Reb Zvi the Cooper

(Memories of M.L. Lilienblum’s father)

By Dr. Aaron Leib Pick (Šiauliai)

Published (in Hebrew) by the Keidaner Assn. of NY, 1930.

Aaron Leib Pick

Aaron Leib Pick

The area around the Lithuanian city of Keidan has been famous for its beauty since earliest times. Nature has endowed it in full measure with pleasant features, especially in its water and greenery – a full pallet of beauty in each landscape. But the Almighty set a dividing line between the lovely trees and meadows and the Jewish neighborhood which, since early days, was as filled with scholars as a pomegranate with seeds, in order to ensure that these Torah scholars – “the renowned aristocrats of Keidan” – not be distracted from their studies, Heaven forbid, at peril of their lives.

The most ancient part of this neighborhood, which had never been particularly beautiful, lay on the banks of the Smilga creek, at the point where it flowed into the Neviazhe river. This small stream, whose waters were clear at their source, turned murky as they flowed past the Jewish neighborhood, divided the sacred from the ordinary; between the fields, meadows, trees and shrubs on the one hand, and the main synagogues and the other public buildings, which were concentrated at this point, on the other.

But these buildings, which to the local people appeared tall and awesome, were as nothing compared to the neighboring structures. Not only did the former not reflect any grandeur on the surrounding houses, they emphasized all the more the latter’s pathetic poverty. They were for the most part wooden, one-story, and black with age, or, contrarily, whitewashed to hide their age and ugliness as much as possible. With the exception of the synagogue street and its courtyard, and the street by the public bath-house, the neighborhood comprised only, narrow, smelly alleyways.

In this forlorn corner of the town, at the end of an unnamed alley that spilled into the  synagogue street, there stood, until the “last fire” (about a year before World War I), a wooden house, which, even in this dilapidated neighborhood, was distinguished from its neighbors by its poor, degraded appearance.

Its walls, low to begin with, now bent and blackened with age, stood miraculously on weak supports. Its roof was overgrown with weeds and moss, which drooped over small, dirty windows, like the brim of a hat over the eyes of a blind beggar. To complete the picture, this house was stuck into the sediment that collected at the end of the alley, where the cobbled surface stopped abruptly.

During the rainy season and when the snows melted, this end of the alley – with this poor house on one side and a squash patch on the other – regularly became a lake of mud, which could be safely traversed only with the help of Heaven, and then only with high, sturdy boots.

The great fire that occurred in this neighborhood, about a year before the war, put an end to this house. Were it as significant to the outside world as it was to us Keidaners, it would surely have received special treatment and a special historical marker; and the unnamed alley could, by the merit of the house, also have deserved a famous name. For in this poor little house, which I have described plainly, without exaggeration, was born one of the heroes of our people and its literature: Moshe Leib Lilienblum.

The writer of these lines recalls the house and its surroundings, as they remained engraved in his memory from childhood, that is, about a half century after Lilienblum’s birth. Yet the town elders, including my parents, who were the closest neighbors to this house, assured me that, although they remembered only dimly the early days of this particular house, no substantial changes, other than the occasional filling of cracks to prop up the structure, were made from the time of Lilienblum’s birth to then.

As is well known, this typical diaspora environment, in which Moshe Leib Lilienblum was born and educated, strongly affected his entire being, and throughout his lifetime he could not free himself from its influence. In vain did he remove himself to distant parts. In vain did he occasionally attempt to turn his attention to general, non-national ideals. His environment did not leave him. The sounds that emerged from the large beit midrash (study house), from the Great Synagogue and from the smaller prayer houses such as the Shiva Kruim, the gravediggers’ kloyz, Ein Yakov and Chayei Adam near his parents’ home – these sounds that filled the neighborhood rang forever in Moshe Leib Lilienblum’s ears. He remained a Jewish scholar, dwelling in the midst of his people, whose lifelong desire was to extricate his fellows from the darkness of their exile to a life of enlightenment and freedom in the land of their forefathers.

Between Lilienblum’s father’s house and my parents’ “old” house (whose elegance did not exceed its neighbor’s by much), there was a small garden, adjacent to the south wall of the Chayei Adam prayer house. The latter looked out proudly upon these two lowly neighbors, and a narrow footpath, wide enough for only two abreast. Thus, as noted above, we were among the closest neighbors to this house.

Reb Zvi the Cooper, or, as he was known in Keidan, “Reb Hirshe Bender” remains engraved in my childhood memory as a poor, thin old man, short and somewhat stooped, whose hair and beard grew untamed, a mixture of yellow and gray. Reb Zvi had a weakness for snuff, and the habit was visible on his moustache and nostrils. This, together with the absence of teeth, had a grave effect on the clarity of his speech so that his diction was unclear. If we add to this his shabby clothes, there emerges a portrait of a simple Jewish craftsman, a poor, elderly Jew, an everyday man, as one might say. In fact, as everyone knew, he was truly poverty-stricken by any measure, forced constantly to struggle for a crust of bread. In his old age, he practiced his craft very little, and only rarely, particularly during the summer months, did he fit new hoops onto a barrel or neighbor’s pail that had disintegrated due to heat and dryness. He worked in his long tzitzit fringes, a yarmulke on his head. His livelihood was meager, even with the constant support of his son. He received small sums from the Ein Yakov kloyz for acting as rabbi ­– reading Talmudic legends to other simple craftsmen between the afternoon and evening prayers – and from selling cabbage, turnips and other greens from his two gardens. In his struggles to make a living, his wife and her sister, an agunah [a woman abandoned by her husband without divorce] were a constant help.

Lilienblum’s mother died when he was nine years old. Her sister then married Reb Zvi in order to raise her motherless nephew. In his book “Hatat Neurim” [Sins of Youth], Lilienblum called his stepmother a fool, saying she sacrificed her own life for his sake, not recognizing that after 20 years his father would be old and weak, and she would become miserable in the prime of life. We, the students at the Ein Yakov kloyz, after seeing her, called her “Aphrodite” with some sarcasm (her name, in the Keidan pronunciation, was Fride-Itte). In actuality, she never justified her stepson’s prophecy, because she never got sick and apparently never felt miserable because of her husband’s old age. Rather, she was a plain, pious Jewish woman for whom poverty was a natural condition, a god-fearing woman without pretensions, who did not dare to question the ways of the Almighty.

She did possess a special ability that yielded her a meager income. She was an expert, experienced mourner, reading from the Ma’aneh Lashon [a text for mourners] the prayers required by her clients at graveside during the month of Elul.[1] Similarly, she would recite the Sabbath and festival prayers aloud in the “women’s section” for those who were unable to read. This was an accepted custom from early times in Keidan, so much so that for many years in the women’s section of the Great Synagogue, there even was a man who engaged in this dignified occupation, especially during the High Holidays. He, however, used to station himself inside a large barrel in the women’s section before the prayer service, and from there read the prayers in a loud voice. (He apparently did this not because he was a disciple of Diogenes, but because of religious scruples.)

Fride-Itte’s agunah sister, who was no less skilled as a mourner and reader, often assisted her. But her primary occupation was teaching Hebrew to Jewish girls. This woman, whose husband had abandoned her to sorrow with a young child, was constantly enveloped in a quiet melancholy. She loved to sing songs of tragedy and sadness in a soft undertone. In my youth, when I and one of my friends, Mr. B. Cassel, were collecting folksongs for Marek and Ginzburg, one of us succeeded in obtaining from her, with some difficulty, one of those melancholy songs. We speculate that she would sing it as a special incantation for an agunah. This song was published as Song Number 119 in “Jewish Folksongs in Russia.” Its content, interesting from the folkloristic viewpoint (freely translated) begins thus:

    • Seven women sit and sit
    • By the well and the spring,
    • by the well and the spring.
    • Said one to the other:
    • Were my husband to appear,
    • Were my husband to appear!
    • I would transform myself into a mouse
    • And run about the square.
    • Oh how happy would I be,
    • Oh how happy would I be! Etc.

Reb Zvi’s small family labored and bore their difficulties in silence. Some special force drew me to this family as by some mystic charm. Reb Zvi himself, who was filled with erudition and a remarkable expert on rabbinic legends and wonder tales, believed with genuine childlike faith in all the miracles he read or heard about. For this reason he seemed not of this world, but as one whose soul hovers in the upper realms.

And despite his lack of clarity in speech or pleasing enunciation, in his old age he did possess a certain forceful speaking ability. When he read for the small, loyal audience in the Ein Yakov kloyz from the books of legends, he would convey to his listeners the state of his soul, suffused with wonder and simple faith, and to draw them along to a world filled with miracles and wonders. How much more so did he captivate a young boy like me, who eagerly absorbed his wonderful tales from the Talmud or historical sources.

I used to visit him often at his house. When the deep mud prevented me from visiting him in the fall and at winter’s end, I would find him afternoons at the kloyz, a few steps from our house. Besides stories of sages, Reb Zvi used to relate tales from history, especially about the famous men of Lithuania, which he drew from various sources, written and oral. There is no doubt that these stories had great folkloristic and historical value, and it is regrettable that they have, for the most part, been lost forever. They were recorded neither by his son, M.L. Lilienblum (whose turbulent soul strived to separate itself from the old order and was at that time far from such things), nor by anyone else.

Years passed, the young grew old, and I no longer needed the tales of my dear neighbor, Reb Zvi, as I concentrated on reading books, starting with Yiddish translations of the early biblical prophets, “Kav Hayashar” and “Menorat Hamaor” then graduating to Hebrew literature. Reb Zvi gave me several of his books, some of which I still remember well: “Sefer Hayashar“, “The Journeys of Eldad the Dane” and “Tzemach David.” It is possible that this last one was the book cited by M.L. Lilienblum in his “Sins of Youth” as among the first books he read, and which ultimately made his father realize that his son craved literature.

I, in turn, gave Reb Zvi books that I found among my father’s volumes and which remain engraved in my memory. One was “Shevet Yehuda” [The Tribe of Yehuda] which took great effort to read, due to blurry print on poor quality paper. Its chapters were printed alternately in block type and Rashi typefaces. There was also a book called “Sha’ar Shamayim” [Gateway to Heaven], a book about nature by Isaac Abravanel, the father of Leo Hebreaus[2], that described a sphinx bird and beings with navels connected to the ground, among other fantastic animals.

I also gave him the book “Emunat Chachamim” [The Faith of the Wise] by Aviad Sar Shalom Basilea[3], whose foreword admonishes doubters who deny the existence of demons, quoting the Talmud to say that “just because you have not seen it does not mean is does not exist.” And a book called “From English Sailors,” which recounted the recent discovery of a sea creature whose upper half is a woman and whose lower half is a fish, called “siren,” whose existence had previously been doubted. And a small book called “Malkiel” which provided a proven method for seeing demons and spirits eye-to-eye. We both enjoyed reading these books very much.

The times change and we with them. I became a yeshiva student and moved to a series of Torah centers. But the new winds that began blowing through the Jewish world with the spread of Zionism penetrated the yeshiva world as well, so that I returned home an educated youth, dedicated heart and soul to divine enlightenment. Also, I became an enthusiastic member of Khovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion, an early Zionist group], a subscriber to “Ha-melitz” [a Hebrew newspaper] in partnership with three or four companions. I grew to recognize Lilienblum’s great value as a writer and fighter for the land of our forefathers.

I was not surprised that with time, changes occurred in Reb Zvi as well. His son, M.L. Lilienblum, whom he had once symbolically mourned as an apostate, and whose name he never mentioned in my presence when I was young, had become for him a comfort and source of pride. It is noteworthy that from the day of Lilienblum’s books “Derech Tshuva” [“Path of Repentance”] and “Derech l׳Avor Golim” [“The Exiles’ Path”] a relationship of harmony and love developed between father and son; and he used to send his father all his writings devoted to the “love of Zion” idea. In this way I, too, received from Reb Zvi Lilienblum’s anthology “The Awakening,” his play “Zerubavel” and his pamphlet in Russian, “The Settlement in the Land of Our Fathers.”

This shows that Lilienblum’s description of his father in “Sins of Youth” – from which one could conclude that Reb Zvi was a zealot ready to sacrifice his only son on the altar of fanaticism and a naïve believer in foolish fantasies – was exaggerated and tendentious. Lilienblum’s harsh polemic against the old way of life in Lithuania’s provincial towns, his battle against superstition as an educated religious reformer, Lilienblum’s dissatisfaction with his backward education, of which he considered himself a victim, and especially the perversity of ordaining his future through an arranged marriage in Vilkomir – all this prevented Lilienblum from presenting a correct description of his father.

Lilienblum’s contempt for his past can be seen in his contempt for his father’s family name, Snepper (and not Sfener, as cited by Klausner and others) and that he chose instead to be called Herlichtson (Ben-Zvi), the name with which he signed his article “Orhot HaTalmud” [“The Paths of the Talmud”] in “Ha-Melitz”. It is known that the Keidan town council members opposed this heretic’s request; and only when the scholars of Kovno, with Dr. Sappir in the lead, intervened, they agreed to give him another beautiful surname, “Lilienblum” and not the name signed as a pseudonym. All this was possible before 1873, before the completion of the official census list. This story of his name change is reported erroneously in most of Lilienblum’s biographies.

Like the Talmud sages Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa or Rabbi Nahum Ish Gamzu, Reb Zvi was a man of exceptionally gentle character and noble traits, simple and childlike in his beliefs, a Torah scholar who nonetheless was attracted to secular knowledge. It is unfair to blame him for being a person of his times, unable to transcend his context. For that, his son’s talent was needed; indeed, his son inherited good qualities from his father that helped him in his achievements.

In any case, Reb Hirshe could not be other than he was, given the conditions of his life and environment. He could not be more practical or foresee the future more than could other fathers in small-town Lithuania. Even now, 80 years later, they still continue to give their children an education that is past its time.

Still, as mentioned above, Lilienblum himself completely changed his opinion of his father; in addition to providing constant support, he visited him in Keidan a number of times and showed him great affection – I once witnessed this myself. In this way his father was exonerated, as he deserved to be by both his son and by Hebrew readers. So it was that Reb Zvi at the end of his life enjoyed great parental pleasure and fame from his famous son who, in the past, had caused him anguish, grief, and worry without end.

Some years ago, the citizens of Keidan told me that because of his son, Reb Zvi once received high honor and material benefit from a local aristocrat, such that the whole town was astir about it. The kernel of this story is doubtless true, although Keidan imagination must have added a measure of its own.

This is what happened: Surrounding Keidan were large, rich estates that once belonged to Polish noblemen. After the uprising of 1863 these were confiscated by the imperial treasury and later sold, apparently for small sums, to various Russian generals. The large estate “Kaidany” about a mile from the town of Keidan, had belonged to the Czapski family. This estate, along with many others, “pleasantly passed”[4] to Count Totleben, hero of Sevastopol and Plevna. The general’s large family spent summers at the Keidan estate and often remained during winter as well. (In one part of the estate, assigned to him by the Lithuanian government, the count’s only son, who once served Tsar Nicholas II, lives in strained conditions to this day.)

Count Totleben himself used to visit his family at the estate during the summer and eventually considered himself a Keidan resident. On his visits to the town, he would stroll in friendly fashion with many of the residents and frequent the stores of a number of Jews. Moreover, Jewish workmen were often employed at his estate. The Jews of Keidan regarded him as one of the “righteous gentiles” They tell that in the 1880s, when the pogroms started, he announced that no such disturbances would be allowed in the Kovno district, and, indeed, he assigned units of Cossacks to the most dangerous locations to maintain public order.

When Count Totleben was appointed governor general of Novorossiya and was based in Odessa, Lilienblum came to his attention over some public matter. When Totleben became aware that Lilienblum was his townsman, and that his father still lived in Keidan, he was very pleased and decided to meet with Reb Zvi when he returned to his estate.

And so it was that one day, Reb Zvi was invited by Reb Gershon Hitner, who worked at the count’s estate, and coincidentally was a gabbai of the Ein Yakov kloyz, to an audience with the count. Reb Zvi washed and vigorously scrubbed the signs of tobacco from his nose and moustache, borrowed a top hat from one of the town’s worthies and presented himself to the count. The nobleman, originally from Riga, spoke to the Jews in a simple German, “almost like Yiddish.” He received Reb Zvi warmly and spoke at length and in depth with him about his son and about himself. Afterwards, the count sent him a generous gift “of heaven’s dew and earth’s oils”[5]– chicken, eggs, potatoes and the like.

Thus Reb Zvi derived great honor because of his famous son. Reb Zvi attained a ripe old age, dying of a brain hemorrhage due to arteriosclerosis.

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[1]Elul, the month that preceeds the High Holidays, is one of the periods during which religious Jews visit relatives’ graves.

[2] Also known as Yehuda ben Yitzhak Abravanel, 15th century Portuguese Jewish physician, poet and philosopher.

[3] 18th century rabbi and kabbalist in Mantua, Italy.

[4] Psalms 16:6

[5] Genesis 27:28


Translated by Nathaniel Stampfer.