Eliezer Dov (Berish) Yalon
Translated by Ariel Distenfeld My brother, Eliezer Dov, who was called Berish at home did not sit at the court of the Belz Rabbi like his older brother Mendel Leib, but rather sat at home and studied Torah night and day. At the age of two Father brought him to the house of grandfather Joseph Wilder (Joseph the ritual slaughterer), a Husiatyn Chassid and a great scholar, a modest and personable man. The latter brought him to an elementary tutor. At age five he learned Bible and Rashi from Reb Hershel Podkamner and was among the best pupils. At age eight, grandpa Yosel took him and taught him Talmud and Tosefta . At age nine he began to study Yorah Deah , and by his own testimony, by the end of one month he already knew the first portion of Yorah Deah by heart. It is interesting to note that at age 10 he knew how to prepare for Father the conclusion as first born on the eve of Passover, as Father was always occupied in the hemp fields and other farming business
Eliezer Dov always wanted to see the Belz Rabbi face to face. Father who used to travel to the Belz Rabbi from time to time agreed and took him along to a relative's wedding in the shtetl of Sokal, where the rabbi was also going to participate. Father gave the rabbi a note asking to show him his little son. When the rabbi saw him he said to Father: Yes, yes, I've already heard about your prodigy from Rabbi Chayim Leibish Hamerling.
Our grandfather Reb Joseph Wilder was frail and weak of body. However in spite of his weakness he used to immerse himself in a mikva every morning, in summer and in winter and accustomed Eliezer Dov to do the same, since he took him along, sometimes against his will. He was 14 years old when Rabbi Chayim Leibish said about him that in spite of his young age he would not hesitate to ordain him as a rabbi. When he was 15 he began to surreptitiously peek at secular books. However, Torah study did not cease. At that time Eliezer Dov would sleep at the study house rather than at home. There he immersed himself in Talmud, and Yorah Deah with Pri Meggadim (Sweet Fruit). There he taught himself the Latin alphabet to the point of proficiency in reading and writing and secretly looked at secular books. Later on he would study at home or mostly in the field or the nearby forest, so that he wouldn't be disturbed by surrounding noise. During the night when members of the household were asleep, he would sit and study until the small hours of the night by the light of an oil lamp. He was asked if he ever fell asleep while learning and he answered: I will grow a braid and nail it to the wall and if I should fall asleep the braid will pull me and I will awaken.
At that time he wrote an exegesis on the Mesora. He left the manuscript with the rabbi for review. The rabbi did not return it and it is not known what was its ultimate fate. During the burning of leaven, he asked Father to burn another book that he wrote; a third book he buried with his own hands behind one of the farm buildings.
When he was 17-18 there was an obvious change in his life. He started looking openly at Haskala books while continuing to read religious ones. At that time he taught Hanoch Talmud and himself learned accounting in German. At age 18, he left Lopatyn (Tritki) and moved to Lwow. There he studied by himself and with private tutors. He studied languages and later he worked as a clerk in a paper goods store. He took a wife and with his brother-in-law began to deal in the fur trade and was active in a Zionist youth organization named Tikvat Zion
In 1916, after Lwow was liberated from the Russian occupation he moved with his family to Vienna. There he continued with his brother-in-law in the fur trade and he had branches in Austria and abroad. In 1919 when I visited his home in Vienna on the eve of my aliya, I found an extensive and varied library, dictionaries in several languages, classic German literature and also many Hebrew religious books. His wife Ida was a great help in his commercial endeavors as she had a great business sense. His only daughter, Fela studied at the university and just before she made aliya in 1936 received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. When she arrived in Israel she already had a good command of Hebrew and became a teacher.
The rise of Hitler to power in Germany in 1933 was reflected in Austria too and the Austrian Nazis began to annoy the Jews, boycotting and confiscating their businesses. The Nazis confiscated his store and the branches and installed commissars to run the business. They forced Eliezer Dov and his wife to work for them for a pittance. At the end they had to leave Vienna penniless and receive the travel costs from the Vienna Jewish community. In 1939 they arrived in Israel with a few personal belongings that they were permitted to take with them. Here in Israel he acquired a circle of acquaintances most of whom were learned and well-read. His treasury of memories and knowledge was revived. He acquired many books, religious and secular. He read and was known amongst his acquaintances as a living encyclopedia, especially in the area of religious literature. His mind was amazingly clear in spite of his advanced age, and he remembered personal dates of famous and renowned people, and authors of Responsa in previous centuries. He would write comments, corrections and references in the margins of the books he read. All of these could provide material for a whole book in print.
In 5727(1966), at age 85, he came down with a serious illness and was transferred to a hospital. Even in the hospital, until his last days he perused books and he told his friends who came to visit him that he had a list of 30-40 books that he wished to read but did not get to.
On the first day of Cheshvan 5727 (1966) he passed away while on the window sill next to his bed was a book that he did not finish reading, with his eyeglasses on it.
His extensive library was bequethed by his daughter Fela to the village of Beit Yehoshua, near Netanya. His wife Ida died on the 1st of Adar II, 5716 (1954) and his daughter Fela did not enjoy a long life and died after a serious illness, on the 24th of Adar II 5734 (1973).
My Brother, Mendel Leib Yalon
Translated by Ariel Distenfeld
I do not know my brother Mendel-Leib's birthday. I only know that he left Lopatyn before I was born, and all that I know about him is what I've heard from my brothers Dov and Hanoch and from my parents.
As was the way with all the children in the shtetls in those days, Mendel-Leib studied at a very young age with tutors and excelled in his studies. One day, after he had progressed in his studies, he ran away with a classmate to Belz, where he resided at the rabbi's court and focused on his studies. For two to three days there was great fear and concern in the house. My parents relaxed only after receiving a letter from the rabbi's court that their son was alive and well, and that he was concentrating on Torah study with good company in the rabbi's court. After some time, he returned home for the holidays. He became a real young gentleman, wore a long kapota (coat) and grew a small beard and side curls, befitting one who dwells in the rabbi's court.
For three years he persisted in his studies at the rabbi's court, and Father was very proud of this son and hoped that he most certainly would become a rabbi. Three years later when he returned home, he surprised his parents in his strange attire: his short clothing, his shaven beard and no remnant to his side curls, and his hair in a pompadour German style. This was a great disappointment for Father, who identified slightly with radical orthodoxy, and gave him heartache. On the other hand, Mother who was somewhat more progressive in her ideas and more tolerant, saw the change that occurred in her son in a positive light. Apparently there was a sharp family argument on the subject and Father poured his bitter heart out to the local rabbi, Reb Chayim Leibish Hamerling, who was also a Belz Chassid, a great Torah scholar and wise student. This rabbi, who befriended Mendel-Leib before his running away to Belz because of his bright intellect and his steady devotion to study, tried to chastise him for his actions. But after he tested him in Mishna and later interpreters he was satisfied that the fellow was a great Talmudist and apparently after that conversation, the rabbi convinced my father. If the rabbi, Reb Chayim Leibish Hamerling said he is satisfied with my son, how could I not be? He continued for some time to live in the shtetl but when he saw that there was no future in it he moved to Lemberg. From my brother Hanoch I heard that Mendel-Leib was about 18 years old when he learned the Latin alphabet for the first time, and he continued with general studies from private tutors. His brilliant mind served him well in these studies as well. He learned German, Polish and French and supported himself in Lemberg by giving Hebrew lessons. He became a member of a Zionist group Tikvat Zion (Zion's Hope). Because he had a pleasant voice, he used to be the cantor on Friday nights at the group club, and many would come to hear him sing.
In due course he married and opened an office for commercial information called Harness which in time became renowned throughout Galicia and beyond. Until his marriage Mendel-Leib used to return to Tritki to visit dressed in top hat and tails. It was the first formal attire seen in Lopatyn. During the intervening days of the Holy Days, it was the custom of the rabbi, Reb Chayim Leibish Hamerling to invite him to his house and discuss Torah issues. The rabbi had much pleasure seeing Mendel-Leib exuding Torah even while dressed so strangely and he used to compliment him. The accolades reached Father's ears and Father was very glad. Do not worry Reb Avraham said the rabbi. Don't look at the vessel but at its content. Later on, the brothers Dov and Mendel-Leib donated an ark cover to the synagogue in Lopatyn, which became the talk of the town. At the beginning of the First World War Mendel-Leib was drafted into the army. One winter night while on guard duty he was chilled and developed pneumonia from which he did not recover.
Akiva grew up in an observant home. His mother, Chava-Rivka (ah), the eldest of my sisters and brothers, was a woman of valor, good hearted, doer of good deeds and hospitable. His father, Pinchas (ah) was a learned, God-fearing Jew who followed scrupulously all the commandments, great and small. He was smart, with a sharp mind and was blessed with an ability to understand and analyze problems. He especially excelled in solving complicated mathematical problems without employing scientific formulas which he never learned. In spite of being God-fearing with all his heart, he was very tolerant of Haskala (secular enlightenment). It was brave of him to be exceptional in his view of Haskala and of Zionism in the shtetl , where most of the Jewish residents were fanatically opposed to both. Reb Pinchas saw the grinding poverty of the people of the town and tried to avoid a similar fate for his children. He decided to give them a high school education and to ensure a good future in their lives with a solid social standing. This terrible act brought upon him the anger of the town's religious zealots and the officers of the synagogue where he worshipped, and they cursed him and persecuted him until he was compelled to leave this synagogue for another. As a result of the atmosphere that prevailed in Lopatyn, as a result of this shameful event, Akiva's parents decided to leave the town where they had lived for many years and to move to the nearby city of Brody, a city of general learning since the nineteenth century, where the Jews constituted the majority of the population. Here Akiva's parents found respite from their persecutors and even though it was hard to make a living, they did everything to promote the education of their children. Here, Akiva found Jewish friends in the schools and the company of Jewish youth.
In the First World War, Brody, which was close to the Russian border, was occupied by the Russians. When Brody was liberated by the Austrian armies, Akiva's parents moved to Lwow, the capital of Galicia in those days. It was a city full of Jewish life. In this city flourished Zionism and Haskala , and any youngster desiring knowledge could easily fulfill it in Lwow. There was also a Jewish gymnasium (high school), where Hebrew was taught and a Zionist atmosphere prevailed. Akiva, who attended the gynasium, learned perfect Hebrew there.
When the fighting approached Lwow again and a threat of occupation returned, many of the Jewish residents escaped to Czechoslovakia and Austria. Amongst them were also Akiva's parents. They settled in a small Czech town near the Austrian border. From there, Akiva moved to Vienna where he completed his high school education. After the war ended, Akiva returned with his family to Lwow, now in independent Poland, and continued to study and be involved with the Jewish youth. In those days, in Galicia as in other east European countries Jewish youth movements were founded (Hachalutz , Hashomer Hatzair , etc.) which spread quickly to the towns and cities, even the smallest and most remote. These movements brought the tidings of the return to Zion and the youth awakened toward implementing aliya in different ways. Centers were founded for agricultural training, Hebrew classes, geography, sport organizations, etc., all with a single purpose: the land of Israel. Akiva joined Hashomer Hatzair , worked a while in the Land of Israel Office and, in the summer of 5680 (1920), moved with members of his movement to Israel. Here he worked in camps mining rocks in quarries in the mountains and in building roads. He was among the first settlers of Hashomer Hatzair , in the month of Cheshvan 5683 (1922), to settle in Bet Alpha, where he was active in public affairs. The habit of hospitality which was present in his parents' house found its full expression here in his public involvement. Friends who knew him in those days tell of his special quality to look after travelers who, in the course of their journey, came to his kibbutz, to feed them and provide them with a place to sleep. Akiva himself told me a large group of travelers arrived at dark after visiting the valley of Jesrael, and he managed to find them all a place to sleep. All the tents were full of guests, he said, and the kibbutz members were crowded in their beds for a few hours since at dawn they had to go to work. This fine quality of hospitality stayed with him till the end of his days.
Unfortunately his health suffered and he weakened to the point where he required treatment abroad. When he returned to Israel he had to consider giving up physical labor. As luck would have it, just then, the head of the National Library in Jerusalem, Professor Sh.H. Bergman, asked the group in Bet Alpha for workers who were unfit for hard physical labor to come and work as apprentice librarians. Akiva was sent to the library in 5686 (1925) and quickly succeeded in acclimating himself to the new profession and to the Jerusalem landscape.
His separation from his kibbutz in the valley came as a result of his illness and the doctors' prohibition of physical labor. However, he desired to live in a commune. When he arrived in Jerusalem he conceived the idea of forming a group that would lead a communal life in the city. When he found others who supported the idea (among them the writer Yehuda Yaari, the attorney Chaim Krongold and his wife Shoshana and others), the group rented a large apartment with a common kitchen and the house became a sort of city kibbutz (the writer of these lines also joined the group). The home was always full of guests from the city who would partake in the song and dance. We named the group Batlania (Hebrew for Idlers' Place) because of the forced unemployment experienced by many of the members. Akiva was the leading spirit in the group. Even after he came back from studies abroad he returned to the Batlania with his young bride. They left only after some time when they moved into their new home. This spirited group lasted nearly two years, and came apart during the Troubles of 5689 (1929).
In 5687 (1927) Akiva was sent by the library administration to study in a graduate library school in Berlin. There he married his sweetheart Jenia, who also was one of the early pioneers. They returned in 5689 (1929). From that time on, Akiva rose rapidly in his profession to become the head of the circulation department. In connection with his work he developed friendships with a large group of readers throughout the country. His kindness and friendly help became known far and wide.
During the thirties, when the small library moved from its location in the Ethiopian alley to its new home on Mount Scopus, it grew several fold, and with it the number of workers. The circulation department and related divisions absorbed additional workers and Akiva acted as their mentor during the period of absorption. Akiva's approach to the workers under him was expressed in three ways: attention and demand for accountability, a fatherly and educational attitude, and folksy friendship. In spite of his position as the director he was like one of them and often joined them in doing the simplest tasks. In this spirit, with patience and love of the work, throughout his years in the library he taught a large group of young workers who continue to carry out their duties happily and with discipline till this very day. With the same energy, perseverance and devotion in spite of heart pain he undertook the move of the library from the Terra Sancta building to its new home in the Givat Ram campus, together with a devoted and loyal group of workers, who adored him. Akiva had the rare gift of combining the boss and the worker in one. His success in planning and moving the books in a timely fashion reverberated in the university community and elsewhere, and was even noted in the newspapers.
His work at the university was not the only undertaking of his life. He was involved in many public affairs without carrying an official public title. He did not make speeches from stages, but as a loyal member of the labor movement and the Mapai (labor party) he carried out his duties quietly and for its own sake, and he was ready to undertake any mission for the organizations. He was clear thinking and quick to counsel, and his wise advice was often the subject of discussion in committee meetings without it being known who the source of the advice was. Akiva was a member of various committees of the Histadrut (Israel labor federation) and the Mapai. During all his years at the university he was the unofficial representative of the Mapai there. For some period he was a member of the workers council. For many years he was a member of the labor exchange and its priorities subcommittee. He analyzed problems with great wisdom and was not afraid to express publicly his opposition to accepted norms even if his was a lone opinion.
He was amongst the initiators, planners and founders of the workers library of the Jerusalem labor council. During the war of independence he organized mobile libraries to bring books to outposts and military bases .He was consulted often about opening libraries in various settlements in the country. In the time of the war of independence he was entrusted to manage the branch office of the Mapai paper Hador , which he carried out with great success throughout the lifetime of the newspaper.
Akiva's devotion to his family was boundless. He invested all his strength and energy to give his children a broad education. Indeed, he was fortunate to derive pleasure from them. His son Ariel is a physician and his daughter a graduate of the university. He was about to retire from his labors after 40 years of fruitful work, in his quiet and beautiful home together with his spouse when his life ebbed on the threshold of implementing a new life style. The heart could not contain all the good deeds within and stopped prematurely.
Akiva at the Readers' Service
Prof. Shmuel Hugo Bergman
Translated by Ariel Distenfeld
Akiva came to the National Library in 5685 (1925). At that time the library was in its first home in Zichron Moshe, and as a result of its growth we had to rent several buildings near the center in Abyssinian Street in order to house the books. Storing the books, arranging them in their proper place and getting the requested books to the reading room in the central building were, because of this extensive distribution, a complicated and difficult matter which required quick action and responsibility. The workers in the library who worked in the stacks had to transfer the books in the rain, during cold spells and in the burning heat from one street to another. Akiva was engaged in this work at the beginning of his career in the library.
In the summer of 5689 (1929) we transferred the books from these buildings in the central city to Mount Scopus, where Wolfson House was built, destined to become the home of the library. Akiva's job was to supervise the transfer. In the middle of the move, violence broke out in Jerusalem. On that Friday as the Arabs left the prayers at the Dome of the Rock mosque and started the violence and disturbance, Akiva was busy with a group of colleagues in arranging the books in their new place on Mount Scopus. Akiva and this group of workers were separated from the city for many hours, until British policemen arrived and succeeded in saving them from danger and bringing them down to the city.
When the violence was over and the transfer of the library was complete, normal university life began. A new field of work opened up for Akiva. He became the head of the circulation department in the Wolfson building. He was best suited for this duty, since he loved the work and developed personal relationships with the students. From that time until the end of his days Akiva was the head of the circulation department. He established, together with his colleagues, the tradition of good and dedicated service to the readers, which prevails to this day and makes us proud.
In this spirit of giving service to the reader in its highest form, his memory will be blessed among us.
There were two separations between the first and last link. The first separation occurred during the First World War, when the refugee wave carried us to safe havens. Akiva went to a far away city in Czechoslovakia, and I to nearby Lwow. Eventually he arrived there as well. We met here as members of one movement, in the beginning Hashomer and subsequently (after its union with Zeirei Zion) , Hashomer Hatzair . There was another four-year separation when the wave of immigrants, commencing and continuing the Third Aliya, carried him to our land where he was one of the road builders and founders of Bet Alpha. He returned to Lwow for a brief time because of his illness, and there we met in our work. He worked in the Land of Israel office, as assistant to its director, Hillel Shpindler, and I served as the head of Hachalutz center.
And I did not comment on all of this but to stress that after (and perhaps because) of each parting, our network of contacts tightened up, and the early and late links joined together, with the wheel of memory turning on and on.
Whenever I remember those distant days, I visualize the faces of our friends, some gullible and some clever and scheming. But above all of them, I remember Akiva's shining smiling face as if triumphant with its distinctive signs, this light whose vitality was not diminished all his life.
Zionism was not new to our town in those days. A few yards from the house of the usurer where Akiva's family dwelt, there was a large sign over a large store in square letters: Tartakover Brothers. The head of the firm, Nathan, and his brother Chaim were among the heads of the Zionists in town, and were the activists. A few years earlier we saw them active in the first truly democratic elections, when our town elected A. Shtand its representative to the parliament in Vienna, where he was the first Zionist, and our pride. If it were not for the tricks and fraud of the authorities he would not have been defeated the last time around. The mutual experience in both elections for us who were only children, was that we participated in the tumult, especially shouting derogatory cries against the Zionists' captain's competitor. We did not know why we called the assimilated industrialist straw mattress. He spread bribes right and left to buy the votes of constituents. The People's House, on Leszniow Street, was the property of Mr. Freedman who came from East Prussia, and when he married off his two twin daughters to two twins of the town's society, who were among the first chovevey Zion (lovers of Zion) there, he gave the building to the needs of the Zionists. It was a building alive with a multitude of groups and factions: here was the library, and here was clear language, and here the Jewish National Fund on whose behalf we labored collecting aluminum foil and corks, here was the sport group Dror , who outgrew the small yard and exercised in the grounds of the old army barracks. Here also Hebrew flourished. Many were attracted to this building and its atmosphere. Anyone with common sense could not help but notice the typological differences between the Zionists and the junior Zionists. There is no similarity between the city's natives and the two groups of newcomers those immigrating from across the border and those coming from within it. To state the main difference, the natives, and especially those who descended from residents who dwelt there for generations, carried on mightily the old traditions. The outsiders, recently arrived new inhabitants, mostly those of the nearby shtetls , brought renewal, based on youth. They were the young bloods who shook the spirit of the town to rejuvenate and revitalize it.
And to the point, we find a fine example in the children of Lopatyn the Distenfeld family, part of which settled in our town beginning with Reb Eichel and ending with Akiva's family. Reb Eichel was a typical maskil , (follower of Haskala ) who used to walk with our teacher Reb Joshua Oscar and discuss with him in good days the days of stars of Isaac and days of first fruits of the times. (He was not the first maskil from Lopatyn in our town, since among the contributors to Hertz's Mire Shafer there was in our town a man named Moshe Lopatyner). Everyone respected that pair of friends, who strolled the city streets daily in a measured gait. But the young Zionists had some resentment in their hearts, not on account of their friendship but because they were in-laws Reb Eichel's daughter, a pretty and educated Hebrew girl, had in her heart Joseph Aharonowitz, who in his heart was attracted to her. When he left our town where he was a teacher and a youth leader and went to the land of Israel, everyone assumed that she would follow him. But the friendship was strengthened in a knot of marriage Reb Eichel's daughter went after the son of Joshua, who was the rabbi Dr. Shalom Oscar, formerly a rabbi in the Mohrin congregation and later a religion teacher in the secondary school in Stanislaw and Lwow and then a member of the editorial board of Eshkol . In regard to Akiva's family, according to the notorious Austrian custom, the children were not named after the father, Reb Pinchas Winkler, but after the mother, Mrs. Chava Rivka Distenfeld, the eldest sister of the scholars, Reb Dov Berish and Reb Henich, the greatest linguist of our tongue in our generation, Hanoch Yalon, and the youngest Mordechai whom we called the uncle. This was a family where the love of Torah and the love of Zion merged together. The same applied to the other Lopatyner family, the Barash family. The older brother came to live permanently in our town (and worked in the sawmill of Nahum Gelber, the father of the historian, among the community leaders of our town) and was among the best of the Hebrews, but still stuck at the edges of the Haskala ; and the younger brother, the lively writer Asher Barash, was already completely involved in the realm of modernity, and came to dwell in our town on a temporary basis. He taught Hebrew, continuing in the tradition of the teachers who preceded him Joseph Aharonowitz, who founded in our town the circle of pioneers of Zion, whose members followed him when he went to the land of Israel where he became one of the leaders of Hapoel Hatzair , Moshe Bluestein, who is the Dafna * famed for his children's poems, and Rafael Soferman, who like him, moved to the land of Israel early, in the days of the Second Aliya .
These children of Lopatyn possessed a great vitality the girls pretty and fetching (one of the family's daughters was a real heart breaker, and two of those smitten by her, one a Ukrainian officer and one our friend Hafner, committed suicide). The boys were healthy and lively, and they and those like them were renewing the lifeblood of the town, which was still excitable but also somewhat fatigued. What is a greater sign for a healthy circulation than ruddy cheeks and smiling eyes that were the constant companions of the illuminated smile, the smile of our friend Akiva, who was the youngest of the Lopatyn boys in our town.
And if I could count his helpful deeds, the few known to me and the many that I was not privy to, I would not be able to name enough, and I am referring to all the deeds of helping and defending people, among them famous personalities, who were being crushed by evil because of their innocence and credulity, and he was like a shutter before a catastrophe. I will hint at what appeared to be the source of his good deeds the love of his beginnings, the home where he was raised, and a love that widened and enclosed circles upon circles as if to swallow and incorporate a whole world.
* pseudonym used by Moshe Bluestein Return
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