(Extracts from Shlomo, Reb Chaim's)
It is historical fact. You can still see in a cone shape on the mountain, surrounded below by rampart the castle ruins which are still visible, silent witnesses to its past richness and glory.
It is a sad fact that the princely residence in Kopyl became the jail for Slutsk District, Minsk Province. The castle mountain that had once been so lively, full of passion and richness has now become a playground for schoolboys on Saturdays.
It was in this condition that I found Kopyl in 1840, where I was lucky to enter the world.
I met this shtetl of wooden buildings covered with straw or shingles and overgrown with moss. The first time I really looked at it, I was left me with an oppressive feeling, but with time I became used to it and also came to love the beautiful area, the mountain, fruitful fields, meadows and hilly forests.
Kopylites in general were great optimists; even fires rarely broke out there. During my childhood, around 1845, I was a witness to a fire that destroyed half the shtetl, and in 1865 there was another fire that burned down almost the entire shtetl.
What the Kopylites were most proud of was their struggle and defense against Hasidism that spread a shulkhan arukh way of life.
In this struggle they were the victors. When the Hasidim gathered in their shtibl to pray or talk together and tell about the great wonders of their sage, the Kopylites immediately took out their drums and beat them loudly with venom so the Hasidim could not pray or talk. That is how the Kopylites stopped them and the shtibl remained closed forever.
At that time there were about 3,000 people in Kopyl from three different populations, beliefs and groups: Jews, White Russians and Tatars. The three groups were different from each other in language, customs and beliefs. Even their history represented three different worlds, and still they lived a peaceful, quiet life together.
They were inevitably united as neighbors and in their economic interests. There was no enmity between them because they had no reason to be jealous of one another. It was difficult for all them to make a living, and because their businesses were different, there was no competition between them. The groups communicated by fulfilling the needs of each other and paying for these services.
The Jews, who made of up the majority of the population, were storekeepers, selling bread, wood, flax, and various other products that they would buy in the fall from the peasants at the market.
During the winter they traveled by sled to Stoybts on the Nieman to sell their products to the rich merchants who would then send them on to Konigsberg and Memel. All the storekeepers and bread sellers dealt in small sums of money because there was not a large source of money in Kopyl. Thus, there were a lot of traders, and the competition between them was fierce.
Others were busy selling beverages and tavern fare. Some were wagon drivers, teachers, and artisans. There were a large number of artisans. Many of them could not find work in the shtetl so they traveled to the villages and worked there.
There were about fifteen Tatar families in the shtetl. They were gardeners. They peacefully did their work, were by nature clean, and stuck close to the Jews. The White Russians worked in the fields and as weavers.
The shtetl and surrounding area then belonged to Count Wittgenstein, Prince Radziwill's heir, and all the houses stood on royal land. So, as the income from working the fields was not sufficient to live on, the Christians took jobs during the winter weaving white linen that was needed and used by Jewish women. Jewish merchants ordered the goods, furnished the raw material, paid the workers weekly, and sold it at the fair in Zelva. Kopyl linen and especially Kopyl veil were famous and renown in the Lithuanian market places.
The above-mentioned groups settled separately from each other:
Christians and Muslims were on the side streets on and behind the mountain. The Jews took the best part of the shtetl on the highest part of the mountain where the marketplace was located. This included the street where the synagogue courtyard was located. All the special Jewish religious and community institutions were there. Occupying such a respected place with its large Jewish population who carried on such lively commerce, Kopyl gave the impression of a clean Jewish community.
Photograph: Leywik Feker and his wife Roza
The Synagogue courtyard was in the old style. The walls were fantastically painted with symbolic figures taken from the chapters of the Tanakh [Old Testament, Five Books of Moses]. The cemetery was located right at the shul. In the shul one would find the highly esteemed Ber'ke Chazan [Cantor], tall, handsome, with a black beard, black eyes, and a sweet, sonorous voice. As his salary did not provide a living wage, he worked as a shochet [ritual slaughterer]. He also had a distinctive calligrapher's handwriting and was knowledgeable in Jewish religious and State law. Thus he also served as a writer. People would turn to him to have written various proshenyes [petitions], contracts and wills. He was responsible for writing about people and events in Kopyl's Pinkus [Jewish community record book of important events].
The besmedresh was used for prayer, mainly by the middle class. The besmedresh was also used as a general meeting hall, as the Talmud Torah [a school, free of charge, for orphans] and kootoozke [jail], with iron doors and iron bars on the windows. In this building recruits were held under guard until they were sent to provincial capitals as soldiers.
Not far from the besmedresh, in the shul courtyard was the rabbi's house, always open to everybody. Men and women would come here to have questions about rituals clarified. Others came for advice or with accusations. As Kopyl did not have a courthouse, the Christians took care of their own differences with fistfights or made peace in the tavern over a drink. But all Jewish money and family conflicts, as well as other business, was taken care of through the rabbi's court of justice. Everyone had full confidence in the rabbi's court, even Christians in their conflicts with Jews. The rabbi heard the accuser and sent his beadle to call the accused. This person would come immediately (nobody refused to come). Both sides sat down at the table and gave their accounts. A short time later the decision was given, and it was carried out without the help of the police. The rabbi's authority was that strong.
The kloyz was the only stone building in the shtetl and served also as a prayer house for Kopyl's scholars, Orthodox Jews, and philanthropists. These were honest Jews, with strong principles who kept their word and were respected by the townspeople. Dressed in black satin kapotes [long, black coats worn by Orthodox Jews in Poland] with collars and shtreimels [round fur hats worn by Orthodox Jews] on their heads, they made a great impression on everyone. They were known as the handsome, silk men.
The kloyz was used as a sort of reading room, or a school for grown young men, where they, leaving all business and worries to their wives, were busy after morning prayers or after evening services. Each one was busy either with a page of gemore [the part of the Talmud that comments on the Mishnah ] with a chapter of mishnayes [six volume set of the Mishnah which is post biblical laws and rabbinic discussions of the 2nd century B.C. and forms part of the Talmud], or with an Ein Yankev [well-known collection of stories from the Talmud]. The kloyz also served as a sort of club: The men would gather around the oven to discuss everything: religion, world affairs, politics and personal questions.
At first the Kopylites were afraid that, cause of his good-heartedness, Reb Chaim'ke would not be able to lead a government that demanded strength and, in certain cases, ruthlessness. But their fears were unfounded. Reb Chaim'ke took the government in hand, and, when necessary he set aside his politeness and became stronger and more heartless.
Also standing there at the eastern wall is a tall man with a lined face and silver hair. He is my uncle, Reb Layzer'ke the son of my late grandfather, Rabbi Ziskind who had been a rabbi in Kopyl. My uncle inherited his father's shtreimel, fox coat, orthodoxy, and his great knowledge of Talmud. At earning a living, he was good for nothing. He served as a judge in the rabbinic court, was a teacher, and in certain circumstances also a marriage broker. But from all these professions, he did not see many blessings. He appeared skinny and pale, but held his head high, and his eyes shone with pride with the knowledge that he fulfilled his religious duties honestly. But he grieved and his voice was full of tension, so tormented was he by Jewish pain in a word his troubles poured out while he prayed.
He prayed, screamed, and clapped his hands making the bitter sound of protest. In his prayers I always heard: Truthfully, My G-d, what do you do in your world? You offered your Torah to the seventy peoples of the world and none of them wanted to take on such a burden; but we willingly agreed and carry out the sacred six hundred thirteen laws and thousands of other oral commandments where s the reward for all this? Like sheep we are led to the slaughter where is justice?
My poor uncle! He never made peace with the Diaspora.
Reb Leyb'ke ha-Kodesh [the holy man], a man of medium height, with a blond beard, a yellow complexion and a high forehead, at the top of which was a knob. He specialty was Kabbalah [a Jewish mystical philosophy] and his favorite book was the Zokhar [holiest, mystical book of Kabbalah] in which he was always searching to learn the hidden secrets of the Torah and raise the level of his wonderful riches.
About anxiety, Reb Leyb'ke knew nothing. He owned his own house on the market place and his wife was a wonderful, capable woman: she discovered a drink of an indefinite color and the taste-not quite beer, not quite kvass [a fermented drink]. The Kopylites called it unter beer [under beer]. The Kopylites knew him as a generous man. On Shabes, after a salty, satisfying lunch, long lines of men, women and children went to Leybke's house to refresh themselves with this famous drink.
Leybke's wife did not work on Shabes, but allowed everyone to ladle from the barrel without measuring how much each one had taken. The price was well known: a groschen [penny] for each portion-no money changed hands. Everyone was known and was given credit. Everybody paid. This is why Leybke was able to give his time to Kabbalah. Kopylites did not think his undertaking was important and many laughed at him.
The keen minded Nach Hasles gave him the name ha-Kodesh and Leybke waited for an event when everyone would be convinced of his wonderful, sacred, secret craft. It came about in 1853 during the war with Turkey and the Crimea, a difficult, bitter time. Taxes were demanded with merciless strictness. Military divisions passing through the shtetl would throw people out of their houses and take it over. Men were often drafted into the army. In truth, they were captured. Then Leybke put his heart into searching for the ketz [the end of time, messiah's coming]. And he found it in Psalms 4th verse chapter 126, Like streams [returning] to the Negev desert-according to the first letters: after the death of Alexander Pavlowitz, Constantine will reign several days. During the days of Nicholas redemption will come.
Leybke's discovery spread throughout Lithuania and people waited with joy for redemption. But the joy did not last long. That year Nicholas I died and Leybke's ketz came to naught. Beaten, embittered and disappointed with himself, he died shortly thereafter.
Close by is Reb Leyzor Yankel, a tall man with long hands, whom nature insulted by not giving him a beard. He would nibble, tear and pinch his chin, in vain. Despite his efforts there was no sign of a beard. Therefore he had long, thick ear-locks that he would put in his mouth and chew especially when he was thinking or studying. A sagacious man, he knew how to move mountains, turn white into black and black into white. His brain worked well. He knew that his accomplishments had no real significance. It was art for the sake of art. Reb Leyzor Yankel was an artist, a painter who lived in the Talmudic sea and built castles in the sky.
Unmarried young men and those living away from their wives in order to study also studied in the Kloyz. When a young man appeared with a bundle on his shoulder, he would be surrounded, made welcome and provided with days. [Students from other towns would eat in private homes, one day here, one day there, but generally only a few days a week.] When a young man had a place to eat, enough candles and books, a place to sleep in the kloyz on a hard bench, what else could he want?
They studied aloud and diligently, with great success.
The young men lived peaceably together and helped each other.
When a dispute broke out, a sort of fight about the meaning of something, or a course of debate in Talmud and in commentaries; it would start quietly and then became a tumult. Every debater had to show his brilliance, quickness, dialectic, logic, even sophism. Others joined the dispute, taking one side or the other. In one word: it was transformed into a war between two sides. It became noisy and tumultuous; seeing the chance of victory, people quickly changed from one side to the other, until one of the debaters gave in and were beaten by his opponent's arguments.
The yeshiva young men who were not Kopyl residents sooner or later married Kopyl daughters, and became sons-in-law for Kopylites. They served as the nucleus of the scholars. These young men, furnished with kest [room and board provided by the father-in-law so that the son-in-law could continue studying] at their father in-law's home, would often have to search for a position as a rabbi, a Hebrew teacher, or other religious profession in distant regions (in Podolia, Volyn, Novorosaysk region) where the knowledge of Talmud was not wide spread.
But the library did not have modern literature such as the Berliner which originated in the 18th century in Berlin, and continued after in Galicia and in Russia. This was considered a forbidden book, but it soon arrived in Kopyl secretly smuggled in.
In Kopyl there were a lot of small, private libraries. Everyone had procured books according to their tastes. A bookcase with a full set of Shas [six books that make up a set of Talmud], bound in red leather beautified every Jewish house like diamonds and earrings for a wife. In case of need, it could be sold, or pawned. If worse came to worst, it could be used as a daughter's dowry.
The women had their own libraries for spiritual development and their particular needs. These were mainly Yiddish books, as women were not taught Hebrew. Mostly, these were books of a religious nature such as the Tzenerene , the Five Books of Moses with legends [translated into Yiddish], Menoyres Hamoer [Bright Candlesticks], instructive stories from Agadah [ethical part of the Talmud] and Midrash [body of post-Talmudic literature of Biblical exegesis]. There were also books of a historical nature such as Gdules Yosef.
There were also secular books, translated from other languages, such as Bobe Mayse (Bava Karalevitz), Thousand and One Nights etc. In forty years there were from time to time various biographies and humorous stories by talented writers such as the father of the new Jewish literature A. A. Dick, a strong supporter of Hebrew literature. Thanks to Dick, this literature was available to a lot of readers. At the beginning the readers were simple Jews and women, earnest Jews, with a smile they would think of their wives and daughters who pursued funny stories, but the youngsters soon understood that the writer did not mean to be only funny and read them with interest.
Erudite Kopylites were not friendly with the poor-the artisans, coachmen, etc. A learned Kopylite would not arrange a marriage with an artisan for such a thing would have brought shame to the family.
I would often hear my mother say, Thank God there aren't any rogues or artisans in our family.
The aristocrats had all the respected positions and places in the synagogue, leaving the bank bench near the door for the common folk. The artisans left and built a separate building and felt exactly like the aristocrats: they bought Torah scrolls, had their own trustees and their own rabbi who explained and taught them. Unfortunately the richer aristocratic tailors took over the management of the shul and insulted their fellow tradesmen and gave them lesser seats. This brought about quarrels and even fights. So the latter had to search for another place to pray.
Yudel was a shoemaker and lived from his labor; he did not receive a salary from the community. Even the hammer that was usually used to hammer nails into boots belonged to him. The only use and right Yudel had was to take part in weddings, betrothals, circumcisions and to gather donations for tasteful purposes. They made allowances for Yudel because of his sedateness, his strong hands and feet, and his pleasant voice.
Having the same person call the men to pray and bathe gave the bathhouse status. It was located in the same place as the mikvah [ritual bath used by women], which gave the place a religious character. Also for the men it was customary to take a steam bath and wash every Friday in preparation for welcoming the Sabbath Queen.
The Kopyl bathhouse was the property of the community and was rented for ten Polish zlotys (one ruble and 50 kopecks). This money paid the rabbi's salary. It was an old, blackened, bent building, with many posts and supports and always looked as if it was about to collapse. As it wanted to draw importance from its existence, it continued, during my twenty years in Kopyl, aside from Fridays and Shabes, to serve as a candle factory, where Finke the bath attendant made cheap candles. It also served as the almshouse for the poor, old, and sick, and also as a place to sleep for poor travelers. The price for a bath was set at two Polish groschen per person, a high price, but Kopylites were not stingy and as soon as they heard the klapper's voice shouting Jews, to the bathhouse! they all left their businesses and went to bathe.
On Friday Kopyl wives did not feed their husband until sundown. This was done, first of all, so that the husbands would have a proper appetite at dinner shabes evening. Secondly and mainly, the wives did not have the time. From Thursday on, with the daughters, the women toiled, without sleeping the entire night. Not by choice, but from fear that they would not have finished preparing by sundown. The women were nervous and edgy, so the men thought it would be smarter and better to be somewhere else and not underfoot. And the best place for them to be was the bathhouse. And they stayed there until dusk, steamed, washed, whipped themselves and each other with brooms and at intervals sat on the benches-aristocrats in front and the common people behind, just as in shul. They talked about politics, the news of the day, and tried to be witty and smart. My uncle, Reb Layzer'ke, after washing would go to the barber-surgeon's space where he had his head shaved and had cut, cupping glasses put on his head and back. Although Reb Layzer'ke was white as a sheet, he was convinced that one of the causes of his illness (there were seven in all) was in his blood. In any case he liked to have his blood let. Twice a month he would go through this. According to his custom, not only was water poured at the bathhouse, but also blood.
Finke the bathhouse attendant was a versatile, distinguished man. Besides being the bath attendant he was the manager of the candle factory, the gravedigger and a badkhn [entertainer at a wedding, specializing in humorous and sentimental semi-improvised rhymes]. He was an excellent badkhn. Before a young couple was led to the chuppah [wedding canopy] he told them about ethics and indicated the important significance of their new life. He also told them that they must not devote themselves to joy and comfort because life is a temporary matter. When the young couples were orphans, he did not forget to remind them about their dead parents, indicating that a person is like a flower in the field. Today it grows, blooms and tomorrow-see, it is withered!. He said this with feeling and everyone was in tears.
But when the couple and the guests sat down at the table full of food and drink, Finke changed and became a joker and a juggler. He sought to bring joy, to amuse everyone, and drinking one glass after another, he was in ecstasy, sang folk songs, told happy stories, anecdotes, jokes, epigrams, and puns. He cracked jokes about the silk men, the rich, and the rabbis, and all this was expressed in verse. With his hands he divided his face in two. One side laughed, the other cried; showing his two professions as badkhn and gravedigger.
There was no other authority in Kopyl, which was far from the beaten path, other than the Police Commissioner. The higher authorities did not look into anything there. The character of the ruler was independent. Under this kind of authority it was not possible to differentiate the saddened population, especially for the Jews. Expressed by the noted A.M. Dik: Every Jew can go the hospital, put on a gown, lie in bed-and the doctor will examine him and certainly find something wrong with him. In the same way a policeman can collar him and drag him to the District, and they will find out that the Jew had committed some offense. In Russia there were many laws and for Jews many more.
These were not good times-the era of Nicholai's evil decrees, one after the other, terrifying and unbearable.
Zdroyevsky, the Police Commissioner, was tall, and had broad shoulders. He spoke Polish and bad Russian, and he would scold mainly in Russian and only in a correct manner. The Kopylites were convinced that the devil was not as terrible as men made him out to be. One morning a drum was heard at the market place, which meant a new evil decree. The Police Commissioner arrived and announced that Jews must dress in ordinary clothing. They must not wear beards and ear-locks. The women are not allowed to shave their head and wear wigs.
The Jews claimed that these were conversion decrees. They prayed, decreed a fast, but, alas, without success. The rural police would catch prominent Jews, drag them to the district police and without ceremony would cut up their kapotes, shave their beards, and cut their ear-locks to the root. Bonnets and wigs were torn off respectable women in the street.
A delegation presented itself to the Police Commissioner and he put a stop to this business.
The rural police ceased to rage. For those who had their kapotes cut up, they had new ones made and the beards, ear-locks grew with time, and everything was as it was before. The Police Commissioner lived in harmony with the Jews. On Shabes he would go to someone's house to drink a couple of glasses of wine or schnapps, snack on fish, and never said no to a Jewish cholent [casserole of meat, potatoes and vegetables served on the Sabbath, kept warm overnight in the baker's oven].
He did not pay particular attention to the business of hygiene and building plans. People built as they wished and where they desired. The slaughterhouse was located in the center of the market place. Terrible bellowing was heard from the animals being slaughtered. Blood flowed and terrible odors spread and remained in the air until it rained and the smells were carried away with the storm water.
The road from Kopyl to Slutsk was a difficult one when coming down the mountain. On rainy days there were terrible obstacles. The drivers had to keep their heads when going to the city with wagons. In order to descend, men had to be very careful and courageous. The peasants would often break their wagons and injure the horses. This hazard was accepted as a natural thing, just like thunder and lightening or an earthquake. There was nothing they could do-they were helpless.
The investigator is coming to the shtetl. His visit brings fear to everyone. Only the Police Commissioner is advised of his arrival. A storekeeper says: Why are you terrified, what are you afraid of? We do not deal in contraband. A big deal-an investigator! Reb Chaim'ke looks at him, grabs him by the beard and yells: And this is not contraband?
In the meantime Zdroyevsky tries to restore calm. The investigator is a good friend, even a distant relative. He will go easy and it will not be expensive. He advises them not to look him in the eyes.
On the day the investigator arrived, there were only young women in the stores and streets. The older Jews were sitting at home, and the young children were not allowed out from school. The investigator, accompanied by the Police Commissioner, visited the stores. He ate a good lunch at the Police Commissioner's in the company of the priest and clergy. The Jewish representative was Reb Chaim'ke. On the second day the investigator left and the storm was over.
Six Hebrew Words.
The Jewish population in Kopyl was very poor. Artisans and peddlers worked with a capitol of 50 to 100 rubles and barely made a living. Many residents left for other places to search for work and left behind the family at the mercy of God and help from goodhearted people. Forty or fifty lucky people (those who were counted among Kopyl's bosses, storekeepers, who worked with 500 to 1000 rubles) had to carry not only the expenses for all the community institutions but also had to help the poor. In all the Lithuanian Jewish communities around 20% of the population were poverty stricken. They had to pay all the taxes for the religious and community institutions. There were many more taxes than just those for the general government. Provincial and state taxes were levied, especially for Jews, on items like candles and boilers. The military recruits ate up a lot of money. It was necessary to support the secret agents and guards and feed the recruits until they were turned over to the military. The Kahal was always in need of money. Community and religious expenses were covered by the meat tax on kosher meat, but it was never sufficient, so the Kahal had a monopoly on various products such as candles or yeast and this brought in a certain yearly income.
In order to enforce local buying, if people got their products from other villages it meant excommunication.
The text of the excommunication was terrifying. The offender was cursed in this world and in every world, separated from the community and the synagogue. The excommunication was strong and terrible. It was forbidden to have any contact with an excommunicated person, and he could not receive help. The ban on a certain person was announced in the synagogue with extraordinary ardor. The rabbi, surrounded by his helpers, would make the announcement near the Holy Ark from which the Torah scrolls had been brought out. Black wax candles were burned and the shofar [ram's horn] was blown.
A grandson printed Rabbi Lipman's remarks on the Talmud with the title Holy Commentaries or Holy Yom Tov. It was very popular in the rabbinic world.
During his life Reb Yom Tov did not publish his interpretations and did not care to compete for a rabbinate in one of the better, first class communities in Lithuania. He spent his entire life serving the poor community of Kopyl.
He gave his entire being over to the study of Torah, far from worldly pleasures. He would be home only on Shabes and holidays. The rest of the time he spent in the kloyz in a corner behind the oven (that remained holy and historic from that time on). He ate, slept, studied, took care of religious and community affairs and wrote his interpretations there.
According to his grandson and the Kapulier Pinkus:
After the death of the last Vilna Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel, the Vilna Kehilla [Jewish Community Council] selected Reb Yom Tov as the next Vilna rabbi. A group of well-known Vilners came to Kopyl with the news that he had been chosen as the Vilna rabbi. Arriving in Kopyl, the delegation did not meet him in the rabbi's house. The rabbi's wife did not want to call him in order not to disturb his studies. The messengers had to wait until Shabes when Reb Yom Tov would be at home.
Having found out what the Vilners wanted, Rabbi Yom Tov called a meeting after Shabes with the Kopylites and let them know that his salary of 35 groschen a week was not enough. In order to stay he would need a small raise or he would have to go to Vilna. This information grieved the Kopylites. On one hand, it would hurt them to be separated from their great rabbi, and on the other hand, where would they find the money to give the rabbi a raise?
As both sides were dear to each other, they found a solution. The rabbi was given an increase of one and a half groschen and he stayed in Kopyl.
Not long after his death-as written in the Pinkas-Reb Yosele Peimer was invited to be a Rabbi in Slutsk. He was known as Rabbi Yosele Slutsker.
On the way to Slutsk, he spent a Shabes in Kopyl where he heard about one of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman's pronouncements. He was astonished by Rabbi Yom Tov's profound knowledge and wisdom. Rabbi Yosele said that if in Kopyl, almost a suburb of Slutsk, there is such a prominent learned man, he would not dare be a rabbi in Slutsk. When he was told that Rabbi Yom Tov was already dead, Reb Yosele remarked: In that case I will go to Slutsk. I am not afraid of the dead.
The rabbinical chair, after Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman's death was taken over by Rabbi Ber, who was greatly esteemed by the Kopylites for his ideas and his holy way of living. He was taken with the Rambam and led his life according to that codex, not taking any notice of the recent rabbinic authorities. Something amazing happened after his death. Mendelssohn's writings were found in his library and so a mystery remained for the Kopyl Jews.
During his youth, Rabbi Ber was a private teacher of the well-known Ivanitsker, the rich man Shmuel Eliasberg, a fervent follower of Rabbi Moshe Ben Poress, known by the name Menashe Ilier (his book Elpi Menashe was burnt in the Vilna synagogue courtyeard).
In Eliasberg's home Rabbi Ber was absorbed in the Torah by the Reformers. On becoming the Kopyl rabbi, he held strongly to the morals of Rabbi Menashe in his personal life and endeavored to alleviate the yoke of the law. As for his own perspective about many areas of religious life, he discussed this only with his young students.
Reb Ber's students, who later were employed throughout Lithuania as rabbis, Hebrew teachers, etc., spread his teachings everywhere. Kopylites were suspicious of them, calling them Rabbi Ber's society.
After his death my grandfather, Rabbi Ziskind, took over the rabbinate. As if he were still alive, I see this old, wise man standing in front of me. The entire time he struggled to throw off the appearance of the Kopyl rabbi and lived the poor life of an ordinary Kopylite.
In his youth my grandfather was a businessman and gave most of his time to studying Torah. The community paid attention to him and he was greatly esteemed. After Rabbi Ber died, he was invited to take over the rabbinate and did not change his lifestyle. He was friendly with everyone, did not lecture anyone, and sought only the good in everyone. He was very tolerant when it came to beliefs.
Rabbi Ziskind's oldest son-in-law, Rabbi Elia Goldberg (later the Bobruisk rabbi), distinguished himself with his ideas. For several years he lived in Vilna, without his wife in order to study, and studied with the Gaon's students. When he returned to Kopyl, everyone remarked that he had changed. First of all he had given a lot of time to studying musar and secondly he had brought an atlas written in German from Vilna, which he loved to look at. It seemed strange, but there was nothing suspicious about his religiosity. However, a scandal quickly broke out.
Yom Kippur, when Kopyl Jews sat in the synagogue and prayed, Reb Elia left the kloyz and did not return. The young men went looking for him. They searched a long time and finally found him at the poor house (where the sick lived).
There stood Reb Elienke. He chopped wood and put it in the oven and cooked soup for the sick. One can imagine the how surprised these people were. They called him an apostate, left quickly to go back to the kloyz and told what they had seen. The last person to hear about it said: It is a shame that the young people know better than their elders about how to spend a holy day! Rabbi Ziskind's authority worked and calmed everybody down. They did not talk about and discuss this for long.
There would be essen teg [eating days, free board by days in several houses] at strangers' tables, only they would not be in Kopyl where everyone knew me, but in Slutsk where all the young boys who came to study from far off towns were doing the same.
Besides, Slutsk was famous for its yeshivas. I hoped that in Slutsk my studies would open possibilities for me.
I traveled the forty versts [former Russian measure of distance, about .66 of a mile] from Kopyl to Slutsk with my friend Noach, a boy my age. We traveled by wagon, crushed in with other passengers who were traveling to Slutsk on business. The scenery over the forty versts was beautiful but it is not necessary for me to describe it because our great zayde [grandfather], Mendele has already described it so masterfully in his book. I will immediately continue with the Slutsk situation and my personal survival there.
My friend Nach and I reached the kloyz [study house] together.
The kloyz was renown. It was not only a yeshiva where young men rocked over an open gemore [Hebrew gemore, part of the Talmud that comments on the Mishnah (post-biblical laws and rabbinical discussions of the 2nd century B.C.E.)] night and day. It was also a sort of reserve station for all those who needed a place to lay their heads.
In order to be provided with days people had to come to Reb Israel who was in charge of the accounts for all the householders who had given certain days to the yeshiva boys from other towns. The yeshiva boys did not get days from Reb Israel just like that without any reason.
For every day that Reb Israel granted, for the semester the yeshiva boy had to pay him fifty kopecks in cash. In order for a student to be given all seven days of the week for the semester, he had to pay Reb Israel a ruble and five kopecks. And when a boy did not possess such a sum, nothing good came of it.
Therefore a boy that had a little cash was able to buy more than seven days.
So, the story was that not every day was an eating day. There were also some that we, the young boys, called mezumene [cash, money].
The latter were at women's stores who did not have the time to prepare a meal at home for the yeshiva boys, so they received the boys in the store and gave them several kopecks with which to buy their food.
With these days Reb Israel had a good business. I was able to get nine days. Seven eating and two cash. The latter two that cost thirty kopecks gave us better value for the money.
Once in a while there was a little trouble. This would happen when a storekeeper decided to go home and cook a meal for the family and for the yeshiva boy. In such a case the student ate two meals and consoled himself by praying twice that day, for which he would obtain double merit in the world to come.
Sleeping in the kloyz was not bad when there were no nuisances with the crazies.
There were a lot of crazies in Slutsk who would get together there from the entire area. They could be seen in the streets, heard in the market place cursing the bosses, and at night at least one of them found a resting place in the kloyz.
It was a difficult semester for me in Slutsk. I was drowning in the dark, so before the term finished I returned to Kopyl.
At that time I became a Bar Mitzvah boy and suddenly felt a sense of shame
towards eating days. Is this what one is supposed to do with one's
time? So I put an end to it. I went to my Uncle Shimon, who had an iron store
at the market place and who could use my help. The main thing was that I began
to earn my daily bread by working every day in my uncle's iron store, but I
hadn't counted on my Aunt Brayna:
During the week you work for your food, but on Shabes you do not work so why should I feed you? So, Aunt Brayna was right and I celebrated Sabbaths in hunger.
In the evening hours I studied in the besmedresh [house of study, synagogue, meeting hall] under the supervision of Reb Shlomo Shvitzitzer.
Reb Shlomo Shvitzitzer was a modern Jew. When he studied a page of gemore with us poor boys his voice was loud, but as soon as he finished the lesson, nobody heard a sound from him, as if he was a mute.
And not only did he lose his voice, but he carried himself with a great sorrow as one who has been left defeated. He was tall and thin and wandered around alone like a stranger. For some time I was unable to understand what the reason was and felt bad for him.
People called him Shvitzitzer because he came to Kopyl from the nearby village of Shvizitz where he had lived for a long time with his wife, four sons and an only daughter. He was a tenant farmer in the villages.
Being a Jewish scholar he taught his children Yiddishkeit [Judaism] and was happy when a Jew strayed to him and he was able to perform a good deed by giving him a place to stay. On holidays he came to the shtetl just like all the tenant farmers in the area. He hoped, God willing, to arrange marriages for his children as God commanded. But suddenly a great misfortune struck, and it broke him entirely.
His only daughter, who was the apple of his eye, fell in love with a neighboring peasant's son and there was no saving her. He left Shvizitz with the family and settled in the Kopyl besmedresh when a priest married his daughter to the man she loved in church. To this day I cannot forget Reb Shlomo Shvitzitzer.
These young men had been brought from other places, mostly from Bialystok, for Fayvel Riplis's tannery that at that time grew to be a large enterprise.
The air in Kopyl was full of words like Socialism, strike, bourgeois and others. There were songs like Shvester un Brider [Sisters and Brothers], Az es falt, falt der Bester [It so happens, the best fall] and Baruch Shulman Der Groyser Held [Baruch Shulman the Great Hero]. In short, Kopyl had suddenly and unnoticed been given a good shaking.
I felt a strong pull towards Zionist ideals.
At the same time with the new speeches and songs from the young men who were brought to Kopyl, one also heard speeches and songs about Israel.
The main speaker was the Jewish apothecary in Kopyl who wrote for the daily Hebrew newspaper from Vilna HaZman. Every day I ran to him to see leaving for Israel was possible.
The subject of Israel for Jews who would return there from Kopyl, from Slutsk and from other towns and villages captured my young heart. So I jointed a youth group that collected money for Zionism.
We said that they should know that we, poor Jews, also stood with them.
At that time we heard the news that there would be a Zionist meeting in Minsk. The city of Minsk grew in my eyes greatly and mightily and it was my dream to go there.
A small matter, Minsk! Minsk began to seem like the greatest center in the world.
All the ideals of Zionism and also Socialism were bubbling up there.
It was said that in Minsk, Jewish sons and daughters refused riches that their rich parents possessed. They went off to fight for the people and for a better and freer world in the form of glory and purity that for me was embodied in the form of the famous revolutionary Gershony.
I was drawn to the large Minsk library where books were free for everybody. It was what had drawn me to Minsk and I began to make plans to reach Minsk.
Once the shtetl had a difference of opinion with the rabbi. Reb Isser said to he rabbi: You are lucky rabbi, that for us you have no face, otherwise I would slap it
Once, before Passover, the rabbi, with the alms collector, went out to collect wheat money [contributions for providing the poor with Passover matzah and cakes]. They went from house to house and from business to business. The Jews gave what they could and from the heart. They gave whatever amount they wanted to and whatever they could afford to give up to a half ruble. The alms collector held a red handkerchief in his hand and whatever amount one had to give, he put into the handkerchief.
They came to a tobacco store in the market place. They went in and the rabbi asked for a package titun [an inferior brand of tobacco]. He filled his pipe and told the alms collector to take money from the handkerchief and pay. The alms collector looked at him and did not understand.
Rabbi, the wheat money?! This is for the Kopyl poor Jews who need matzah for Passover.
The rabbi gave him a look and said:
I am ordering you to pay from the charity money. I know the Kopyl bosses.
Several of them wish that every week they could earn as many rubles as the
rabbi takes from them for wheat money. So I am ordering you to use
this money to pay for my tobacco. I do not want the Kopyl Jews to, God forbid,
tell lies. The community sees they are telling the truth. And they should, with
the help of the Most High, earn every week a thousand times as much.
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