Sunday, January 3, 2021

Entries from The Diary of a Jewish Bookseller Jan 2021

A visibly Irritated man calls insisting I tell him why he is receiving unsolicited books from my store.  Turns out that someone was purchasing books on controlling your anger and sending them at regular intervals to this man's address. 

A Non-profit whose aim is stated as preserving the history and literature of Syrian Jews called my store and requested, or rather insisted that I don't sell copies of their publication which I acquire second-hand as they want to be the exclusive source for their publications

A customer from rural Texas sends me this message after our lengthy call was disconnected. "Sorry about the interference.   I am curious myself about it.   I was left with a fuzzy brain as I hung up -  interesting. But I can break their power over me by speaking in tongues to God, so I did and the fuzzy is clearing.....   They never went that far before!   I don't know who 'they' are but as long as I am on the Lord's side, I can stay in the Spirit of God....   I have learned a lot about what warfare is in the Spirit....   speaking in tongues (I do it loudly!)  is the most powerful.    They can't fight against it."

A response to an email I sent to a customer telling him that the book he requested arrived: "I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you regarding this book.  Unfortunately, Mr. Lipman passed away around 5:30 p.m. on Monday, September 16.  I never had a chance to even ask him about the book.  His death was very unexpected and we are all in shock.  Thank you for all of your help obtaining the books."

A response from a customer who received a book in the mail from me. "I am interested in the newspaper you used to pack my books. I would like to get a subscription to it . I would call them if I had the phone number of their office and see about having it sent to me. ! Please, will you send the number? Thank you in advance......"

A visit to a local home to acquire books turned in to a two hour lecture and overview of the lady of the house's stand on vaccination. They were in the process of emigrating to avoid the forced vaccination of their children with the Covid-vaccine. 

A bride to be called to order a Meam Loez in the original Ladino, as per the ancient Turkish Jewish tradition where a groom would receive a Meam Loez on his wedding day

An order came through for a set of Zohar in English going to a Japanese woman incarcerated in Rikers. It was explained to me how the Japanese are descended from the lost tribes of Israel and how their literatures complement each other.

A local slightly confused customer asked if I was planning on being closed on both days of Tishah Be'av

A traditional Syrian Jew requested to view a manuscript in the handwriting of the Ben Ish Hai, but insisted I find him a head-covering beforehand in respect of the sanctity of the writing. 

A noted CNN TV anchor inquired from my store who was sending her books on Anti-Semitism from my store, she was impressed when I explained that it was most likely someone who thought she can use some insights in to the topic and was buying them and sending them to her address.

Just got a rundown and comparison of the Artscroll Sephardic Siddur vs the Moroccan English translation of the Siddur from a African-American convert to Judaism

A purchase of 10 Yom Kippur Machzorim was returned after the holiday by a lady from California as she explained to me that she no longer needed them as the holiday was now over

An order for a copy of the "Sanctity of the Mechitzah" by Baruch Litvin came with a note that it was intended as a gift for a great-granddaughter's of the author's wedding and the wedding will indeed sport a mechitzah

A walk-in who claimed to be a professional graphologist spent an extended amount of time analyzing the handwriting of manuscripts of the Chafetz Chaim and Ben In Hai in my possession, showing me how their differing personalities are evident in the handwriting styles

A regular customer currently in a Florida Jail requested I write to his parole board advocating for his release. 

An email came in from an author with a request to pay for space in store for titles such as "Living For Higher Purpose: Story of a City Boy Who Survived the Vietnam War by Living for Jesus and Others"

The widow of a rabbi whose extensive and all-encompassing library I acquired told me how she served for decades as her husbands librarian, retrieving and shelving books as needed.

 A customer from the rural mid-west, hearing of the hard-hit areas in Brooklyn due to covid, sent me $300 to be distributed to a needy family locally

A caller insisted I arranged to have books picked up from his home immediately as he wanted his house tidy in the expectation of guests

A customer from Boro Park walked in to the store and saw me preparing an order for shipment. Based on the contents, he was able to correctly guess the name of the purchaser in Chicago by knowing his interests

I came across a walk-in customer bragging of his sponsoring volumes of the Artscroll Talmud and his minor contributions, oblivious to the fact that the person he was speaking to was the editor and translator of many of the volumes in the Artscroll Talmud

After received his order of a book by Jonathan Sacks, the customer called to confirm if Sacks was Orthodox, having been shocked by Sack's non-literal understanding of the story of Adam and Eve

A large order for books on the subject of Hitler's life came with the disclaimer that the purchaser was no admirer of Hitler and his interest was purely academic in nature.

A request to make an appointment to visit the store was prefaced by asking if I mind that he currently is testing positive for Coronavirus

Just mailed a large box full of children books to a grandfather in quarantine who told me he reads stories to his grandchildren each night over the phone.

A customer from an area relatively unaffected by Covid sponsored a quantity of books to be distributed to local Jewish Children stuck at home due to school closures

Came across a Yiddish description of my store on the web: ר׳ ישראל מזרחי פון מזרחי ספרים סטאר

A customer explained his extreme care for the numerous books in his possession, as he viewed himself as merely a custodian for books until the next owner claims them for his collection'

A request came in for any Hebrew books with green covers to match the décor and style of a room in the purchasers house

A PhD student strolling through the store tells me of her hunt for an article in an obscure Russian Jewish Journal to complete her dissertation. By chance, I had that very volume in a recently acquired collection

A request to cancel an order came with the note :""I won't be able to feed my dogs. I need that $15 to spend on one more bag of dog food, or they'll run out of food before I get payed again."

Multiple Jewish Bibles were purchased by someone who sent me: "I'm trying to supply Torah's to people who never thought they needed one, and show them the beauty I see in it~"

I was rather befuddled when I received this message: "Please cancel this order. I'm a levite, and focusing on the Zohar for now."

A long-time customer who has now been sentenced to 20 years for attempted murder, had created a want list of books he is interested in purchasing. At regular intervals, he finds people to sponsor specific titles and I mail them to his facility.

After receiving a book ordered, an Israeli customer correctly guessed the previous owner of the volume received based on the marginalia he found written in the volume

Disclaimer: If you think you or someone you know is referenced in one of the above encounters, you are most likely correct

The Mir Yeshiva’s escape to Shanghai - a New Perspective based on recently discovered publications

The Mir Yeshiva’s escape to Shanghai - a New Perspective based on recently discovered publications

originally written for and published in Ami Magazine

Six million - the impossibly horrific number which has come to represent the devastation of the Holocaust, represents six million individual people’s life stories which ended in tragic, vicious and preventable deaths. Each one of the deaths is a culmination of an infinite number of divinely led circumstances which led to their fate, a combination of hate and evil of the perpetrators and indifference and the turning a blind eye of the multitude of bystanders who refused to extend help to the helpless victims. Conversely, every Holocaust survivor’s life is a combination of an eternal string of miracles that led him to his survival and often occurred with the aid of countless people along the way who chose to assist, even in the most minor ways.

One of the most notable and well known stories of survival during the second world war, was the ordeal of the Mirrer Yeshiva and their eventual arrival in Shanghai where they resided through the end of the war. With the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, the Yeshiva moved east towards Lithuania. The yeshiva first re-established itself in Vilna and then in Keidan, Lithuania. With the annexation of Lithuania to the Soviet Union, the Yeshiva was again forced to move and split into 4 sections which continued their studies independently in 4 different Lithuanian Towns. In the summer of 1940, it became known to students in the Yeshiva that visas were being given by the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, and as a result, most of the Yeshiva students requested and received visas from Sugihara. Late in 1940, the Yeshiva students traveled via the trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, Russia; followed by a trip by sea to Tsuruga, Japan. By March 1941, the Yeshiva reunited and operated in Kobe, Japan. A short time later, the Japanese expelled the Jews from Kobe and resettled them in Shanghai, China, then under their control.

While the story of the Mir Yeshiva’s survival has been told, researched and written about numerous times, A group of publications I discovered recently tells the story from a very different perspective, from the eyes of the supporters and activists on their behalf in the United States during this horrific period. An often overlooked horror during this dark period in world history is the despair following the often futile attempts to aid. Many times the wanted result was beyond the reach of the few and far between heroic figures who devoted their life in their attempts to assist those in need. While the Yeshiva trekked around the world facing closed doors in every direction, there was a small but selfless group of people in the United States that put every effort into assisting the Yeshiva in whatever ways possible. 

This group of people, from at least as early as the mid-1930s, formed a group titled the board of Directors and Ladies Auxiliary of the Mirrer Yeshiva, based in New York. In December of every year, they would organize a dinner to promote awareness and raise funds for the perpetually destitute Yeshiva. In honor of each of these dinners, they produced a journal which included up-to-date information about the activities of the Yeshiva and its graduates, messages from the Roshe Yeshiva, discussion of activities and funds raised on behalf of the Yeshiva and articles describing the uniqueness and importance of the Mir Yeshiva. In a recently acquired library, I came across a run of these annual journals from Dec 1936 thru Dec 1941, containing much hitherto long forgotten and unresearched information relating to this crucial period in the Yeshiva’s survival. These journals, in English, Yiddish and Hebrew detail the efforts, urgency, despair and selflessness of the individuals involved in their attempts to assist the Yeshiva throughout the entire exile period. Within, we find additionally complete lists of the Yeshiva students during their different exiles, as an attempt to locate American relatives of the students who can sign affidavits to obtain American Visas. 

The members of this organization include some of the most prominent names of American Jewry of the day. Irving M. Bunim (philanthropist and lay leader), Rabbi Simcha Soloveitchik (son of the Beis Halevi), R. Hirsch Manischewitz (Manischewitz Baking Co), R. Zvi Hirsch Masliansky (Famed American Maggid), Gedaliah Bublick (Yiddish writer and Zionist leader) and Harry Fischel (businessman and philanthropist) can be found between the scores of names of directors and members of this organization. An equal portion of the volumes contain the names and activities of the Ladies Auxiliary committee, led by Mrs. Rose Meltzer, as well as articles by Mrs Meltzer describing the activities of the committee. Under Mrs. Meltzer’s guidance, the Ladies Auxiliary organized societies supporting the Mir in various American Cities, popularizing a campaign where women would give donations to the Yeshiva during Candle Lighting on Friday Nights. 

Below are selected excerpts from these journals that can shed some insight on the activities of the American supporters during this period and their devotion to the Yeshiva in the period leading up to the war. The first journals appeared during the relative stability of the late 1930s but still a period of extreme financial hardships that was the lot of most of the Jews in Eastern Europe during this period. As the situation in Eastern Europe deteriorated, the contents of the journals took on a keener sense of urgency and hovering despair. A glimpse into some of these journals' contents gives insight on the activities of this select group of people whose life revolved around the support and survival of the Yeshiva. 

From the Sunday, Dec 20, 1936 banquet journal, Hotel St. Moritz, New York City

“The spiritual situation in the Yeshivah is superb, but its financial situation is dire due to the great costs to support the many students arriving to the Yeshiva from throughout the world. It is heartening to see that our brothers from a distance are honoring the Yeshiva by ensuring their survival and ability to continue its work, the holy work of spreading Torah throughout the Jewish People. Due to the current dire situation, there is no possibility that the Yeshiva will survive off the local torah supporters, our only hope is to bring sustenance from afar, from our brethren in America.” - from a letter by Rabbi Chaim Oizer Grodzinsky printed in the Journal, dated 10th of Kislev, 5697

From the Sunday, Dec 18, 1938 banquet journal, Hotel Sharon, New York City

“In a little village that lies in the depths of Eastern Poland, stands an old, world famed Mirrer Yeshiva. A white brick building of simple structure, yet noble in appearance, that has for numerous decades produced the greatest Rabbis, teachers and Scholars of the generation. Within the 4 walls of this Yeshivah sat and studied those who became the leaders of Jewry, scholars and Rabbis who became the recognized authorities of Jewish religious custom.

Generations have passed and the Mirrer Yeshivah still stands as a center of Torah and Jewish learning and in her large Beth Hamedrash there sit and study those young men who are destined to become the leaders and religious guides of Jewry in this generation. The Yeshivah numbers no less than 500 students and amongst them are young men from almost every country in the world, students who have graduated from English, American, Canadian, French and German universities, young men who have received their doctorates in medicine, philosophy, physics, mathematics, young men who have left promising business careers and have travelled from all corners of the globe to drink from the fountain of Jewish knowledge at this great center of Torah in Mir. There are about seventy German refugee students who have fled to Mir to take refuge in the warm hospitable Jewish Student Brotherhood which is the Mirrer Yeshivah. - By an American Student in Mirrer Yeshivah

From the Wed. Dec 20, 1939 banquet journal, Hotel Sharon, New York City

“28th of Heshvan 5700:

The tumultuous days that transpired were brief but the enormity of the troubles make them feel like scores of years have passed us. All that I can write in my letters will only be like a drop in the ocean relative to our reality, thus I will restrain myself from writing of the past and discuss the present.

With vivid miracles we managed to save from the great horrible upheaval 300 students from our Yeshiva and are here in Vilna. But upon arrival, we have not found solitude despite our many hopes. Firstly, the Yeshiva students are residing among gentiles, penniless and hungry for bread. Do not think that hungry for bread is being used here as an exaggeration, the students are literally hungry for bread. It would be superfluous to say how the hunger and troubles that befell the students has affected their health. Even the angels in heaven cry over the lot of the Torah of the Yeshiva and any heart that witnesses it will melt from the sight of the troubles. 

The very basic necessity of the Yeshiva now will cost more than $2500, and alas we have only debts and no money at this time. Therefore, the Yeshiva is under extreme pressure, who knows what will become of us in this condition, heaven forbid, the students can become ill and how will we have the funds to heal them? May our father in heaven see our suffering. “ From a Hebrew letter from Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel published in the Journal”

“Today, the Yeshivah Building in Mir is locked. Today, the Jewish Community of Poland is destroyed. It is certain that in the main hall of the Yeshivah, the communist heresy is being propagated. It is certain that the pages of the Yeshiva’s sefarim are being used to wrap salted fish. The tragedy is so great, that no words can properly describe it. Our only hope is that the student body has mostly reached Russian territory and thus alive. We can be assured that these Bene Torah will not succumb to the pressure of any regime. A Mir Yeshivah student is a stubborn man. They will prevail in the land of destruction until the opportunity arises for them to reach Eretz Yisrael. A great treasure is being held ransom, 500 lions, when will they be redeemed?” - from an article in the Journal 


The war has brought destruction to Polish Jewry and has torn the greatest Torah centers from their century old sites and forces them into Exile. The Mirrer Yeshiva, the largest and oldest, was forced from Mir intol Vilno, and according to the last cable report is being reestablished in Kaidan, Lithuania. Large sums are necessary for the reestablishment of these great Torah treasures. The union of Orthodox Rabbis has initiated a national campaign for the resurrection of these Yeshivos. We urge all friends of Mirrer Yeshiva to lend their cooperation in this national Torah and nation saving emergency campaign. Do your share, the SOS is out. Listen to it with your ear and heart. 

Rabbi Eliezer Silver, Rabbi Israel Rosenberg, Rabbi Chaim Bloch, Hirsch Manischewitz” - Announcement appearing in the Journal

“27th of Heshvan 5700: 

In general, the future of the Yeshuva is unknown, as to settle in Lithuanian is impossible under any circumstance and to move the entire Yeshiva to America is untenable, therefore we want and are trying to obtain certificates to reach Eretz Yisrael. In Eretz Yisrael there can naturally be as well the foreign students, as to create various branches for the foreign students in different countries is not beneficial to the wellbeing of the Yeshiva. This process though will take a very long time and is unpredictable, therefore we must at the same time work on obtaining affidavits to reach America, which necessitates $8 per person monthly guarantees. Is there a method to obtain this? In brief, all our options are reliant on the efforts of the supporters in America, and if our supporters will relapse who knows what will become of us? It is naturally understood, that whoever has the capabilities to assist us is the one on whom the obligation prevails to assist.” - From a Hebrew letter from Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel

“The Mirrer Yeshiva has been a spiritual lighthouse to world Jewry throughout the past one hundred and twenty five years. To this day the Mirrer Yeshiva is considered the Maginot Line of Jewish spirit and tradition. Behind this spiritually fortified line, our persecuted people and securely face every destructive onslaught. As such it deserves the staunchest support of every Jew who cherishes the preservation of his people.”  - Rabbi Nissan Waxman, Journal editor

“We can truthfully say that in a great measure the existence of the Mirrer Yeshiva must be credited to the herculean efforts of our Ladies Auxiliaries. The Women of our Auxiliaries, and of all other Auxiliaries, have accepted as a divine right the duty of watching over the students of Torah lest they suffer provation.The “rendezvous for Torah” the home of Mrs. Golding, brought the first meeting and the first results, and from there was born the thought that the Ladies Auxiliaries of Mirrer Yeshiva must supply bread for the students. And they supplied the bread. Mrs. Meltzer worked tirelessly to advance the cause of the Yeshiva. House to house canvas for members did not seem difficult for her. Her fertile mind conceived the idea of a “Perpetual Tablet” which was placed in the Yeshiva and used to Commemorate the names of the Yeshiva supporters… Remarkable to note is that during the recent period when the fae of the Yeshiva was in balance, when it seemed that the dark forces would envelope the century old Torah light, these Auxiliaries did not lose faith or hope. They held their meetings and sequestered their funds. When the happy tidings of the Yeshiva reestablishment came by cable, they were immediate in their aid and perhaps saved hundreds of students from actual hunger.“ - Journal Article

“Some of the recent arrivals from the Yeshivah have left for Boston to study in a newly organized Yeshivah under the guidance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Chief Rabbi of New England. We wish them good luck and our congratulations for not having lost any time in getting back to their studies of the Torah. “ Journal Announcement 

“Important to all members and friends of the Yeshiva: You can create a perpetual memorial for your beloved ones with the establishment of a spiritual memorial in the Mirrer Yeshiva. The Yeshiva enters into an agreement in which your wishes will be fulfilled.“  - Journal Advertisement

From the Wed. Dec 18, 1940 banquet journal, Hotel Sharon, New York City

“Allow me to extend to all the friends of the Mirrer Yeshiva gathered here tonight, not to make merry and seek pleasure, but by their presence to help the Mirrer Yeshiva in its zero hour” - Morris Steinberg - treasurer and chairman of the Dinner Committee

“It is true that we are a people accustomed to be smitten and survive great historic shocks, but it must be remembered that whenever a misfortune overtook our brethren in a country or even in a part of the world, there have always been other countries who opened their gats to receive the persecuted and resettle them within their borders. Even During the darkest days of the Auto Da Fe there was the great Moslem world which stretched out its helping hand to our people in the hour of need. Now however, it is an entirely different picture. While there are more than eight million Jews entrapped in a net of horror and left at the mercy of the wickedest of the earth, there is absolutely no corner of the globe open for them and no people in the universe to offer its hospitality”  - Rabbi Nissan Waxman, Journal editor

“The tragedy is even deeper than it appears because of our lack of understanding of all this and the dearth of true Jewish leadership. The self-appointed vociferous Jewish leaders are everything but Jewish in character and spirit. Hence, their complete bewilderment and their groping in darkness in this day of trouble and rebuke.“ - Rabbi Nissan Waxman, Journal editor

“Our people live because of their faith, a faith maintained and nurtured in the synagogues and Yeshivoth of the centuries. These institutions proved the eternity of the race. So unswerving was their faith and so profound their belief in justice and truth, that they existed under the most trying circumstances. The spirit they exemplified always manifested itself in the life and tone of the nation, which looked to these institutions for the courage to endure and carry on. Many of these institutions are now in Lithuania, exiled and existing through miracles… Is it possible that these institutions which have given us, and continue to give us, lessons in courage and faith, do not in their most trying moments, deserve the faith and loyalty which they may expect from us? Will American Jewry soft-pedal their moral obligations to these Yeshivoth? Will they be guilty of gross neglect and resign themselves to the thought that these Yeshivoth can not exist?”  - Pincus Schoen, exec. Secretary, Mirror Yeshiva

“In this trying moment Rose Meltzer has doubled her energies for the Yeshiva. Her usual work which has always taxed her strength, is not sufficient, in her opinion to meet the emergency needs. She has increased her activity. Every minute of the day and part of the night is used to visit every friend and supporter of the Yeshiva. Hours are spent with each in earned solicitation for the help which should be given readily. Where once her appearance and friendly greeting was sufficient to bring favorable response she must now spend hours in exhortation to convince her friends and supporters of the Yeshiva that the Mirrer Yeshiva still exists and carried on, but that immediate help is necessary to keep body and soul together” - Journal article

“It is obligatory for every God-fearing Jew to absolve himself from all other occupations and focus exclusively on the suffering and wailing brethren which are living in constant fear…. Each and every day, their survival is a miracle brought about by the graciousness of Hashem . We have no other occupation and we shall not get distracted even for a moment, we need to just focus and how to save them”  - translated from the Hebrew letter from the Va’ad Bene Hayeshiva

“Regarding the Yeshiva, there are no words to describe the chizuk. All the members study day and night, all as one are focused on the holy spring (the Torah). I believe that never in history has there been such achievements in greatness and devotion to study. From a distance, it is impossible to understand even a fraction of this. May Hashem help us find for them sustenance and fulfill their many needs as our costs have risen to unimaginable heights, more than twice the previous expenses”  -  from a letter of R. Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir dated 11th of Heshvan 5701.

“If a dollar will only yield us 2 loaves of bread and we will be forced to survive on bread alone, we are ready to undertake all the suffering in the world in order that we can still cling on to the Torah” -  from a letter of R. Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir dated the 3rd day of Hol Hamoed Sukkot, 5701 (1940), addressed to R. A. Kalmanovich.

From the Wed. Dec 10, 1941 banquet journal, Broadway Central Hotel, New York City

“The war struck them mercilessly. Along with other Yeshivahs, the Mirrer Yeshiva with its more than 400 scholars and universally acknowledged to be the greatest was compelled to flee, and the first exile to Vilna, Lithuania was begun… It was decided to attempt a transfer of the Yeshivah, en masse, first to Japan as a temporary place of refuge and then to obtain visas for other countries that might offer permanent refuge. The venerable Dean, Rabbi L. Finkel cabled to Rabbi Kalmanowitz, the President of the Yeshiva, that they had decided to migrate. The problem of money was a difficult one. Each student needed approx. $200 for the journey to Japan and as 300 students were ready to leave, the task was a gigantic one, but it did not deter Rabbi Kalmanowitz and the friends of the Yeshivah.

Visits to Washington to try to secure visas were made, telegrams and telephone calls to relatives and friends to be ready to help their relatives, appeals to landsliet to help their friends… One group, unfortunately was stranded in Vladivostok and again herculean effort was expended until they were admitted to Japan and China… The Dean himself, Rabbi Finkel, could not receive an American visa, and fled to Palestine taking with him about 10 students who wanted to be with their spiritual leader… America was combed for relatives and friends to send affidavits. Pleas were made to the Secretary of State and the Visa Division in Washington to recognize the individuality of the group, their persecution as religious and political refugees and to effect an expedition of their visas. But the issuance of the visas was slow and tedious and to date, more than 30 have arrived in this country. 

About a month ago, word was received that Japan has insisted on the evacuation of the group and another exile commenced. Through the generous assistance of the JDC the entire group was transferred to Shanghai, China. The first cable sent deplored the inhuman conditions under which they existed, and they were sleeping on the synagogue floor and that many had become ill. “  - Pincus Schoen - executive secretary of Mirrer Yeshiva

“Under divine providence and thru a miracle, the world renowned Yeshiva of Mir, was able to save itself with the greatest portion of its faculty and student body. More than 300 actually were saved. About 250 are at present in Shanghai and the remainder about 50 in America, Canada and Palestine. The moment that these had set food in the country in America was a happy one for us. It has never occurred to us that we would see the day that students of Mirrer Yeshiva so deeply rooted in the sacred walls of the imposing building in Mir, would set foot in America. When we first saw the arriving students at the railroad station we felt a pang in our hearts. One could detect the suffering that was engraved in those faces, one could see that the pain of separation from their colleagues and Rabbis had left its mark on these unfortunate wanderers. We were sorry for the bewilderment and could note that their sudden transposition had affected them and they were groping for something to grasp. Our task is clear cut. We must make them understand that we are sympathetic and that we are ready and willing to understand and help them.” - Rose Meltzer - President of Ladies Auxiliary

“HELP SAVE A LIFE Give an affidavit to bring a student from China to America - No red tape - Confidential - no financial obligation. Please leave your name with any officer of the Yeshiva and our representative will call with full particulars. HELP SAVE A LIFE”  - an advertisement in the journal

“No words can describe the devotion and achievements that are taking place in the Yeshivah. The students are suffering greatly, but despite this, the internal energy is great. The worries we had for our spirituality in Shanghai have turned in to a blessing, as the deplorable conditions around us  have caused us to isolate ourselves and immerse ourselves in our studies. “ - from a Hebrew letter from R. Chaim Shmuelewitz in Shanghai to Rabbi Avraham Kalmanovitch, 16th of Cheshvan 5702. 

“We have received news via cable that have shaken me to the core. The descriptions of the horrid conditions which the students in Shanghai are facing and that 35 students are hospitalized and the balance are in imminent danger of getting ill. Being that all the students are residing in one synagogue and they have no ability to obtain housing. As is known, Shanghai is in constant danger of an epidemic, particularly for refugees that are residing in deplorable conditions”  - From a Hebrew letter from R. Eliezer Yehuda Finkel in Jerusalem to R. Avraham Kalmanowitz, Parashat Nitzavim 5741.

A selection of Rabbinic wedding invitations in history and the variations of customs

 Originally written for and published in Ami Magazine

Ever wonder what would make a wedding invitation Jewish? Are there specific traditions on how and what to write on an invitation? Printed invitations can be found for Jewish Weddings starting from the late 17th century, and over the centuries many different customs and details emerged.  Many of these customs are still prevalent today, while others have been lost to time. While we can’t go back in time and participate in the weddings of the gedolim of today or yesteryear, we can often take a look at their wedding invitations to get a personal look into the marriage day of these great people and their celebration. 

An example of a surviving early wedding invitation is that of the daughter of R. Avraham Broda (1640-1717, Rabbi in Prague, Metz and Frankfurt and author of Eshel Avraham), and her husband, Yissachar Ber the son of Gabriel ben Yechiel Michel Weiner. The invitation to the wedding, which took place in Prague in 1706,  features a lengthy poetic style with a notable absence of the name of the Kallah, her father describing her as my daughter, the Kallah. The practice of writing poems on the invitations grew popular and in the wedding invitation of the fourth Slonimer Rebbe, R. Shlomo Dovid Yehoshua Weinberg Hy”d (1914-1943) which took place in the town of Aleksander, we find an acrostic poem featuring the names of the chatan and kallah. 

Oftentimes, additional stanzas of poetry would be written using various words of blessing to the new couple as an acrostic. In the invitation to the wedding of the former Vizhinitz Rebbe’s son, R. Pinchas Shalom Hager (1948-2015) to the daughter of Rebbe Shmuel Zvi Horowitz of Spinka, we find the words Lemazal Tov spelled out via an acrostic poem as well. By the wedding to the wedding of 2 first cousins, both grandchildren of the Sfas Emes, we find the words Chasan and Kallah used as an acrostic as well. 

An ancient custom that was nearly forgotten today, is that of having Friday evening meals for wedding feasts, known already in Talmudic times and had the economical advantage of combining the Shabbat Meal, the Sheva Berachot and the Wedding meal in to one feast. A memorable wedding invitation for the wedding of Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg’s (1859–1935) daughter Chanah (Annie, born 1897) to Moshe Hadler notes one such example. The printed invitation, begins with an acrostic poem, that spells out the name of the bride and groom, Moshe and Chanah. This is followed by the text of the invitation containing 101 words, each and every one starting with the Hebrew letter Aleph! The Chuppah took place late Friday afternoon in R. Yudel's synagogue Beth Jacob, at 17 Elm Street, Toronto, at 3 pm, on a winter day, the first of Adar 1916. This was followed by a meal at the bride's home, the Rabbi's residence. 

When Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (1910-2012) married the daughter of Rav Aryeh Levin, the wedding took place following the same custom on a late Friday afternoon in the Rosenberg Hotel in Jerusalem. The invitation takes into account the illustrious yichus of the Chatan, and alludes to the sefer of his grandfather by noting the sedra of the week as that of Leshem Shevo Ve’Achlama, the name of his grandfather, the Leshem’s sefer. Interestingly, the timing on this invitation does not state that it would be punctual, rather in a reversal, the time for the Chuppah is stated as “about three in the afternoon”.

One notable exception to the custom of the Friday Afternoon/Evening weddings was the city of Cracow. Following an incident where a tragedy occurred during a Friday Night wedding, R. Moshe Isserles (The Rema) forbade such weddings in his city of Cracow, a ban which was noted as being in place until the Holocaust. To circumvent this decree, the local Jews would still get married on Friday afternoons but would venture out to the adjoining suburb of Podgorze, just outside of Cracow and perform the Chuppah there. A record of one such wedding, is that of R. Shabtai Cohen which took place in 1935, while the invitation states that the wedding meal will take place in Cracow, the chuppah is stated as taking place in the nearby Podgorze. 

Generally, the invitations of Gedolim’s simchas were in Hebrew only and mentioned only the Hebrew date. There were though several notable exceptions, including that of  the wedding of the daughter of the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Pinchas Dovid Horowitz to R. Yosef Shmelke Brandwein (of the Stretiner Chassidic Dynasty). The invitation includes Yiddish alongside Hebrew, and the date is given as Tu Bishvat as well as the 4th of February, 1920 Boston. Above the text, appears an illustration entitled “Ceremony” depicting a ring being placed on the finger of the Kallah. 

Another such invitation is that of R. Ovadia Yosef, where the invitation was both in Hebrew and French, and the date given as 4th of Nissan and the 26th of March, 1944 with a similar illustration to that of the Bostoner Rebbe’s invitation. . 

With time, particularly in the hasidic world, the invitations served as a place where the Yichus of the chatan could be displayed. Many invitations of weddings between Hasidic Dynasties contained extensive family histories and record much valuable information. Less common, though not unheard of, is the listing of the Kallah’s yichus, at times superseding the yichus of the chatan. One example is that of the wedding of R. Yisroel Hager (born 1945), one of the current Vizhintz Rebbes, where his wife’s yichus, from the illustrious Twerski family is noted. In R. Menashe Klein (1924–2011), the Ungvarer Rav’s second marriage invitation, we found a very lengthy detailing of his wife, Ahuvah’s yichus, starting with her father, R. Dovid Shlomo Frankel Hy”d, all the way up to the Mareh Yechezkel, R. Amram Chasida, and the Maharal of Prague ending with “etc.”. Interestingly, on his side, the yichus is not stated at all, and being a child survivor of the Holocaust, his brother R. Ben-Zion Klein is noted as the brother’s family. 

When the daughter of R. Ahron of Sadigura (1877-1913, the Kedushas Ahron) was getting married, he had already passed away, at the young age of 36. On the invitation to the wedding, which took place in 1924, the invitation was signed by the mother and brother of the Kallah, and alongside her illustrious yichus, the text invokes the name of her late father, that she should be blessed in his merit. Similarly, in the wedding invitation of R. Shaul Alter’s (Born 1957) wedding from 1977, we find that he mentions his uncle, R. Simcha Bunim Alter,  the newly appointed Gerrer Rebbe at the time, in whose merit the new couple should be blessed. 

At times, the invitations can be striking for their simplicity, a good example being the invitation to the wedding of R. Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz (1913-2011), which took place on Lag Baomer in 1941. Just the very basic information is provided, with a minimal design present. Rav Chaim & Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky’s wedding invitation is strikingly simple as well, with no yichus mentioned, despite the great lineage of both sides. Similarly, the wedding invitation of R. Moshe (1879-1941), the son of R. Chaim Soloveitchik was rather bare, but notably, it does mention the name of R. Chaim Soloveitchik’s wife, alongside his name. 

Alongside the standard invitations, at times, there were separate invitations for the women, sent by the mother or grandmother of the bride or groom. When R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994) married the daughter of the previous rebbe on 27th November, 1929 in Warsaw, the Rebbetzin, Nechama Dina Schneesohn handed out her own simpler invitations to her guests. In Belz as well, when the Rebbe’s children were married, the rebbetzin would print her own invitations to be distributed to her guests. 

 In Chabad today, the wedding invitation of R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, which took place on the 14th of Kislev, 1928 took on much significance. At least two versions of the invitations were sent out, to those who were expected to attend and those that would not be able to physically be there at the wedding. In one of his sichos, the rebbe encouraged his followers to copy the text of his own wedding invitation for their own occasions, a practice still prevalent today in the Chabad movement.

Zemiros/Bentchers given out at weddings with the names of the bride and groom are now ubiquitous, but in America, a famed Jewish philanthropist is credited with being the first to implement this practice. In 1914, Sadie Fischel, daughter of Harry Fischel, a leading Orthodox Jewish philanthropist of the era, married David Kass at the Hotel Astor in New York, and a Bentcher was published to commemorate the occasion. It contained the entire Hebrew and English text of the prayer as well as the lyrics to Hatikvah, titled within as the Jewish National Anthem. In another American first, Mr Harry Roggen, in 1908 married Hattie Goldberg in Hotel Majestic, Central Park, New York. At the wedding, in what was described as the first such occasion, Yarmulkas made for the occasion were distributed to the guest, a practice that grew popular among the Orthodox in the United States and still prevalent in certain circles. As the Jewish world of weddings evolves and customs come and go, it is curious to see which of the customs are here to stay and which are destined to be forgotten. With the swift move the world is making towards electronic writing and further away from physical printed items, only time will tell if invitations will stay a part of our tradition or will go the way of the town courier, who in preceding eras was hired to announce the coming wedding throughout the village. 

An unrecorded and unusual Talmud edition, Vilna 1855

 One thing I have learned after cataloging hundreds of thousands of books is that not only can't you just a book by its cover, you often can't judge it by its title page either. A fascinating and rare Talmud volume I just acquired is one such example where the appearances of it being just another Talmud edition is very much deceiving. 

Printed in Vilna in 1855, by the famed Romm Press, this volume includes the complete tractate Kiddushin of the Talmud. The first unusual feature is the inclusion of the commentaries of the Maharsha and Maharam on the Daf, apparently, the only such publication. The text following the title page is preceding by the following disclaimer:

"The Government, may it be glorified, has justifiably refused the permission to studying this specific tractate and similar tractates, with youth in schools. As these tractates were founded based on the climate of warmer countries in Asia and following the practices of those ancient times, when the Jews lived among the gentile who worshiped idols and who were attached to all types of evil desires. It was thus, that the rabbis made many regulations and decrees to distance them from these gentiles and their like. What would children and youth need with such things? Why shall we arouse in them such desires which will damage our youth? We thus thank many times our government, which has enlightened our eyes to prevent teachers from instructing children in this tractate. Only rabbis, lovers of antiquity and those interested in ancient times are granted permission to study this tractate, as they can differentiate between modern and ancient times and will know to be careful not to be harmed. We can see that the Rabbis in the Talmud themselves understood and found error in the practices of those times. As we find on Daf 12, where Rav would instruct to be lashed anyone caught betrothing a woman, or having relations with a woman in public. In addition, it shall be noted, that since the destruction of the Temple, we do not have today the ability to impose penalties or death sentences, and only following the law of the government which protects us we live our lives."

Apparently, the Czars censor in this edition, took offense to the marital issues in this volume, and imposed this text on the reader. Less the reader find himself forgetting the warning, on all relevant pages in the volume, appears a header with a reminder to look at the warning at the beginning of the book. 

Towards the end of the book, we find a variant warning, stating that "From these very pages we can see how our government was correct in preventing students from studying these tractates. Our own sages have taught us (in Avot), that Talmud shall be taught at age 15, why shall we veer from their ways and guidance?"

This specific edition does not appear in any of the standard bibliographies and the only known copy seems to be in a library in Vilna. It can be presumed, that this edition was printed only for local consumption, as all other editions of the Vilna Kiddushin don't have these warnings and censorship appended.

The 1860s Vienna Talmud and the events that led up to it

 The Talmud editions we have today are a culmination of numerous editions over the years, each with its own characteristics, features and commentaries. A fine edition of the complete Talmud I acquired was the edition published in Vienna between the years 1860 and 1872. Printed on excellent paper and with wide margins, this attractive edition was the result of much effort on the part of the Rabbi in Vienna at the time, R. Eliezer Halevi Horowitz. For the first time, the Hagahot of the Chatam Sofer were incorporated in to the Talmud, published here from manuscripts. The text of the Talmud was described by R. Horowitz in the introduction as being perfected with use of an 800 year old talmud manuscript.

In the Yevamot volume of this edition, appears an extraordinary Haskamah, the only Talmud edition with the approbation of the Divre Hayyim, R. Haim Halberstam of Sanz. An interested remark he makes in the Haskamah is a note stating that the printers were under the watchful eyes of the Rabbi of Vienna, and they are careful not to desecrate the Shabbat and Yom Tov during the printing process.
The Divre Hayyim is most likely alluding to the former Vienna Talmud edition printed by Anton Schmidt and edited by a Maskil Yehuda Ben Ze'ev. R. David Deutsch (1755-1831) is said to have suspected that the Sabbath was being desecrated during the printing of this Talmud edition. On one Shabbat, he and several of his talmidim sneaked in to the printing press and found the editor, bareheaded, editing and proofreading the text on the Sabbath. Legend has it, that Yehuda Ben Ze'ev, upon being found during his transgression, ran away in shame and locked himself in a bathroom. When he failed to exit, the door was opened and it was found that he had passed away at the young age of 47.

The 1941 Miskolcs, Hungary Talmud Printing

 Life for Jews in the first years of the Holocaust in Hungary can often appear to be constructed from two very different opposing scenarios. The destruction of the Jewish Communities and the methodical killing of its Jewish residents in nearly all surrounding countries was seen, and the effects of the war were intimately felt. On one hand, there were a noticeable minority of people who foresaw the coming danger and heroic and selfless efforts were made to assist those seeking to escape to safer countries, and to raise awareness in Western Countries of the atrocities being committed.

On the other hand, for many in the Jewish Community though, life went on almost entirely as normal until the very days when the communities were rounded up and sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. When Hungary was given to the control of the Nazis, there was a feeling in the air that the Germans were losing the war and it was only a matter of time until the Allies were victorious. Unfortunately, despite that being the case, from May 1944 thru the end of the Holocaust, over 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered.
A fascinating and as yet not properly studied phenomenon during this period, is the steady and varied continuation of Hebrew printing of Sefarim in Hungary throughout this period, up and through 1944. Many of the sefarim published during this period describe the situation at the time and the threat of death hovering over them. Despite this or perhaps because of this, there was a continued demand for sefarim and many titles were published throughout the communities of Hungary.
One such publication I acquired this week is of a Talmud volume, Masechet Pesachim, published in the city of Miscolc, Hungary in 1941. This volume includes an approbation from R. Yoel Teitelbaum, the Av Bet Din of Satmar at the time, who writes in his Haskamah, "Being that due to our many sins the Jewish communities have been destroyed, those that were involved in the publishing of Sefarim were taken from us, and those involved in holy printing were obliterated from this world, may God the merciful have pity on us. Thus, there is a lack of sefarim and gemarot for the rabbis, the Yeshivot and the students, and we must worry for the decline of Torah study....therefore he is publishing individual tractates to supply the need.."
The father of the publisher, R. Shlomo Zalman Ehrenreich, the Rabbi of Miskolc wrote similarly in his Haskamah, "Due to our great sins, the wars and destruction currently raging in the world have caused many thousands of sefarim kedoshim and shasin to be burned and destroyed. In addition, the printing in the country of Poland has halted..."

An inscription as a memory to a Holocaust martyr

 The Nazis during the Holocaust systematically murdered millions of Jews, ending not just their lives but often erasing the entire memory of their existence. Many of the victims, those murdered, as well as those victims that survived, had their entire worldly processions disappear, often leaving no trace of their existence for future generation. It is thus always an emotional moment for me when I find a book that records the ownership of a victim of the Holocaust, the physical book often being the only remaining memory of the deceased.

One such book I recently came across is a 19th century edition of Ginat Veradim, with a lengthy, beautiful written inscription, dedicating the book to R. Shlomo David Frankel upon his wedding. Born in 1903, R. Frankel's father, R. Meshulam Feish Frankel was a Rav and Dayan in Debrecen, Hungary. R. Shlomo David Married Miriam Blum, the daughter of R. Ben Zion Blum, author of Shivat Zion and a granddaughter of R. Amram Blum, the author of Shu"t Bet Shearim. He assisted his father-in-law in the rabbinate until the war years, where he was taken to a slave camp and suffered terribly under forced labor. His health deteriorated rapidly, and by the time they were liberated by the Russians, he was critically ill and passed away shortly after.

The inscription in the book is from a Yisrael Eisenberg, gifted to R. Shlomo David Frankel upon his wedding on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, 1928. Following lavish praises on the Chatan, an acrostic poem featuring his full name appears, wishing blessings and good wishes for the newlyweds. Though R. Shlomo David Frankel died at the age of 42, his daughter survived and married R. Menashe Klein, the Ungvarer Rav, and author of numerous sefarim including Shu"t Mishneh Halachot.

Thankfully, I was able to get the sefer in to the hands of a descendant of Rabbi Frankel and back in to the family.

A Prayer for Napoleon in 1814, but not for long

 If there is one prayer that would signify the history of the Jewish Exile, it would arguably be the Prayer on behalf of the King, traditionally recited during the opening of the Torah Ark in Shabbat morning prayers. Wherever they found themselves, in countries where they lived in peace, as well as countries where they were persecuted, the Jewish people would recite a prayer on behalf of the local ruler. The prayer is alluded to in Sefer Yirmiyah (29:7), "And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you shall have peace", mentioned in the Mishnah and records of an early example have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This at times led to Jews in neighboring countries, each praying for their respective local rulers, while these same rulers may have been sworn enemies of each other currently at war.

One prayerbook I acquired this week, is an interesting example of the curious circumstances in which Jews found themselves in many situations, where the local ruler was often hard to determine and border towns found their nationality and governments alternating between various warring rulers. The Siddur was printed in 1814, in the city of Metz, today located in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. Metz was often claimed by the nearby Prussians and later Germans and found itself under foreign rule on and off for several extensive stretches of time in recent history. In 1814, Metz found itself as the center of the attention of attacking Prussian, Russian and Hessian troops, with the siege of Metz beginning on the the 17th of January of that year. In this siddur, we find the prayer for the King in Hebrew and French, with the ruler stated as Napoleon, "Emperour Des Francais, Roi d'Italie", Emperor of France and King of Italy. The prayer would have had an added urgency during this period, while the city was under siege and the ability to move around freely was severely limited.
By April 6th of the same year, the prayer would have been outdated, as Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne and was exiled to the Island of Elba, an island of 12,000 inhabitants in the Mediterranean. Shortly after, the siege was abandoned by the attacking armies and France found itself under the rule of Louis XVII. This prayerbook thus had the correct ruler noted, at most for under 100 days.

An Amulet to ward off the Cholera - printed during the 1867 pandemic

 Keen businessmen have always responded to market demands, and printing presses and publishers were no exception. World events and communal commemorations often resulted in special publications to honor events and to record happenings. A Large printed amulet I acquired is one such example, being an oversized printed amulet against epidemics published in Warsaw in 1867.

The center of the amulet features a large square containing a circle with diagrams and beneath it appears an outline of a human hand with angels names and Kabbalistic incantations within. A common selling pitch in this time, the amulet is described as "brought over from Jerusalem". The amulet is attributed to R. Eleazar of Worms - the Rokeach, The Ari za"l, R. Eliyahu Baal Shem Tov and R. Haim Vital.
The amulet was most likely a response to the Cholera Pandemic that was at its height in 1867, with deaths estimated to having reached 600,000 people. Originating in India in 1863, the disease quickly spread and reached as far as Russia, North America and Africa. With medical success in response to Cholera at the time being minimal and often unavailable, such amulets were in high demand and their use was widespread.