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[Page 96]




by Zeev Gluskin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Why was it called Slutsk? Because it was situated on the Sluch River. When I grew up and began to study geography, I searched for the city of Slutsk and its river on all the maps that reached my hands, but to my dismay, I did not find them. The elders of the generation used to say that the river is an “artery” of the great sea… and therefore, they took pride in it. The pride of Slutsk was on the river. Two gristmills existed on the river and were powered by it. Our Jewish brethren and the gentiles bathed in the river during the summer, each in their separate place. In the winter, the gentile lads, especially the gymnasium students, skated on the ice. Even Jewish youth desired to skate, and also succeeded in playing pranks.

Most of the Slutsk natives had never seen the sea, and only from Barchi Nafshi[1] did they know that there is a large sea through which ships travel and sea monsters frolic. Perhaps the wealthy householders knew that there was a sea in Odessa, from which one can travel to the Land of Israel… During my time, the number of residents of Slutsk grew to 30,000, the majority being Jews.

The Jews of Slutsk were divided into various classes: tycoons, wealthy folk, prominent householders, middle class householders, regular householders, tradespeople, people with various livelihoods, people living from the “air” [i.e., Academics], and clergymen.

The number of tycoons and wealthy people in Slutsk was small, not even reaching the number of fingers on one hand. First among them was Reb Isser Isserlin, the scion of a most pedigreed family (from the Remah). He was considered to be a tycoon in the city, and everyone counted and enumerated his fortune, which was close to “80,000 rubles.” His house was large and spacious, located in the center of the city close to the main road. Its windows were large, and its courtyard was spacious. There was a synagogue in his courtyard, built of stone. It was a beautiful building, called Isserke's Shul. Of course, members of the Isserlin family and other prominent people, “scholars,” and the ten idle people[2] supported by the tycoon so that they would never be short a prayer quorum, worshipped there. The head of that institution was a great scholar, Reb Mendele. Every day, nights included, young men, children of the householder who were supported by their parents, a well as lads over the age of Bar Mitzvah, who had already concluded their studies with the melamdim, sat there and studied. Three or four lads would study together a page of Gemara with its commentaries in a group. There were also ordinary Jews who studied on their own. The great scholar Reb Mendele, who gave a class every day, would sit at the eastern wall every evening after the Maariv service, ready to answer anyone who had a difficult question. Anyone who turned to him was answered pleasantly, as he explained everything. Every lad felt it an honor to approach him, ask him something, and hear his answer. I too tasted one time the honor of asking him a question, as I enjoyed his countenance.


Zeev Gluskin and his wife


Boys who were of marriageable age would consider it a great merit to study in Isserke's Synagogue. The house and the synagogue were called “Hechatzer[3]. Indeed, there it was sort of like a royal court. The tycoon Reb Isser Isserke's was a pious Jew who was not a scholar. He was tall in stature, with a full beard, exuding splendor. One could see in his face that he was a tycoon. He had no business dealings in the city itself. His business was in Königsberg, where he would earn “millions.” He had one source of livelihood in Slutsk. He was a mohel [circumciser] and served as the city mohel. He had very frequent opportunities to perform circumcisions, and he never missed a single one, including on the Sabbath. He went to the rich and the poor, and he went for the Shacharit service to the synagogue where the host of the synagogue worshipped, and he himself sang Vecharot imo habrit with joy[4] all the way to the end. This was his “recompense” aside from the mitzvah itself. He exempted the worshippers from the Tachanun prayer and from the long Vehu Rachum on Mondays and Thursdays[5]. He would discreetly give coins to poor mothers who had given birth.

His wife Bryna Reizel was a goodhearted woman. She responded to every indigent with an open hand. A poor sick person requiring a bit of good soup or a bit of jam would come to the chatzer, and would always be received politely, with warm encouraging word – from the good royal court.

The tycoon Isserlin had two sons: one aged fifteen and the other aged twelve. Neither of them intermixed with the children of the city.

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They studied all their studies in their home. They had a special melamed to teach them Judaic studies, and special teachers to teach them reading, writing, and secular subjects.

When Isserlin and his entire family moved to the city of Königsberg, they took with them all the honor, all the valuable objects, and also one of the melamedim, who was half Orthodox and half Maskil [enlightened] so that the studies of his children would continue and the traditions of the home would not cease, as per the custom of Slutsk. The entire city was very pained when the family of the tycoon left the city. The splendid house, full of honor, remained empty and abandoned. To anyone passing by the house, it seemed that the walls were shedding tear.

The synagogue remained in its previous function and protocols. Between Mincha and Maariv, when the householders were engaged in regular conversation, the main topic was “who is fitting to come to live in this castle?” However, what logic could not do, the times did. The Holy One Blessed Be He arranged a fire in the city of Slutsk. That house burnt down along with all its environs. The synagogue miraculously survived, and the entire city saw this as the finger of G-d. In the merit of the ten idle people who lived in the house, it was not affected by the fire…

After several years, a new, fine, large, but ordinary house was built on the lot. It was built in the style of the houses of the lesser wealthy people of the city. All the residents of Slutsk recall the size and grandeur of the original house of Isserke. When the saw the new house afterward, they shook their heads in a sigh, “Was Isserke's house like this?”

Two prominent householders lived in that house afterwards. One of them was my brother-in-law.

I recall that the first time that I entered my sister's home, I trembled a bit: “Are my feet indeed standing in Isserke's house?”

The second in stature was Reb Shmuel Simchovich, the father of Dr. Y. N. Simchoni. He was also a member of the Isserlin family, a unique Jew. He considered himself to be a tycoon, and looked upon the Jews of Slutsk with condescension.

The following is what was written about him in the book “The Generation, Its Rabbis and Its Scribes” by BenZion Eisenstat.

“The rabbi, Reb Shmuel Simchovich of Slutsk was one of the Gaonim of Israel, and an excellent scholar. He was a man of great stature, the scion of good pedigree from generation to generation. He was educated in wealth, and studied Torah and wisdom with comfort. He learned German, Polish, French, English, and Russian. He was known as a Talmudic genius and a wise writer. He published articles in the ‘Peterburg Herald’ German newspaper. He was appointed as a rabbi in Vienna in the year 5625 [1865], and called to serve as a rabbi in Warsaw, but he did not want to serve as a rabbi. In the year 5654 [1894], he was called by the government to participate in the rabbinical conference in Peterburg.

Simchovich conducted himself in the fashion of wealth, with a high fashion. He would stringently investigate every person and keep a distance from the commonfolk. Therefore, the community related to him with respect and honor. To sum up Simchovich! He was a philosopher, a rabbi, and a Maskil. He would worship in Isserke's synagogue on the Sabbath.”

He died in Slutsk on 3 Adar, 5656 [1896].

The third in stature was Binyamin Ebin. He was a wise man, and everyone knew that he was wealthy. He would lend to the poritzes [estate owners] and also to Jews for interest, based on the Heter Iska as our sages have ordained[6]. Every “child on the street” knew that he was a miser. He worshipped in the Chapashker Shul, the synagogue in which Rabbi Yoshe Ber [Soloveitchik] worshipped. This added to his honor.

The fourth was Gershon Ostrovski, who was nicknamed for his wife “Gere Kreine's.” He was an ordinary Jew, with a grey complexion. His wealth was doubtful. He had a two-story house, in which there was a large store that sold groceries and fine beverages. The business was run by his wife Kreine. Her customers were the gentile intelligentsia, officials, and wealthy estate owners. She barely had any Jewish customers. Therefore, they suspected that Ostrovski was wealthy. There were several tens of important householders, well-pedigreed families, people who earned their livelihoods comfortably, who sustained their families neither opulently nor meagrely. Nobody investigated the wealth of any of them, but everyone knew who the powerful ones were. It was difficult to differentiate between an important, average, and ordinary householder. However, in a city as full of wise and intelligent people like Slutsk, the bounds between these three classes were clear to everyone.


Feigel Shteises,
mother of Zeev Gluskin


A cholera epidemic broke out in the city, and it was necessary to arrange salvation and aid for poor families. Money was needed. The heads of the community found a source for money: with the agreement of the rabbi and Gaon, a strong proclamation was made in the synagogues that every householder was obligated to make a one-time donation to the charitable fund, equivalent to their expenditures for one Sabbath. Since it was impossible to know and also difficult to ask everyone what their expenditures for the Sabbath were, they imposed round figure for each stratum. The wealthy had to pay 36 gold coins, important householders 18, average householders 9, and regular householders 5. The rest of the residents had to pay what they could.

My mother of blessed memory gave me 18 gold coins to give to the community. That is how I found out that our family was considered to be one of the important householders. Those who brought 9 gold coins were considered average, and those who only brought 5 gold coins designated themselves, of their own accord, as ordinary householders, This classification

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later served as the paradigm when the community imposed a value tax on all the residents.

The families of householders of all classes had various obligations: Whereas a wealthy person would be considered to fulfil his obligation if he came to worship at the synagogue on Sabbaths, Rosh Chodesh, festivals, and secular holidays; they were particular that a regular householder was required to worship in a congregation each and every day. A wealthy person was exempt from being a scholar, whereas scholarship was demanded from a regular householder. A wealthy person was even permitted to be an ignoramus [am Haaretz], but woe to a regular householder if the community began to investigate his scholarliness.

Those who had various sources of livelihood, shopkeepers and those who lived a life “in the air” – they all had a grey form.

Tradespeople – this was the class that was most appreciated – ordinary people who lived from the toil of their hands, living simple modest lives. It was touching to see most of the tradespeople hastening early in the morning, before dawn, to worship in the synagogues. They would appear once again in their own synagogue toward evening, as they sat with a chapter of Psalms or Ein Yaakov.

The clergymen included rabbis, rabbinical judges and their assistants, communal shamashim, and the beadles of the synagogues and Chevra Kadisha.

The rabbis during my time were: the true rabbi, rabbinical teacher, whom the city of Slutsk was proud of. The rabbis were the leaders and spiritual directors of the city. Everyone listened to them. One would see them on the street on occasion, but their full honor was in their homes on the rabbinical seat.

The government rabbi (der Kozioger rov) maintained the registry of births and deaths. He was a scholar and also honorable. He moved with his family to the Land of Israel toward the end of his life. The rabbi was a sort of government official. His family name was Shapira.

The registry book of births, deaths, marriage certificates and the like was located in the home of the government rabbi. He was required to know about every circumcision ceremony. They would come to him immediately to register the name of the child in his ledgers. When a girl was born, they would inform him of her name, and she too would be registered in the ledgers. The son of this government rabbi was a great Torah scholar. He delivered a class every day in the synagogue. He made aliya to the Land together with his father.

Rabbinical judges were always invited to their post by the rabbi of the city, and were called the Beit Din Tzedek. The shamashim of the Beit Din were invited by the rabbis and certified by the rabbi of the city. They were called Shamashei Beit Din. The synagogue beadles were elected by them. Most of the synagogue beadles in those days were elderly and scholarly. I remember with honor the beadle of my family's synagogue, who was called Herzl der Shamash. He was wise, with good character traits. The synagogue attendees honored him greatly. He made aliya to the Land of Israel in his old age. I recall very well when he came to our house to bid farewell to my father and the entire family. When he extended his hand to me, he said, “so, be healthy, and learn with diligence.” I said to him, “Reb Herzl, take me too to the Land of Israel.”

He placed his hand on my head and said, “When you are older, you too will travel to the Land of Israel. And when the Messiah comes, you will all go there.”

To this day, I recall those words with holy awe. If I have merited to have the first half of his blessing fulfilled, I hope that the second half will also be fulfilled. The Messiah will come when the generation is fitting for it, in our Land.

There were sufficient synagogues and Beis Midrashes in Slutsk. I recall Der Kalte Shul [The cold synagogue], where people would worship in the winter wearing warm coats or furs. According to what the elders said, this synagogue had existed for more than 300 years. Some said that the dead came to pray there after midnight, and they returned to their graves at dawn. Therefore, people were afraid to pass by Der Kalte Shul late at night… There was a large rock next to this synagogue. It was told that a rabbi of the Hassidim had been flogged there. Some said it was the Baal Shem Tov himself – since all the people of Slutsk were Misnagdim.

In my times, there was someone in Slutsk named Itza der Chosid. On the day of Simchas Torah, we would go to his house to see him dancing on the table. I did not know about Hassidism, and I thought that the entire idea of Hassidism was to dance on the table on Simchas Torah. There were several other synagogues in the vicinity of Der Kalte Shul. All were in a semicircle, and this entire area was called the Shulhof. The wedding ceremonies of the city residents took place there.

Cultural matters in Slutsk were straightforward: “the study of Torah was the most important thing.” There were cheders, the Talmud Torah, the Yeshiva, and people studied in the synagogues. In the Talmud Torah, they studied Chumash with Rashi, a bit of Bible, and Gemara with all the commentaries. Slutsk was a city full of children, and they studied in cheder. The older lads sat in the synagogues, Beis Midrashes, and the Kloiz. Thousands sat in them and studied. Some people of Slutsk also began to concern themselves with Haskalah [secular knowledge]. They learned the art of fine writing and a bit of Russian from private teachers called shreibers. Both boys and girls studied. Small groups of three or four students studied together in return for a small tuition fee. All the children of the prominent householders studied privately with a shreiber. They hired a gymnast [high school student] of the fifth or sixth grade to study the Russian language. This was very expensive.

In the latter period, there was a decree that all cheder students older than ten were required to study Russian, arithmetic, and geography.

There were not yet restrictions on Jews in the local gymnasium. As far as I recall, only people of the age of ten were accepted to the preparatory grade or to the first grade and above. The government was interested in attracting Jewish students to modern learning, but the Jews of Slutsk, and especially the majority of the householders, objected to the gymnasium. They regarded it as a first step to apostasy. A few who did not heed the opinion of the community did send their children to the gymnasium. When those gymnasium students came to the synagogue on the Sabbath or festival wearing their uniforms with their shiny buttons, and a sparkling insignia on their hats, they aroused great jealousy in the hearts of all the lads who did not merit such greatness.

I was born in that city on the 9th of Elul of the year 5619 [1859]. I was the fifth child, the first son after four daughters who preceded me. The joy of my parents was great, and I was always given great honor, as if I was an only son, even though two more sons were born after me.

After Passover, when I was 4½ years old, my father brought me to the cheder, enwrapped in a silk tallis. In the cheder, the “angels” tossed sweets from the ceiling, and the joy was great. For that Passover, my father of blessed memory

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came from Königsberg, where he was sojourning for his work. He brought me a little silk tallis, something that had not yet been seen in Slutsk. He also brought me books, a Siddur, and tiny Chumashim, printed in German with great beauty. Every time that he came from Königsberg to Slutsk, he brought me a gift of various books published abroad in beautiful form, in order to attract my heart to books and learning. If I am a boundless lover of books to this day, it is no doubt that this is the fruit of the seed that my father planted in my heart during my early childhood.


Reb Eliezer,
father of Zeev Gluskin


I was raised and educated with a comfortable of life, but without excesses or extravagances. My mother sent me to the cheders of the renowned melamedim in the city, whose tuition fess were high. My friends of the same age were from good families. Not more than six or even students studied together. The curriculum of the cheders was kometz aleph [i.e. reading the alphabet] until one page of Gemara a week.

The students of the youngest level cheders were brought to school every day by a special lad called a bahelfer [assistant teacher]. He also brought the children back home. The mothers would give food and sweets for the children to the bahelfer to give to them at certain times in the cheder. His job was to guard the child as he came and went: from a barking dog, from a wagon, so that a shegetz [derogatory term for a gentile] should not throw a stone at him, and in general to protect him from any injury.

He would receive his salary from the students, but the melamed was responsible to the parents regarding the bahelfer that he fulfill his task faithfully both in the cheder and on the route.

The students would go alone, without special protection, to the melamdim of Chumash and Rashi. They had to guard themselves from any mishap on the way. This developed the sense of self-protection in the child. However, the fear of the shegetz and the dog remained as a legacy throughout their lives.

During the winter nights, when the studies in the cheders lasted until 8:00 p.m., the students returned home in groups rather than alone, out of fear of the night.

This is the order of the “stops” of the children during our childhood: from the melamed of young children to the melamed of Chumash, from regular Chumash to Chumash with Rashi, to twenty-four [i.e. the Tanach] – to the beginning of Gemara in accordance with the Lekach Tov book, the heads of the easy chapter from “two are holding on to a cloak” [Baba Metzia 2a], and from there to a page of Gemara with Rashi every week, to Mishnah, and then to a page of Gemara with Rashi and Tosafot. From then on, it was Gemara classes without restrictions on number of pages per week. The important melamdim began to enter their students into the foyer of the Maharsh'a, and slowly showed them the pleasant palace of the Mahara'm Shif. The studies of the Chayey Adam and Shulchan Aruch halachic works, books of morality, etc. were like dessert after the meal, which did not enter into the calculation of the orders of the day. Of course, success in studies was dependent on the abilities of the students, and to a certain extent, of the melamed.

Secular studies, which were required of every Jew who was a member of society and would at times encounter a gentile nation, included: the art of penmanship in order to write a letter in fine form, and basic knowledge of the Russian language. Since my father of blessed family lived in Germany, I also studied German. My teachers for secular studies were from among the gymnasium students. I also learned the Hebrew language and grammar, and read the book of Mapu and others, so that I could enter the group of Maskilim. My mother of blessed memory found Hebrew teachers for this purpose.

I would write to my father in Königsberg every month about my studies and my daily work. I knew Hebrew appropriately. I was fluent in Tanach, and I knew Ahavat Zion by heart. My knowledge of Gemara was barely passable. On the other hand, I knew the Mishnaic tractates of Brachot and Shabbat almost by heart.

My father of blessed memory was very happy about my letters, and always encouraged me. Once he brought me a large Romm edition of the Talmud, bound in splendid volumes.

That is how my friends and I studied. We had a one-hour class in secular studies in Hebrew six times a week, and one hour of “gentile” studies five time a week. We were taught Russian, arithmetic, and geography from the gymnasium student. We also learned Russian penmanship from the Hebrew teacher.

I have pleasant memories from my childhood days, especially of my childhood home and my sisters. My mother was happy when I read to her my letters to my father, and especially the letters that he wrote to me. They treated me with some honor as the child of a wealthy family throughout our neighborhood and in the synagogue in which my family worshipped. I knew from my mother, peace be upon her, that her father, my grandfather of blessed memory, built the entire eastern wall of the synagogue with his own money. Of course, our place was next to that wall, the first place to the right of the Holy Ark. Herzl the Shamash often honored me with maftir.

At Mincha on the Sabbath, I would at times read the first section of the Torah portion of the following week[7]. I would also read the scrolls of Song of Songs, Ruth, and Kohelet from the bima with the traditional trop. The members of the synagogue related to me with friendship, as one of them. To them, I was a wholesome lad, of good fortune.

I entered the district school at age eleven. There I studied for two hours every afternoon, except for on the Sabbath. There, they taught Russian, arithmetic, and other subjects. We sat there bareheaded. I concluded

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school when I reached the age of Bar Mitzvah. All of the mark on my report card were Very Good.

On the day that I received my graduation diploma and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, the celebration was with great splendor and pomp. My lecture was on the Talmudic discussion of “A left handed person.” It lasted for about half an hour. All of our family members, my melamdim, neighbors from the synagogue, and some of my friends then participated in the feast fit for a king.

After my Bar Mitzvah, I continued to study Gemara on my own in Isserke's Synagogue. However, at the same time, I studied the Russian language and other studies with a fourth-year gymnasium student, to the extent that he himself knew. I secretly prepared for gymnasium. After my Bar Mitzvah, my teacher, a Jewish gymnasium student, brought me a book to study a bit of Slavic, which was necessary to enter the gymnasium, as well as a book of gentile prayers with several pictures of priests. There was a large picture of a cross after the title page. My mother of blessed memory saw this book by chance. When she opened it, she saw the cross, and became perplexed and afraid. She came to me screaming, “Woe to me, your teacher wants to bring you to apostacy, and certainly he is enticing you to enter the gymnasium.”

She immediately fired the teacher, and begged me strongly to remove any thoughts of gymnasium from my head.

“It is enough that you graduated from school. I will hire a different gymnasium student from who you could learn, and you will know than all the lads of Slutsk.”

I loved my mother very much. Her tears touched my heart, and I abandoned the idea of gymnasium. I sufficed myself with a different gymnasium student, specifically a gentile.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Psalm 104, recited on winter Sabbath afternoons and Rosh Chodesh, mentions the great sea. Return
  2. By tradition, a sign of a significant city is when it is large enough to support ten “idle people” who do not work for a livelihood, but rather study Torah all day. Return
  3. Literally “the courtyard” – a term often used for the court of a Hassidic Rebbe. Return
  4. A part of the daily morning service that is sung aloud by the mohel when a circumcision is to take place that day. Return
  5. The Tachanun prayer is recited on non-festive weekdays after the amida. On Monday and Thursday, a longer version, called Vehu Rachum, is recited. Tachanun is omitted when a circumcision is to take place that day. Return
  6. It is forbidden to lend money to a Jew for interest. However, there is a rabbinical enactment, called a Heter Iska [permit for business purposes] that enables such loans to take place as a joint business venture. See https://www.yeshiva.co/midrash/13712 Return
  7. At Mincha on the Sabbath, as well as on the following Monday and Thursday, the Torah reading consists of the first section of the Torah portion of the following Sabbath. Return

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My Childhood Days

by Tzvi Hirsch Matlianski

Translated by Jerrold Landau


a. My Childhood Days

I was born in a Lithuanian city, in which one hundred percent of its residents were Misnagdim, that is Slutsk, a district city in the Minsk region, on the third day of the third month of Sivan, 5616 (1856).

Hassidic legend states that the Baal Shem Tov of blessed memory came to Slutsk “as he was going into exile,” and its citizens did not receive him politely. Then he cursed the city that Hassidim should not be found therein forever. The curse was fulfilled, and, to this day, Slutsk remains one of the four cities known by the acronym of Karpa's: Kosava Ruzhany, Pruzhany and Slutsk, in which no Hassid has any heritage. These cities never heard Hodu recited before Baruch Sheamar[1].

My father, Rabbi Chaim of blessed memory, was one of the most scholarly people of Slutsk. He disseminated Torah all the days of his life, teaching Talmud and its commentaries to the children of the wealthy. His students took pride and glory in the name of their excellent teacher, his explanations and his style of teaching. “Rabbi Chaim Moshke's” understood and knew how to evaluate the talents of each student. He nicknamed them: Yosefke who had a great grasp, Yisraelke with the fine memory, and me, who also was among his students, was called someone of understanding. By nature, he was a good person, merciful, and gracious. All his students loved and revered him even after they left him.

My mother Rivka, peace be upon her, was beautiful and wise. She was known in the entire city for her natural wisdom and talents in mathematics. Therefore, she was nicknamed “Rivka the wise.”

She was a native of Mir, the daughter of Rabbi Pinchas Papak of blessed memory, who served as a rabbinical judge in that city throughout his life. He was a scion of the Harkavi family of Novorodok. Six sons were born before I was born. All were excellent geniuses and handsome, but they died in their childhood. My parents were left with only one daughter. Since my mother was forty years old when I was born, I was the only son of my parents for four years until my only brother was born. I can easily understand the concern that my good parents had for me. When I was five years old, they dressed me in white, linen clothes, aside for the Arba Kanfos [ritual fringed undergarment] with woollen tzitzis – as a portent from early generations for a long life.

A holy image as if alive appears before my eyes to this day as I recall my beautiful, good mother reciting the blessing over the Sabbath candles. She would grasp my little hand and place me to her right, around the table set in honor of the Sabbath, covered with a snow-white tablecloth, atop which fluttered the pure candelabra with their candles. With her tender hands, she covered her sparkling eyes, exuding brightness opposite the light of the candles. She recited the petition with a gentle voice.

“Merciful and gracious G-d, perform the following mercy to me, as the candles light up in honor of the Sabbath with their holy light, so may shine the light of my son in studying Your holy Torah that You gave to your people Israel atop Mount Sinai. Grant him a long life, and may my husband and I not add to our mourning for our children who were cut off from the tree of life while still in their youth.”

The sound of weeping could be heard in her latter words.

When she concluded the petition, she kissed my cheeks, which were moistened by her warm tears.

Then she placed my sister in her place. She was twelve years old. She too recited the blessing over her candles, which he lit in her small candelabra that stood behind my mother's large candelabra. In my childhood imagination, I always imaged that my sister's small candelabra were daughters to my mother's large one. She also read out the petition prior to lighting, but the formula was changed somewhat. Instead of “the eyes of my son” she said, “the eyes of my brother” and instead of “my husband and I” recited by my mother, she said, “me and my dear parents.”


The preacher
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Matlianski
of blessed memory


After the blessing of the candles, my mother took me into her arms, dressed me with the small linen coat and woollen Arba Kanfos, and carried me to the court of the synagogue, to the ancient office next to the large Beis Midrash, where the holy Tzadik of the Misnagdim, Rabbi Rafael Yosef of blessed memory was sitting. My mother brought me to him every week to bless me. I recall his image to this day. He was a tall Jew, with a full-grown, black beard, a high, wrinkled forehead, and bright eyes. Every Sabbath evening, he placed his hands on my head, lifted his eyes, and blessed me. My mother carried me home in joy.

Rabbi Rafael Yosef, or, as he was called by everyone, Rabbi Rafael Yosel, was a sort of “sublime man,” a man of portents, whose path of life and deeds will be told to the generation, and whose memory will remain with the men of great deeds of that generation, such as Rabbi Nachum the Shamash of Grodno, Rabbi Shimon Kaplan of Vilna, and Rabbi Motel Weinshenker of Shevel [Šiauliai]. They were not rabbis, did not “make use of the crown”[2], and did not inherit their greatness as a legacy from their fathers. They were from among the simple, pure masses, dedicated to the nation with all the strands of their souls. The nation recognized them and revered them from generation to generation.

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Rabbi Rafael Yosef of Slutsk was a simple tailor. He did not perform his work in the homes of the tycoons, but rather with the masses. He sustained the members of his family with the toil of his hands. He set times to study Torah every day. He taught a chapter of Mishnah to his audience after the Shacharit service, and he explained to them Ein Yaakov and Menorat Hamaor between Mincha and Maariv. His students from among the masses revered his name, and none of them knew what their teacher did at night. They did not know that within a few years he had learned the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, Sifrei, Sifra, Tosefta, Mechilta, and early and latter commentators. His talents were great, and the power of his memory was wonderful. He secretly become one of the giants of the generation. Nevertheless, he continued with his role and never missed his classes to the masses, who did not know his greatness and strength in Torah.

His great deeds and righteousness even surpassed his Torah and wisdom. He sustained tens of families with food and money for rent. He visited many sick people every day, he comforted mourners, and healed the broken hearted who expressed their anguish to him. He married off the daughters of poor people and brought them joy at their weddings.

From where did he obtain the means to do all this? He took and gave, gave and took throughout all the days of his life. Those from whom he took and those to whom he gave looked upon him with awe and honor, and revered him. He divided up the hours of the day and night. During one portion, he visited the strong men of the community and its wealthy people, and solicited their donations, which they gave with a good eye and an open hand. Many of them brought their donations to his house so that he would not have to waste his precious time visiting them. This was his work throughout several hours of the day, every day. In the darkness of night, so that his way would not be known, he visited the poor, lowly, widows and orphans. With the radiating light of his countenance, he distributed their portions to them, bringing light and salvations into their dreary dwellings.

He was great amongst the scholars in his Torah, and revered and sublime among the mases for his deeds…


b. Holding up the Torah Reading

Holding up the Torah reading was one of the most effective and easiest means to save the oppressed from their oppressors. If the event that cases of theft, extortion, cheating, or travesty took place in the city, the victim would come to the synagogue at the time of the Shacharit service on the Sabbath morning to hold up the Torah reading. He would stand at the Holy Ark and would not allow the Torah to be removed for reading until the rabbi, monthly parnas or communal heads heard the complaints, and demands for those who owed him, and promised to fulfill his request. Then he descended from the bima and the Torah reading began. During the time of the rule of the Czars of the Romanov family, military service was not the obligation of the private individual, but rather of the communities. The communal heads were tasked with the duty of providing a specific number of youths between the ages of 20 to 30 for the royal army. They were given permission by the government to take them by force if they would not go on their own accord. At the beginning of the winter every year, the snatchers went out under the auspices of the monthly administrator and communal heads to snatch those of the appropriate age, bind them with rope, and take them to the communal headquarters, where they sat in prison until the day came to present them before the army committee. They government physician would examine their health. Then they would be taken to the army camp where they would serve for 25 years.

There were times when the government issued a decree to snatch young children of the age of five or six. The snatchers fell upon them in the darkness of the night and took them from their mother's bosoms, despite the frightful shrieking and wailing. There was nobody to save them. The snatchers were wicked people, cruel murderers by nature, who knew no shame. They received their salaries from the leaders of the community. Their names remain as a curse and a malediction in our new literature.

This took place in my city of Slutsk.

It was Sabbath of the Torah portion of Mishpatim. The Shacharit service had concluded and the sound of the words Vayehi Binsoa Ha'aron[3] was heard from the cantor. The ark cover began to roll off the ark when suddenly the voice of a young woman and her three children were heard, one of whom was a one-year-old baby in her arms. They were screaming, crying, and wailing, impeding the Torah reading: “Thieves, murderers, oppressors snatched my husband this past night, bound him in ropes, and hauled him to the communal building, leaving me and my children to groan without anyone to sustain us. Jews, merciful ones the sons of merciful ones, have mercy upon me, and return my husband to me! …”

The rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, took off his tallis, approached the unfortunate woman, took the baby into his arms, and ordered the shamash to bring a glass of milk. The glass was brought, and the rabbi fed the child and comforted his mother, saying that her husband would be returned to her shortly. A fearsome trembling overtook the entire congregation of worshippers when they saw the Gaon giving a drink to the hungry child, the son of the poor tailor who had been snatched that night by the snatchers for army service.

The communal heads quieted and calmed the mother and here children. The rabbi approached the renowned tycoon, and noticed that he was holding the Tractate of Shabbat in his hands and perusing it, for he was a great scholar. The rabbi removed the Gemara from his hands and scolded him, “You are a deserting soldier.” Everyone present was astonished at the words of the rabbi, for the tycoon B. had never served in the army and had never deserted the army. The rabbi turned to the astonished people and said, “I will explain my words to you. There are two types of soldiers in the royal army: infantry and cavalry. The children think that the cavalry soldiers are more fortunate, and are jealous of them because they ride on horses and do not walk on foot. However, in truth, the work of the riders is ten time more difficult than that of the foot soldiers. When the infantryman finishes his work, he eats his meal and returns to his rest. That is not the lot of the cavalryman. He must take care of his horse, clean it, give it to drink, feed it, and then take it to its stable. Only then can the cavalryman go to his bed, weary and tired. In the service of the Creator there are also two types of soldiers. There are foot soldiers, simple workers, poor, indigent, who have no responsibility other than for themselves and their household. However, there are also cavalrymen with their possessions that were granted to them. They are dutybound to protect their wealthy and to use it to help their fellow at an appropriate time. A poor woman with her three unfortunate children has come to us. She did not come to the foot soldiers, for they do not have the ability to help. The foot soldiers have the obligation to study Torah and fulfil the commandments. She came to the cavalrymen with their means, who do have the ability to help. Now I ask you a question: What is the judgment upon a cavalryman riding his horse, who escapes from the brigade and says, ‘I want to work among the foot soldiers, and I do not want to be with the cavalry.’

? His sentence would be that of any soldier who deserts from army service: ‘Stand on your guard and do not leave your place!’

“Now you understand that Rabbi B. E'N is a deserting soldier. He descended

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from his horse-property, and took a Gemara to peruse like a foot soldier. Therefore, I scolded him to return to his position and save the unfortunate woman.”

The tycoon extended his hand to the rabbi and promised that the travesty would be rectified that very evening.

After the reading of the Torah, the rabbi ascended his podium, turned his face to the parnas [administrator] and his assistants, and called out with a fearful voice, “Today we read in the weekly portion ‘If someone kidnaps and sells a person or he is found in their hand, he shall surely die’ [Exodus 21:16] – did we not sin last night with this terrible sin? Let us hope that we can fix the travesty tonight.”

There was a large meeting that night, and all the city notables gathered. One of those who sold themselves to army service, called Achatniki in Russian, was brought to them, and the tailor was set free and returned to his wife and children…

The term “deserting soldier” (Antlofener soldat) spread throughout the entire land, and was a wonder.

That year was the final one for snatching and snatchers. The government imposed the obligation upon individuals.


c. My Visit to Slutsk

I chose my native city of Slutsk on my first stop in Lithuania. I had not seen it for 22 years, from when my father of blessed memory sent me to Paritz to study with his student Rabbi Michel Wolfson, the rabbi of the city of Paritz.

I arrived in the city at dawn. I recognized i., I recognized the old houses, and the streets that spread out without order. My childhood days rose up in my memory, and I became a child again. The childhood fear of remaining alone on the street fell upon me. Longing for my mother overtook me, and I hurried along – that is to say, I ran to my mother's house. I found that the mother whom I had left in middle age, beautiful as the moon and pure as the sun, had now become a bent, old woman. She fell into my arms like a young girl, hugged and kissed me with her small, toothless mouth, and wept. I too wept: “O, G-d in heaven! How did my healthy, strong mother, beautiful and wholesome, turn into an old, weak, thin, woman devoid of energy!” However, her eyes lit up like an eternal light, and her voice was like the ringing of silver bells and telephones.

The sudden changes from Volhyn to Lithuania made an unpleasant impression upon me. I suddenly passed from the joyous life of the Hassidim to the sad, dark life of the Misnagdim, cold as ice. In place of the sated, fresh faces of the Volhyners, the thin, lean face of the Lithuanians appeared before me.

All the members of my family, my three uncles and their families, came to greet me. I was as happy as a child to meet them.

I visited the synagogues and Beis Midrash es in which I had studied and worshipped during my youth; however, where are my teachers? Where are the Yeshiva heads? Where are the rabbis and cantors of that generation? All of them, all of them, went along the way of all people, along with my father of blessed memory, to their peaceful rest in the Slutsk cemetery. I felt as if all had died on a single day. For, it was in a single day that I left them all alive, healthy, and whole, and today I have come when not one of them remains. My good teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Poliak was also no more. My heart was ripped to pieces inside of me from so much agony and mourning…

I delivered a few speeches in Slutsk. The elders of the generation who still remembered the preacher Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Dinov issued their verdict, saying: “From Tzvi Hirsch to Tzvi Hirsch nobody arose like Tzvi Hirsch”[4]. That means, from the days of Dinov until this day, they had not heard such speeches. The Russian police gave me no rest even in my native city, and they bothered me in my work. They forbade me from speaking in public. I was forced to part from my family, relatives, and acquaintances, and move on.

My parting from my dear, eighty-year-old mother was a heartrending scene. She fell upon my neck like a young girl. Her thin, weak body was trembling. She stared at me silently with teary eyes. Her gaze penetrated my heart. O! The pure gaze, the gaze of a merciful mother who sensed that these were the final glances, and that she would never see me again. To this day, those gazes did not depart from my memory. I too could not open my mouth.

I remembered that twenty-five years earlier, she carried me in her hands to seat me on the wagon when she sent me to study in the Mir Yeshiva. Now, she was carried in my arms like a pure dove. We embraced each other strongly and exchanged countless kisses, as we wept quietly. “Live in peace, my dear mother!” “Travel in peace, my son Hershel!”

That was our final conversation.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A change in the ordering of the Pesukei Dezimra section of the Shacharit service which exists amongst Hassidic, Nusach Sephard, and true Sepharic rites, as opposed to Ashkenazic rites, which recite Baruch Sheamar prior to Hodu. Return
  2. A reference to Pirkei Avot 1:13. Return
  3. “And it was when the ark traveled” [Numbers 10:35] recited as the Torah is being taken out of the Holy Ark prior to the Torah reading. Return
  4. Based on a traditional statement regarding Moses Maimonides (Ramba'm): From Moses to Moses nobody arose like Moses. Return

Highlights of the Life of Y. N. Simchoni

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Yaakov Naftali Hertz Simchoni (Simchowitz) was born in Slutsk on 22 Tevet 5644 (January 20, 1884) to Reb Shmuel Simchowitz and his second wife Zissel, the daughter of Reb Yaakov Naftali Hertz Bernstein of Lwów. The boy was named from his maternal grandfather, who was known in a praiseworthy fashion to the Jews of Galicia due to his ancestry, fear of Heaven, and generous character. He was a precious memory to his children.

Reb Shmuel, Simchoni's father, excelled with his talents and sublime intellect. He was expert in religious and secular studies, and was knowledgeable in Hebrew literature. Already during his youth, he left his parents' home in Minsk and went to Slutsk, where he was occupied for several years in the study of Torah in the home of his first father-in-law Reb Shachna Isserlin. He earned the reputation of a scholar with above average understanding. However, he never desired to work in communal affairs, and did not heed the advice of many to become a rabbi. He was content to live within the four ells of halacha, and to occupy himself with Torah for its own sake. He wrote an article for the Peterburg German newspaper, Petersburger Herald, for a period of time.

On one occasion, in 1894, he was invited to Peterburg by the government for the rabbinical convention.

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He had four sons from his first wife. They all excelled in their talents, but only one of them, Shachna, inherited his inclination for the sciences.

That son died in 1881 at the age of 22, after he completed the composition “Der Positivismus in Miasmus”[1].

Shachna Simchowitz was diligent, and he dedicated himself to the tents of Torah. His father mourned for him greatly. When a son was born to him a few years later from his second wife, he placed all his hopes and demands upon him. When Simchoni was born, his father was around the age of sixty. Given this great age difference, the father did not understand how to educate the son in accordance with his way, and he imposed upon him things that would even be difficult for older people. However, the talents of the child were beyond the usual. He had already learned from his mother to read Hebrew and German at the age of 13 1/2. He earned the name of a genius [iluy] at the cheder, but his father never praised him. Similarly, he distanced the lad and mocked the imaginary stories that he enjoyed. The father's stringency left deep marks upon the soul of the lad. He was a loner during his childhood and did not have many friends. There was only one matter in which the lad did not listen to his strict father. After he found the Hebrew book shop in the city, he never ceased going there morning and evening. The mania for reading, which was his hallmark until his final day, already affected him during his early childhood years. This was accompanied by the urge to write. He wrote his first work at around the age of eight, called “The Thousand Year War of the Birds.” In that book, he described the times of the battles between different species of birds, accompanied by pictures and maps. The lad worked for a year and a half on that work. He was fortunate in that his father was occupied at the rabbinical conference of Peterburg during that time, so there was nobody to impede the lad from acting as a child. When the father returned from his journey, the “author” continued with his literary work secretly for some time, until his hidden items were discovered one day, and all the notebooks were burned.

When Simchoni was about ten years old, he accompanied his father on a trip to Western Europe. That trip brought the two of them closer to each other. That time, they had many discussions about scientific matters, and the lad as influenced greatly by the investigative spirit of the older man. Simchoni lost his father at the age of thirteen. At the direction of his mother, he began to study gymnasium studies according to their curriculum, and took the annual exam at the city gymnasium of Slutsk. In time, he learned to write Hebrew poems. However, the influence of his late father was etched in his memory, and he regarded this as mere frivolity.

In the year 1898, he went with his mother to live in Minsk. There, he found a broad arena for his development. That which he lacked in Slutsk he completed there, in the city with many books. He especially read a great deal of history. He learned Latin and Greek, and began to study Arabic. He dedicated three hours a day to the study of Talmud from an expert. In those days, he also began to work on scientific endeavors. His first work was a family tree of his ancestors, especially from his mother's side, who was related to the author of Pnei Yehoshua. From time to time, he would travel from Minsk to Galicia, where his mother was born, or to Germany.

In 1903, he was ready to take his matriculation exam but when he arrived in Slutsk to be examined in the gymnasium, the exam was set for the Sabbath. Even though he was not meticulous about fulfilling the commandments, he refused to take the exam so that he would not violate the Sabbath publicly. Therefore, his journey abroad for university was delayed. In the meantime, the first revolution came (1905), which turned the world of the Jewish youth into a ferment. However, Simchoni was not swept up in the stream. He read the newspapers of the various parties, but the matters did not touch his heart. During the revolution, he was engaged in deep research on “The Rabbis of the City of Horodna.”

He left for Peterburg in 1906. He turned into a different person in that fruitful city. There, he became friends with the studying youth. He participated in various organizations and became involved with people. After he received his matriculation certificate, he went to the university of Leipzig. His mother supported him throughout his entire journey, so he was able to engage in his studies in comfort. He spent the summer months in Switzerland. There he became friendly with the poet Yaakov Cohen, who planned to publish a large anthology at that time called “The New Hebrew.” Simchoni's first article, “Rabbi Yehuda Halevi as a National Poet Who Made an Impression,” was published in that anthology in the year 5672 [1912].

Already before that, he published an article on the Pnei Yehoshua in German: Monatshrift für Geshichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 1913.

That year, he published an article on the Prophet Ezekiel in Heatid of Sh. Y. Horowitz (volume II).

In 1914, Simchoni earned his doctorate for his work “Research on lectures of Arabic Writers Regarding the Khazars.” From that year and onward, before and during the war, he lived in Berlin for a few years and was the living spirit of “House of the Committee for Hebrew,” which he turned into an important, well-known stage. After Poland was conquered by the German army and Hatzefira was reconstituted (1916), Simchoni participated in it with two large research works, on Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid and Shadal [Shmuel David Luzatto]. In 1917, he was invited to be a teacher of Hebrew subjects and the Dr. Braude Hebrew Gymnasium of Łódź. He spent a few years there and groomed many students while not neglecting his literary and scientific work. Aside from several research works and critical articles in Hatekufa (see Bibliography, page 16), while residing in Łódź, he translated the book “The War of the Jews” by Flavius from its Greek original into Hebrew, with the addition of a preface, notes, and index. He also wrote a detailed introduction to the Hebrew translation of Tchernichovski's Gilgamesh, and authored three sections of a comprehensive textbook on Jewish history (of which only two were published).

In 1925, he was invited to the editorial board of the Eshkol Israelite Encyclopedia in Berlin to work on its two editions, in Hebrew and German. This work was to be the crowning achievement of his activities. He was an encyclopedist by nature, an overflowing wellspring of breadth of knowledge. Immediately after arriving in Berlin, he immersed himself in this work with wondrous diligence. He made his nights like days, and within a few months, he became one of the supporting pillars of this massive enterprise. The list of articles published in the first two volumes of the German edition (see bibliography, pp. 16-18) as well as the articles published in the Hebrew volume of the encyclopedia, testify to his work and influence.

He suddenly became ill at the beginning of Sivan 5685 [1925], and died on the day after Shavuot at the age of 42. Great honor was extended to him in the Hebrew Berlin and in the Berlin of Jewish wisdom.

(From the Tzionim anthology)

Translator's Footnote

  1. The original has Msaismus in Latin characters, but I suspect it was a typo, and have corrected it. Return

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In the Place of Torah and Haskalah

by Dr. Aharon Domnitz

Translated by Jerrold Landau


In the Yeshiva of Rabbi Nechemia

At the age of twelve, I was exiled to a place of Torah, to the Yeshiva of Rabbi Nechemia in Slutsk in the Beis Midrash of Rabbi Isserke (Isserke's Shul). Rabbi Nechemia did not talk to his students a great deal. He was stringent on the meaning of a teacher, and he instilled bitterness in the student solely with the gaze of his eyes.

After I had been in the Yeshiva for a few weeks, a bad event took place, and I thought that I would be expelled from the Yeshiva because of it.

This is what happened: My father commanded me in one of his letters that my letters home should be written in the “Holy Language.” For this purpose, he sent me via the wagon driver the Book of Jeremiah with the commentary of the Malbim, and the well-known Maslul Hebrew grammar textbook. He wrote, “You should learn the Maslul for a half an hour before going to sleep at home, and peruse the Tanach for a half an hour between Mincha and Maariv.”

I perused the Maslul as I went to bed, and the Tanach with the commentary of the Malbim in the Beis Midrash between Mincha and Maariv.

Once, one of the prominent householders of the Beis Midrash passed by me, looked at me and the book, and raised his voice to me: “You are studying shvarba (the 24)[1] in Yeshiva? This leads to apostasy.” He slapped my cheeks in wrath. My friends later told me that they saw the man who insulted me speaking with the head of the Yeshiva. I suspected that I would be expelled from the Yeshiva.

The next day, Rabbi Nechemia taught his class and did not react at all to the incident. After the class, he gestured to me to come to him, and he asked me a question unrelated to the “issue”: “Do you have all your days taken care of?”[2].

“I am missing one,” I responded.

“So what do you do?”

“My mother sends me bread and cheese with the wagon driver.”

“O, o, that is good. But a hot meal, ah, a hot meal...” That is how the interview ended. I felt fatherly concern, warmth, and hidden love in his words and voice.

That day after the Maariv service, when all the householders as well as the Yeshiva head left for their homes, and only the Yeshiva lads remained, a young lad entered, approached the lad at the edge of the bench and asked him something. He pointed toward me. The lad approached me and asked me in a whisper, “Are you the one who was slapped on the cheek by my father?” I nodded my head to respond affirmatively. “Do you want to study the Holy Language?” He continued to look to the side. “If so,” he added, “Please come on Friday afternoon to the home of so-and-so on Zareca street, next to the Baalei Mussar Yeshiva, but don't reveal this.” I promised him, and I went to that place on Friday.

I entered a room full of books, piled up in heaps. A lad around the age of twenty, tall, with a long, thin face, approached me and asked me about my knowledge of Bible and the like. He pointed with his finger to an open book and asked me to read it to him. I looked and was amazed: A Hebrew book such as this I am seeing for the first time. There were words with square letters and the vowel diacritics, but without the Biblical trop signs in the middle of the page. There were smooth pages on both sides, without Rashi and without Tosafos. The short lines on the long page were organized in sections, four lines per stanza. I read one stanza. “Do you understand what you read?” he asked me. “Not everything,” I responded, “but I do know isolated words.” “If that is the case, come here on every Sabbath eve, and we will help you learn Hebrew.”

I came every Sabbath eve. One other lad was connected with me, and together we learned reading, the ordering of nouns and verb, and how to express thoughts in writing.

That man who slapped my face for my iniquity with the Bible between Mincha and Maariv was named Lifschitz. His son, who brought me under the wings of Hebrew, was Feitel. That Feitel Lifschitz escaped from his parents' home to go abroad. He graduated from universities and became a professor in Switzerland. He published a series of articles on economical matters in Hashiloach, titled “Economy and Politics in its Theories and Streams,” in which he analyzed well the foundations of the subject of economics, from the physiocrats and mercantilists in England, to the theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Maltus. He was unable to continue his research on the Marxists due to the censor.

As I peruse serious research works, I see the image of Feitel Lifschitz and his father who slapped my cheek before my eyes. Even that slap is recalled positively.


The Ridva'z

In the latter part of the 19th century, the personality of the rabbi of the city of Slutsk, Rabbi Yaakov David, was prominent. He later became known as the Ridva'z. Here are some sections of memories of his personality.

He was then occupied with his writings - his commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud - and he required technical assistance in finding required books for study, in copying the bibliographies, and the like. For this purpose, he used the services of the Yeshiva students of the area, who came to him in turn, with the permission of their rabbis for several hours a week.

I too was among them. With time, I was given a special task - to copy from his handwritten rough draft. This work was interesting, albeit somewhat difficult. His handwriting was very difficult to read. The letters were joined to each other, and were not sufficiently precise: the zayin looked like a gimel, and the ches like a shin. He also used many half words and acronyms, as is the custom among rabbis. I immersed myself in this matter and succeeded in fixing it up and improving it a great deal. I also found some errors in writing, such as interchanging an aleph with an ayin and a tes with a tav - slips of the pen. At first, I hesitated to show him my fixed out of fear of embarrassing the Gaon.

When I was forced to do so, his face became serious. Then he turned to me with a heartwarming smile and said: “You did well! You are a smart lad! Fix! Fix! I believe I can rely on you.” As he was talking, he pinched my ears strongly. Thus, I became his private secretary for a period of time.


The Ridva'z and Doctor Schildkraut

On a cloudless morning on a hot summer day, the Ridva'z invited us to go with him to bathe in the river. Along the way, he discussed Torah matters with us. He asked questions and posed difficulties on the Talmudic discussion in which we were studying at the Yeshiva. Everything was lighthearted and playful, for he loved to joke with our group. Those who knew how to respond and what to answer earned a loving pinch. Whoever did not know was given the punishment of having to remain in his Beis Midrash for a week, until he knew his studies.

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The river in Slutsk passed through the city, and there were changing booths for the bathers. When we arrived, we only found Dr. Schildkraut, who had just come out of the water and was starting to get dressed. Dr. Schildkraut spoke Yiddish with a Russian accent. He was known as an excellent physician. The two men recognized each other, greeted each other, and exchanged a brief conversation with mutual respect, as befits two great people, each in their own field.

We young people jumped into the water immediately. The rabbi also jumped into the cool water after taking off his clothes. Dr. Schildkraut looked at the rabbi and said, “O, honorable Rabbin, one should not do this. It is harmful to the health. One should first get wet up to the chest, and only then enter.” The rabbi smiled and responded, “My sir the doctor, if everyone paid attention to the words of both of us, the world would not exist,” and he laughed heartily. The doctor remained standing open mouthed and uttered, “Rabbin! Eto Zamechatelno! [Awesome!] This is wonderful, I never would have imagined!... This is the wisdom of life that only a great rabbi could say.” - and they both laughed.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Twenty-four refers to the 24 books of the Tanach. Return
  2. This refers to the rotation of days for the local householders to host Yeshiva students for their meals. Return


Translated by Jerrold Landau

Rabbi Yerucham Dobrow was a native of Slutsk. After he left the rabbinical seat in Keidanov, he was appointed as the head of the Yeshiva in Slutsk. He left that post in his old age and sat in the synagogue of the hatmakers (Der Kirznenere Shul), occupying himself with Torah day and night. When I was studying in the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva, the name of Rabbi Yerucham enchanted me, and I went to see him. I found him sitting alone next to the oven. I approached him, but he was so immersed in his studies that he did not notice me. When he interrupted his studies, he looked at me and started a conversation with me, but to my great dismay, I did not understand his words.

My eyes filled with tears. I bowed me head so that he would bless me, and he did not refuse. I visited him several times a week, until I became accustomed to understanding his words, more or less.

I would bring to him everything that was difficult for the scholars in the Yeshiva. He would respond in brief, and straighten out the difficulties.

When my visits to Rabbi Yerucham became known in the Yeshiva, other of the finest students of the Yeshiva began to visit him and disturb him with their questions. It was difficult for them to understand his conversation, for he was careful with the minutes that were precious to him. Therefore, they refrained from visiting him often.

(Told by Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem)



The elderly rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Setzer of blessed memory, formerly the honorary president and director of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States, spent time during his youth in the shadow of the aforementioned Rabbi Yehuda.

He spoke a great deal of the praiseworthiness and modesty of Rabbi Yerucham. The following is one of his stories: A melamed with many older daughters lived in the neighborhood of Rabbi Yerucham. A proper match was made for one of them with a lad from a well-off family, and the groom demanded a dowry of 300 rubles. The Tenaim [premarital agreement] was arranged in Rabbi Yerucham's home. To the question of the father of the groom as to when the dowry would be paid, the melamed replied, “In a month.” The in-law did not agree, and asked that the dowry be paid immediately. He grabbed his coat and prepared to leave the party.

Rabbi Yerucham could not bear witnessing the agony of the melamed, so he stood up and said, “I will be his guarantor.”

The Tenaim were written at a propitious time, and the date of the wedding was set. The melamed promised Rabbi Yerucham that he would travel afar, and with the help of G-d find what he needs, and collect the money for the dowry. Since the melamed did not succeed in this endeavor, and was unable to fulfill his words, Rabbi Yerucham approached Hirsch Natzov, the well-known tycoon of the city, to borrow 300 rubles, which he gave to the father of the groom. Despite the promises of that melamed, the debt has not been repaid to this day.



Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem relates:

When I was in Slutsk, I went to the cemetery on Tisha B'Av (as is brought down in the Code of Jewish Law), and I tarried next to a gravestone: “Here is buried, the G-dly Tzadik and Kabbalist, Rabbi Gedalya HaKohen from the village of Kuzmitz.”

To my question as to who was that Tzadik, I was answered that it was known to the elders of the generation that he was nicknamed “Der Leiventener Tzadik.”

Later I found out that he had lived in the village of Kuzmitz. The answer was in his external appearance. He wore linen clothing, and a rope around his waist. At times, he would bring firewood to sell in the marketplace. When he came to the city, he would go at night to the homes of the renowned rabbis Rabbi Yossele Feiter in his time and Rabbi Yosef Dov in his time, and discuss Torah thoughts with them.

There is a tradition from the elders of the generation that at the funeral of Rabbi Mendele of Slutsk, who became ill at the conclusion of the Sabbath, Reb Gedalya was among those who attended. Several people testified that on that Saturday night, they visited Reb Gedalya in the village of Kuzmitz. There is a distance of about ten miles between Slutsk and Kuzmitz. This was a wonder.



Rabbi Mendele, the head of the rabbinical court of Hlusk, left the rabbinate and settled in Slutsk, where he gave a class for students in the Kloiz.

The Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was among those who attended his class during his youth. After time, when the write of the rabbinate for Rabbi Yosef Ber reached Slutsk, he responded to the parnassim [administrators] of Slutsk: “A lion dwells in your midst, so why are you turning to me?” (He was referring to Rabbi Mendele.)



Rabbi Shmuel Leibowitz from the village of Podlivcha near Slutsk, the father of the Gaon Rabbi Baruch Ber, the rabbi of Hlusk and later a Yeshiva head in the Yeshiva of Kamenetz Litovsk, was great in Torah.

Every Sabbath, he would deliver a class in Mishnah in the Tailors' Beis Midrash, which was full to the brim.

When I studied with Rabbi Baruch Ber in Hlusk, I saw with my own eyes the honor that Rabbi Baruch Ber extended to his father when he visited him from Slutsk.

[Page 107]

Hillel Dubrow

by Sh. N.

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Hillel Dubrow was born in the year 5637 [1877] in the town of Stushin, district of Mohilev.

He was orphaned from his mother during his childhood, and was sent to his father's relatives in Slutsk.

During his early years, he already became known as a genius. When the bounds of the Yeshivot were too small for him, he went to the large Beis Midrash and diligently studied on his own Talmud with its commentaries, and the early and latter rabbinical decisors. He was from a well-off family, and was a scholar. He fraternized and befriended veteran studiers, and discussed matters of halacha with them, as one of them.

A few years passed, and that pleasant youth discovered a new light in a different arena. Hillel Dubrow, the pioneer in Hebrew teaching in Slutsk, appeared. He was the living spirit in the Zionist organization and the dissemination of Hebrew culture. These were the early days of political Zionism, the era of the first congresses, and the sprouting of the new Hebrew literature. Hillel Dubrow, alert and vibrant by nature, left the bounds of the Beis Midrash, acquired secular knowledge to a certain degree with wondrous speed, and dedicated himself with all strands of his soul to the Zionist movement and the revival of the Hebrew language. He was young, and his small room at the edge of the city became a gathering place for everyone interested in Zionism and Hebrew culture. The finest of the intelligentsia of the city, with nationalist consciousness, would come to his door morning and evening. He was graced with a wonderful power of attraction. The youth, lads and girls who knew Hebrew, gathered around him. Through his influence, the echoes of the living Hebrew language were heard in public gatherings, in parties for issues of the new and old literature, and even on the street and in private homes. He knew how to encourage literary talents that were exposed within the youth close to him. No small number of those were close to him during their youth, in time became leaders in our literature. (Among the most well-known, we recall the prominent researchers and writers, professor Simcha Assaf and Abraham Epstein, may their memories be a blessing; and, may they live long, Y. D. Berkowitz, and in the United States, Dr. Meir Wachsman.)

Dubrow left Slutsk at the beginning of 5665 [1905]. At first, he settled in Yekatrinoslav, and occupied himself with teaching the Hebrew language. Later, he worked alongside Yechiel Halperin of blessed memory in Warsaw and Odessa, in the seminary for kindergarten teaching. During the latter part of the First World War, he moved to Bessarabia for family reasons, where he founded a modern Hebrew school. He groomed hundreds of students with nationalist consciousness. Many of them were among those who actualized the pioneering in the city. He was known in Bessarabia as one of the diligent activists of the Young Zion movement. He worked greatly for aliya to the Land. His family home in Bessarabia was a Hebrew-Zionist home by all perspectives: the spoken language was only Hebrew, and his children were educated in the pioneering spirit.

He made aliya to the Land with his family at the beginning of 5696 [1935]. He was already close to sixty when he arrived in the Land. He moved away from his wide-branched activities in communal affairs (aside from his activities on behalf of the Jewish National Fund at the school). He continued to work in the teaching and education profession for another seventeen consecutive years, until he reached old age.

He died on 2 Tevet 5716 [1955].

Hillel Dubrow's personal and communal image during the period of his nationalist activity in Slutsk is described in sharp, cutting, comical style in the letter of the young writer Y. D. Berkowitz, who was working then as the literary editor on the editorial committee of Hazman of Vilna.

Hillel Dubrow fulfilled the adage, “Say little and do much”[1]. Furthermore, he did not write many letters, and he often neglected responding to his letters that he received from his friends.

The following letter focuses on that matter.

Takanat Agunot[2]

I seek my husband!

It has been five months since my husband [i.e. my master], my honorable teacher Hillel the son of Reb Moshe, may he live, Dubrow, left me to my groans, and I do not know where he is. Before he went, he told me that he would be in Katrineslav, and also sent me several postcards from there, but it has been a long time since I have received any communication from him. And I am a weak, poor women with young children. Since he was handsome, and I have been told by reliable witnesses that all the single women in our city were literally hanging from his neck, and I did not know that he found favor in the eyes of all who saw him, princes have seen him and praised him, queens, and concubines, etc.; and he was also a cynic and went around with all the Maskilim and young people, and even the women an madams in our city in general – therefore I present my petition to the Jews, merciful ones the children of merciful ones, have mercy upon me and save me, and I, if I am lost, etc.[3] For I am not considered by the Jews as a weak woman with children at the breast, so tell me where he is, why he does not write, and why he has forgotten about me and his children. Then the blessing of G-d will come upon you, and it will be a great mitzva.

The signs: he is of average height, and he wears a white, linen cap, a black rubashka shirt with black kotas in the summer. In the winter, he wears what is called a dizhurke in the vernacular, and had great enjoyment from it. His hair was white (yellow-blond), his lips were small and thin, and when he talked he sprayed with his nose and mouth. There was always a thick pencil sticking out of his pocket to prevent any mishap. He always had a small booklet in his chest pocket, in which he wrote every piece of trivia. The main thing was that my husband was very handsome, and all the women said that he was Krasovetz, etc. The virgins follow after him, leaving me and my son in great danger. I will forever remain as an aguna with little children, Heaven save us.

Send the response to the rabbi, Gaon, rabbinical judge, and teacher of righteousness of this community, and save a daughter of Israel from descending to the netherworld.

Thus speaks the unfortunate woman pleading for her life and the life of her children, and wandering about in great want.

Yitzchak Dov Berkowitz

I testify to the truth of this woman's words.

Signed: E. Singalovski[a]

Living here in Vilna

Translator's Footnote

  1. Later Dr. Aharon Singalovski, president of the ORT organization. At that time, he was living in Vilna as a flatmate of Y. D. Berkowitz Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Pirkei Avot 1:15. Return
  2. A difficult title to translate. It refers to the halachic concept of finding solutions for women stuck in an unworkable marriage – in modern times primarily due to a husband's refusal to give a get, and in older times, primarily due to the disappearance of the husband during a journey or a war. It could also refer to cases, such as during 9/11, where a husband is presumed dead, but this cannot be proved. There is extensive rabbinical literature inf finding a solution for such women so that they can become unstuck from the previous marriage, and therefore remarry. Return
  3. “If I am lost, I am lost” from Esther 4:16. Return

[Page 108]

In memory of Dr. Nathan Klotz

by Dr. Meir Waxman

Translated by Jerrold Landau


Dr. Nathan Kotz
of blessed memory


The city of Slutsk merited renown in the Jewish world, not only due to the fact that its rabbinical seat as occupied by Torah greats who achieved fame in the world of halacha, but also because it succeeded in raising and educating writers and wise people whose contributions enriched Hebrew literature and the wisdom of Israel in many subjects. Among them were Y. N. Simchoni, the historian and researcher of literature of the Middle Ages; Y. D. Berkowitz, a storyteller with talent and a wonderful style; Lisitzki the poet, who earned a place in the Hebrew poetry of our nation Dr. Avraham Epstein, who excelled in his penetrating, deep criticism.

I wish to erect a monument to a wise man of Slutsk with great knowledge in the wisdom of Israel, who excelled in particular in Biblical research. However, due to his modesty, or perhaps due to his great thirst to absorb knowledge and wisdom, he did not give off much. This is Dr. Nathan Klotz.

This wise man, who was my childhood friend, excelled further with his great enthusiasm for the wisdom of Israel. The names of its builders: Zunz, Graetz, Shada'l, [Shmuel David Luzzatto] and others never left his lips. In every meeting with a friend, he never ceased praising and lauding their important contributions. A desire was hatched in his heart to leave the city of his birth, to travel to Germany, and to register as a student in the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary in order to become a disciple of the sages and to quench his thirst from the wellsprings of their wisdom and their vast knowledge.

This aspiration was realized after he spent a few years in the famous Yeshiva of Odessa headed by Dr. Chaim Chernovitz of blessed memory, in which Dr. Yosef Klausner and Ch. N. Bialik taught. There, he also engaged in general studies , including European languages, especially German language and literature. In Breslau, he delved deeply into the Bible and its commentators, and became export in all their corners and hidden areas. He received his Ph.D. for his German story about Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto as a Biblical commentator, which is to be published soon.

He came to New York a few years after the First World War, and was immediately appointed in a professor at the teachers' seminary of the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan[1], where he taught for 24 years, until the day of his death in the year 5706 [1946].

In that school, he found the opportunity to disseminate his great knowledge among his many students, if not in writing then orally. He educated an entire generation with sharp, deep knowledge in the holy writings. He especially attempted to instill in the hearts of his students the love of Jewish wisdom and its builders, and to encourage them to delve into their books, to appreciate them and revere them.

As his students and friends in the Beis Midrash have told me, he excelled in his speeches, whether in the teacher's seminary or in the Dr. Revel graduate school of Jewish studies, both in their comments and in their style. They left a deep impression upon the hearts.

This sage of Slutsk merited to be a guide to hundreds of students in the knowledge of Bible, and in implanting the love of Torah and the wisdom of Israel in their hearts. These students, many of whom are rabbis or schoolteachers, will imbue the spirit of their rabbi upon their congregations and students during the course of their holy work. This is the important contribution of Nathan Klotz to American Jewry.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Yeshiva University. Return

Rabbi Shachna the Shamash [Sexton]

by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Chiger

Translated by Jerrold Landau

To his face they called him Rabbi Shachna, but he was called “Rabbi Shachna the Shamash” when not in his presence, in any case, with the title of rabbi. He was a great scholar, with a sharp mind. Aside from his great expertise in Talmud and halachic decisors, he had great knowledge of Bible and literature, and was considered to be one of the special people in whom Torah and wisdom were blended.

However, the source of his livelihood was neither from Torah nor wisdom. He did not make them a crown with which to aggrandize himself of a spade with which to dig[1], but rather to enjoy and provide enjoyment to others through them.

He was not a rabbi, but rather a shamash[2]. He was the assistant and secretary of the rabbi of the city. During the era about which I am writing, 1912-1920, he was the assistant and secretary of the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.

Those years were the years of the First World War, as well as a few years before and after. There was difficulty and tribulations for the Jews of Russia. From time to time, he had to publicize proclamations for the community, telling them to avoid and refrain from certain activities. Rabbi Shacha was both the author and the announcers of such decrees.

Rabbi Shachna was a great writer. His vocabulary was rich, and he always found the appropriate words with which to give proper and precise expression

[Page 109]

to various intentions and reasons that made it necessary for the leader of the community to issue the proclamations. The style of the proclamations excelled in their simplicity and clarity. Every person, and even children, could understand them despite their great brevity. There was no dual meaning, unclarity or misunderstanding in the world. No additional commentaries were required. The proclamations were skillfully constructed, and testified to the talents and intelligence of their author.

There were approximately twenty synagogues in Slutsk. Approximately one third were in the center of the city, and the rest were scattered along various roads. Almost every Sabbath during the time of the morning prayers, one could see Rabbi Shachna go from street to street, hurrying from one synagogue to the next, tired and weary, breathing heavily and sweeting. He would ascend the bima [podium] of the synagogue and begin to proclaim. His voice was clear and resonant. Every word and phrase was uttered with appropriate expression. His voice and bodily movements would change according to the content and the meaning of the words, without any outside input, but rather with understanding and deep feeling for the seriousness and importance of the matter. The faces of the audience testified that all his words made a deep impression, and did not miss their mark.

Thanks to his clear style and clear expression, he was also good at telling popular jokes. He had a joyous spirit by nature. Sadness found no place in his heart. There was a light smile on his face, and his eyes sparkled with calm and joy. He never missed an opportunity to tell a joke, appropriate to the time and place. He wanted to enjoy and be glad, and also bring joy and happiness to others. When he told any joke, he used descriptions and similes that attracted the heart, stemming from his good personality. The audience would stand around him open mouthed, swallowing his every expression. When he reached the punchline of his joke, he would end suddenly, and mirthful laughter would burst forth from the depths of the souls of his audience. The laughter of the teller of the joke would join with the laughter of the audience, for enjoyed telling jokes and making others happy.

After many years, the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, may the memory of the holy be blessed, would tell over the jokes of Rabbi Shachna during moments of mirth for the enjoyment of the listeners. He would add, “Had you heard this joke from the mouth of Rabbi Shacha himself, you would have enjoyed it sevenfold.”

With his great love for his fellow, and especially from scholars, he took it upon himself to care for the Yeshiva lads who streamed to Slutsk from all corners of Russia to hear Torah from the Gaon of the generation Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, may the memory of the holy be blessed. At the end of the vacation period after Passover and Sukkot, one could meet Rabbi Shachna in the company of groups of lads, going around and looking at houses on the sides of the street, to determine whether it would be possible to host one or two of the Yeshiva lads there. During those years when the Yeshiva lads took their meals in rotation, Rabbi Shachna would also arrange the rotation system.

Since this institution was called a komitet, one can surmise that a special committee of the town notables was set up to conduct the matters of the institution and tend to its needs. However, in actuality, the entire concern and burden fell upon Rabbi Shachna. He bore the entire burden of the great work without complaint. He did everything out of the joy of fulfilling a mitzva. His righteous wife, who was in full agreement with all his deeds, sewed a special sack of white linen, which she used to collect loaves of bread and other food items from the residents of the city for the komitet. Every morning, Rabbi Shachna could be seen on the streets of the city with his short stature bent over under the weight of the heavy sack, which reached his ankles. He hurried in the direction of the dining hall to provide breakfast for the Yeshiva students as early as possible.

Rabbi Shachna's house on America Street was poor and meager on the outside, but clean and warm on the inside. The name “America” requires explanation. This street was not one of splendor, luxury, and wealth, as the streets of the new world. On the contrary, the street was noted by its puddles of mud and slime, and its shaky houses. This street was the place of residence of the poor people and the “underworld” of Slutsk. All the corruption and licentiousness, all the boisterousness and drunkenness, all the indigents and paupers found their center on that street. The residents of the street would give two reasons for the splendid name of America for their street. Those who belonged to the group of licentiousness and drunkards would say that the road symbolizes free America, where everyone is permitted to do whatever they desire. However, the paupers and indigents gave the reason as the irony in the name, which contrasts the bitterness and disappointment in their life conditions with the life of wealth and excess in America, the land to which they desired. Rabbi Shachna set up his home specifically on that dirty, filthy street. It is possible that this too was influenced by the love of his fellow, with his readiness to help them and benefit them. Indeed, his house was like a grassy lawn in a large bog, like a shade tree in a sandy desert.

Since he was known as a man who was expert in world events, with some business knowledge, at times, merchants and businessmen would come to his home to write an agreement or a contract. When such people came to his home, they would bring with them a better atmosphere to the forlorn street. This was especially noticeable on Sabbaths and festivals. Rabbi Shachna used to invite guests to his home for Sabbaths and festivals. Preachers, orators, authors, emissaries, and ordinary scholars would stream to Rabbi Shachna's house to benefit from his words of wisdom and the handiwork of his diligent wife, who would prepare treats and delicacies, and would relate politely to all guests. The clean kapotes and sparkling hats of the guests were a complete opposite of the filthy street.

The fact that Rabbi Shachna and his household did not suffer from the filth and corruption of the environment is interesting. The residents of the street, both Jews and Christians, honored and revered Rabbi Shachna, and not only treated he and his family with respect, but also his house, yard, and garden. They did not throw stones at his windows, his fence was not broken, and his garden was not trampled. It seemed that the drunks and rowdies of the street apparently accepted upon themselves to grant extraterritorial immunity to Rabbi Shachna, his household, and everything belonging to him.

During his free time late at night or early in the morning, Rabbi Shachna would sit in his room and study Torah.

He would study out loud with a melody at the time that the songs of the drunkards, the loud voices of discord and shouting, or an argument between a drunkard and his wife, would permeate outside. The pleasant voice of Rabbi Shachna would echo and attract the hearts of the neighbors.

Rabbi Shachna died at an old age several years before the outbreak of the Second World War. He was eulogized appropriately. However, most of his family was murdered by the Nazis, may their names be blotted out. There were only two survivors of his large family, one in America and one in Israel.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Expressions referring to utilizing the Torah for earning one's livelihood, based on Pirkei Avot 4:5. Return
  2. Usually referring to a sexton or a beadle, but here referring to the assistant of the rabbi. Return


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