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Slutsk in the Hebrew literature


Mendele Mocher Sforim (Mendele the book peddler)
Excerpt from the book “Of Bygone Days”

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

The childhood of Mendele Mocher Sforim (Shalom Ya'akov Abramowitz) and his early youth were spent in his hometown of Kapoli and in the nearby cities, mainly in Slutsk and Timkovichi, and in his autobiographical story “Of Bygone Days” he also dedicates a considerable part to the description of these surrounding cities. Here are excerpts from chapters describing the lives of the students of the Yeshiva in Slutsk in those days. Mendele indicated the names of the cities in their initials and endings and wrote: S-K (Slutsk), T-I (Timkovichi). We publish here, for ease of reading, the name Slutsk in its entirety and write it as follows: S[luts]K


Mendele Mocher Sforim



[On the way from Kapoli to Slutsk]

- - - And one day after the holiday, in the early morning, when the sun was seen beyond a shroud of clouds, like someone who fears change, covering his moustache, Shlomo secretly left the city to make his way to S[luts]K, and in his backpack was nothing but a tefillin, a slice of bread and the cloths he was wearing. And the road was not good, it was made of ridges, mud and clay from the rains, and Shlomo'li was not familiar with it. So, what shall he do? He decided to wait until a cart comes across him on the road and throw himself into it without payment, or to sit cramped, bent and hanging behind it. Just like a poor traveler who was not like the others – and so he would stand and wait until the coming of the Redeemer but to no avail. - - - Shlomo'li ponders and ponders, he stands and his heart goes to S[luts]K, his spirit aspires to his destination, so he can prepare for him all his needs there ahead, lest someone else will arrive ahead of him and he still has to pass the bumpy road. Finally, he made up his mind and went on his way. His feet are drowning in with mud, his shoes are soaking up water, his overshoes are torn, the soles are exposed, his heels are ruined and his capote is all worn out, from the bottom to the neck. He becomes weak, and he hesitates, he walks a little longer, and he falls on the road - at that moment, a curse and the sound of a whip was heard, and here, he sees a beaten and oppressed horse before his eyes, all filthy and dirty with mud, and a figure of a man wrapped in front of him, his brown hat hanging down to his eye brows, the collar of his coat is raised up and a worn-out handkerchief is wrapped around it. And here a muffled voice, as if the voice is coming out of an empty barrel, calls to him from the rag: Hey, boy! What are you doing here, the son of Rabbi Chaim? On such a cloudy day, even a fool dog is not seen outside. - Oh, Rabbi Michal! Shlomo'li shouted and spread his hands, but his speaking ability disappeared and he felt as if something is stuck in his throat and he can't speak. And here, the voice is calling him again: Come on, boy, climb on the cart!

Indeed, it was the talkative Michal Ba'ar Bar Hana Yentil.

- “Some by car and some by horses,” - - - The “governor” Damta fell ill last night. It can be because he went to sleep just after eating Arvit. They rushed to bring the expert and he came with all his tools - blood-letting tools and with the Micromeria fruticosa, with a razor and scissors, but to no avail. And the governor said at once: Send someone to S[luts]K and bring me the doctor Hirschili, he is the expert and there is no one else better than him! And now, here he goes on this gloomy day, on a mission for the sick governor. And he swore, so help him the blessed God, the creator of all reasons and the master of all the happenings, that his heart is very happy that God caused a stomach ache to the governor and he granted Michal the right to lead in his cart the son of Rabbi Chaim to the Yeshiva in S[luts]K. - - -



At the Yeshiva in S[luts]K

The city of S[luts]K is one of the towns in Lithuania, that served as a place of the Torah in the Yeshivas there. It is the Yeshiva that gives this city its reputation among all the Jews around it, and if it weren't for it, the city would have been

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forgotten and there was no memory of it in the world. One can dare to say, that the Yeshiva is a kind of livelihood, similar to the learning in the university, which brings abundance for the residents of the place it is located in - God forbid! On the contrary, not only that it does not bring benefit to the people of the city, but it takes from their money. The professors that teach in it are poor Yeshiva heads, and their students - poor guys with not even a penny in their pockets. They come to the city neither by car nor by horses, but on their feet, poor and with no belongings, except for their bundles of tattered and worn-out shirts, and a pair of dirty shoes with scuffed heels, and so, the people of the city have to take care for all their needs. And the people of the city themselves are in need and the needs of the poor of their city are already taken care by them, and now they also take on themselves to take care of the needs of others, of these young men, and they do it willingly. The poor man in the city shares his bread with a wise scholar - all in honor of the Torah!

The Yeshiva scholars learn in two classes, one above the other, each class and its melamed. The melamed of the upper class is the great head of the Yeshiva, and the melamed of the lower class is his deputy who is subordinated to him. This deputy teaches every day after the morning prayer his lesson in the Gemara with its interpretations according to the Pshat, when he sits in the middle of the table and his students surround the table in front of him like a crown. And by the way, he tests them with his questions about the same matter that he teaches, to know if they learned it properly yesterday. And when he is not satisfied with the knowledge of one of his student, he embarrasses him with his words, and sometimes even with a slap on the face, so that he knows that the Torah needs study. Most of his students are new faces, students who came only short time ago. And the head of the Yeshiva teaches his daily lesson to his older students and discusses with them questions and the words of the sages. And at the same time, the wise students start to argue and discuss and negotiate with each other with shouts and loud voices, while straightening their hands and pointing their fingers and rubbing their foreheads and frowning, to emphasize and explain the deep meaning of “that is” and where the argument of “one has to settle” ends. When the day's lesson is over, the big students are dismissed and they go to study and do their homework for tomorrow wherever they want. And the little ones, most of them, must prepare their homework in the Yeshiva house under the supervision of their Rabbi, who is a regularly present there. Sometimes when he comes and they don't notice him - while the young students are tired and weary from their Talmud and they put down the Gemara and get up of the tables to make some fun - he tells them exhortation and proves to them with moral books, how great is the offense of canceling the Torah and how severe is the punishment for those who cross it. And he adds his own perspective, that it is forbidden to the people of Israel to make fun in this world, and that the joy of this world is not their goal... But there is no wisdom, no morals, and no exhortation that can prevent the youth from laughing in order to forget for a moment about all their studies, as they are flesh and blood. This is how the young men rejoice all year round, in chastity; And during the “in between days” until they start their studies at the Yeshiva, and while the horror of the rabbi is not yet upon them - the boys want to laugh in public.

The days are the “in between days” after the Sukkot holiday, the time for the people of Israel, from the youngest to the oldest, to start learning wherever they are. The S[luts]K Yeshiva is crowded with young men, some are new, some are returning from their home, where they went by foot, some are residents or residents' sons, that the Yeshiva is their permanent Yeshiva and it is their home. The time is the time of the great fair in the Yeshiva, and the “days” - that is, the fixed days for eating at the house owners. The eating arrangement is the goods, which is the desire of all the Yeshiva students. The first important thing for each of them is the eating. And there are searching and running, competition and jealousy, quarrels and fights over the fixed days, and not all the students get to fill the entire days of the week with eating arrangements. The young man that managed to fill the entire days of the week with eating arrangement is very lucky; The young man who managed to fill five days of the week with eating arrangements is also lucky; And miserable is the young man whose most of the week days lack an eating arrangement! The status of the young men that are residents of the place among their fellows is as strong as the status of the great merchants with money among the small merchants and peddlers in the market at the time of the fair. After all, they have a lot! They have a place to eat for the entire days of the week, and they have easy income, part of it is from Yeshiva students, and therefore their minds are free to deal with others' needs, to do favors for the poor boys who come anew, to guide them and lead their leadership over them high-handedly - with a hand strike on the cheek, on the side and on the shoulder in order to educate them in the Yeshiva life and the way of the Torah in all their details and tortures.

As soon as a young man comes to the Yeshiva, just as a little one who is born, he enters the covenant and the naming. He will no longer be called by his birth name, but he will be named in a new name after his city, such as Nisoizi, Kalitskyi, Salonimi, Lechvizi, etc. The boy will forget his name and his past, as well as his home and his childhood days. - - -

And at the time of this fair for the Yeshiva students, the business of benches and tables is also done there. The possession of the benches for overnight stays is bought and sold from hand to hand. A bench that is closer to the oven is more expensive, and the one next to the oven is the best, and lucky is the student who wins it and rests on it at night. Above it is the oven itself, which lying on it is a kind of taste of heaven, but there are only few who deserve it.

And there are two kinds of easy income which do not involve trade, and they are: the Minyan and the wallet. What is the Minyan? These are Yeshiva students who are assigned to pray at a Minyan (ten people) in the evening and morning at the mourning house during the seven days of mourning, or throughout the entire year, and receive a reward for their prayer. And what is the wallet? This is a wallet of charity from the donations of homeowners for the maintenance of the Yeshiva, which the deputy head of the Yeshiva with one of the guys that accompanies him, collects every Thursday and Friday. And in addition to the great honor in going with his rabbi and collect money from the houses, he also receives a salary of 18 pennies. These two good gifts are reserved for the elders of the yeshiva, or for those who excel in the Talmud, and the young Yeshiva students, who just arrived to the Yeshiva, do not have rights in them.

A young man, who just arrived to the Yeshiva, is similar to one who has come to a new world, a kind of world to come with all its mortification and tortures. Because he arrived, he immediately feels the sorrow of the beating - a beating behind him and in front of him, plucking and beating from all sides. His friends - damagers and angels of destruction - they greet him with cheers, welcome and jokes, starting with supposedly good things, and while talking they change

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and turn to words of laughing, and from laugh they start to push, and from a blow to a punch and a kick and a crushing of bones, all seems incidentally and by mistake, until they finally reach the part of putting incense in his nose, and several damp rags on his head. The torments of the Yeshiva student in the first days of his arrival are difficult, similar to the torments of hell. He will eat only a little bread, he will sleep on a hard bench which will hurt all his bones, he will place his capote under him as a linen and his hands under his head, and will be rubbing and rolling a lot until he becomes tattered and turns into a kind of new person and a kind of a “soul” that is strangely connected to the souls of the other students, who are known and marked by the name of “Patrons”; And the experience of guys in this hell is not the same for everyone. The suffering period of those who are arrogant and rude in spirit, last longer than the period of those who are humble and miserable, who listen and do not answer. The braggart students are the most hated ones. Since you came here, they say to him, follow the path of Torah like all your friends, and don't say I am a great man!

This fair, which began to be a frequent event “in between times”, is usually more crowded in the evening, while the young men, both new and old, come back from their wondering in the city, after being busy all day with their affairs. So, at one of the evenings, the students of the Yeshiva were talking one to another about daily matters and about the things that are necessary for eating and all their needs. One said he hopes he will manage to fill all the “days” with eating arrangements. Another student despairs and worries and complains about his bad luck, that all his eating arrangements are at poor families, that offers only bread and a grits stew, and his friend brags how lucky he is, that the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged for him a wealthy householder for the holy Friday and Saturday, which are known as days of eating and drinking well among the Yeshiva students all over the world. He is busy there on Shabbat evening cooking fish and scraping horseradish at the brewery, and Haema, a good woman and a kosher Jew, gives him a loaf of bread when she takes it out of the oven, so he will have something to eat on Sunday. Another gang of guys would beat each other by loud growling and singing of the Mishnah and Gemara, and the voice of the leaders of the gang rises above everyone, shouting and arguing and doing whatever their heart desires, and there at the back of the house in the dark, one of the boys prostrates himself and lies down like a king in a regiment on a bench, his left under his head and intending to take a nap.

- - -The ancestors' merit was by Shlomo'li, not only for his coming safely to the Yeshiva, but also for finding eating arrangements for all the “days” and being liked there and on more for good things there. - - -

Shlomo'li was brought to Slutsk to the same inn, where the people of his town and Michal Ba'ar Bar Hana Yentil stay regularly, and there he realized that his ancestors' merit helps him from beginning to end. The owners of the inn, both good and kosher people, who respected Rabbi Chaim, agreed to feed his son on their house on every Shabbat evening and on Saturdays, and the two brothers, the aforesaid intercessors, also remembered his father's kindness and provided him with eating arrangements for the other week days, and also arranged a place for him to sleep in a house of an honorable man, a man from their community. And so, he had all he needed - daily meals and a hot oven to sleep by in his bed at night, which is not the share of every Yeshiva boy.

From all the days of Shlomo'li's yeshiva in the city of Slutsk, which lasted two years with a break in between, only a few of them are worth noting, most of them were days of nothing but dealing with day-to-day matters.

The evenings of the rainy days left impression on Shlomo'li. In these evenings he would spend with the gang of young men in the Yeshiva --- Outside, the ice was getting stronger and, in the house, there was darkness. One by one, the young men come back from their places of feasting, shivering from the cold and rubbing their hands. The oven is burning - bonfires and lots of wood. Two guys, one with no eating arrangement for that day and one who brought a few potatoes from the house owner that feeds him for the Arvit meal, sit on their knees near the oven and watch over their cauldron there. The cauldrons are boiling and the boiling grits move inside them, rising and falling and knocking bang, bang!

And the rest of the guys sit in semi-circle and warm themselves against the light, cheering and joking, mocking and joking, and their faces are full of excitement. And one piece of wood gets excited and dodges among the other woods, extends the tongues of fire, moves here and there and shoots sparks and fireworks, making pif paf sounds and finishes with a big blow! The potatoes and the grits are ready to eat. They take out the cauldrons from the oven and a voice comes out from one of the guys that were sitting, and he announces and says: Stand up friends, the time for reading the Shema has come, the Cohanim, the owners of the cauldrons, get inside to eat their potatoes and grits.- - -

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Y.L. Gordon's letters to Maggid Reb Zvi Dainow of Slutsk

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Jane S. Gabin

Y.L. Gordon's letters to Maggid Reb Zvi Dainov of Slutsk testify to the mental distress, persecutions and great suffering to which Maggid Dainov was subjected. Ninety years ago, Dainov advocated to Haskalah and love for Zion. On the recommendation of Y.L. Gordon and his advice, he settled in London and was somewhat relieved.

Telz, Rosh Hashanah Eve 1868, 5628, 5th of Tevet.

Honorable Rabbi, the Maggid of Slutsk, the famous preacher, our teachers Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Dainow, may he live long.

His letter, as long as the length of the exile of the Jews, with 24 pages, written only on the face on the page and not backwards, came to me on the fourteenth day after it was written. - - - My heart was happy to hear from his second letter that he acclimatized well in this city (Kaunas) which was full of gentlemen, benefactors and wise and well-known people. I knew that he would be successful even without recommendation letters, because his name was already widely known. And I do not yet know what the focus of his new sermons would be about, and therefore I will be brave and ask him to stir up the hearts of the people of Israel for these two issues in his sermons: a) Little by little, to leave these districts, where many thousands of people of Israel are living in crowdedness and density, cruelly to each other, and each generation deteriorates even more due to this tight pressure, which they push one another, and to move their home to the middle districts in the land of Great Russia. As he has now given a license to the artisans, and this thing is good and beneficial to the whole nation, he should also awaken the hearts of the benefactors to form societies in every city and collect alms to support such wanderers. b) To expel from the hearts of the people of Israel the soft heart and the fear of working in the army, until in every city the heads of the community are trying with all their might to pay ransom money to free the people from the army, and by this their pockets are emptied and poverty increases. And why wouldn't the poor people who know lack and poverty and are bloated with hunger go with willing hearts to work, so they will be able to heat their homes and buy clothes to wear. - - - Search and find some nice midrash to sweeten these things when you say them, maybe you will find suitable the words of Chazal, a man will always run towards the kings of the world, maybe we will be privileged and able to distinguish between the war tactics of the world's nations and our war tactics for the future, and we will wait day by day for the coming of the Messiah, and why don't we prepare for him an army of soldiers, - - - and you, go with your power to save Israel from the burden of superstitions and the suffering of stupidity; and God with your help in your mission. And do not be afraid of the governors and rulers, who are flatterers and people of intrigue, who pounce like dogs on passers-by. Do your actions with wisdom and knowledge and they will not be able to harm you, and all the wise people will bless you and remember your good deeds. - - -

Your friend who respects you as your value, Y.L. Gordon.

Telz, Tuesday, 5630

Greetings to you, a very wise man, a knowledgeable, brave and strong man!

- - - The correction of our material nation is combined with a religious correction, I have no doubt about it. And you, my friend, if you are a true man and do not speak with us deceitfully, you will remember the status of our brothers in our land, through their negotiations and through their upbringing and livelihood, will come up before you, and you will remember that about 80% from all the multitude of the House of Israel in our land don't have livelihood, in every city and city we will still find cheders of horror where a new generation of the desert is educated by foolish and completely ignorant melamedim - and the rabbis and the community leaders pay attention to falsehoods and chattering words. - - - Raise your hand to the supreme God, to a good and beneficent God, who does not desire the corruption of the world and say to him: indeed, the status of the material, moral, temporal and religious House of Israel is not standing and shrieking like a crane: fix me! And why should we loosen the hands of the few who sacrifice their souls to forbid war against a large and hard- backed people who destroy themselves?

- - - Peace be upon you, be strong and strong to enlighten the eyes of those in the dark and may God will privilege us to see the redemption of our people and the consolation of Zion and Jerusalem.

Your friend who is only concerned about your health and benefit.

My friends H. Dainow!

The gentleman Ginzburg did not want to send a telegram, but he sent a letter to Rabbi of the holy congregation, the letter that I read you while you were here with us, signed by his father, the gentleman Yuzil Ginzburg, and let us hope that the words of that letter will enter to the heart of the reader, and he will not disappoint us.

- - - And you, do not fear of the crowd that surrounds you, and speak everywhere wisely and with great knowledge as much as God will give in your heart for the benefit of our brothers who are sick and do not feel their sick, and do not be angry and bring your cry before the ministers who sit on high; for why will the ignorant of heart say, “Dainow has become an obstacle and an informer”! Guard and be quiet, because just as they dance against the moon and are not be able to touch it, so they will not be able to touch you in a bad way; And if they kill you, we will worship you and sanctify you after your death and place your name among the saints who are in the land - who were killed for the sanctification of God. Isn't that enough for you?

Your friend, Y.L. Gordon

June 5 (22 Sivan 5633)

My friend H. Dainow!

You are waiting for my advice and I am helpless; Because who I am that I can instruct someone about his path in life? Am I so unimpeachable person that I can advise you what to do and what to avoid? But I'll ask you one thing: if you find it difficult to live in Slutsk, if you find around yourself dangerous people, why don't you change your place of residence to change your luck? Are you so connected to this city that wants to throw you up? In my opinion, it would be good for you to move your house, your wife and your children to one of the big cities where, even if there are many bad things, there are also many educated people who will protect you when needed, such as the city of Vilna, Kaunas and the like; And if there is still any money left in your hands, create to your wife some kind of living or livelihood that she could manage, so that you will be engaged only in preaching and it will be your pride, and you will not be focused only on the reward you are paid for your sermons, and your wife will deal with the

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trade and you will be diligent on your work and your way onward; And you will no longer fear the slander of rabbis and their blasphemy; And you revealed their real characters and their disgrace and their failures to all the people of Israel in all your journeys and all the people will flock after you and it will also be your reward when they see your action.

This is the advice I advise you from someone who is not knowledgeable, because I do not know much about you, your family and your conduct.

I wrote today to the director H. Pursau and asked for mercy for you as well, and if it will be of benefit to you, it will make me very happy.

June 26, 1873 (13th of Tammuz 5633)

My friend, Zvi the Maggid!

The one who tells you that I incited H. Pursau in the people of Israel and I told him that according to the law of Israel it is permissible to write on Shabbat and according to the law of the kingdom to force them to do so is nothing but bearing false witness in me and he will be held accountable for that. It never happened! H. Pursau did what he did according to himself and according to the instruction of some Palhedrin rabbis who did not hold back the power to tell him the truth. And I, on the contrary, I strongly argued with him and advised him to deviate from this way of forcing the boys to violate Shabbat in public, because by doing so he delays the redemption of the people of Israel and prevents them from redeeming their souls. And the words were already published then by the Daan and by the Maggid. And here I am willing to fulfill the request of the people of Slutsk and I will write to H. Pursau in a few days, even though I am almost sure that my words would be of no use, because you also know the way of that man, that he is very stubborn and no one can change his mind. In the meantime, please send the following letter to those who wrote to me, because I do not know their address and I would like to send my letter to them directly. Goodbye and do not speak falsehood about your friend who honors you Y.L. Gordon.

20th Kislev, 5634.

To the people of Israel community in Slutsk, my honorable brothers!

I received your letter and your honest and righteous complaint about the director came to my ears and entered my heart. I am willing to fulfill your request and write to H. Pursau to remove an obstacle from the path of your children's education, although I am very sorry if I will not succeed, as I know the man and his way of conduct and his stubbornness; And I already had a discussion with him about this while he was in Shavel but without any luck. But I haven't written to him for many days, and if I come to him all of a sudden about this matter, which as important it is for us, it looks immaterial to him, I am afraid he will not listen to me; Therefore, I will wait a few more days until I have another issue to him and my words to him will also include your request and I will try to convince and persuade him and I hope he will listen to me.

Be blessed from your brother who honors and cherish you, Y.L. Gordon.

20 Kislev 5634.

To H. Zvi Dainow, my dear friend!

I cry your kindness all the days. In all the places where you have been, from Slutsk to London, that your tumult always rises above your enemies, and as I always was, I am skeptic and I do not believe, that they really did to you all these terrible things and that the persecutions concern yourself and to your relatives. However, if you are wise, you will not be able to bear the sting of death flies, and if the stings of the hornets in Lebanon will hurt you - how will I comfort you and what will I be of use to you? If I said that I would say to your words to the members of the committee, I knew their answer in advance, because they will not interfere in a quarrel that is not related to them; And if I write to him, who am I that he will hear my voice? Is it possible to convince such a man? He will probably say his allegory: did not the starling go to the crow in vain? That's why I decided in my heart to ask Dr. Neiman to write about you to Dr. Adler and ask him not to listen informers and to take you under his protection; And if my words enter the heart of Dr. Neiman and his words into the heart of Dr. Adler, then you will be saved. And in the meantime, I thought I'd write these few words to you in response to your letter of the 15th of Kislev, so that you may know that you will not find your help in me, not because I am not willing to help you but because I can't. Farewell and bless upon you from your friend who cherish you and shares your sorrow and wishes to comfort you.

Y. L. Gordon

(21 Kislev 5635, on the day I turned (43) (44) years old).

To the above

My dear friend!

- - - I am happy as the joy at the Simchat Torah on Sinai, that you finally reached a safe place, and switched Slutsk with London and the status of a passes Maggid by the status of an existing Maggid. Now you can rest from your sorrow and your anger and from all the tribulations that you and your family have encountered and you all will be able to live peaceful life, and may you find among the people of your community people with big hearts, who know and who will desire to repay a man according to his deeds, to provide you with a livelihood and a remnant in their land, and God will provide you peaceful and respectful life, and you will dwell with no anger and pain.

- - - The great thing that the community of the people of Israel in London thought about our brothers sitting on the holy land was known to us from the writings in the holy language and in the Ashkenazi language, because the writings is the Russian language did not say anything about it.

- - - I thought of the great thing and its results, and the power of imagination that was strong in my childhood, awoke and showed me in this thing not only a stone of remembrance for the honorable Reb Moshe Montefiore, but as a foundation stone to re-establish the home for the people of Israel, - the very burial of our scattered bones that will be gathered together one by one, and there they will become one flesh and a skin will be put on them from above and they will live and stand on their feet by God giving his spirit to them. If only my wish will come true before my last day come. - - - And I went up and came down to the mountains of Israel with a Shofar in my lap, to prophesy and call with a loud voice, a voice that outrages the ruins of the worlds and mischievous wastelands of sixty-seven generations. But to reach this goal we need to start from another place, we need to purify the land and expel from it all the Jews who live there, there will not be a horseshoe left, and sweep away with a broom the cobwebs that have been woven by these millipedes and pass a fresh wind over the land and air of the Land of Israel, which was spoiled with their filth and stupidity. If all these will not be done to them, then all our efforts were in vain. - - -

And I am your truly friend in all times and ages,

Fast of Esther, 5635

Y. L. Gordon

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A. Y. Papirna

Israel Behmer

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Jane S. Gabin

One of the pillars of the Lithuanian rabbinate in the last century was the brilliant rabbi from Slutsk, the Gaon Reb Yosef Faimer (a distorted last name under “Behmer”, because he was born in the state of Behmin), known to this day in Lithuania by the honorable and affectionate name “Reb Yosili Slutsker”. He was the distinguished student of Reb Chaim (a scholar of the HaGra), the founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and a friend of the Gaon Reb Yitzhak of Volozhin. He was a great opponent of Chassidism, which was successful in those days and captured many hearts in several kingdoms of Russia. Only in the districts of Vilna and Minsk it encountered a hard war on the part of the rabbis who were scholars of the HaGra (headed by Reb Yitzhak of Volozhin and Reb Yosef of Slutsk), and for many days it could not find a place there. But it did not last long, and to his dismay, when Reb Yosef was very old, he saw that one of the “righteous” had settled in Kuidanov and found many followers there. A few more years passed and God challenged Reb Yosef with another disaster that came from within his house. And this challenge was: Israel, his only son[1], was excellent in his talents and perseverance, and was very successful in learning the Torah, and Reb Yosef was certain that he would be great in the people of Israel and will replace him when the time comes, but - so great was the power of doubt or, to speak in the language of the Chassidim, the power of the “shell” in that generation in the heart of the people of Israel. While he was still young, he had many and enormous doubts in matters of faith and knowledge, for which he could not find solutions in rabbinical literature, and these doubts did not give rest to his spirit, and he decided to try and ask, maybe he would find solutions to them in Chassidism, and he ran away from his father's house and went to Kuidanov. The Kuidanov Chassidim considered the coming of Israel, the son of Reb Yosef, their main opponent, to ask for the Torah from their rabbi, a great victory for Chassidism in general and the Kuidanov Chassidism in particular, and they were very happy about it and accepted him with love. Israel stayed for about two months in Kuidanov, in the house of the tsaddik in the company of his followers and close associates, observed their actions, heard their stories, and especially paid attention to the Tsaddik himself, his ways of life and his “Torahs” (the Chassidim called the tsaddik's sermons “Torahs”). But even in Chassidism he did not find what he was looking for - rest for his turbulent spirit - and he planned to turn to the third party that had arisen in Israel at the time, the party the educated.

And Israel thought about a way to get rid of the company of the Chassidim, as he was tired of them and their antics. One day, the tzaddik preached his sermon or his Torah on Shabbat after the third meal in front of a large crowd of Chassidim. This time his Torah was regarding the counting of Tif'eret shebatif'eret (glory of the glory). This Torah, spoken by the rabbi with great enthusiasm, was very deep and no one understood it. The large crowd of Chasidim neither hoped nor paid attention to understand the riddles and hints of their rabbi. It was enough for them to see the face of the tzaddik and his movements , but among the Chassidim from among the close associates of the tzaddik, there were also those who aspired to know the basics of Chassidism and to get to the bottom of it, and this time they too did not understand anything from the rabbi's Torah, and so they turned to Israel, as they who knew the depth of his mind, and asked him to interpret the Torah of the tzaddik to them so they will finally know what is the matter of Tif'eret shebatif'eret (glory of the glory). And Israel said to them: Let me explain this matter to you in a tangible and visible way, and he led them to the window and pointed his finger at the hole in the mezuzah and asked: What do you see in it? - “A hole” - they replied. “Yes, a hole”, - Israel said, - and if I take a drill and drill a hole inside this hole - what will it be called? it is “the hole in the hole”, do you understand? And this is similar to Tif'eret shebatif'eret (glory of the glory). The Chassidim tried to understand the meaning of his words, but they quickly realized that he was mocking them and in Chassidism, and they prepared to flog him, but he fled for his life, and ran away from the rabbi's house and left the city. )I heard this episode from the late writer Israel Bernstein, who before his arrival to the Beit Midrash was one of Kuidanov's Chassidim, just as was his father, the great rabbi Reb Chaim Haikel from Minsk).

From Kuidanov, Israel returned to Slutsk, and his father, seeing his son's spiritual condition was very bad, took hold of the well-known trick (which was used by parents at that time in the cases of their sons' departure to a bad culture) - marriage: he will have to support his wife and family and will not have time to be engaged in nonsense. This is what Rabbi Reb Yosef imagined for his son, and so his son married a woman from an Orthodox family in Bobroisk. He lived for a few years in this city at the house of his father- in- law with his wife and children, who were born, and engaged openly, during the day, in the study of the Torah, and secretly, at night, in the books of philosophy (the Rambam, the Kuzari, and the HaIkkarim) and in the new literature. This literature was then young and very poor in the poetic part and even more so in the scientific part. It could not bring its readers into the rich and wide world of science, but it had enough power to take them out of their narrow and meager world, and the newspapers like Kerem Hemed, HeChalutz, and books like Ary Nohem (a lion growls), Kol Shachal (a lion's voice), Bchinat HaDat (the religious examination), Kin'at HaEmet (envy of the truth), HaTorah VehaPhilosofia (Torah and Philosophy), and Moreh Nevochei hazman (The Guide for the Perplexed), had the power to awaken a lot of the foundations of the Massorah and Kabbalah. And this is what happened to Israel. And I heard from the elders of Bobroisk that one Shabbat night, when Israel planned to sit and read his books, he walked with a lamp from one room to another. He thought that his wife was already asleep, but she saw what he had done, and she was terrified. She thought that he was struck with madness, as a “wise man”, a man with a clear mind would not do such a strange thing. He did try to calm her, telling her that he did what he did with a clear mind. But in doing so he only further increased her disaster, for he was a complete heretic. The next day the unhappy woman told her parents about her grief and a great commotion broke out in the city. Then the question arose: What is he - a madman or a heretic? The people were divided in their opinions, some leaned this way and some that way, and finally, after a long discussion, they came to an agreement that he was a heretic and not a madman. First, because of his confession, and second, because it was clear to them that even a madman would not commit such an abomination, and only a heretic can do that, and the third, and this is the main thing, that by such an agreement they could get rid of him by a divorce, they would force him to divorce his wife, which can't be done if he was a madman, as in such case, his divorce was invalid. And since they came to this agreement, they demanded that Israel to divorce from his wife, and he fulfilled their demand.

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And since then, the days of Israel's wanderings began. To stay in his city, in his country, after the sin he failed in, - that was beyond the bounds of possibility. He had to run away. But where to? There was only one answer to this question: to Berlin. To this place of Torah and wisdom, for more than a century, the great spiritual men of our nation, “God- seekers”, seekers of truth, seekers of resourcefulness and wisdom, have moved. At the time, the philosopher Shlomo Maimon of Nesvij moved to Berlin, where the Gaon Rabbi Menashe Ilir and the Gaon Rabbi Israel Salanter went (the latter two went and sat down, or rather - were set up). From Vilna to Berlin also came the yeshiva scholar Daniel Havolson, and many more. Israel Behmer desired for quite a time to move there, so he was not sorry for the “impure” incident that had happened and he moved to Berlin.

In Berlin, Behmer found someone of his kind, Schneor Zakash. I say “his kind”, because these two were very similar in their origin, education, ambitions and the events of their lives. Also, Schneor Zakash was the son of a great rabbi (Reb Tzemach of Jagar) and he was also one of those who fled to Berlin to seek wisdom after various obstacles, tribulations and adventures. When Behmer came to Berlin, Schneor had already settled there, and his name was already known as a writer and engaged in the wisdom of Israel, and in those days, he renewed the publishing of the Kerem Hemed newspaper, which had been discontinued before that. Through Schneor Zakash, Behmer was introduced to Ashkenazi sages - Tsuntz, Geiger, M. Zacks, and they recognized his worth and brought him close, and they guided him with their advice and showed him the path leading to his goal. However, his new acquaintances could not give him material help, and he arrived to Berlin empty- handed, and so all his years in Berlin were spent under stress and oppression, and out of poverty and sorrow, as is “The Way of the Torah”. He read and repeated and studied wisely, studied Ashkenazi language and ancient languages, heard history and philosophy lessons from professors at the university, and together with the great sages of Berlin, engaged in the study of Israel's history. The profession he chose was the study of the sects in Israel during the Second Temple period and he published the results of his investigations in print, in Hebrew and Ashkenazi newspapers as well as in special pamphlets. And in my youth, I read two of his notebooks: The Writings of Israel Behmer and How to Evaluate, the latter included, if I remember correctly, critical comments to Rashi Rappaport's book The Value of the Words (Erech Milin).

Reb Yosef mourned for his beloved son for many days, and after dozens of years, in his old age, he addressed him in a letter and asked him not to let him die mourning and asked him to return to Slutsk. Reb Yosef apologized before of his associates for reconciling with his heretic son and excused it on the fact that he wished to learn from his son the Halacha of the holy month of Rambam, this is the only halachic, which he cannot understand completely without any knowledge of arithmetic and astronomy, and the son fulfilled his father's request.

On his way to Slutsk, Israel Behmer passed through Kapoli, my hometown, and stayed there for a few days. Then I saw him, and his appearance made a sad impression on me. He was then about fifty years old, but he looked much older, a cloud of sadness settled over his beautiful face, his stature was stooped and on his high and broad forehead he had deep wrinkles, the signs of all his sadness and irritation, toil and hard work in the days of his wanderings. Broken in heart and body, depressed and hunched, Behmer returned to Slutsk and lived there for another five years and died before his father, who had lived longer.

I may have gone on too long in this chapter, as I wanted to give a picture of the life of the first educated people, their great aspiration for wisdom and the great sacrifices they made on their altar. And Behmer's name - his typical personality and the description of his image and lifestyles - is to a known extent the description of the image and lifestyles of the majority of the educated in that generation.

(From records)

* * *


It is a mistake, what some writers thought, that David Gordon was the editor of this newspaper from the beginning. Silberman himself was certainly not qualified for this job and always was assisted by others in this profession.

The first editor of the HaMaggid was the distinguished philologist Israel Behmer, the author of the small notebook in quantity but much in quality How to Evaluate, his books Israel's writings on the sect of the Essenes and a small book God's Finger also appeared. Every time I remember that this great man, who has almost no equal in his wonderful philosophical sharpness, served for a while as a journalist, I get angry and gnash my teeth. I always say: poor nation, that this is what happened to it. Israel Behmer did not live long, and on his way to his homeland, to see his family members, he died in the city of Slutsk. Then, Silberman decided to call Gordon, who was then living in London, to come to him and assist him in the work of the HaMaggid. This was approximately in the year 5620 (1860).

Shimon Bernfeld (The World, 23rd Iyar 5686, 1926)

Editor's note:

  1. Here Papirna was wrong: Rabbi Yosili had another son, Rabbi Meir, who superseded him as the head of the rabbinate in Slutsk Return

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Avraham Epstein
Excerpts from “Records”

Translated by Mira Eckhaus



Grandma Rivka

That's how everyone in the city called her, from the smallest of the babies to the oldest. They were all her grandchildren, they were all born on her lap and her laughing face welcomed them on their way out into the air of the world.

She was a midwife. For more than eighty years she was on duty, from the thirteenth year of her life until the day of her death. Thousands of children received the first treatment, the first warm caress from the blessed hands of this lovable little grandmother.

Every day she would pass through the streets of the city, full of joy, her steps are light and fast, and she seemed to be floating and flying towards the new life that awaits her arrival through the labor pains.

Her face was wonderful then: small, laughing and glowing from within. Something of the brightness of the sunset was reflected from them - a distant hint of an earlier unknown majesty.

As she walked, she would bother her “baby” grandchildren, whom she came across on the street, and give them from her pocket - that same deep and wide pocket, which was always full of all kinds of sweets - leftovers from the refreshments from the “circumcision” (Brit Mila) of a male child, and the elders would look after her fondly, and a happy laugh would spread across their faces like a shadow of a pleasant memory from days gone by.

The women were devoted to her, loving and adoring her immeasurably. She would spend two or three weeks with each woman giving birth, and all the days she spent with them were days of celebration and joy to them. She knew how to make them endear the agony, sweeten the labor pains, comfort and encourage them in moments of crisis.

As soon as she entered the room of a woman giving birth, she immediately affected her with her calmness and confidence, she took care of all the necessary preparations quickly and with the joy of a mitzvah. And during the process she consoled, soothed, persuaded and reconciled her while combining in her words proverbs and words of advice, wise conversations, jokes and anecdotes, which she had many. The patient began to smile out of agony and on her face, which were distorted by pain, a kind of light was being spread, a light of hope and consolation, and she was happy for the happiness that awaited her in a few moments.

Most of the women who she served were poor and destitute, and she took care of all their needs during their illness. The doctors were always ready to go on her errands, the medical warehouses would provide her with every object she needed, and from the gentlemen's wives, that she was their midwife, she asked to prepare for the poor women poultry soup, semolina cakes, and sweets, everything necessary for their economy and the arrangement of a “Brit Mila” (circumcision). And there was no one who dared to refuse her request. Everything was given to her generously, willingly and happily. They all knew that to the extent that she took from others, she was also taking from her own, and needless to say, she would not have taken any fee from the poor new mothers for her much trouble for two weeks or more. She was philanthropist, she was the first to volunteer for every charity. Scholars and yeshiva students ate at her house regularly. Among the diners at her house was also S. Y. Abramowitz (Mendele Mocher Sforim), when he studied at the yeshiva in Slutsk.


Avraham Epstein


Her home was open to anyone who was downtrodden and asking for help. And many of the dignitaries of the city would come to ask her advice. Because who else like her knew everyone's soul, their speech and their stuttering, their afflictions and harms? She nurtured them all and all their hearts were visible to her.

She performed her work for more than eighty years, the holy work, unceasing work without rest and without sleep at night. And with all this, her strength was the same, she was quick in her movement and fast and she was happy towards every mitzvah until the last moment.

A spring of life was within her. Her mind was not impaired even when she grew up. The life experience she accumulated added to her a kind of clarity of wise forgiveness, good and sweet as old wine. She knew the blessed peace, the peace of mind that comes from the love of life and the love of humanity. Her heart was burning with a bright light and overflowing with the light of faith and confidence. And perhaps this is the secret of her wonderful freshness, which did not leave until her last day, despite the many and severe injuries she suffered during her long life.

She had a life full of work and trouble. All her loved ones died and perished before her eyes. Her husband died in his mid-life, her only son, Reb Avrehemel Shevliov, who was a rabbi in Swisslotch, died of tuberculosis in his thirtieth year, leaving behind a wife and sons, whom she took care of. Her eldest daughter also died and her youngest daughter, Sarah the midwife, the mother of the writer of this article, was buried one week before her death.

The details of her death are wonderful, a tragic majesty poured over them.

On the evening of that day, when my mother passed away, after we returned from her funeral, they rushed the old woman to my sister, who was then in her ninth month, because she had to give birth unexpectedly. The old woman came and gave birth to a daughter. And after the delivery of the baby girl, she fell down next to the maternity bed and did not get up, because she had a stroke.

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Her dying lasted about a week, until she passed away. And the baby girl was called by her name and by my mother's name: Sara Rivka.

A large crowd followed her bed and the rabbi eulogized her near the synagogue. The number of candles that were brought to her home at the time of her death - memorial candles - reached to thousands. She was ninety-five years old when she died, and left her heirs only an apartment and a good name.

Editor's note: In Slutsk, grandmother Rivka was called: “Di alte babka”, and her daughter, Sara the midwife, who also reached an old age, was called: “Di yonge babka”.



Reb Kuti (Yekutiel Isaac Golda's)

With sounds and lightning this man appeared to me, out of both silence and sound. I remember: it was the night of Kol Nidrei, a sea of candles in a sea of heads wrapped in tallit, shivering wicks, stormy hearts, a glowing silent prayer, consolation of sorrow, empowerment, holy trembling, to the depth of the soul. The prayer was said in enthusiasm, the voices were united, flowing like the sigh of the sea, as a stormy moan. And in the midst of the storm he stood, Reb Kuti Isaac Golda's, silent, frozen, without moving - a block of silence amidst the noise of waves. The prayer was over. They began to read the Shir Hayichud. And suddenly he shook himself, all ablaze with flame, his hands reached up into the air, his tallit fell on his shoulders, his face burnt, his eyes – were as steel fire and his voice – as the roar of a lion. Like a thunder, the voice rolled over the heads of the worshipers and they were all swept away after him, swallowed by the flow of his roars. He called and the audience answered after him. A symphony of mighty voices, a prayer of thunder that reached the heaven and plowed under the throne of honor. And suddenly, he became silent and once again stood in his place like a still statue, like a mountain that the fire that caught it was extinguished. That's how he stood all that night and the entire morning of the day after, his tallit was covering his head and face and his tears were burning the pages of his Machzor book. The time of Musaf prayer has arrived. They read the order of work. The audience woke up, their eyes were directed towards him, to Reb Kuti Isaac Golda's, the hearts were beating, vibrating; Everyone was silent with awe and expected, and suddenly he moved from his place and the sound of a terrible roar, an inhuman roar, escaped from his mouth; And the Cohanim and the people who were standing in the Ezra (aisle)... kneeling and bowing down and falling on their faces...” And he fell on the ground with his whole body and groaned with sobs, and the whole crowd followed him. And when he got up, everyone got up after him. The Chazan (cantor) became unimportant, no one watched him and his curls; Reb Kuti was the conductor, according to him they will kneel and according to him they will get up. And so, it repeated until the end of the work order.


Reb Kuti Isaac Golda's


And another story I remember.
It was the night of Tisha B'Av after the mourning. Anxiety was all over and a heavy sadness rested on my heart. I was still a boy and my soul was full of pictures of destruction. As I had sleeping disorder, I was wandering in the old Beit Midrash and black shadows were all over me. Everything was engulfed in darkness and only the platform next to the Holy Ark was lit by the flickering light of a candle. A group of old men were sitting on the steps of the platform and Reb Kuti was reading before them about day-to-day matters. His voice pierced my heart: the voice of a sick person, a small weak voice, the groan of a torn soul lost in poverty. I will never forget the picture; The mourning of all the generations suddenly reflected to me from this face. At this moment I saw the exile face to face.
And I remember more.
A dispute arose in the city, and the people split into two parties, one party was composed of the gentlemen, the leaders of the community with all of their assistants gathered around Rabbi Reb Meirke Faimer, the son of the late Reb Yosili, and the other party was composed of the students, the scholars and the multitude of the people headed by Rabbi Ridbaz (Rabbi Yaakov David ben Ze'ev, known for his great work on the Jerusalem Talmud, at the end of his days he headed a yeshiva in Safed, and died there). Two sides, two worlds. Here - an old tradition, noble manners, ancestral attitude, and there, genius and sharpness together with mass simplicity. And the agitation was getting bigger and whistleblowers were passing on rumors from one side to the other, spreading slander and causing conflicts between the two sides. The scourge spread and the division between the two parties grew, and only R. Kuti Isaac Golda's was still standing in the middle. As one of the scholars, he tended to follow the Ridbaz, but he also respected Rabbi Yosili and he was a visitor to his son's house. And suddenly he changed his mind and did something that caused a storm in the city: he got on the stage and began to demand in front of everyone against Rabbi Meirke. He said very severe, difficult, terrible, amazing things: He is an evil person, who brings troubles to the people of Israel...
Vast fear fell upon the audience. The next day he went to Rabbi Meirke to ask for his forgiveness. He prostrated at his feet, kissed the flounce of his coat and cried like a baby...

This is who he was and how he acted. His appearance was always amazing, his proximity aroused both curiosity, anticipation and anxiety. His image had sharp, intense lines: he was not tall, his body was solid, he had a large head, prominent and stubborn forehead, and his face were tormented as if it was the face of a monk; There was something heavy, restrained, a sort of self-conquered effort in his bent form and his sloppy movements. Beyond his downcast eyes was a fiery storm and beyond his frozen silence - a silence before the storm.

He was an enigma to the people, an enigma full of contrasts and contradictions. Enthusiasm and ecstasy of an ascetic and recluse aside from grumpiness and dissatisfaction

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of someone who is dealing with public affairs. He was a lenient person and a friendly man in his own business, but very zealot and strict in everything that was related to public affairs. However, all these contrasts derived from one source, from his soul, which was all temperamental and furious.

His soul was always tense, his heart was full of sparks and stubbornness. The smallest thing made him burst out like a thunder.

Life brought him face to face with the twilight of modern times. They damaged one after the other in the wall of old Judaism. The young people of the generation started asking for corrections and changes and new winds were blowing and coming. Reb Kuti immediately felt the impending danger and with religious fanaticism he went to war with all his anger.

He was a man of war all his life. He had many opponents and enemies. Some called him fickle; The others called him hypocrite and disingenuous. However, it was enough for him to appear among them in a people's assembly, in the Beit Midrash, in the seat of sages, and immediately everyone became silent, submissive, everyone stood up and waited anxiously for the sound of his words.

Sometimes he would sit in his shop, a shop for processed leather. It seemed that here, in his shop, among the simple farmers, the buyer of his goods, he would rest from his other matters. Here, he was immersed in secular things, sunk in the crass lifestyle and the centers of his heart turn off for a moment between one ascend to the other.

I saw him again after ten years. I returned from the big world, I missed my little city and the distant legends of my childhood. I went to the synagogue and found out that Reb Kuti Isaac Golda's was still alive. He was the only one among all the elders of his generation who was alive. His appearance was terrible. A bundle of agony in a rotting and old body, a rickety tombstone on the grave of his life.

He seemed to me as a symbol - the symbol of the dying of a lifetime.



Crazy Binyamin

Every day he would walk through the streets of our city with his tall and upright stature, his white and wild hair and his undone clothes are hanging from him in tatters. A wave of dirty rags is wrapped around his neck and a thick rope is tied around his waist. He would walk slowly in the middle of the roads, his eyes hidden under their thick eyebrows. He didn't look to any side. If a person struck him, he did not turn away from him, if a cart passed on the road, he stood in his place and did not move aside.

In one hand he held a long pipe just as the farmers did and with the other hand he waved threateningly in the air, as if he was quarreling with an invisible rival. His mouth was like an overflowing spring. Thousands of garbled and confused words would erupt from his mouth with shards of mucus and foam. Voices and combinations of voices, but the ear did not catch a single word from them.

In the few moments of silence, he would stick the pipe into his mouth and he would suck and gulp very quickly and with extreme rigor, when frequent, panicked circles of smoke bursting out of his mouth and nostrils. A terrible secret was hanging over his head and an old legend was woven around his name and hung on his long and difficult life path.

And this is what the people of our city would say.

Many days ago, Binyamin was a rabbi in one of the cities and his name was known all around as one of the great geniuses, whose power grew in the open and in the hidden, and all the great men of the generation would turn to him with their questions. However, to the extent that he was great in the Torah, to that extent his strictness increased. He was a hard man, stubborn and opinionated, and many wise people were offended by him. It happened that once, one of the rabbis, who was living in the nearby town, happened to come to his house. They immediately started talking about Halacha and had disagreements: one wept and the other wept, and both of them did not change their opinion. It was a furious debate which broke out the limits of a debate for the sake of heaven and turned to be about strictness and leadership. They started teasing each other and didn't move away until the guest rabbi was hit hard and rudely. Immediately the guest rose on his feet and said: “You have a stubborn mind, Rabbi Binyamin, I wonder if you will not go crazy!” Rabbi Binyamin looked at the guest and answered: “If it is a decree, I will accept it, but you will not see it!”

And so it was: Reb Binyamin went crazy and the guest rabbi did not awake from his sleep.

In our city there were many jokes attributed to the crazy Binyamin. Once the butchers in the city wanted to build for themselves a prayer house. They hired laborers and started with the construction. Crazy Binyamin passed there and called over them the scripture: “And all flesh shall be called by your name”.

To light his pipe, he would go specifically to the town of Rozova, which is far from Slutsk. When he was asked: Why did you go specifically to Rozova? Is the fire in Slutsk not enough for you? He would answer: The fire in Slutsk is too cold.

Once in the cemetery, he passed by the grave of one man, a well-known miser in the city, stood in front of the tombstone and pointed his finger towards the letters PN (here is buried) and said the initials straight and upside down in the Russian language:

Пойдеш Назад ? Не пойду!

Почему Нет ? Не Пускают!

A strange combination: these jokes and this tiny and tragic personality!

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Excerpts from “The First as Humans”

Y.D. Berkwoitz

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Jane S. Gabin



With Pesach Karon, known as “Pesach Ezra's”

I was a Bar Mitzvah teenager, I studied in my hometown at a small yeshiva, I filled my soul with studying the Gemara with Tosafot (additions) and from the Maharsha. And here, in my great thirst for a refreshing word, the smell of the secular books sneaked to me and I pounce upon them as if they were a spring of living water, I thirstily read one book after the other. I first read everything I could find in a dark basement of a remote book store, then I moved to the shelves of a more important bookseller, until I finally found my way to the Hebrew library, which was well known among the educated people of my city. The owner of the library was a very old Jew. He was actually a Melamed, but a wonderful man of his kind, short and with a long and strong beard, always combed, wearing shiny dark glasses under his thick and strict eyebrows, God-fearing and educated and a lover of Zion at the same time, who would teach the Torah all day in a house full of young children, guiding them with a soft hand and harsh discipline, singing with them on Shabbats evenings the Haftara in a pleasant melody that draws the heart. He sent his sons far away to study in a gentile agricultural school, so that they could immigrate to Eretz Israel to work the land in the colonies. In his bedroom, which was always extremely clean and was separated from his students' room by a dark hall, there was a large cabinet, full of Hebrew books. I always felt from this room an absolute silent of a mysterious storehouse, a place where precious world treasures are kept, and he himself, the long-bearded little Jew, with the bundle of keys under the hems of his immaculately clean capote, always seemed to me as the careful and strict keeper of the wonderful treasure, who would bring me every day to his room to enjoy a little bit of the precious light.

In the yeshiva I read the books, of course, in hiding. The Gemara was open above the page of the book, and below, in the darkness of the box, was open the book of Smolenskin, “The Wanderer in the Ways of Life”, or “Religion and Life” by Broides. From the bottom up, small and terrible flames were burning, plotting in the darkness to become a great blazing fire, which would burn and consume everything. If only the head of the yeshiva had watched and seen this! But he didn't pay attention and didn't see anything. I was among his loyal, humble disciples, how can he suspect kosher like me? Only my friends knew that. But my friends did not discover my secret, because they themselves did even a worst thing than mine: they played cards. Although not with real cards, but with cards “Lamed-Alef”. However, they would play like real habitual gamblers, with money.

In the yeshiva I would only do the beginning of my reading in the book: as a short-tempered ravenous person I would taste secretly of the precious delight only a first taste. I would leave all the pleasure of reading for the evening, upon my return home. I wouldn't go to sleep until I finished reading the entire borrowed book. As a result, my mother's expenses for oil increased. But she felt comfortable about it, as she figured her son is very persistent in Talmud Torah and sits on the holy books until midnight. And only the old librarian was not the most favorable about it.



Y.D. Berkowitz


At the beginning, he praised me for my great diligence; However, with the passage of time, he saw and witnessed that for a salary of twenty pennies a month I read almost thirty of his books, and between times, during the Passover and the Sukkot holidays, days when the yeshiva was closed and the students went to their homes, I would come to change my books twice a day.

- Did you come to diminish me?! - He would say as if from irritation, when he looks at me through his dark and shiny glasses and moves his long, strong and thick beard, which was a mix of black and white. I couldn't understand his meaning completely: was he mocking me, or was he simply angry, that he made a bad deal with me?

However, due to my excessive diligence, another trouble was expected to me: the books that were left for me to read were decreasing day by day. And the anguish in my heart was greater each day. What will I do after I read all of them? Where will I turn and what else will I find in my world? My life will be Empty and desolated!...

And here the calamity came. I have already read all the big and small stories. I also read all the new and old collections, also the books dealing with the Chronicles of Israel and the Chronicles of the World, the Natural History and the Paths of the Land. And more than that, when all hope was lost, my benefactor and spiritual provider brought me down from a hidden place in his attic the large and heavy volumes of the “HaMelitz”, which I put in a sack and took on my shoulder to my house (I would be ashamed to carry them openly, lest I draw the curious eyes of

[Page 158]

passersby). From the stories of Mapo and Smolenskin, Broides and Brandstetter I have no hope, I have already read them three or four times. What will become of me? Where will my help come from?

- I am afraid that today you will leave empty-handed! The old librarian told me once, after he reviewed the shelves of his closet with his shining glasses and did not find any more consolations for me in them. My heart failed. I saw it as the end of my life. A dark abyss opened before me. I stood dreary and could not move from my place.

Please wait a moment, - the old man suddenly turned to me, who was also standing worried next to his closet, and from his dark glasses a glimmer of hope glimmered at me. - Do you want to read jargon?



Pesach Karon,
known as “Pesach Ezra's”


“Jargon”, I knew, was a fancy name, a sort of scientific definition to the simple Jewish language, the Ivry Teitsch language, that the common people and women would read. For a Gemara guy like me, who has already smelled the smell of education and filled his heart with words of vision and thought, to come down from the peak of the poetic Hebrew to the poor pleading language - such a solution to my difficult situation was not to my liking. But since my guide in education called this language by the honored name “Jargon”, it must have something to praise, and it is also worth a guy like me to figure it out. I went out with the old man from the Hebrew treasure store to the dark corridor, where a cabinet full of Jargon books stood in a distant corner. I began with one of the novels of Shomer (Nahum Meir Schaikewitz), which I encountered first.

I felt that this was a big drop for me, and even so, I pounced on Shomer's novels out of a new hunger and swallowed them one by one. But I did not bring them to the yeshiva - I was ashamed of my friends, that even though they were all diligent about playing the game of “Lamed-Alef” in the boxes of their dark lecterns, many were found among them, who on the fifth day of Shabbat, this is the test day before the head of the Yeshiva, showed a surprising sharpness in the in-depth study of the Maharsha or “Pnei Yehoshua”. How light I was then in my eyes with my wife's pleas compared to the harsh “Pnei Yehoshua”!... And so, I read Shomer's novels in secret, late at night at home. However - I was not relieved at home either, where it was soon discovered, that the books, which I read all nights, are not holy books at all, but a kind of empty fairy tales in the Ivry Teitsch, with which servant girls delight their souls on Shabbat days. Is it possible? Do I use up all the oil in the house on that? And is reasonable at all that the yeshiva boy, whose parents have high hopes for him, to be engaged in these vanities? What is the purpose of this?...

Even I myself did not derive much pleasure from Shomer's stories. Indeed, I read many of them, but after reading them I had the feeling as if I had swallowed into my stomach with spoilt fruits After such reading, I always felt a great discomfort and a heartbreak. All these clumsiness stories about bad and sinful Jews, cruel in heart and evil persons, who always harm righteous, holy and pure souls like the angels of heaven, did not touch my heart and did not excite my imagination. Their voices and words came out of an empty space, without an origin and without a purpose, and did not evoke any echo in my soft and deluded soul, which was centered in its loneliness and looking for its paths in the world. How far were these creatures, in the crude imagination, from that lofty spiritual atmosphere that surrounded the heroes of the stories of Smolenskin and Broides, from that sublime pathos in their fiery speeches, which in my eyes elevated them to the upper echelon of prophets, warriors of the holy war and redeemer of the people!

And yet, I willingly immersed myself in this heavy fog and filled my head with bad fumes. I was afraid to exclude my soul from the world of imaginations, beyond its gates I was expected to face a terrible fate, only the boredom of the Gemara. And so, I read novel after novel, I moved from Shomer's stories to the American novels, at Passover time I got involved in a great tangle of “Man-Eater”, a novel in twenty-four volumes, which I exchanged in the library, as I do on my days off, twice a day - and thus I provoked the old librarian's anger.

- I want to tell you something - He told me once in the early evening, when I came to him to exchange my books for the second time that day. - I don't find it proper at all, that a young man like you chose these vain ways!... What will this “Man-Eater” give and add to your life? You will only harm yourself forever!

- But what will I read? asked the “young man”, that was in the lowest level, almost with tears in his eyes. - Afterall, you don't have any better books than these for me!

- Be quiet, you know what? - He told me. If not don't tell anyone, I'll try to give you some kind of a thing that will revive your soul! And he takes me and brings me back to the quiet and silent archive, it is the Holy of Holies from which I have been distanced for many days. He takes out the bunch of keys from under the hems of his capote, bends down with his long beard to the lower part of the Hebrew bookcase and opens a hidden drawer there, from which shines before my eyes a row of great books in good, strong covers.

- These books, which you see here, - He tells me with a warm glow in his dark glasses, they are all hidden precious delights.

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I don't take them out to anyone. I have encrypted them here as an inheritance for my son after my death... But with you I will make an exception because you are in a difficult situation - because I see that your soul is dying... but only make sure to keep them as the apple of your eye, lest even a light dust stick to them!... Here are the volumes - Do you see? These are the “Dawns” volumes of Peretz Smolenskin. Now they can't be found anywhere, no one will sell them to you for even a thousand carbons, unless he is bankrupt... and this book, which I will give you to read today, is also very expensive. Only on one condition will I give it to you - Don't read it all at once! It is not equal to “Man-Eater”!... Read them little by little, and listen to every word you read, because it is the precious treasure of all. It's true that this is also a jargon, but a jargon of a completely different species!... You will find in it precious things, and I am certain that you will remember this mercy of me forever!...

With bated breath, I opened the precious book, which my elderly benefactor handed to me after such a solemn introduction - it was the annual collection of Shalom Aleichem “Di Yudishe Folks- Bibliothek” (the popular Jewish bibliography).

* * *

What was the reason that Shalom Aleichem's “popular Jewish bibliography” was so valued to my old literary guide, who singled out a place of honor for it among Smolenskin's “Dawn” volumes, and what was its value in general in the eyes of the educated of the previous generation - this became clear to me many days later, when I got to know Shalom Aleichem closely and learned to know his first steps in literature.

* * *

Not for nothing did the old librarian prophet, that I will remember his kindness to him forever. Every time I remember the Shalom Aleichem's collection, I will remember him too. His name was Pesach Karon, and he was one of those who appeared as the signatories, which was printed in the second volume of the collection - the only signatory in Slutsk, my hometown.



With Mendele Mocher Sforim's childhood friend

In the meantime, I left the yeshiva and I started an independent life. My father's authority was no longer on me (my father migrated to America), so I was able to persuade my mother to hire a Russian teacher for me, and I started studying secular studies. And in order to win her mind, lest she think of me that, God forbid, I deviated from the straight and narrow, I promised her that for half a day I would study Gemara by myself in the synagogue on our street. Our synagogue was already empty and desolate in my time, on weekdays only one old Jew studied there, called “Moti the Kapoleshchik”, named after his origin, as he was born in a town nearby Kapolei, - so I chose lunchtime for me, when the Kapoleshchik would go to his house to eat and take a nap for a while, and I walked around the stage and memorized the rules of Russian grammar and the names of the heroes of Russian history. The gloomy walls of the Beit Midrash may have heard the sounds of the foreign language and the foreign and strange names for the first time, such as “Sviatopolk Okaianni”, “Vladimir Monomakh”, “Dmitry Donskoi”... I felt pangs of conscience at the sight of the ancient Holy Ark, lying in the shadow of the wilderness, which looked at me as if in rebuke, but the Holy Ark was silent. And against this I was not saved from the Kapoleshchik's criticism.

- Listen, you, handsome guy! He turned to me once in a soft tone. - Indeed, you are not a bad boy, with a not bad perception, - but what is the nature of these gentile books that I found in your lectern? Huh?...

- These are kosher books, I try to ease his mind, - textbooks for language and arithmetic.

- For language and arithmetic? What a boy who studies Torah has to do with such matters? Do you intend, God forbid, deviated from the straight and narrow?

- On the contrary, - I spar him with my words, - I intend to go to a good culture, with proper behavior. After all, it is written in Pirke Avot: “Tova Torah im Derech Eretz” (Torah should be combined with proper behavior).

- Oh, - He said, - You are already talking as one of the people of society, damn them! You bring me evidence of your despised matters from Pirke Avot!... I should discuss it with your mother. I am afraid that you will end up like one of my past friends.

- Who was your friend? - I am filled with curiosity.

- A famous criminal. If you deal with these little books, you must have heard his name. He belongs to the same print company. He writes stories in Ivry Teitsch.

- What is his name? I was eager to know.

His name? wait a little and I will tell you... - He has a little difficulty with this and rubs his forehead with his hand. - Blessed is the reminder of oblivion!... Yes, his name was Shalom, Shlomke!...

My heart was thrilled. Indeed, the Kapoleshchik was a native of Kapolei!

- Shalom Yaakov Abramowitz? - I asked almost anxiously.

- Abramowitz! - Says the old man, waving his hand dismissively. - In our day we didn't know any Abramowitz, his name was Shalom, and after he became a heretic, he wrote a book of tales in the Ivry Teitsch, a kind of nonsense, a joke, about a horse or a mare there... Women's wisdom, nothing important that should be talked about!...

- He is Mendele Mocher Sforim! - I jumped out of my seat in admiration.

- Which Mendele? Why are you struggling with me? - The old man got angry. - Why you say Mendele when I tell you his name is Shalom!... And where did you get the idea that he is a book seller? He is not a book seller, but just a feckless person, an empty person, and also desecrates the Shabbat...

I did not move from the old Kapoleshchik and I longed to hear from him new things about the life of Mendele.

- See - He said - How this little boy is all excited as if I told him about a famous teacher, about the greatest of the generation! And the old Kapulshchik told me that this Shlomke was not at all a wise student in his youth. Both of them studied in Kapolei in the same Beit Midrash, except that Shlomke was an empty person in his eyes.

[Page 160]

As the old man continued to the studies of the Gemara and the Tosafot, while Shlomke studied the anecdotes and legends, light things. And this would not have been so terrible, if he had not left Kapolei and travelled far away, to Vilna or Warsaw, and there caused his destruction!!... The rumor that he writes on Shabbat is indeed true. He married a kosher, God-fearing wife, and she takes the pen out of his hand on Shabbat and hides it until after Havdalah...

The story of Mendele Mocher Sforim in his youth strengthened me and excited my dim hope: Well, it's not impossible. Mendeley too was a regular boy among the boys in Kapolei!... But from then on, it was no longer convenient for me to continue my studies in the empty synagogue, because Mendele's friend watched over me carefully, lest I dishonor the holy place. That's why I left the synagogue and worked hard on my studies at home.



Mendele about Slutsk and his childhood friend

I met Mendele Mocher Sforim by chance, and became one of the regular visitors in his home. - - - When he heard from me that I was born in Slutsk, he was overjoyed:

- Indeed? A real Slutsk native? Do you have a bent finger?...[a] Then, we are somewhat relatives! In the days of my youth, I spend a few years in Slutsk, I studied in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Yona, the Slutsk gentleman, I ate my lunch meals in the houses of the other Slutsk gentlemen... Listen to a nice story! If so, why are you silent? He is from Slutsk - and he sits there silently!...

And Mendele, all awake and smug, with a fresh redness in the skin of his thin and tanned cheeks, sits and interrogates me about Slutsk and his friends from long ago, all of whom have already passed away and in my childhood, I heard only the echo of their words and deeds. He draws for me on the palm of his hand the paths of the city of Slutsk and its streets: here is the market, and from the market you turn to Kapolei Street, and from here you turn sideways and turn to Rabbi Yona's Beit Midrash and to the courtyard of the synagogues' yards, and inside the city runs the road, this is the King's Road, which leads to Ostrova... There, in Ostrova, lived his good friends, gentle people, with great genealogy, they and their excellent sons, all well-educated, ... He rubs with his hand in his handsome, tall, forehead that is plowed wide dense wrinkles, and says: Oh, Lord, what were their names?... Wait a minute... No, he forgot their names! After all, this was several years ago!...

How many years ago, the grandfather did not mention.

* * *

Mendele's childhood friend from his hometown Kapolei comes to my mind, the one who used to watch over me in our synagogue and comments me about morality, that I should not follow his friend's ways and not go out like him into a bad culture. I tell Mendele about him.

- Really? - Mendele says as if out of curiosity. - From Kapolei? And my friend? what was his name?

- His name was Moti, and we called him the “Kapulshchik”.

- Moti - says Mendele - it is a weak sign. There was a whole lot of “Moti” in Kapolei. What was Moti's personality type?

- I know that in the past he used to travel to the villages to buy linen from the farmers, and in his old age he retired to the Beit Midrash to study Torah. He used to study the entire Shas during the year.

- This is also one of the weak signs! - Says Mendele and rubs his forehead with his hand. - Moti, Moti... well? What, you say, Moti did tell you about me?

- He was saying a lot of things. For example, that in your childhood, when you studied together in the Beit Midrash in Kapolei, you were more attracted to the legend than to the halacha.

I assume this Moti followed the halacha? - Says the grandfather with a witty sneer, and I feel that he has already bitterness in his heart against that Moti. - Well? And what else did he tell you about me?

- Just stories that were told in Kapolei, after you left it.

Well, come on! Tell me, please tell! Why do I have to pull the strings from you one by one?...

I regretfully reflect on the whole act. If I will tell him the things like they were, that his friend was disrespecting him, talking about his “mare” as a foolish thing and an act of shame, portraying him as someone who desecrates the Shabbat, whose wife had to take the pen out of his hand and hide it until after the Havdalah, - I am sure that I will upset the grandfather and bring him to anger. Therefore, I am trying to soften the story as much as possible, and nevertheless I see that this matter has tainted Mendele's spirit. He sits for a few moments afterwards silently with a gloomy face.

- No! - He suddenly says and shakes his white and handsome head. - The whole thing is difficult for me... How did he become to be my friend?... I don't remember at all that I had a friend named Moti actually!...

* * *

On my third visit, Mendele asked me to join him for a walk outside the city. We set out on the road leading to Mount Salivo, walking under the bright and pleasant sky of a fresh and encouraging summer morning. The cautious Mendele, with his upright, brave and noble elderliness, was wearing his tall straw hat, which made him look as an old, arrogant and confident nobleman, that everyone must clear the way for him and bless him with the removal of their hat. He walked with young and firm steps, walking and talking, without getting tired in both actions together. And only when we went out of the city, towards the mountains, passing between scattered villas, with grassy yards, shaded by green oaks, did he stop walking and present his stick in front of him, he turned his head back and forth, widened his nostrils

[Page 161]

and breathed deeply into his body the smell of the harvested hay, that was drying under the sun here and there in the yards. “Oh, what a reviving smell in here - there's no need at all to go out to the village for a summer meeting!...” And suddenly he turned to me, as if from the combination of his thoughts, turned his face and said with a little anger:

-Listen... that Jew of yours, who used to travel between your villages with linen, the same Moti himself... I then pondered over him all night... Yes, it was true that there was one in Kapolei's Beit Midrash... But he was with a clumsy soul - not from the circle of my friends... How did it come to me?... Yes, I remember him. He was just stupid... stupid!...


A roasted pigeon flourishes in the air

Grandfather Mendele Mocher Sforim said:

After my father's death, my widowed mother sent me to the ancient city of Slutsk, which is close to Kapolei, my hometown, to study Torah there in a yeshiva. I was a poor boy, but from a good family, I also excelled in my talents and diligence from all my fellow yeshiva students. The people of the city noticed me, praised me, and differentiate me favorably than all the boys of my age, and there they called me: “the prodigy from Kapolei”.

One day, the city's rich man, who was famous all around for his wealth and generosity of spirit, made a feast in his house for the dignitaries of the community, the rich and the Torah scholars, and among the rest of the guests I was suddenly invited to his table. I - the poor orphan, who has never set foot on the threshold of a rich man's house! All my friends talked about this great event and were jealous of me, because I was honored so much. And the clowns among them sent the arrows of their tongues at me and said: “the rich man invited you because he intends you to marry his daughter in the future!”

The day of the feast came, and my heart was full of anxiety. I wore my Shabbat clothes, but I was not sure that I would know how to behave in the rich man's house according to all the rules of etiquette, accepted in the homes of the rich. I was not a foolish boy, and therefore I decided in my mind: I will observe and see the actions of all the other guests, and I will act similarly to them.

When I came to the feast in the evening, I was amazed at what I saw and I was like a daydreamer. I have never imagined that there is such wealth and such glory in the world! The house was like a palace of kings. High and luxurious rooms. A sea of light poured all over. Silver and crystal lamps, golden chairs and sheets of velvet and silk. In every corner I turn - gold and silver, blue and crimson. And my wretched feet step on expensive carpets, softer than butter.

I entered all anxious and ashamed into the large splendid feast hall, among the other guests. The rich man and his wife received me with a beautiful welcome and seated me at the head of the table, that was prepared for the meal - in the place where the dignitaries sat. All the people turned their eyes on me and were surprised. Each turned to the other and asked in a whisper: “Who is this boy?”, - “Don't you know who he is?” - “He is the prodigy from Kapolei!” - “Is he a son of a rich man?”, - “No, he is a poor orphan”. - “And why did he deserve to be invited to the feast?” - “It is said that the rich man he intends to marry his daughter to this young man in the future”. - “Indeed, he is!? Then this is a boy of valor! Blessed is his mother!”... And I hear all these conversations, I feel the eyes of the guests staring at me, and I sit in my honorable place with a face burning with shame and afraid to move a hand or a foot.

Then the feast began. Servants run back and forth, bringing the best food and drinks to the table. All the guests ate and drank and enjoyed themselves. Everyone was talking, laughing, clinking spoons and forks, and the noise is great and the joy is great. And I was the only one, who sat still among them, as a captive among the hunters, and did not touch the food given to me. Overwhelmed by my emotions, I forgot my soul and my appetite was gone.

And here they served roasted pigeons to the table, a pair of pigeons for each of the guests, and I suddenly hear the lady's voice speaking to me: “Why don't you eat, boy? Do you intend to leave this feast hungry?” - There was a great silence in the hall, and all eyes turned to me. I was very ashamed so I took the knife and fork in my hand, but I did not know what to do with them. Until that day, I never had a chance to use such utensils, because my food in the yeshiva was only dry bread with cold water... I remembered my decision and looked here and there as if stealthily, to see what the rest of the people were doing with their knives and forks. However, due to my excessive excitement, I saw only heads moving in the mist and mouths busying themselves with their work. So, I decided to try to handle the roasts pigeons on my own. I started to touch them with my knife and fork, I turned them in the bowl from side to side, I abused them mercilessly. And while I was doing this and that, alas, a disaster happened! - One of my two poor pigeons, who could not bear my antics anymore, picked up her wings and flew out of my bowl and into the face of the lady who owned the house, who was sitting in front of me...

* * *

That night I made a vow: I would never again come as a poor man to a feast of the rich. And one more vow I made in my heart then: not to eat roasted pigeons for the rest of my life!...

Original footnote:

  1. It was acceptance in our places, that the Slutsk people are extremely proud people. When you ask a Jew who comes from Slutsk, who he is, he bends one finger and begins to count his virtues: “First, I am from Slutsk...” And since he has nothing else to add and count besides this virtue, he remains standing with his bent finger. Return


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