Monday, May 11, 2015

An Opportunity Squandered

It has been three years since I have posted to this blog. The reason is simply that my work on these transcriptions has been ignored by the wider world, and the Jewish world in particular. I do not need the validation of outsiders to know the value of my work here. What I have done is taken source material that is all but unintelligible to the rare individual who even has a copy available to him, and put that material into a form where anyone with a moderate education in German can understand it.
In doing so, I have created what should be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in researching our history; anyone who wants to know who we are and where we came from. But the world has told me it doesn't care. I am willing to do this work for no pay, but I am not willing to do it for no reason.

I am moved to break my silence today because I came across a passage which reveals how the Jewish People are capable of being disastrously misled by their leadership. We tend to remember our own history in terms of two thousand years of relentless persecution. But there is more to our story than that. We don't like to remember the times when we contributed to our own misfortunes by our stubbornness and arrogance, but maybe we should.

If you want to read into this something about the recent re-election of Netanyahu, well, that's entirely up to you. I'm just saying.

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Today's installment is out of sequence: which is to say, I've leapt ahead to a chapter near the end of Volume Four, where the author describes his visit to the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva, founded by Reb Khayim of Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon, who later passed the leadership of the yeshiva on to his son, Reb Itzeleh. This story relates to a time when the Russian Government reached out to the Jews in an attempt to bring them into the modern world. As part of this initiative, Jewish dignitaries from across Russia were invited to the St. Petersburg to meet the Tsar and his ministers. Among those invited was Reb Itzeleh Volzhiner.

We take up the story now in its original Yiddish, with annotations.

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‘Sis dämalt ângekummen der “Sturm un Drang” vun der Haskolah (the Jewish Enlightenment). Es is gewe’en die epoche fun Lilienthal, Mandelstam, Mapu, Isaac Meyer Dick. (Dick was a writer of penny-romances in Yiddish decried as trash or shund by intellectuals but hugely popular among women.) Nikolai (Tsar Nicholas I) un sein minister Ubarov hâben sich gebeten bei Jüden: Nat euch shkolehs, universitäten, gymnasies! Abi  bildet sich! (Whatever it takes to educate yourselves.)

Men hât dämalt eingerufen an asiphah (conference) in Peterburg fun rabonim un k’lal-tuer (community leaders), mit Reb Itzeleh’n in der spitz. Reb Itzeleh Volozhiner is gekummen in Peterburg in a langen séiden-geblumten talis-kotan (prayer shawl), ähnlich zu der riseh vun a Russischen galakh (priest). Ot der talis-kotan gefinnt sich noch itzt in Volozhin bei seine éiniklach (grandchildren). In demselben talis-kotan hât er gedavent (prayed), gelernt, gegessen…ohn ihm – vun stub nischt araus (wouldn't leave home without it). In ihm is er stoltz un frei gekummen zum Minister Ubarov. Die regierung is nischt gewe’en zufrieden vun die Judische malbushim (attire). Sie hât verlangt die Jüden sollen sich “Teitzisch” (German-style) kleiden, sollen sein Europäer, “mit Leuten gleich”.

Der Minster hât a kuck getân auf’n wunderlechen talis-kotan un gefregt Reg Itzeleh’n: far wâs eppis trâgt er asa meshunehdig’n (outlandish) talis-kotan un di tzitzis (ritual fringes) – bis der erd…un Lilienthal – nischt? Is den Lilienthal nischt derselber Jüd? (Does that make Lilienthal less of a Jew?)

Reb Itzeleh is a minut nischt gewe’en in verlegenheit. “Es steht” – sâgt er – “in der Toyrah, ve-ra-item otam ve-zochartem…ihr wet séi, die tzitzis, sehen, wet ihr sich dermonen (it will remind you). Is, versteht Ihr mich, Vashe Syatelstvo (Euer Durch-Leuchtigkeit), die maysseh (story, explanation) asõ: Lilienthal is der grõsser mensch mit dem grõssen kop – darf er nischt kucken, er gedenkt asõ auch. Mir aber, gewöhntliche (ordinary) menschen, mus’n hâben ständig die tzitzis var die augen, k’dey (in order to) zu dermonen sich…”

Ubarov hât gâr nischt gekönnt machen mit Reb Itzeleh. Punkt wie früher hât Aleksander dem Ersten’s regierung nischt gekönnt machen mit sein tateh’n, Reb Kahyimkeh’n. Die Jüden haben getayneh’t séiers (held their ground):  

Znat nye znayem! 
Shkolehs (secular schools) nye zhelayem!  

 “Mir willen nischt wissen, mir darfen kéin shkolehs nischt.”


  1. ve-ra-item otam except R' Itzele probably would have said: ve-ra=isem osum

    1. Thanks, Pearl. Of course you're right, and I defer to your expertise. I generally transcribe expressions like this, quotations from the Hebrew religious texts, according to the Modern Hebrew pronunciation; in part, because I think it will be more understandable to the reader with some Hebrew education, but mostly because I do not have the confidence to get the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation correctly.