by Levi Shalit
Translated by Bella Golubchik
The sons and daughters of European shtetlach have made an effort to erect literary memorials to their old birthplaces, and this is commendable. However, often the question arises as to why this or that shtetl in particular? Can our catastrophe be apportioned? Is it permissible for one shtetl, to be counted or discounted from the other? To compare one Holocaust with another? Is not the life and the death of all six million of equal worth?
Surely the life and death of the Jews in every country was identical. There was no marked difference between Frankfurt and Berlin, Kovno and Vilna. The life and death of Jews in Germany, Poland and Lithuania can, perhaps, be differentiated, but how can one seek differences between one shtetl and another when these differences did not exist? Essentially, life in all shtetlach was identical in nuance and detail and also, sadly, they all suffered the same final, tragic fate.
It is wholly understandable that individuals want to emphasize the uniqueness of their particular shtetl. It is the expression of their love for their birthplace, their homesickness, and the fulfilment of the obligation to those who are no more.
These same shtetl monographs of a specific place will give support to future historians through the revelation and relating of these episodes, be they of greater or lesser importance. Historians will one day still be able to draw a pictorial monument of the existence and demise of East European Jewry.
This book about Rakishok will most certainly serve as a brick in the great monumental edifice, reflecting the truncation of Jewish life. It will surely also pierce the heart of both heaven and earth, with the enormity and gruesomeness of our Holocaust.
How did it transpire that Chassidism made its appearance in Rakishok, far from the Polish border, in so-called Lithuanian-Siberia, in a purely Misnagedish country? Perhaps the answer can be found in this book. I personally witnessed the fact that Rakishkers were Chassidim in Misnaged Lithuania.
The Ruch family was renowned in Rakishok and even abroad, outside of Lithuania itself. Their household was religious, Chassidic, and wealthy. The sons introduced Torah learning into the home before they even acquired riches. From the first generation there was an apocryphal story spread that once, before the First World War, Pesach Ruch was still a poor itinerant trader. Then something significant happened.
During the First World War, when most of the Rakishker Jews had been expelled from the town, Pesach Ruch was one of the few who remained, albeit in hiding. Later, when the grip of the war had tightened, the landowners began to be attacked. One such landowner, who owned the whole of Rakishok, sought refuge from those who wanted to take his possessions and even his life. He found refuge with the poor, G-d fearing trader Pesach Ruch, and for this the landowner rewarded him afterwards with great riches. Subsequently, Pesach became even more devout and began making journeys to his Rebbe, and sometimes even brought the Rebbe back to his home. However, both of Pesach's sons, Dovid and Yissachar [Ishker], travelled to the cold Misnaged yeshivah in Telz to study Torah. It is still said that the Rakishker generally, as it were, tended towards the Chassidic world. They were cold Chassidim--Chabad adherents who were knowledgeable in Gemara.
Of all the Lithuanian yeshivas, Telz eventually had the most suitable system for the Chabad students. In Telz they understood that lernen Talmud study should be the only objective for the individual. In other Yeshivas, the curriculum was peripheral to Talmud study. In Slabodka they taught Ethics. The emphasis in the Chelm Talmud Torah was the same as in Slabodka, but more intense. Ponevezh, was a newer yeshiva, but had a more fearsome environment, being surrounded by a large city. (Large, that is, by Lithuanian standards.)
In Telz, a small shtetl, they only studied Talmud. Even the half hour of Ethics before Ma'ariv was without much enthusiasm. (And according to Yeshiva parlance, they did not act out.) The measure of a yeshiva bocher's stature was not in Ethics he was evaluated on his Gemara knowledge. According to the way of thinking in Telz, all of a yeshiva bocher's good qualities and love of the Creator could only be brought to life by studying Mishna and Gemara. That is why Telz was very strict in what pertained to religious observance. They required total separation from the temporal world. That is why, for example, Zionism was more treif than in other yeshivas. Consequently, it can be understood that it was not really acceptable when the offspring of very loyal Chabad Rakishker homes went to study in Telz. On the contrary, here the method of learning was different. Even the Slabodka Yeshiva had a closer approach to their way of thinking. The connection between Rakishok and Kovno was better, and Ponevezh was much closer (in dogma). Despite this, the children of wealthy Rakishker Chabadniks went to Telz.
Both these Ruchs, Dovid and Yissachar, with a few of their friends who were in the Telz Yeshiva, rarely made an appearance. It is certain that when the others were learning Ethics and Duties, they were learning the Tanya. This was the whole difference between the learning systems. Any other schisms really only appeared on Simchat Torah, Purim, or yeshiva wedding celebrations, when even cold Mitnagdem were released from the shackles of their evil impulse (wicked urges). Then they were at the head of the queue, their dancing full of joy, their singing melodious, their bodies filled with exaltation, with faces aglow and their whole being flooded with joy. What would be a pertinent comment? Chassidic blood. They were just as keen to do a mitzvah and help a friend, or equally, to punish a sinner.
Then an incident occurred, as even in pious Telz the new winds of change were blowing. A noise was heard and became louder until it reached even the area of the shul, and then the yeshiva. The Chalutzim were planning a conference in Telz on Shabbat. Some delegates were due to arrive by train, which was going to arrive a quarter hour into Shabbat. The zealots went out to stop them with stones, headed by the Ruchs. The Chassidic blood in command of the battalion of Misnagdish yeshivah bocherim. The battle ended in failure, but the nomenclature Rakishker Chassidim became a label for zeal, even in frum Telz.
Rakishok was not one of the wealthy shtetlach in Lithuania. There were rich towns and poorer towns, and Rakishok was one of the latter. With independent Lithuania, Rakishok attained some significance, but it remained on the edge, an out-of-the-way place. All of this was discussed during the partitioning
Zionism entered Rakishok with a bang, with devotion. It became a citadel of Zionism. The first Chalutzim made aliyah from here, and one still encounters them in the veteran kibbutzim, in Ein Charod, Giv'at Brenner, and so forth. Was it poverty that motivated these boys and girls from Rakishok? Or did the Chassidic flame cause their belief in the redemption? Possibly both.
Rakishok, the largest shtetl in far-flung eastern Lithuanuia, nourished the whole region (in the Jewish sense) from Ponevezh to Abel. It also provided goods to Kamai, Abel, Panemunok, Kupishok, and Skopishok. All these shtetlach were provided with Zionist speakers and youth leaders from Rakishok. It was known in the Zionist centres of Kovno as an independent center, and not a part of the Ponevezh region.
HaShomer Hatza'ir occupied the most important position among the Zionist youth movements and among the older people it was the General Zionist Organization. However, it is understandable that Rakishok included the whole Zionist spectrum, the same as in all Lithuanian cities and towns.
Rakishok had a most exceptional Zionist personality in Reb Hillel Eidelson, who had already shone at the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Hillel Eidelson lived for the Zionist dream. His stride, his demeanor in daily life, his whole being, was tinged with Zionism. He remained without wife or family for his whole life. He was an exceptional human being. He always walked with silent tread, was a vegetarian, and almost reclusive, but all this was for the sake of the Zionist cause, for solving Zionism's problems. All his personal needs were satisfied and the solution for all society's problems were to be found in the Zionist dream of salvation. He sacrificed everything he possessed for the Zionist ideal: money, health, everything. The central committee invited him to a countrywide youth conference in 1937. The young people received him solemnly, and he--exceptionally reticent as was his habit--sat silently, with eyes downcast, almost overcome that they had bestowed such an honor on him. Hillel Eidelson was the person who embodied the essence of Dr. Herzl in Rakishok. He brought the promise of redemption from the source. It is possible that this is why Zionism took hold earlier in Rakishok than in many other places in the country.
The poverty in the shtetl drove the youth towards Zionism and national redemption in the Alte-Neue land, but a number of the young people became enthused with belief in a new world order, i.e., Communism. The winds of nationalism were beginning to blow at the beginning of the 1920's, almost concurrent with the founding of independent Lithuania, and the youth from various shtetlach crossed the border into Russia. They jumped into the new world from Rakishok. Geographically, this was not difficult, as the border was close. Later, however, the border was hermetically sealed, and even written contact was meager. Family members were left separated and forgotten. Meanwhile, the flames of nationalism were rising in Lithuania.
The Communists went deep underground, and people were afraid to mention friends and relatives who went away over there.
Then in 1939 the Soviets conquered Lithuania. Soldiers and officers of the Red Army entered Rakishok and other shtetlach, and it was only then that the stories about the forgotten ones were verified.
Ya'akov Smuskowitz, from Rakishok, was one of these forgotten ones. In the 1920's Ya'akov left his father, the Rakishker butcher, his mother, and family, and ran away over there. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, wondrous stories were spread about the young man from Rakishok. The press was filled with pictures of him, his family, and the little house on the railway street where he once lived. It did not take long for the legend to be confirmed, and the legend descended from the skies when Smuskowitz landed with an aeroplane to visit his old home. The news soon spread over Lithuania and Jews boasted, Our Yankel. Yankel from Rakishok. A general in the Red Army. Hero of the Finnish battlefront. No small deal! Such an honor should suffice for the whole of Lithuanian Jewry, not only for his shtetl Rakishok.
But there must be a hand that seals the circle of our lives, so the end can actually be tied back to the beginning.
In the years after the First World War, the Lithuanian Jews returned from their Russian exile. They came via Abel and Rakishok, returning to their homes in Lithuania. Then in the beginning of the German-Soviet War [WW II], quite a number of Jews from central and northern Lithuania went running back to Russia, again via Rakishok and Abel. They attempted to flee back to Russia from whence they had come some twenty years earlier. But the circle was about to close, as the border was largely sealed, and the bloodthirsty German foe was already close behind. There was no going back home to their own shtetl, so they stole into Rakishok, to at least be among Jewish homes. In the market place, next to the big pump, in the Red Shul, in the Folk Shul on New Street, and in every Jewish home they gathered together, close to one another, like sheep before a storm. And the storm had arrived. The German vandal stormed into the streets.
The little Rakishker dwellings were crowded. Everyone took in strangers and refugees, but the crowding did not last long. Maybe a week, no more. Then it became freer. Free of one's own; free of strangers. The only place that was crowded was the orchard, where the mass graves were located.
Into the mass grave were cast Chassidim with Mitnagdim, Zionists and Communists, Rakishker and fugitives from afar. Thrown in together and no longer living!!!!! They were gone.
We are all aware of the enormity of our disaster, the sorrow of our Holocaust. However, one would still like to find some word of comfort, even on the edge of the Rakishker mass grave. We are certainly entitled to a word of consolation, despite it being difficult. Oh how difficult! I would like to find such a word, for myself and for others, so I force myself to relate the following. When I arrived in Johannesburg, I roamed the Jewish suburbs and suddenly occasioned upon a sign saying Chassidic Shul. As most of the Lithuanian Jews had come here, so too must the Rakishker have come, transferring their Chassidic milieu from the old home.
In Africa, as in Lithuania, Rakishok lives on. Let us find some small consolation in the places that survived that cruel fate, with those who still harbor in their heart a memory of life in Rakishok, of the holy ones, and the martyrs. Those who remember, here in Africa, in Israel and in the whole world. Let us take strength in the march towards a great Jewish future and the hope for a better world with the sanctification of their lives and the valor of their death.
[Ref. in text p. 24. Photo and Family History.
Ref. to sons: David and Ishker Chasidic family]
by Rabbi Prof. L. I. Rabinowitz
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Prof. L. I. Rabinowitz is the head rabbi of the Federation of the Synagogues in Transvaal and the head of the Bet Din [rabbinical court].
He is Professor of Hebrew in Witwatersrand University and the author of the following books, which were written in English: The Social Life of the Jews in South Africa; Excommunication within the Community; From the Depths; Soldier of Yehuda; and The Mission in the Far East.
Actually, I was, from a certain point of view, not the right person to write about the Hasidim and even less about Chabad, because my family followed the famous Reb Haim Volozhiner, a follower of the Vilna Gaon [genius], whose opposition to the Hasidim, in all forms, and chiefly to the well known Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, is well known. Yet although I was shaped as a mitnagid [follower of Enlightenment] both by origin and by education, my feeling for Chabad is such that when Rabbi Weinberg, the representative from the Lubavitcher rebbe, was here, I allowed myself to tease him in the following manner: Even though you are a Hasid, at least you are a Chabadnik.
Reb Haim Vital, the student of Reb Yitzhak Luria, the Ari HaKadosh [Translator's note: Ari the Holy; Ari is an acronym for Adoneinu Rabbeniur Yitzhak Our master, our rabbi, Yitzhak] in his book, Sefer Gilgul HaNefesh [Book on Transmigration of the Soul], presents a remarkable distinction between the Rambam and the Ramban. According to him, it appears that both are descended from the adam hakodmon [the original man, i.e. Adam]. However, while the genius of the Ramban comes from the left peye [side curl] of Adam that represents intellect and strict judgment, the Ramban's inheritance is from the right peye that expresses emotion, tenderness and mercy. This difference was the cause of the first clash between the Hasidim and the mitsnagdim.
I said above that I was a mitnagdim through education. In order to confirm this, I will here describe one incident in my life. I was still a small boy when Hasidism began to have an effect on me. I asked my father if the Baal Shem Tov was a great man. His answer was significant. We can pass judgment as to whether a man is great or not according to the books that he has written. However, given that the Baal Shem Tov has not written a book, I cannot tell you.
These simple words were for me the highest level of intellectual supremacy the extreme rule of intellect over the emotions that were the characteristic trait of the mitnagdim against which the Hasidim revolted. Whereas the mitnagdim glorified the intellect and considered studying the highest stimulus of piety, the Hasidim made fun of this and focused on ecstatic prayer, and this united them with God through ecstasy and emotions as the level of piety. It is even said that one of the students of the Baal Shem Tov is supposed to have said, Where one studies a great deal, there is no piety.
This Hasidic concept entirely undermined the foundation of Judaism and the mitnagdim had to combat this. One could not expect that the Vilna Gaon, who had dedicated himself totally to learning for the sake of learning would not react to this heretical Torah, and for the first time in his life, he left the pulpit and threw himself into the feud because the concept of the mitnagdim was this, as Reb Ismael had quoted: There are two verses of the Torah that contradict each other and Chabad introduces a third verse that can harmonize the two others.
Since the beginning, Judaism always excelled in the manner in which it harmonized and held an equilibrium between wisdom and awe, between the intellect and the emotions--the study of Torah for its own sake is a positive commandment; it does not permit the idea that an ignorant man can be a Hasid. This means that one cannot reach perfection in the faith without the foundation of knowledge. And although it underlines the essence of Yidishkeit [Translator's note: Jewishness, also connoting an emotional connection to all things Jewish], it also allows that awe, the emotional approach to G-d, is more important than only the intellectual concept of Yidishkeit and G-d: Wisdom without awe are like someone who has lost the key to his treasure. And Reb Hanina ben Dosa [first century scholar] in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] characterizes these two concepts in this way: For those for whom awe comes before wisdom, it will endure. However, if his wisdom has the advantage over awe, his wisdom will not endure.
Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, well understood this and built on this foundation. His remarkable system: It is good that you should believe this and also not release your hand from the other, because he who has fear of G-d, comes to an understanding of both. (Koyheles Book of Ecclesiastes] This was perhaps his motto. He also aspired to place Hasidism on a scholarly foundation and called for belief based on Judaism, instead of a blind belief based on emotions. Therefore, Chabad always excelled with intellectual balance.
Schechter, in his interesting although somewhat superficial treatise about Hasidism, deduced that the pure learning of the Baal Shem and of his successor, Reb Ber of Mezherich, degenerated to a cult of tzadikism [Translator's note: belief that a tzadik or righteous man serves as an intermediary between G-d and man], making the tzadik divine. I do not have the opportunity to confirm or to negate his lecture. However, I can confirm one thing, that the degeneration about which he speaks did not affect Chabad. Based firmly on the understanding and information of the Torah balanced with the pure belief and ardor of the founder of Hasidism, it always excelled with two traditions a firm self sacrificing support of Yidishkeit and the ardor of a mission fanatic with which it still excels now. When I visited the Lubavitcher yeshiva in New York, I met young men there who had lived their entire lives in Soviet Russia, yet they retained their faith. In the rest of the world as well--France, South Africa, Australia, Israel--Chabad carries on its Jewish work, capturing souls everywhere. It is their firm determination that the light of Yidishkeit not be extinguished, given that the future of Yidishkeit lies both in knowledge and in belief.
I understand that all Rakishok Jews belong to Chabad.* May their landsmanschaft in South Africa derive satisfaction from these exalted and noble Jews.
*Editor's note: the author's statement here is misleading, perhaps due to the fact that (as far as we know) he was not from Rakishok. While it is true that Rakishok was one of the few towns in Lithuania with a significant Hasidic presence, there were mitnagdim as well, as evidenced by the fact that there were two rabbinates in the town, one Hasidic and one mitnagdim
by B. Stein
(In memory of my father, Moshe Leib, of blessed memory)
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Rakishok was considered one of the larger shtetlekh [towns] in Lithuania. When I left in 1912 traveling to South Africa, it was thought that the population of the town consisted of 600 families. The percentage of non-Jews in the shtetl was very small, so that it had a thoroughly Jewish character. The market day took place every Monday without exception, when the peasants from the surrounding villages would arrive in the shtetl to sell their products and buy various things from the Jewish shops. Early in the morning the large marketplace would be filled with harnessed horses, hitched to the peasant wagons. Jewish merchants, both large and small, would walk around among these wagons and bargain with the peasants for the various agricultural products that they had brought with them.
The shtetl would lose its quiet and dreaminess on these market days and be captivated by the momentum of the market. The entire shtetl was boisterous and boiling like a kettle. At night, when the peasants would leave, the large marketplace emptied and the shtetl again would return to its quiet and serenity.
* * *
As is known, Rakishok was the only shtetl in all of Lithuania that was completely Hasidic. As far as I know, it is not fully known how it happened that Hasidus captivated the entire Jewish population and completely erased any trace of Misnagdes [Orthodox opposition to Hasidus].
The Rakishok Hasidim were divided into three groups based on the rabbis of whom the Hasidim in question were followers. I believe that the largest group consisted of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. The Liadyer Hasidim and the Kapuster Hasidim consisted of much smaller groups. However, the small number of Kapuster Hasidim were the most active and were more typically Hasidic than the others. Of the four houses of prayer in the shtetl, the small shtibl [small synagogue] was under the total influence of the Kapuster Hasidim. There they would study the Tanya* during Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayer] during the week and on Shabbos they repeated Hasidus after the third Shabbos meal. The Hasidim there would drink a little whiskey from time to time, as for example, on Rosh Khodesh [the start of the new month], at a yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] or when a Hasid from a neighboring shtetl visited.
*[Translator's note; the principal book of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic philosophy written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady.]
One such Hasid who I still remember very well was Yankl Skopishker. This was the grandfather of the brothers Zalman, Leibl and Yerakhmial Feldman
and their sister, Ruchl Zaydl. He was a good friend of my father and when he would come to Rakishok he would visit my father. They would sit with a glass of tea and talk about various matters.
Yankl Skopishker would come to pray in the shtibl in the evening and after the evening prayers he would provide whiskey.
A second such Hasid was Shlomo Skopishker. He moved from Skopishok in around 1910 and settled in Rakishok. As he was an avid Hasid and was well versed in Hasidus, he became one of the prominent Hasidim in Rakishok.
Great revelries would take place at times in the shtibl where there would be the feeling of true Hasidic joy.
* * *
A warm relationship to Hasidim and Hasidus was created in me in my young years under the influence of my home in particular and of my shtetl in general. My father, Moshe Leibe the Gemora-melamed [teacher of the Gemora Talmudic commentaries], was an avid and warm Hasid. He would use his free time mainly to study Hasidus. He studied it himself or with several Hasidim who would come to him on the weeknights and my father would teach the book, Tanya, to 10-15 Hasidim in the shtibl. On the Shabbos nights he would repeat Hasidus for a much larger group. It was apparent to everyone that the teaching of Hasidus was not an obligation to him, but a subject of pleasure. It was the same kind of pleasure that people derive from music or from great literary works. He literally lived in the artistic world that through the generations had produced creative artists. What else were the grandiose, fantastic structures built by Hasidus if not artistic creations? I often think that such people as my father were true followers of and benefited from art. For us, the secular, art is a secondary matter, an addition to life; for them, however, their art was the quintessence of life and what we call reality was a secondary matter to them.
* * *
My warm connection to Hasidus was stronger during my later years when I encountered Misnagdim [Orthodox Jews opposed to Hasidus]. The first time was in Dvinsk [Daugavpils] to which I traveled to study after my Bar-Mitzvah. There I sensed in the Misnagdish synagogues and houses of prayer the large difference between Hasidus and Misnagdes. Misnagdish houses of prayer appeared cold and gloomy to me, just like the sad Vhu rachum [ and He, being compassionate ] floating in the air and blowing with cold and sadness. Even the Lekhu-neraneno[Come let us sing] on Friday night resounded cold and lifeless. I strongly longed then for the small shtibl' in my shtetl where a certain amount of mystical religious ecstasy and rapture was sensed even in the weekday prayers. Above all, on Friday night the uplift of Shabbos actually radiated from the Hasidic faces and a warm joyfulness hovered over the shtibl.
I understood at that time that while the Hasidim and Misnagdim believe in the same God and in the same Torah, Hasidus for the Hasidim permeated their very essence and enriched their lives. It became clearer to me in later years. One of the most important things in Hasidus is that one needs to serve God not with fear but with love and that one need be joyful in God's world and [recognize] the possibility that a person can have pleasure from it [God's world] and can make improvements in it. The Hasidic principle of joy did not remain simply a doctrine frozen in the pages of religious books, but penetrated into the heads and hearts of the Hasidim and became the prevailing strength in their personality and character.
The Mishnagdish world was gray and gloomy, not only because of the poverty and difficulties of life, but also because of the doctrine of the Misnagdish books of moral instruction. They all emphasized that man did not have anything to boast about or to take joy in. They emphasized the insignificance of a person's short life on earth and they disdained the pleasures and joys as something to be renounced. Others books warned that one would have to pay in the next world for every bit of pleasure and joy in this world. They learned that a man must turn away from the world and cry and lament at their own insignificance and sinfulness, at the exile of Israel and the exile of the Divine Presence. Their main goal consisted of a complete negation of everything material, a renunciation of their own self. A man needs to remember that he enters the world with nothing and that he leaves the world with nothing.
Much also is said in Hasidus about the elevated state of consciousness and the nullification of selfhood, but both precepts provide another message. True, the person has to remove his materialism in the world, but there are sparks of sanctity and Godliness hidden in the coarse substance of the world. It is the human task to bring out these sparks from potential to manifestation. The person can show it through worship and good deeds, through human fervor and the human mind, which he can bring to the coarse material world. A person is capable of bringing these sparks of sanctity on every step of his way and he can find a rectification for the inwardness of creation, in the Creation of the world, and through this he becomes a partner with God in the creation of the world. This is a very different kind of removing oneself from the world. Here the person removes himself from the world not to distance himself from it, but to join with it and to reveal the sanctity and Godliness that is buried in it. And as a result, the principle of joy enters here because how can one not celebrate when one receives the gift of such privileges to repair the world and to become a partner of the Creator in the creation of the world.
One understands from this that the Hasidic disdain for material reality was completely different from that of the Misnagdish. The latter leads to the denial of one's own self in that the person should completely understand his insignificance and decadence. The Hasidic negation of everything material leads to something completely the opposite. If a person is for himself, with his coarse,
egotistical I, with his more rational animal soul banal and fallen, his soul is however at the same time a part of God above and it is a person's task to make known and reveal the sanctity that is hidden in himself. The individual receives an immense importance here in that through worship and good deeds he can unite with the Divine Essence.
So the dignity that the Hasidic doctrine gives to the person, along with the precept that a person needs to shun sadness and that he needs the opposite, to be full of joy, for his task in the world, this was all mirrored in the Hasidic personalities of our shtetl.
* * *
I will try to provide several pictures of Hasidic life at that time in our shtetl that still remain clear in my mind despite the 40 years that have passed since I left that life. My father, Moshe Leib, must be the central figure of this picture. This is not because as my father he strongly influenced me and through him I absorbed the spirit of Hasidus from early childhood on, but mainly because he truly was the central figure in the Hasidic life of our shtetl, as well as in the area of Hasidic education and in Hasidic society as a whole. He also occupied the central place in Hasidic celebrations and revelries and with a little whiskey he would create an atmosphere of Hasidic excitement and joy among followers of the same rabbi.
Friday Before the Lighting of the Candles
My mother was busy in the kitchen putting food for Shabbos in a warm oven and my father brought the samovar that was already boiling and placed it on the table. Meanwhile he walked through the room and recited Patakh Eliyahu [Eliyahu opened]. This is a chapter of the Zohar that certain Hasidim recite Friday night before the lighting of the candles. His walking back and forth through the room was calm and easy. The light of the spirit poured from his face and he recited the words with pensiveness and restrained spiritual awakening. I, still a young boy, sat still and listened; I, too, became caught up in the enchanted world in which he was engrossed. The magnificence of Friday nights was so strongly etched in my childish imagination and the image in general remains fresh and clear, but also the Patakh Eliyahu still remains in my memory. The passage that speaks about God who encompasses all worlds and permeates all worlds and none can grasp Him made a particularly strong impression on me. I would translate it into Yiddish: God circles all of the worlds and fills all worlds and no one can comprehend Him. However, I did want to understand it and often thought about it. I then had not heard the word pantheism, but I doubt if my later acquaintance with pantheism brought me more clarity in the matter than the above sentence from the Zohar.
* * *
Friday Night in the Shtibl
It was light and joyful in the shtibl. All of the large lamps were lit and all of the faces and eyes were clear and festive. Jews entered with combed beards and peyes [side curls], in black, long, coarse coats with gartlen [a belt signifying the separation of the sacred from the profane] and were welcomed with mystical, religious ecstasy and fervor. As if by miracle, all suddenly were freed from the weekday cares and worries and everyone was enveloped by a shared happiness the luck of possessing a Shabbos.
When the welcoming of Shabbos ended and the evening prayers were done, everyone wished: good Shabbos, good Shabbos, good year! And they left for home.
But several Hasidim remained. While the group recited the evening prayers they [the Hasidim] looked into a religious book; on Friday nights [it was their custom] to recite the evening prayers privately. Avdotya, the [female] water-carrier entered and extinguished the lamps; she only left burning a small lamp that stood on the table where they studied between the afternoon and evening prayers. The lamp cast a weak light over the shtibl. The several Hasidim stood in separate corners in the half darkness. My father stood in one corner, Chaim Elye the shamas [sexton] stood in another and in the third Shimshon Nisen. They prayed quietly and calmly at first. However, little by little the praying became warmer and more ecstatic. Everyone became enraptured in their own way, but all of the melodies flowed together in one melody of yearning. They continued to pray quietly, restrained, but the fire of rapture, of the outpouring of the heart was felt in each voice.
Meanwhile, I sat and listened and I was very irritated that I was still a small boy and could not stand in a corner like the adults and become enraptured along with them.
* * *
Daybreak on Shabbos
The voice of my father, of Chaim Elye the shamas and Shimshon Nisen reached me behind the oven where my bed was located. For years, both summer and winter, the two Hasidim came at daybreak on Shabbos to study Hasidus with my father. Their conversations about various matters while drinking a glass of tea in the other room did not disturb the Shabbos calm that ruled over the house. I woke up completely and as the Hasidus instruction began, I became enraptured by the secrets of the spiritual worlds that my father with his deep, hearty voice divulged to Chaim Elye and Shimshon Nisen. I remember that I was almost a Bar-Mitzvah boy and I still was concerned with foolishness. I decided that I could no longer be like that. From that day on I became a ba'al tshuva [one who repents and becomes more observant]. I fell asleep again, immersed in the magical, mystical world that was created here.
* * *
Shabbos in the Evening
My father felt all through Shabbos that it was good to live in the world. He had great joy from everything from prayer, from studying and from the foods of Shabbos. However, he had the deepest Shabbos pleasure between the afternoon and evening prayers when he recited Hasidus before a group. He was always a man with a stately appearance with the most beautiful beard, with open, intelligent eyes. But the joy of Shabbos lit up his face and shone out from his every gaze when he recited Hasidus after the third Shabbos meal. His voice, deep and hearty, conveyed the spiritual pleasure that he felt to the group. Hasidim stood with open mouths and ears and swallowed his words. It was half-dark in the shtibl. The weak light from the only lamp that had already burned for 24 hours created a shadow on the group around the table. Soon they would start the weekday evening prayer and the workday [world] would again engulf the shtibl and the shtetl. But it was still Shabbos and my father was occupied with the secrets of the higher spiritual world. He told the group about the influence of the Endless Light that always floods all worlds and gives life and strength to all creatures and things. If the Endless Light would be removed for one second, the world would cease to exist. Everything would crumble and disappear into chaos where it had been before the creation of the world.
He strolled with his listeners to the upper worlds and brought them into the Temple of the Souls. He declared that the souls of people are emanations,
revelations from the Endless Light and the task of the souls when they come down to the world below is through prayer and good deeds to redress the imperfections that have fallen into the creative process because of the coarse flesh and to bring to the person the power and unity in the world. The person must rejoice with his missions in the world and, therefore, he must worship with joy and divine love, with devotion and rapture.
Hasidim stood and nodded in agreement. My father, like a singer with a wonderful voice, took them out of their own narrow, enclosed world and brought them into a freer, limitless world. They felt that one was not simply thrown into the world below. They saw clearly that there is present a narrow connection between this world and the higher spiritual world, between every one's soul and the Endless Light. They felt cheerful and warm because of this.
When it became completely dark outside and someone said the weekday [prayer] And He, being compassionate, the weekday hardness wrestled with my father's voice whose juicy tenor still hovered in the air and did not want to allow in the authority of the ordinary.*
*[Translator's note: And He, being compassionate are the first words of a prayer recited on weeknights.]
* * *
The real revelries in the shtibl would take place on Yud-Tes Kislev [the day that the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was released from prison, celebrated as the birth of Hasidism], the fifth [Chanukah] candle and Simkhas Beis Hashoeiva [celebration of water-drawing held during the intermediate days of Sukkos the Feast of Tabernacles].
Approximately 25 to 30 Hasidim remained after the evening prayers. Chaim Elye, the shamas, already had prepared a white tablecloth and he spread it over the table on which they studied between the afternoon and evening prayers. The large lamps were lit and it created a lively mood in the group. My father went from Hasid to Hasid and gathered money for whiskey and food. The richer ones gave up to five or 10 kopikes [pennies] each; the poor ones gave up to two or three kopikes. He gave the money to Chaim Elye. The latter had already that day prepared everything necessary and had hidden it somewhere in the women's synagogue.
Chaim Elye and one of the Hasidim left for a time and came back loaded with packages. They placed small plates on the table and filled them with cookies and sponge cake. Others busied themselves at the faucet with herring. They washed them and sliced off the skin, cutting them in pieces and laying them on small plates and brought them to the table. The table, now covered with the various foods, took on a holiday appearance. Several Hasidim sat on benches that stood on one side of the table near the wall. Others sat further away from the table and the remainder stood around the table.
A Hasid began to speak:
Chaim Elye, I did not know that you are such a skillful person. Look[Page 60]
at what kind of table you have arranged. But something is missing. I do not know what, but something is missing.Chaim Elye acted as if he did not know what.
What could be lacking? Herring enough; cookies and sponge cake enough. Perhaps, roasted ducks?*[Translator's note: tikun is used in Hebrew as a word for brandy. It is more often translated as redress and is used here as a play on words.]
A Hasid said, Look at how he feigns ignorance. There is an opinion, Chaim Elye, that when Hasidim come together there is an uncertainty about whether a blessing is recited without performing the related deed, does one make a blessing over certain foods made of grains, without a blessing over certain foods and drinks, except wine. Look at the glasses that are sitting empty and forlorn. They are looking for tikun [brandy].*
Chaim Elye said, Oh, now I understand. You, of course, mean whiskey. Imagine, I have completely forgotten it.He walked onto the bimah [raised platform in front of the Torah ark in a synagogue], was busy there for a time in a corner and came back to the table with two bottles 75.*
*[Translator's note: 75 is a reference to the alcohol proof of the whiskey. In this case 75 proof.]
Hasidim took small sips [of whiskey] and ate the cookies and herring. It did not take long for the group to become animated and talkative. They joked, they quipped, they provided ingenious ideas and ideas that were related to the mundane conversations of the sages. They had another drop among themselves and another drop.
Shimshon Nisen, as was his habit, was not at the head of the table. He sat on the side. My father suddenly remembered him:
He called out: Where is Shimshon Nisen? And searched for him with his eyes.He stood up, looked around for him and found him sitting at the end of the bench.
Shimshon Nisen was tall with a bent back as well as a bent nose. Sitting or standing, he always kept his head lowered. The main characteristic of his figure was being bent over. It reminded one of a picture of a horse that spent the entire day in harness and at night when it stopped for a time, it still stood in harness with a bent, lowered head. As people passed by, a feeling of sympathy and friendship was awakened; they thought that it was time to remove the harness and for it to rest.
My father went over to Shimshon Nisen.
Why are you sitting on the side, Nisen Shimshon?When they had a little whiskey, Hasidim would reverse the names, so that Shimshon Nisen became Nisen Shimshin.
There is no difference where one sits, answered Shimshon Nisen.[Page 61]
My father called out, ostensibly in anger: Help, what does one do with a Misnagid? He carries the exile of Israel and the exile of the Divine Presence on himself.
He took him by the arm and led him to the table.
Have you made the blessing, Nisen Shimshon?After finishing his drink, my father said to him: Come, Nisen Shimshon, let us dance. He laid a hand on his [Nisen Shimshon's] shoulder and the dance began. My father sang a Hasidic melody. The others joined and sang along. Nakhum Ber's voice stood out from all of the other voices. Nakhum Ber had a very fine voice, beautiful and he would often pray from the lectern, on Shabbos and holidays.
Certainly, of course.
So take another small drink with us, you Misnagid!
My father encouraged Shimshon Nisen: Lift a foot, Nisen Shimshon. That is the way, that is the way. But it did not help. Even dancing, Shimshon Nisen gave the impression of being in harness.
Meanwhile, other Hasidim joined in and almost all took part in the dance. A familiar warmth grew both in the singing and in the dancing. It filled the entire shtibl and embraced the entire group.
Such revelries would often last until late at night.
* * *
The images above were all from Shabbos except for the last image that also was not from a usual weekday. It could be thought that there were no weekdays. In truth, there were weekdays and, mostly, they were difficult and bitter days. People toiled and were busy and did not have enough income. Most of them simply did not have enough income, but our Hasidim in the shtetl lived for Shabbos. The aphorism that the entire world was created only for Shabbos was very suited to them. Hasidim would say: what are the weekdays? All the people were busy providing an income, some through commerce, some through trades, some through teaching. There was no distinction. During the weekdays, the world was a weekday one and life was a weekday one. Like ants, lehavdil [word used to separate the sacred from the profane] everything is a race for a livelihood. Only on Shabbos does a person truly feel that he lives in the world. God gave the person a Shabbos with the additional soul a Jew is said to possess on Shabbos so that at least once a week he would be freed from the gray weekdays.
by I. Batnizky
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
The epoch of Jewish national autonomy in Lithuania during the first years of Lithuanian independence at the beginning of the 1920's was short, but spiritually rich, and it can be remembered as the golden era of Lithuanian Jewry. In the course of this brief era, the small Jewish community in Lithuania showed a strong national energy, and the creative national strength of the Lithuanian Jews grew in all areas of life. The 700-year-old tree of Lithuanian Jewry began to bloom and provide juicy and wonderful fruit. South African Jewry very much benefited from this fruit, because the majority of Jewish immigrants, who arrived in South Africa during the time between the two World Wars, were the product of Lithuanian Jewish national education that was an element of Jewish National Autonomy and still remained when autonomy as such had been abolished.
Jewish Lithuania no longer exists. The short time of autonomy looks like a quickly passing episode after the bloody destruction of Lithuania Jewry. Yet it is important that the era of autonomy not be forgotten because it was a clear demonstration of the great potential strengths of Lithuanian Jewry. This intensifies still more our grief over the decline of the nationally vibrant and productive Lithuanian Jewish community with a spiritually rich history of 700 years behind it.
In the following lines I will present a short overview of the rise and destruction of autonomy, which began with great hopes and expectations and ended with bitter disappointments.
After the German defeat in the First World War, in many areas of the former Russia that had been occupied by the Germans, there arose the so-called border states, such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The concept of Lithuania was introduced, a country in its historical boundaries, that is, including also Vilna and Grodno. In such a country, however, the ethnic Lithuanian element made up a minority. Consequently, the Lithuanian politicians tried to draw the national minorities such as the Jews, Poles and White Russians to their side because only with their cooperation could they create the Lithuanian nation in its historical boundaries. Therefore, they promised extensive national autonomy to the minorities. The Poles refused this because, in general, they opposed any Lithuanian nation. They dreamed of a Greater Poland from sea to sea that would also incorporate Lithuania. The White Russians and Jews stood on the side of the Lithuanians.
The Jewish leaders, who took an active part in the struggle for Lithuanian independence, had a great vision for themselves. The concept of Lithuania in its historical boundaries was identical to the Jewish concept of Lithuania. Such a country would have to be a state of not one nationality but many, and the Jews would be equal partners in the sovereignty of the nation. For the first time in the Jewish history of the last 2,000 years, Jews would become a sovereign nation, as a subject and not an object of the state.
This was the great dream of Dr. Shimshon Rozenboim and the other leaders of Lithuanian Jewry, who stood on the side of the Lithuanians and worked with them for he creation and recognition of the new Lithuanian nation. When further political events did not permit Lithuania to spread out over its historical territory, the Jewish leaders understood that the situation for the Jews would be very different from what they had imagined. However, they fought further for autonomy, but under more difficult conditions, in conditions in which the Lithuanians made up more than 80 percent of the population.
It should be emphasized that the Zionists in all groupings carried the entire load on the autonomy side, from its rise to its downfall. The leftist parties were, in general, oriented towards the Soviet Union and were entirely against the Lithuanian nation. The non-Zionist parties, which were insignificant in number, worked with the Zionists. The heart of Jewish Orthodoxy was full of suspicion and fear for the worldliness of the institutions of autonomy and, therefore, was an uncertain partner of the Zionists in the struggle for autonomy.
Then, when Vilna was occupied by the Bolsheviks, and afterward by the Poles, the Lithuanian government moved to Kovno. It was proposed on the part of the government that the Jews and White Russians take positions in the national government. After deliberations, the Jews decided to occupy the post of Minister for Jewish Matters. The Zionists, at first, held that a minister would have to bear the responsibility for the work of the entire cabinet and would also have to change with every cabinet change. Therefore, they made a proposal of a State Secretary for Jewish Matters, who would carry the responsibility only for his work and would not be subject to any cabinet changes. However, in short, the Lithuanian government insisted on a minister, and this had to be accepted. Dr. M. Soloveitchik entered the government as Minister without Portfolio for Jewish Matters, on the 2nd of June, 1919.
Autonomy took on a public form with the creation of a Jewish Ministry. Thanks to the Jewish Ministry, the democratic kehilus [organized Jewish communities] then arose. In the beginning all of the Jewish parties participated in the communities. The left, and among them Poalei-Zion, later seceded from the kehilus. The left was not represented at the first kehilus convention that was called by the Jewish Ministry on the 5th of January, 1920.
A fight between the Zionists and organized Orthodoxy about the substance of autonomy flared up at this convention, with the question being whether it needed to be worldly and nationalist, or religious. In order to prevent the Orthodox from leaving the convention, a compromise was passed and the question about the essence of autonomy was removed from the agenda. A coalition was created of the Zionists and the Orthodox. On the question of the school system it was decided the autonomous administration would not interfere with the program of schools and the freedom of the three existing school movements (Tarbus, Yavneh and Culture League) was recognized. A Jewish National Council was elected at the convention that was the highest democratic organ of organized Lithuanian Jewry.
The political achievements from the rise of the Jewish ministry to the election of the national council were as follows:
1) The insurance for Jews of the widest autonomy through the Lithuanian peace delegation in Paris in August 1919. The was supposed to be the Magna Carta of autonomy, and;After the election of the national council, broad, varied activities began in every area of Jewish life. Democratic kehilus were organized; a wide network of Hebrew and Yiddish public schools and gymnazies [secondary schools] were created; the People's Banks and associations arose that were the economic nerve of the Jewish population. This era was the brightest and most hopeful. Lithuanian Jewry was seen then in its fullest splendor. An ebullient and pulsating Jewish life was sensed everywhere. All of the Jewish students studied in national Jewish schools. At that time, Lithuania was Eretz-Yisroel [Palestine] in miniature.
2) The law of the 10th of January, 1920, concerning the kehilus, that they have the right to institute a compulsory tax on members.
After the second kehilus conference that took place on the 14th of February, 1922, in which the leftist parties also took part, a crisis was sensed that was both external and internal. Externally, in the non-Jewish neighborhoods, reactionary sentiments were victorious. It is true that according to the Constitution, the Jewish Seim deputies controlled the carrying out of two principles concerning the rights of the national minorities: one principle assured the right of the national minorities to administer their national matters and a principle that the national minorities had the right to tax their members, as well as the right to receive a portion of the government budget for their cultural institutions. However, the Christian democratic majority in the Seim did not permit the passage of any laws that would legally strengthen the organs of Jewish autonomy. The mandate of the largest number of deputies of the national minorities was declared void through legal tricks. A. Frydman, whose only purpose was to disrupt everything that was created, was chosen as Minister of Jewish Matters against the will of the Jewish representatives.
Internally, the Orthodox began to sabotage and undermine the institutions of autonomy, arguing that they could not help to build up worldly organs of autonomy. The Orthodox members seceded from the national council and did not take part in the national meeting that was called on the 20th December, 1923, and was elected through general and direct voting.
The newly elected Seim, in which the national minority scored a great victory winning 14 delegates, restrained its reactionary character. The attack on the Jewish autonomy on the part of the dominating power was abandoned for a short time. Dr. Sh. Rozenboim was designated as the Minister for Jewish Matters. This was a political maneuver because of the then difficult external situation for Lithuania. The Memel question was then being dealt with in the felker-bund [People's Socialist Labor Party] and at that moment no one wanted to disturb relations with the Jews. However, the earlier crisis over autonomy continued.
On the 20th of November, 1923, a Jewish national meeting was called in which the leftist groups took part, but not the Orthodox. The national meeting was the first and, unfortunately, also the last in Lithuania. After the national meeting, a continuous liquidation of autonomy began. The Seim rejected the budget for the Jewish Ministry and then the post of Jewish Minister, itself. A decree was issued that forbade writing in the languahes of the national minorities. Litigation was carried out against Dr. Sh. Rozenboim as to why he still called himself the Jewish Minister. The National Council was dissolved. A law was passed about compulsory rest on Sundays along with a law that did away with the existing democratic Jewish kehilus.
In 1926, when the Lithuanian progressive democracy scored a victory in the elections to the Lithuanian Seim and formed the leftist government of National and Social Democrats, hope was revived that autonomy would be renewed. However, the government did not last long.
Thus ended the historic experiment of fulfilling national-personal autonomy in Lithuania. After the destruction of autonomy, Lithuania rolled downhill toward the anti-Semitic abyss and, under the leadership of Hitler's beasts, the Germans and the Lithuanians annihilated the entire Jewish population.
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