Monday, July 24, 2017

The 93 Beit Yaakov Martyrs: A Modern Midrash

The 93 Beit Yaakov Martyrs: A Modern Midrash
By Rabbi Ari Kahn

On January 8, 1943 an article appeared in The New York Times which the fate of 93 young women[1] who took their own lives rather than serve as prostitutes for the German enemy.[2] The article makes reference to a letter written some time earlier in which the plight of these young women was described in “real time.”

11 August 1942
My dear friend Mr. Schenkalewsky in New York,

I do not know whether this letter will reach you. Do you know who I am? We met at the house of Mrs. Schnirer[3] and later in Marienbad.[4] When this letter will reach you, I will no longer be among the living. Together with me are ninety-two girls from Beis Yaakov. In a few hours it will all be over. Regards to Mr. Rosenheim[5] and to our friend Mr. Gutman,[6] both in England. We all met in Warsaw at our friend Shulman’s, and Sholemsohn was also there. We learned that the land to which this letter goes has sent us bread. We had four rooms. On July 27th we were arrested and thrown into a dark room. We have only water. We learned David[1] by heart and took courage. We are girls between 14 and 22 years of age. The young ones are frightened. I am learning our mother Sarah’s[8] Torah with them, [that] it is good to live for God but it is also good to die for Him. Yesterday and the day before we were given warm water to wash and we were told that German soldiers would visit us this evening. Yesterday we all swore to die. Today we are all taken out to a large apartment with four well-lit rooms and beautiful beds. The Germans don’t know that this bath is out purification bath before death. Today everything was taken away from us and we were given nightgowns. We all have poison. When the soldiers will come we will take it. Today we are together and are learning the viduy (confession) all day long. We are not afraid. Thank you my good friend for everything. We have one request: Say kaddish for us, your ninety-three children. Soon we will be with mother Sarah.
                        Yours,
                        Chaya Feldman from Cracow


This story has been retold many times and in many ways over the years.[9] While initially considered factual by many, including the author of the New York Times article who brought the story to the attention of the American public, over time the story’s authenticity has come into question. Today, the incident is generally considered fictional,[10] or in the words of Baumel and Schacter, as a typology.[11]

The lack of historicity[12] has been “discovered” by other writers, bloggers, and even the Haredi establishment; the latter initially lionized the heroines, but now seems to be aware that various elements of the account are fictional.[13] We should stress that although many years have elapsed, there is no certainty regarding the historicity of the events, although certain elements of the story have been proven contradictory and were, at the very least, embellished.[14]

The New York Times article explained that the letter describing the incident had been smuggled out of Europe and had made its way to a supporter of the Beis Yaakov movement in New York. The translated letter, reprinted in full (although it obscured all proper names in order to protect those still residing in Europe), was credited to the teacher of 92 young pious women who were taken captive by the Gestapo for the purpose of prostitution. In order to save themselves from this fate, all 93 committed suicide.

Even if the story is fictional, it is shocking on many levels. First and foremost, readers at the time it was circulated and in the decades that followed had no difficulty believing that such an incident could have happened. In light of the actual atrocities perpetrated on the Jews of Europe in the 1940’s– and for hundreds of years prior to the Holocaust – the tale’s premise was heartbreakingly plausible. There are documented precedents for Jewish martyrdom, including mass suicide, from as early as the First Century C.E, throughout the crusades, and beyond. Baumel and Shacter’s treatment of this particular incident is precisely in the context of Jewish martyrdom.

Be that as it may, the creation of a fictional tale regarding martyrdom during the Holocaust is a very serious and troubling matter. Holocaust deniers need not be supplied any such convenient excuse to discount or dismiss the horrors of those dark years. What could the author of this letter have been thinking? Why would he or she have felt it necessary to create the letter and publicize it in the mainstream media? Apparently, the Holocaust that was being visited upon the Jews of Europe was not making headlines in the United States. The perpetrator of this “hoax” may likely have felt that if the deaths of millions was personalized and personified by the plight of young, virginal Jewish women, perhaps the American Jewish community would be shaken from its lethargy. The author (whose identity has never been revealed) may or may not have attempted to deceive the reader; the factuality of the tale was a secondary concern. In the grand scale of things, it hardly mattered whether or not this particular incident had occurred; the particulars pale in comparison to the actual, factual atrocities being committed every day, all over Europe.

Aside from the motivation behind the letter and the historicity of the story it tells, other questions must be addressed. Even fiction has a discernable logic, especially when the author is working within the parameters of a particular tradition or typography of martyrdom. A careful reading of the letter reveals specific elements of the tale that firmly establish it not only as typography, but also as a modern “midrash” or kinah (lamentation or elegy).

The first and most crucial question revolves around the number of victims: Why did “the author” of the article specifically choose the number 93? Is this a random, inconsequential number, or does it have any significance in terms of Jewish martyrdom? The number 93 does appear in a few sources. Most notably, for our purposes, it is mentioned in passing, and goes almost unnoticed, in a kinah (numbered 15 or 16 in different editions) authored by R. Elazar HaKalir that is recited on Tisha b’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar:[15]

זְכֺר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה צָר בְּפִנִּים.
Remember what the enemy (Titus) did inside
שָׁלַף חַרְבּוֹ וּבָא לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים.
He drew his sword and went inside the holy of holies
נַחֲלָתֵנוּ בִּעֵת כְּטִמֵּא לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים.
He kicked aside our heritage when he defiled the showbread
וְגִדֵּר פָּרֺכֶת בַּעֲלַת שְׁתֵּי פָנִים:
And he pierced the curtain which was double sided.
יְתוֹמִים גִּעֵל בְּמָגֵן מְאָדָּם.
He caused disgust to orphans with his blood soaked shield
וַיְמַדֵּד קָו כְּמַרְאֶה אֲדַמְדָּם.
And he drew (measured) a line the color of blood
מֵימֵינוּ דָלַח וְהִשְׁכִּיר חִצָּיו מִדָּם.
Our water was sullied as his arrows were full of blood
כְּיָצָא מִן הַבַּיִת וְחַרְבּוֹ מְלֵאָה דָם:
When he left the house (Temple) his sword was full of blood
עַל הֲגוֹתוֹ הַוּוֹת גָּבֶר. וְנָטָה אֶל אֵל יָדוֹ לְמוּלוֹ להתְגַבֵּר. מִצְרַיִם וְכָל לְא
ֺם אֲשֶׁר בָּם גָבַר וַאֲנִי) בְּתוֹךְ אִוּוּיוֹ אָרוּץ אֵלָיו בְּצַוָּאר:


אֲבוֹתֵינוּ זָרָה כְּהִכְנִיסוּ בַּחוּרָיו אָכְלָה אֵשׁ.
Our forefathers brought in a strange fire and were swallowed by fire
וְזֶה צֺעָה זוֺנָה) נ"א זוֹנָה צוֹעָה) הִכְנִיס וְלֹא נִכְוָה בָּאֵשׁ.
And this one strolled in with a harlot and was not burned by fire.
One recurring image in this kinah is the enormous amount of blood being spilled, which leads to the theological problem with which the author grapples: How does God allow the enemy to perform such outrages? Why is he not stopped? Specifically, haKalir contrasts the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon the High Priest, who brought an unsanctioned offering and were consumed immediately by heavenly fire, whereas Titus defiled the sanctuary and went so far as to cavort with a harlot in the holy place, but remained unharmed.
עֲבָדִים חִתּוּ בְּתוֹכוֹ לַבַּת אֵשׁ. וְעַל מֶה בְּבֵית אֵשׁ מִמָּרוֹם שָׁלַח אֵשׁ:
Servants (of God) raked His Tabernacle with flames of fire. Why, to the House of [sacrificial] fire did He send down a fire from on high?
בְּנַפְשֵׁנוּ טָבַעְנוּ כְּהוֹצִיא כְּלֵי שָׁרֵת.
Our spirits sank when the holy vessels were removed
וְשָׂמָם בָּאֳנִי שַׁיִט בָּם לְהִשָּׁרֵת) נ"א לְהַשְׁרֵת).
They were placed on a ship there to be used for his own purposes
עוֹרֵנוּ נָמַק כְּהִשְׁכִּים מְשָׁרֵת.
Our skin crawled when the High Priest awoke
וְלֹא מָצָא תִּשְׁעִים וּשְׁלשָׁה כְּלֵי שָׁרֵת:
And did not find the 93 (holy)Temple utensils

נָשִׁים כְּשָׁרוּ כִּי בָא עָרִיץ. בְּקַרְקַע הַבַּיִת נְעָלָיו הֶחֱרִיץ. שָׂרִים לֻפָּתוּ כְּבוֹא) נ"א בְּבוֹא) פָּרִיץ.
Women stared at the approaching tyrant, scarring the floor of the Temple with his boots. Princes panicked with the general's arrival
בְּבֵית קֺדֶש הַקֳּדָשִׁים צַחֲנָתוֹ הִשְׁרִיץ:
And the holy of holies he sprayed with his filth (semen).

Here, sandwiched between references to a sexual outrage perpetrated in the Temple, the number 93 is found, referring to the missing holy Temple vessels. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik[16] explained this reference as follows: The Mishnah (Tamid 3:4) tells of 93 utensils used in the Temple.[17] After Titus plundered the utensils, the High Priest was completely unaware of the sacrilege; remarkably, he had been carrying on with his own business and was unaware of the desecration perpetrated by Titus - unaware that the 93 vessels had been loaded onto a boat, and were already on the way to Rome,[18] to be used – and defiled - by the evil, lecherous Titus.
This verse of the kinah is actually quite difficult to understand; how is it possible that the Kohen Gadol could have been unaware of the destruction that was taking place? Our anonymous letter writer seems to have been grappling with that very same question in a new variation: How could America’s Jews be unaware of the destruction of European Jewry? The writer apparently adopted the 93 holy vessels of the kinah and translated them into a metaphor: 93 pure, holy women were taken captive by a brutal, immoral enemy for his own use. The other elements of the kinah - sexuality and defilement of what is holy, prostitution, as well as a great deal of spilled blood – all found their way into the modern version of the story of destruction, as well.
The concluding section of the kinah retells an incident reported in the Talmud[19] regarding a different type of “holy vessel” that had been captured and carried off to Rome in a boat.
אַתָּה קָצַפְתָּ וְהִרְשֵׁיתָ לְפַנּוֹת.
You were angry and allowed an expulsion
יְלָדִים אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהֶם כָּל מאוּם מִשָּׁם לְהַפְנוֹת.
Children without any blemish were expelled from there
לָמָּה רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם וְלֹא שַׁעְתָּ אֶל הַמִּנְחָה פְּנוֹת.
Why do the nations storm in, and you do not heed the mincha offering
וְשִׁלְּחוּם לְאֶרֶץ עוּץ)כּוּשׁ) בְּשָׁלֹשׁ סְפִינוֹת:
They were carried off to the land of Utz[20] (or Kush) in three ships

הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ שִׁוְּעוּ כְּבָאוּ בְּנִבְכֵי יָם.
“bring us back” they pleaded, as they entered the depth of the sea
 וְשִׁתְּפוּ עַצְמָם יַחַד לִנְפּוֹל בַּיָּם.
And they joined (conspired) to throw themselves into the sea
שִׁיר וְתִשְׁבָּחוֹת שׁוֹרְרוּ כְּעַל יָם.
Song and praise they sang like upon the sea
כִּי עָלֶיךָ הוֹרַגְנוּ בִּמְצוּלוֹת יָם:
For your sake we were killed in the depths of the sea
כִּי תְהוֹמוֹת בָּאוּ עַד נַפְשָׁן.
For the water came and took their lives
 כָּל זֺאת בָּאַתְנוּ וְלֹא שְׁכַחֲנוּךָ חִלּוּ לְמַמָּשָׁן.
“All of this happened to us and You we did not forget” – they began to murmur
תִּקְוָתָם נָתְנוּ לְמֵשִׁיב מִבָּשָׁן.
They placed their hope with He who will retrieve from the Bashan
וּבַת קוֹל נִשְׁמְעָה עוּרָה לָמָּה תִישָׁן:
And a voice rang out from heaven, “Awake! Why do you sleep?”

The kinah here retells, in poetic language, an episode recorded in the Talmud:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת גיטין דף נז עמוד ב
אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה, אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל, וְאִיתֵּימָא רַבִּי אַמִּי, וְאָמְרֵי לָהּ בְּמָתְנִיתָא תַּנָּא, מַעֲשֶׂה בְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת שֶׁנִּשְׁבּוּ לְקָלוֹן, הִרְגִּישׁוּ בְעַצְמָן לְמָה הֵן מִתְבַּקְּשִׁים, אָמְרוּ, אִם אָנוּ טוֹבְעִים בַּיָּם, אָנוּ בָּאִין לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא? דָּרַשׁ לָהֶן הַגָּדוֹל שֶׁבָּהֶם, "אָמַר ה' מִבָּשָׁן אָשִׁיב, אָשִׁיב מִמְּצֻלוֹת יָם". "מִבָּשָׁן אָשִׁיב", מִבֵּין שִׁנֵּי אֲרָיה אָשִׁיב. "מִמְּצֻלוֹת יָם", אֵלּוּ שֶׁטּוֹבְעִין בַּיָּם. כֵּיוָן שֶׁשָּׁמְעוּ יְלָדוֹת כָּךְ, קָפְצוּ כֻּלָּן וְנָפְלוּ לְתוֹךְ הַיָּם. נָשְׂאוּ יְלָדִים קַל וָחֹמֶר בְּעַצְמָן, וְאָמְרוּ, מָה הַלָּלוּ שֶׁדַּרְכָּן לְכָךְ - כָּךְ. אָנוּ, שֶׁאֵין דַּרְכֵּנוּ לְכָךְ - עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה. אַף הֵם קָפְצוּ לְתוֹךְ הַיָּם. וַעֲלֵיהֶם הַכָּתוּב אוֹמֵר, (שם מד) "כִּי עָלֶיךָ הֹרַגְנוָּ כל הַיּוֹם, נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ כְּצֹאן טִבְחָה".

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel - or it may be R. Ammi, or, as some say, it was taught in a baraita: Four hundred boys and girls were carried off for immoral purposes. They understood for what purpose they were taken and said to one another, ‘If we drown ourselves in the sea, we will we have a share the world to come?’ The eldest among them expounded the verse, ‘God said, “I will retrieve from Bashan, I will retrieve from the depths of the sea.” “I will retrieve from Bashan,” from between the lion’s teeth. ‘I will retrieve from the depths of the sea” refers to those who drown themselves in the sea.’ When the girls heard this, they all leapt into the sea. The boys then drew a conclusion for themselves, and said, ‘If these (girls), who would be used in a natural act, (killed themselves) in this way, so, we, who will be used in an unnatural act, should certainly kill ourselves!’ They also leaped into the sea. Of them Scripture says [Psalms 44:23], ‘For Your sake we are killed all the day long, we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.’ (Talmud Bavli Gittin 57b)[21]

Four hundred young men and women, who were taken for illicit purposes to Rome, sensed what the objective of their captivity would be, and they questioned whether heaven awaited them if they took their own lives. The oldest among them taught that indeed they would have a place in heaven, and the girls, followed by the boys, all killed themselves. Rabbi Elazar haKalir’s kinah is unmistakably based on this Talmudic account of the mass suicide of 400 righteous, innocent young people; interestingly, Baumel and Schacter cite the Talmudic passage, yet do not cite the kinah. On the other hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik, when explaining this kinah, also retold the story of the “group of young women in Warsaw who were selected by the Germans…,”[22] yet he did not draw the parallel in terms of the number 93. Apparently, he seems to have intuited the relationship between these episodes as a thematic association alone. Indeed, the theme of young, innocent people who choose martyrdom over defilement is certainly a strong enough connection between the two episodes, but the imagery of the kinah goes far beyond the general idea that lies in the background. The imagery employed by the kinah is very precisely woven into the letter regarding the 93 Beis Yaakov students, and the number 93 is most certainly not a random choice by the author of the letter. The context in which the number 93 appears within the kinah that makes the letter-writer’s reference unmistakable.

We cannot help but notice the timing of this “incident”: The letter is dated August 11th 1942, and it speaks of events that began on July 27th 1942 (13 Av 5702). In other words, the letter was written a few weeks after Tisha b’Av, regarding events that transpired only days after Tisha b’Av. It is not difficult to imagine that the author of the letter, reading the kinot that describe horrors that had befallen the Jewish People two millennia earlier, was inspired to “update” Elazar haKalir’s kinah, and to tell a more current story. All the elements of the shoah are there in the kinah, but the letter goes beyond the general themes of the typography of martyrdom, utilizing very particular elements of the kinah - outrages of a sexual nature, desecration of something holy, the number 93, the holy “vessels,” prostitution, and the choice of death over defilement.

We may say, then, that the author of the letter was inspired by the kinah. Rather than an attempt to mislead the reader, the letter was composed as a call to action. A well-known part of the liturgy of Jewish suffering was updated, translated into 20th Century language, in order to alert readers to the Twentieth-Century version of hell known as the Holocaust. The author of the letter created, for all intents and purposes, a new, modern midrash or kinah, based on woefully familiar motifs and images of the Jewish experience throughout history. The author intended, more than anything else, to force the reader to conjure up the concluding line of Elazar haKalir’s kinah: “Awake! Why do you sleep?” As in the original kinah, it is not completely clear to whom this line is addressed – to the reader, or to God Himself?

In Elazar haKalir’s kinah, the Kohen Gadol was deep in slumber; he slept through the destruction, and he who went looking for the missing 93 holy utensils only after it was too late. Apparently, the author of the letter transposed the leaders of orthodoxy with the Kohen Gadol; his/her cry was directed at them. How could they “sleep” through the blood, the fire, the death and the defilement of all that was holy that was ravaging Europe? The letter was a cry for help, a means of pleading with the new “Kohen Gadol,” the leaders of Orthodox Jewry’s major institutions, to awaken from their slumber.

Footnotes:
[1] For background on this topic, see Judith Tydor Baumel and Jacob J. Schacter, "The 93 Beth Jacob Girls of Cracow: History or Typology?" in Jacob J. Schacter, ed., Reverence, Righteousness, and Rahamanut: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung (New York: Jason Aronson, 1992), 93-130. Professor Baumel first introduced me to this topic.
[2] “93 Choose Suicide Before Nazi Shame,” New York Times (January 8, 1943), 8. The letter had been read publicly on January 5th 1943 at a meeting of the Vaad HaHatzalah. The article in the Times was based on an abridged translation by Rabbi Leo Jung, which also allowed some errors to creep in, not least of which was replacing Warsaw for Cracow. See Baumel and Schacter, 97n15.
[3] Sarah Schenirer, founder of Beis Yaakov.
[4] See Baumel and Schacter, who explain that this is a reference to the 3rd Knessiah Gedolah of the World Agudath Israel movement, which took place in Marienbad in 1937.
[5] Rabbi Jacob Rosenheim was president of the World Agudath Israel movement, and president of the World Beis Yaakov movement.
[6] Harry Gutman, secretary of the World Agudath Israel movement.
[7] The reference is to the Book of Psalms (Tehilim).
[8] Sarah Schenirer, founder of Beis Yaakov, was commonly referred to in this way by her students. See Em B’Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 1955), cited in Baumel and Schacter, 96.
[9] See Baumel and Schacter, 93-130.
[10] Ibid. 104; also see note 49, in which Dr. Hillel Seidman is quoted as saying that the story never happened and that he knows who invented it.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. p. 102. Yad Vashem has a folder on the supposed incident, and the conclusion of their research is that the events never happened.
[13] See here; here; and here.
[14] Baumel and Schacter do not discount the possibility that the story actually happened, see pp. 126-127, where they write: “The impossibility of reconstructing the route which the letter took in occupied Europe, the lack of corroborative witnesses and, most of all, our discussions with knowledgeable individuals do not allow us to state with any degree of certitude that the incident described in the letter did, indeed, occur. In fact, we have serious doubts that it occurred. However, we hope to have demonstrated that the historical evidence adduced against the likelihood of the story having occurred is not conclusive because for each historical argument it is possible to mount a counterargument. Finally, in response to those claiming that the incident is ‘unlikely’ to have occurred, let us remind the reader that the period in question one during which the most unlikely events did occur, when the entire communities were wiped out without leaving even a single survivor. Thus, while ‘unlikeliness’ is an argument which may be used in normal times, this was a time period during which ‘unlikely’ events occurred on a daily basis.”
[15] After writing this essay I discovered that Esther Farbstein pointed out, in passing, the significance of the number 93. See Esther Farbstein, b’Seter Ra’am (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2002), 616n92. This is not mentioned, however, in the article by Judith Tydor Baumel and Jacob J. Schacter.
[16] Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, The Koren Mesorat Harav Kinot, Simon Posner, ed. (Jerusalem, OU Press and Koren Publishers, 2010) [hereafter, Kinot Mesorat Harav], p. 367.
[17] “They went into the chamber of the vessels and brought out from there ninety-three vessels of silver and gold.”
[18] See Yalkut Shimoni Kohelet, 978, cited in Kinot Mesorat Harav, p. 366.
ילקוט שמעוני קהלת - פרק ח - רמז תתקעח
ובכן ראיתי רשעים. זה טיטוס הרשע שנטל את הפרכת ועשאו כמין גורגתני והביא כל הכלים שבמקדש והניחם בו והושיבו בספינה לילך ולהשתבח בעירו שנאמר ובכן ראיתי רשעים קבורים ובאו וממקום קדוש יהלכו וישתכחו בעיר, אל תקרי קבורים אלא קבוצים, אל תקרי וישתכחו וישתבחו, ואיבעית אימא קבורים ממש דאפילו מילין דמטמרן מגליין להון. דבר אחר ובכן ראיתי רשעים קבורים, וכי יש רשעים קבורים באים ומהלכים, אלא א"ר סימון אלו הרשעים אלו הרשעים שהם מתים וקבורים בחייהם שנאמר כל ימי רשע הוא מתחולל [מת וחלל], ואתה חלל רשע]. דבר אחר מדבר בגרים שהם באים ועושים תשובה, וממקום קדוש יהלכו ממקום שישראל מהלכים ונקראים קדושים. וישתבחו בעיר שהם משכחים מעשיהם הרעים. דבר אחר וישתבחו בעיר שהם משתבחים במעשיהם הטובים. גם זה הבל אין זה הבל שעובדי אלילים רואים אותם היאך הם באים ומתגיירים ואינם מתגיירים גם זה הבל:
[19] This passage is cited by Baumel and Schacter on p. 121, and the midrashic parallel on p. 122; also see note 96.
מדרש זוטא - איכה (בובר) פרשה א
[כא] אמר רבי [יהודה אמר] שמואל ואמרי לה במתניתא תנא מעשה בארבע מאות ילדים וילדות שנשבו לקלון (ולחרפה), והרגישו בעצמן למה הן מתבקשין, אמרו זה לזה אם אנו טובעין בים [אנו באים לחיי העולם הבא דרש להם הגדול שבהם אמר ה' מבשן אשיב אשיב ממצולות ים (תהלים ס"ח כ"ג), אמר ה' מבשן אשיב מבין שיני אריות, ממצולות ים אלו שטובעים בים, כיון ששמעו ילדות כך עמדו כלן וטבעו את עצמן בים] נשאו ילדים קל וחומר בעצמם ומה הללו שדרכם לכך טבעו את עצמן, אנו שאנו זכרים על אחת כמה וכמה, עמדו כולם וטבעו את עצמם, ועליהם מקונן ירמיה ואמר כי עליך הורגנו כל היום נחשבנו כצאן טבחה (תהלים מ"ד כ"ג).
[20] Utz is mention in Megilat Eicha 4:21, as well as Iyov (Job) 1:1, which deals with the suffering of the righteous.
[21] This passage is found in the Talmud, amongst other passages dealing with the destruction of the Temple. The section is aggadic, and does not necessarily deal with the legal (halachic) question: Is martyrdom the correct behavior in such cases? At first glance the purpose of the passage is to lament the tragedy of martyred children, “like sheep to the slaughter,” and of the horror that made such a decision necessary in the first place. For more on the complexity of utilizing these sources when discussing martyrdom, an old Ashkenazi “tradition,” see Haym Soloveitchik, Collected Essays, vol. 2 (Oxford - Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2014), 219-287.
[22] Kinot Mesorat Harav, Simon Posner, ed. (Jerusalem, OU Press and Koren Publishers, 2010), p. 372; also see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways: Reflections on the Tish’ah be-Av Kinot, ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Jersey City: Ktav, 2006), 292, 293.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Zvi Hirsch Masliansky: Memoirs from the Hebrew Periodical Ha-Doar

Zvi Hirsch Masliansky:  Memoirs from the Hebrew Periodical Ha-Doar 
By Zviah Nardi

Introduction.
Zvi Hirsch Masliansky, known as “The National Preacher” (1856-l943), was a member of the Hibbat Zion movement in Russia from the time of its inception in l882, and served as its itinerant preacher in the early 1890s. After his expulsion from Russia in 1895, he went to the United States, where he became a leading figure in the integration of the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to American life.
 He wrote memoirs of those two periods of his life in the l920s. Published in Yiddish in 1924, they were followed by a Hebrew version, for which the author was also responsible, in l929. The family has recently published an English translation: Memoirs; an account of my life and travels, Jerusalem, Ariel, 2009, which has been distributed to family and friends, as well as to leading libraries.
 In the l930s Masliansky wrote another memoir, which was published in installments in the Hebrew periodical Ha-Doar, mostly in vols. 13-14, 1933-5; four segments in vol. 15 and one, which has been translated into English and incorporated into the English 2009 book, in vol. 16 (1937).
 The focus of these memoirs is far more personal then that of the book. Here Masliansky describes his childhood, his education, the early stages of his career and his marriage. Other segments focus on various people he knew and loved back in Russia, including some great Rabbis and important public figures.
 Despite their literary quality and importance to social history, these memoirs, hidden in the large bound volumes of Ha-Doar, are even less known to the public than those published in the book. A number of excerpts from the Ha-Doar memoirs have been translated by Zviah Nardi (co-translator of the 2009 English book) for the benefit of family members. To the best of our knowledge, this is their first English version. The unpublished continuation of these memoirs in Masliansky’s handwriting is in possession of the family.
 We are most thankful to Eliezer Brodt of the Seforim blog for putting this partial translation on the web, and thus making it accessible to all interested in Zvi Hirsch Masliansky and in the life of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th century. We are also thankful to Moshe Maimon for bringing us together, and reviewing the excerpts. We hope to continue the translation of both the published and the hand written material in the future, and propagate them in the same fashion as the work continues.
 Finally, I would like to conclude with a personal note: In 2006, four of our progeintor’s descendants made the decision to publish his memoirs in an English version:  his grandsons James and Marshall Weinberg of New York and his great- granddaughters Zviah Nardi and Meira Nardi Bossem of Jerusalem. As these excerpts of his second memoir from Ha-Doar appear on the web, only two of us remain. My dear cousin-once-removed James Weinberg, a businessman and prominent Jewish leader, passed away in October 2013; my dear sister, Meira, just a year ago (on kaf-gimmel Tamuz). Meira was the first reader of both memoirs as the work progressed — a wonderful first reader and advisor.  We would appreciate the willingness of our readers to join us for a moment of thought about our dear departed.
 Zviah Nardi, Marshall Weinberg.
 
For further details contact znardi@bezeqint.net.


Excerpts from Masliansky‘s Second Set of Memoirs,
Ha-Doar, 1933-1935.


Ha-Doar vol. 13, 1933-4, no. 38, p. 724

Tachlith” – In search for a purpose in life.

(A Chapter from my Memoirs)


My days as a “Yeshivah Bochur  [student at a religious academy], those “days” devoid of goal and practical purpose, have come to an end.  I felt a growing aspiration to study at the modern, government-authorized Teachers’ Seminary in Zhitomir. I walked from Novogrudok to Pinsk, where I planned to board a ship headed for Kiev on the river Dnieper, and then walk from Kiev to Zhitomir.

Tachlith, Tachlith” [purpose, purpose] – this word sounded in my ears day and night, as I walked and as I sat, as I ‘lay down and as I got up’. What will be my purpose in life, what will become of me? I do not want Rabbi Yosel the Dayan [judge according to religious law] as a role model, nor do I want Rabbi Eliezer the preacher or the fanatical ascetic who tore the [modern Hebrew] novel “Ashmat Shomron” [by Avraham Mapu] to shreds. This problem gave me no rest and kept buzzing in my mind like the proverbial mosquito in the head of Titus. I had dwelled long enough among fanatic savages. I am a grown boy, fifteen years old, and back in my native town of Slutsk my mother, the elderly widow, is suffering hunger, and she and my orphaned brother of eleven years, are expecting my help. And what is my purpose in life? Tachlith! Tahclith!  -  the cry was echoing inside me at that time as I walked along the road.

I became weaker by the hour, and when I reached Mir, I felt that I should give my weak body and my swollen feet a rest; I shall rest and then continue my quest for a purpose.

I was drawn to visit the Yesivah, I so loved and adored, once more. I found this “molder of the nation’s spirit” in fine order. Hundreds of students were chanting their gemorrah lessons in loud voices. I found my cousin Avraham Yitzhak Masliansky[1] son of my uncle Arieh Leib there (I used to call him ABIM in my letters). Our meeting was one of loving excitement, as we had not seen each other since I had left Slutsk. He told me that my younger brother Avraham was in Mir as well, studying at the Talmud Torah [elementary school.] I was excited and moved to hear this, and soon hugged and kissed my brother, and yet I said to myself with a broken heart: “my miserable mother, you have lacked twice – a widow who is now also bereaved of her children; left behind by both your sons.”
My cousin ABIM and I went to visit our teacher Rabbi Chaim Leib[2]. He received me cordially and discussed various issues with me. I did not tell him my destination, as I did not wish to aggravate him. He suggested I return to the Yeshivah and promised to provide for all my needs. My heart was indeed inclined to accept his offer, but my mind reminded me “Tachlith!” I thanked him, he blessed me, and I left the Yeshivah, with a heart full of longing.

After two days of rest I took my wandering staff in my hand and put my sack on my back; my relatives escorted me to the main road where we kissed each other and parted in tears.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-5, no.1, pp. 8 – 9.
Pinsk
(a Chapter from “My Life.”)

Two Yeshivah students seeking a purpose in life are walking along the main road leading from Kapulya to Pinsk. They walked for six days and ‘in the seventh day’ they arrived in Pinsk; they came to this foreign city, where they had neither a relative nor ‘a redeeming kinsman,’ with sore feet but with courageous spirits and high hopes.  The city of Pinsk at the time excelled in its commerce more than any other city in Lithuania. Along the river Pina, a tributary of the Dnieper, its ships sailed to Kiev, Kremenchuk, Yekaterinoslav and Odessa. We immediately noticed the difference between Pinsk and the surrounding cities. The city was full of life and tumult, being the center of commerce for grain and lumber shipped to the south of Russia by boats and rafts.  Thousands of peasants bringing their commodities filled its streets causing this turmoil.

At that time there were a number of rich families living in Pinsk that were renowned throughout Russia. I am referring to the Luria, Zeitlin, Eisenberg and Greenberg families, all had among them learned men skilled in Torah and wisdom [secular studies]. The most illustrious family were the Lurias, descendants of Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the MaHaRSHaL) or of the Holy Ari [the mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi.] They excelled in both looks and character, in their skills and in their communal work for charitable institutions, hospitals, Talmud Torah schools, orphanages and homes for the elderly. The head of the family at that time was the generous lady Haya’le Luria with her sons Moshe and David, and their sons Aharon and Isar and sons-in- law Moshe Haim Eliasberg and Jonah Simchovitch of Slutsk, all of them renowned Talmidei Chachamim [famous for their Jewish knowledge.]

Pinsk is divided into two cities – Pinsk and Karlin… 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Suddenly I received a letter from Slutsk, informing me that my abandoned, widowed mother and my orphaned brother are suffering cold and hunger. And so, what was I to do?!

This was an awful quandary and I was totally hopeless. There were no Yeshivoth in Pinsk, and its residents were unfamiliar with the practice of “eating by days” [having Yesivah students eat in a different resident’s home each day], a practice I myself was sick and tired of. Traveling any longer without documents had become impossible [as the authorities were kidnapping men and boys for prolonged military service in the area.] My friend Benyamin bid me goodbye and returned to his native town of Poltava. Our parting was a heart wrenching sight. Little Jews, almost children, deserted and alone, hugging and kissing each other, weeping and sobbing on each other’s necks, separating from one another, devoid of hope to find their purpose in life…

Absentmindedly I entered a Jewish inn on the bank of the Pina River. The innkeeper, a man by the name of Katchinovsky, was educated and respected students of the Torah. He took one look at me and instantly liked what he saw. The inn served the rural Jews, the tavern leasers and operators, living in the countryside around Pinsk. One of the guests, a man of stature, had asked the inn keeper whether he knew of a young man, a Torah student, who would agree to travel to the village with him to be a melamed [teacher] for his children. It was summer, the first day of the month of Tamuz, with three months left for the school year; He was ready to pay thirty rubles for this period and to raise the salary for the next year, provided he was satisfied with the man’s performance as instructor and teacher for his children. The innkeeper turned to me and asked me if I would agree to go with the man? I agreed.

Two days later the villager Eliezer Rubinstein took me to his village of Harinich. He was a kind and honest man by nature, and regarded me as a son from the very first day, treating me in a loving and friendly manner: it was as though his heart foretold that in two years time I would be his son-in-law.

The trip from Pinsk to Harinich lasted for about four hours. On the way he started couching me in his own manner. He clarified that country life was simpler and healthier than life in the city. He proved ‘with signs and marvels’ that country people are healthier physically and of a more honest spirit than city folk. He advised me to get slightly more accustomed to physical work, to take long walks, gain strength and ride a horse. ‘He said and acted’[3]. A horse he had bought in Pinsk was running behind the carriage; he put me on the horse and I rode behind the wagon.
My heart was pounding rapidly for the first ten minutes – the heart of a Yeshivah student who had never touched a horse, and was suddenly studying the theoretical Talmudic issue of ‘the rider and leader’[4] in practice. But I made the effort, straightened my neck, raised my head and rode like a cossack in the regiment. He was surprised that I sat on the horse and rode securely, as though accustomed to doing so, and expressed his feeling with the Jewish proverb: “wer Torah, dort ist chochmeh!” [“Where there is Torah there is wisdom!”]

As we were traveling I started to understand what the world famous “Marshes of Pinsk” were. I had searched for them in Pinsk without success, for Pinsk itself is a fine and dry city – no swamps to be found in its streets, which stone-pavements are superior to those of the neighboring towns.  En route, however, I learnt the nature of the terrifying swamps of Pinsk.

These swamps have gained their widespread reputation for a good reason. They were large broad and deep, extending for hundreds of miles… The roads, covered with branches of Birch and Oak trees, were called “grebliyes’, and woe to the man or horse who took one slanted step and got their leg into the ‘grebilyeh’ branches.

I rode my horse with the utmost care and after a number of hours we reached a wonderful and beautiful place in the wilderness of the swamp – thick forests, green fields, planted gardens, pastures with sheep and cows grazing. Suddenly I saw a windmill far away, its large, broad wings spinning fast.

Reb Eliezer Rubinstein turned to me most happily and said: “Do you see, Hirsch’le, the mill, the house next to it and all these fields till the distant mountain? – All this is mine. We are now in our home in the village of Harinich.”


Ha-Doar, vol. l4, 1934-5, no. 4, pp. 61-62
In the Country
(A Chapter from “my Life”.)

It was evening. The sun was setting in the west, earth and sky kissed each other in a sea of molted gold; the mill and the small hills around it were glowing in red. The air was full of the delicate sounds of bells, the bells of herds returning from pasture. The farmers’ wives were waiting for the herds, pails in hand, while the dogs, who had spent the entire day with the flocks, were running and jumping towards them, barking happily as their work day had ended and the time for rest had come. Farmers, large and small, men and woman, all dressed in thick cotton shirts, barefoot and tired, were returning, group by group, from their labor in the fields to their small low houses covered with straw, there they were met by their virtually naked toddlers and children, who rushed into the arms of their mothers they had missed so.

“Good Evening!” called the head of the family, as he opened the door of his dwelling wide.

The mistress of the house with her children, who were waiting for their father and for the new teacher, surrounded me. Six pairs of lovely eyes measured me with their glances from head to toe.

Mrs. Devorah Rubinstein, a pretty and graceful woman of about thirty, stood by her husband and looked at me with a mother’s eye…

“Children!” – the head of the household turned to his sons and daughters, two boys and three girls, the oldest among them twelve years old, “say hello to your new teacher, he will instruct you and you are obliged to obey him and follow his orders.”

The children approached me respectfully and handed me their little hands, Yetta, the oldest, lowered her glance as she came to me, as though her heart told her that it would not be long  - in three years time[5] – before relationship would far exceed that of teacher and pupil…

I enjoyed my first meal and ate it with zest. For the first time in my life I felt that I was eating my own food. I then slept peacefully through the night. The next morning I examined my pupils and saw that the two boys had studied a bit, but the girls did not even know the [Hebrew] A-B-C. I started to work and within a number of weeks my pupils were doing well in their studies.

The rural Jews living near Harinich heard my praise from Reb Eliezer and came to see me. Some of them brought their small children who joined my pupils, so that my salary doubled. I was ever so happy when, for the first time, I sent my poor mother ten rubles. That was a holy and festive day for me and I shall never forget it.

And yet the question of “tachlith” remained unsolved – what will my life purpose be, what will my future hold? I am living here, in a remote and deserted village, far from the rapid pace of life, surrounded by peasants with whom I have no spiritual bond. They regard me as worthless, an idle person who does not really work for a living, and I – living here I shall forget everything I have learnt. I am but fifteen years old, what will my purpose in life be? I will grow and develop in body but when will I see to my soul and spirit…?

A Jewish tavern leaser in one of the villages not far from Harinich had a small library. His name was Reb Yitzhak Rutzky. He was a Torah scholar and knew Hebrew. After we got to know each other he was pleased with me and opened up his library so I could take whatever I needed. This encouraged me to continue my studies of the Talmud with great desire. But a complete Jew does not live by Talmud alone. I felt, that with all my proficiency in the Holy Writings my knowledge of Hebrew grammar and medieval literature, which I knew only by name, was lacking. I searched through the small library and found “The Guide to the Perplexed” and “The Principles” [by Maimonides], “The Kuzari” [by Yehudah ha-Levi] and “Chovot Ha-Levavot” [ by Behya ibn Pequda]. I fell upon these profound books overzealously and enjoyed their study. I asked Mr. Rubinstein to bring me three books I wanted from Pinsk: “Talmud Leshon Ivri” [a grammar of the Hebrew language by Judah Leib Ben Zeev], the Biblical book of Isaiah, translated into Russian by Yehoshua Steinberg, and “Sefer Ha-Brith.”[6] These books occupied much of my time and I did not go idle.[7]

I studied the “Talmud Leshon Ivri” most diligently from beginning to end, including the appendix by the poet Adam HaCohen Lebensohn, and became quite a grammarian writing notes on the margins of the book. The book of Isaiah in its Russian translation was extremely useful: I imitated the first generation of Maskilim [adherents of modern Jewish learning, Haskalah or Enlightenment] who learnt the German language from Mendelsohn’s translation and commentary of the Bible [Bi-ur], till I was able to read Russian with the help of a dictionary and thus read the great works of Russian literature in the original.

Sefer Ha-Brith“ (“The Book of the Covenant” which includes tenuous information in all the branches of science known at its time, carried me off to another world. Later on, however, I learnt that the author of the book was a Yeshivah student like me, who had never studied the natural sciences he was interested in, and yet wrote modestly: “And I shall now confront Master Copernicus.”

And yet, I am grateful to the author of this book. He was extremely important to me, a rural melamed, with no school, no guidance. He opened my eyes to see that there are sciences and important topics in this world that are worth learning.

My employer’s affection towards me grew daily. He would sit at the table while I taught my students and audit the lessons most eagerly; he secretly repeated the verses till he knew them by heart. He especially liked the sayings from the Book of Proverbs about “jealousy”, “hatred”, “lust”, and “honor”, but his favorite theme was “idleness”, for he detested the lazy with all his heart, and so he always liked to recited the 24th chapter of Proverbs out loud: ‘I passed by the field of a lazy man, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense. It was all overgrown with thorns; Its surface was covered with chickweed. And its stone fence in ruins. I observed and took it to heart; I saw it and learned a lesson. A bit more sleep, a bit more slumber, a bit more hugging yourself in bed, and poverty will come calling upon you, and want, like a man with a shield.’

When he finished reciting the original Hebrew he started translating it to Yiddish with the same chant and intonation I used with the students. He continued to “recite” these verses till we arrived at his mill, where he took me nearly every day after the lessons. He taught me how to adjust the wings towards the wind and how to help him inside.  I especially liked sitting in the mill during the evening hours, a highly suitable time and place to engage in thought and to recite the declinations of Hebrew verbs to the rhythm of the large grinding stones. And so I worked as a teacher by day and as assistant miller by evening.

Some evenings I would stay long hours at the mill, keeping the miller company till midnight. He was an elderly Catholic peasant, very loyal to his faith. He loved me and felt sorry for me, not being member to his religion. He told me as a fact that the Pope is immortal and that old age has no power over him. He is like the moon, born again every single month, and will never die.

The hours I spent with this innocent old man were amazing and mysterious. The silvery moon, the rustle of the wings of the mill, the noise of the large grinding stones as the aged man related his stories, his nonsensical, imaginative stories enveloped in secrets and mysteries. We pitied one another – he pitied me for my heresy and I him for the figments of his hallucinating spirit, which he believed in with all his heart.


Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-1935, no. 5, p. 79
A groom living in his father-in-law’s home
(A chapter from “My Life”)

It was a bright pure spring day – the third day of the third month of the year 5734 (1874), my birthday – I am seventeen years old!  I finished teaching my pupils at noon. The sun stood high in the sky blessing the entire universe with majestic splendor.  My employer, Reb Eliezer Rubinstein, stretched out his strong warm hand, kissed me and congratulated me in honor of my birthday. He then took me by the arm and walked with me down the narrow path leading to the hay fields he had been leasing from the Pravoslave priests for more than twenty years. We reached a small lovely hill; the grown hay gave a pleasant scent; the grass was sparkled with blue and yellow flowers that seemed like little stars in the green sky beneath us.

We were walking very slowly when suddenly Mr. Rubinstein halted and started to recite his favorite verses from the Book of Proverbs: ‘I passed by the field of a lazy man, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense’ etc.  When he completed reciting the verses he held me by my right arm and looked at me lovingly for several minutes, then spoke as a man restraining his emotions.

“You know, Hirsch’le, that I love you very much, and so my words will come from a pure and loyal heart. You are seventeen years old today, may you live to a hundred and twenty, it is time for you to find “tachlith”, to seek a purpose in life. You, with all your talents, have not been destined from birth to be a melamed. And so I have a wonderful proposition for you, if God helps me to accomplish it: You should get engaged to be married to a kind hearted and pretty girl, daughter of honest and wealthy parents and become betrothed this very day. And next year, when you will be eighteen years old, you will marry at the very age established by our sages of blessed memory. If you take my advice I shall congratulate you on this very day and say ‘Mazal tov’ upon your engagement.”

He then was silent, looked me in the eye and awaited my answer. His innocent and kindhearted monologue made a great impression on me. Some minutes later I said: “Reb Eliezer, two sides are needed for a shiduch [match] and I’m but one. Where is the other side?”

“Quite so, my son!” he answered, “The other side is standing before you, and I am ready, and my eldest daughter, Yetta, agrees full heartedly, because she loves you. I shall not sing her praises in your ears, for I am her father, but I believe that you have eyes to see and a mind and brain to understand. You can see her beauty and understand that she shall be a ‘woman of valor’ and a ‘splendid crown’ on her husband’s head. She is fourteen years old, as lovely as an eighteen year old and as wise as a twenty year old. What then have you to say as it is the shadchen [match maker] who is speaking to you.”

“Yes, Reb Eliezer, you mentioned the word ‘tachlith’. Do you know that it was ‘tachlith’ that uprooted me, that tore me away from my studies and from city life and brought here to seek my livelihood?  The question of ‘tachlith’ is to become even more difficult now: what ‘tachlith’ will we have now if I marry and have a family?”

“Yes, my son,” he answered, “you are right, but with God’s help I will find a solution to the problem. Open your eyes and see this entire plain that brings me a yearly profit that could easily support two families. I have leased all these fields for many years,we will both live and work together. You will no longer be a ‘melamed’, and I will build you a little house near mine and you will lack for nothing.”

Absentmindedly I put my small hand into his large one, and our eyes filled with tears of joy.

Overjoyed, my schadchan [match maker] and father-in-law returned home with me and with a cry of “Mazal Tov” that echoed through the entire house approached his wife, my mother-in-law, and said: “I congratulate you, Devorah’le.  Mazal Tov, our eldest daughter Yetta’le, has become a bride today and Hirsch’le is her betrothed for years to come.”

The sound of greeting and kisses filled the house. Tears of joy streamed from everyone’s eyes, for the entire family loved me and they all fell on my neck, kissed me and hugged me. The young couple, the seventeen year old youth and the fourteen year old girl, hugged each other[8] and cried, but they did not kiss, ‘for they were ashamed…’[9]

My days as a melamed came to an end, and the family members treated me as a master of the house from that day on. One day the door opened suddenly and my little brother appeared. He had walked from Slutsk to Pinsk to see his older brother who had almost reached his “tachlith.” He brought with him the kisses of my widowed mother and described her miserable situation. My brother and I were different – he was of a courageous spirit, hated to complain and was always satisfied, contented with his lot. He stayed with me for about ten days and then I sent him to our mother in Slutsk with considerable help, according to what my situation at the time enabled me.
*
The Days of Awe had come - the most exciting days of the year for the Jews of the villages. The leaseholders and innkeepers started the preparations for the journey in the month of Elul. This journey was to take them to the cities and towns [stetalach] to pray on Rosh Ha-Shana [the New Year] and Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], that is to say, to hold proper services in a synagogue with a legal quorum [a minimum of ten adult men].  They would take their gentile maids, who were acquainted with all the Jewish customs, with them.  They were also equipped with a sufficient number of chicks and white chickens enabling them to perform the custom of “Kapparot” for the entire family[10]. Traditional pastries for these days were also prepared…. Indeed, it was a time when even the fish in the rivers were terrified. In addition the country people would take small sacks of ‘the choice products of the land’, the crops of the earth and of the fruit of the trees, various types of beans and grits, oats and spelt, as gifts for the home owners in the towns, who were to be their hosts for the holidays.[11]

The town closest to our village was Navliyah, which numbered about forty Jewish families. There were a few affluent families, but most were impoverished and beggars; they waited all year for the gifts their rural brethren would bring them for the Days of Awe. All the rural Jews, the leaseholders and innkeepers, from the neighboring villages…with their children and maids, their chicken and roosters, their sacks and belongings would gather in the village of Womit on the shore of the pond, where small boats awaited to lead them to the river that flowed to a spot near our destination – the town of Navliyah.

The boats rowed on the lake, full to capacity with young and old, men and woman, happy healthy youngsters, pretty and shy maidens in full bloom. Christian maids, watching over the children, were seated on sacks full of grain, foodstuffs and chicken coops carrying roosters and chickens, future victims of “Kapparot” to atone for the passengers’ sins. The boats sailed heavily on the pond towards the town to celebrate the Days of Awe there.


Ha-Doar, 1934-5, no. 7, p 123

My First Sermon

As in the gathering of the exiles the convoy of pilgrims descended from their boats to Navliyah, and the small town was suddenly filled with a multitude of people. All the leaseholders and innkeepers also brought their children’s teachers. Most of them were old and feeble, men who had spent themselves as teachers [melamdim] in the cities; their strength gone, they resorted to teaching in the villages where they hoped to find a remedy for their ailments, sickness of the heart or weakness of sight. Most of them were ignoramuses, all they knew was to read the prayer book and hold the whip in hand to flog the “naughty” children, who indulged in pure childhood mischief, refusing to listen to the teachers whom they did not understand.

I went to see the local Rabbi, a young man recently arrived from the Volozhin Yeshivah [religious academy] equipped with an authorization. He understood Hebrew. When I came to the synagogue he honored me, seated me at his side and introduced me to the leader of the community who gave me the honor of delivering the sermon before the prayer of “Kol Nidrei” [at the outset of the Yom Kippur Eve prayers.]

For the first time in my life I was to stand by the Holy Ark, wrapped in a Talith [prayer shawl] and preach to an audience.  True, I had already tried to conduct a study of the Pentateuch with Abarbanel’s commentary in public, and to explain a chapter of the prophets to my friends at the Mir Yeshivah, but I never dreamt of preaching in a synagogue before Kol Nidrei. How could anyone imagine that this sermon would be the first of thousands I would deliver in my lifetime? While at the time my mind was occupied with the issues concerning the mill and the harvesting of my father-in-law’s hay in the heart of the famous marshes of Pinsk…

I gathered my courage and ascended towards the Holy Ark. I felt my blood burning like a divine flame in the heat of the large wax candles that lit the small synagogue. I remember that a few minutes into the sermon the entire crowd was sobbing with me and terrible shrieks were heard from the women’s gallery. I spoke for close to an hour about the situation of our brethren in dark Russia, about our murky sources of livelihood – the war between Turkey and Russia broke out that year [sic],[12] and I quoted the verse: ‘The snorting of their horses was heard from Dan’ [Jeremiah 8,16), and interpreted it in homiletically: the war had started from the river “Donau”, Esau [Christendom] is fighting with his father-in-law Ishmael [Islam].  I concluded with a prayer: “Lord of the Universe, remove the goat [=Se’ir = the land of Esau, Edom] and his father-in-law, ’for liberators shall march up to Zion!’”[13]

There was a drunken and evil man in the audience, known as “Benjamin the Factor”. His livelihood was to supply “Pan Lapitzki”, who was single all his life, with girls, farmers’ daughters, and he served as the Pan’s [Polish landlord] matchmaker every single day. My sermon about our “murky sources of livelihood” must have insulted him, and immediately after the prayer of “Kol Nidrei”, he went to the Christian priest and informed on me, reporting that I had cursed the government, the Christian faith and first and foremost the Russian Czar…

Imagine the fear that seized the Rabbi and the leader of the community when, on the next day, the town policeman burst into the synagogue during the prayers and led the three of us to the government official. He brought us into the official’s bureau, where we found the priest and the informer, waiting for the three of us.

“Tell me, young Jew, what did you speak about in the synagogue yesterday? For if what I was told is true, I shall arrest you and send you to the district capital in chains.”
   
I answered him calmly: “Yes, Sir, I spoke yesterday to a large audience, and they can all testify that what I shall tell you is true. I talked about interest, saying it is a great sin, and that my Jewish brethren should stop taking interest. They should work and engage in various sustaining livelihoods. I spoke about the ‘factors’ that disgrace their people. I hope that this sermon brings me the thanks and praise of the government, rather than arrest and being led off in chains.”

The official looked at the priest, gave me his hand and asked the three of us to forgive him for interrupting our prayers on this holy day. The snitch left the bureau ‘his head covered in mourning.’[14]

This event, that took place during my first sermon, was ominous of my future fate – to be ready always to confront the government officials, high and low, from without and our informers and enemies from within, until I was exiled from the country, much to my happiness and to the happiness of my family.

The last winter before my wedding was also the last of my days as a melamed. I thought I had reached my goal and found my tachlith (my purpose in life). From time to time I sent money to support my widowed mother and orphaned brother. My brother was happy for me. But deep down in my subconscious I felt I was not meant to be a country man; that the meaning of my life was not to be found in the mill and the fields, that my rightful place was in the city, and that my work should be of a spiritual nature. I continued my study of the Talmud, persevered in learning Hebrew grammar, and in reading our modern literature, and Russian literature as well. 

On the third day of the month of Adar 5635 [March 10th, l875], I celebrated my wedding with the child bride, Yetta Rubinstein, who was fifteen years old, while I was eighteen. The reader nowadays may regard this marriage of young children, who know nothing of life, appalling, a legacy of the middle ages. Yet he who reacts so knows nothing and understands nothing of the pleasure of fathers as they look at forty- two beautiful and fresh images of boys and girls, their descendants, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the third and forth generations. He will not feel what our predecessors felt, namely, that timely marriage leads to a beautiful life, a life of morality and health, that leaves an eternal legacy for many generations to come.
*
I am no longer a single man. God has entrusted me with the responsibility for my family’s livelihood. I girded my loins in leather and rose early in the morning to assist my father-in-law with his work. I tried to engage in commerce as well, and was full of hope to soon become my father-in-law’s partner in his fields and in the rest of his endeavors as he had promised me.

One morning, as we were all sitting at the table for breakfast, joyous, happy and eating heartily, the door opened suddenly and the district policeman appeared bearing a government document for Eliezer Rubinstein. It proclaimed that all his rights in the fields and gardens belonging to Christian churches were ‘annulled and made void’ from that day on, since the government had issued a new law prohibiting Jews from buying or leasing landed property from Christians. The policeman handed him the document and ordered him to sign it. My father-in-law was terribly upset, his face became pale and he signed the order with a trembling hand.

The policeman left and all of us remained mute and dumbfound – staring at each other with horrific astonishment…

Tachlith” – practical purpose and livelihood - had evaporated in thin air. The oil had spilled from the pitcher, and what was to be done with an empty pitcher now?

My kind and generous father-in-law made the utmost effort to gather his courage so as to console and encourage us.  He said that this evil decree affected the public at large, it was directed against all the Jewish leasers and tavern operators, and a general disaster is, as the proverb says, half a consolation. But what is there to be done with the other half, for which there is no consolation at all?

For a year I tried my best to become a “wheeler dealer”, but I was not destined for commerce. I could not adjust myself to petty trade and to the deceitful cheating talk it always involved.

At that time my child-wife gave birth to our eldest son – Chaim who was named for my father. The question of our “tachlith” - our practical purpose in life – became even more acute.


Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-5, no. 9, p.158
Thanks to a Poem.
(A chapter from “My Life.”)


In time of trouble one never knows ‘from where will… help come.’ In the midst of despair help suddenly comes and restores you.

In my pitiful state I was saved by one of the poems I had written while teaching in the country, though I had never been a poet.  My library consisted of three books at the time: [the Hebrew grammar book] “Talmud Leshon Ha-Ivri”, “Sefer Ha-Brith” [on basic sciences] and the Russian translation of the Book of Isaiah. These three books supplied my spiritual nourishment. Thank to the first I became a grammarian, the second introduced me to “The Seven Wisdoms,” and the through the third I came to understand Russian, as did the Maskilim in the early days of the Haskalah [the early adherents of modern Jewish learning, Haskalah or Enlightenment] who studied German with the aid of Mendelssohn’s[15] translation of the Bible.

The poem mentioned was one of six stanzas, which I wrote on the title page of Steinberg’s Russian translation [of Isaiah]. In the first three stanzas I praised and lauded Steinberg for his translation, and in the last three I cautioned him, saying he was not of the same stature as Ben Menachem [Mendelssohn]. I had no idea whether there was any poetry in that poem, but it did have some sensible ideas. I wrote it, left it in the book, and forgot about it.

One day, one of my rural pupils wished to enroll in the Hebrew School in town to complete his education. He traveled to Pinsk, where the government-appointed Rabbi, Avraham Chaim Rosenberg, had established a Hebrew School. The boy and his father reported to the principal of the school; the youngster happened to be holding Steinberg’s translation in his hand, for I had given it to him as a gift for his Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Rosenberg took the book in his hand and when he opened it saw the poem on the title page. He immediately asked the boy’s father:
“Could you tell me who wrote this poem?”

“ Yes, Rabbi, the poet was my son’s teacher for three years.”

“Could I perhaps see him today?”

“He is in Pinsk now, at the Katchinovsky Inn. He came to sell his merchandise, for he left teaching and is trading in fish and hides, though with little success. If you wish to see him, send for him and he shall come here,” answered the boy’s father.

That day as I was eating my lunch at the inn, a man came forth and asked: “Is the son-in-law of Eliezer Rubinstein from the village of Harinich here?” The innkeeper pointed to me, and the man turned to me and said: “I have been sent by the Rabbi of the congregation; he wishes you come with me to see him.”

All the people present were very surprised: “What does the government-appointed Rabbi have to do with this young villager?” for I was dressed in rural clothes.

I followed the man to the Rabbi and found him in his school. For the first time in my life I saw a modern school – a hall, large and broad, rows of benches with their desks. In the center of the hall was a wooden black board. The teacher stood next to it, chalk in hand, writing Hebrew words. He would call one of the pupils by name and instruct him to read the words, add the proper vowels and explain them to him. When the pupil erred he ordered him to return to his place and called upon another pupil. The order and regime pleased me.

Rabbi Rosenberg handed his work to another teacher and took me to his office. He was a tall man with a large and handsome head, big black eyes and a round black beard. He looked at me, observing my rural attire, the leather loincloth on my waist, and a slight smile crossed his lips. He gave me his hand and asked that I sit next to him.

On the desk I saw Yehoshua Steinberg’s translation. The book was open with my poem on the title page. I was surprised – how did this book get here? The entire scene seemed like a dream to me. He understood my confusion and did not keep me waiting. He then asked me smilingly: “Is your name Zvi Hirsch Masliansky?”

“It is, Sir.”

“Did you write this poem?” he asked again pointing at the title page.

“Obviously, my signature is on it.”

“Kindly read it to me, young man.”

I read the poem out loud, emphasizing a certain place in a way that clarified my intention he had not formerly understood.

He looked at my strange clothes again, and addressed me affectionately: “And what are you doing? Where do you live? What are your plans for the future?” I answered all his questions, from the first to the last.

He got up, held me by the lapel, and said: “Listen to me, young man, and take my advice. You are not destined for country life, wheeling and dealing among the peasants. You should settle in the city among your fellow Jews who will understand and cherish your talents, and with time you will develop and become one of the great men of your nation.  I advise you to become a Hebrew teacher. Divide the day into hours, and spend each hour teaching in a different home. But be aware of the melamdim and their Hadarim [traditional teachers and schools] for they are in a very bad state. Teaching by the hours will give you a status and provide you with a livelihood.”

He continued talking as he walked me to the hall of the school, and said to me: “I shall be the first and give you an hour or two of teaching in my school for the same salary I pay all the other teachers.”

I looked at him with both gratitude and amazement. “I do thank you, Sir, for your generous spirit, taking interest in the fate of a desperate and lonely person like me. I am ready to do anything you instruct me, but I don’t know if I can fulfill your wish as far as teaching goes. This is the first time I have had the merit of seeing a modern school. Till now all I saw were the old fashioned Hadarim devoid of any order and regime.”

“This ‘lack’ can ‘be made good.’ I will spend a few days with you and instruct you in the modern methods of teaching,” was his relaxed answer.
That very moment he brought me to the best class in the school. The room was full of pupils and the great teacher Feitelsohn stood next to the black board explaining the difference between the definite particle and the interrogative particle in both meaning and vowels. The teacher too looked at my clothes with surprise. The principal introduced me to the teacher and asked him to allow me to take over for half an hour.

The teacher handed me the chalk; On the black board I wrote several sentences that included the two articles without vowels. The pupils added the vowels and seemed satisfied with my work.

The Rabbi then told me to ask the pupils a grammatical question about verbs. I did as he wished, asked them about the passive tense, and explained the answer to them. Rosenberg and Feigelsohn[16] approved of my answer.

“And now, young man, return to your home,” the Rabbi said as he bid me goodbye, “Cast off ‘the filthy clothes…and… be clothed in [priestly] robes… and I will permit you to move about among these attendants.’” [Zachariah 3; 4,7]

Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-5, no. 11, p. 194
Teacher and Preacher
(A Chapter from “My Life.”)


I succeeded in my first trial, and immediately after the test was appointed as teacher in the school run by the government-appointed Rabbi, Rabbi A. Rosenberg, in Pinsk.

With little delay I took my small family, my sixteen-year-old wife and my half-year-old eldest child Chaim, and brought them with me to Pinsk. I shouldered my burden – the burden of a Hebrew teacher. I divided the day to twelve periods and spent each hour in a different house with a different pupil.

I became known in the town thanks to my teaching and when I would teach a chapter of the prophets [in the school] with the windows open, men and woman, young and old, would gather in the yard to listen. A few weeks later the wealthy families of Pinsk and Karlin, the families of Luria, Zeitlin, Greenberg and Eisenberg invited me to teach their children.[17]

And so I was burdened with work every day from eight o’clock in the morning till eleven o’clock at night. I got to see my only son only on Saturdays and Holidays. My kind father-in-law was very disappointed that I could not spend any time talking to him when he came to visit, for I was terribly busy.

With all that I devoted a few hours a week to study science with Rabbi Rosenberg, the principal of the school. Later in his life he wrote the ten-volume book “Otzar Ha-Shemot.”

I was not satisfied with teaching the young. I felt I had sufficient talent to propagate my teaching and views among adults as well. Much to my joy I became acquainted with the Rabbi of Pinsk, the great and renowned Rabbi Elazer Moshe Ish Horovitz, one of the greatest luminaries of his generation, a man of clear and broadminded ideas about life in general and Jewish life in particular. The fanatic ultra-Orthodox and the pious Hasidim were displeased with him and regarded him with suspicion. But his vast knowledge of the Talmud and his righteous deeds protected him, and they could do him no harm. At that time he came out publicly against various customs [preceding the Day of Atonement] like “Kaparoth” and “Tashlich.” He was especially irritated with a prayer [recited prior to blowing the Shofar – ram’s horn – on the Days of Awe], which was full of weird named angels, and ordered it to be eliminated from the prayer service in all the synagogues…

I became acquainted with this wonderful Rabbi, and was considered as a member of his household and family. He was a wonderful mathematician and excellent grammarian[18]. He spent many hours with me discussing Hebrew grammar and clarifying difficult passages in the Bible using the methods of the modern commentators.

It was to him that I divulged my desire to speak to [adult] audiences and he fulfilled it instantly. He sent for the Gabai [synagogue director] of the Heckelman Schul and ordered the synagogue to be opened every Friday night. I started delivering lectures on the Psalms that very week for a large audience that filled the house completely.

I recall these sacred evenings with joy and glee, for they laid the foundation for my sixty-year-long carrier as a preacher, addressing the people of Israel from the pulpit. I gave these lectures for three years, performing this sacred duty for a hundred and fifty evenings and reached chapter 50 of the Psalms. The audience was so enthusiastic that a new institution was formed: “Masliansky’s Tehilim Sagen” [The Masliansky Reciting of Psalms].

But there were some benighted fanatics who started to persecute me, seeking evidence to support various religious suspicions and allegations. Tudros the enthusiastic Hasid swore solemnly that he had seen me carrying a handkerchief in my pocket on the Sabbath and Moshe Itzel the bum watched me as I prayed and swore that I did not rise for the prayer “Va-Yevarech David” [and David Blessed] and did not spit during the prayer of Aleinu… But all this was to no avail – they could not disgrace my name or humiliate me in the eyes of the people, who were always ready to protect me in the face of any trouble, may it not befall us.

Once in my speech I reached the verse in Psalm 31 [verse 7]: ‘I detest those who rely on empty folly, but I trust in the Lord.’ I then poured my wrath on the superstitions, amulets, incantations, demons and notes placed in graves addressed to the living and the dead.

This speech affected all the Hasidim, especially the “confedrazim”, those who have no Rabbi and belong to all the courts. Their fanaticism is ‘unfathomable’ and their wrath is as a ‘spider’s venom.’ They incited groups of little Hasidim, naughty and mischievous, who ran after me in the streets ‘crying after me as a mob’ in strange voices: “wil Gut ist einer, und weiterer keiner” [God is one and there is none beside Him] – the words [of the famous Passover song] with which I ended my speech. My adult persecutors sent a committee to the rich Hasidim whose children I taught, telling them to banish me from their homes, but they were unable to accomplish that, because the great Rabbi Ish Horowitz, learning of their escapades, summoned the chief persecutor, Rabbi “Tudros the Hasid” and reprimanded him and his friends. He ordered them to stop persecuting me, for he knew me well and found no fault in me. The persecutors were frightened and left me alone.

*****

[1] Grandfather of Joseph Masliansky.
[2] R. Chaim Leib Tikitinsky (1823-1899), Rabbi of Mir and head of its legendary yeshiva. (M.M.)
[3] Reference to the daily prayer service: ברוך אומר ועושה .(M.M.)
[4] Reference to T.B. Bava Metzia 8b. (M.M.)
[5] Earlier he was referring to his engagement when he said “it was as though his heart foretold that in two years time I would be his son-in-law”; the current statement factors in a year-long engagement after which he married his wife. (M.M.)
[6] "The Book of the Covenant“, an early 19th century attempt to harmonize natural sciences with Jewish religion and especially mysticism by Rabbi Pinchas Eliahu of Vilna, popular in ultra-Orthodox circles till this day.
[7] These three books indicate three ways contemporary Jews would follow in the quest for Haskalah, for broader horizons, beyond the confines of Yeshivah: Systematic study of Hebrew (especially Biblical Hebrew) and grammatically correct usage, leading to proper understanding of the Bible (as against the disorderly treatment of the language in the Rabbinical Responsa of the time); the study of a foreign language to gain access to European Culture (German in early Haskalah, and later, in Russia, Russian as well); the study of natural sciences.
[8] This behavior is quite liberal, as the prohibition against touching still applies even to engaged couples in ultra-Orthodox circles till this day.
[9] Reference to Gen. 2:25. (M.M.)
[10] According to this custom a person’s sins are supposedly transferred to a chicken, which is circled around his or her head. The chicken is later ritually slaughtered and the meat donated to charity.  Nowadays this controversial ceremony is often substituted by a monetary donation, yet it is still performed in (mostly Ashkenazi) ultra-Orthodox circles
[11] The roots of the sociological structure described here are to be found in the Polish rule over these areas that lasted till the end of the 18th century. The Polish nobility owned vast tracts of land, comprised of rural areas and towns. To manage their rural estates they would hire managers (mostly Jews) who would pay a yearly advance for the operation of the estate or parts of it (such as a mill, an inn with a tavern). The leasers would charge the peasants for the services of the estate and keep the profit at the end of the year. The leaser (called ‘Yeshuvnik’ in Yiddish) and his family were often the only Jews for miles around. Hence the need to hire teachers for their children (as Masliansky was hired by the Rubinstein family) and to gather together for the High Holidays (The Days of Awe). The Russian authorities disapproved of this structure and during the 19th century tried, time and again, to have the Jews expelled from the villages. This effort culminated in the notorious “May Laws” of 1882; This expulsion and resulting lose of livelihood was one of main causes for the emigration to the United States and other countries, as were the actual pogroms that took place sporadically, mostly in southern Ukraine, following the murder of Czar Alexander II by revolutionaries in March 1881.
[12] The unrest in the Balkans started in the mid 1870s, but massive Russian intervention on behalf of the Slavic nations and a full scale war between Russia and Turkey did not occur till 1877. The events described here, on the other hand, relate to autumn l874, when Masliansky, born in l856, was eighteen years old. His wedding with Yetta Rubinstein took place in spring l875. When he wrote the memoirs he must have remembered quoting this biblical phrase and explaining it as referring to the tension between Russia and Turkey in the Balkans. This probably led him to assume that the war had already broken out at the time.
[13] The complete verse in Obadiah verse 21 reads: “For liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord’s.”  (JPS translation, l978) Masliansky was confident that his audience knew the end of the verse well and could understand his intention.
[14] A description of Haman in the book of Esther, 6,12.
[15] Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1789), German Jewish philosopher, considered as founder of the movement of Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah.)
[16]Unclear if it is Feigelsohn or Feitelsohn. (M.M.)
[17] The Hebrew writer, Yehuda Karni, then a child in Pinsk, gives a vivid description of the excitement   and admiration the new teacher arose in the city, see (in Hebrew):  N. Tamir-Mirsky, ed., Pinsk, a book of witness and memory of the Pinsk-Karlin community, vol. 2, Tel Aviv, Pinsk Organization in Israel, l966. We thank Prof. Zvi Gitelman of The University of Michigan for this information.
[18] Cf. the biographical elegy on him penned by his son in law, R. Boruch Halevi Epstein, נחל דמעה. (M.M.)

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