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Home » Before WWII » Religion » My Future is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants

My Future is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants

By Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer
Chapter 8: Why I Left the Old Country and What I Accomplished in America
by Chaim Kusnetz (Baron von Habenichts)

Everything was new and different: sidewalks made of boards, masonry buildings, a marketplace, fairs, and three synagogues on one square! There was a study house, a communal synagogue, and the rebbe’s synagogue. And all the synagogues were conducted in the Sephardic style, like in Duboy.9

There was another synagogue in Stolin, one belonging to the misnagdim,10 the opponents of Hasidism. Though we lived opposite this synagogue, I went to the Sephardic ones to pray. The point was that I would go from one synagogue to the next, catching bits of the service—kedushes, barkhus, omeyn yehey shmey rabos, and simple amens. In Duboy, I would not have been able to “collect” all the “things” in a whole month that I collected in one morning here in Stolin, especially since many minyanim, one after the other, prayed in the study house.

I quickly became acquainted with Stolin, and acquired a couple of friends. (They considered me to be very knowledgeable. I could read Russian just as easily as Yiddish, while they had only recently learned the Russian alphabet from the sign on the stores.) I went to study in the yeshiva at the study house. When they threw me out of that yeshiva after two days of study, I started studying Gemara on my own in the misnagdic synagogue across from where we lived.

I was thrown out of the yeshiva for the following reason: When I arrived to study at the yeshiva, they were already at the Gemara chapter Ezehu neshekh, “What is biting usury.” After the head of the yeshiva had taught us the lesson, he told us—all little pipsqueaks nine to fourteen years of age—to review it out loud. So they all went right to it, and I…I looked at them and burst out laughing. When the head of the yeshiva asked me why I was laughing and why I was not reviewing the passage together with everyone else, I answered that I did not have to review because I already knew what he had just taught us almost by heart. And that is why I was laughing at them for even needing to review it. “Nevertheless,“ he said, “you must review it. You may remember it now, but if you don’t memorize it you’ll forget quickly.” So I held in the laughter, and pretended to repeat the passage.

The next day, it was the same story. Again, I burst out laughing when I saw the group rocking back and forth as it reviewed the newly learned lesson. And when the head of the yeshiva told me that I had better stop laughing and review instead, I laughed even harder. So he took me by the hand and led me out of the yeshiva, saying as he did so, “This is a place for studying and not for laughing.”

So I spent my morning in the synagogues. I used to “lunch” at the rebbe’s synagogue, where they would pray about noon. I loved to watch the rebbe, Reb Yisroeltshe Perlow, and his sons, all dressed in long black silk kaftans as they stood at the eastern wall and prayed.13 And I loved to see how the Hasidim would always stand up when the rebbe walked by. During the day, I would walk through the streets of Stolin, collect cigarette butts and watch the Jewish market women plead and argue as they haggled with the peasants. The late afternoons and evening, I spent in the misnagdic synagogue.


9 Prayer in Stolin was not actually conducted in the style of the Sephardic Jews (the Jews of Spain and their descendants). Rather it was in the style of Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ha-Ari, 1534-1572) as adopted by the Hasidim. Since it resembled the Sephardic rite is some ways, it was commonly referred to as the Sephardic style.

10 The misnagdim (Hebrew, “opponents”) were the opponents of Hasidism within Eastern European traditional Judaism. They emphasized Talmudic study and criticized the focus on charismatic leadership within Hasidism. After a period of sharp conflict at the beginning of the nineteenth century, both groups made common cause against the Haskalah and other challenges to tradition.

13 Israel Perlov (c. 1869-1922) was the rebbe of the Karlin-Stolin dynasty at the time. An innovator, he encouraged secular studies and supported the education of girls.

Compiled by and Copyright © 2020 Joshua S. Perlman and Adina Lipsitz
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Updated 20 December, 2020

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