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A Jewish Life on Three ContinentsThe Memoir of Menachem Mendel Frieden$

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780804783637

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804783637.001.0001

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More Yeshiva Studies

More Yeshiva Studies

(p.162) More Yeshiva Studies
A Jewish Life on Three Continents

Lee Shai Weissbach

Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this section, Frieden recounts his study in a yeshiva in the town of Lyady. Here he provides insights into the life of late nineteenth-century yeshiva students in Eastern Europe, offering a glimpse into the workings of Hasidic courts. Frieden’s reference to the letter of introduction he brought with him to the rebbe of Lyady suggests the importance of networking within the world of Hasidism, and his description of the time he spent at the rebbe’s court offers evidence of the openness of the court to newcomers. At the same time, Frieden’s description of his encounter with the court serves as a reminder that not all those who came in contact with Hasidism became completely enamored with the Hasidic lifestyle. Frieden critiques the materialism of the rebbes and expresses disgust with one common Hasidic practice, even as he comes to admire the Hasidic style of prayer.

Keywords:   Yeshiva studies, Lyady, Hasidism, rebbe, Haskalah

Editor’s Introduction

In this section of his memoir, Menachem Mendel Frieden returns to the story of his early education. After his year in Dvinsk, he was sent to study in a yeshiva in the town of Lyady, which was the seat of his father’s rebbe. The account of his time in Lyady provides added insights into the life of late nineteenth-century yeshiva students in Eastern Europe, and it offers a glimpse into the workings of Hasidic courts in that period as well. Frieden’s reference to the letter of introduction he brought with him to the rebbe of Lyady suggests the importance of networking within the world of Hasidism, for example, and his brief description of the time he spent at the rebbe’s court offers evidence of the openness of the court to newcomers and gives a sense of the kind of connection that could be forged between students and Hasidic masters. At the same time, Frieden’s description of his encounter with the rebbe of Lyady and his court serves as a useful reminder that not all those who came in contact with Hasidism became completely enamored with the Hasidic lifestyle. Frieden is quite critical of the materialism of the rebbes of his day and he expresses disgust with one common Hasidic practice, even as he comes to admire the Hasidic style of prayer.

And there are also other tidbits of information about East European Jewish life to be gleaned from this part of Frieden’s narrative. At the beginning of this text, we get a hint of the importance of clothing styles as markers of Jewish observance, for instance, and in Frieden’s account of his interactions with his childhood friend Noah, we get a glimpse into small-town business activities and rivalries.

Finally, this narrative brings us closer to an appreciation of Menachem Mendel Frieden, the person. It provides a clear sense of Frieden’s pride in his own accomplishments and it contains his first mention of the subject of romantic love. Perhaps most importantly, this section of his memoir re (p.163) counts Frieden’s first encounter with the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. The story of how the young yeshiva student was first introduced to the literature of this profoundly influential intellectual movement is both fascinating and revealing. As Frieden writes, his exposure to the Haskalah had an impact on his values for the rest of his life. And yet, he was not confident that this impact was a positive one. In a poignant introspective passage which is a departure from his usual narrative style, Frieden expresses his doubts about the path he took in life. He laments his entry into the world of the Haskalah, wondering if he would not have been better off remaining in the less complicated world of Orthodoxy and pursuing a rabbinic career.

SIMCHAT TORAH IS THE HIGH POINT of the holiday season, but on this day also ends the period of many holidays that fall in the pleasant months between Passover and Shemini Atzeret, even though these holidays are interspersed with days of mourning and fasting. The High Holidays are over and we come to normal workdays, days replete with worries about earning a living and preparations for the difficult days of winter that are approaching. And the day is nearing for me to leave my home and my parents and brothers and to return to a place of Torah.

I returned to the yeshiva in Dvinsk by myself, without my brother, for he decided that it wasn’t worthwhile for him to continue with his yeshiva studies and so he stayed home to help in the store and with Father’s other business affairs. I continued my education in the yeshiva together with my friend Binyamin. I broadened my knowledge of Gemara and I grew more diligent in my studies. This learning brought me deep spiritual joy. It’s difficult to describe to those who have not experienced it themselves the spiritual pleasure that comes from assiduous study of the Talmud as one develops the ability to reveal the enlightenment latent in the Torah. What inner happiness pervades every fiber of the diligent student’s body when he finds himself able to probe a difficult passage of Talmud and to understand it properly. There is no pleasure like it or that can be compared to it. This term, too, I finished to the satisfaction of the rosh yeshiva and to my own satisfaction. At the end of the term, Father planned a trip to Dvinsk to buy supplies for his store so that we could return home together. He met with the rosh (p.164) yeshiva before our trip and he was very pleased to hear the headmaster’s opinion of my work in the yeshiva and his thoughts about my future.

Although Father was an observant and knowledgeable Jew, he was nonetheless inclined toward modernism and abhorred extremism. He was strict about the cleanliness of his clothes and his home, and he dressed nicely. The collar of his shirt had to be properly ironed and he wore a modern-style hat in those days. All this was apparently a result of his business trips to larger cities, and so he bought a modern-style hat and a white collar and tie for me too. For the first time in my life I was dressed as a proper young man. I remember that when we returned to Rakishok and Uncle Mendel saw me in my hat, he looked at me and spat on the floor—splat—“you look like a complete goy in that outfit and that hat. All of a sudden you’re dressing like a gentile.” Father laughed at him and paid no attention to what he said. Not only that, but he even gave Uncle Mendel’s young son, Shalom, a hat like mine, which he had bought for him as a holiday present.

This matter of dress caused some disagreement between Uncle Mendel and his wife, who was an intelligent woman inclined toward modernity as a result of her several visits to Germany because of problems with her legs. In the same way, the hat and the overshoes I wore raised some ire on the part of my rabbi and my friends when I came home. They called me an apostate and I was truly ashamed in their presence. But slowly, slowly, I grew accustomed to my new shorter clothing and to my hat, and my rabbi and my friends got used to them as well, especially when they realized that my modern dress did not influence my religious behavior nor my studies. Again I derived great joy from being at home, from my brothers, and from the whole family during the three weeks I spent with them.

And so the holidays passed and Father informed me that he had decided that this time I should not return to Dvinsk but rather to the great yeshiva in the city of Lyady, in Mohilev province. What was behind this change? Again the same thing: my modern clothes. My grandfather, my mother’s father, and Reb Yitzhak Ze’ev feared that I might get mixed up in bad company with a tendency toward heresy if I stayed in Dvinsk, a large modern city. They convinced Father to send me to Lyady, the seat of the rebbe of Lyady, of whom Grandfather and Father and most of the Hasidim of our town were disciples. They believed that the court (p.165) there would have a great influence on me and would lead me down the path of Hasidism. It was known also that the rosh yeshiva there was one of the great scholars of the Jewish People and an enthusiastic Hasid. (What they didn’t know was that, although this rosh yeshiva was indeed a great Torah scholar and a great Hasid, he was not a follower of the rebbe of Lyady, but rather of the rebbe of Kapust. If they had known this, they certainly would not have agreed to send me to this yeshiva.) So too, they were influenced by the fact that I had a friend who was also going to Lyady on the recommendation of a nephew who had already been there for some time.

And so it was decided that I should travel with my friend Noah Lifshitz to Lyady. The distance from our town to this city in Mohilev province is great. We had to take a train to Rudnya and from there take a stagecoach for the long, tiring ride to Lyady.1 The whole journey took several days because the railroads in Russia at that time were neither very punctual nor very comfortable, especially not in third class. The stagecoach, a wide covered wagon drawn by three horses, was filled with men, women, and children, and their belongings. It moved along heavily because the roads were in bad shape in the fall. Thus, I arrived directly at the home of the rosh yeshiva exhausted from the hardships of the trip.

My friend Noah arranged with the rosh yeshiva’s wife that I would board with them while I was studying because he and two or three other yeshiva students were also boarding with them. Their home was not particularly spacious and the rosh yeshiva’s family, six souls, took up every room in the house. Nonetheless, they still found room for a few yeshiva students. The rosh yeshiva’s wife chose to live this way in return for the small payments we would make for lodging. They gave me a corner of a small room—a bed and a chair.

The house was full of commotion all day long, for the rosh yeshiva’s wife dealt in the sale of all sorts of products that she would buy from the local peasants. Buyers of the goods would fill the house, bargaining over the price. There was no privacy. Although privacy had been lacking in the yeshiva in Dvinsk, too, and the living conditions were none too comfortable, still, all of us yeshiva students had been together there (p.166) and the synagogue was our home, day and night, except during prayer services. We were able to behave as we wished, which was not the case here. I didn’t become friendly with the yeshiva students who lived in the house.

There were also two girls living in the house, and this made it uncomfortable for the boys, even though I was treated quite properly, since I was the youngest and the smallest among them and they also knew that I was the child of wealthy parents. In reality, we didn’t spend much time in the house, for we were in the synagogue where the yeshiva met all day long and for much of the night. There we heard the daily lesson from the rosh yeshiva, and there we studied at all hours of the day and part of the night.

When I arrived at the yeshiva there were eighty students there, all older than I, some of whom were also pursuing a secular education. Some of them were very accomplished in their studies and were considered geniuses. I was told, however, that once the yeshiva of Lyady had been among the most important yeshivot of the province, attracting students by the hundreds from throughout Russia and holding sessions in several of the city’s synagogues. But Lyady was not a large city and could not handle four hundred students. The emissaries who were sent out to gather donations for this yeshiva didn’t collect enough funds for its maintenance and for their own needs, which were growing as a result of their mission, and thus began the decline in the number of the yeshiva’s students. They could not find enough “days” to eat in people’s homes nor other assistance in the city, and they scattered to other places, including some other prominent yeshivot. Also, the court of the rebbe did not have a positive influence on the yeshiva. Those at the court looked askance at the yeshiva, first, because they felt it did not teach Hasidism and follow its ways and, second, because the rosh yeshiva was a disciple of the rebbe of Kapust and so was not under the sway of the local rebbe. The competition between the emissaries of the yeshiva and those of the Hasidic court also led to strained relations.

The “dynastic” competition among various Hasidic rebbes, among the rebbes of Lyady, of Kapust, of Sirutzina, and their followers, was great in those days, and this lowered the prestige of all of them in the eyes of the Jewish public in general, and especially in the eyes of good Hasidim. The later Hasidic rebbes were not like the great leaders of (p.167) Hasidism and its early rabbis. The early Hasidic leaders were great Torah scholars and were devoted heart and soul to the service of God. They were not concerned with material things. This is not so with the dynasties into which Hasidism has been divided today.

In this yeshiva, which had declined somewhat from its former greatness, they had abandoned the custom common to all the great yeshivot of having the rosh yeshiva examine every new student to see if he is fit for the yeshiva. This yeshiva needed every student in order to survive. Here, instead, every new student was to present the daily lesson when he first appeared in the yeshiva, and the way he discussed the lesson determined the attitude the rosh yeshiva and the other yeshiva students would adopt toward the new student.

For most of the term in this yeshiva, they were learning the tractate Shabbat, which I already knew very well. I had learned part of this tractate with my friend Binyamin during my last term at the yeshiva in Dvinsk. I asked my friend Noah to find out what the lesson would be the next day and I went over the passage once or twice, but I was still not confident. So too, I was fearful of appearing before others and afraid of the questions with which I would certainly be bombarded in order to trip me up. At ten o’clock on the day after I arrived in Lyady, I was called upon to present the lesson before the rosh yeshiva, a truly learned man, and in the presence of some stocky students, all of whom I thought were Torah scholars. These fellows were tall and solidly built, and among them were some young married men. They sat to both sides of the rosh yeshiva, in order, according to their status. Behind them sat the younger students and I was seated among them at the very last table, where I was hardly visible to the rosh yeshiva.

As I began to make my presentation on the Gemara, I was shaking all over and my words came out mumbled and disjointed. The rosh yeshiva eyed me suspiciously—at least that’s how it seemed to me—and the students on the frontmost benches started to whisper about me among themselves and seemed to be awaiting my downfall. They did not want to consider me, so young and so small, as being one of them. I mustered all my strength to stop shaking, to ignore my surroundings, not to look directly at anyone. I focused my eyes on the Gemara and I felt my heartbeat come under control. My pleasant cantorial voice (I had a soprano voice) grew stronger and I explained the passage in a (p.168) direct, clear manner, according to Rashi’s commentary and as I understood it, without getting into the questions and answers of other commentators, as yeshiva heads and yeshiva students do when they try to show their understanding of the Tosafists and the Maharsha.2 I was not asked any questions; all were silent. I noticed with a quick glance that the rosh yeshiva was listening attentively and this encouraged me to continue to the end of the lesson more freely.

When I had concluded, the rosh yeshiva said he was amazed and that he would like to know where I acquired this style of learning, so simple and correct. I explained that I had been taught this style of learning by the rosh yeshiva in Dvinsk. His system was to teach the lesson in a simple, clear manner, without any difficult questions or answers from the students, and only later to go over the passage again in greater depth. He would raise questions and provide answers, build arguments and refute them, and in the end he would come to the same conclusion concerning Halacha. He would demonstrate that, in effect, all the casuistry was superfluous, even if it did sharpen the mind and point the way to understanding every Tanna and Amora, each following his own path. This method helps one understand more clearly the give and take concerning this or that Halacha, but we should not expect that every rosh yeshiva will teach in this very simple manner, which any advanced student could replicate. A rosh yeshiva simply must engage in casuistry and demonstrate his erudition and his acuity. There is a great need for erudition and acuity in those who aspire to a rabbinic seat, for they will have to make judgments regarding law and matters of Halacha in which there is a disagreement between two Tannaim or Amoraim or among the later commentators. About these disputes our sages have already declared, in connection with the disagreements between the school of Shamai and the school of Hillel, that a voice from heaven announced: “These and those are the words of the living God.”3

(p.169) What I had to say pleased the rosh yeshiva, who agreed with me, and he expressed the opinion that the rosh yeshiva in Dvinsk was apparently a great Torah scholar. I was immediately moved up to the front bench among the older students and everyone began to relate to me as if I were older. The only one who did not treat me as he should have was my friend Noah, because he was jealous of my success.

This Noah was the grandson of one of the men of means in our town, the proprietor of the first general store in town. However, when more stores opened, his went into decline. He was an elderly, conservative Jew and didn’t respond to the demand for up-to-date merchandise, even when it came from the local peasants. Our store was the largest in town and was the most threatening competitor of the old man’s store. Our success was great because Mother, who managed the store, was very energetic and very honest, and she was able to attract many customers, both his and others. Our store was well known for carrying anything a household might need. And so the relationship between our families was somewhat strained. Still, as children, we paid this no attention.

Once, this Noah became ill with appendicitis. There was no doctor in our town, and no hospital, and they had to bring three doctors from the surrounding area. They performed the operation in his parent’s home and because his sister was not around, I volunteered to hold down Noah’s legs during the surgery. My uncle Mendel held his head. Noah recovered, and he always remained obliged to me for my help during the surgery. Here in the yeshiva, however, he did not live up to his obligation because of his excessive jealousy. We parted company and since then I have not seen him. I was told that he became seriously depressed for several years, but I don’t know what ultimately became of him.

The positive attitude of the rosh yeshiva and of the older students encouraged me to become even more diligent, in order to reach even greater heights. I devoted myself to my studies with greater persistence and I spent my nights, just as I spent my days, learning several tractates at the same time, together with some other fellows. We set up shifts in such a way that the studying went on throughout the night. Word got out that in such-and-such a synagogue there was studying going on all night long and many from other synagogues would join our nighttime study sessions. On Thursday nights we would all remain awake and study aloud and with great diligence. During this period I learned (p.170) three tractates. My knowledge and proficiency increased greatly and I was very pleased. I could already see before me the attainment of my goal, the rabbinate. And that is how I completed the first term. I did not return home for the holidays, because the distance was great and the cost of the trip and the effort it took dissuaded me. I decided to stay where I was and to continue with my studies even during the break.

During the term, I would occasionally go to the rebbe’s. I had in hand a letter from my father and from one of my uncles, Father’s brother, who was an important follower of the rebbe. My uncle was wealthy and his donations to the rebbe were significant. I was welcomed gladly at the court and several times I joined in the third Sabbath meal there, but the way the Hasidim ate from the rebbe’s leftovers, which was far below the standard of good manners, did not appeal to me at all. By contrast, I admired the majestic appearance of the rebbe and his sons-in-law in prayer and I eagerly began to come to pray in the rebbe’s synagogue every Shabbat morning.

While I was studying in Lyady, I had eating days, as usual. I had three good “days.” One was at the home of Rabbi Fraidish; it was a pleasure to dine there. The rabbi would himself sit beside me at lunchtime, in all his dignity, and amuse himself discussing Torah subjects with me. He had heard about me from the rosh yeshiva and on the recommendation of both of them I received an invitation from a Jewish flour mill owner for every Shabbat. The daughter of the rabbi was a friend of the mill owner’s wife’s sister. This sister, the mill owner’s sister-in-law, would come every Friday to take me to the mill, which was out of town, for Shabbat. She was a very pretty young woman and all the yeshiva students envied my good luck. This young woman was well educated and she showed a great interest in me. When she saw that I was ignorant when it came to general knowledge, she chided me bluntly, asking how it could be that someone like me could devote himself to Talmud study alone, without wanting to acquire any secular education. When I explained to her, somewhat ashamedly, that my goal was to become a rabbi in Israel and that I have no choice but to continue with my Torah studies in order to reach my objective, her interest in me came to an end. I didn’t stop the Sabbath visits, however. She continued to come to take me to their home outside the city, as usual, and I would very much enjoy the natural beauty of the area around the mill, which (p.171) compensated for the weekdays that I spent in the stifling and restricted atmosphere of the synagogue.

Tuesdays I had at the home of a wealthy gentleman of the city named P. Feinberg, at whose table several fellows dined every day. They were welcomed with respect and one member of the family always ate with us to demonstrate their fondness for us. This man was very rich and very generous; he provided sustenance to all.

Three days, including Shabbat, were excellent and interesting. By contrast, the other four days were terrible. The people involved were very decent, but their poverty was evident in their homes from wall to wall. They attempted to prepare a reasonable meal for a yeshiva student, but they never partook of the meal themselves because there was not enough food. It was difficult for me to stop going to them, for I didn’t want to offend them, but I couldn’t not stop going to them and the only way I could find to tell them was to inform them that I was no longer going to eat “days” at all. I was afraid to tell my parents about this and only asked them to increase the amount of pocket money they sent me each month. The additional amount they sent was small, however, and it was not enough to sustain me four days each week, so I would skimp on meals on those days and balance them with the meals on the good days.

This kind of lifestyle, coupled with little sleep and intensive studying, affected my health, which had never been especially good. I was weak, and what Jewish child could be strong, having to sit day after day in a closed-up heder, without air or light, engaged in diligent study? I was weak and became even weaker for lack of sufficient food. I was forced to cut back a bit on my assiduous learning on the orders of a physician who saw me, free of charge, and who prohibited me from nighttime studying so that I would be able to sleep a greater number of hours.

Among the students of this yeshiva were a few who had been infected by this thing called Haskalah. More than once, the rosh yeshiva warned me to beware of these fellows, for although they excelled in their Torah studies, they were absolute heretics when it came to faith and orthodox Judaism, and it was forbidden to come in contact with them, so as not to learn their ways. These students were quite independent and supported themselves by tutoring in various languages: Hebrew, Russian, and German. These fellows had their traps set to snare yeshiva students specifically, and especially the better ones among them. They would (p.172) frequent the synagogue of the craftsmen, where supervision was in the hands of one of the yeshiva students and they had complete freedom to behave as they wished. They could even read books of Haskalah to their heart’s content, something that was forbidden in other yeshivot, where supervision was in the hands of the rosh yeshiva and reading books on nonreligious subjects was considered treif.

One evening, a young man came into our study hall, approached me, and began to argue about the passage I was working on. I was surprised at his great erudition and the profundity of his intellect and his sharpness. He posed questions that I could not answer. I stood in awe of him. This fellow was a Lithuanian, like me, from a town in our province. The name of the town was Abeli and from our casual conversations I discovered that he knew my father’s family, since Abeli is near Rakishok. He came to me again the next day and began to speak about the need of every young person to have general knowledge as well as Torah learning. He gave me the example of the greats of the Jewish People in all ages who had a broad knowledge of non-Jewish subjects. As the Gaon of Vilna, who was well versed in many outside fields, once said, “having knowledge in various areas is necessary in order to understand our holy Torah and the wisdom of Israel.”4

Then he asked me, suddenly, “do you know Hebrew?” “But certainly. What Jew who studies Tanach and Gemara does not know Hebrew,” I responded. “Yes,” he said, “but the Hebrew of which I speak is different from the Hebrew of the Tanach and the Talmud, which was written in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. There are also books written in Hebrew that deal with matters that are altogether worldly and it would be worth your while to read some of them sometime when you are not occupied with Torah study. These books will open your eyes to a different world which you don’t know but with which every person should be familiar for the sake of learning Torah, among other things. Here,” (p.173) he said, “I have at hand a Hebrew book written in simple language in the style of the Tanach that you will be able to understand easily. I’ll leave it with you. Read it when you have an opportunity.”

I knew that I shouldn’t let anyone else see this book. I hid it in my lectern so that I could look it over while the other students were sleeping. The volume was Ahavat Zion by Abraham Mapu, the first book I read that inspired me to acquire secular knowledge.5 It revealed to me a new world, a world about which I did not know and which I did not recognize, and perhaps this book is to blame for my giving up the goal I had set for myself when I began my studies, the rabbinate. This book, with its gracious and pleasing style, was written in classical Hebrew and was not like other books that were written in a Hebrew copied from the German or French language. I read it all in one night and it had an odd effect upon me.

I was naïve and matters of love were far from my mind. My thoughts were focused on learning and on the performance of practical commandments. The language of this book was the Holy Tongue, the language in which the Torah was given. The book was full of biblical quotations and I couldn’t understand how these verses had been altered by the author. He had stripped the words of the awe they evoked because of their holiness, and within this book a different spirit wafted up from them. How does a Jew dare to do such a thing, to use this Holy Tongue to depict physical love, whose proper place is in little chapbooks written in Yiddish by Shomer and bought only by housemaids and other lower-class individuals.6

At first, I was disgusted by the reading. True, the Song of Songs was written as a love story, but the commentaries have explained it as an allegory, written to please the ear, which in reality describes the (p.174) love of Israel for the Holy One, Blessed be He. That’s why the Song of Songs is called the Holy of Holies. In the Song of Songs, the names are known to me from the Tanach and the story is familiar. But here the writing is different, incomprehensible to the ear for fear that something holy is being profaned. But, wonder of wonders, I put the book down and then picked it up again. I could not stop reading until I had reached the end and its effect was very great; it changed my values for the rest of my life.

Deep in my heart, I regret what transpired still today. I am certain that if I had not chanced upon the young man from Abeli, I would probably have continued on the path I had traced out for myself from the start, a well-paved path that many young men had trod over hundreds of years in order to reach their goal, the rabbinate. In view of my abilities, which were already apparent as I started out on this path, I had it in my power to reach a fairly high station. I would have arrived at a pleasant and comfortable livelihood, I would have pleased both my parents and myself, and perhaps I would have been happier than I am. The very act of learning and acquiring knowledge within the broad and many-branched rabbinic culture, deep as the sea, widens one’s understanding and provides a clear perspective on life. It provides one with happiness, if not great wealth, which truly is not the most important thing.7

One who immerses himself in rabbinic literature and puts all his time and all his heart into it, lives it and takes pleasure in it from a religious perspective, for he is able to fulfill the commandment of “and you shall teach them diligently” with all his heart and soul, and he also frees himself from the bother of worrying about physical survival.8 His way is laid out for him: to study and to teach. And the journey through the stories of the earlier and the later commentators is a pleasure without compare for the God-fearing Jew. His ultimate reward is assured. And what is he lacking? As I look back on the years that have passed from the day I read that book until today, and as I think about what that (p.175) reading did to me, I am full of remorse about the past. I remained neither here nor there; I did not become a rabbi, though I continued my studies several more years, and I did not acquire a sufficient general education so that it would bring me what I had hoped it would.

The way I lived at the yeshiva in Lyady, the lack of sufficient nourishment, the lack of air and comfort in a little corner of a room where I slept with several others—all this affected my health. I became ill and should have returned home. But I didn’t want to go home before the end of the term, lest someone say that I had been asked to leave the yeshiva, as had happened to another student. Thus, I remained until the end of the term under the care of a doctor, and only when it ended did I go home. During those months that I was somewhat ill, I did not study much. I only took part in those lessons taught by the rosh yeshiva. The rest of the time I spent reading the books given me by my new friend from Abeli.

I lived outside the supervision of the yeshiva, from which I was released because I was ill, and it was easy for me to read whatever books I wanted. It was not so with my friend from home, Noah. He informed his parents that I had become an apostate, that I no longer studied and that I only read heretical literature, and this became known to the whole town. When I met my father in Dvinsk on my way home, he told me all about this. I put his mind at ease by assuring him that I was very far from being an apostate, but that I did want to acquire secular knowledge as well as a knowledge of Jewish thought. He objected strenuously to this and insisted that I must continue my Torah study, as soon as I was completely well, of course.

When I returned home, Mother started to take care of me and to watch over me carefully. They didn’t even allow me to study Talmud during those days, and for lack of books of general interest in our town, I turned to studying the Tanach and Hebrew grammar from the Hebrew language textbook of Ben Ze’ev and the book Maslul by Chaim Cöslin. Only then did I begin to understand the Tanach as “a book.”9 Only then (p.176) did I come to realize the greatness of the social ideals and the grandeur of the pure holy humanity embodied in the words of the Torah and the prophets of Israel, words that have been a light unto Israel and unto all the enlightened nations of the world.


(1.) For stagecoach, Frieden here uses the French term diligence.

(2.) Maharsha is the acronym for the Polish rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels (1555–1631), a commentator on the Talmud, Rashi, and the Tosafists.

(3.) Shamai, like Hillel (see Note 7 in the chapter “My Mother’s Family”) was a leading rabbinic authority in Palestine around the turn of first century. Both Shamai and Hillel had their followers and their two schools famously disagreed on many matters of Halacha. The quotation cited by Frieden is from tractate Eruvin 13b, which ends with the observation that “the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel.” The Talmud suggests that these rulings were more lenient and more sensitive to the welfare of individuals.

(4.) It is unclear if Frieden is quoting directly from the Gaon of Vilna in this instance, but the Gaon did on several occasions express the idea attributed to him here. For example, in the preface to the translation of Euclid’s Geometry prepared by Rabbi Boruch Schick of Shklov, the rabbi writes: “I heard from the holy lips of the Gaon of Vilna that to the extent that one is deficient in secular wisdom he will be deficient a hundredfold in Torah study, for Torah and wisdom are bound up together.” See Baron Philip [pseudonym], “Torah U’madda, Torahdik or sheker?” on the Internet at www.hashkafah.com/index.php?showtopic=5076&st=20 (accessed Jan. 25, 2008).

(5.) The Lithuania writer Abraham Mapu (1808–1867) was a Hebrew novelist whose work was influenced by French Romanticism. The widely read Ahavat Zion (Love of Zion), a love story set in biblical times, was first published in 1853. Writing about the influence of Haskalah novels on East European Jews, Marcus Moseley has observed that “no novel left so deep an impression as Abraham Mapu’s lascivious biblical romance ’Ahavat tsiyon; the impact of the first reading of this novel—frequently the first work of this type to be encountered by the proto-Maskil—is recorded by countless Jewish autobiographers.” See Marcus Moseley, Being For Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (Stanford, Calif., 2006), 449.

(6.) Shomer is the pen name of the Yiddish romance novelist Nachum Meir Shaikewitz (1849–1905). See, for example, Alyssa Quint, “‘Yiddish Literature for the Masses’? A Reconsideration of Who Read What in Jewish Eastern Europe,” AJS Review 29:1 (2005): 61–63.

(7.) Here Frieden has employed a play on words, using the Hebrew osher spelled with an initial letter aleph and meaning “happiness” and its homophone osher with an initial letter ayin, meaning “wealth” or “riches.”

(8.) “And you shall teach them diligently” is a reference to Deuteronomy 6:7, which reads in full: “And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

(9.) The first book to which Frieden refers is probably the two-part Hebrew reader Beit Hasefer (The School) by the Enlightenment writer Yehuda Leib Ben Ze’ev (1764–1811). The second book, Maslul, is a Hebrew grammar textbook first published in 1788 by the German Talmudist and grammarian Chaim ben Naphtali Cöslin (d. 1832). For more on Ben Ze’ev, see, for example, Zohar Shavit, Poetics of Children’s Literature (Athens, Ga., 1986), 149–57.