Memoirs of a Forgotten Rabbi: The Troubled Life of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber Part Five
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber (1883-1966) was a Lithuanian-born Torah scholar who spent most of his adult life as the spiritual leader of a small community in the West End of London. He remained there for over 50 years, struggling to maintain his dignity and his principles in a setting that was completely indifferent to the things he found important. His relationship with the lay-leadership of his community, as well as with his fellow employees, was fraught with difficulty and tension, as they were all people devoid of any sensitivity to Jewish ritual law and they tended to run the synagogue as a moneymaking operation, without taking Jewish law or the rabbi into consideration.
In 1938, Rabbi Ferber began writing his memoirs, recording his life story, including the history of his hometown, Slabodka, and details of his family origins and how he had ended up as an immigrant rabbi in England. The memoirs disappeared after his death, and resurfaced at auction a few years ago, eventually ending up in the hands of Rabbi Pini Dunner, who at that time lived in London.
After introducing us to the fascinating story of the memoirs and how they ended up in his possession, Rabbi Dunner now reveals Rabbi Ferber’s own narrative, and presents the memoirs, translated and published here for the very first time since they were written. This is the second excerpt, and resumes the story of Slabodka.
The translation presented here is not a word-for-word rendition of the original Hebrew, although Rabbi Dunner has stuck to it as closely as possible, with the exception of when the Rabbinic Hebrew makes an exact translation difficult, or where ambiguities need to be corrected. The material has also been abridged where necessary, excluding extraneous details that disrupt the narrative.
PART 2: THE SLABODKA YESHIVA SPLITS AND SOME OF MY FAMILY BACKGROUND
The Controversy at Slabodka Yeshiva
After the passing of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, opposition erupted in Slabodka against the new administration of the yeshiva. The yeshiva had originally been established according to the principles of the “Mussar” (Jewish ethics) movement, but critics claimed the new administration did not know what they were doing, and were not fulfilling the yeshiva’s core mission.
The main teacher at the yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz, had just been appointed as the rabbi of Gorzhd, which meant that the principle figure of authority had left, resulting in the controversial changes in the way the yeshiva was run. Students at the yeshiva openly rebelled against the new administration, and Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz also joined the chorus of opposition.
Another significant rabbi opposed to the new administration was the chief rabbi of Ritova, Rabbi Avraham Aaron Burstein, the celebrated “illui” of Kamenitz, later chief rabbi of Tavrig, who was a teacher at the yeshiva before Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz arrived.
Leading the opposition to the new administration was Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan’s son, the new rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz, together with the rabbi of Slabodka, Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky. There were others as well – Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov Oppenheim of Kelm; Rabbi Meir Feimer of Slutzk; Rabbi Lipa Sharshevski of Nyesviz; Rabbi Chaim Segal, chief rabbi of Ratzk and later Yanove, who was born in Slabodka; Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Mayofis of Volkovisk – and others too.
The controversy escalated until eventually the yeshiva split into two separate camps. The Mussar faction was forced to leave the building where the yeshiva had been accommodated for years, and this group moved to the “Zovchei Tzedek” study hall. Meanwhile, the group that remained formed a new yeshiva called “Knesset Beit Yitzchak” named in honor of the late Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, under the leadership of his son, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz.
After the departure of Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz, the new administration that headed the group which eventually split off engaged two rabbis to teach the students, the great scholars Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, who were brothers-in-law. Meanwhile, “Knesset Beit Yitzchak” engaged Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky to teach the boys who remained in the yeshiva building, but it became apparent that notwithstanding his qualities as an expert in Jewish law, he was not a particularly good teacher, as he lacked the necessary pedagogic skills. After about half a year “Knesset Beit Yitzchak” hired Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz, the rabbi of Meishad who later taught in Telz yeshiva — a brilliant scholar and an excellent teacher. He remained in Slabodka yeshiva for many years until taking up the position in Telz with Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch.
In 1900 I left Slabodka and went to Shavel, and from that point on I lost touch with the details of what was going on with the yeshiva there.
My Studies in Slabodka
Growing up, I lived at home with my parents, and they took care of all my needs, as a result of which I was not bound by the study schedule at the yeshiva in Slabodka. I did not attend prayers at the yeshiva, nor did I attend the Mussar study sessions that took place there daily, although I very much enjoyed hearing the ethical discourses delivered at the yeshiva by the great rabbis Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer and Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam. I would always go to hear them speak, and they both had a profound influence on me. To this day their inspiration feeds into the sermons I give on High Holidays, inspiring the community to connect with G-d.
Despite not being officially registered at the yeshiva, I studied the same Talmudic tractate that they were studying, and I regularly attended the Talmud lectures there. I was even privileged to hear lectures delivered by Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, the rabbi of Telz and head of Telz yeshiva, as whenever he passed through Kovno on his travels he would visit Slabodka yeshiva and teach. His lectures were spellbinding, delivered with incredible passion. I also heard lectures from Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz, and from Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky.
In the main, however, I studied at “Reb Abba Chatzkel’s” study house, which was where my father regularly prayed. He was heavily involved in its upkeep. Originally the study house had been a wooden building, until they built a new brick structure, and my father told me that he personally hauled the bricks for its construction. Despite this personal involvement, he chose to sit in the most inconspicuous location of the sanctuary for prayers, in the northwestern corner.
My Talmud study partner a boy called Tanchum, who was from Kraknova, and I studied Shulchan Aruch with the rabbi of “Reb Abba Chatzkel’s” study house, Rabbi Zelig Halevi Tarshish, brother-in-law of Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the “Elder” of Novardok. I received my rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Mordechai Latzkover, one of the rabbis in Kovno, and Rabbi Binyamin Meisel, rabbi of Paneman – and they testified that I was so familiar with the relevant material that I knew it almost totally by heart.
My Studies in Shavel
As my father got older, he became weaker and his it became hard for him to earn a living. As a result of this, and after I was released from conscription into the Russian Army, I travelled to Shavel in 1900, where I studied for a year before I got married. I studied together with a group of advanced Talmud scholars, supported by a man called Yaakov Stein, who worked tirelessly to sustain us in our studies. It was in Shavel that I began to speak publicly for the first time. Initially I was tremendously apprehensive of speaking to an audience, but eventually I got used to it, and soon I became known as an accomplished orator.
I was born to my parents in 1883. My mother was already 50 years old when I was born, and she already had grandchildren. I was their youngest child, and their favorite. My oldest brother, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Ferber, a very special person and a profound scholar, was chief rabbi of Koznitza at the time of my mother’s pregnancy. One day, he arrived to visit my parents and found her – a woman with grandchildren – pregnant and weak, laid up in in her bed, and when she saw him she was quite embarrassed by it all.
My brother told her not to worry, and remarked that perhaps she would have cause to be even more proud of this child than of all her previous children.
As I grew up I witnessed my parents decline in health, and I experienced what it meant to go without. My parents ate less so that their children could eat. They also regularly hosted Torah scholars and yeshiva students to eat at our home on Shabbats and weekdays, and numerous famous rabbis began their rabbinic careers around my parents’ table.
Although my father was not himself a learned man, he loved Torah with all his heart, and had a profound respect for all Torah scholars. He often told me about the speeches and sermons he had heard from the famous rabbinic leader, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. The wealthy philanthropist, Markil Kadishzon of Kovno, was his uncle, and when Sir Moses Montefiore and his wife passed through Kovno in 1846, they stayed at his home. Sir Moses later said that they had not experienced such a wonderful hosted stay throughout their many travels over the years as they had at the home of Markil Kadishzon.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliasberg
Markil Kadishzon’s son-in-law was the celebrated rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Mordechai Eliasberg, chief rabbi of Zezmir and later Bauska. Kadishzon personally took care of his son-in-law’s needs for many years, and while under his father-in-law’s patronage, Rabbi Eliasberg took advantage of his proximity to Rabbi Eliyahu Rogoler, then rabbi of Slabodka, and they studied together on a regular basis, as only a bridge over the Villia River separated Kovno from Slabodka. (I vividly remember Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan taking walks on that bridge, accompanied by one or two people, his eyes closed and his mouth uttering words of Torah – it was truly a wonder to behold.)
Rabbi Eliasberg began his career as the rabbi of Zezmir, and later replaced Rabbi Yaakov Benditman as chief rabbi of Bauska. I heard from elderly people who knew him in their youth that Rabbi Eliasberg had incredible powers of concentration, and immersed himself in the study of Torah day and night. He was one of the first to be active in the Chovevei Zion organization, working to create communities in the Holy Land and to support those who went to live in them. He died in 1889, and I still vividly remember the shock caused by his passing. Every community held public eulogies, and in Kovno he was eulogized by Rabbi Noach Rabinowitz, a fantastic orator and moving eulogizer, and Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan remained in attendance for the entire eulogy, which was highly unusual, as he was extremely weak.
One of my father’s brothers, the eldest of his siblings, was called Pesach Ferber. I remember him well, although when I knew him he was already an old man. He had one son – Dovid Meir – who was a lawyer, I believe, and he moved to the United States. When my Uncle Pesach died, he was buried in Slabodka cemetery, and I remember attending his funeral. My father also had another brother called Abraham Ferber, who moved to America, and a sister called Miriam Dina, and another sister whose name I have forgotten – I think her name was Rona – and they all moved to America.
My Mother and Her Family
I remember seeing my parent’s betrothal contract from the year 1852, recording my father’s engagement to my mother, Chana Devora, daughter of Rabbi Dovid Dushkes. I never knew my grandparents – neither my father’s parents, nor my mother’s – although I did know two of my mother’s brothers when I was very young.
Her brother Yaakov was a very distinguished and G-d fearing man, a fruit wholesaler by trade. He lived near the synagogue, and always made time for Torah study, and I remember hearing from my mother that in his youth he had studied at the yeshiva of the celebrated scholar Rabbi Mordechai Meltzer of Vilna. I recall that when he died he was eulogized in the courtyard outside the synagogue in Slabodka.
My mother’s other brother, Isaac, was also a fruit wholesaler. Like Yaakov, he also lived close to the synagogue. Isaac had one son – Yehuda – who moved to America. Besides for these two brothers, my mother also had a sister, although I do not remember her name.
My mother was constantly reading Torah books, and she was always able to share wise statements from the sages of the Talmud and later great rabbis. She constantly worked to inspire us to be fine, upstanding, Torah-true Jews, and she hired scholars and yeshiva rabbis to teach us, and sacrificed so much to ensure that we had only the best teachers. She also sacrificed everything she and my father had to look after poor people and Torah scholars, and she always showed them great respect.
I particularly remember the respect she showed the beadle of the old synagogue, the righteous R. Chaim Yaakov. She told me that he once walked for miles to repay a debt of just a single penny, so that he wouldn’t be guilty of the sin of stealing. She also showed great respect to Rabbi Mordechai, who taught at the yeshiva in Rubno – who used to eat at our house when he studied at Slabodka yeshiva, besides for the many others who I heard ate at our house during their time at the yeshiva, whose names I can no longer remember. I once heard from the illustrious scholar, Rabbi Ahron Yosef Bakst, chief rabbi of Suwalk, then Lomza, and finally Shavel, that he was a regular guest at our home as a young man during his time in Slabodka.
My father hosted a prayer group at our home, and the rabbi who gave sermons and ethical discourses to those who attended ate with us every Shabbat. My mother regularly visited Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan to seek his counsel and blessings, and he showed her great respect. In fact she was in the habit of seeking the blessings of any great rabbi she came across. She told us that she knew the great rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, chief rabbi of Brisk and author of “Beit Halevi”, when he was a single, young man. She said that even as a young boy he was already a very spiritual and holy person, and an exceptional Torah scholar. She believed that this was inherited from his mother, a special and righteous woman who was the granddaughter of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. Rabbi Yosef Dov’s father, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, was the local government appointed rabbi, and he came from the family of the wealthy tycoon, Aba Soloveitchik of Kovno. She remembered that Rabbi Yosef Dov studied in his youth at Slabodka yeshiva.
My Brother Eliezer Lipman
My oldest brother, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Ferber, was an exceptional scholar and a gifted speaker – really a wonderful man in every respect. He died at the age of just 39 years old, while my parents were still alive, in the town of Koznitza in the province of Grodno, in the year 1891. My mother raised him in very difficult circumstances, but already when she was pregnant she was determined that he would be a great Torah scholar. She told me that while she was pregnant with him, during long winter Friday nights, she would sit in the women’s section at the “Reb Abba Chatzkel’s” study house, just listening to the sound of the men studying Torah, so that the fetus would get used to the sound of Torah even while still inside the womb. In addition, she herself studied Torah books with great diligence and concentration during her pregnancy.
She told me that all my brother wanted to do from the youngest age was to study Torah. On one occasion he couldn’t find his shoes because they had been given in for repair, so he put on his younger brother’s shoes — which were far too small — so that he could walk to the synagogue to study. When he got back home he couldn’t get the shoes off because the fit was so tight, and they needed to be cut of his feet in strips. No one could work out how he had even got them on! But such was his desire to study Torah that he had put on these ill-fitting shoes just so that he could walk with them to the synagogue, and remarkably he didn’t feel any pain or discomfort while he was wearing them.
My brother sat for seven years studying in the “Kirzner” study house, which was a wooden structure, near the meat market and the Butcher’s synagogue, which still exist today, although the “Kirzner” study house burnt down in the great fire of 1892 and was never rebuilt.
My brother slept every night in the synagogue, so that he could learn from the early morning until the late night, and he only returned home once a week for Shabbat. One Shabbat he fell asleep too close to the fireplace that was lit up to warm the house for Shabbat, and he was so tired from barely sleeping all week that he didn’t wake up when the fire began to burn his bare feet. The burns made him very sick, and my mother worked for weeks to get him better.
I was also told that the norm at that time was for community officials to grab young boys from the local Jewish youth and hand them over against their will for conscription into the Imperial Russian Army, as it was the community’s responsibility to hand over a mandated number of conscripts each year. The rich members of the community were able to avoid the draft for their children by bribing community officials not to take their boys. Poor people, on the other hand, had it very difficult, and one night, in the middle of the night, a community official came to grab my brother from the synagogue to hand him over to the military draft. But when the guy came into the synagogue – I believe his name was Shmerl – he was so struck by my brother’s enthusiastic studies that he stood there frozen, unable to lay a hand on him. My brother became the literal embodiment of the verse in Tehillim (97:10) “he guards the lives of his faithful ones, and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.”
My brother’s fame grew and grew, and he became renowned as a brilliant scholar, knowledgeable in the entire Talmud and halachic literature, and also for his devoutness and piety. He became so well-known that he came to the attention of Rabbi Eliyahu Yaakov, the local rabbi, who summoned him in for a meeting. After interviewing and testing my brother, he was so impressed that a young man like him could be so knowledgeable in Talmud and halachic literature – he was literally stunned by my brother’s incredible genius – that he granted him rabbinic ordination on the spot. Similarly, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan of Kovno granted him rabbinic ordination, and showered him with praise.
NEXT TIME: MY BROTHER MARRIES INTO A DISTINGUISHED FAMILY, AND THE STORY OF HIS LIFE UNTIL HIS UNTIMELY DEATH