|Starobin 3213 inhabitants, a church, a school, a post office. Surrounded by large swamps. In addition to trade, the inhabitants were engaged in various types of home industry, and rented tracts of hay and pits.|
|(According to the Brookhouse-Efron Encyclopedia)|
Eliyahu Chaim Chinitz
Translated by Irit Dolgin
Starobin, a little town with a small number of inhabitants, is located in the northern border of Polesia, a geographic region which is covered by deep forests and fettered by swamps. The town was stagnated in its development. A railroad did not pass through its territory and the roar of a locomotive [steam engine] and the rumble of its wheels did not bother its inhabitants. Nor was a road built in its area, and cargo and passenger ships did not sail over the Slutsk River, which runs along the length of the town; and therefore, the town was disconnected from trade and industrial centers and from administrative centers as well. Only twisting dirt trails, with prints of men's feet, wagons' wheels and hoofs, would lead to distant villages and small towns in the vicinity. And most of the year, those trails were also disrupted by mud and clay, or covered by snow piles during the winter. Transportation to and from Slutsk was difficult and exhausting. The ride from here to there, a distance of 35 kilometers, lasted eight to ten hours. Such a journey was executed twice a week, by a procession of wagons.
But, despite the difficult connection with the larger world, the town did not lack influence from the outside. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, our town was already considered to be progressive it has been adopting new lifestyles and manners. The Enlightenment [movement] that had previously conquered the big cities, also reached it, and penetrated the hearts of the young Yeshiva students of the homeowners social class. Hamelitz and Hatzefira [nineteenth century Hebrew newspapers; Hamelitz was published in 1860-1904 in Odessa and St. Petersburg; Hatzefira was published in 1862-1931 in Warsaw and Berlin] attracted several subscribers. The Enlightenment books written by Mapu, Abraham Dob Bär Lebensohn, Kalman Shulman, Isaac Baer Levinsohn, and the like, found their ways to some of the households as well. The heralds of the Enlightenment, the ones that had brought the new movement into the town's households, were two people: Nachman Shweidel and Nissan Marmur, or Nissan HaMelamed [the teacher]. The latter was a grammarian and a major Hebrew enthusiast. His Cheder [Cheder literary means room, but is also the name for a traditional elementary school, which teaches the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language] was closer in its character to the Cheder Metukan [a Cheder of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement], which was established not long after. He taught not only the Tanakh and the Gmara, but also grammar and Hebrew; in his Tanakh teachings he was meticulous with regard to accentuation of the penultimate and ultimate stresses. His students were cautious over the correct stressing of the words during the prayer times as well. And if one of the students was called up to the Torah on a Sabbath or festival, during the reading of the Torah, he would read in a beautiful tone while keeping the melody, so that even the adults would envy his students and would imitate them, but, because they did not know the rules, they would switch between the penultimate and the ultimate stresses, and would become a source of ridicule in our eyes.
His method of teaching was as follows: he would orally read a sentence in Yiddish to us and we would have to translate it to Hebrew. And if the translation was not in accordance with to the essence of the language, he would correct us and then we would write it in the notebook. He brought into the hearts of the students the love of Hebrew and the Hebrew writers; at this point in time, he already referred to the old lifestyle with criticism and allowed himself to make fun of its many deliriums and dull customs, in front of us.
The teacher Sh. N. tells that when he was a teacher in the girls' school in Neve Tzedek, he had a reticent student; but despite the scarce amount of words she said, one could feel that she possessed a great knowledge of Hebrew, it was especially apparent in her written essays. She told that her grandfather was a teacher in a Cheder Metukan in Russia. Sh. N. asked her to invite her grandfather to visit the school, and when he came he was surprised that he [the grandfather] knew the teacher of the Cheder Metukan in Slutsk, in which he [Sh.N.] studied as well.
Nachman Shweidel (The teacher Nachman Shweidel died in Tel-Aviv.) owned a stand in Tel-Aviv, where he sold fruits and vegetables during the weekdays and on Sabbaths he would study at the Synagogue of the Americans. He was a Torani [classic observant Jew], with a beautiful soul and noble virtues.
Nachman Shweidel was an educated person, he read and studied a great deal, and was proficient in all areas of Hebrew literature, including the new and old research and science books; it was rare for him not to have read a book about the Enlightenment. He would bring the books from Slutsk, from Shmuel Reiser's printer's workshop.
Both of them, Nissan HaMelamed and Nachman Shweidel taught many students who were knowledgeable of Hebrew and some of them later exiled themselves to places of Torah in Slutsk and Minsk, and continued educating themselves in the Torah and the Enlightenment. These two people deserve to be noted for future generations, in a Memory Book to a town that was destroyed.
The town excelled in that, that almost all the Jews were engaged in gardening. It was not their primary business, but a side business. Each house owner had a garden behind the house, in which people would sow various vegetables: potatoes, cabbage, turnip, legumes, beet and more, and especially pumpkins. The pumpkins were sowed not merely to feed the humans and animals, but, and especially, for a seeds trade. They would put them in flowerbeds until the end of the summer, until they grow and become properly yellow; they would collect them from the garden and place them in the sun, in rows, on the inclined roofs, so that they become more yellow and ripe. Afterwards, they would bring them to their houses, cut them in halves lengthwise, take out the soft part from the inside, together with the seeds, and filter them through a sieve. They would throw away the softness that would come out of the holes, and the seeds would remain in the sieve. They would dry the seeds in the sun again and spread them out on sheets. After the seeds would dry, they would store them in bags, until traders from Minsk would come and buy them for sowing.
All the members of the household took part in all those tasks: the father, the mother, sons and daughters. It was a hard work, but the family worked enthusiastically and diligently. These seeds were of excellent species and called Manarim (Manastirsky), and had a great demand. Even those Jews, that did not own their own garden, rented land lots from non-Jews, and planted pumpkin in those lots. But, as I have already mentioned, this was a side business.
Overall, among the inhabitants, there were many craftsmen, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, constructors, bakers, butchers and wagon-owners. The middle class was engaged in storekeeping; there were stores that sold fabric, grocery, crops, iron tools etc. The indigent were engaged in peddling. The peddlers went to villages in the vicinity, with wagons loaded with barrels of tar and different kinds of haberdasher [sewing goods, such as ribbons, buttons, thread, needles], and sold that to the peasants. In consideration for their merchandise they would get bundles of pig's bristles, calf, lamb or goat, stalks of linen, wool etc.
Also, there were tree traders in our town, who bought small lots in the forests from the big traders, they [tree traders] would cut down the trees and made beams for construction or railway sleepers of them. One of our tree traders had business with the father of Chaim Weitzman Za'l [of blessed memory]. Due to his business, he would often go to Pinsk and Motal, and stay in the house of Reb' Ozer Weitzman, whose sons, and Chaim one of them, were already students and took an important place in the Zionist movement. When this trader, who was a Chassidic, uneducated Jew, came back to his house, and the conversation would turn to Zionism, he would say dismissively: Oh my to the Zionism that the Sons of Weitzman are its leaders!
Overall, the Jews of the town were poor, worked very hard to earn their bread, yet their poverty did not disgrace them; they were simple people, naïve and honest, and almost all of them were people of the Torah. The Torah was the aspiration of their souls; and those who peeked and had been stroked, their ideal was the Enlightenment. On Sabbaths and festive days the sound, the sound of the Torah would emerge from the synagogues and Batei Midrashot [houses of Talmud studies] and fill the town.
As in all places, in which the sons and daughters of Israel were of inferior status, likewise in our town there were important people who faithfully dealt with the public needs; people, who love doing good and kind deeds to others and helping them in time of trouble; people who could approach the authorities and make efforts on behalf of someone who encountered an unfortunate business, or to repeal a harsh decree imposed on people. Among those people, my father Reb. Baruch Chinitch [Chinitz] Za'l excelled especially. He was a likable and easy-going person, took care of all the public needs, was always the messenger of the public, made efforts before the authorities in Slutsk and Minsk and had done a great deal for the benefit of the public.
Yet the life did not always run its normal course. A terrible disaster would fall over the inhabitants and turn the town into a pandemonium. The greatest enemy of the town was the fire, or, as it was named in our town, the red chicken. The houses in our town were built of wood and many of the roofs covered with straw; in the droughts of summer the houses were dry and could easily be ignited. And if it happened that either a fire was created, or so-and-so, intentionally or unintentionally, start a spark, and incited a stack of straw, hay, or a straw roof at once a tongue of fire would be created and the entire town was in flames. People would lose all their property and the entire House of Israel cried over the fire that so-and-so initiated. The disaster was great, but after a while, a year to two years, the town would get a new face. New houses were constructed on the burned lots; those who mourned over the destruction of their houses got to see their new houses, and greater was the honor of the second one over the first. The non-Jewish neighbors saw the beautiful new houses, and were sure that Jews are extremely wealthy and that they hold great fortune, but, with due respect to them, they erred an error of a non-Jew. Jews ate dry bread with a salted-fish broth, combined a penny to a penny until saved the required amount of money for the construction of a new house. And therefore the jesters of the generation would say that the Starobin Jew is a house owner from the outside and poor in the inside.
And I remember, when I was a child, how a ban of Cherem [the highest ecclesiastical censure in the Jewish community, a total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community] was announced at the Synagogue, over the ones who started the fire. It was a terrifying spectacle, which left an unforgotten impression in my heart. A black rod was put on the pulpit, black candles were lit, the prochet [ornamental curtain covering the front of the holy ark in the synagogue] was removed, the Shofar [ram's horn] was sounded: tekiah, teruah, shaevarim, and the beadle of the community pronounced the curse, that on behalf of the place and the public, in accordance with the heavenly court and the mortal court, we impose the Yehoshua Ben Nun Cherem on the one who starts a fire; that this individual will be struck by all the curses of the biblical punishment and by all the curses that were pronounced on Mount Ebal; that this individual will be banned from the community, and that it will be forbidden to be in vicinity to him, and so on and so forth.
Our town was divided into two parts: the southern part, which was named the Eretz-Israel Street, and the northern part, which was called the Slutsk Street. The indigent lived on the Eretz-Israel Street: the peddlers and the simple craftsmen. These were simple, uneducated people, who were barely familiar with Chayei Adam [The life of a Man a work of the Jewish law written by Rabbi Avraham Danzig] and the Mishnahs [the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions called the Oral Torah], but they were ruffians. As opposed to them, the grocers and the craftsmen of clean and effortless occupations, who could study a page of the Talmud with medieval commentaries, lived on the Slutsk Street. There was neither love nor comradeship between the two streets. The latter would act arrogantly toward the former, and there were always quarrels and disputes between the two on public matters. When the time to elect a new rabbi has arrived, the two streets were divided into two parts. Those wanted to elect one rabbi, the others another rabbi, and there was a great dispute for the sake of heaven, which even lead to physical fights at the synagogue. And, surely, the ruffians would almost always win. On a market day, when a fight erupted between the peasants and the Jews, and the Jews were in great danger the ruffians appeared and showed the non-Jews the power of their arm and saved the honor of Israel.
Among the ruffians were also horse traders. Two were partners in a business: one was Moshe, and the other Yaakov. They would buy horses from the Gypsies that were staying in tents outside the town. Moshe was the head negotiator with the Gypsies. He measured the horse with his eyes, inspected its teeth, patted its back, and began the purchase negotiations with the Gypsy. One asks so and so, the other gives so and so; this cries and this cries. At first they have spoken softly, and later harshly. They tried to set an agreement to one another. They almost reached an agreement, but immediately backed off, and began speaking to one another with disrespect, and as the things got heated, they began struggling and hitting each other. The other Gypsies interfered and a great riot had risen, and in the heat of the moment, Yaakov (the other partner) jumped on the horse and escaped to the Eretz-Israel Street and the horse disappeared. A jester that has been watching this entire spectacle came to the Beit Midrash [place of Torah study] and announced: People! I just saw a deed and recalled a Midrash P'lia [enigmatic Talmudic legend]: when Moshe [Moses] killed the Egyptian, Yaakov rode a horse and escaped to Eretz-Israel.
In this manner, the sons and daughters of my town, Starobin, had been living for hundreds of years: growing up and quarreling, working and trading, studying Torah, aspiring to Enlightenment, rejoicing at times of peace and quietude, suffering at times of difficulties, arguing with each other, giving to charity and doing good deeds, holding rabbis great in Torah on the Rabbinic Chair, joking and jesting and there the reaper found them: a despised and sordid non-Jew, Hitler-the-evil may his name be obliterated cut their short-lived lives, gathered them into a slaughter house and burned them alive. Hashem [God] shall avenge their blood!
Rabbi Nissan Waxman
Translated by Paul Pascal
[This is a translation of pp. 228-234 in Hebrew with additions from the Yiddish article of the same title, pp. 460-465. The essay exists in the Slutsk Yiskor Book in both Hebrew and Yiddish versions. For the most part the two are very similar in content, but do differ occasionally in significant ways. The translation below is based on the Hebrew version, with additional or alternative passages from the Yiddish where these augment, clarify, or improve on the Hebrew text. The Yiddish additions are given in square brackets. Hebrew terms retained in the translation are rendered here with a Yiddish pronunciation, out of deference to those in Starobin who actually used the words, with this pronunciation, in their daily lives.]
[Starobin 3213 souls, a church, a school, a post office. Large stretches of swamp land. Aside from trade and business, the Jewish townspeople devoted themselves to growing vegetables and cultivating large tracts of hay and grass. From Bruckhaus-Efron's Encyclopedia]
A child of Starobin am I. My forefathers, simple and pure-hearted, were born within its borders and buried in its cemeteries.
I am a child of the twentieth century, oppressed by stormy winds and exhausted by the crashing waves. The cradle of my youth lay in Starobin and upon its ashes I took my first steps.
Many years have passed since I left you, my darling town. I have experienced events and adventures. I have crossed oceans and countries of the world and have seen large cities, but none is more beautiful than you.
You remain engraved in my heart and before my eyes [with all of your attributes and your flaws, with your forests and fields, your mud and bog, your simple folk and your luminaries, so noble in character]. Your radiant countenance and pure heart will never be erased from my memory, even with the poverty and illiteracy which also nested in you.
I will try to describe your appearance so that your memory might endure for generations to come.
My town of Starobin belonged to the Gubernya (province) of Minsk, the city of Minsk itself being about 140 kilometers (85 miles) away. However, most commerce was conducted with the District Town of Slutsk, about 35kilometers (20 miles) away. The town was divided into three parts: Slutsk Street [also known as Town's End] on the edge of town, the market [also known as the Well-to-do Section], and Eretz Yisroel Street. I could never understand the reason for this name and have never heard of its use in any other place. Each of these three areas had its own Beis Medresh (House of Torah Study and Prayer), with its own individual charm.
Three hundred and fifty Jewish families lived in Starobin. Some earned their income from the various trades in which other Jews of White Russia were also employed, such as shoemaker, tailor, and storekeeper. In addition to these, Starobin Jews had a unique industry of their own from which the majority supported themselves, based on their vast gardens of cucumbers. The cucumbers were overseen with great care all summer, and at summer's end they were taken from the gardens, sliced in half by hand lengthwise, and their seeds removed. These were washed and then dried in the sun.
Merchants from deep inside Russia would then come and purchase the seeds in order to do their own sowing, and they would pay about twenty or thirty rubles a pod (40 pounds), a substantial price. It was fair, though, when you consider how labor-intensive the process was. You can also imagine what sort of income this kind of business eked out.
But Starobin was rich in Jewish souls, rare Jewish characters in whom she could justifiably be proud, including the following:
Peysakh the Melamed (the Torah Teacher)
In the Beis Medresh on the edge of town there were no outstanding scholars, but within it the voice of the Bible could nevertheless be heard. This was where Rabbi Peysakh the Melamed prayed, a teacher of Rashi Talmud. [He would take only] ten to fifteen Talmud pupils into his heyder (one-room religious school), and he worked with them with all his might from morning until late at night.
He taught Torah to Jewish young people in this way for about twenty-five years, until his throat grew hoarse and he spoke [with the voice of a duck. In fact, the jokers in town gave him the nickname Peysakh the Drake.]
Of course, the teaching profession did not sufficiently support his household. Therefore his wife also would keep a pumpkin garden. [As if it weren't enough that this particular Jew with the gravelly voice grew exhausted each day from his long hours of teaching, at twilight daily he would run to the Beis Medresh and complete his day's work teaching a chapter of Mishna (the first part of the Talmud) to the congregants, and it was not for the sake of monetary reward, God forbid.] On the Sabbath, prior to Minha (afternoon prayers), he would preach on the Torah portion of the week.
A quarter to a third of the Jews who prayed in the Businessmen's Beis Medresh were of the educated class and teachers of modern children. [They tended to be a more intelligent group, both in worldly matters and in Jewish thought.] They argued that every Jew ought to be proficient in the Bible, including the grammar. Every Sabbath a congregation of twenty or thirty refined Jews sat and listened to a lesson in Talmud by their rabbi, a great
Bible scholar, Rabbi Shleyma Landa, one of the brilliant students of the gaon (Torah genius) Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the rabbi of Hlusk.
Aside from a squash garden, Reb Shleyma earned money from a horse postal business, a dowry gift from his father-in-law, [Yankl Itshe Hayim's, on behalf of Yankl's only daughter]. Reb Yankl had leased the business from the government, and promised to support Reb Shleyma with it for all the days of his life. Thus Reb Shleyma engaged in Torah and community work, while his father-in-law Reb Yankev ben Yitzhok Hayim [Yankl Itshe Hayim's] took care of the horses, harnesses and carriages, all the while taking pride in his son-in-law.
Hirshke the Shoemaker
In that same Beis Medresh prayed a Jew who was called Hirshke the Shoemaker because of his trade when he was young. He had a powerful and pleasant voice and would lead services in front of the Holy Ark on Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur. However, the intellectuals of the town had misgivings about a cantor in their Beis Medresh who had been a man of a lower class, one who had been a shoemaker in his youth. Still, no one dared to say anything, for there was no one who could chant those heartfelt melodies as well as he could, especially his Yaaleh prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur and in the Musaf service of the next day.
His wife Merka was her name [Khasha Merka's] is a story in itself. This Merka was a saint of the highest order. [She did the work of ten women.] Whenever there was a need for charity and kindness, helping a poor family, providing a dowry for a poor [or orphaned] bride, staying with a sick person without family, [lending support for the funeral of a pauper], or other acts of lovingkindness, she was always there first, [organizing things quietly, so that no one would know who was responsible for the support. And when she could, she endeavored to hide her efforts from even people of means for whom she might be working, to avoid revealing how and through whom the help had come.]
In 1914-15, in the throes of the First World War, [when virtually all the Russian armies were passing through White Russia,] a regiment of Cossacks happened to arrive in Starobin exactly on Yom Kippur afternoon. When the Cossacks saw some Jews walking in the streets of the town they immediately taunted them, pushed them and knocked them down.
The Jews fled frantically and rushed into the Beis Medresh crying: Cossacks! They have come and are attacking the Jews! In the Beis Medresh a panic arose and many of the worshippers fled to their homes. The officers of the Beis Medresh turned to Hirshke who was standing in front of the Ark and begged him to stop the service for fear of the danger, [so as to allow the congregants to get away.] But Hirshke paid attention neither to the words of the synagogue officers nor to the imminent danger. He [dismissed them with] his hand and uttered one word: Service! [as if to say, How dare you suggest we break off our worship without reciting the central service, the Shmon'Esrey the holiest part of the prayers?] His strong stance made a great impression on the worshippers and they too remained in their places, to hear and join in the chanting of their spiritual leader.
The excitement had just calmed down when a group of Cossacks with long swords in their hands broke into the Beis Medresh. A great terror fell upon the worshippers. Yet, when the Cossacks saw Hirshke, shrouded in white, prostrating himself and chanting the prayer The Priests and the People in a melody which penetrated the heart, and saw too all the worshippers on their knees, a fear of this holy atmosphere fell upon them. For a few moments they stood as if petrified, then slipped outside, one by one.
The Great Beis Medresh and Moshe Nomi's the Shammes (Synagogue Sexton)
Rabbi Dimta and all of Starobin's religious leaders prayed in the Great Beis Medresh, the most important one in town. The building stood on the edge of a wide courtyard known as the Shulheyf (or Shul Hoif, Synagogue Grounds), which served private and public life. At the other end of the courtyard was the rabbi's house.
In the middle of the Shulheyf there was a building called House of Talmud Torah (community Torah school for young children), even though no one in town could remember when school children had studied there. The house served as a storeroom for old objects and utensils and the Khevra Kadisha (Burial Society). This desolate building instilled fear in the children of the town and many frightening tales about it circulated in town.
It was in the Shulheyf that a khuppah (wedding canopy) would be set up, after the bridal couple had been led through the town. At a bris (ritual circumcision), the newborn infant would be carried to the Great Beis Medresh, and once he had been brought into the covenant of our Father Abraham, the community went to the home of the boy's father for a festive meal.
Pallbearers would carry the deceased in their coffins to the Shulheyf. Many of the townspeople took part in the funeral, and shops closed when the funeral procession passed them on its way to the cemetery. The life of every Jew in Starobin was tied, from birth to the last day to the walls of the Beis Medresh and its courtyard, where everything began, happened, and ended.
In the Great Beis Medresh, Moshe son of the Woman Naomi (also known as Moshe [Ed: not Moishe] Nomi's) made his home [and kingdom]. [Ed: Reb Meysha Hayim b'reb Yehuda Leyb Kaptshits.] He was a unique character, [the rare kind of Jew that hasn't been seen for many years now]. To all appearances, he seemed to be only the shammes of the Beis Medresh and the shammes of the Khevra Kadisha. But he was also called Shammes of the Besdin (Rabbinical Court). This was his official position, and the truth of the matter is in this role he was the only authority in all religious matters in the town proficient in Talmud, religious arbitration, and in the wisdom of the Kabbala, which he studied when no one was in the Beis Medresh.
His dedication to Torah knew no bounds. He sat in the Beis Medresh and studied Torah day and night every day of his life. The elders of the town would say that for fifty years no one ever arrived at the Beis Medresh before he did nor left after him. He fulfilled his job as shammes faithfully and devotedly and did not rely on others. Every Thursday he went around to all the doorsteps of the homeowners collecting contributions for Paupers' Bread (food bank). All the people in town, from youngsters to elders, admired him. Many feared his glance, although he never looked beyond his own four cubits (never looked critically at others).
He also presented a lesson in Shulkhn Orukh (voluminous summary of Torah laws) every day between minkha and maariv (afternoon and evening prayers) to whomever came to the Beis Medresh. After the maariv prayers he taught a page of Gemora (Talmud) to the scholars of the town. [Regardless of the fact that in Starobin there were always great rabbis with world-renowned reputations, it was Moshe who taught the Gemora in the Shul, and Rabbi Dimta would sit and learn from him.]
The people of Starobin, like most of the Jews in the District of Slutsk, did not recognize the Hassidic movement. Everything to do with Hassidic rebbes and the practice of personal blessings and redemption money were foreign to their spirit. Yet people came from far and near to receive a personal blessing from Moshe Nomi's the Shammes. Not just the Jews—even Gentiles came to him with requests. He never took payment from a son of Israel. Only from Gentiles did he accept payment, in the form of candles and towels for the Beis Medresh.
A yeshiva for advanced young people existed in town for a few years [prior to the First World War], founded and run by Rabbi Shimshon [Zelig] Fortman (more on him later). The yeshiva acquired a good reputation, and students from the entire Slutsk region flocked to it. I, too, was among the yeshiva's young students. Many of its students are now great and famous Torah scholars of our generation [Ed. note: this was written around 1959].
On one occasion, Rabbi Fortman had to leave town [for a few weeks] and asked Rabbi Moshe the Shammes to be his substitute. So it was, and once during a lesson, a peasant carrying a package came into the Beis Medresh. Rabbi Moshe apologized to us and went out to speak with him. When he returned he sensed our strange reaction and he responded with a smile, saying, It happened that two cows had run away from this Gentile and disappeared. A week ago he stopped in to see me and asked me to whisper a blessing on his behalf.
I did as he wished, for why should it bother me if a Gentile believes in these things? And look, the cows returned safely, and this man has now brought enough towels for the Beis Medresh for an entire year. When the Gentiles believe, added Rabbi Moshe, this is a welcome thing, and it is forbidden to make fun of it. For if they stopped believing, it would signal a great danger to us.
Rabbi Moshe's wife was a woman of great saintliness. In addition to her squash garden, she also spun threads for the tsitses of the townsmen (tsitses, or tsitsit, are ritual fringes on the four corners of prayer shawls, perpetual reminders of God's presence and of a Jew's obligations). Everyone in town knew that Sora Rivka, the wife of Moshe Nomi's the Shammes, shared credit in their mitzvah of tsitses (in the fulfillment of their religious duty to wear tsitses). She also performed acts of anonymous charity.
[In the corner of the Great Beis Medresh there sat Reb Avrohom Reuven Hinda's (surname Rubnitz), reciting Alshekh. He was the oldest of the brothers in his family, the others being Peysakh the Melamed and Elya Hinda's. In town they were known as the Bney Ruvelekh (the Little Sons of Reuven), probably because of their grandfather, whose first name is discernible in their surname Rubnitz (Reuvenitz). They and the Chinitzes were the largest families in town.
As I picture him, Avrohom Reuven was already in his late eighties and had long ago stopped working. Previously he had been in the fur and pig-hair business, at which he was considered the greatest expert. But all of these foolishnesses were only sidelines. His real passion lay elsewhere. For over sixty years in a row he would talk Alshekh. That is to say, for half an hour between Minkha and Maariv prayers every day, he would teach a group of Jews the Torah portion of the week, using the interpretation of Alshekh. [Ed. note: Moshe Alshekh, ordained a rabbi by the famous Joseph Caro, was a 16th century Sephardi halakhic authority, teacher, and preacher, whose published ethical and philosophical commentaries on most books of the Bible, supported by extensive Talmudic and Midrashic references, were widely disseminated throughout the Jewish world.]
Among those who were there to listen were Jews who had been attending his lessons since he started teaching: Motta Yankl the Wagon-Driver, or Moishe Berl the Glazier, who were themselves already old-timers. In the eyes of all of his students, who were basically drawn from the working class elements in town, Avrohom Reuven was the symbol of Torah and wisdom. His word was the epitome of astuteness, even though in his own mind he considered himself to be artless and simple, and would in fact often come out with indolent comments.]
[One of his comments that circulated around town had it that he didn't believe on this Earth there were such places, really, as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Maybe Vilna and Warsaw, I'll grant you, he would say, you can't deny their existence, since you see their names in black and white printed on the first page of the Mishna texts. As for Minsk or Smolensk, he himself had met with merchants from those places who would come to buy his fur and pig-hair, but the others it's all deceit and lies, made-up stories which good-for-nothings concoct to make mischief, since they are too lazy to attend my lesson in Alshekh and would rather gossip about stupidities!]
[Nowadays who can deny what he said? Maybe he was actually right! ]
The Rabbis of Starobin
Rabbi Ahron Feinstein and his descendents served as the rabbis of Starobin over the course of the last century. Reb Ahron's son, Reb Eliyohu, in particular, excelled and became famous for his genius and wisdom. All his friends and acquaintances admired him, and his name preceded him throughout the Jewish world. (He died in 5689, or 1928-29).
Reb Eliyohu was born in the month of Teyves 5602 (winter of 1841-42) in Slutsk. His amazing talents were recognized while he was still a child, and although he was physically weak, his diligence knew no bounds. At the age of seven he was proficient in Seder Nezikin (fourth section of the Mishna). The head of the rabbinic court of Slutsk, the venerable gaon Rabbi Yoysef Peimer (or Pehmer), was strongly attached to him and loved him as a dear son.
When the youngster was ten years old, the old rabbi himself began to teach him and to speak about him to the outstanding personalities of that generation. When Eliyohu reached the age of thirteen, he became engaged to the daughter of the gaon Rabbi Yitzkhok haLevi Davidovitch, the Rabbi of Karlitsh. His future father-in-law gave him, as an engagement present, the book Yad Malachi, whose pages the young groom soon filled with marginal notes. After the betrothal the groom went to the Volozhin Yeshiva.
In those days there erupted in the Volozhin Yeshiva the famous controversy between the leaders of the NeTSiV Yeshiva (NeTSiV is an acronym for Rabbi Tsvi Hersh Leyb Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva), and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The two sides decided to bring the dispute before the court of the great rabbis of the day: Rabbi David Tebli (Tevela?) of Minsk, Rabbi Yosela (Yoysef Peimer) of Slutsk, Rabbi Z'ev Volf, the head rabbi of Vilna, and Rabbi Yitzkhok Elkhonon Spector, who was then in Novogrodok.
When these rabbis arrived at Volozhin in the month of Kheshvan 5618 (1857), the leaders of the Volozhin Yeshiva came out to welcome them, and Rabbi Yosela asked the Volozhin leaders, How is my Rabbi Elinka (affectionate form of Eliyohu)? They heard his question and knew that Rabbi Yosela did not honor just any man with the title Rabbi. But they were silent, saying they had not heard of him. Rabbi Yosela admonished them; he told them that not knowing the son of the rabbi of Starobin rather blemished the quality of their yeshiva administration.
From then on they began observing Eliyohu Feinstein and discerning his greatness, to which the NeTSiV himself testified, for the youngster already knew the works of Rabbenu Nissim (Ha-RaN, 14th century Talmudic commentator) and the commentaries on the Mishna of Rabbi Shlomo ben Adrat (Ha-RaSHBA, 13-14th century Spanish Talmud giant).
When he was nearing his eighteenth birthday, his marriage took place on Rosh Khodesh Tammuz 5620 (1860), and he remained in his father-in-law's home in Karlitsh. The elders of the generation would say about him that during the time he was living in his father-in-law's house he studied every part of the Shulkhn Orukh forty times and knew every section of it by heart.
During Passover 5623 (1863) his father died and the people of Starobin unanimously decided that he should fill his father's place. But he refused because of his great desire to devote himself to Torah study, and also out of fear of the burden of rabbinic leadership when he was just twenty years old. His father-in-law tended to agree with him. But instead he respected the wishes of Rabbi Yosela who appealed to him saying: I would like to see my Rabbi Elinka take on rabbinic leadership while I am still alive. Reb Elinka granted his request, but on the condition that the contract for his rabbinic appointment stipulated that he would not be obligated to render any rabbinic judgments or handle other rabbinic matters before midday, and that in general none of the townspeople would approach him except for teaching and for decisions on Jewish law.
In spite of those conditions, after he had taken the rabbinical seat he conducted his office on a high level, and was not intimidated by the powerful rich people who, in those days, ruled as they pleased in matters of land leasing from the Polish princes and in taking over other people's land. These people would get their sons released from army service at the expense of orphans and the sons of poor people who were sent against their will. Against these unethical people the young rabbi stood up and fought with uncompromising words and a breadth of spirit, until he became renowned throughout the country.
In the year 5627 (1866-67), when Rabbi Yehoyshua Rabinovitz from Kalish (probably either Kalush, near Lvov, or Kalisz, near Lodz), the rabbi of Kletsk, left his post in Kletsk for Nesvizh, the Kletsk community sent a rabbinic missive to Rabbi Eliyohu with a sum considerably greater than his salary. As soon as this became known to the people of Starobin the entire town was in a turmoil, and they tried all sorts of tactics to keep him. But the people of Kletsk would not give him up. Finally the two sides came before the rabbinic law court of Rabbi Arye of Eihumen (also called Chervin) and Rabbi Gershon Tankhum of Minsk. The court ruled in favor of Kletsk and so Rabbi Eliyohu went there in 5630 (1869-70).
This ruling greatly depressed the people of Starobin, and even after several decades had passed the matter was not gone from their memory. Generation after generation in the town would tell wondrous stories about their rabbi, who had grown up in their midst and been stolen from them.
To their joy, the people of Starobin were able to have their revenge on the community of Kletsk. For Rabbi Eliyohu did not stay long in Kletsk and moved from there to fill his father-in-law's place in Karlitsh in 5634 (1873-74). He then moved to Choslovitz (Khislavichi), and afterwards to Pruzhani, in place of the esteemed Rabbi Yerukhom Leyb Perlman. There Reb Eliyohu gained fame and was renowned as Rabbi Elya Pruzhaner, of blessed memory.
After Rabbi Elya moved to Kletsk, the people of Starobin elected his brother-in-law, Rabbi Yekusiel Zusman haCohen Kaplan as their rabbi. He wore this rabbinic mantle until the day he died, on the 8th of Iyar 5660 (1890). After his death a controversy broke out in Starobin over the issue of the rabbinate. Most of the people, especially the butchers, were tired of a reserved rabbi and yearned instead for a rabbi who would speak before the public from the bima (platform) of the Beis Medresh, at least on Shabbes Shuva (Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and Shabbes haGodl (Sabbath preceding Passover).
Many rabbis, several of them famous, offered their services, in particular the R.Y.D.Ba.Z. (or R.I.D.Ba.Z., Rabbi Yankev Dovid Vilovsky/Willowski) of Slutsk, for the sake of his son-in-law, the young Rabbi Yoysef Kahnovitsh (Kanovitsh?), who had made a favorable impression with his sermons. The RYDBaZ himself promised to come to Starobin from time to time to preach to the congregation. But the important people and the scholars of the town ultimately did not agree to hiring any of those who emphasized the importance of sermons over other rabbinic tasks. They chose instead Rabbi Gershon Moyshe Helbord, who was known by the name the Prodigy from Trok (Trakai, Lithuania). Reb Gershon stayed in Starobin for seven years until he was chosen in 5667 (1906-07) as the rabbi of Timkovitsh, and from there he went to Oshmina, near Vilna.
Out of love for Reb Elinka, the community of Starobin then hired his young brother-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the rabbi of Uzda. Although Reb Dovid was shy and did not preach before the public, all the people in town loved and admired him. He became famous for his great proficiency and his talent for delving deeply into the Law, such that the gaon Rabbi Isser Zalmen Meltzer of Slutsk sometimes invited Reb Dovid to help him rule on matters of civil law in the rabbinic court there.
Reb Dovid was distinguished for his nobility and outstanding character. He conducted his rabbinate with wisdom, prudence and utmost grace. His outward appearance also garnered respect. He was a tall man and cut an imposing figure. His home was always wide open to the needy.
According to the tradition of Starobin, then and always, no one was allowed to sell candles or yeast, for it was the customary right of the rabbi's family as part of his regular income. Of course, the rabbi himself was not involved; his wife, the rebbetzin, and his children took care of it. On Thursday evenings all the people of the town would stream to the rabbi's house to buy candles for their Sabbath blessing, and yeast for the challahs at the Sabbath meal, which most of them baked themselves.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, those who came to the Great Beis Medresh would stay awake all night, on their feet. Among them, of course, were Reb Dovid and his sons, who would read verses from Psalms. Around the middle of the night, Reb Dovid and his son Reb Moishe would study the entire Talmud tractate Masekhet Yoma.
With the death of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein on 27 Tishrey 5688 (1927), the rabbinate in Starobin effectively ended. Rabbi Shleyma Landa, mentioned earlier, tried hard to fill the void and to protect Jewish values, but this ended when the Soviet government nationalized his horses and carriages, and he was arrested as a bourgeois and a reactionary. He was exiled to Siberia, and there all traces of him disappeared. (His son, Rabbi Grunam, was the son-in-law of the gaon Rabbi Peysakh Frank, and was one of the directors of Yeshivat haDarom in Rehovot, Israel).
Among the family of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, of blessed memory, who perished, are the following:
His youngest son Yitzkhok, died while still in his prime. His son Rabbi Mordekhai, a Torah genius and a man of distinguished character, was the rabbi in Hrozov (Grozovo) and Shklov; he was exiled to Siberia and perished there. His son Rabbi Dov Ber, the sheykhet (shohet, or ritual slaughterer) in Starobin and Shemezova also died in Siberia. His son Rabbi Yankev and all his family perished in Riga, Latvia. His son-in-law, Rabbi Yisroel Shoel Yapin, the rabbi of Choslovitz, Smolavitsh, and Rechitsa (Rzeczyca), was in Latvia and perished there. May the Lord avenge their blood! (See Sefer Zikaron L'Yahadut Latvia, pages 391 and 406)
And may the following members of his family be blessed with long life: His grandson Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhl Feinstein, the son of the above-mentioned Yitzkhok, who is presently in Tel-Aviv. His daughter Hanna, who is the wife of Rabbi Yitzkhok haLevi Smol in Chicago, U.S.A. One of his outstanding sons, the gaon Rabbi Moishe Feinstein, who was formerly the rabbi of Lyuban and is now in America. He is head of the Tiferes Yerusholayim Yeshiva in New York. He is one of the exceptional individuals, out of all the rabbis, who are accepted by every stripe of (religious) Jew in America. [Ed. note: Prior to his death in the 1980's, Rabbi Moishe Feinstein had become universally regarded as the single highest world authority on matters of Torah law of the Twentieth Century.] His wife, the rebbetzin Sima, the daughter of Rabbi Yankev the shoykhet of Lyuban, is renowned for her charity and kindness.
The Scholars and Yeshiva Pupils
Starobin was full of scholars, many of them with rabbinic ordination, qualified to teach, so much so that there was a standing joke in town: Why is this shtetl called Starobin? It's because in Russian 'Sta-Rabin' means 'a hundred rabbis'. Nearly every youngster in Starobin who finished kheyder with a Gemora melamed (elementary level Talmud teacher) went on to Slutsk to complete his Talmud studies in Rabbi Nekhemia's religious preparatory school, followed by Slutsk's renowned Eyts Khayim Yeshiva co-founded by the RYDBaZ (Ed.: see earlier reference; and Rabbi Isser Meltzer). From there they fanned out to the yeshivas of Slobodka, Mir and Telz (Telsiai), and the Khofetz Khayim Yeshiva in Radun.
At the beginning of this century, two rabbis The Brothers from Starobin were particularly well known. Yisroel Tankhum haCohen Fortman and his younger brother Shimshon Zelig both revealed a talent for preaching, even from their earliest years. They were the sons of Shimon the Melamed, one of the Gemora teachers of the town, a Jew who excelled in the clarity of his explanations.
Their mother, Henya Roshka, a mother of six boys, helped by selling fruits and vegetables, but after the death of her husband, the entire burden of supporting the family fell on her. Yisroel Tankhum and Shimshon Zelig were by then studying in various yeshivas away from Starobin. From time to time they would return home to give sermons in the synagogues and yeshivas of the nearby towns, for which they were paid. With these small sums they helped alleviate the burden on their mother. They continued their studies in the yeshivas of Mir and Radun, becoming famous as great scholars of Torah and as outstanding preachers. Whenever they came home for a festival or holy day, there was no limit to their mother's joy.
Now it happened that on market days she would be standing alone tending her shop. Peasants would enter in a flurry and, without her noticing, would surreptitiously snatch fruit from her shelves and slip it into their sacks. On one such occasion, a relative of hers happened to come into the shop and spot this happening. He told her about it, and asked: Why do you stay here alone? Your sons are in town today, and certainly they would help you if you called them. At this she grew angry, and answered indignantly, The fruit is mine and if the peasants are going to steal, let them steal. But my sons were given to me for safekeeping by my husband Shimon, and he did not entrust them to me in order for them to stand in my place in the shop.
Rabbi Yisroel Tankhum haCohen Fortman became known afterwards as one of the outstanding rabbis of Lita (Lithuania, Latvia, and White Russia) in his capacity as rabbi of Shveksna and Zezmer (Ziezmariai). It was in Zezmer that he perished, with all the members of his family. His brother Rabbi Shimshon Zelig haCohen Fortman became known as a pre-eminent interpreter of Torah, and served as rabbi in the towns of Kopatkevichi, Osipovichi, and eventually, Far Rockaway, New York, during which time he was training students in homiletics at the Toyro veDaas Yeshiva of Brooklyn, New York. He died on 27 Shvat 5711 (1951).
In the course of the First World War, most of the yeshivas of Greater Russia moved to the towns of Ukraine. By the summer of 5678 (1918), as the First World War was close to ending, Russia became calm for a short while, until the outbreak of the civil war that sparked the Russian Revolution. At that point, some of the Starobin students at the Mir Yeshiva, which was then situated in Poltava, Ukraine, returned home temporarily.
Rabbi Dimta met with them and told them that in Starobin there was a distinguished group of young students being taught by Rabbi Fortman and that it was important to hurry and move them to the big yeshiva before the roads became obstructed. Traveling from Starobin to Poltava was beyond the ability of these young boys on their own, particularly in those days of political agitation and fear. But they rose above the hardships, and accompanied by Rabbi Khayim Vetsherebin managed to make it to the Mir Yeshiva in Poltava.
A few years after the war, the yeshiva returned from Poltava to Mir in Poland. The head of the yeshiva, the gaon Rabbi Eliyezer Yehuda Finkel, told me that the group of boys from Starobin deserve utmost credit, for if not for them the Mir Yeshiva would not have survived. Remember well the names of those boys:
Zusman Tiroshkin, who died young at the Mir Yeshiva in 5685 (1924-25).
Herzl Domnitz, who perished with all the members of his family in the town of Stoypts (Stolbtsy) close to Mir.
Avrohom Pasmanik, the son of Hirshke the Shoemaker and his righteous wife, both mentioned earlier, who was the rabbi in the town of Rafalovka in Wolyn (Volynhia), and who died with all his family and members of his congregation. His younger brother Mordkha, who was an outstanding talent in his own right, was one of the students of the gaon Rabbi Shimon Shkop, and died on the Day of Slaughter in Kletsk.
Tsvi Hirsh, the son of Rabbi Moishe Ahron and Hinda Tsirin-Tehilim, an outstanding personality in Torah, wisdom, and in character, who was the rabbi in Kovaliev-Polesia, and was killed there. May God avenge their blood!
Yitzkhok Khayim Krasnitsh, presently in Jerusalem in the Council of Torah Scholars of the Rabbi of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk).
And the youngest in the group, the writer of these lines
There were three other boys, on a higher scholastic level than the aforementioned, who studied in Starobin and from there had also gone on to Poltava:
Yoysef Grozovsky-Rozovsky, known as The Prodigy of Uzda (Byelorussia). He later became a rabbi and teacher on the Council of the gaon Rabbi Khayim Oyzer Grodzinski in Vilna. When the Nazis entered Vilna, he fled to Russia, where he disappeared.
An article under the authorship of a Rabbi R.Y.B.M. the initials of Rozovski, Yoysef ben Mordkha—was included in Sefer haYovel [The Jubilee Book) of the gaon Rabbi Shimon Shkop, and published in Vilna, 5696 (1935-36).
Shimon Berenshteyn-Shapiro, the rabbi of Lipovka-Vilna, where he perished. (See Yerushalayim d'Lita b'Meri u-b'Shoah by Dr. M. Dvorzhitsky, p. 278). He was a Biblical scholar and wrote many original interpretations of the Torah from his young years on. His article on religious law, based on Shi'budad'Reb Nossn (The Subjugation of Reb Nossn), was printed in the collection Ohel Toyro (Tent of the Law) by the gaon Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhl Rabinovitch; his three-part article on Tomei sheNikhnas laMikdosh (The Unclean Who Enters the Temple) appeared in the collection KnessesYisroel, volumes 12, 13, and 14, published in Vilna, 5692 (1931-32). Grozovsky and Berenshteyn were the brilliant students of the gaon Rabbi Moishe Feinstein (mentioned earlier, in detail), who brought them from Uzdato Starobin. May God avenge their blood!
Yehoyshua Dovid Kustanowitz-Povarsky from Lyuban, author of the book Yeshuas Dovid (The Salvation of David), which deals with Khoyshen Mishpot (the fourth part of Joseph Karo's massive and seminal summary of Jewish law, the Shulkhn Orukh), published in Belogorye (Ed.: possibly Bilgoray), 5693 (1932-33). He is presently one of the heads of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.
Another who was an excellent Bible scholar was Yehuda Leyb Rakhmilovitsh. He studied in the yeshivas of Slutsk, Shklov and Amtzislov (Mtsislavl). A relative of Dr. Nakhmen Rakhmilovitsh of Kovna, Lithuania, he himself was from Starobin, and was the rabbi of the town of Ivatsevichi (Iwacewicze), where he perished.
Meanwhile the Soviet government was growing stronger. It closed the institutions of Jewish religious education and wiped out all Jewish community life. With that, the glory of Starobin was lost forever.
In the United States there are many families who came from Starobin. Among the better known ones are the following: Rabbi Avrohom Chinitz, and his sons, who also served in the rabbinate. His brother, Rabbi Dovid Chinitz-Chazanovitsh, who was the head of the Ostrog (Oistroh) Yeshiva in Wolyn, and who perished there. Rabbi Meyir Chinitz, whose melodious renderings of Jewish song was well known in the provinces of Lithuania, Latvia, White Russia, and Poland, and who served as cantor in Kovel, Lida, Nesvizh and Slutsk. Crowds flocked to hear his chanting and prayers. In his last days he served as cantor in Tshernigov. Rabbi Shakhna Chinitz served as rabbi in the Khevras Shas b'Talmud Toyro Tiferes haGRA (a rabbinical school named for the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyohu of Vilna) in Brownsville (Brooklyn, N.Y.). He died on 29 Iyar 5690 (1930). Others include: the soyfer (religious scribe) Mr. Khayim Lifshitz (Ed.: possibly Lipshitz), and his brothers Rabbi Yankev Lifshitz, the shoykhet (ritual slaughterer), and Rabbi Binyomin Lifshitz all grandsons of Rabbi Zelig (son of Z'ev) Chinitz, one of the distinguished individuals at the Beis Medresh on the edge of town; Rabbi Yitzkhok Yankev Mendelson (Ed.: possibly Mendelsohn or Mendelssohn) and his brother Simkha (Felix), who was one of the great Reform rabbis; the Hebrew writer Aharon Domnitz in Baltimore, son of Rabbi Asher the Melamed (religious teacher); and the teacher Dov-Ber Brodetsky in Chicago
Before the Second World War we had heard reports from Starobin that the Soviet government had drained the swamps in the area and had illuminated the town with electricity. But we also knew full well that it had drained the lifeblood out of our magnificent community and had extinguished the last sparks of the Torah's light in our little town until nothing remained.
When the brutal soldiers of Hitler, may his name be blotted out, arrived in Starobin, they found only lonely shadows in the form of human beings; their soul, their essence, had already been taken from them. When the murderers brought these vestiges of humanity to their deaths, they did not destroy the mighty spirit of our beloved shteteleh, which was still alive and vibrant in the wings that carried her children to scattered shores, and which exhorted them to carry on their great inheritance and to perpetuate Starobin's name for all generations.
[****Postscript from the Editors of the Slutsk Yizkor Book
[The accompanying Hebrew letter was the last one received by Rabbi Yoysef Leyb Kaplan, from his father Reb Moshe Nomi's (Moishe Khayim Kapchitz) in Starobin. For reasons that are well known, the forwarded letter was long in getting to us and could not be included in the Hebrew section of the Yizkor Book. [Ed. note: The Yizkor Book was completed around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a possible explanation for the disruption in mail service.] We have decided to break format and include it in the Yiddish section, because of its importance; it provides a last insight into the life both of the great Torah scholar, Moshe Nomi's, and of Starobin Jews in general, in the second decade of this century.
[With God's blessing [On the fourth day (Ed.: possibly, Wednesday) of Seder BiN'soa HaAron (Ed.: probably following the Feast of Shavuot) 5686 (1926)
[Great blessings and success and peace to my dear son and esteemed rabbi and teacher Yoysef Leyb, and the members of your household. May all of them merit God's blessing and may you draw nakhas (parental pleasure) from their accomplishments.
[First off, I want to let you know that last week I received your lovely letter, together with the lovely writings from my wonderful grandchildren. A heartfelt thank-you to all.
[What I will say to you, my children, is that your letters give life to my soul. I can't describe to you my joy upon reading your letter, for my soul longs to see you and to know how you are. May the Master of Rewards enrich you for your kindness.
[It will not be a great surprise for you to learn of a great dread that I have been feeling. I will tell you my story and then I will take final stock of its results: What is there that remains of all the efforts and toil of my life in this world? First, concerning my son B.: it is something like two years that I have not heard from him, yet I have heard through others that he has wealth and property. I'll tell you the truth, I get no nakhas from his wealth. Thank God I don't have any need for his support or his gifts. Over my son D., I have anguish in full measure, for he has been cast out to a foreign land and cannot return home, and there he remains naked and penniless. From my son Elya I've experienced only pain till now. His wife fell ill about three years ago and he has gone into great debt, to the point where he has had to sell his livestock and fine clothing, and ended up in prison. He signed over his store with all its machinery and tools, and was left idle, earning nothing, until I managed to gather together 100 silver rubles, which I gave him to buy a machine so he could get back to work.
Despite all that, he remains deeply in debt. Who knows when he will crawl out from under his debts, for the outlay is great and the income minimal. The businessmen of our town have all become have-nots (Ed. note: literally, descenders; probably a biblical reference to the Israelites, Jacob, his sons and entourage, who were descenders into Egypt for handouts when drought enveloped their land). In Starobin, Elya is not alone in his situation; there are three others trying to patch things back together. (Ed. note: the phrase in Hebrew is, literally, there are three other quilters. Either this is figurative, hence the above interpretation, or it is literal, in which case it refers to Elya's specific line of business, and his possible competitors; the Soviets' New Economic Plan, initiated by Lenin, was still begrudgingly allowing such activity.)
[After all the accounting, I am left with nothing from all the fruits of my entire life's work. Only when I receive a letter from you do I experience any contentment, and for that reason I beg of you and of my lovely grandchildren may they live long lives not to hold back from doing the kindness of looking in on me with your letters, and describing to me how your studies are progressing, how your daily lives are faring. And may God grant you all the strength to learn and to do God's will with a full heart.
[Be aware, my dear son, that every day, up until now, I had looked forward perhaps to be able to travel to the Holy Land, or at least to America, so that the following words might be fulfilled for me: And Joseph will set his hand upon thine eyes. (Ed. note: This quotation is now a second reference in the letter to the biblical story of Jacob and his son Joseph, and the descent of the Israelites into Egypt (Gen. 46:4). Its inclusion is poignant, for like Jacob, Moshe Nomi's has a son Joseph (Yoysef) whom he has not seen for a lifetime. In the quotation, God is giving comfort to a dispirited Jacob by promising him that he will see his son Joseph before he dies, and that Joseph will perform the tender and respectful act of placing his hand over Jacob's eyes upon the latter's death, as has been the custom from the time of Jacob and Joseph, and earlier. Through this quotation, Moshe Nomi's is revealing that, like the biblical Jacob, he has been longing only to be taken to his own son Joseph in that faraway land, that he might see him once more before he dies.)
[But now I understand that my hope was a deception and that I must remain in this defiled land without any mainstay. To obtain a pass (Ed.: probably passport), one needs to pay 300 silver rubles. My strength is diminishing daily, and my eyes are growing weak. After Passover I traveled to an eye doctor in Slutsk who did a number of tests and then told me I had no need of eyeglasses. Instead he gave me eyedrops. It has been four weeks that I have been using them, daily, and I see no improvement from them.
In addition, my speech has become disjointed and my voice weak, so that only with great effort can I stand before the congregation chanting from the Torah. There is no one to replace me.
[ 'It is not given to man to know the day of his...' If it takes a full month until you receive news from here, by then the Days of Ultimate Judgment will have passed, and there will have been no one to plead my case (on high). Therefore I lay my supplication before you, that starting now you study a chapter of Mishna each day and lead synagogue prayers at least once a day provided that, if possible, this mitzvah would not prevent other mourners from performing their own filial duties. (Ed. note: Judaism maintains that pious acts performed by the child of a deceased, such as the study of holy books or the leading of public prayer, reflect positively on the deceased and increase his or her chances of being judged favorably by the One True Judge. Timing is crucial for the deceased, inasmuch as stages of progress in his or her fate in the World-to-Come parallel the stages of mourning by those he or she has left behind: the first week [Shiva], the first month [Shloshim], the first year [completion of daily Kaddish].)
[Your father, who blesses you with every goodness Moishe Khayim Kapchitz
[Exactly four years after Reb Moshe Nomi's wrote this letter, he went to his eternal rest, on 15 Sivan 5690 (Spring, 1930) and was buried in the town cemetery. Reb Moshe's wife, Sora Rivka bas Moishe Dov, died four years later, on 9 Teyves 5694 (Winter 1933-4). Upon their headstones were engraved loving and respectful Hebrew inscriptions, sent by their son Rabbi Yoysef Leyb Kaplan, Pittsburgh, U.S.A.]
(In memory of friends who had fallen and did not get to Israel)
Translated by Irit Dolgin
We were a united group of friends, the children of public activists intoxicated by the social discontent of the years 1914-15. The love for Zion, for the people of Israel and for the freedom of the working men, demanded us for action. We were engaged in selling Shekels and stamps of the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael [Jewish National Fund], in collection of money for the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael in the evening of Yom Kippur and before the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim, in spreading the Hebrew language etc.
The first of the group of three was our unforgettable friend Eliezer Portman, or as we used to call him Layser Ha'ani Rashkes. He was orphaned from his father when he was only an infant, and at young age he quit his studies in the Cheder and became a tailor's apprentice with Gronim, his brother, the most famous tailor in the town. But this lasted only for a couple of years. His two older brothers, who were Yeshiva students, excelled in their studies, especially Israel, who became a famous rabbi in Lithuania. He excelled in his Drashas [a homiletic method of biblical exegesis] and he would teach in the great Synagogue when he was still very young, approximately fourteen years old, and he captivated with the pleasantness of his speech and with his explanations to all his listeners, who came especially to hear his Drashas.
His second brother Selig, who later became a rabbi in America, was younger than Israel, and he also was one of the most famous students in the Yeshiva. They influenced their young brother, Leyser, who was a child born to elderly parents, that he joined them and accepted upon himself the burden of the Torah. This is how from being a tailor's apprentice he became a yeshiva student. Layserke had many talents, a smooth tongue and a pleasant voice, he was intelligent and had sense of humor. He was good at making the time our group spent together pleasant, with his stories and conversations, his jokes, and with his songs. A special bond was forged between the two of us, because we were studying together and because I, too, was hit by the bitter destiny that he experienced when he was young.
We were the first among the preachers for the Zion and for action of settling the Land of Israel. In our house, the place of the group's meetings, we would usually stay up until very late at night, engaged in friendly conversations and in gatherings for the purpose of the Tanakh studies and readings.
This happened at the outbreak of the First World War, we came back from yeshivas and stayed in town. We published a local newspaper called Der ve Eker, for a short period. In the beginning of January 1915, Layserke was recruited to the army. I remember his letters, in which he warned me to avoid the army at any cost and even to become a cripple, because, in all likelihood, he suffered profoundly of the bad treatment of the Jewish solders in the Russian army. I could not accept this idea and I too was recruited to the army. I haven't heard of him since. He probably fell in a battle or was captured and his traces were lost. May his memory be blessed!
The second in the group was our friend Moshe-Herzl, a talented young man. During his childhood and his first teenage years he was sloppy and inflexible. Suddenly, he left the yeshiva at the Karnayim Synagogue in Slutsk and transferred to a secular school for Jewish boys. We envied him especially for wearing a special hat and a leather belt with a shining buckle. His studies at the school did not last long. After a year, Moshe-Herzl along with a couple of students from our town, appeared and joined the Amzislav Yeshiva, which was in the Mogilev region. He was a member of the commission of the Zion Youngsters in our town. He was also one of the first amateur actors in the drama class we established.
And suddenly, another deviation in his path: he devoted himself to trade and invested all his energy and time in it. His life ended in a tragic way. With the retreat of the Polish army from our town, and due to his fear of the Russian army, he and two of his friends, run away, and on their way he was captured and murdered by the Balchovzim gang.
The third, the youngest of the group, Yankale, a son of Rabbi Mordechay Margolin (a butcher and chazzan [a Jewish cantor] in our town), was an intelligent and agile guy. He joined the group in the later years and was the first of the group to get to the Land of Israel in the year 1921, with the third Aliyah. As all the pioneers, he worked in building roads for one year. However, he could not withstand it, and so he came back to Poland and settled in the town of Baranovich.
In all likelihood, he was killed with the rest of our brothers and sisters during the Holocaust.
I. N. Adler
I was one of the students of the Great Yeshiva (HaKibbutz) in Slutsk, the youngest of the group, who peeked and was infected by the doubts' worm. The question to where was burning in my mind. And this time, with the evening twilight and I am, all of me, confused and excited, amid the turmoil of physical and spiritual doubts I got up and escaped my little room and turned my steps toward the road, the place of the teenagers' hikes, and suddenly I found myself standing next to the inn of the wagon-owners, who would come here from towns in the vicinity.
Every Monday, since I came to study at the Slutsk Yeshiva, I would go to the inn to meet with Yiche the-wagon-owner, who brought me to Slutsk. He was a tall Jew, broad-in-shoulders, he wore high boots, and carried a grey leather bag on his upper back, because he was an agent for the grocers who had connections with the wholesalers and the governmental bank in Slutsk.
Then, in my eyes, this Yiche was a symbol of my strong longing to my village. From time to time, he would give me a paternal treatment. In answer to my question: Reb. Yiche, maybe you have a letter for me, maybe?, he would open his leather bag, rummage through it, and take out a squashed piece of paper, he would hand it over to me and say: Here you are, a note from your father.
Sometimes he would take out a coin of 10 kopeikas [10 pennies] from his pocket, and would say: This is also from your father. This time, when I came there to see him, I did not find him. And a young wagon-owner was standing on his lot, ready to take off to Starobin. I asked him if he had a spare seat in his wagon. And, in an instant, I climbed up and found myself underneath a worn out and patched piece of stretched fabric, which was not comparable to the magnificent piece of stretched fabric of reb. Yiche.
With dawn, following a night long ride, we arrived to Starobin. The wagon owner stayed at the small market square for a while. I got out of the wagon's covering, frozen and shivering of the night's chilliness. I glanced at the meager and low-rise houses around the market. With feelings of pain of loneliness and orphanhood, I turned my steps toward Beit-HaMidrash. To my surprise, I found there the relatives of Zalman from Igumen, a yeshiva student who was older than I am, and who also turned up in Starobin. They introduced me to the beadle, who arranged for me: the weekly Torah portion The Weekdays, a celebration of the Holy Sabbath in houses of various house owners, and also a place for a night's lodging.
On one of these days, this Zalman clung to me, and told me of Reb. Zerach the paramedic, the only doctor in Starobin, whose house was the meeting place of the sages.
Not a long time afterwards, Zalman brought me to the house of Reb. Zerah the paramedic, and introduced me to him and his two daughters, Bluma and Reizel, who were the pharmacists and the cooks of Reb. Zerach, who at the time was a widower and blind.
I was charmed by his majestic appearance, his persuading voice and his fine words; everything about him spoke fatherhood, intelligence and respect. As to his daughters, Bluma the oldest was modest, pleasant looking and everything about her said yearning to life, whereas Reizel a soft-looking, pale and delicate girl was busy working in the pharmaceutical room of Reb. Zerach, the only one in Starobin.
One time, shortly before sunset, I was sitting at the Reb. Zerach's table, and saw the Book of the Khazars [The Kuzari] was open before him. Reb. Zerach began by saying: You must have heard of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi [1075-1141 a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher], the poet who wrote the poem Zion HaLo Tishali LiShlom Asirayich [Zion, thou art anxious for thy captives], and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is also the author of the Book of the Khazars. In this book you will also find answers to all your doubts. Reb. Zerach spoke very concisely of the Khazars, of the King Bulan, who converted to Judaism, of the essay [The Kuzari], and of the Hasdai Shaprut [Abu Yusuf ben Yitzhak ben Ezra 915-990, a Spanish Jewish physician, diplomat and patron of science]. He had spoken and handled me the book, in the manner of an outstandingly talented educator, and asked me to read to him the letter of Rabbi Hasdai ben Ezra to the king of Al-Kozar. The following day we completed the reading of the above letter and began reading the Answer of the Khazar King Joseph the Turk-may.
The tale of the Kisimanic Sage was engraved in the tablet of my heart, and became a balm and cure to my soul. When we finished reading the letters, we began reading the core of the book. I admit and confess, the words of the essay were not entirely comprehensible to me, despite the pedagogic explanations of Reb. Zerach. Yet, throughout the discussion, I saw myself standing beside the essay, praying for its wellbeing, so that it, God forbid, will not fail in its language, and so that the peacefulness of its voice will reach King Bulan, even though I had a definite feeling, that this essay does not need my prayer, and that all its words were logical, solid and spoke the Torah truth.
Not many days have passed and the doubts had disappeared from my heart, as smoke is driven away and we haven't yet accomplished a third of the book.
In honorable and precious memory of Reb. Zerach the paramedic of Starobin, who wrapped the wounds of my heart with great love, experienced hand and fatherly kindness.
May his memory be blessed!
Translated by Irit Dolgin
Full of longings and grief, I reminisce of the Jews of my town Starobin, somewhere in Belarus, on the edge of Polesie, a place of forests, lakes and swamps. I would like to commemorate the souls of the martyrs, who were destroyed by the enemy, with its crossing the borders of Belarus. It imprisoned them in a slaughter house and sentenced them to death by burning, and as a sacrifice their pure souls had risen up to heaven. We must commemorate those who died before the Holocaust as well, whose sons and daughters are among the pioneers and builders of the State of Israel.
In my memory, I see lovable and admirable characters in their simplicity, honesty and innocence. Here is the rabbi of the town, Rabbi David Feinstein, whose face radiated purity and innocence, God-fearing and people loving, humble and pleasant to people under his leadership. Rabbi Reb. Shlomo Landau followed him [as the rabbi of the town], and he was great in Torah, pleasant in singing Zemirot [Jewish hymns] and a convivial person. As his predecessor, he also cared about the people of his community.
A prominent character, the lion of the group, was Reb. Mordechai Margolin, or as he was called Motel der shochat [Motel the butcher], who was a butcher and a permanent leader in the town. He would please the ears of the congregants with his singing, especially during the High Holidays. He was a devoted activist, a community leader, he was attentive to the spirit of the young people, and in every public deed a devoted partner to us, the young activists.
A character respectable and admirable by all the townspeople, from the eldest to the youngest, was Reb. Moshe Nemis, a beadle of the Great Synagogue, of whom people would whisper, that he is one of the hidden tzadiks [righteous ones], and whoever he will bless, will be blessed, and he had chosen the profession of the beadle, so that to preserve the importance and the dignity of this occupation.
Reb. Abraham Nachman Kravchik the educator, first of his profession, punctilious and strict regarding the rules of the accentuation of the penultimate [next-to-last] and ultimate stresses etc. His clear explanations of the Tanakh and his heartwarming melody fascinated us. His house was the lodge of the Zionists, and he, the elderly was active with the youngsters, participated in festive ceremonies and the balls of Hanukah, Purim etc. He was pleased and proud that his students were the leaders of the Tehiya [revival] movement in the town and that they were also leaders in the community matters.
Among the most important personalities was also my uncle Reb. Yosef Shlimovich [or Shleimovitsch], the first Gabbai [a person who assists in the running of a synagogue and ensures that the needs are met] of the Great Synagogue, and one of the most honorable people in the town; he loved Zion with all his soul, he sometimes came to out gatherings and took part in the discussions as well. He was killed somewhere in Minsk, with his son Shalom, who did not want to leave him. My righteous aunt Rivka, was fortunate to die before the Holocaust.
My uncle Yiche, a well-known personality was a trader, the son of Reb. Abraham HaZaken [Abraham the elderly] (he was the rabbi of the Jews of the Eretz-Israel Street), his house was the meeting place of the town peddlers; from this family people would receive advance payment on account of merchandise that will be brought here. My uncle Yiche was a convivial person, he would support the ones who needed help. The arm of the enemy reached him far away from his home and from his modest wife aunt Genia. Outside Starobin, in an old house, covered by a straw roof, lived Avrahamel Leibeks [or Leibaks] and his wife Beila, and their son, of whom they took pride, who dedicated with his entire soul and entity to the studies of the Torah.
The visits of Reb. Kalman HaMelamed whose son made Aliyah were unforgettable, and he would come to my place from another part of the town to show me the letters of his son. When he read his letters to me, one could feel that he was tasting the flavor of the Land of Israel and smelled its odor.
A hidden love and longings are awakening in me, when I recall the house in which our family lived for many years and the people of the House of Moshe-Aharon Der Shizkarner, which was named after his occupation. During the days of the snow melting on the evening before Pessah, the Slutz River, in its pride, would devour the pillars of the cowshed. He [Moshe-Aharon] was modest and naïve and his wife Hinda was a witty woman, all her sayings and stories were spiced by a common people's humor. Chaim-Leib the grocer and his wife Alte were busy with their trade with the villages. I did not forget his pleasant way of praying, and that he was a representative of the public on Sabbaths and Festive Days.
How can I not mention my father? Ephraim son of Zelig Der Sofer-Stam [a Jewish scribe who can transcribe Torah scrolls and other religious writings such as those used in Tefillin and Mezuzot], who was well-known in our town and its vicinity. Especially among the great in Torah, who would always be meticulous to buy the scrolls for Tefillin in the handwriting of my grandfather Rabbi Zelig. He would avoid from talking about nonsense, and would always send my grandmother Beile to negotiate. My father was a public activist, he established associations for reciprocal assistance, and helped the SHaDaRs [acronym of SHelichah DeRachmanah a rabbinical emissary sent to collect charity funds], who came from yeshivas in the exile and in the Land of Israel. He loved Eretz-Israel and the holy language with all his heart.
I began reading Hebrew books from a very young age. Though in the eyes of very observant people it was considered improper, but my father did not object to that. At the same time, he was zealous as to the learning of the tradition, and wanted with all his heart that I persist with the yeshiva studies.
It is an honor and a duty for me to commemorate my mother Alte-Ephraim's. This is how people used to call her; she was fortunate to make Aliyah.
Among those who were not fortunate to come to the Land of Israel, but were drawn to it with all their souls, the personality of Israel-Leibke the shoemaker stands out in his greatness, innocence and his love for Zion. With immense excitement and with an open mouth, he would listen to the words of the maggid [preacher], or an advocate in the matters of Eretz-Israel; it seems to me that I too, watching him, was infected with immense love to the life's goal I have chosen for myself. I remember how offended he was when sometimes, during the collection of donations, we wanted to pass over him; he would follow us, run to us and reproach us for insulting him. His donation was above his ability.
Avraham Ostrovsky, or as he was called in the town Avrahamel Elinkas of the adult Zionists joined us, the youngsters, in year 1917 promptly after the first revolution.
Despite him being busy and occupied with trade and taking care of his family, he was dedicated to the Zionist work with all his heart and soul. His love for Zion had no limits, and he also served as a treasurer of the Zionist branch in the town.
He was loved and respected in the town by everyone.
Our town Starobin was blessed by fires, almost every year there were fires. We used to count the dates of the years according to a certain fire that began from a house of so-and-so on the street so-an-so. The count of happy times and the disasters was also related to the fires. One fire broke out on the Great Sabbath, a short while after the Shacharit [Morning] Prayer service, only eight months after the great fire that preceded it. The fire is spreading and swallows everything in the blink of an eye, and in a little while it will reach the Great Synagogue. Reb. Moshe Nemis left his house and the concerns of evacuation to his wife, so that she would deal with taking out the house-wares, and saved whatever possible. And he was encircling the Synagogue, while holding a big rod to the head of which a red kerchief was tied, and whispering words of sgulah [supernatural cure], in order to stop the approaching fire, but to no avail. The Synagogue caught fire as well.
The Zionistishe Fabric is favorably remembered. We, the youngsters, volunteered to bake the Matzas [unleavened bread made from flour and water, eaten on Passover] free of charge, for the poor of the town. The preparations and the baking works themselves were done voluntarily. The matzas were baked by us at the Zionistishe Fabric, and, of course, without flour there is no matzas, so we obtained the Passover flour as well.
Peaceful was the town's life before the eruption of the revolution, much more peaceful than the waves of the Slutz River, which devoured the houses of the town. The social life was concentrated, mainly, among the walls of the Batei Midrash [House of Interpretation, or Houses of learning], during most of the day, except for the hours that were set for the studies of the Mishnas, Gmara, Chayei Adam, Ein Yaakov [a compilation of all the Aggadic material in the Talmud together with commentaries] etc. If a quarrel erupted between individuals, or between families, or between groups, this would also, usually, take place among the walls of the house of prayer, especially during the Holidays, Sabbaths, and Moed Days [intermediate days of certain Jewish festivals]. A delay in reading the Torah was the only way to pave a road toward a solution and compromise.
The prizivnikes, the ones recruited to the army, demanded compensation from those who were dismissed, and if they could not get it in a peaceful way, they would suddenly appear prior to the taking out of the Book of Torah and would cry out and announce their demands with noise and tumult. After exchanging arguments on the subject, that lasted for a while, the dispute would be settled, with the intervention of the best people of the town.
The lasting peace in the public life and on the Jewish street was disturbed especially by the youngsters in years 1904-5, the years of the revolutionary unrest. Generally, they would gather in places hidden from eyes of many people, so that the authorities, God forbid, will not find out. There were plenty of such hidden places, since the vicinity of the town was blessed with forests. Among the bushes and the needles of the pine trees, the propagandists preached to freedom and liberty, and to improvement of the condition of a worker. They spoke heatedly against the craftsmen in the town, most of whom were abjectly poor as well, who exploited their apprentices and workers. They also emitted words of denigration and vexation toward the Master of the Universe [God] and the czar.
The town accepted the revolution in the year 1917 as an unbelievable thing, and many would ask in a whisper: is it possible that they took off the Cesar and all his entourage? People were afraid to pronounce it out load. At first public gatherings they would want to finish with the accepted hymn, the Marseillaise, but did not know it, until a savior was found Reuben der wagon-owner, a muscular Jew, who at the time, was one of the leaders of the revolutionists in the town. He was the one who put himself to danger in the days of the First Revolution, and dared to publicly announce the rejection of the authority, and he obviously was punished for that: he was incarcerated and penalized to exile outside the area of the town for a couple of years. He stayed far away among political exiles, learned the hymn from them, and now saved the situation.
While in all the cities and towns different Zionist organizations had risen: Jewish Labour Bund, the United Jewish Socialist Workers, Poalei Tziyon Smol [Workers of Zion Left-wing movement of Marxist Zionist Jewish workers], our town was blessed by them as well. The Zionist Organization [HaHistadrut HaTzionit] was the dominant on the Jewish street. Starobin, that was stagnant throughout all its years of existence except for the disputes over the appointment of that or another rabbi had changed, cultural clubs were opened, there were heated debates, and attempts to convince one another. It seems to me that everything derived from people's internal faith in the righteousness of their views. After the Soviet Revolution, a small number of people were fortunate to make Aliyah, a bigger part immigrated to the United States. Many were scattered along the U.S.S.R., and of them only small number of individuals came back to the destroyed town.
Of all the past only memories have remained, which become more and more blurred. I am afraid that there will be no one remained to say: We suffer a great loss for those who are lost and whose replacement cannot be found [a saying in memory of a deceased person].
May the words I have put into writing become an eternal memory to my town and its dear and unforgettable people.
Title on the upper part the photograph, above the Star of David (in Hebrew):
The National Youth Zionist Fraction the Youth of Zion in Starobin
Dated: 4th Iyar, 5679 (ד' אייר תרע"ט), [May 4th, 1919].
People on the photograph:
|First line (from right to left):
(From the book Jewish Partisans of Eastern Europe by Moshe Kaganovich)
Translated by Irit Dolgin
In February 1943 the Germans initiated a pursuit over the concentrations of partisans in the vicinity of towns Starobin, Zhitkovitz [Zhitkovich], Hlusk. Hundreds of villages in the forests' areas, in which the partisans were staying, were completely burned. In several of the villages they assembled all the population in buildings and set those buildings on fire from every direction.
After encountering with many hardships and dangers, the survivors reached the vicinity of towns Glusk, Starobin, Zhitkovitz, Bobruisk, and were integrated into the various partisan divisions that were operating there.
Moshe Shulman (Lenin) had risen due to his fighting initiative and his bravery, from the rank of a private to the rank of a commander of the sappers' group, and was later appointed the commander of a company [a military unit], in the Russian Battalion Shwiakov (Starobin area, Glusk).
Almost all Jewish partisans, who were part of the dozens of battalions that acted in the areas of Glusk and Starobin, were Jews from the towns Lenin and Pogost-Zagorsky.
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