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Israel Kasovich:  Sixty Years of Life

Israel Kasovich (Yisrael Isar Katzovich, ישראל איסר קצוביץ) was born near Krivichi in 1859. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Krivichi. Israel was sent by his family to study in the yeshivas in Minsk. He later studied in Kurenets and became a Zionist. In 1904 he emigrated to America. His first book was ששים שנות חיים (Sixty Years of Life), which he later revised and published in English under the title The Days of Our Years. He also wrote The Eternal People: Holiday Sentiments on Jews and Judaism. Israel Kasovich died in 1934.

60 Years Days of Our Years Eternal People

Books by Israel Kasovich

Excerpts from Sixty Years of Life:

It's already the end of summer. I feel refreshed, energetic and content. I sleep deeply and soundly, I devour my food, I like my job and I am never idle. My uncle is very happy with me, so you might ask, "What's the problem?" Out of nowhere these negative thoughts started penetrating my peaceful existence - "You are bound to stay an idiot and a simpleton!" What does it mean to be an idiot, you might ask? The entire summer I did not touch a book, and in no time the little knowledge I have gained will be erased. I find myself being pulled back to my days of Torah studies, but every time I remember Minsk and its yeshivas, I get a bad taste in my mouth and my skin shivers. I want to go to Kurenets, where I could study the torah on my own.

In my childhood I spent some time there studying in the cheder. Kurenets is a very short distance from my father's home in Krivichi, and I can see my folks as often as I like. In Kurenets I can study as I wish and I'll be rid of the arrogant, rooster-like heads of the yeshivas and their policeman-like assistants, and all the Ta Ra Ram!

My father and my uncle like the idea. My uncle paid me twenty rubles that he owed me, and I gave some of the money to my father. I had the tailor make me some clothes with the rest, and immediately after Sukkot I walked to Kurenets.

Among Hasidim

If you want to know the essence of the Hasidim, you must live with them, mingle with them, and observe them. The Hasidic movement has had a profound impact on the Jewish experience. It revolutionized the old, tired Jewish class system with a sense of equality and love and respect for the common man. It suited the aching Jewish heart to assuage the hardship of the Diaspora. Kurenets is a shtetl of Hasidim, and I must say in my childhood it was like a splendid oasis for me. When I enter Kurenets, I immediately feel that I enter a new world with a different kind of people.

Here you won't meet Jews who are full of themselves, who are self-important, and will constantly let you know that they are Jews of "Aliyah." Here you won't find rabbis who prance around like proud turkeys and look with distaste at the common person. Everyone is equal here - poor, rich, son of the Torah and the handyman. On holidays and days of celebration, everyone mingles and you feel that you are part of one big, happy family. In addition to the beauty of friendship and sense of equality, I particularly enjoy the fact that you won't see here the spineless Jews with solemn faces, as you do in other towns. The Hasid says sadness is a curse. Work God in happiness. For the Hasidim, it is a mitzvah to be happy, a commandment. The Baal Shem Tov would say that a man who lives with joy fulfills the wish of his God. There are shtetls where, after the three meals at the end of Shabbat, the Jews retain a sense of bitterness on their faces. Extreme despair comes over them and they start saying Tehilim with a whiny tune as if a dead person is in front of them and they are eulogizing him. Here they say Hasidut. They tell wonderful tales and sing wonderful, melodic, sweet tunes. It doesn't seem like a big deal, the songs and tales, but I feel like my soul rises to heaven and my heart fills with good feelings and aspirations - more than when I read the Mussar (moralizing) books.

The prayers are made here with special excitement. People put their heart and soul into their prayer. It is never done in haste. Every word is pronounced slowly with perfect enunciation and melody. Hasidut is discussed here often. One gives drasha and explanation, and the rest listen. I started going to hear drashot. At the beginning it was a foreign thing to me, but slowly I started understanding. The Hasidut teaches us to see man as a partner of God, helping God in the creation of the world. Without the deeds of human beings here on earth, God could hardly do much in heaven. The essence of man and his aim and desire is to be God-like, to improve his personality and his deeds. The first mitzvah, or commandment, is to get rid of the “have,” to put less importance on physical drives and selfish desires. Man must remember that he is the sparkle in the eyes of Creation, and that without man, the world means nothing.

The Hasidut will also teach us that the mitzvot and Bible studies must be done out of love, not out of fear. A man should not follow the commandments for his reward in heaven or the other world, but only for the sake of the commandment and its inherent goodness. The prayer to God is not only words written in a book, or the fasts and physical sacrifices, but it must heighten the spirit with excitement and should be done with extreme concentration. If it is done properly, it will transport the soul and enable it to reach higher levels of spirituality. With the help of such prayers, man should ascend from a physical being to being one with God, a being with unending splendor. . . .

During the long winter nights, sometimes I find myself all alone in the shtetl, and I study until midnight, sometimes even later. I wake up when I wish, sometimes just before dawn. The short of it is that I am free and independent, and I do whatever I desire. I don't have anyone watching over me, and I study what I wish. In summer nights I stay awake all night and study, especially when there is a full moon. I open all the windows, a light wind blows around me, and I dive with sweet tune into the passages of our scholars. Now I understand them and admire them. If I meet a very difficult passage and cannot understand the complicated ideas of our scholars, I have a solution. I stand with my face to the wall and I say with deep reverence, "Ahavat Olam." And when I reach the passage "Vten b'libanu bina l'haveen" I start begging, "God, open my heart and enlighten it so I can understand and comprehend the sayings of your Torah."

After saying that, my eyes open wide and my thinking becomes clear. I read the passage again, slowly, without haste, and with deep concentration. God helps me. After a short time the difficult passage is absolutely clear. "Yagata Umatzata Taamim" - "The one that tries and studies hard will comprehend in the end." That is what our sages said. Sometimes I feel drawn to something new, and not to the Gamara, so I study the Midrash. Among the books I found in the synagogue was a book Bchinat Olam. It is an extremely difficult book, but that does not scare me. . . .

Yuda son of Zushas, a landowner and a Hasid

I study in the shtibl of Yuda Zushas. Here they call a house of study a shtibl. Yuda Zushas is a handsome Jew. Tall, with a round black beard, his eyes are black and he has a very deep, penetrating stare. He is a serious person, but usually a relaxed aura surrounds him. He is always dressed in a clean and elegant manner. Everyone says that he is a brilliant man who has a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the laws. His Hasidic lessons are very lively. He also speaks Polish and Russian well. Even among the gentiles he is known as a very smart and decent man. He has two children: a son and a daughter. He also adopted an orphan girl. He rents a land parcel from the wealthiest landowner in the area, the poritz (landlord). He has a pundak (a wine making and tasting establishment). He owns a boarding house. In addition, he has claims in numerous businesses in the wood-processing and clothing-manufacturing industries. Many of the town Jews work for him. He provides for all of his relatives, and no one complains. Even with so many businesses, he still finds time for the Torah, and every morning when morning prayers end, he reads from the Olam, a chapter from the Mishnah. Between Mincha and Maariv he reads from “Ain Ya'akov”.

I love to listen to his prayer when he is all alone in the shtibl. I especially enjoy the Shabbat prayer. On Shabbat I eat at his house. After everyone else has left the shtibl, his son and I stay and wait for him. He faces the wall and prays with enthusiasm, and his beautiful voice fills the room with pleasant sounds and the words of God. His prayers make you forget the rest of the world.

How beautiful is this house when we return from the synagogue! There are six silver candlesticks with long candles, standing on a very long table that is covered with a white tablecloth. His wife, with her gentle, modest, yet proud face, sits on the “tzena vereyena”. The orphan girl and the daughter listen intently to every word she reads.

Yuda Zoshas starts singing “Shalom Aleichem” in a sweet voice. Holy quietness surrounds the home. The son and I softly join the singing in hushed voices. Now it's time for him to bless the wine. We stand and slightly bow our heads. He holds the big silver wine glass that is filled to the top. For a moment he'll shut his eyes and fall into deep thought, and then he lifts his voice in song. Each word vibrates the air. The holiness of the Shabbat becomes a reality. I breathe deeply and the experience fills me. We sit around the table late into the night until the fish is all eaten, and we sing “ezamer - beshvacheen”. After we have finished the noodles, the son will recite a Mishniot chapter that is commonly reciteted on Shabbat.

Hershl the Tzadik

Another person who receives a lot of respect here is Hershl the Tzadic. In Kurenets it's not common to be honored with the title “tzadik” (righteous). Hershl, a short, skinny Jew, is always in a hurry and always busy with one chore or another. He is Yuda Zushas' assistant. He's responsible for the entire alcohol business – he makes the wine, he measures and mixes it, he sells it, and he registers the sales. His other important job is to observe the sun. He watches for the sunrises and sunsets. When he sees the first rays of sunlight, he runs to all the houses of prayer and sets the clocks. His job is to ensure that all the town's clocks are set in accordance with the sun and with each other. In this way, the Jews will not set the schedule for the daily prayers at the wrong times (God forbid!), or even worse, misjudge the time of the 'blessing of the candles' ceremony on Shabbat evenings.

One night, in the month of Shvat, everyone got tired of scanning the sky for the moon. Not a single sighting of the moon had been reported. It was already the last night, and still the ceremony of moon renewal had not ended. The Jews sat late into the night, waiting and waiting, but in vain. Eventually, all departed and returned to their homes to sleep. I had already fallen into a deep sleep when all of a sudden I was awakened by a loud knock on the window. I approached the window and heard a voice scolding me, “Get up, quick!”, and announcing, “It's time to renew the moon.” I washed my hands, got dressed, and quickly ran outside. There I saw many Jews who also were hurrying from their beds, gathering from all corners.

As I later realized, Hershl the Tzadik hadn't slept the whole night. Instead, he had sat awake and waited. He had hoped, 'Maybe God will have pity after all, and reveal the moon.' And as it turned out, he hadn't waited in vain. The moon appeared. Hershl the Tzadik immediately woke up all of the neighbors, and these neighbors woke up other neighbors, until everyone was outside. We all stood in the shivering cold, but the moon was shining and the beautiful sounds of Jewish voices spread through the night air. And Hershl the Righteous beamed with happiness. . . .

Chaim Zalman, My Friend

I have a friend in the shtetl. His name is Chaim Zalman. He's the one and only son of Yuda Zushas. He's only a few years older than me, but he is much taller than I am, and skinny, like a lulav. His face is elongated and pale, with a long nose, and long curly peyes. He is slightly unwell, and the doctors from Vilna have ordered him to drink plenty of milk and eats raw eggs. The doctors also recommended that he take walks in the fresh air. For this reason, his father, Yuda Zusha, asked me to take a daily walk with Chaim. Every evening, even during the wintertime, we would stroll around the shtetl.

During the summer, and especially on weekends, we would walk in the forest – in addition to our evening stroll. There we would lie under a tree and discuss what a 'good Jew' is, the study of Hasidut, and everything that happens in Heaven and Hell. Both of us were confident that we knew everything that happened in Heaven. On the other hand, we knew very little about what was happening on Earth. Newspapers never reached our area, and foreigners never visited.

One day, I learned about the world outside Kurenets. Here is a story about a stranger who came to visit. One Shabbat evening, Chaim Zalman ran to me and asked me to come to his house at once. He said, “I want to show you something.” I entered his house, and he pointed to a gentleman sitting in the next room, eating gefilte fish. “The person you see here is a Jew,” said Chaim Zalman. “He's a lawyer from Vilna, and he's visiting our poritz.” I stood there and observed the stranger carefully, from top to bottom. He had no sidelocks! His beard was completely shaved, and he ate without a kippa on his head. His whole face was un-Jewish-like. I couldn't believe what Chaim Zalman had told me. I went to his mother and asked if he had really told me the truth. She answered me with a deep sigh, “Yes, yes, my dear, this person is also a Jew.”

At dusk, Yuda asked me to sleep in the same room as the guest. He explained that the guest would be lonely, sitting alone at night and sleeping by himself. When I went to the guest's room, he welcomed me warmly. He was very friendly and he spoke Yiddish eloquently, with great depth of expression. He asked what chapter I had studied in my Talmud studies and mentioned many passages from different Talmudic chapters. He told me that just like me, he had once been a poor yeshiva boy, but that was many years ago now. Some good people, he explained, had helped him succeed in life, helping him to become educated and learn the ways of the world, until he eventually became a lawyer.

While he was talking, I thought, “God forbid that this man truly exemplifies what it means to succeed in life.” Later he urged me, “Come with me to Vilna, my friend, and there we'll make a man out of you.” I thought, “Your concept of what is a fine man is really foreign to me.” As he spoke, he began preparing for bed. Suddenly I felt something was very wrong. This “cool” man had taken his clothes off and he hadn't even bothered to put on a talit. I began to shiver. I felt anxious and uncomfortable at the idea of sleeping in the same room as this man. I left the room quickly and didn't return. . . .

That was—and still is—how the days go in Kurenets. Life here is good, and when I feel lonely, I walk to my father's home, visit my family, and then go back to Kurenets to study the Torah. . . .

(These excerpts are included in the Yizkor Book for Kurenets under the title "A Place of the Torah," lightly edited here.)

Israel Kasovich

Books by Israel Kasovich

  1. Sixty Years of Life [Hebrew: ששים שנות חיים] (Berlin: Dvir, 1923)
  2. The Eternal People: holiday sentiments on Jews and Judaism, translated by Maximilian Hurwitz (New York: The Jordan Publishing Co., 1927; reprinted in 2018 by Forgotten Books)
  3. The Days of Our Years: personal and general reminiscence (1859-1929), translated by Maximilian Hurwitz (New York: The Jordan Publishing Co., 1929)

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