Akkerman – the City of my Birth
by Yosef Gur-Arye / Translated by Sara Mages
Note: This article originally appeared in the Akkerman Yizkor Book, published in Tel Aviv in 1983
Zalman Shneur, the renowned writer and poet, opens the first chapter of his book "Fendri HaGibor" ["Fendri the Hero"] with these words: "Where are you Jews strong as oak trees? You, that in your eyes, the eyes of an innocent child, was hidden the force of life. You knew to give a hand and protect your brothers and sisters at all times of trouble. " Like him, I'll also open my memories of Akkerman: Where are you, the Jews of Akkerman, strong as oak trees, the innocent and righteous, laborers, farmers and simple folks, who only want to live in peace and tranquility, have bread to eat and clothes to wear. They were happy with their lot and content with little.
The home of my father of blessed memory
My father arrived to Akkerman in 1912 from the district of Ludmir in Wolyn (Poland-Russia) at the recommendation of his uncle, HaRav R' Yitzchak Wertheim, who served as a rabbi in the city of Bendery [Bender, Moldova] near Akkerman. In Akkerman, my father was accepted as a "Rabbi" (according to the family tree my father was a seventh generation to Baal Shem Tov) although it was customary in our extensive family that all the boys had to receive a permit to officiate as rabbis. In my father's family the title "Rabbi" was inherited from generation to generation, and for that reason all the sons were called - HR"HR (Half Half-Rabbi Rav). Anyway, my father served as a Rav-Rabbi in Akkerman until 1935 because in this year he moved his place of residence to the capital city of Bucharest.
As it's customary, our house, a rabbi's house, was used as a public house. It was always buzzing like a beehive and people from all the circles of the Jewish population entered and left it, each person with his case and according to his needs. It should be noted, that in terms of religious life Akkerman was different from many cities in the Diaspora. It was customary to say: the most liberal city across Russia (in terms of Jewish religion) is Odessa, whereas the most liberal city in Bessarabia is Akkerman. The Jewish population in this city wasn't the largest and at the verge of the Second World War it didn't reach more than 8,000 persons. At first, my father had trouble acclimatizing among Jews who were free with their opinions because in the towns of Wolyn, from which he came, the Jewish population was ultra-orthodox. But, it's possible say that after a brief stay in Akkerman these Jews endeared him and he endeared them. Father appreciated the proper attributes of Akkerman's Jews: honesty, fine hospitality, decency, etc. I remember that when I was a child I used to hide behind my father's tall chair, which was made of bamboo, and listened attentively to matters of Jewish law that were brought before him. More than once these deliberations continued until well after midnight and my mother, may she rest in peace, found her child sleeping soundly behind the chair…
Of course and as usual the discussions focused on matrimonial matters, between brothers and sisters, parents and their children, business partners, inheritances and wills, etc. The deliberations weren't always calm and sometimes the shouts between the "sides" frightened the children and the neighbors in the middle of the night. My father, who was endowed with an extraordinary patience, exhausted all the possibilities of compromise and didn't stop the deliberations before he had found the appropriate solution.
I remember an episode that characterizes the Jews of Bessarabia who, as we know, weren't known as great scholars like the Jews of Lita and Poland, but on the other hand were proficient in the laws of eating…From time to time my father was invited for litigation in one of the towns near Akkerman. The litigants were horse dealers. After my father issued a ruling to the satisfaction of both sides, one of the litigants declared in a loud voice that he was careful with the matters of the Sabbath to the highest level, and to prove it he opened and said: Rabbi, I once traveled from town to town. That day was Friday, so I whipped my horses with all my strength because I knew that the next day is the Sabbath and I had to reach the town by Saturday morning so, God forbid, I'll not violate the Sabbath…
Another story, which is also typical of the Jews of Akkerman, has reached my ears. My father told the story to his brother-in-law, HaRav Yosef Wertheim who was rabbi in Hurbieszow Poland, when he visited the city of Bendery before he immigrated to Israel. And so father told: it happened in 1913, the year in which he began serving as a rabbi in Akkerman. On Sabbath morning when father went to Beit Hamidrash he had to cross the fish market. And here he sees the chief Gabai of the Great Synagogue standing in the middle of the market. The Gabai greeted him with a broad Shabbat Shalom, but felt the need to add: "Have you heard such a thing? About two hundred carts of fish arrived to the market today and the price of fish literally skyrocketed - 30 Kopikot a kilo!"…
Of course, there were also Jewish scholars in Akkerman, who were heedful of a light precept as of a weighty one, and we shouldn't learn from the individual about the entire community. I remember well the sharp-witted Jews who studied the daily Gemara page like: R' Chaim Keminker, R' Moshe Aharon, R' David Brener and more, but their number can be estimated in dozens and not in hundreds.
I remember the many gatherings that were held with great splendor on the Sabbath and on the holidays, but I especially remember the mitzvah-meals that were held on the last day of Passover to mark the miracle that happened to Baal Shem Tov who was saved from drowning in the Aegean Sea on his way to Eretz-Yisrael. According to the story the ship, in which Baal Shem Tov and his family traveled, capsized at the middle of the sea. They miraculously found an abandoned inn and in it they found dumplings kosher for Passover.
Since, as aforementioned, my father was related to the family of Baal Shem Tov (seventh generation), these meals were held with great enthusiasm and festivity, and many Jews (even though there weren't many Hassidim in Akkerman) gathered to celebrate. Father sat at the head of the table and the Hassidic melodies didn't stop until late into the night.
The plan to immigrate to Cyprus
An important event that is etched in my memory is - the plan, to immigrate to Israel via Cyprus that my father was one of its initiators. The matter occurred at the end of the 1920s. At that time the economic crisis was at its height and it was followed by distress and shortage. In addition, these were also years of drought that were well felt in Akkerman and its environment. The Jews have been hit hard by this crisis and walked gloomy and worried. At the same time my father z"l and other activists from the town like Baruch Gevet z"l, Steinberg from the town of "Shabo" and others, started to think seriously about immigration to Eretz-Yisrael and formed a special association for this purpose. However, the British Mandate Government had its own laws. Only a few immigration certificates were given to the wealthy, and only those who were able to prove that they were wealthy received them. I don't know who the main initiator of the plan was, but a number of important homeowners, who belonged to the association, decided that if they can't immigrate directly to Eretz-Yisrael - they'll be able to get closer to it. The plan was: to travel to Cyprus and stay there till the storm blows over, and from Cyprus to Eretz-Yisrael was just a matter of one jump. If my memory serves me, about five hundred Jews joined the aforementioned association. They paid membership fees to the association and decided to send two delegates to Cyprus in order to test the possibilities of existence there and, above all, to find the most efficient ways to travel from Cyprus to Eretz-Yisrael.
The delegates left, spent some time in Cyprus, returned to Akkerman and reported that it's pretty easy to settle in Cyprus and the immigrants are guaranteed good absorption conditions. However, it's not easy to move from Cyprus to Eretz-Yisrael and they shouldn't expect any benefits from the British Mandate Government. This report didn't encourage them and eventually the association was disbanded and the matter ended with great disappointment. However, the matter of this association shouldn't be forgotten because it proves how great the yearning for Zion was, and to what extent the Jews were willing to go in order to reach Eretz-Yisrael.
I immigrated to Israel in 1937 after a period of training that lasted for about three years. My father whispered to me when he accompanied me: you know, my beloved son that we strive with all of our might to immigrate to Israel. Therefore, be a good delegate and make sure that we would be able to follow you.
With the outbreak of the Second World War all the roads and connections were disrupted. The "immigration request" that I sent to my parents didn't reach its destination and they were only able to immigrate to Israel in 1947. Father was awarded to see the establishment of the State of Israel, but he died of heart attack in 1952 at the age of 64.
It's interesting that shortly before his death he felt that his end was approaching and made all the efforts to publish his sermons and his lineage in two books: A)"Binyan Shlomo" - about the weekly Torah portions and the sermons and laws in the small tractates "Berachot" and "Shabbat." B) "Sharsheret Hazahav" ["The Golden Chain"] which included the sermons of the great Hassidic masters and the details of his genealogy and of his righteous ancestors.
Characters and figures that are etched in my memory
Time has done its usual and erased a lot of things and people, but several characters from those days are etched in my heart and I'll try in the following lines to set, briefly, a memorial for them.
My friend, Motale Shternish z"l, was like a brother to me. We grew up and matured together, and my hand never left his hand. In 1928 I traveled to study in a Yeshiva in Kishinev and none of us was able to overcome the longing to the other, and indeed, a year later, Motale also arrived to Kishinev. He was a fine young man and a friend who knew to dispel any feeling of sadness or depression from each friend that he had met. When we walked together - and we were always together - people used to say: here is a pair of jokers. They mainly intended to Motale, but because I was always in his company this nickname also stuck to me. When I traveled to Hakhshara [pioneer training] - he also traveled, but he wasn't as lucky as I was and wasn't able to get the desired immigration certificate. According to information that reached me, Motale perished in 1942 in Odessa and I mourn him to this day because he was an intimate fried and I'll always remember him.
Shmuel Sternisht z"l was one of the teachers in Gymnasia "Tarbut." He wasn't just a teacher, but a teacher in his heart and soul. In the manner of the people of Akkerman he was stuck with the nickname "Dubtzi" because he always told us the stories of Sholem Aliechm, especially the story "Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son," who instead of learning to be a cantor became a nanny to Dubtzi the cantor's hunchback daughter. Big a small called the teacher Shternish "Dubtzi," but he didn't respond. A friendship developed became us because he was also the librarian. He allowed me to search the library and also let me borrow two or three books at a time. He gave me an appetite for reading and I'm grateful to him to this day.
R' Eliyahu Welbitesh z"l was my father's friend. He was a Talne Hassid and in his childhood he visited R' Dudel from Talne together with my father. He was a pleasant looking Jew, a successful merchant, and had a large family. Every morning he came to our house and inquired about the health of the family members. My father z"l honored him with the best aliyot [ascents] to the Torah, which were only given to the privileged, and it seems to me that this fact aroused the jealousy of the rest of the worshipers.
His grandson Yehusua (Drori z"l), who always accompanied his grandfather to the synagogue, befriended me. He later became one of the founders of "Gordonia" and one of the high officials of the Workers' Federation in Hadera [Israel].
R' Yosef Ben-Zion was a resident of Kamyanets-Podilsky in Podolia and no one knew how he ended up in our town. He was lonely without a relative or a savior, smallish and adorned with a very short goatee. All year long he taught the Torah to the Jewish children in one of the villages near Akkerman, and came to Akkerman for the holidays. Our family, who knew that he was lonely, adopted him and he ate with us each time he came to Akkerman. He had one weakness: he ate and talked very slowly. We used to say in our house - if R' Yosef Ben-Zion had finished his meal - it is a sure sign that dawn has arrived…
Sometimes, during the High Holiday he had the luck to be invited to serve a cantor in one of the towns. At Simchat Torah the clowns used to harass him and urged him to sing "AdamYesodo me-afar, ve-sofo le-afar" ["Man comes from dust and ends in dust"] from the prayers of Yom Kippur. He tried to trill his voice, but most of the times he wasn't able to. The kids tried to help him and threw handkerchiefs, towels and everything in sight at him, but he never lost his temper.
From my childhood I still remember other homeowners like R' Zeidl Auerbach who knew sickness all of his days. He was a scholar and an enthusiastic Hassid. He had a tremendous drinking power and was able to drink, all at once, the water that we kept in a copper jug. His friend was R' Moshe Wizblat who was very skinny, literally "skin and bones" as they used to say in our town. He was God-fearing and a Hassid and his nickname was "Mamenyu" [mother] because he used to wring his hands and emit a sigh that was accompanied by one word - "Mamenyu." He prepared himself for the next world and studied the Torah day and night. His wife had to take care of "this world", meaning that she had to earn a living, and for that purpose she had a textile shop. She was very proud at her educated husband and believed that thanks to him she'll also have a place in heaven.