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FROM MY MEMOIRS(1)

By Yehudah Dov Goldstein (Pazi)

Translated by Patrick Gordis

I was born in Zhukovodoc, a village in the Minsk province of Russia, and home of Shlomo Maimon. My parents and grandparents worked in forestry. The village was beautiful: it was situated on the banks of the Nieman river, which carried vessels of all sizes bearing wheat to Koenigsburg and timber rafts to Germany. North of the river there flowed a small brook. Right by the mill, the waters of the brook flowed into the Nieman, while up to the east was a canal that connected the brook with the river, forming a small island. On the other side of the brook the village could be seen. In that island were four Jewish homes, all related, and the spacious home of the forest supervisor. The woods had once belonged to count Radziwill and then to Count Wittgenstein. In the island there was also a church, though there was no fear in our hearts: the priest, the gentiles and the Jews lived together in peace and mutual respect. My parents cared deeply about that area, and loved the house that they had inherited from their grandfather, Rabbi Zebel the son of Rabbi Yeshayahu of Zhukhovitz(2), whose righteousness was renowned.

When the children grew up and needed a full time teacher, my parents moved to Mir, a town some ten kilometers away (also in the Minsk province), the home of the famous Yeshivah. It was there that I enrolled in the Heder of Rabbi Eliyahu of Riems, my Gemara teacher, who was known as a profound thinker.

Like all the kids my age, what little knowledge I possessed of the history of our people was drawn chiefly from the Bible, and even that wasn't studied in any order. Instead we skipped around a few chapters in the Torah and first prophets and then moved to Isaiah and in a single bound leapt into the Gemara. Any gaps in our biblical knowledge were filled with the legends we heard from our parents and teachers; we also learned in the Talmud that the Land of Israel is to be rejuvenated and returned to its former state of holiness - since it had already paid for its sins.

But then new winds began blowing. Rabbi Shmuel Gorodeisky(3), also known as Monia Rav Peretz, the son of Rabbi Peretz the Dayan(4), was already then considered erudite, possessing as he did a complete command of the Hebrew language, both written and spoken. He was blessed with a critical faculty that he could not suppress. He began to criticize the community, that was at that time under the leadership of the town's richest and most highly esteemed citizens. They did not take lightly to this, and considered him a rude upstart. Their consternation grew terribly when he dared publish his criticism in ha-Magid: "Do not speak in Gat."(5) Things that are done in the privacy of the community should not be made known in the newspapers of the world. As you know, the proper place for a princess is within the confines of the home. And yet, for all their anger they did not harm him - so great was their fear of the press. The youth of the town looked to him as a role model, and some of the local scholars helped to convince a few of the wealthy Jews and a number of commoners to support a new organization: each member committed to make a weekly contribution so that in due time a significant sum would be collected in the group's coffers. With this money they would found a colony in Palestine. The colony would be named after our city, Mir, and comrades would be chosen to immigrate to Israel where they would farm the land. In due time all the comrades who were committed to making aliyah would move to Israel. In order to realize this dream, the cooperative purchased government lottery tickets: who knows, maybe luck and the good fortunes of Eretz Yisrael will shine on us and we'll win the big drawing. The whole enterprise was fraught with difficulty: the town's rich and famous were strongly opposed to us.

One of the town's biggest families was the Shachor(6) family, and their sons were known as the Shachorim, i. e., the blacks (they may have been called this sarcastically, since the family had produced many important scholars). They were joined by other families: the Ginzburgs, the Horowitzs and others, and thus the town was divided into two opposing clans: the blacks and the whites. This division existed even before the rabbi died. But after he died things got much worse: the blacks went and, without consulting anyone, invited their relation, Rabbi Haim Zalman, the rabbi of Stlovetsky. He was a brilliant scholar and a man of great integrity. But though he developed a sizable following in the town, many people opposed him, especially the working class. They argued that there was no need to import a rabbi from another town, an expensive proposition, especially in light of the fact that there was a man worthy of being the rabbi right here in town, Rabbi Haim Leib Tiktinski (7), a learned and pure man. The youngsters would gather outside the town and, divided along the same lines, fight it out between them.

The tailor set aside his needle, the blacksmith covered his anvil and the shopkeeper closed up his store: everyone was concerned with the rabbi question and everyone had something to say about it. Just to give you a sense of the situation, it was said that one morning Moshe Volvill the cobbler knocked on the door of Baruch, the carpenter, and cried:
"Baruch, wake up!"
"What happened?"
"There's a matter that requires careful consideration. Do you think R. Haim Leib, the head of the Yeshiva, will give his lesson three times at the Yeshiva and R. Haim Zalman, the rabbi, only twice, or perhaps vice versa...?"

You must bear in mind that the rabbi was paid by the Yeshiva. At the time, the town was committed to inviting each of the Yeshiva students to dinner on Shabbat and festive meals. Rich and poor students alike were invited, so as not to humiliate the poor. Almost every house maintained this commitment and welcomed the Yeshiva students into their houses. A few were guests at the same household for years and became part of the family. But this debate trickled into the Yeshiva and sometimes fights broke out.

Despite all this rancor, it should be noted that both sides took care not to offend the rabbis or insult them. Indeed, the rabbis were accorded all the proper honors. I remember that once Baruch the carpenter a tall, broad shouldered man (he always played the role of Haman in the Purimspiel) walked into my mother's house. She belonged to the black camp and he, of course, to the white. He said to her: "Sarah, I washed Rabbi Haim Zalman at the bath house and dressed him. What do you have to say about that?" To which she replied: "That's as it should be, just like Haman and Mordechai." He wasn't insulted, since he knew she was only joking.

In the end the two sides grew weary, and rabbis came from far and wide - including the brilliant Rabbi Eisel of Slonim (8) - and they settled the matter. Rabbi Haim Zalman kept his post and the maggid who was brought over to be the rabbi was reimbursed and sent on his way. The whole issue was resolved peacefully.

But then the controversy between the Zionists and their opponents broke out. The latter said: "Don't push the end of days." And would recite the legend about the tribe of Ephraim who tried to leave Egypt before the time had come and were subsequently lost forever. We adduced our own proof from the exodus, arguing that it occurred before its time, as it is written: "And they were slaves... 400 years,"(9) and according to the Midrash the exodus took place much sooner than planned since the Children of Israel were about to enter into the Fifty Gates of Impurity. Thus God hurried and took them out of Egypt before the allotted time. In the same fashion we need to hurry before the assimilationists, on the one hand, and the heretical Jews, on the other, sink to the Fiftieth Gate of Impurity. To this they would reply: "What good is your plan? You're hopping out of the frying pan and into the fire. After all, the Jews of Palestine themselves break the Sabbath and eat all manner of unkosher food and profane the land with their idolatrous ways." These allegations," we replied, "are completely unproven and may be slander put out by the clerks charged with distributing the Appeal funds, the same clerks who take the finest cut for themselves while to the good and honest people - for whom the contributions are intended from the start - they leave nothing but the bones." To this they would say: "If God doesn't look over a house, the watchman labors for naught; we must rely on the Almighty." Yes," we replied, "we will do nothing without God. But remember, the verse says 'And I shall bless you in all you do' and the Midrash adds: 'only if you do something will the blessing of God be upon you." Thus the debate dragged on, each side finding prooftexts to buttress his own position. Unfortunately, the hotter heads prevailed, and the debate became an out and out conflict.

After the big fire(10) in Mir many of the rich and well established citizens left the town. The fighting died down and the Zionist work progressed well. True, the Mir colony in Palestine never did materialize, but Reb Shmuel Gorodeiski and a few others intended to make aliyah. Gorodeisky had received some land from the government in the days of Nicolai I, and he offered it to Jews to cultivate it. I was very surprised when once I went to market and after all the farmers had left saw Yitzhak(11), the son of Reb Shmuel, standing with a pitchfork and gathering the droppings of the farmers' horses. With my own eyes I saw an important young man, the son of a respected Jewish landlord, doing this "despised" work in public, as though he were some Prussian goy.

I was shocked by the courage he displayed in not worrying about "what will the community say." I shook his callused hands and offered him a heartfelt blessing. I thought to myself: If the very idea of Eretz Yisrael is enough to bring about such a revolution in the soul of a person, how much more powerful is Eretz Yisrael itself?

Gorodeisky and a few others did make aliyah(12) and were very successful. They were among the founders of Rehovot (13).


Notes from translator Patrick Gordis


(1). Excerpted from Reshumot; me'asef le-divre zikhronot, le-etnografyah
ule-folklor be-yis'ra'el
. Tel-Aviv. (1953) v.5, p. 301-303. The title in Hebrew Dampim mi-tokh sefer zikhronotai (literally, Pages from my Memoirs)] seems to imply that this may have been excerpted from a longer memoir, but I never found anything else by this author in print.

(2). Died 1861. For biography, see Sefer Mir (J-salem, 1962), p. 137-142. On descendents, see entry for Israel Isaacson, Ohole Shem (Pinsk, 1912), p. 306. See also, piece by Ben-Zion Eisenstadt in the Hebrew newspaper, ha-Tsefirah (1899, no. 265).

(3). Shmuel Gorodeisky mentioned near the beginning and also at the end of the memoir lived from 1835-1916. He was born in Mir and died in Rehovot. He went to settle in Rehovot in 1890, so one presumes that the reports he wrote from Mir to the conservative Hebrew newspaper, ha-Magid, must have been written in the 1880s sometime after the Pogroms of 1881 gave birth to Russian Zionism and to emigration en masse. For his biography, see Entsiklopediyah le-halutse ha-yishuv u-vonav (Tidhar, David ed.), vol. 5, p. 2098-99.

(4). Rabbi Peretz the Dayan lectured at the Mir Yeshiva. For droll reminiscences of him from a former student of the Mir Yeshiva, see Masliansky's Memoirs, p. 55-56 & p. 84-85 (New York, 1924 -- In Yiddish; Hebrew Edition, New York, 1929). See also the memoirs of two other students of the Mir Yeshiva, both of whom later became well-known Yiddish writers, Joseph Rolnick, who describes the study table named for Rav Peretz in the old Yeshiva, p. 70 (New York, 1954 -- in Yiddish) and Nachum Meir Shaikewitz, who describes boarding with other students in Mir at Peretz's house, p. 51-52 (published posthumously in Hebrew under title, Shire shomer ve-zikhronotav, Jerusalem, 1952).

(5). 2 Samuel, 1:20

(6). Shachor means "Black" or "Schwartz" in Hebrew. "Shachor" would have been the true name, the Hebrew name, the "Zionist" name and Schwartz would have been the common or official name. To research this family, for example, I would guess that in any surviving records in Mir, the family was listed as "Schwartz" but considered themselves to be "Shachor" and as far as any were well known in religious circles or wrote any Hebrew books, they would have been "Shachor" in that context.

(7). For a biography and genealogy of Rabbi Haim Leib Tiktinski, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir see Goldberg, Moshe Leib. Misped tamrurim. Vilna, 1896.

(8). For a biography of Rabbi Eisel of Slonim, see Geonim un gdoylim fun noentn ovar, compiled by H. Lunsky, p. 65-86 (Vilna, 1931).

(9). Genesis 15:13

(10). There were a number of fires in Mir, but the great fire appears to have taken place in the summer of 1898 (cf. Sefer Mir, p.513 ff). This would seem to be later than the rest of the story, as Shemuel Gorodeisky left Mir in 1890 and his son in 1895. There was also a well-known Yiddish fictional story based on this fire which appeared in the journal Shriften (Warsaw, 1912).

(11). Yitzak, was the son of Rabbi Shmuel Gorodeisky. He was born in Mir in 1864 (or maybe 1860), moved to the land of Israel in 1895 and died in Jerusalem in 1912. For his biography, see Entsiklopediyah le-halutse ha-yishuv u-vonav (Tidhar, David ed.), vol. 11, p. 3756.

(12). The Gorodeisky family departure ("last supper") from Mir to the land of Israel is recorded in the memoir of Noach Mishkowsky,  Mayn lebn un mayne rayzes (Mexico, 1947), p. 25 (vol. 1)


(13). On the founding of Rehovot in 1889/1890 and the contribution of Gorodeisky and other families from Mir, see especially the 60th jubilee book in Hebrew, Rehovot : shishim shenot ·hayeha, 650-710 (1950).

Updated March 2005

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