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Kovno looms over Slobodka by Falk Zolf

Kovno looms over Slobodka by Falk Zolf

in English and turns to Yiddish. Falk Zolf's memoir of life in Tsarist
Russia as translated by Martin Green

The Slobodker Yeshiva had its own code of conduct, with its own
special, established rules and statutes, which had to be observed by
everyone, to the dot of an "i". If there should be someone, God
forbid, who refused to go along with the ways of the community - he
would be unceremoniously expelled. Everthing there was done according
to a certain order.....just as in Poland there had once been the "Four
Regional Authorities", who were at the head of a chain of command that
extended throught many smaller "Authorities" .....likewise, it was
done here:

First came the "Rental Authority", who determined the prices for the
rooms, the accomodations, so that God forbid no one should be "taken
to the cleaners". It was a kind of rent controls. He also arbitrated
certain disputes, which would break out from time to time, between the
landladies and their boarders. The "Rental Authority" also concerned
himself, as much as possible, to see that the newcomers should be
placed together with the older residents, so that the older should be
able to "keep an eye" oyf di new arrivals, the youngsters...that they
shouldn't stray from the path of righteousness, not to the left and
not to the right.

The yeshiva also had its own support commitee, a kind of anonymous
charity, which quietly provided assistance to the very poor. To this
end, they had their own bank, a free-loan caisse, which gave out loans
against such securities as watches, books, and other such articles of

Apart from all these well-established instututions, there was one
more, which stood above all the others. This was a kind of "KGB" which
carried on among the yeshiva-boys a quiet, relentless surveillance on
behalf of the director and the supervisor.

For the sake of the town of Slobodka itself, it would have been
unnecessary to have such a "spy-organization"; because the town, which
lay on the banks of the River Vilya, across from the much bigger
Kovno, was a very poor one. Her few thousand residents were for the
most part simple, coarse working-men, who earned their meager
livelihood from hard work on the river, from loading and unloading
barges with merchandise, or from driving log-rafts down the river. In
fact, they drew a significant portion of their livelihood from the
more than one thousand yeshiva boys, who studied there in the three
yeshivas: "Knesset Yisroel", named after Reb Yisroel Salanter (of
blessed memory), which was the largest; "Knesset Beth Isaac", after
the name of the famous Rabbi of Kovno, Reb Isaac Alkhanan Spektor (of
blessed memory); and the smaller "Or Ha-Khayim", or as it was known,
"Reb Hershels Yeshiva" for Zvi Hirsh Levitan. The houses were, for the
most part, small, wooden, and one-storied. The streets and lanes -
short and muddy. It was indeed most fitting that here, in such an
out-of-the-way place, there should be found such great, world-famous
yeshivas. With its combination of so much Torah side by side with such
abject poverty, not to mention the directors loyal agents......the
"evil one" shouldn't have been able to find a place to set foot....

But as though by the hand of Satan, it happened that just across the
river, lay the great City of Kovno, which was a city of beauty, clean,
bright, full of shops packed with all the worldy goods...a city that
didn't have to be ashamed even before those neighboring cities, which
lay, not too far away, on the other side of the border in Germany!
There in Kovno was altogether a different lifestyle...a big-city life,
with all its allures and with all the worldy pleasures.

In Kovno you could also find a fair number of freethinkers writers,
and poets. They had there a beautiful, fine library named after their
beloved fellow townsman, Avraham Mapu, the author of "Ahavot Tzion",
"Ashemet Shomron", etc. And indeed there, on the high Mount Alexoter,
at whose feet flows majestically the River Niemen, which joins
together with the Vilya...there stands the house where the great
Napoleon had his head quarters during the time when he led his heroic
soldiers into Russia...and in the same house, Mapu would later write
his great works, especially "Ahavot Tzion". For him the high Mount
Alexoter was transformed into the Hills of Judea in Ephraim....and
here, where the River Vilya flowed together with the Niemen...here he
saw the Jordan, cutting its way through the Sea of Galillee, as it
winds its way southwards towards the Dead Sea.

In that library, so they said, was the gathering place for the towns
freethinkers, writers, and various other intellectuals. Already more
than one yeshiva-boy had been led inside there, made to stumble, and
come back "damaged goods"....they said that even the supervisor's son
from "Reb Hirshl's Yeshiva" had been drawn inside and led
astray....and become a writer of Yiddish books! His religious father,
the strict Musarnik, had saidk the prayer for the dead, rent his
garments, and sat in mourning....

It was before that "gang", who were always to be found in the Kovno
Library, that "the Old Man", Reb Notte-Hirsh Finkel, the director of
"Knesset Yisroel", lived in deathly fear. He stood vigil day and
night, so that those "good old boys" from the other side of the river,
should God forbid not be able to stretch out their long arms and set a
trap for his charges...he surrounded himself with a close circle of
loyal agents, who were ready, on his orders, to throw themselves in a
lime-oven. These zealous watchers helped him to keep an eye on the
whole youthful community...and God help that unfortunate yeshiva-boy,
who was caught in the act of crossing the threshold of that sinful
library! The "Old Man", Reb Notte-Hirsh, would deal with him
personally...and if he saw that the miscreant was beyond
rehabilitation, he would be unceremoniously expelled from within the
walls of the Slobodka yeshiva.

But basically, despite the strict supervision, we had a certain amount
of contact with secular, worldly knowledge. This was largely on
account of widely-available Yiddish newspapers, over which there was
not such a strict prohibition. Reading them, the yeshiva-boy would
realize that outside the four walls of the "Tents of the Semites and
the Hebrews", there lay a great, wide world, and one was also a part
of her.

There was one case which made a big impression, not only within the
Yeshiva, but also in the city at large. A young boy, by the name of
Motke Kamenetzer (who was actually a fellow townsman, and even
slightly related to me), was the main protagonist of the story:
previously, he had been known as a prodigy, virtually an open head. He
was the pride of the yeshiva...everyone predicted that he would grow
up to be a "great man of Israel". He was indeed the favorite of the
Director and the Head of the Yeshiva.

And then this young boy, Motke Kamenetzer, suddenly found the dark
road which led to the forbidden library. It didn't take long before
the matter came to the attention of the Old Man. He tried with all his
strenght to save his soul from that satanic posession. At first he
tried with gentle, sincere persuasion...and when that didn't work,
with warnings and threats. But nothing helped. And it wasn't enough
that he himself had become a freethinker; he was also a great
trouble-maker: he wanted no less, than that all the other yeshiva-boys
should also cast aside their gemoras, go over "to the other side"...to
throw in their lot with the Enlightenment! He went around among them,
agitating, ridiculing their studies, their lack of a future, their
gemorah-melody, their whole way of life...

And so when the Old Man had tried all possible means, and nothing had
worked....he suddenly, in the days of repentance leading up to the New
Year, sent a telegram to the boy's parents in Kamenetz, to the
following effect:

"Your son is dangerously ill. Please come at once."

Back home, when his parents received this telegram, with its dark
news, there was a wailing in the village. People rushed to the
synagogue, raised pandemonioum, and flung themselves on the holy ark.
When the distraught mother reached Slobodka, it was already the first
day of the New Year. Half dead and half alive, she rushed from the
station to her son's "bedside". But instead of finding him in bed,
dangerously ill, she saw her "precious" sitting comfortably at a
table, without a hat, smoking a cigarette and reading a Russian
book...an illicit brochure!

The shocked, broken mother complained bitterly to the "Old Man":

"Why!? Have you no God in your heart!...to take a mother of small
children, and scare her to death! To ruin the holidays for me and my
family? My Motke, long may he live, is completely sound!"

The "Old Man", Reb Notte-Hirsh, gave the mother a sad, meaningful
look, and adressed her with a deep cough:

"Your son is truly ill...very ill. Not a sickness of the body, but a
seckness of the soul, which is much worse."

The mother stood there devastated. When she re-gained her composure,
she asked with tears in her eyes:

"Rabbi, give me the answer, how shall I save him?"

"Take him home, and make him a tradesman" The "Old Man" abruptly cut
short the discussion, and turned around with his face to the wall.

All the arguments and pleadings from the unlucky, broken mother had no
effect. The next morning, Motke, the one-time prodigy and the
present-day freethinker, had to go back with his mother to Kamenetz.

And so order to protect the yeshiva-boys of Slobodka, so that God
forbid, to them should not happen the same thing which happened to
Motke Kamenetzer...Reb Notte-Hirsh, the director, had established that
"spy-organization", which would stop at nothing to accomplish its
ends. By them there was a saying: "thou shalt banish the evil from
among you".