Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Cheshvan 5764 - October 20, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Lomzha and the Mir, the Yeshiva and the City

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Intimate conversations with Rabbi Meir Roch, formerly of Lomzha

Part III

Rabbi Dov Eliach has archival treasures worth their weight in gold. In the course of his Torah research documentary work, which has produced unique publications which have earned him the highest place of honor in Torah literature, he has documented in writing and recorded on tapes the testimonies of those who can tell firsthand about the Jewish world in Lithuania as it once was, especially in terms of the lifestyle and yeshiva experience there.

The first part discussed HaRav Yaakov Neuman, the rosh yeshiva of Ohr Yisroel in Petach Tikva, and HaRav Moshe Rosenstein, the mashgiach of Lomzha. R' Meir Roch, who was the nephew of the rosh yeshiva of Lomzha, also told about his family and about some of his contacts with other Torah giants of the time, such as HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz at the Mir Yeshiva, HaRav Chaim Ozer of Vilna and the rov of Lomzha, HaRav Aharon Bakst.

(Editorial note: The following is a translated transcription of a live conversation, and we have left the text faithful to the spoken word.)

My Father, Rebbe Yehoshua Zelig Roch, from Lobovitz to Slobodka

"We have talked so much, and have barely mentioned my father, zt"l . . . Abba was born in Rakishok, a small town in Lithuania. His father was a Jew who went from village to village peddling his wares and was very connected to Lobovitz. Everything that I am telling you now is what I heard from my father.

"In the little town where he lived there was a shochet who would teach him when he was a child, without payment, since his father could not afford a teacher for him. By the time he was 13, he had already completed several masechtos and his head was always in his seforim.

"One day his father came to him and told him, `Zelig, you have learned well. You are already past bar mitzva. Tell me, what's going to be with you? Do you wish to continue learning? Or perhaps to learn a trade, become an apprentice to a tailor, or something else? Just say what!'

"As my father told me: `When my father said those words to me, I burst into tears. I did not know what to say to him. My father said, `What happened? I did not mean anything by it. I am not forcing you. Why are you crying?' I was astonished at his words. `You ask why I am crying . . . .'

"That was the background in which he was raised. He later went on to learn with the rov of the town until he was fifteen years old.

"When he was 15 he traveled to the yeshiva of Slobodka, carrying warm recommendations. It was no great distance from Rakishok to Slobodka, but in terms of the hashkofoh and mental distance, the difference between the two was enormous.

"He went up to the bochen, one of the rosh yeshivas, who examined him and then handed him a sealed letter to the Alter, in which he apparently praised him highly. He then went in to the Alter, Rebbe Nosson Zvi Finkel, who questioned him: `Tell me, bochur, who is the rov by you?' To which Abba responded: `Chelli iz der rov', as he was accustomed to call the rov of their city.

"The Alter was amazed and said: `Absolutely amazing, absolutely amazing! Even from the town where `Chelli' is the rov, they come to learn at the yeshiva, and the rov even writes about this talmid such praises . . . absolutely amazing . . . ' Then after a brief conversation, he released him.

"My father never saw what was written about him in the letter. Later on, he spent a long time agonizing over this matter, wondering what the Alter had found wrong with `Chelli der rov.' What did the Alter expect from him? Was not the rov a tzaddik and a learned man, and had he not gained almost all of his Torah from him?

"Finally he figured out that it was his saying only `Chelli is the rov,' and not `Rav Betzalel' or at least `Rebbe Betzalel.' It was just saying `Chelli,' [as if he were] a simple man with no title, for then, how could such a talmid emerge from him . . .? evidently that was the reason for the Alter's amazement.

"The boy very quickly settled into the yeshiva's learning environment, and also into the Alter's mussar teaching, and went on to become one on the most outstanding talmidim at the Slobodka Yeshiva, where he studied for many years. The Alter later sent him on to Telz, to reinforce the principles of the mussar movement in that yeshiva at the time that the mussar controversy broke out. Abba was a true mussar student with his whole being, and was well suited to have a share in its dissemination.

"During the period of his studies in Slobodka, he became friendly with Rebbe Leizer Yudel Finkel, son of the Alter, and with Rebbe Avrohom Grodzensky, who were to become two of his closest friends, to whom he was deeply attached.

"When the war broke out and I arrived in Lithuania and Slobodka I met Rebbe Avrohom there, and he treated me with the highest respect as the son of Rav Yehoshua Zelig . . . He told me that [even though he had a brother, he was much older and] he had no idea what a brother's love was, until he came to the yeshiva and became friendly with my father, Rav Yehoshua Zelig.

"`We loved each other like brothers,' he said, adding, `and you should know that his love for me was no less than my love for him.' I saw that love in the letters they exchanged, especially when Abba was on shlichut here in Israel, and he served as rosh yeshiva in the Lomzha branch which was in Petach Tikva.

"By the way, Rebbe Avrohom's brother in law, the great gaon Rebbe Chaim Kreiswirth was a very unique man -- der Cracower iluy! (the genius from Cracow). I remember how in the beginning of the war he pulled off a real revolution among the refugees in Vilna. If there is such a thing as a shock, as in an electric chair, then that man triggered one there.

"From all over the yeshiva world they came and gathered in Vilna, gaons and great talmidei chachomim. And then suddenly this young iluy appeared, only about 21 or 22, a boki and a tremendous learner, and a world- class genius. He went into Rebbe Chaim Ozer and all the gedolim and all were amazed at him. And he had not learned at the Mir or in Kamenitz or in Lomzha. The only place he had learned was Cracow -- and now he was a world gaon.

"One year later, he became engaged [to the daughter of R' Avrohom Grodzensky]. But I remember that the amazement was so great, that there were those who began to murmur about him that perhaps there was something suspicious or questionable about him. At any rate, there was something that they could not grasp, a riddle they had no idea how to solve. Since he was the son-in-law of Rebbe Avrohom, the dear friend of my father's household, a close friendship between the two families evolved as the years went by."

B>The Chagim and Moadim in Lomzha and at the Mir

Our interviewee Rabbi Meir Roch offers us interesting information about life in the yeshivas and in that era, what the living conditions were like at the yeshiva, how it was on the chagim and their minhagim.

His account of the Seder night in Lomzha derives from his experience at his father's, the rosh yeshiva's, house. That Seder, in which talmidim from the yeshiva participated, lasted until the early hours of the morning, and then everyone went to the vosikin minyan in the yeshiva building.

"Abba would tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, the whole night long. First the Haggodoh, which he gave over with a simple explanation so that everyone present could understand, and then they moved on to commentaries and Torah chiddushim. In between, they would sing songs of the chag and other such things until dawn broke.

"But this only occurred on the first night, when Abba would place the guests, i.e. the talmidim from the yeshiva, at the center of the Seder table, while the family members were seated around it. But on the second night there were no guests, for my father dedicated that to his family alone.

"On the days of the chag, the rosh yeshivas of Lomzha would give talks to the talmidim, aside from the sichoh before the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashonoh which was reserved for the Mashgiach. On the days of Elul, there were a few evenings -- apparently once a week -- which the Lomzha yeshiva made into evenings of his'orerus. In my time, the rov of the city, the gaon Rav Aharon Bakst, was put in charge of that, and that was in addition to the weekly mashgiach's sichoh which was given as a sequence.

"Till this very day, I can see in front of my eyes that holy gaon and how, at the peak moment of his sichoh - - or his'orerus as it was called -- he would go forward and open the Aron Hakodesh and begin reading chapters of Tehillim, posuk by posuk, in a loud voice in which he poured out his soul. And the whole audience would recite it after him with great emotion and exaltation, which I will never forget. In those days, the month of Elul had its own special significance for us.

"During the chagim themselves, there would be a kiddush in Lomzha after the davening. First of all, precisely at the end of the tefilloh the bochurim would start singing a special tune to the words, `Gut yom tov.'"

Here Reb Meir starts to hum it from memory: `Gut yom tov, gut yom tov, ai ai, ai ai, gut yom tov, gut yom tov, ai ai, ai ai, ai ai, gut yom tov.'

"Later everyone would sit around the tables in the beis hamedrash, make kiddush and eat mezonos. The rosh yeshivas would speak in drush and mussar, and after every droshoh, everyone would get up and start dancing on all sides, and then they would return to their seats for the next speech.

"As for the Mirrer Yeshiva, I remember the hakofos on Simchas Torah in the yeshiva hall. The Rosh Yeshiva's son, Rav Beinish had a great power to get the singing going. I see him now, in my mind's eye, waving his hands, inciting the congregation to sing and dance. The song was, `Ashrei odom oz lo Boch,' to a tune that was prevalent in the yeshiva world.

"But the opening song was always, `Boruch Elokeinu shebro'onu liChvodo.' The hakofos always began with that. They would also sing, `Moshe emes veSoroso emes,' during which the bochurim would jump up high in delight.

"In Lomzha, as well, this day had its own uniqueness. If the people of Lomzha lived their lives in seclusion the rest of the year, with no connection to the world in the yeshiva, on that day they came en masse. Most of them would stand around and just enjoy watching, while others would also join in the dancing.

"On Purim, the yeshiva boys were extremely joyous, and would go out into the community to collect money for the gemach. Once, in honor of Purim, the yeshiva set up a huge gas tank container filled with soda water and generously distributed fizzy drinks to the bochurim. That was the special chiddush of that period in general, and in the yeshiva in particular. It was initiated by the gabboim specially appointed for the purpose of rewarding those who collected money for the gemach."

B>The Yeshiva Chessed Committees

"There were many such operations in the yeshiva to help life flow more smoothly, such as the committee for laundry matters. Both in Lomzha and at the Mir, every Friday afternoon, after the seder that finished at around one, people would bring their dirty laundry to the gabbai in charge. The clothes would be marked with the names of the bochurim and they would get them back after an hour.

"There was also a gabbai to arrange rooms in the homes of residents. Every new bochur who arrived would go to the committee in charge, and it would arrange a room for him, taking into consideration his compatibility with the previous occupants of the rooms.

"Lomzha, unlike the Mir, actually had a dormitory in the yeshiva building, but it was like a drop in the ocean in terms of the need, so that only the senior bochurim managed to get a room there. The dormitory was called `chazokoh' because of the chazokoh that a bochur acquired when he moved in, lasting most of his years in yeshiva. Therefore they would say, for example, that such and such a bochur lives in the `chazokoh.'

"There was also a committee for sick people, which would refer people to suitable doctors and supply medicines when needed. Furthermore, the Jewish hospital in Lomzha had arranged a room especially for patients from the yeshiva, where they would be treated with special attention.

"The Mir had the custom of `stansziot,' that is, accommodation in the homes of residents of the town. Every bochur was given a specific stenszio for sleeping and one for meals. I was zoche to receive special attention from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rebbe Leizer Yudel Finkel, and though I was a very young boy, only fifteen years old, he got me a room with some of the top `lions' of the yeshiva, like the brothers Rebbe Shmuel and Rebbe Yosef Rozovsky, with whom I was, for both meals and sleeping, for four whole years. Also in the room with us were Michel Feinstein and the `Strobiner,' Rebbe Zeidel Tiktiner, and Rebbe Eizel Charkover.

"Every bochur would get food vouchers from the yeshiva to give his landlady, one for bread and one for meat. In my time, the person in charge of the vouchers was a bochur named Koppelman, today the brother of the Rosh Yeshiva of Lucerne. Other food expenses, such as a few vegetables, or butter, or things like that, the bochurim would pay for with their own money, either from private funds they received from their parents, or from the chalukoh money they got from the yeshiva, each according to his individual situation.

"I remember our landlady would complain that she made no profit from feeding the bochurim, and even lost money on it. Anyway, we asked what on earth could she be living on, since she was the sole supporter of her household? Our friend, Rebbe Shmuel Rozovsky answered that she got her profit during bein hazmanim, when the bochurim were absent . . .

"As far as smoking goes, it is worth mentioning that smoking was prevalent to a most exaggerated degree at the Mirrer yeshiva. Entering into the yeshiva hall involved penetrating a huge cloud of smoke which hovered in the air. Unlike today, there was little awareness of the dangers of smoking, even though people were already starting to discuss the subject.

"Once I needed to look for something at the library, and I leafed through the newspaper issues of Hapeles which came out in Europe, and I found an advertisement by a dealer in cigarettes--`Papiroshen,' as they were called -- claiming that `our tobacco is nicotine-free.'

"In Poland cigarettes were distributed exclusively by the government which had a complete monopoly, as was the case with matches and other such vital supplies. Thus, it was forbidden to import lighters, which had recently been invented and were just beginning to show up in the Western world markets. But the bochurim who came from those countries would bring them over, upon their return after the chagim, and hand them out with great importance to their best friends, as a rare and treasured finding in Poland.

"On the other hand, at the Lomzha yeshiva, smoking was banned even then in the beis hamedrash, and for sure the smokers suffered bitul Torah as a result, but the beis hamedrash was at least smoke free."

B>In the Days of Hardship

He also gives us a picture of what family simchas were like in those days: A wedding then was sharply different from those of nowadays. There were no halls or catering services, or bands.

What did a Jewish wedding consist of? One klezmer or -- if the person was wealthy -- two, plus a badchan who spoke in humorous rhymes. Everyone had more or less the same thing, held at home or on the synagogue grounds, and that was all.

The difference was, in a sense, much more acute in terms of the bar mitzvas. All they consisted of was an aliyah to the Torah and a droshoh. Sometimes the synagogue had a certain corner where people would make a small lechaim, and then have a kiddush at home for just the immediate family, or perhaps also including relatives who lived locally -- and that was that. There was nothing in the middle of the week. That was unheard of and if it ever did happen, then again it was something private and personal.

Why was it not done differently? Simply because it never occurred to them to do otherwise. As the Rambam says, a villager never even considers the king's daughter. No one had any such concepts as they have today. And second of all, where would they make such an affair? Let's say people wanted to invite half of Lomzha, they would need halls for that and there weren't any.

"At my simchah," says Rabbi Meir, "there was actually something a little bigger. But that was only because it was the yeshiva, and all the bochurim participated in the kiddush and they invited some people from the city as well. But celebrations like we have today were nonexistent."


Speaking of financial straits takes us back to Rabbi Meir's uncle, Rebbe Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, who led the yeshiva and administered it throughout its epochs. Even when conditions were extremely bad, it was his uncle who set the tone and he was always optimistic.

"I'll tell you what happened to my uncle. It's very interesting," relates Rabbi Meir.

"My uncle traveled to the USA for the first time in 1923, or one or two years after that. He was given a royal welcome there to an unusual extent, and he collected a lot of money. When he returned, he got rid of all his debts and was released of them -- which enabled him to add on other people and go right back into debt. He took money from people and got into great difficulties, enormous debts. When he went back for the second time he thought he would only be there for three months, but in reality he could not return because he could not collect enough money to cover all his debts. The situation was dreadful.

"This man whose greatness we have spoken about, well, if there is in our days a man who suffered the agonies of Iyov, he is the man. He married the daughter of my grandfather, and after a year she passed away. Grandfather, Rebbe Eliezer Shulevitz, did not want to lose him, so he gave him his second daughter, and at age 34 she also passed away. Prior to this, she was sick with cancer for four painful and terrible years. You cannot imagine what that man went through then.

"Also, because he was forced to travel to distant countries to recruit supporters to save the yeshiva, in the end it was his last trip to America that saved his life. Back in Europe, the dreadful war broke out, the yeshiva was destroyed, and all the members of his family were murdered. He was not able to save them from the field of slaughter, and lost most of his family and his close and beloved talmidim.

"When I met him in later years in America, as I mentioned earlier, and spent Shabbos at his home, I was deeply affected by his noble personality which had not been broken by all the suffering he had undergone. At his home in Lomzha, he had the custom of asking all the male and female members of the household to give over a dvar Torah at the Shabbos table. He would go from the oldest to the youngest asking them to say something, whether it was an impressive chiddush on the Torah or a story from the parsha of the week which his little daughter had learned in school.

"And now, after all the years that had passed and all the churban that had devastated the Jewish people and all his family, I suddenly hear my uncle with the same tone and niggun that I knew so well: `Nu, Chohale, zogt eppes dvar Torah. First he addressed his wife, and then he asked me to say something.

"He was the same uncle, the same gaon in Torah and godol in mussar, with the same habits and customs. He had not changed his ways one iota. I also saw him in Petach Tikvah at the time that he made aliyah to Israel, and the emotional prayers that he davened in his room, in his daled amos without anyone watching him. I had dropped by on a surprise visit, and when I peeped through a crack in the door I found him pouring out his holy, exalted and rare feelings before his Creator. The powerful impression that was then engraved in my heart has never left me to this day," ends Rav Meir, tears forming at the corners of his eyes.

Yet another chapter in a world that was, and is no more.


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