There Once Was a Home - Rakishok

from the Der Yiddisher Africaner Zeitung, August 7, 1953

by A. Shorid (the one that remained behind)

The following is an edited translation of an article which appeared in the South African Yiddish newspaper, Der Yiddisher Africaner Zeitung, August 7, 1953. It represents one in a series of articles on shtetls from "der heim" - Lithuania. The articles were put together by A. Shorid with input from different community members. In this case, the article was contributed by Beryl Stein of Johannesburg.

This particular article was obtained from the YIVO collection through the generosity of Shirley Epstein and edited by Ann Rabinowitz. The original article was accompanied by three photographs - Rabbi Moishe Laib Stein, Camayer Street, and a market day in Rakishok. In the future, if originals of the photos become available they will be added to the article.

Here, in Johannesburg, there recently appeared a Yiskor book called Rakishok. This book has a large format, 632 pages, and the editor is Melach-Bakaltchuk Felin.

This book contains a wealth of material and gives much attention to the smaller Jewish dwellings around Rakishok. The chapters of the book are: An Introduction; Professions; Pages of Memoirs; Personalities and Characters; About the Synagogues and Cultural Activities; The Surroundings; The Destruction of the Rakishok Jewish Population and Keeping the Memories Alive. The artwork was done by the noted artist, Herman Bald.

In this book, there are 300 pictures and photos. In our Holocaust literary collection, this book is another tombstone which tells about the Jewish life in our old home and also about our slaughtered nation. This book was written with great understanding and edited with great knowledge. This book is worthy of being in every Jewish home. It was printed in our local " electrical printing" printshop and is available at the local Rakishok Fraternal Organization, PK 3302, Johannesburg.

We acknowledge the Rakishok Fraternal Organization in Johannesburg and its head, Mr. Rakhmeil Arons-Arsh, who put in much effort, understanding and devotion so that this book should be published in its fullest. We're also bringing material from a condensed form of this book.

Rakishok and Her Chassidim - Beryl Stein

As famous as Rakishok was, it was the only shtetl in Lithuania that was completely Chassidic, as far as we know. We don' t fully know how it became so. The Chassidim erased any token of the Mishnagdim movement.

The Rakishok Chassidim were divided into three groups, according to the Rabbis and their disciples. The Lubavicher Chassidim, which I believe was the largest, the Liady Chassidim and the Kapuster Chassidim were the smaller ones. There were also even smaller ones, but the Kapuster Chassidim were more active and Chassidic-like than the others. Among the four synagogues in the shtetl, the "small synagogue" was completely under the influence of the Kapuster Chassidim. There, they studied the book, Hatanya, everyday until Mincha and Saturdays, after supper, they studied Chassidis. The Chassidim would occasionally take a drink for Rosh Chodesh, Yartzeit, or when another Chassid would visit from a nearby shtetl.

One such Chassid whom I remember well was Yankel Skopichker, grandfather of the brothers Zalman, Laibel, and Rakhmeil Feldman. When he came to visit my father in Rakishok, they would have discussions over tea. Yankel Skopichker would come to pray Ma'ariv in that "small synagogue" and then would serve a drink.

I remember in 1910, a second Chassid who moved from Skopishok to Rakishok. He was one of the noted scholars in the Chassidic movement. He became one of the most prominent Chassidim in Rakishok. In the "small synagogue," they would have great celebrations and there you could feel the true spirit of the Chassidim.

In my boyhood years, I was greatly influenced by my home and my shtetl. I developed a warm feeling towards the Chassidic movement. My father, Moishe Laib, a teacher of Gemorrah, was a warm, dedicated Chassid. He devoted his free time to studying or teaching Chassids. During the week, he studied form the book Hatanya with another ten or fifteen Chassidim in the " small synagogue" and on Saturdays at sundown, the crowd got bigger. It was obvious that he did this as a labor of love, not an obligation. It was the same enjoyment one gets from music or literature. He lived in a world created generations before him. How could he reap such enjoyment if the Chassidic movement hadn't created these buildings of fantasy? I often think that my father was an art connoisseur. Now, in today's life, art is a side interest, but to my father and his people, it was a quintessential for existence. The warm attraction to Chassidim grew in my later years when I first met with Misnagdim in Dvinsk, where I went to study after my Bar Mitzvah.

There in the shuls, I saw the big difference between Chassidim and Misnagdim. The Misnagdim's prayers and shuls looked cold and sad. The sad grey atmosphere in the air was blowing like a cold wind. Even Friday nights the Let's Rejoice song sounded cold and lifeless and I very much missed my "small synagogue" in the shtetl where life and joy persisted even during the weekdays. We could see the faces of the Chassidim full of life.

Even then I understood that even though the Chassidim and Misnagdim believe in the same God and Torah, the Chassidic beliefs sink into their hearts. When I got older, I saw that believing and worshiping God should include love for him and not fear and that everyone should enjoy life. The principle of Chassidim is to enjoy life and not be passive and frozen. The Misnagdim are the opposite and believe that a person has nothing to be happy about. They stress that a person has nothing to be proud of and emphasize the smallness of the human and his short life on earth. They abolish joy in life as it isn't important to enjoy life. Another of their books state that one must pay the price for joy and happiness in the world to come.

Therefore, the Misnagdim taught that a person must cry and moan for the humility of his sins in exile of Israel and of his spirit. Their goal consisted of the abolishment of existence and that one must deprive oneself of his ego. The person must remember that he comes from a drop of dust and reaches the height of a worm.

In Chassidim, much is spoken about the simplicity of spirituality and the diminishing of the present, but both principles have different directions. The person must strip himself of worldly materialism, but even in materialism, there are sparks of holiness and Godliness and it is the person's obligation to bring this out in his actions. He can show it through work, good deeds, or direction. That way, he can find the miracle of his creation and be a partner to God in the creation of the world. This also allows one to rid himself of and move away from the real world and find holiness in creation.

By doing this, one leaves room for joy because how can we not rejoice if a person has a chance to be a creator like God? This proves the difference between the Chassidim and Misnagdim. The last expression of self-denial is that man should understand his humbleness and low standards. The Chassidic self evaluation is the complete opposite of the Misnagdim. It states that if a person has an inflated ego along with his animal instincts, he is a zero of a person, but his soul is always still a part of God's existence and it is his obligation to bring out this holiness within himself. The individual gets great satisfaction knowing that through good deeds, he can adhere to that spirituality. The main point of the Chassidic movement proves that a person doesn't have to be sad to accomplish this mission. He should be happy to have the opportunity to accomplish these things and the Chassidic personalities in our shtetl represented this.

I will try to describe the Chassidic life in my shtetl which is still in my memory today. It is already 40 years since I left that life. My father, Moishe Laib, will be the central figure in the stories for two reasons: first, because he had a great influence on me and second, because of him, I absorbed the Chassidic spirit during my early childhood. He was the central figure of Chassidim in our shtetl, both socially and religiously. He was the main figure in all the social engagements and parties and after having a little schnapps with his friends, he would create the Chassidic atmosphere of joy and life.

Friday Night in the "Small Synagogue"

In the "small synagogue," it is bright and joyous and all the lamps are burning. All the faces are happy and all eyes are shining and have a Shabbes glow. Jews are walking around with combed beards and sideburns, wearing long, black coats and sashes, and are greeting the Sabbath with spirituality and energy, as if, through a miracle, everyone is unburdened of everyday work and worry. An aura of joy embraces everyone - the joy of Sabbath.

After the prayers, they wish each other Good Shabbes and go home, but a few remain and are looking into a book. Itis a tradition with them to pray the last prayer together until Ardachin, the water carrier, arrives. She shuts off all the lamps except for one on the table which is left on for the last prayer, Ma'ariv. The lamp is dim and in the half-lit room, a few Chassidim are scattered in various corners.

In one corner, my father is praying and in the other, Chaim Eliahu, the sexton. In the third corner is Shimshon Nissen. At first, there is silence, but as they pray, they get louder and sing the same melody together and by the end of the prayer, they are expressing themselves loudly through their singing. I sit and am aggravated at being too young to join in.

Saturday Sundown

The whole day on Saturday, my father feels how good it is to live in the world. He gets enjoyment from everything, from praying, from studying and from Saturday's food, but his greatest enjoyment came between Mincha and Ma'ariv when he had to recite Chassidics for the crowd in the synagogue. He had a presentable face - with his beautiful beard, clever, wide eyes, but when reciting Chassidics after the three meals, his inner soul lit up and every feature of his face shone through. His voice, loud and heartfelt, carried over the crowd and showed the joy and spirit he felt.

Chassidim stood, open-mouthed and awed and swallowed his words. It is dark in the "small synagogue" and the group around the table cover the dim lamp which burned twenty-four hours. A little later, they will begin the weekday evening prayer, Ma'ariv and the weekday atmosphere will again pervade the synagogue and shtetl. Meanwhile, it is still Saturday and my father is busy with the secrets of the heavenly world. He tells them about the eternal light which covers the world and not only animals, but all living creatures in it. If this light would stop shining for even one minute, the world would become a vacuum as it was before creation. He takes his listeners for a walk in the upper world and in to a palace of human souls. The souls are a reflection of the above light and that is how they come down to the lower world. They find themselves isolated and discover through their senses that there's a connection between the upper and lower worlds and this fills them with joy. Suddenly, it gets dark and a voice announces the arrival of the weekday and my father's sweet, tenor voice still reverberates in the air and does not want to accept the arrival of the weekly day.


The true celebration in the synagogue was on the 19th day of Kislav, the fifth candle of Succoth. After Ma'ariv, about twenty to thirty Chassidim gathered. Chaim Eliahu, the sexton, put a white tablecloth on the study table. He turned on a reflecting light which created a happy atmosphere. My father collected money from each person to buy a drink and a bite. The rich gave ten kopeks and the others gave five. The poor gave only two or three. My father gave the money to Chaim Eliahu who already bought everything and hid it in the women's quarters. Chaim Eliahu and another Chassid left and returned with the packages. They put out plates of kichlach (cookies) and lekach (honey cake) on the table while others washed and peeled herring at the faucet and cut them into pieces. They brought them to the table and the food was served. Some Chassidim said to Chaim Eliahu, "when Chassidim get together, they must make a blessing. We cannot do this over empty glasses." Chaim Eliahu answered, "now I understand, you want a drink." He went up to the altar and returned with a few bottles. The Chassidim took a drink and a bite of herring, kichel and got lively and talkative. They started telling jokes.

My father took Shimshon Nissan, who was sitting aside, to the table. Shimshon was much taller than my father, with a curved back and long nose. His head was always down and he reminded me of a picture of a horse, resting after a day of riding. Everyone walking by him felt sympathy and friendship. My father said, "take a drink and come dance with us." He put his hand on his shoulder and they started dancing. "you are a Misnagid," said my father. Many, many joined in the dance and the beautiful voice of Nachem Behr resonated and the synagogue was full of joy. Such a celebration could last all night.

This picture of Sabbath shows the big difference between the Sabbath and the tedious, bitter, weekday with its lack of income. People waited only for the Sabbath and they believed that the world was created only for that day. It did not matter what you accomplished, the weekday was for working like an ant. This did not count as long as you could elevate your soul and get rid of weekday depression the Sabbath. Only then did a person feel he was alive in this world.

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