fragment and gave each piece to one of his aides, until the fragments were connected and the work completed. He was a real composer, his head always full of tunes. His idea was that playing was not a science that one could, or should learn, but a gift from God, sparks of holiness emanating from the love of God and expressing the feelings through music.
His songs are etched deep in my heart and I remember them one by one. I contacted the composer Yoel Engel zl and asked him to write the notes. He agreed, but unfortunately he passed away before he had a chance to work on it.
My late brother Rabbi I. S. Gordon zl told me that at one of the holiday festivities at the Slobodka Yeshiva where he studied, in the presence of the Head of the Yeshiva (the great scholar Rav N.Z. Finkel, nicknamed Grandfather) he sang one of R'Yakov's songs, at the request of the Rabbi. While he was singing, the Rabbi sat motionless, his elbows resting on the table and his hands covering his face and listened. When my brother finished his song, he was astounded to see the rabbi wipe the tears from his face
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