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  Avraham ben Avraham




Jerusalem " 5738/1978
233 pages
Copyright 1978
Feldheim Publishers Ltd
Second, revised edition, 1978


THIS POIGNANT, MEMORABLE historical novel, Selig Schachnowitz takes the few known facts about the legendary geir tzedek of Vilna. Valentin Pototski, and weaves them into the rich tapestry of Jewish life in the Ashkenazic communities of mid-18th-century Europe.
Valentin, the son of old Count Pototski and the hope of Lithuania's Catholics for the cardinal's mantle, converts to Judaism. Then, as Avraham ben Avraham, he makes a journey through the major Jewish communities of Europe, to try to unify world Jewry in anticipation of the great, final redemption.
In these pages the reader meets the Torah giants of that generation, revered to this day by Jews the world over: Rav Yechezkel Landau (Noda b'Yehuda), Rav Yonathan Eybeschutz, Rav Yaakov Emden, Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk (Peney Yehoshua), the Great Maggid, Rav Yosef Teomim {Peri Megadim), and  especially  the Gaon of Vilna.
In the author's vivid narrative, the communities that Avraham ben Avraham visits come sharply to life, with all the internal dissension that plagued them. The book illuminates and clarifies the major threat that haskala, spreading from the "cultured" mind and world of Moses Mendelssohn, was posing for the authentic Jewish way of life.
Ever present is Esther, the Jewish girl whose pure ten-year-old eyes haunt the young nobleman who becomes a Jew. In contrast, lurking in the background is the Polish secret agent whose evil eyes seem to follow Avraham everywhere he goes. The
story is enriched by a fascinating array of colorful secondary, characters: Tzemach the snuffmaker, Menachem Leib the Parisian restaurant owner, Baruch Sturm-fuss, Lemke Kneppel, and many more.
This, in sum, is the long-known story of the geir tzedek of Vilna, incomparably retold by a master writer  portraying the journey of a young Polish nobleman from the Catholic faith, through the supreme tests of suffering, courage and heroism, to his unique place in the odyssey of the Jewish people.

Bom in Jurborg, Lithuania in 1874. Selig Schachnowitz, studied at the Yeshiva of Rav Yechezkel Lipschitz, where he received semi-clia (rabbinic ordination). He then became spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Endingen, Switzerland, and there began his notable literary career. In 1908 he came to Frankfort-on-Main, Germany, to become editor of the renowned orthodox weekly, Der Israelit, the able champion of traditional Judaism founded by Rabbi Dr. Meir Lehmann of Mainz. There Schachnowitz first published many of his fine literary works, in weekly installments,. He filled his post with distinction till 1938, when the Nazi program of atrocity forced him to flee. Then he settled in Zurich, Switzerland, where he continued writing, while devoting himself to the welfare of fellow-refugees. In 1952, aged 78, he died  after a rich and fruitful life in the service of Torah-Judaism.

1- The Jerusalem of  Lithuania

Vilna is the name of the beautiful city alongsidethe Viliya River flows west into the Niemen. The great city with its many church spires stretched out across hills that were snow-white in winter, green and gold in summer. Small houses and large ones abounded from wooden huts to the vast halls of the castles, from sagging thatched roofs to the golden spire of the vast Catholic church.

A prophet might have heard the thunder that would roll in on cannon-wheels within two decades. Poland and Russia were competing for supremacy. Vilna was still the capital and the heart of the Lithuanian principally. In addition it was the rallying and meeting point for the Polish emigres who had escaped from those regions of Poland that were groaning under the yoke of the Russian tsar. The Poles in the city were numerous enough to aid substantially the Polish aspiration to self-government as well as to cause the Lithuanians difficulties and complications. Their Russian neighbor to the east utilized the tension between the two to spread his snare for both.

The number of Jews living in Vilna then was equal lo the total of the city's Polish and Lithuanian populations, a number estimated at 50,000. The Jews lived alone, detested and abused by Lithuanian and Pole alike. There was no ghetto in Vilna. for the Jews lived in the center of the city, filled all its streets, and controlled its marketplace. They taxied the nobility from place lo place in their carts hitched to small, spirited horses: dragged heavy burdens on their aching backs; bent over the rocks in the crooked streets and hewed them into shape with their sledgehammers; stood in the smithies on the outskirts of the city and pounded on their anvils; and floated their rafts down the Viliya into the Niemen to Kovno. and beyond the western border to Memel. If not for the Jews, the Poles and the Lithuanians would doubtless have been walking around unclothed and unshod, with neither thread nor needle in their homes. Nor would the farmers have sold their produce to the cities. For the Jews were the only merchants, tailors, shoemakers, bakers, and shopkeepers in the country.
Besides all these Jews there were many others we would today call "unemployed." They stood in front of the many shuls (synagogues), at street eorncrs. at the fish and meat markets  their hands outstretched for alms. In the shuls and the batey midrash (study houses), the sounds of Torah and tefilla (prayer) never ceased, no matter the hour of day or night. One minyan (prayer-quorum) would finish davening(praying) to be followed immediately by another. The city's assorted markets were a perpetual eruption of powerful odors and penetrating noises. Like the waves of the Sambatyon that rest all Shabbath and burst into renewed activity with its passing, they too stormed all week, especially on Thursdays and on arvay-Shabbath (Fridays).
"Fresh beans! Yidalach (Jews), koift (buy)!" From one end of the marketplace to the other, this cry echoed in myriad tunes and variations. The words of Abayey and Rava engraved in Shass (the Talmud) burst forth from the windows of the nearby kloiz (small synagogue) to mingle with the tumult of the market. Here east met west. Here the joys and hopes of two millennia blended with the worries of daily living to produce the reality of Jewish life.
The name "ghetto" could have described the suburbs of the city, where the goyim lived in their wobbly wooden shacks that encircled the city, its hills, and its rivers. On the major marketing days, the villagers visited the Jewish streets. They were great days for the Jewish shopkeepers, peddlers, and saloonkeepers. The income they earned on market days supported them throughout the rest of the year. Otherwise, no one ever saw a goy in the center of the city from the kloiz to the tishmarket.

There was one street, north of the center of town, from which Jews kept their distance. They referred to it as 'Tum'a Street" , and its name alone was enough to fill a Jew's heart with fear. That part of the city was strange and distant to them, farther than the cities of Sura and Pumbaditha in ancient Babylonia, more distant than Mains or Worms where once dwelt the great teachers in whose footsteps they trod, whose words they uttered, and whose ideas they pondered.

Saint Stanislaus Street, winding amid monasteries and churches, was the only place where the Poles, the Lithuanians, and the other Catholic goyim displayed fraternal love and peace toward one another. For generations the Church and its "holy" images had served as a center of attraction for Catholics who wished to pray. The ill, the blind, the lame, the leprous streamed there in depressing processions to seek cures. The bells tolled constantly along that street, and the hum of prayer never ceased. Processions with pennants and images were often staged there.
By law, any man who walked on that street had to bare his head. Whoever dared walk there with his head covered invited a stone at his head. No Jew ever set fool there. There was no need for any warnings. They simply never mentioned that street, as if it were beyond the seas, in a distant world that no one in his right mind would ever think about.

2 - A Villager Comes to Vilna

How was Tzemach, the simple Jew who lived in the little, nearby town of Iliya, to know about awesome "Tum'a Street".  Tzemach had been born in the village and had filled his sixty years there with Yirath-Shamayim (fear of God) and yegiath-kapayim (toil). This was his first visit to the big city, as it was for his ten-year-old daughter, Esther, whom he had taken along with him on his trip to consult a doctor. He was fascinated and enchanted by all the wondrous glories he discovered at every step. His excitement was no different from his daughter's. They gazed at everything with wide-open eyes, their heads in a whirl, and their hearts pounding with excitement. How could these innocent Jews from Iliya know that in Vilna, in Jewish Vilna, a hundred places from the Great Shul, lay another world in which a Jew might not tread?
Tzemach had never been much of a Torah learner; his craft was the preparation of tobacco for snuff. He knew all of Tehillim (Psalms) by heart as well as some other tefiloth (prayers) and pesukim (Torah verses). This was also part of his art: All day, and late into the night as well, he would stand at his big table and pulverize the tobacco leaves with the wooden pestle in his hand. This is an operation that you must accompany with singing. Without musical accompaniment, the pounding lacks rhythm and
the tobacco remains odorless. And what should a Jew from Iliya sing if not 'I'ehillim?''.
Nowadays people don't know what snuffmaking is. At school, children are taught that tobacco grows as leaves in certain places throughout the world, the best growing in Cuba and Virginia. This information the citizens of Iliya would have considered trivial. What mattered was that Leib the Agent, who made the trip to Vilna once a week in order to provide assorted wares for the shopkeepers of Iliya. used to bring a small parcel wrapped in a clean napkin out of which Tzemach would remove dried leaves that he smelled and looked over with an expert's refined attention to detail. The leaves wore then pulverised. After they had been reduced to a tine powder. Tzemach would add some secret ingredient. Those who claimed to be ""in the know" asserted that Tzemach added a highly-refined blend of ethrog (citron) peel, arava (willow) and hadas (myrtle) leaves plus a variety of other mitzvah ingredients, all of which turned the tobacco into snuff fit for the nostrils of worthy Jews in shuls and in batey midrash. This secret blend gave Tzemachs snuff its unique odor and spread his fame in Vilna. In the Iliya shul. every Shabbalh during the reading of the Torah. Chayim Bentzel Fein would draw his ivory snuff box out of his pocket, open it, and take a pinch of the powder between his fingers. Then he would pass the snuff box to his neighbor, and he to his neighbor. So the box moved from hand to hand. Suddenly the air in the shul would be split by resounding sneezes that sounded like the Cossack rifle shots during the previous Polish uprising. They would all nod their heads in Tzemach's direction as if to say: Your product is beyond compare.
You could say that Tzemach prepared his tobacco in his Creator's honor.
Snuffmaking has its hazards, too. Anyone who inhales snuff for fifty years- Tzemach had begun lo learn his art at a tender age- sooner or later finds that some of it has grown attached to his lungs. Recently Tzemach had found himself coughing all too often while even one else was sneezing with pleasure. The village feldsher (folk-medicine doctor). Motl, mumbled something about a lung and expressed the opinion that Tzemach ought to seek advice. Neither Tzemach nor Motl the village feldsher had any regard for the doctors in the city. Moll nevertheless advised Tzemach to travel lo Vilna to consult the doctors there. If it did no good it would at least do no harm. There definitely was such a thing as a lung, and Tzemach's didn't look good to him.
So Tzemach abandoned his pestle, and went toVilna with his daughter. In search of an expert physician, they gaped at the city and its wonders. The devil that always makes trouble for villagers visiting the city. prodded Tzemach through the gale into Saint Stanislaus Slreet, where the tolling of bells and the hum of strange-sounding prayers resounded in Tzemach's ears.
It all started when a rufiian pushed Tzemach's cap off his head and shouted some vile-sounding words in Russian or Lithuanian: Tzemach knew neither language. Tzemach covered his head with his left sleeve and bent down to recover his cap. How can a Jew stand in middle of the city with his head bared! He was struck so fierce a blow in his right arm that he thought his arm would join his cap on the ground. It dawned on him that this was a place where you had to walk bareheaded. But why?.' This isn't a bathhouse! He wasn't allowed much time for reflection. Surrounded by ruffians, farmers, and all sorts of rabble, he .stood together with his litte daughter in the midst of a growing mob. Fists and slicks struck him. Curses and vile insults poured down upon him. Little ten-year-old Esther hid behind her father, her eyes tilled with terror, her delicate hands raised to absorb some of the blows raining down upon Tzemach from all sides. A heavy stick struck her and she fell to the ground, bloody and groaning.
Two young men wearing long friars' cloaks stepped out of Saint .Johann's monastery. Their bleak garb did not match their happy, fresh faces. One was stocky, his dark eyes dreamy; the other, tall and thin, wore a mischievous smile on his lips. Both carried books under their arms, and they were engrossed in a lively dialogue. When the noise at the church gale reached their ears and they beheld the mob, they broke off their conversation. The tall one rushed ahead on his long legs, curious to know what had caused the assembly. His friend dragged himself behind unwillingly, angry at the interruption. "It is our duty," said the shorter of the two, "to pay no attention to mundane matters or to the concerns of the rabble. So we were taught, Zarembo. What's it our business? We've raised ourselves to a superior level and we may not lower ourselves to their level."
"You're wrong, Valentin." his friend replied. "If we arc lo dedicate ourselves to the priesthood we must learn and understand how to bring the spirit of the Church even to the lowest levels. We must learn to recognize the people in their poverty and in their pettiness, so as to educate them and to aid them "
''We're still too young." Valentin claimed. "We're still unprepared for life. We must first know ourselves. No one will pay attention lo us today."
"Our attire bears the stamp of the priesthood; the mob will respect it despite our youthful faces."
They reached the mob. In the middle of the crowd lay the Jew. nearly unconscious, in shock, coated with blood from his wounds. Next to him lay the little girl, groaning. The mob had not yet exacted satisfaction. People kept coming from all sides, from every dark nook, seeking to take their part in the event. All against one...

"What happened? Why are you beating this man?"
The men noticed the young friars and moved aside. The children kissed their hands. Others looked mockingly at the young men "The Jew desecrated the honor of the Holy Mother;
"He refused m show respect for her. He didn't even doff his hat."
"He spat at the sacred image."
"Stone him'"
"Murder him'"
"Let's drag his body into the city and kill all the Jews'"
Hundreds of sticks and lists waved in the air.

A Good Deed
In their broad cloaks, the two friars stood before the victims of the attack, spreading out their hands as if in prayer  and defense. Had the attackers continued the beating, they would surely have struck the delicate hands of the young friars or the golden crosses on their chests. This they dared not do.

"Listen, brothers," the taller friar said in a loud, clear voice, "it's not your business to judge whether this Jew did or did not desecrate the sanctity of the Church. It is for the Church to investigate and to judge."

"We're also Christians, and we know how to protect and avenge the Holy Mother ourselves!" someone shouted.

The rabble burst into furious tumult.

Zarembo grabbed the bloodied, inert Jew by his collar and dragged him inside the churchyard gate. The shorter friar lifted up the girl and tarried her on his arms into the yard. They immediately shut and bolted the heavy iron gates in the face of the volcanic mob. The rabble roared like a wild beast whose prey has been snatched out of its mouth. They dispersed very slowly, shouting curses and singing hymns.

Inside the courtyard, the friars sat on a heap of stones until the Jew came back to himself. They asked him to explain everything. What had happened? What had aroused the mob's fury? Had he really desecrated the "Holy" Mother's honor? Why? Hadn't he known he was endangering his own life as well as those of all his brethren in Vilna?
The gentle words, his rescuers' fresh, generous faces calmed Tzemach. He was soon able to speak coherently, and they were able to understand him despite his Jewish accent and his tears. He told them them lhe was from a small nearby village, that he had never before visited Vilna. and that he was completely unfamiliar with its streets.
"How I ever got into this street is beyond me. I was seeking a doctor to treat my sick lung. My name is Tzemach and I'm known throughout the region as a snuff-maker, I didn't know it was necessary here to bare one's head out of respect for the "Holy" Mother. Had I known that,... why. . . I would never have set foot in this street. In fact this is the first time I ever heard about a "Holy' Mother."
Zarembo burst into laughter. "Don't say that aloud," he cautioned, "'your lack of such basic information will not make a very good impression on the Church hierarchy."
The Jew's simple ingenuousness convinced both friars of his innocence, and they decided not to bring the matter before the bishop.
While Zarembo quizzed the old man, Valentin attended to the girl. He placed her on the grass between two trees and washed the blood off her face. The bright eyes that gazed at him mellowed from gleaming daggers to glistening pearls. The fear and the horror those eyes reflected were gradually replaced by an expression of gratitude to their Creator and to the good people who were his emissaries to rescue unfortunates from their attackers. The long black cloaks and the crosses intimidated Esther. But the sun-like mercy and love in her rescuer's countenance melted her frosty fears. The tears that had choked her were gone, and she could smile. "Thank you, kind man."

"What did they do to you. dear child, and why?"

"We're Jews.  And we're in exile."

"Is that your only sin?'"

"I don't know. Perhaps it's a punishment from Heaven. We shouldn't have entered this street. But it's not my father's fault, I saw the pretty domes and the golden gate, and I asked him to take me inside to see everything. It's my fault."

For a moment the twenty-year-old friar's eyes gazed into the ten-year-old Jewish girl's eyes. A fountain of ingenuous purity gushed out of her eyes and poured into his mind and his soul. An angel had descended from heaven and touched him ever so gently. He could have stared into those pure eyes for hours, drawing from that fountain incessantly like a thirsty man quenching his thirst at a mountain spring.

By a roundabout route the friars led father and daughter to their room, where they offered them water, milk, and wine. Tzemach and Esther drank the water and ate some bread that Tzemach had in his knapsack. The money the friars offered Tzemach he firmly refused. An hour later, father and daughter were sufficiently recovered for their rescuers to lead them by a hidden path through a gateway into the Jewish part of town,

"Valentin," .said Zarembo, "I think we have done a good deed. Though we shall surely suffer yet on that account. The rabble '
"The rabble must learn," Valentin was brusque, "that the Church and its representatives help those in need."

"I fear that if we had not put an end to the affair ourselves, had we brought the matter before the bishop- -who knows what would have happened to that poor Jew. What do we do when the hierarchy finds out'?"

"It too will have to learn what it should long have taught the masses: that the Church is obligated to love and not in hate."

"You are naive. You keep thinking vaguely about the world, about ideals, about destiny. You forget one thing -yourself. Let's contemplate what's in store for us, if word gets out. If it is believed that we harbored a desecrator of the Church, we're lost. They'll kick us out of the seminary and who can tell what else they'll do."

Valentin lifted his eves heavenward "If the Church can't be just to an innocent man, then it is still sunk in pagan darkness and is not worth serving "

"Valentin, don't forget that you're the son of Count  Pototski. The nobility has many oppurtunities. But I'm a pauper. My father was a village school teacher who left me nothing besides an inclination toward theology."

"You know my parents will take care of you "

"So long as I am your private teacher preparing you for your vocation. But if the story comes out, and we're expelled from the seminary, your parents will blame it all m me. They'll get rid of me. Your situation is different. You're their son' and you'll find some way."
"I won't desert you. Zarembo. "

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