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Rakishok – A Reflection

Chief Rabbi Prof. I. Abrahams
Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky
I was born in Vilna, known throughout the Jewish world as Yerushalayim D’Lita – the Jerusalem of Lithuania – due to the fact that Vilna was the cultural and intellectual center of Lithuanian Jewry. My mother of blessed memory was also born in Vilna, but my father of blessed memory was a full-blooded, thoroughbred, Rakishok native. Reb Zecharya Alter, as he was called, and his father, Reb Avroham, and his uncle, Rabbi Katz, the official Rov (spiritual leader) all hailed from Rakishok. This makes me at least a partial landsman of Rakishok. I feel extremely proud of my family connections and through them with the small Lithuanian shtetl, Rakishok, as though I had actually been born there.

Still, you might well ask, why do you feel such an extra special closeness to this town? Firstly, I must admit that I don’t recall anything from "der alter heim" (the old country) – neither from Vilna nor from Rakishok. I was only three when my parents with their only son (that’s me), left Russia because of the political disturbances and settled in England. A three-year-old can hardly remember anything except stories his parents related to him which consisted for the most part of nostalgic reminiscences and home-spun tales that suffused a flavor that was uniquely characteristic of Jewish life in Lithuania.

It was these stories that fired my imagination, penetrated deeply into my consciousness, and fleshed out events from long ago, as if I had been an eyewitness to them. For example, I was told that when I was only three I told my grandfather with great excitement on the first day of Pesach that I had already dipped twice (at the seder we dip twice, once celery in salt water and a second time moror, bitter herbs in charoses, a mixture of apples, nuts, and almonds, moistened with wine). When my Stroger grandfather asked me, "What did you dip it in?" I proudly responded, "Matzah in chicken soup!" My grandfather smiled and lovingly pinched Yisroel’s cheek ... (again, that’s me).

I recall a host of such stories, but my unbounded love for Rakishok is not based on these tales. My real pride and admiration is for the tiny Lithuanian "shtetele proper." I actually knew Rakishok and shall never forget her. Once again, you may ask: "How is that possible? You don’t remember anything and yet you claim to have intimate knowledge of her." Yes, my dear friends, this is indeed a riddle and a mystery. And the purpose of my brief article is to uncover the mystery.

My entire youth, from tender childhood till the time I became Rabbi, I was raised in a home that was saturated with traditional Judaism – in an atmosphere that was a veritable carbon copy of Rakishok. The moment one crossed the threshold of our home in London, the capital of the British Empire, one was instantly transported to an entirely different world, to the Jewish East European world, the spiritual repository of the Jewish heart and soul. In my parents’ home was reflected, in all its nuances, the life of Rakishok that they had left behind, but only in a physical sense. We spoke Yiddish only, and if perchance an English word slipped through inadvertently, it was "Yiddishized" to such a degree that it was impossible to identify its origin.

Besides the exclusive use of Yiddish, all other aspects of life carried a distinct Rakishok character. The Sabbath Queen occupied center stage and reigned in regal splendor in our home for a full twenty-four hours, from sundown to sundown. The taste of tsholent (a Sabbath dish of meat, potatoes, and vegetables) and the special festival meals that my mother prepared still linger in my mouth. Nor will I ever forget our bookcase that contained all the major Judaic literature: the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch (the Book of Jewish Codes), the Chabad Tanya and Midrashim. Even conversations on ordinary subjects were laced with Biblical references and scholarly Talmudic discussions.

Judging by material standards, we were admittedly poor, but on a scale of yiras shomayim (piety) and Torah scholarship, my parents were considered wealthy. For the type of person of my father’s provincial background who was versed in the various branches of Hasidism and Cabalah (a Jewish mystical philosophy), the problem of earning a living in England posed an insurmountable challenge. My parents had little concern for their own welfare, but for their son’s future they had very ambitious plans. In order for their dreams to come true, no sacrifice was too great to have him study in a yeshiva, later in a university, and finally in a rabbinical college where he received smicha--rabbinical ordination. To fully appreciate my parents’ joy on this auspicious occasion, one had to be a Rakishoker oneself.

I recall the letter that I received from Rabbi Katz, my great uncle, at the time of my ordination. I also remember the last letter I received from him here in Cape Town. At that time he was over ninety. Shortly after, he passed away and was spared the unspeakable suffering and cruelties perpetuated against our people at the hands of the eternally cursed Nazi beasts. Not long after his demise, his flock which he tended with loving care for so many years, died a martyr’s death along with six million of our sainted brothers and sisters during the Holocaust, by far the worst national catastrophe that has befallen the Jewish people in its two thousand year Disasporan existence. Thus ended in fire, blood, and tears the one thousand year chapter of East European Jewry, one of the most fruitful and productive in Jewish history.

Alas, our beloved shtetl is no more, and now belongs to the centuries, but the sweet memories of her will linger on in the hearts and minds of the Rakishker surviving landsleit wherever they may be. Yes, she surely will be remembered as long as the Jewish people do not forget the role the artless Lithuanian small towns played in shaping the collective personality of Eastern European Jewry.

Sisters and Brothers, cherish this Yizkor Book, published by the Rakishker Landsmanshaft, which serves as an everlasting memorial for those who have passed on, but at the same time creates a linkage between them and future generations. And let the world know that Lo Nutcka Hashal shelet – that the chain of Jewish tradition remains unbroken and is ever strong.

[Pages 88-91]