A German Convert to Judaism
Translation Copyright 2001 by Morris Rosenthal
Translations from Hebrew
Copyright 2002 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
From Memories of My Youth
Sarah Feige Foner of the House of Menkin - Printed in Warsaw, 1903
One more episode I must add to the memories of my youth, and due to its great importance, I'm putting it in it's own section.
Around 1863 or 1864 news was heard in the city of Dvinsk, news that occupied the whole community, young and old. A convert from the land of Germany who had converted to Judaism there was coming to Dvinsk. Many people talked about him, and each told of his origins differently. One said that he was the son of the German king, another said he was the son of the king's teacher.
One day, my father z"l returned full of joy and told us that he saw the convert in the house of Reb Israel Horowitz that day, where he had spoken with him. My mother z"l, and even though we were little girls, also my sister and I, cupped our ears to hear the words of my father. We greedily swallowed everything he said about the convert's appearance, wisdom, good heart and gentility, and how he had learned Hebrew and Chumash in Germany. How great was our desire to see him and speak with him, but how could we possibly hope for a joy like this, to see the righteous convert and speak with him? He was always at Friedlander's house or Horowitz's house, these being the greatest and richest in the city.
Then came the day that two young men dressed in splendid clothing arrived at our house. One of the young men approached our father z"l and said, "Reb Yosef. Here I have brought you an honest student and it will benefit him if you study Talmud and Bible with him for an hour or two every day." The second young man approached to greet my father, and my father hugged him in his arms and kissed him twice saying, "Come in, blessed is the Lord, sit on my right, and like a seal on my heart I shall place you always." The first young man who was a member of the Friedlander family left, and my father called to my mother saying, "Shaina, come here and let me present you to Reb Yitzchak, the righteous convert from Germany." My mother respectfully asked after his health, and we stood far back, afraid to approach him. But on the second day the man said to my father, "Sir Teacher, I must get to know all the members of your household, even the little ones, because you are all dear to me, very precious." From that day I became accustomed to him and talked with him. After his studying, he would sit with us a long while and talk with us, telling us about the customs in his land, and anything he could do to give us pleasure he didn't hold back. Every day he was more and more dear and honored in our eyes, in our seeing the goodness of his heart, his wisdom, and his modesty, because he wasn't prideful even with the smallest of the small. He studied Bible and Talmud. He started the Bible from the beginning and the Talmud with tractate Baba Mitzia from the first chapter "Two are Holding". I also remember the time when he finished a chapter he was learning and understood it properly. He rose from his place and kissed my father saying, "Sir Teacher, if only you could feel now the emotions in my heart, then you could comprehend that there is no word in my vocabulary to thank you for this precious learning. A treasure of great value is hidden in the Talmud, nothing in it is worthless. Yes, yes, this valuable learning had been lacking in me. Now I feel that it fills up my soul inside." My mother sometimes said to my father, "What I really want is to hear about his history from his own mouth. But to ask him to tell it isn't proper, because maybe there is something hidden in his story, and since he is an honest man, he couldn't fabricate and answer our request while remaining tranquil in his heart. It's not urgent, we will wait until he tells us of his own volition." After a month passed, he rented an apartment in the house of Masha Mamin in the courtyard where we lived, in order to be near us always, and he was very happy. He was very beloved by us and we fulfilled with alacrity anything he asked of us. My brother Beryl Menkin, who is now a Rabbi in Cardiff (England), was then a two year old boy, and didn't leave him alone for a moment. When he saw Reb Yitzchak take out a pinch of tobacco to smoke he would say with exaggerated love, "Reb Yitzchak, do you want a wooden match?" When Reb Yitzchak nodded his head, my brother ran quickly to bring it to him. His childish happiness was a joy beyond compare when Reb Yitzchak took the wooden match from his little hand, thanked him, and patted him on the cheek. One time, Reb Yitzchak left our house, but immediately afterwards the door opened again and he returned quickly with a face as white as death. My parents were very shaken, and he was unable to speak, just pointed with his finger at the door. My mother went out and saw that there was a piece of pork tied next to the door of our house. She asked around and sought after what had occurred, and some youths told her that the Christian maiden who lived in our courtyard had done this thing. My mother asked her "Why?" She answered, "Why did this one make us abominable by becoming a Jew? I would slay him right now if only I were able." He couldn't eat bread all that day because he was depressed. He was a complete Tzadik, none were like him. One time when my mother sent me to bring him tea in the morning, he was standing in his room praying. He wore tefillin with a big tallit over his head and back, and the siddur in his hand was wet from his tears. When I saw this I was frightened. I set the tea on his table and went quickly out of the room. When I told my father he was amazed and commanded us not to interrupt Yitzchak again during his prayers.
One day he arrived at our house earlier than he usually came and was very happy and light-hearted. His joy was apparent on his face, and my father asked him, "Reb Yitzchak, you have news today. Would that you always be so happy."
"Yes, yes, my dear friend. On account of this I came early today. Please know, my dear friend, that today makes two years since I was granted my heart's desire and my name was called in Israel, Yitzchak ben Avraham, and this day was the happiest of all the days of my life. It's a wonder to me that for almost eight months I have been in your house, regarded as a beloved son in your eyes, and beyond doubt your souls have desired to hear about my history from my own mouth. Despite this you have never asked me once, and you surely knew that I wouldn't withhold from you any desire, even the most difficult thing. Strangers weary me with their questions, but you, my dears, don't make any request of me. Here I am on this happy day to tell you of my origins, from my childhood up through the present, and give praise and thanks to the Lord for bringing me to this day. Here I am studying Bible and Talmud and understanding what I learn, and I have learned very much during this period." He sat down next to my father and we all sat around him to listen to his words, and here they are:
My father was the palace administrator (Kammarharar) for King Wilhelm in Germany, but due to illness he was given leave and returned to his estate in Landsberg, not far from Berlin. His name is Erlich. My father is Lutheran and my mother is Catholic. In my childhood I was a heretic, without belief in the faith of my father, and my mother was always complaining that she didn't know what would become of me. I had no desire to go to church, and when I occasionally attended on her orders, I didn't pay any attention to the words of the priest. In my studies in school, in religion class, I asked so many questions that the teacher became short-tempered and angry, and shouted loudly, "Stupid boy, what do you want! Listen and don't ask. If you multiply your questions you won't learn a thing." But I was stubborn, "If you won't describe for me with sound logic this passage that goes against common sense, comprehension and reason, I won't learn it." So he set me on my knees in the corner and all of the students laughed at me. But I didn't mind his disciplining me. This happened many times until the priest wearied of bearing my stubborn rebelliousness. He came to my mother's house and complained in her ears that I was a complete atheist and a non-believer in everything. So my mother took me from the school, and on the advice of my sister who was married to the administrator of the Staten district, I was put in a Catholic seminary to be made into a priest, despite my anger and fury. My mother's instructions lay heavy on me because I was a prisoner of this obedient band, who were all men of God. My father didn't interfere with my education and sometimes he laughed inside when he saw the anger of my mother. When I went to my new school to hear these new, or old lessons, I started doing the same as before, surrounding them with questions and objections that they couldn't bear. At my mother's instructions they began to pressure me with words and punishments. Once when I went to my father to complain about the harshness of my teachers, he said laughing, "Why do you inform them what you are thinking in your heart?" I wanted to act according to my father's advice; to be at peace with them and not tell them my hearts thoughts, but I wasn't able, because my spirit compelled me. So I was at war, war with my mother and war with my soul's feelings, and a whole year I suffered pains in the body and pains in my soul until I couldn't bear it and fled the place never to return. I was thirteen years old then, and my father sent me to a school in Berlin. There I studied three years until I completed the course, and when I finished, my father took me into his business to supervise his accounts since he knew that I had mastered accounting. Good times arrived for me, days of freedom and days of delight. Every day I worked a couple hours at my desk, because I had to figure many accounts, like the produce of my father's fields. His houses and the village brought him an income of forty thousand silver coins per year, and all the accounts were under my control. My father was satisfied, and I loved him and honored him like an angel on high who had thrust away all of my sorrows, because when I came under my father's patronage my mother ceased quarreling with me. But despite this, she dealt badly with my father and I on account of his letting me be free-spirited. I loved the hunt, and whenever I had free time I went to hunt animals and birds. When I lay in bed at night I read books, not novels, but books full of serious matters and delights. While I was in school in Berlin I bought myself a world almanac in the German language and this I valued more than gold. In my free time I didn't put it down until I had it almost memorized, also the Bible I read and reread many times, and other books reproduced in German. I read these books every night until I fell asleep. Often I was occupied with strange thoughts, thoughts that mystified me how and in what manner they stole into my brain. But as they came, so did they go, making room for others.
A day of holiday arrived for us and I had the day off from work. My mother and younger brother came to my room and asked me to travel with them to the great cathedral in Berlin. I knew they would go to the Catholic church, and I was consumed with hatred for the priests for all the needless suffering they had caused me during the year I studied with them. I put them off with a lie and promised to go after them on my horse. They believed me, because they knew how much I loved to ride, and they set off. Once they had left the courtyard, I saddled my horse, slung my gun over my shoulder, and whistled to my faithful dog who came to my side. My horse was a beautiful stallion that swallowed the miles at a gallop. I mounted him and rode, not to the church and not to Berlin, but to the forest to hunt. I covered the forest to its length and breadth without shooting a thing because I wasn't out for a hunt. My spirit had brought me here, my spirit bore me and lifted me on imaginary wings, upward and outward without end. I hadn't eaten, except for breakfast bread, but I didn't feel hungry, thirsty or tired, nor did I sense that my horse began to move slower. I just wanted to soar to the heights and ask what is good for a man, how can he find peace for his soul and his feelings? Can it be possible that he find satisfaction in mere food, drink and fine clothes? Will these cheer the soul that seeks things more pleasant and noble? I didn't notice that my horse stood leaning against a tree as I flew and soared, and all the days of my youth passed before me: My mother's rules, my teacher's rules, my questions, their answers and punishments, and my bitterness and stubborn rebellion. I weighed it all on the scale in my mind and found that I was still far from my goal, a great distance, and God knows if I could obtain it. Yes, I thought, only God who examines our hearts will pardon me and help me, as you will hear in the course of my story. I plumbed the depths of my thoughts and didn't know my soul. Then behold! The dog began to bark loudly, and pulled strongly at the corner of my cloak until I roused from my meditative state. I opened my eyes and it was dark all around. I looked up at the thickening and blackening skies, and a great wind came up and made the trees groan. The branches shuddered and moved violently, like the arteries of my heart, and they bent down their tips from above my head to touch my ears, as if to say to me in noisy voices, "Fool! Don't you see that it's dark all around you and soon lightning and thunder will fill the forest. Get moving fast, don't stand there. Save your life!" These words, or thoughts, urged me on and put hope in my heart, and the darkness and storm in the forest brought me clarity of thought. I mounted my horse, and even though he was hungry and tired, he still went at a gallop as if I had charmed him with Arabic words. I stroked his mane and off he went, and my dog came after us. I knew that it was yet very far to my father's house, and I wouldn't arrive before the rain overtook me, so I turned my horse up the path that went to the house of the lessee. He held a large portion of my father's land by lease, he was a learned and upright Jew, who was also rich and good-hearted. But before I could reach his house, the rain poured down with lightning and awful thunderclaps sounding their voice and showing their great destructiveness. I took pleasure in this terrible vision and didn't know why. My horse rose to the task, but when I saw that I was close to the lessee's house, I dismounted and grasped his reigns and led the two of us, slowly and with dignity, despite the heavy rain coming down. My dog ran ahead, apparently he ran to notify the lessee's household that I was on the way, because in another minute, the lessee and his servant were out to greet me. The servant took my soaking jacket and my horse and gave me a different jacket in exchange, and the lessee put his arm around me and hurried me into the house. There I sat down to rest and my host asked if I had trekked long in the rain. "The lightning and the rain have so engaged me," I answered, "that I didn't feel the rain. I imagined that on the day the Torah was given to Israel there wasn't lightning like this. So why this lightning now? Isn't the Torah already given?"
"Not to everyone, my honored Sir," answered the lessee with a gaze that penetrated to my heart. These wise words rocked my cherished thoughts, as if a new spirit had entered inside me, and the idea that was hidden in his words transformed me into a different man. I had plumbed the depths of my thoughts and ended up in my heart, and now I had to figure out a course of action from all of this. The mistress of the house came in and set food before me and sweetly requested me to eat. Then I remembered I hadn't eaten all day. I gazed around the room we were sitting in and behold, it was full of splendor and beauty more beyond that of regular days, and I asked energetically, "Tell me please my friend, do you also have a holiday?"
"Yes sir," the lessor answered me, "In a little while the Sabbath will arrive in beauty and glory and we Jews must greet it in rejoicing and splendor. The Sabbath is the best present that was hidden in the vault of the Lord of the World that he graciously gave us, so we must acknowledge that goodness." Every word he spoke and every syllable that came from his lips were like balm to my soul, because he spoke wisely.
This good man stood at my right to serve me and didn't lift his eyes from me. Apparently he understood my thoughts, and he said:
"My dear young man. If only you wished to honor me and to stay here and eat supper with us this evening, then I would know I have found favor in your eyes. Please don't refuse. I will send the Lady, your mother, a messenger to inform her that you are here with us this evening." "I accept the invitation with all my heart and soul," I answered him, "With joy I contemplate sitting in the company of such upright people as yourselves. But don't inform my mother of any of this, she will think that I'm in Berlin."
The room that I sat in was full of light and cheer. A silver candelabra with seven stalks sparkled on the great table which was covered with an fine tablecloth. Candles on the walls cast light from every side. The master of the house went to another room to pray, and when he returned we all sat down to the table. I sat to the right of my host, and as we sat at the table he elucidated for me the value of the Sabbath and other precious things that I should know. Every question I asked he answered me sensibly and knowledgeably, and I felt I was in a different world. The evening left a good impression on my heart and from that day on my love for and trust in this man grew, until I made him my secret advisor. Every Friday night I went to this dear Jew and celebrated their Sabbath in their family circle. I told him of every precious and secret thing I had and consulted with him, because I felt in my soul that this man was very near to me.
One day I sat at my desk to work, but I had lost a vital ledger. I started to search for it and to rummage through all of the letters and bills that were in the writing drawer, but it wasn't there. I searched the top drawers and the bottom drawers and it wasn't there. I opened one drawer that had another drawer inside, and within that drawer I found a small leather sack, wrapped up and tucked away. I opened it and discovered letters in old, faded script, and although the writing wasn't smudged, I still couldn't read it. I took the sack and hid it in my pocket, closed the bottom drawer and continued to search for the ledger. Then my father came in and said to me, "I forgot to tell you that I found this vital ledger under the desk yesterday and put it in my pocket. Now wake up and be more careful in what you're doing, because if it hadn't been found we might have been greatly damaged." I took the ledger from my father's hand and bowed my head to show that he was justified, but I wasn't able to answer him a word, as the desire burned within me to know what was in these new found letters. My workday passed, I closed up the desk, put on my overcoat, saddled my horse and galloped off to my friend and companion, to see if he could find the basis of the words in the letter. I arrived at his house and he greeted me joyfully.
"I have an urgent matter for you my friend," I said to him, so he escorted me to his special room and closed the door behind him. I related to him a summary of what had happened, and showed him what I had found. "It's Hebrew writing," he cried, and read thirstily in great astonishment. He began reading through every letter one after another, and he lost his voice from amazement, and shock was plain on his face. He read every letter from beginning to end and then said to me with a radiant face, "My dear friend, your father and your grandfather were Jews. His father gave up his religion under compulsion during the great destruction that took place in Germany. In order to save himself from death, he accepted the Lutheran faith with his wife and children, amongst whom your father was numbered, then ten years old. His genealogy is written in the letter, along with which family in Israel he is from, his name and in what city the conversion took place." He read all the letters to me from start to finish, translating to German.
When he finished reading, I cried ecstatically, "What a find I have made! Now I draw close to my goal. The Lord has helped me. To the rock from whence I was cleaved I shall return. The Lord is the God of my fathers and will also be my God, and Israel is my people. It's already a year that I've walked about carrying inside the thought of becoming a Jew, and now I will be so, whatever may come."
This man, even though he had understood my thoughts from before, still became very worked up and asked me, "My friend, maybe this is just a mirage to allay some other problem, and after a while you will regain your composure? A step so grave and exalted isn't made in one night. Haven't you read about many of the events that happened to our unfortunate people who have been found for most of their history in bitter exile; the servitude, the hardships, the robbery and murder we suffered from many cruel savages. Now it's been ten years since the ruler of this land freed and liberated us. "The Jew is also a human being," they said, "All of them, from the least to the greatest. Emancipation and equality will be given to him like all men." The cries of the masses still ring in my ears from '48: "Liberty. Fraternity. Equality. There's no difference between the Jews and the Germans! Open the ghetto gates!" Now things are good for us. Now positive and compassionate words are heard. If only it will remain so. But my dear friend, will these enlightened days be extended? Will they continue? Time will tell. This isn't the first time such a false light has appeared to us. Didn't Spain give us freedom and liberty almost beyond measure, and with what did we leave there? That is known to all. You are the son of a great and honored man, a world full of honor and prestige awaits you. Will you abandon all of this to join a wretched people and be tortured when they are tortured? Not so. Not so, my friend."
"No, No," I cried, "I will not do otherwise. My grandfather sold his faith for his life and I will return to the Lord and buy it back for me and my descendants forever. I will return again to my people. May God test me so, and more also. Please don't speak to me any more about this issue." From that day forth he thought of me as a Jew. I divested myself of many things that are allowed to all peoples but forbidden to Israel. The dear man remained my secret advisor, and every time I came to his house he taught me Torah. He translated many books for me that had not yet been translated, and he strove to obtain for me those that were translated. His primary advice was that I fulfill my obligation to the army of my own free will, because I was eighteen, and doubtless I would lose much time later in changing my condition. I served for a whole year in the cavalry and I attained the rank of a junior officer and I also received a medal for my skill (and he showed us his insignia and medal). When I fulfilled my service I returned to my father's house, and there I began to employ my skill to speed me to my goal. I wrote a letter of request to the king himself and I attached the Hebrew letters inside it. A year went past and I was summoned to the great council, and there was asked different questions. In the end, they intended to send me to a mental asylum, but many helpful people stood by me and I wasn't sent there. They called in doctors who examined me and decided unanimously that I was healthy and whole, and then they began to consider the matter seriously. After their consultations were finished, they said that if my father will agree to the thing, they will give me my wish. But if he didn't agree, I would be forbidden from it by law, sentenced to five years of hard labor, and stripped of my standing and rights. When the time arrived for my father to stand before the seat of Justice, he was very upset because he was a man of faith and peace. He had never done another man wrong or been involved in anything that was against the laws of the land, and he asked me, "What is this about?" So I answered, "Don't be frightened, father. I haven't stolen or robbed, I am only returning to the God of my ancestors and of my people. Your grandfather was a Jew and I am returning there." Two tear drops rolled down his cheeks from his eyes, but they weren't tears of hate and condemnation, but tears of despair because we would be separated forever and his love for me was a true love. He didn't say another thing, just sat at his desk as I accounted for him all the matters of his estate. I went over all the accounts and notes, and nothing was lacking. He placed a pouch on the table with about two thousand silver coins and wrote on it these few words, "You have served me faithfully for three years, here are your wages." But I didn't touch a bit of it and I went out of his house never to return. I didn't take anything with me from my father's house, except for the name Erlich. He traveled to Berlin and I traveled to Breslau. I lived in the house of the Rabbi of Breslau and waited for the verdict, if I would be imprisoned or free. Even in Berlin I had beloved friends who kept me informed of all the happenings there. I received a letter from one of my friends in which he wrote, "Your honorable father, on arriving at the courthouse, was asked by the chief justice if he agreed with your plan to convert to Judaism, and he answered 'Yes'." He did this because he loved me and didn't want to hurt me, and he knew that without his approval I would have had laid on me an awful sentence that would bring even more shame on his family than a son who converts to Judaism. So he signed his name that he agreed to the wishes of his son. I was luminous and happy, but I waited another six months before they returned my letter with permission to become a Jew. All this time I lived in the house of the Rebbe who taught me to read Hebrew and also taught me Torah. I was careful in fully performing all of the Mitzvot according to the faith of Israel, only on Sabbath before sunset I lit myself a cigarette to smoke. One time the Rabbi saw what I was doing and it wasn't right in his eyes. He said to me kindly and calmly, "I hope when you accept the full yoke of the kingdom of heaven you won't do this thing again. If you had only waited another hour you would have observed the Shabbos properly." Then I answered him, "Rebbe, don't think that I can't restrain myself from smoking, God forbid, that isn't it. Didn't our Sages of Blessed Memory record, "A non-Jew who observes the Sabbath is punished by death" because is written in the Torah, "The Sabbath is a sign between me and between the children of Israel." How could I sin in my soul and transgress the words of the Torah!"
The Rabbi cried from joy and strong emotions and blessed me and from then on he kept a brazier for me for smoking. He arranged many entertainments on my behalf to amuse me until I received the written approval, to the delight of my hearts and the hearts of those who loved me. Then the rabbi and the leading lights of the city began to make preparation for my admission into the impossible. Rabbis and rich men came from many cities to share in my happiness. On the morning of that day all the invited guests came to the house of the rabbi and a Torah scroll was brought, and the rabbi read from the scroll the parsha Lech-Lecha "and Abraham was ninety-nine years old, etc..." When everything was prepared, the rabbi approached me and said, "My son, maybe we should bind your hands and feet, so you won't cause some accident?" So I answered, "God forbid. Is it possible I couldn't make this sacrifice to the Lord when if he sought my life I would give it to him with all of my heart?" And they did with me as I requested and I was named Yitzchak ben Avraham, and here I am today two years in the Jewish world. They ate and drank and rejoiced all day and all night long then returned to their homes, and I lay in the house of the rabbi. For two days I didn't feel any great pain, but the third day I became sick with fever, and heat spread through my body. From day to day my condition worsened and the doctor said that I was dangerously ill. All of the people of the city were stunned and didn't know what to do. The rabbi of Breslau, in whose house I was staying, remained there day and night without moving from my bed until the Lord helped me. Finally the doctor said the danger had passed, but the sickness ruled over me for more than six months before I returned to full health. Then all the Jews in the city and surroundings celebrated in great happiness. After all of this, I said that I must go to Russia and see my brethren there because I heard they were very observant and learned in Torah, and I wanted to learn Torah and know her path. There in Breslau lived a rich businessman from the city of Warsaw and he invited me to travel with him to Warsaw. The man was rich and a Hassid. I traveled with him, and I was welcomed by almost all the Hassidim in Warsaw when we arrived. There was happiness and rejoicing in the rich man's house, and every day there was a feast like a king's feast in his home. I thought that all of the Jews must be very happy, yet the image appeared to me unbidden of a poor Jewish peddler who had sometimes come to our house to buy old items. How he bowed his tall stature to all the servants and maids who made him little presents of worthless things. So, I thought, "It's true then, the Jews of Poland are rich, because I haven't seen any poor or destitute in all these days I've passed with you in feasting and celebration." One time, the rich man said to me, "Reb Yitzchak, this week we will travel to see the Rebbe of Radine, and there you will see a great man beyond compare. That same day I was invited to see the Rabbi of Warsaw, and he was very disparaging and astonished at how and why I'd chosen my dwelling with the Hassidim. I said to him, "'Piety' is the meaning of 'Hassid', and I seek the God-fearing." He answered, "As do I." Three days later we all went to see the Rebbe of Radine; I, the rich man in whose home I was staying, and many other Hassidim. We arrived, and they renewed their habitual feasting and drinking. Week after week passed, month replaced month, and I went constantly to the Rebbe's house. Every day different people and new guests arrived, but the old guests didn't leave or move from their places, and they filled the city. The houses and stables, the barn lofts and basements were all filled with different people from different cities until there was no place left. Every day I ate my noon meal at the Rabbe's table, my breakfast in another man's house and my supper in a different man's house, but on Shabbos I ate all three meals at the Rebbe's table. At first I couldn't eat without a knife and fork, but the Hassidim laughed at me and jeered me saying, "A Hassid you will be called? As long as you need a spoon, a knife and a fork to eat you aren't fit to be called a Hassid! Watch us and do like us." I went along with them and I was made a Hassid like them in the full meaning of the word. Only one thing was hard for me. When I sat at the Rebbe's table and listened to his words of Torah, I wanted very much to understand, but I didn't understand a thing. Once I complained to the rich Hassid about my lack of comprehension, since I couldn't understand any of his Torah lesson. He answered me laughingly, "Slow one, this isn't necessary. Why should you understand? Was I not born a Hassid, and have I not studied since the time I was weaned from my mother's breast? Not a year has passed that I haven't been here twice and visited with the Rebbe, and every time I have heard much Torah, and despite all of this I don't understand but a fraction of a small part. And you wish to understand? It is only the hidden Torah he explains to us. The angels, only they may understand, not us." Eight months I lived there and I didn't know what I was doing. I drank with them, I ate with them in their manner, from the hand to the mouth. I danced with them, I sang their songs, I listened to their stories. The little I had learned in Germany I knew, but nothing more. I prayed with them and they put on me another Tefillin, and when they heard me praying and reading from the siddur they laughed at me and said, "No, that's how the Germans say it, but now you are a Hassidic Jew." And I thought this was correct, and I started to read like them.
On Simchat Torah, I drank way too much with them and was sick, and my life had made food loathsome to me. I lay on my bed senseless, and when the wine had gone out of me, I began to think and worry about my end. "Can it be true," I asked myself, "That this is how the Jews of the exile live? Can they spend all their days in drunken joy? If so, why don't the Jews of Germany do the same? Isn't the dear man who lives on my father's estate wise and learned beyond compare? He is rich also, so why doesn't he do these things? Besides, he told me that the majority of Jews of Russia and Poland are greatly learned. If this is what they do and this is how they live, when will I learn?" So when I returned to my senses and went into their company I asked them, "My dear shepherds, I want to ask you what will come of me. It wasn't to drink that I converted, but to learn Torah and know the Lord, because ignorance isn't piety."
"Idiot," one of them answered me, "We don't need to learn. Doesn't the Rebbe learn our portion for us? What can we learn and what would we know if we studied? Isn't the Torah full of secrets, hints, and hidden things, so we could never understand it."
"Not so," I answered them, "Doesn't it say in the Torah itself that it is not in the heavens?" They laughed at me, but their answers had pushed me far away from them. The next day I took a parting blessing from the Rebbe and from the rich man with whom I had made the pilgrimage, and one man who wasn't a Hassid advised me to travel to Dvinsk, and so I did. I came here, and I didn't err in my destination. Now I know that the Lord has placed me on the true path. Lo, I spent ten months in the company of the Hassidim, I didn't learn anything from them except for how to drink,. Now I have been here about eight months and I have learned all of tractate Baba Metzia and have started Baba Batra, and in the Bible I have studied the early and late commentators. I'd never prayed to advance so far in learning in such a short time. I am so happy in my teacher and in my Rebbe. I know that you have dedicated your strength and your time on my behalf. Truly you have done the work of the Lord, and for all of my days my soul will be tied to your soul and the souls of your family. And what you did for me, honorable lady," he turned to my mother z"l, "During all the days without end that I lay confined in bed, you defied description. Like a tender mother to her only son you watched over me for a month, you didn't rest or remain still, nor spare your own health until I returned to myself. So this is the story of my origins," he concluded happily, "And now I'm going to Horowitz's house because those honorable people have prepared a family gathering in my honor this evening, and dedicated it to their guests."
Behold this was a great dear man who left all the pleasures of the world behind him and came to be absorbed into an oppressed people, to be tormented and suffer with them as part of their part. Twenty-two years ago I met his wife in Vilna, a dear and upright woman with a little daughter. She told me that they'd lived in the city of her birth in Russia in peace for a few years, but then the riots and the pogroms came there and they were happy to have managed to flee amidst the upheavals and come to Vilna. She and the girl remained in Vilna while he traveled to Riga to get work, and more I didn't hear of him. I'm sad for you, dear man, you were without a doubt driven from there also, because you are a Jew. He, Reb Yitzchak the righteous Tzaddik ben Avraham our father, who cast off a world full of all good and brought upon himself sorrows and troubles, and was happy with his lot because he was a Jew. Behold, this is the power and spirit of Israel. A grandfather who was sunken and concealed was restored to greater majesty and brought out of the deep abyss. The Prince will raise the lost and the dispossessed and set them in the highest place.
I welcome and questions or comments.
About Sarah Foner | Memories of My Youth | The Treachery of Traitors | Letter to HaYom | Memories of My Childhood | The Convert from Germany | The Children's Path | A Righteous Love | Contact Information | Order Published Book