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19 Sivan, 5783 - June 8, 2023 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Life in the Prewar Novardok Yeshiva System: An Interview With HaRav Chaim Zeitchik zt'l

by Yated Ne'eman Staff


This very interesting interview with a genuine talmid of Novardok yeshiva was first published thirty years ago.

Part I For Part II of this series click here.

What message did Novardok spread? Mesiras nefesh? To disdain everything worldly? Constant seeking?

In this interview, HaRav Chaim Zeitchik zt'l, who was a talmid of Novardok yeshivos, describes his youth, the conditions under which he and many others learned and the levels they reached despite—and perhaps because of—their circumstances. In reliving his early years, he paints a picture for us of an era that was savagely cut off and a of world that has ceased to exist. HaRav Zeitchik is also author of Sparks of Mussar, English translation published by Feldheim.

Outside, the biting cold of a winter's day in Yerushalayim sets us shivering, while the rain stops and starts. Inside, we enter a cold, massive, whitewashed room. Framed pictures hang in between the bookcases which run along the length of the walls. HaRav Avrohom Yaffen...HaRav Shmuel Weintraub...HaRav Dovid Bleicher...HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubschansky... the leaders of the Novardok movement a generation ago, the mentors of Novardok's many tens of yeshivos and its thousands of soldier-talmidim.

The pictures stare mutely from the walls. The large room—almost a hall —is packed with sifrei mussar. Nothing is missing—even an aron hakodesh, draped in a red paroches, stands against the "mizrach" wall. The gaon and tzaddik HaRav Chaim Zeitchik (now zt'l), one of the remnants of the fiery Novardok movement, stands ready to draw generously from his wellsprings of wisdom and mussar.

HaRav Zeitchik, a man brimming with wisdom, understanding and mussar, is a repository of vast spiritual treasures, as attested to by his many published seforim, on Chumash, tefillah, haftoros, and the lives of the great mussar teachers.

Today we feel that our generation is cold, like the wintry weather outside. Yes, we still have seekers of Hashem; we are still faithful. There is a desire for yiras shomayim. Va'adim (informal mussar talks, usually given to a small group) are held here, in the Kollel as well as in other batei medrash.

Yet where are the masses who used to crowd the entrances? What happened to the days when people would make an effort to come and hear a mussar shmuess even in Tel Aviv?

In the not-too-distant past, once there were no more places left to sit, people would climb up onto the tables in order to see and hear and the tables bent with their weight. That was how things were in Yeshivas Tiferes Tsion in Bnei Brak during a shmuess.

It seems to us that once, not so long ago, there existed a genuine thirst, a longing, and crowds of people would flock to hear. Maybe though, we are looking backwards through rose colored spectacles and in fact the past was not as it seems to us.

This is why we have come to HaRav Zeitchik. To hear and to experience: to hear the Novardok message and to experience a world that was cut off, a world that was bubbling with vigor just one generation ago.

HaRav Zeitchik received us gladly. His controlled and restrained manner recalls the Kelm derech; it is only the spark in his eyes that gives a clue to the flame that burns inside him—the fire of Novardok!

HaRav Eliahu Kleiman and HaRav Chaim Zeitchik (right)

The "Taste" Of A Generation

You've come to hear? Very well, although my time is limited. People will soon be coming for a vaad but in the meantime we can talk. A talk is better than a mussar vaad: a vaad deals with one particular, prearranged topic, whereas while talking one can range freely.

I had a talmid with whom I used to learn Torah Temimoh, with the words of Chazal set out in the order of the pesukim. He gained so much from learning that, that when I gave a mussar shmuess he didn't get too much from it. Someone with understanding can gain a lot more from an unrestricted talk when ideas can flow.

You've come to hear about the previous generation! Certainly, one can talk on about it without stopping, but the main point would be missing. One can relate what happened and describe people but it's impossible to convey the "taste" and the feel of the time. What does the posuk say? "Taste and see that Hashem is good."

Taste is a personal, hidden thing. "Two ate [mann] from one plate and each one tasted according to his deeds."

This is where the difference lies between today's generation and the previous one. Today, while there are yeshivos and Torah is flourishing, there is a difference in the hearts, in the excitement and enthusiasm.

It is said that Novardok stood for mesiras nefesh, that Novardok inculcated the abandonment of everything worldly for the sake of Torah and spreading Torah. That is not quite accurate because everybody had to have mesiras nefesh or else it was impossible to exist. I will tell you how I got to yeshiva and how we learned—then perhaps you will understand what I mean.

A Lamp And The Menoras Hamo'or

I was an only son—I was spoiled.

I had an older brother who went to learn in a yeshiva in Parch, a small town. He learned there with HaRav Meir Chodosh who was then known as "Meir Parcher." My brother died there at the age of twenty-one, so I was the only son left, with three older sisters.

My mother guarded me like the apple of her eye. She was a tzadekkes, who would rise while it was still night and learn Menoras Hamo'or by the light of a lamp. I remember how she would pour out her heart in a sad tune, "Rabbenu Bachai zogt..der Chizkuni zogt..."

It was only later on, when I learned in yeshiva, that I saw there actually was something called Rabbenu Bachai and the Chizkuni! How many bnei yeshiva learn Chizkuni today? That was the chinuch then, that was how homes were.

This was my hometown; it was called Pietrkov. Yes, the name is misleading. There is the large Pietrkov in Poland and there is the town Pietrkov in Russia, in the Minsk district. There were a few hundred Jews living there.

I remember that during bein hazmanim all the bochurim would come from the yeshivos—from Slobodke, Mir, Telz, Grodno—there were over a hundred bochurei yeshiva.

I was about fifteen however, and I learned in the town. My parents didn't dare send me away from home. Those were dangerous days; it was a frightful period. The First World War had just ended, leaving destruction and desolation in its wake. Then the Bolshevik revolution broke out and all semblance of normal life vanished entirely.

And in those very days—those days of terror—Novardok established a network of thirty-nine yeshivos across Russia that was seething with turmoil and strife. The Alter travelled from one place to another, giving support and encouragement. Travelling itself was dangerous. The soldiers used to throw passengers from the windows of the speeding trains. Once the Alter had no water for netilas yodayim so he ate nothing for three days!

Despite everything he travelled and worked and dispatched messengers. He penetrated right into the depths of Russia; there were even converts who became Jewish from the influence of the Novardok network! I met them!

The Novardok yeshiva around 1920

A Slobodke Talmid As An Emissary of Novardok in Pietrkov

One day a bochur arrived in our town. He was an older bochur who carried himself proudly and was dressed fastidiously with a long jacket and a stiff hat. This was the Slobodke attire; they took great care over clothes, not like Novardok. In the winter the bochurim wore long, dark jackets and in the summer, they had white suits and white straw hats, just like aristocracy.

This bochur, Reb Mordechai Stollman, was a Slobodke talmid. At that time, Slobodke had gone into exile in Kremenchuk and he was afraid of being conscripted. A conscription order, especially in those days, was no laughing matter.

They said in Slobodke that Novardok had a way of getting around a conscription order. What did "getting around" mean?

The Alter took all the responsibility. He had two or three exemption certificates, on the strength of which hundreds of bochurim escaped the draft. Obviously, it was not the certificates that did it but the amount of bitachon—the spirit of total, unconditional trust in Hashem that the Alter inculcated in his talmidim.

It defies explanation as to how, while the yeshiva was surrounded by an army guard and a group went inside to check the exemption certificates, one after another the bochurim came and showed the same three documents, which changed hands each time.

At any rate, Stollman arrived in Novardok and the Alter took it upon himself to see that he wouldn't be drafted—on condition that he join the Novardok "army" and travel to set up a yeshiva. The Alter made him take a kinyan on his promise.

What was the kinyan? The Alter would take the bottom of the bochur's jacket in his hand as though to make a kinyan, rendering the decision irreversible. That was how Stollman was sent to start a yeshiva in Majhir, a town in our region.

One day he appeared in our town and spoke in the beis haknesses. People came to hear him out of curiosity and I also listened to him. He spoke gracefully and on the whole he made a powerful impression; well dressed, self assured—a Slobodke character as well as a Novardok rosh yeshiva, an intriguing combination.

At any rate I was profoundly affected by him. I, and a friend of mine. We decided that we were going to learn in his yeshiva, in Majhir.

Dangerous Moves

I arrived home and announced that I had decided to go and learn in the yeshiva in Majhir. My mother began to cry and I also wept. The neighbors came in to calm her down and to persuade her to let me travel.

However, we had a problem. Majhir was situated far away from us—it was a journey of about four hours by steamboat upstream. For the boat one needed a ticket and the ticket cost money. Money was one thing that neither my friend nor I possessed.

So what did we do? He was the son of the town's carpenter and was a practical, strong bochur. A bit upstream was a forest which had belonged to the nobleman of the district. The nobles would chop the wood in the forests and float them in rafts downstream, where they would sell it. During the revolution, all the nobility had been executed and there were piles of sawed-up wood left in the forest, lying around for anyone to take.

We took a rowboat and rowed out there. I was the oarsman while he was navigator and helmsman. We loaded the wood up to the height of the sides of the boat. The weight of the wood caused the boat to sink deeper until the water was almost level with the top of the sides. I rowed back. With every stroke of the oar and with every movement we made we were aware that if the boat tilted over a little too much to one side, it would flood with water and sink. It was a miracle that we arrived back safely. We sold the wood and thus raised the money for our journey.

A Four Day Fast

My mother wept when we parted. I tried to control myself but when my sister went for a moment to buy my ticket and I was left alone on the platform, I also broke down in tears.

We embarked and arrived in Majhir. We set off for the yeshiva seeking to get in. The yeshiva had one drawback: there was no food. Arrange lodgings for yourselves then come back.

We went here and there, to several acquaintances and arranged some "days" for eating. It soon turned out that these were only to be temporary arrangements for the families simply had nothing to give us. They were short of bread themselves. Nevertheless this was enough to get us accepted into the yeshiva.

There were about forty bochurim. There was enough food for the first thirty but the last ten arrivals managed only with great difficulty.

What did "great difficulty" involve? I had only four [eating] days a week. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays I didn't have "days," and when you didn't have "days" you simply stayed hungry. To fast two days in a row every week is no simple matter.

Once I fainted in the middle of the shiur. They woke me up with a pancake.

Reb Mordechai Stollman used to go around the surrounding villages getting people to donate a little flour, a quarter pound here, a quarter pound there. They would make pancakes out of this flour, with water and one of those woke me up. I fasted on Friday as well.

On Shabbos I had a "day" three kilometers away, on the outskirts of the town, at the edge of a forest. My host was a simple sort of fellow. I would walk three kilometers on Friday night to break my fast with a Shabbos meal, as the guest of peasants.

Once Yom Kippur fell on Shabbos. That week I fasted on Tuesday and Wednesday as usual, on Friday, Erev Yom Kippur, as usual, and on Shabbos—which was Yom Kippur.

On Motzei Yom Kippur, after four days of fasting, I walked the three kilometers, only to find that there was no light in the house. I wasn't embarrassed—I couldn't allow myself the luxury of being embarrassed—and I knocked hard on the window. I knocked and knocked but there was not a sound. After a long time, a sleepy voice from the house asked, "Who is it?"

"It's me" I replied.

"What do you want?"

"To eat."

The peasant had been hungry and after the fast he had gulped some food and drink and fallen asleep, not waiting for the bochur who was slowly making his way over. Well, the window opened and he handed me out two slices of bread that I needed a stone to pry apart. Yes, that was how we lived.

I Didn't Sit Shiva

There wasn't only hunger. There were illnesses too. Almost the entire yeshiva fell ill with typhus and some died. It was a raging epidemic. When I returned home for Pesach I found out that my father z'l had died in the epidemic. At home I took ill as well and could only return to yeshiva at Shavuos.

In Elul my mother a'h also passed away from typhus. In the yeshiva they didn't tell me. They knew about it because the son of the Rav of our town had travelled through Majhir and told them. However, they didn't want to tell me that my mother had passed away because I would have had to sit shiva and then they would have to bring me food—and they had no food to bring me. They preferred to hide the knowledge from me so that I could carry on eating my "days" and not go hungry. That is, not go hungry more than three days a week.

Looking back, I can't understand how we managed to live then, with the hunger and the terror of the revolution and still we learned.

And such learning! So you see what I mean when I say that not only in Novardok was there mesiras nefesh, but in all the yeshivos, and that without mesiras nefesh one couldn't last, it just wasn't possible to carry on. I have "receipts" to prove it! You can see that's how it was!

Hefkeirus In Yeshiva

So Novardok was not unique in mesiras nefesh, everybody had it. Its uniqueness lay in hefkeirus, abandonment. Abandon everything. Don't make any calculations at all. That was the Novardok way.

Once a bochur came to Novardok and he was taken care of by Reb Eliezer Kraschiner, one of the yeshiva's best boys. Reb Eliezer showed him a made bed—his own.

"What about you?"

"I'll be fine," he answered, "the whole of Novardok is mine!"

In the morning, the visitor was aghast to see the older bochur sleeping on the floor at the foot of the bed.

"What happened? You said you'd be all right!"

"Nu," he answered, "And wasn't I? I told you that the whole of Novardok is mine. There is place for me anywhere!"

That was the Novardok spirit.

Do you know how they went about establishing a new yeshiva? Twice a year, on Chol Hamoed Pesach and on Chol Hamoed Succos, they would announce the plans for setting up new yeshivos. They would appoint the bochurim who were to be sent out to the new yeshiva, but then they had a problem. The bochurim didn't have any suitable clothes. Of course, one couldn't send a bochur in a torn shirt and worn trousers to be a Rosh Yeshiva.

So Rav Avrohom Yaffen, the rosh yeshiva, would hold a "clothes drive." Whoever had a decent hat would give it. A decent coat, a shirt, a belt, a pair of shoes, all were donated and the bochur became "a model rosh yeshiva!" There wasn't even money for travelling.

I remember, when the Rosh Yeshiva sent me to head the yeshiva in Botchatch, he gave me the fare for just one stop. On the way, I collected money to pay for the rest of the trip. That was real hefkeirus! To work and achieve things without any reckoning.

End of Part I


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