In the Era of Chovevei Zion
(From the 1890s until the 7th Zionist Congress)
by Sh. Menachem
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Slutsk was far from the centers of Haskalah. Hebrew newspapers were hard to find there. In a city with a population of 15,000 Jews, which was the vast majority of the general population, only a few people received copies of Hamelitzand Hatzefirah. Pretty much the only Chovevei Zion activist in town was Reb Pesach Karon (the teacher Pesach Ezras). He would place charity plates for the settlement of the Land of Israel, sponsored by the Odessa committee, in the synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur. A special article, the fruit of the pen of the native of our city, the writer Y. D. Berkovitz, is dedicated to this dear Jew.
The Feinberg family was also numbered among the supporters of Chovevei Zion [literally: Lovers of Zion] in Slutsk. One of the children of that family was sent to study in Mikve Yisrael. Characteristic of the scoffers of Slutsk, when he returned from the Land of Israel to Slutsk, his acquaintances gave him the nickname of Moshe Terk 1. His photograph appears in our book among the members of the committee of the Bonei Zion [literally: Builders of Zion] group.
The echoes of the First Congress 2 reached Slutsk, and a Zionist group was set up in the city by the name of Bonei Zion, which was headed by the physician Dr. Melzer, who at the time was living in Slutsk. The members who appear in the photo that was taken in the year 5662 (1902) joined him. These were the Zionist activists of Slutsk, whose sole motive was the distribution of shekels 3, and the selling of the stamps of the Jewish National Fund and shares of the Colonial Bank. They would meet in the shtibel of the synagogue (The Oposhker Shul).
The Zionists in general were an isolated stream in a traditional city that strongly opposed any Zionist activity. On the other hand, members of the intelligentsia were also opposed. These included those who read Russian literature and newspapers, such as the teachers of the public school (Yereskoye Uchleyushchle) 4. From among these, the teacher Yellin should be remembered positively, for he secretly maintained a close connection to Zionist circles.
Sitting, from right to left: 1) Zevin, 2 3) Eizik Ratner, 4) Dr. Meltzer, 5) Shmaryahu Beilin, 6) the lawyer Ratner, 7) Sheikovitz, 8)
Standing: 1) Avraham the son of Kadish-Dov (Ber) Epstein, the teacher and scribe, 2) Leib Ladovski, 3) Dr. Zonin, 4) Moshe Vatner, 5) 6) Hillel Dobrow, 7) Avraham the son of Moshe Yechiel Epstein, 8) Freiberg
Those who were afflicted by the plague of assimilation included the rabbis of the Shapira Veshman stream, and also the well-known Dr. Schildkraut. At that time, the first sparks of the S. D. and Bund began to appear and spread. This will be described in detail in the article by Moshe Tulman.
In the year 5660 (1900), the Zionist winds blew across the young intelligentsia who were enthralled by modern Hebrew literature. This group was headed by Hillel Dobrow, who in his time was a student at the Beis Midrash, and later acquired general secular knowledge and the knowledge of the Hebrew language in particular. The committee of Bonei Zion took no interest at all in the issues of Hebrew culture, the spreading of the Hebrew language, and questions of modern, nationalistic education. The young people founded the Kadima [literally: forward] group, which was headed by Hillel Dobrow.
Another young lad, an excellent orator who was blessed with many other talents as well, became very active in this group. This was none other than Aharon Singelovski, who later on became known as a national activist with a worldwide scope, the chairman of the world ORT organization. In Slutsk, he would appear at publicity gatherings for Zionism, and he was also active in the Hebrew speaking circles.
The group of young people headed by Hillel Dobrow revolted against the Bonei Zion committee. From among these, the following stood out: Avraham Epstein (Abba Aricha) 5, Meir Wachsman, Y.D. Berkovitz, Avraham Epstein the second, Yehuda Leib Dadovski, Avraham Mirsky, the carpenter Yosef Mechanik, and others. Through the efforts of Hillel Dobrow and with the participation of the young Y.D. Berkovitz and their friends, the Zionist hall Chanaya 4 (house of wheat) was established. This building contained a reading room for Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian newspapers. Next to it was the first public library in Slutsk. At the time of the founding of the Zionist library, there was not one book in Hebrew, Yiddish or Russian available for borrowing. These institutions were established and developed thanks to the activities of the members of Kadima. The lawyer M. Karpman joined it, and devoted himself with dedication to all Zionist and cultural activities.
No representative of the Bonei Zion group was chosen as a representative to the all-Russian convention that took place in Minsk in the year 5662 (1902). Instead, the lawyer Karpman was chosen, who represented the entire Zionist movement of Slutsk. From among the important activities of the Kadima group, we should especially point out the Dovrei Ivrit [Hebrew Speakers] group, whose members gathered weekly in order to converse and lecture in the Hebrew language on current events and on literary and educational issues. Not only members of Kadima joined this group, but also members of other circles in the city, people who loved Hebrew and its literature, including many young people. From among the young women, we should point out those who appear in the photograph of the supporters of Hebrew students: Stusia Eila, Chania Ratner, Batya Schorr, and lta Blumstein.
Courses were also set up there evening courses to teach Hebrew and general knowledge to the students of the elementary Yeshivas. Hillel Dobrow interceded with the Yeshiva heads, who recalled his youth in a positive fashion (as a former genius) and permitted the students to attend these lessons. At first, the Hebrew teachers taught without receiving any compensation. As the enterprise grew larger, and it became necessary to rent premises and to invite teachers, a committee was founded that concerned itself with the support of this institution by donations from friends, arranging parties, and other such means. From among the Russian teachers, we remember positively Yosef Goldberg who died in Tel Aviv, and Moshe Katznelson who perished in the Holocaust.
After the pogrom of Kishinev 6 independent defense was organized through the efforts of the young Zionists. People joined from all segments of the Jewish community, including the Bund circles. When the first Zionist activists, Dobrow, Avraham Epstein, Y.D. Berkovitz, Yehuda Leib Sadovski and others left Slutsk, their friends in the movement took their place. During those years, a Poale Zion group was organized. It was founded by Yitzchak Berger of Minsk (Minsker Tolk). There was also an extremist stream among the general Zionists in Slutsk, known as Hatechiya. Both sides of Shusanya Street were occupied on Sabbath and festival evenings by members of the proletariat factions: Poale Zion on one side and Bund on the other side. They would often participate in joint meetings, which dealt with nationalistic and socialist issues. On occasion, these meetings ended with quarrels and blows.
When the left wing Zionist movements, such as S. S. and Poale Zion, grew, strikes of the workers in the small workshops of the city and of the officials of the shops were organized. They competed with Bund. In 1905, prior to the seventh Congress, there was a heavy battle within the Zionist organization, between the general Zionists on one side and Hatechiya and Poale Zion on the other side. Secret information reached Slutsk that on May 5 th of that year, the regional committee would meet secretly in Minsk, headed by the regional delegate, the well-known Shimshon Rosenbaum.
The battle regarding the elections in Slutsk was fierce. The candidates were: the lawyer Karpman from the general Zionists and Sh. Nachmanovitch from the left wing factions. The left wing was victorious. Issues were raised regarding nationalism and socialism, territorialism and Zionism, and Zionism in the national realm. Ber Borochov 7 of blessed memory also participated in this convention. Sh. Nachmanovitch returned from the convention, and a large crowd from all the Zionist factions came to hear his accounting. The lawyer Karpman was among them.
When organizational questions arose in the Congress, and the Zionists divided into yea sayers and nay sayers, a territorialist faction arose in Slutsk as well and attracted many of the general Zionist circles to itself. Testimony to this is provided in the writings of the writer Y.D. Berkovitz, who was 17 years old at the time and living in Lodz. (See the exchange of letters regarding Zionism and the Hebrew Speakers.)
After the Russian revolution of 1905-1906 was crushed, the government banned the Zionist movement. The young activists spread in all directions. The social groups went underground, including the Zionist movement. The Zionist hall (Tzania) was closed. The library that was founded by the Zionists continued in existence, and brought rays of light into the communal apathy that prevailed in the city. A large portion of the youth strove for the life of this world, spent time in the various conditoriums, and were attracted to an empty life that lacked real content. Even the Russian literature of that era, symbolized by Asher Sanin the hero of the writer Archivshev, tended to that direction. A frivolous group, known as Trumpatel, was known in Slutsk.
The Cheder Hametukan 8 continued to exist and flourish under the direction of Chazanovitch and his friends. There were also numerous Hebrew newspapers that were distributed by the booksellers Reiser, Robnitch and others. The Zionist embers crackled in secrecy until they found their place in the Tzeirei Zion movement. With the silencing of the secular nationalistic movement in that era due to government edicts and ideological decline, the institutions of Torah and the Yeshivas rose in stature, and continued their activities with greater strength.
by Hillel Dorbow
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Translated by Jerrold Landau
28th of Shvat, the year 1834 of our exile9, Yekatrinoslav.
To the members of the Hebrew Speakers circle of Slutsk. Shalom!
In response to your letter, we express our feelings of joy to you, for the proclamation that we published in the newspapers was not a proclamation in the desert, but indeed, it met attentive ears. The letters that we receive from the various organizations in all cities bring joy to our hearts, for the idea of the revival of our national language as a spoken language has found adherents throughout the entire Diaspora, in all remote cities and dark corners. The nationalistic and educational value of this movement is very honorable, and its influence in spreading our language and literature is so great and strong, as can be shown by the frequent letters that we receive from the various organizations. Pretty much every group, aside from the great effort directed toward the main goal spreading the language, surrounds itself with many other activities and actions that have a direct or indirect relationship to our language. The arranging of Hebrew festivals and literary celebrations, the founding of groups for the study of the language, the regular readings, the speaking and conducting of debates all of these are honorable deeds, of which it is difficult to estimate from the outset the extent of their influence in the development of our language and literature. If we indeed succeed through Kol Koreh [The Voice of the Proclamation] to give a small push in that direction, if indeed we succeed in instilling a bit of light and hope to the life of the organizations this is a great thing for us! We can view ourselves as fortunate for we fulfilled our objective.
With respect to your organization Dovrei Ivrit [Hebrew Speakers] in Slutsk, we see that you have done a great deal for the benefit of our idea, by means of your rich and variegated activities. Things such of this are indeed invaluable, and the more one engages in this, the more praiseworthy it is. Nevertheless, everything depends on the time and the place, and in accordance with your capabilities and the conditions of your small city, you have done great things and we hereby say to you: well done!
We willingly give answers to all of your questions. The status of our organization in general is not too bad. There are cases where members drop out; however on the other hand new members come to almost every meeting. The number of regular members is not less than thirty, plus or minus a small amount. There are always a significant number of guests, sometimes up to twenty people. The content of our meetings is as follows: a) an investigation into current events that affect the larger or smaller communities in Israel, from the newspapers; b) some interesting, nice item of literature or publicity; c) a lecture from one of the members on a current topic. Relating to this content, our meetings are divided into three parts. In the first part, after the reading of the minutes of the last meeting, we discuss the news, or one of the members speaks on the weekly chronicles. A recess follows. The recess is of great benefit to those of our members who are not willing or able to speak publicly, for during the recess, private conversations occur that do not require special skill. After the recess, one of the members reads some story, article, or other such item. The debates take place during the third portion10. If the truth be told, our group excels greatly in this area. The members deal with each question seriously and sincerely. With the readings, we touch upon various questions, of a personal, nationalistic, traditional, or esthetic nature. Each question is debated in depth, until the issue is well clarified. The debates are conducted in the finest possible manner nobody interrupts his fellow, in accordance with the custom of Jewish people. Our meetings obviously leave a pleasant impression.
We will now move from the external qualities of our group to the internal, fundamental qualities. In order for us to present to you some idea of the essence of our group and its fundamental aspirations, we will transcribe a few minutes from the ledgers of our group:
- The purpose of the Safa Chaya [Living Language] group is to broaden the knowledge of our language as a living, spoken language, and to expand the knowledge of our literature (Chapter a, paragraph b).
- The means the organization attempts to find teachers for those who express an interest in learning our language The organization maintains relations with all of the other organizations of Hebrew speakers. (Chapter b, d, e).
- Any male or female above the age of 18 who agrees with the charter of the organization is eligible to be a member of the group
New members are accepted upon the recommendation of two members after they attend a meeting no less than two times. (Chapter c, paragraph b).
- Every man or woman has the right to attend meetings and to take part in the debates. (Chapter f, paragraph a).
- The organization chooses a director, secretary and treasurer for a term of a half a year (Chapter e, paragraph a).
Slutsk, Minsk region (Russia)
23rd of Av, the year 1835 of our exile
To the general meeting of Hebrew Speakers in Basle Shalom!
Members of the Dovrei Ivrit [Hebrew Speakers] organization realize the great value of the founding of a central organization that will unite all of the organizations that are busy with the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken and written language; but to our great anguish, we cannot send a delegate to the meeting in Basle. Therefore, we hereby desire:
- That the meeting registers our organization among the groups that are joining the central organization.
- To give a small idea of our group and its work.
- To express our opinion on various issues relating to the revival of the language. Our group has existed for two years already. Its purpose is to disseminate among the members of our city the speaking of Hebrew, and the Hebrew language as a living and spoken language. The number of members is now 30 (26 men and 4 women).
Activities of the Organization
- Meetings take place one a week. The meetings deal with: 1) Current events that deal with general or specifics of life in Israel. 2) Lectures by members on issues of Zionism, literature, and publicity. 3) Lectures on specific period of the history of our people.
- The setting up of groups for the study of the language. More than 40 poor boys and girls study the Hebrew language in groups that were founded by our organization.
- The planning of Hebrew literary celebration.
The Influence of the Organization
- Members of the organization influence the students of the elementary Yeshivas to speak Hebrew among themselves.
- Hebrew conversation can always be heard in the Zionist institutions, such as the library and the coffeehouse.
- Members present speeches in Hebrew at all of the Zionist celebrations and festivals.
- The literary celebrations that were arranged by the organization have had a great influence in the speaking of Hebrew, and ignited the hearts of hundreds of people.
Possibility of the Renaissance of the Language
The experience that we obtained in our dark corner over two years permits us to hope that the renaissance of the language is within the realm of possibility. The gathering should pay attention to the following, which are among the most urgent and effective means: a) to obligate the members to speak Hebrew during all of their activities in life. b) To attract women and girls to the groups, or to establish special groups for them, so that the mothers will rear the next generation in Hebrew.
In conclusion, we give our blessings to the first general convention of Hebrew speakers, that it should succeed in its activities to actualize the founding of a central organization for its fruitful deeds and activities.
With blessings of Zion.
A portion of the letter of E. Epstein to Dobrow, from Yekatrinoslav, March 13, the summer of 5664 (1904).
My brother Dobrow!
Mr. Zirkel, who will bring you the letter, is a native of Slutsk, and lived here in Yekatrinoslav for two years. During this time, he participated in local Zionist activity, and became an active member of the local branch of Poale Zion. I do not know whether or not there is such an organization in our town, thanks to your trait of putting your hand to your mouth and being quiet. However, A. Mirsky, in his last letter from Slutsk, hinted to me that there is an organization of that sort in Slutsk; if you take part in it, you can sign up Mr. Zirkel to it, and he will assist you in no small measure, for he has experience in this matter. However things turn out, try to draw him near to you and to the local Zionists.
In conclusion, we give our blessings to the first general convention of Hebrew speakers, that it should succeed in its activities to actualize the founding of a central organization for its fruitful deeds and activities.11
With blessings of Zion.
My brother and friend!
I received your letter today, after I had already sealed my letter to you and was ready to send it to the post office. You yourselves can imagine how happy I was to receive it. I read it over and over, and each successive time I had more and more pleasure.
Berkovitz stole my heart with his soft, warm words, and turned my anger to love. There is enchantment on your lips, Berkovitz, and I always read your words with great pleasure.
I am very happy with all the news that you informed me of. I see that there is life, movement, work, and action in our camp. I am particularly happy that your small organization was founded under the supervision of Yellin. Apparently from your letter, Dovrei Ivrit is growing and sprouting. I have also become a member of the Safa Chaya [Living Language] organization, and I am now one of the most faithful and significant members. A great future is awaiting me here, for the chairman registered my name in the list of candidates for the position of secretary. (Incidentally: why do you not come in contact with the Safa Chaya organization here, as I have already written you a few times!) Next week, at the meeting of Safa Chaya, I will relate before all the members all of the news and activities and discreet deeds that have taken place in our city Slutsk concerning the Hakol Kaasher Lakol [Everything For Everyone] festivities and warm celebration. The teacher Belkind from the Land of Israel, one of the first Chalutzim [Zionist pioneers] now lives in Yekatrinoslav. On Wednesday, he lectured at our Safa Chaya group on the topic of an agricultural school that is to say, not for agronomists, but rather for simple Hebrew farmers that he intends to found in the Land of Israel. Of course, he spoke in Hebrew. Our language lives on his lips in the full sense of the word, but he uses the Sephardic pronunciation. According to him, this is the pronunciation that is prevalent in all of the Moshavim [settlements] in the land of Israel. Nevertheless, it is very easy to understand.
Photocopy of the Hatzair newspaper. The title and header information is
Hatzair, a newspaper of Hebrew literature and life issues, published by the 'Dovrei Ivrit' organization, edited by A. Aran. [note, the word Epstein is superimposed in script.
9th of Tishrei
Price: 2 rubles annually; 1 ruble every six months; 50 kopecks for a quarter of a year; 4 kopecks per issue.
Published in Slutsk once a week. Number 1, First year.
The proceeds of this newspaper are dedicated to the national Zionist library of Slutsk.
A table of contents and the first article follow. They are in Hebrew script as opposed to printed Hebrew, and the photocopy is not completely clear. It is not translated here.
The caption below the photocopy is as follows:
The chief editor (the author of the first articles) was Avraham Epstein (who was about 25 years old).
The editor, director, advertising chief, and copyist was Y.D. Berkovitz (16 years old, close to his 17 th year).
Meir Wachsman, the author of the article for Rosh Hashanah12, was 19 years old. His article was edited (primarily shortened, due to its excessive length) by 'chief editor.'
Only one copy was produced of this first issue. It was available for reading by the patrons of the 'Zionist Library' in Slutsk (which itself was founded by the group that dealt with the newspaper).
Two more issues appeared. Dozens of copies of them were printed, but all were condemned to be burned out of fear of the Slutsk police13, who threatened with a search the mistress of the home in which the printing of this newspaper took place during the nights. (The teacher Hillel Dobrow lived in that house, and his apartment turned into the printing house for the newspaper.)
* * *
Regarding the reading house, I find it correct to advise you to sign off for other newspapers and journals. Many people will jump upon these newspapers, and I am certain that the income that they will bring in will exceed the expenditure. In general, I find that there is no life in our library, and it stands upon the point of darkness. Dobrow has a certain natural inclination to purchase old books, rags Heaven forbid. Do we really have a Hebrew library in the full sense of the term? I am very doubtful. It is necessary to use whatever means are available to purchase the missing books, and to collect them together so that we will have a full collection. It is necessary to place a ledger in the library, so that people can list the books that they wish the library to obtain. It is necessary to subscribe to some sort of Russian periodical such as Znania, and then we will receive some respite.
I will immediately send you a letter and an article when I receive Hatzair.
Mirsky has not come to me for about one week. I cannot wait until he comes and writes as well I am waiting for a letter.
Peace be with you. We will see each other again.
Your brother Avraham
A letter of Y. D. Berkovitz to the Dovrei Ivrit organization of Slutsk.
Lodz, 10 Elul, the year 1835 of our exile (1904).
My brothers Hillel, Leib and Avraham!14
I am not writing this letter in your honor or in honor of your deeds, for you are not worthy of this at all. When the screen was lifted. I was dumbfounded and astonished to find out what was revealed before my eyes from those things that took place behind the screen, and inside the walls. However, I stood and stood, my feet swelled from all the standing and I was not able to see anything, therefore I decided not to rely on false promises, and that I must completely abandon any thoughts of brotherhood from hypocritical brothers. I am not writing you this letter to reawaken forgotten brotherhood, and to reestablish it in its original form, but rather since we are ideological brothers, and the innovations that were made in that common ideology have inspired me to write what I am about to write. These innovations had so great an effect on me that I cannot restrain myself from speaking about them to anyone. Here in Lodz, I was not able to find such ideological brethren, whose outlook and ideas regarding the national movement are as clear to me as yours. With my Zionist acquaintances here, I can only skirt around the issue but not touch it; and this causes me much suffering, plagues me with doubts and drains the vigor from my brain. Yes, my brothers! The Sixth Zionist Congress caused me to write you this letter.
Palestine and East Africa15. This news, that came to me recently, did not have the impact upon me that it should have had upon every Zionist Jew. It was so sudden and poorly defined, that I did not know how to relate to it. It seems to me in retrospect that this suggestion was not important at all, and that it was said solely for the purpose of uttering words. However now, when this idea is being further defined, it sticks in my mind from day to day, and I feel some shame, some injury to the honor of our nationalistic feelings. What is this that G-d has done to us? Should the epitome of our ideal, the sum of our national aspirations should be some country in East Africa, to which at this point we do not even know, and we have never set foot upon it for there is no connection between us and it? Do you hear? No connection! Not a connection of having lived there for hundreds of years, and not a connection of a long hopes and expectation in the hearts that beat and the eyes that wasted away for 2,000 years. Not a connection of longing and early memories, not a soul and not a spirit Should we exchange our land, the Land of Israel, for a land that we do not know and that our fathers have not known until this day? It has no past and no future, but rather only a present; there, there is no permanent dwelling, no safe sanctuary for the generations for a washed out and anguished nation, but rather only a temporary inn, a night camp. My brothers! How much bitterness and mockery is awaiting in these matters! Did we dedicate our souls up to this time for such an inn, is this what we were waiting for from the day that we went out into exile, is this our hope that has up to now not been lost?16
I understand, my brothers, very well the psychology of the Russian delegates, whose Jewish nationalism takes precedence over their Jewish state. When I read in the papers that many of them wept when the suggestion was accepted, my heart also wept inside of me. Instead of singing it has up to now not been lost, I wanted to lament: surely the people are grass 17. grass is the nation, who no longer have the power to endure and wait more than seven years. Grass is the people whose patience is wearing thin, whose powers are weakening, and whose despair is growing. When night arrives, it feels itself as tired, and has no energy to continue onward. It falls down in the midst of the journey to take a rest in any place, without looking around to see if this rest is a complete rest, an eternal rest, for the pained and afflicted soul.
Indeed, grass is the people
Nevertheless, from the midst of the cloud of bitterness and agony, from the shame and heartache, the voice of our people rises up:
We will not go to Africa!
The bent nation has awakened, they have shaken off and straightened up, and knows its protest we no longer believe in the mercies of G-d, as our fathers believed. Many of our holy fathers, who up to this point have been the mainstay of Judaism, were turned into profane things in our mindset, however the ring that still surrounds them all remains with us, and is the source of our Jewish soul and you come and wish to take this too from us? We will not give
I do not know if all of the people accepted the African recommendation with joy, but I know clearly that the opposing spirit that pervaded among the Russian delegates was a joyous and heartwarming sign for all of our good Zionists in the lands of the east. Our task after the Sixth Congress must be enriched, deepened and broadened into different facets. Our work among ourselves must strengthen, and through it our nationalist work must be in the direction of the opposing spirit. That is my view now, at the time of the storms of the spirits and the battles of wits, that is to say: now, at the time that everything is still theoretical. What will be later I do not know. I feel now, that beneath the multitude of thoughts that are storming inside of me, beneath the waiting in fear and trembling for the realization of the Sixth Congress beneath all of this I feel myself abandoned and cheated What is your opinion, my brothers, with regard to this? I wanted very much that you should all write me about this. I request that you write me how Slutsk received this news, and what is the situation in general with regard to this. Was a delegate sent from our organization, and did Dovrei Ivrit and Ivriya answer the proclamation? Did not the coffeehouse and the library encounter obstacles after the circular appeared from the minister of the interior? In general, demonstrate to me for the first time since I left you that you still are alive and toiling.
Here in Lodz I am no longer part of the Zionist organization, but I rather stand near to it. The reason for this is that I lived outside of the city during the summer, and I was not able to take any part in Zionist activities. I do not know what will be in the upcoming winter. At the present, I am attempting along with a few other Zionists, to found here an organization for speaking of Hebrew and for Hebrew literature. We will know in time if our dream becomes reality. Not all of the Zionists gave their hands to this cause, for if they did we would have been able to found a Hebrew club, in accordance with Epstein's advice. I do not know anymore whether I am a resident of Lodz. It could be that one clear morning I will lift up my wings and fly Please write to me what Epstein from Yekatrinoslav has written you, for I have not received a letter from him in a long time.
I am making haste to end this letter with a request that you gird your loins and answer this letter immediately. If you are stubborn this time and do not answer me then woe, woe to you!
With blessings of Zion,
Your brother Yitzchak Dov
Please send regards to Meir Wachsman. This letter is also intended for him. Please request that he write me
1) Berl Sinigovski, 2) Chana Soloveitchik-Cohen, 3) Shalom Shpilkin, 4) , 5) Eliahu Altman, 6) Dov Tiroshkin, 7) Shachnovits, 8, 9) 10) Bela Katznelson-Kikaon, 11) Musia Harkavi-Katznelson, 12) Binyamin Katznelson, 13) Klibanski, 14) Chaim Berlas, 15) Yitzchak Levinstein, 16) Ruth Mirsky-Goldin, 17) Pesach Litvak, 18) M. Hershberg, 19) 20) Tzipora Lachover Berlas, 21) Yosef Dinstman, 22) Miriam Dankigenbaum, 23) Tzvi Grinfeld, 24) Sadeh, 25) Rubinchik, 26) Mrs. Rosenzweig, 27) Shifman, 28) Aryeh Ben Moshe Shapira, 29) Chana Fieirstein-Handel, 30) Dina Kaplan-Kopilov, 31) Sarah Tadik, 38) Sarah Smiatichki-Winson, 39) Zahava (Golda) Berger-Stern, 40) Esther Halpern Schneerson, 41) Goz, 42) Fania Stambolchik, 43) Yoel Berg, 44) 45) Guberman, 46) Moshe Fogel.18
by Dr. Meyer Waxman
Translated by Sara Mages
Translated by Sara Mages
It is difficult for a man who left his hometown fifty-five years ago, which constitute a period of changes in the circle of life of humanity, the life of our nation and this person's private life - to uproot himself from the present, go back and review the days of his youth in a quiet city like Slutsk that nestles in a far corner in White Russia. However, there are moments when, unintentionally and without thinking, images of this life rise from the depths of my soul and memory and evoke longings for days gone by and a world that has passed and will never return. I want to list some of these images as a tombstone for the city and its life during the last eight years that I spent there, years that rode on two centuries, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Slutsk, although the number of Jews, who lived there, did not excel in quantity, its community occupied an important place in the life of the Jews in Poland and Russia. Already at the beginning of the 18th century it was added as a fifth member of Va'ad Medinot Lita [Lithuanian Council], which oversaw the social and cultural life of the country's Jews. The importance of this community came from the dedication of its members to the study of the Torah and its sages who have earned a reputation in the Jewish world. The community administrators have always endeavored to elect great scholars as community rabbis. From among those who served in this position during the first seventy years of the 19th century were: HaRav R' Yosef Peimer [Yossele Slutsker] a student of R' Chaim of Vałožyn, and R' Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, the son of R' Chaim's grandson who participated for some time in the management of the Great Yeshiva.
Slutsk was known for its opposition to the Hassidut. I still remember the saying that was spoken by many in those days - if a small Hasidic synagogue would be founded in Slutsk, even just for a minyan of men, then, the Messiah will come. I do not know if this saying came from those who were drawn to the Hassidut, who intended to say that such a minyan would hasten the coming of the Messiah, or vice versa, from the opponents, that this miracle can only happen in the days of the Messiah, but whatever it may be, it indicates that the Hassidut did not occupy a place in the life of the community. And because of this lack of fanaticism, the Haskalah Movement penetrated it at the beginning of its spreading. Even Yisrael, the son of HaRav Peimer, was captured by it. He moved to Germany, changed his name to Behmer, and earned a reputation among the scholars of Jewish wisdom by writing several important books in Hebrew. He returned to Slutsk and died there in 1860.
Therefore, these two faces stood out in the life of the community during my youth. In the 1890s, there were many small yeshivot where most of the homeowners' sons were educated. A large number of them gained a deep and wide knowledge of the Talmud and many entered the famous yeshivot: Vałožyn, Mir and Slabodka.
Some of them also served as rabbis and held important positions in Jewish cities. A small number even reached the virtue of great Torah scholars like: HaRav R' Baruch Ber Leibowitz, who became famous in the 1920s as head of Slabodka Yeshiva and later founded a large yeshiva in the city of Kamenitz D'Lita. Some of Slutsk's scholars served as rabbis in important cities in the United States.
I remember, when I was a little boy it was announced in the Shulhoif (a square that was entirely surrounded by synagogues), that after the 15th of Av, when the nights begin to lengthen, the sound of the Torah will be heard in the synagogues. On these nights my friends and I visited the synagogues, the Great Beit Midrash, the Kloyz and also the Tailors' Synagogue, to enjoy the great light that came out from them and the melodies the yeshiva students sang during their studies.
The rabbi of Slutsk in those days, R' Yaakov Dovid [Wilovsky - known by the acronym Ridvaz], author of The Ridbaz Commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, was not satisfied with the local yeshivot and made efforts, and also succeeded, in moving part of Slabodka Yeshiva to Slutsk with its Rosh Yeshiva [dean], HaRav R' Isser Zalman Meltzer. In this way, one of the largest and famous yeshivot in Russia existed in this city.
However, on the other hand, there has also been an increase in the pursuit of continuing education in secular studies to acquire a scientific profession such as medicine, or just a university education.
Since the entrance to the gymnasium for Jews in this city was limited to a small percentage, and only the children of the rich were able to squeeze in there, what did the children of middle-class, or the children of the poor, do? They used the privilege given to them to prepare privately and take the final exams in the gymnasium.And so grew the number of yeshiva graduates, who reached the age of maturity, and devoted their time to these studies. They were also joined by the girls who hoped to enter university and study to become a pharmacist, a dentist, or a certified midwife. Not many days passed and groups of such students, boys and girls, formed the intelligentsia of Jewish youth. Their number increased by the arrival of young men and women from the surrounding towns. They even flocked from the villages to the district city to attend a continuing education program.
This strong desire to expand their knowledge in secular studies did not take the place of the spirit of Hebrew and national education which found its place in Slutsk in these years. Many young people acquired the love for the Hebrew language and its literature in their childhood. This desire intensified by the Zionist movement whose echo also reached this city. In Slutsk, there were no municipal libraries and certainly no public Hebrew libraries, but there were two men, one a book seller and the other a teacher, who had a room or a school. They purchased Hebrew libraries for themselves and provided books to read for a few kopeks, but the demand was larger than the supply.
There were also young people who dreamed of becoming writers in the future, or to study Jewish wisdom in universities abroad. Among those dreamers were two sons of wealthy families. One of them was Schmowitz's son, who was close to the Galician-educated circles and was married to a privileged family in Slutsk that Mendele [Mocher Sforim] already mentioned in his memoirs.
From the right: Yehudit Ratner, Hilel Dubrov, Yosef Lisbron, Moshe Chipchin, Stisia Ayala
He became known outside Slutsk as a wise man and a public activist, and was also invited by the government to meetings on which Jewish matters were discussed. The second was the son of a moneylender who received a comprehensive Hebrew education. Both realized their dream. The first is the late Dr. Yakov Naftali Simchoni, the historian and Jewish literature researcher, and the second Dr. Peitel Lipschutz who moved to Germany, specialized in economics theory and published several articles on this topic in Haschiloah.
The influence of the Zionist movement on the spiritual life in my hometown, Slutsk, takes an important place in my memories. As far as I know, there were also a number of people in the city who were members of Hovevi Zion from the beginning of the movement. One of them, Zev Gluskin, was a member of the Odessa Committee and his name is mentioned a number of times in the committee's reports. Indeed, these were individuals who did not join the association, but the appearance of the Zionist movement, and its impression on the Jewish world, also aroused the people of Slutsk.
I do not remember exactly, but it seems to me that already in 1899 a Zionist association, whose number has risen to a hundred, and maybe even more, was founded. Among the members were many of the intelligentsia strata and also professionals. The chairman was a private lawyer, the official language, or the language of discussion, was Russian. Obviously, they were able to debate in Yiddish, but also the Hebrew language was not forgotten. Two secretaries were nominated, for Russian and Hebrew, a post the writer of these columns had won. This association raised the spiritual life in the city and increased the interest in Zionism and Hebrew culture.
Not many days passed and the Zionist association, with the help of people interested in Jewish social life, established a center for Zionist and cultural activities in Khapashker Street. Officially it was called the Tea House - Tesheina in Russian. This house became a place for Zionist meetings and home for various companies interested in developing Jewish cultural life. It also had a library in the three languages of the city's residents.
A few weeks went by and the house was bustling with people. Some came to read Jewish newspapers in different languages or books in Hebrew, and some just visited for a friendly conversation over a cup of tea. Young men and women gathered for meetings, debates and lectures, and a short time later the sound of the Hebrew language echoed in the air. A Hebrew-speaking association was founded in the city, and it was not only concerned with speaking, distributing and learning the language. From time to time Hebrew banquets were held and those, who dreamed of a literary future, read from their works.
It didn't take long and their dreams began to come true. Some left Slutsk to try their luck at literary centers such as Warsaw, Lodz and others. Soon, a rumor spread that Y. D. Berkowitz had won the first prize of the newspaper HaTzofe for his story Mashke'le Hazir, and Avraham Epstein's articles were published in the press. Some of their friends were proud of them, others were jealous of them, but directly or indirectly, it led to the glorification of the national and the Hebrew spirit in the city. The number of members of the Zionist and Hebrew associations grew, and the interest in the Hebrew language and its literature increased.
Even though the Zionist association official language was Russian, this association always emphasized the value of the Hebrew language. In 1902, when the Russian Zionists gathered for the national conference in Minsk, the writer of these columns was asked to send a greeting letter in Hebrew to the conference and frame it in the shape of a Star of David using the stamps of Kern HaKayemet that were seen in the world only a few months before.
It is worth noting to the generations the harsh conditions in which the Zionist activity was carried out in the first years of the present century.As is well known, at that time there were many illegal movements in Russia and in Slutsk. It was impossible to hold a public meeting in a hall because the government suspected its purpose, but the meetings were necessary.Therefore, the meetings were held in Beit HaMidrash around tables on which Gemara, Mishnayot and open Chumash books were placed. And if, God forbid, a policeman or an official glanced at the gathering, it was clear that it was not a meeting but a study group in sacred books. Often, the lecturers and many of the listeners, who sat bareheaded, had to cover their heads against their wishes.
I will conclude in one case that illuminates the difficulty of the situation in a special way. In the summer of 1904, when the terrible news of Herzl's death came and shocked the hearts of all members, the question arose on how to hold a memorial service for the leader's death. It was difficult to find a place and the date was postponed day by day. And suddenly, a large number of young men and women woke up, chose a weekday, and in the middle of the day flocked to the cemetery. And there, on the fence posts, the speakers delivered their eulogies with the assurance that no secret policeman would suspect such an assembly. The eulogies were given by the writer of these columns and a young man who came from the village to study and prepare for the final exams at the gymnasium. His name is Aharon Singalowsky, who later became famous as the founder of the international ORT company and was its director for decades.
In this manner Slutsk contributed, in the ten years that ended the 19th century and opened the 20th century, to Hebrew literature, Zionism and social life, when it helped a number of young dreamers to realize their dreams and enrich the life of their nation.
At the conclusion of the article on the memories of my hometown, I want to fulfill the words of our sages who said: While the wine belongs to its owner, the gratitude is given to the one who pours it. [Rava Kamma 92b]. If there is a taste of wine in my words, you must know that the one who poured it is my relative, HaRav R' Nisan Waxman, a native of Starobin and student of Torah institutes in Slutsk, Mir and Slabodka. He, who stood by me for several months and encouraged me to pay my debt to the city that instilled in me the love for the Torah and Jewish culture. If it was not for him, who knows if I was able to cut myself from my world and concentrate on days gone by. Chazal [Our Sages, may their memory be blessed] were right when they said: Good deeds to be fulfilled by the worthy. The worthy is my relative, who served as rabbi of the community of Lakewood in the United States for many years, and enriched from his spirit the thousands of guests who visited this city, which is known as the resort city, over the years. He also made important contributions to religious literature, when he edited and published important books with introductions and comments, and taught Torah in broad circles in Brooklyn with dignity and splendor.
1) Y. D. Berkovitsh, 2) Avraham son of Moshe Yehiel Epshteyn, 3) Mrs. Blumshteyn, 4) Avraham son of Kadish-Dov-Ber Epshteyn,
5) Hillel Dubrov, 6) Dr. Binyamin Ostrovsky, 7) Batya Shor, 8) Dov Cohen,
9) Moshe Katzenelson (later a doctor and a Zionist activist in Bialystok, perished in Auschwitz), 10) Stisia Ayala- Goldberg,
11) Shimshon Nachmanovitsh (Nachmani), 12) Henya Ratner, 13) Yehudah Leib Finkel
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