Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Elul 5765 - September 7, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Yeshiva World of Eretz Yisroel in the Nineteen Twenties As Recorded in the Diary of a Bochur from Slobodka- Chevron

by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen

Part I

This article presents fascinating excerpts from the diary of Rav Binyamin Yaakov Barkai zt'l of Kelm, who learned in the great yeshivos of Telz, Slobodka-Kovno and Slobodka- Chevron. Nachalas Binyamin is the name of the sefer that records Rav Barkai's years in these great yeshivos. It contains his own chiddushim as well as shiurim and shmuessen that he heard from his great roshei yeshiva, and the personal diary that he kept, in which he chronicled his experiences and impressions of those years. Though his impressions are in some respects far removed from contemporary experience, in essentials, they reflect the inner life of a ben Torah that is independent of time and place.

It is a rarity to come across a ben yeshiva's diary dating from the nineteen-twenties. This diary describes the learning in the yeshivos, while conveying the details and the rhythm of their internal life, as well as the effect on that life of the upheavals and suffering that the world underwent in that decade.

The general atmosphere of the times also comes across strongly. Pre-state Palestine was governed and largely populated by gentiles and more importantly, living conditions for all were far sparser than those prevalent nowadays. Poverty and austerity were the rule. Bnei yeshiva and those who dedicated their lives to spiritual striving, studied Torah in penury and braved real hardship in their struggle for survival. Day-to-day living involved grappling with serious problems that are virtually unknown nowadays.

Because the diary was written prior to Modern Hebrew's takeover of everyday speech, while people still spoke to each other in loshon hakodesh and Yiddish, its Hebrew is slightly dated. We have tried to preserve the atmosphere of the original writing as far as possible, to help the reader experience the feel of the times.

The diary's first section is mostly concerned with the learning in Yeshivas Telz. This leads the author to discuss the circumstances of his aliyah to Eretz Yisroel, via the Slobodka Yeshiva. Owing to the diary's length and wealth of detail, the sections presented here are not continuous.

An Idea is Born

In the winter of 5684 (1923-4) they learned Bava Kama. I applied myself to it. Besides Bava Kama, I also completed Makkos and Sanhedrin. On the whole, the time went well and I was very satisfied. However, during Shevat, Adar I and Adar II, things changed completely. The yeshiva's financial situation deteriorated drastically. Several months passed during which the talmidim didn't receive their stipends and many of them simply went hungry.

As if things weren't bad enough, another terrible misfortune befell us, almost making us forget our earlier problems. This was the annulment of the right to exemption from army service, that had hitherto been granted to all the bnei yeshiva in Lithuania. Now the government was suddenly suspending it retroactively, even calling up those who had been released by the earlier exemption committee.

Approximately forty people from Yeshivas Telz alone were called to appear before the conscription committee. This sudden blow made a great impression on the yeshiva, depressing the spirits of the bnei hayeshiva and those of the roshei hayeshiva as well.

While in that frame of mind, the idea occurred to me of leaving golus permanently and settling in our Holy Land, continuing our learning there and establishing a yeshiva there in the spirit of Lithuanian lomdus. I spoke this over with several of my friends and the idea struck a chord. Since there has lately been a lot of general movement towards settling in Eretz Yisroel, the idea met with universal approval and a large contingent formed within the yeshiva which spread to encompass virtually all the bnei hayeshiva. Everybody was talking about it.

Then we sought advice. We were several friends who came to the ram Rav Yitzchok and proposed transferring Yeshivas Telz to Eretz Yisroel. He too, was pleased with the idea but said that it was still necessary to consult the Rov about it.

We visited the Rov several times. He was also pleased with the idea but he made no final decision about it, because he said that many problems were involved and that it wasn't easy to make a hurried decision on something like this.

Shochat and I went to the Rov immediately after ma'ariv on motzei Shabbos and told him that we'd decided to travel to Kovno to arrange documentation for [travel] abroad and that he should give us letters that would be of help to us in Kovno. He said that Rav Yitzchok was in Kovno and that we didn't need any letter.

The following day, L. Shochat, Z. Levin and I traveled to Kovno, where we arranged documents for abroad for the three of us. We wanted to obtain papers for the rest of our friends but they didn't send us money for them, because while we were in Kovno the situation in Telz changed completely.

The Rov said explicitly that he wouldn't travel to Eretz Yisroel, because it would be extremely difficult for him and also because he hoped that Yeshivas Telz would again be exempted once they gave the government a program for the yeshiva, which was the purpose of Rav Yitzchok's visit to Kovno. They actually did exempt the yeshiva after they provided a program, but then they annulled the exemption again because they didn't want to release the old talmidim who had been learning in the yeshiva previously. To this day, the matter remains in abeyance.

While in Kovno, I also visited Yeshivas Slobodka. I ate with the Alter of Slobodka over that Shabbos at the request of his wife, who is my relative. After arranging the document for traveling to Eretz Yisroel I stayed in Kelm, then [I was] in Telz for Pesach. I came home again to Kelm, as was usual every year.

Preparations for the Journey to Eretz Yisroel

21-24 Iyar 5684 — During these days I was very depressed and, from worry, couldn't learn well, because I've already been waiting for months to receive a request from Eretz Yisroel that would enable me to leave for there, and as of yet have heard nothing.

Yom Chamishi, 25th Iyar — Good news! Today I received a letter from my brother Eliezer in Eretz Yisroel [telling me] that they have sent the request for me and that I can pick it up from the office for Eretz Yisroel or from the British Consulate in Kovno. This news made me very happy indeed; I was almost delirious from joy.

Yom Shlishi, 3rd Elul — Today I traveled to Telz to take my leave of my teachers, the Telzer roshei yeshiva and my friends the bnei hayeshiva.

Yom Revii, 11th Elul 5684 — I arrived in Kovno towards evening and went immediately to the office for Eretz Yisroel where they told me that it would be absolutely impossible to travel until after Yom Tov. I might be able to go after that, if they received word.

It was very upsetting for me to remain in Lithuania but I had to and there was nothing to be done. I didn't want to return home again because of the time and money it would waste so I decided to stay for the time being in the Slobodka Yeshiva until I could travel. If I couldn't go as a tourist, I might possibly receive a request from Yeshivas Slobodka.

Yom Chamishi, 12th Elul — Today I spoke to the Alter, the gaon and tzaddik Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, menahel of the Slobodka Yeshiva. I told him that I wanted to remain in Yeshivas Slobodka. He accepted me and told me to go and speak in learning with his son Reb Moshe.

Yom Shishi, 13th Elul — Today I saw Reb Moshe but other distractions prevented us from speaking in learning and [the discussion] was pushed off for another time. We spoke a little about general matters. Erev Shabbos, before kabbolas Shabbos, I sat down in the yeshiva to learn and started learning maseches Rosh Hashanah.


Succos 5685 — I had a good time over the Yom Tov. They held Simchos Beis Hashoeva in the yeshiva several times. On Shabbos Chol Hamoed I was with the gaon Rav Baruch. I count those moments that I spent at Rav Baruch's as having been the most sublime moments of my life which are unfortunately very few in the course of a person's life.

On Simchas Torah I was also with Rav Isaac Sher, the Alter's son-in-law. In general, it can be said that there is more enthusiasm in the celebrations in Slobodka than in Telz and the chassidic spirit is more in evidence here (because there are many bochurim from Poland). On the other hand, festive occasions are more decorous in Telz and there is a prevailing atmosphere of nobility there.

I derived great benefit from the holiday period, during which I drew closer to the bnei hayeshiva and to the yeshiva's leaders. To a certain extent, I already feel myself to be a Slobodker. I would never previously have dreamed that I could acclimate to a new yeshiva so quickly.

During Succos I found out that Yeshivas Telz had obtained the right of exemption from army service and that there was nothing to have prevented me from staying on in Telz. I had become attached to Telz over four-and-a-half years and parting had been difficult for me. Besides, I had also not found the exchange of Telz for Slobodka worthwhile. However, my desire to be in Eretz Yisroel got the better of me and I decided to travel at the first opportunity that came my way.

Journey's End

[The journey by boat to Eretz Yisroel took a long time. The diary provides a detailed account of all the hardships of the trip, during which only sky and water were visible until Yom Chamishi, the ninth of Marcheshvan 5685.]

I arose after seven, prayed and went up to the deck. No land could be seen anywhere, just water, water, water with a clear blue sky above. The air, like the weather, was clear and pleasant. All day the boat continued making its way across the Mediterranean without any dry land or any island being sighted. It was warm like a summer's day and the travel was very pleasant.

I was standing on my own on the deck at half past four in the morning when I saw a shimmering in the distance, which slowly began expanding and spreading, revealing many small shining lights. It was clearly a city. They also sent us a signal. I understood that this was Yaffo — this was my instinctive feeling and I was gripped by fierce joy, the likes of which I'd not previously imagined. At half past five, we davened shacharis with a minyan. After the prayers, I went up onto the deck again, where many people were already standing. The boat approached Yaffo, dropping anchor at six o'clock.

All of Yaffo, and Tel Aviv as well, were visible. The view of the city, its size and beauty, made a powerful impression on me. A boat with several people on board came out from the shore to see who had arrived on our ship and returned to send out the sailors to help us disembark.

At half past three we transferred from the ship to a boat and a quarter of an hour later we arrived at the city. We were registered at the office of the Vaad Haaliyah and at five o'clock they took us to the quarantine, where they took blood from us and we spent the night. It was Friday night and very unpleasant sleeping there. They gave us just two blankets and we lay down on the floor. Several people started complaining, as Yidden are wont to do.

On Shabbos at nine o'clock in the morning we left the quarantine. I went immediately to the Hotel Mordechai in Yaffo where I had friends who were learning in Yeshivas Yaffo. Heschel Bruk of Kelm was also there. I rested there awhile and then we went for a walk in Tel Aviv.

The city of Tel Aviv made a tremendous impression on me with its beauty, the gaiety of its life and the joy that one felt there on Shabbos. All the shops and offices were closed, even the post office, the police station and the like. This is the only city in the world whose entire population is Jewish. There isn't a single gentile here! I hadn't imagined anything like this beforehand.

Afterwards, we returned to Yaffo again and we went to see Rav Yosef Tzvi Halevi, the rov of Yaffo and menahel of its Yeshiva. He gave a shiur about the land-bound mitzvos and afterwards invited me for the third meal.

In Eretz Yisroel and in Chevron

Yom Shlishi, 13th Cheshvan 5685 (Jerusalem) — I arose in the morning and davened. Then I went out a little in the city. I traveled by motorcar . . . in Beit Hakerem, a new neighborhood, I found my brother . . . I was there until the evening; then I returned to Yerushalayim. I was in Yeshivas Meah Shearim. I davened ma'ariv there and went to sleep.

Yom Revi'i, 14th Cheshvan 5685 — I rose at eight in the morning and went to daven at the Kosel Hama'arovi. Melancholy thoughts came to my mind over the destruction of our House of Glory and the fact that its holy site continues to be controlled by strangers. The Arabs have built one of their mosques there and Jews can only go as far as the Kosel and no further. Afterwards, I visited several yeshivos in Yerushalayim: Toras Chaim and Eitz Chaim. During the day I spent more time with my brother.

Yom Chamishi, 15th Cheshvan 5685 — At seven in the morning, I traveled from Yerushalayim to Chevron by motorcar. I arrived in Chevron at eight. I immediately found a place to stay and sat down to learn there. At the moment, there are thirteen bochurim in the yeshiva, all of them outstanding. We live together as friends and brothers. My old acquaintances Zevulun Graz and Simchah Zissel Shapiro from Telz, also learn here. The learning is with great application . . .

Yom Rishon, 24th Kislev 5685 — Today I delivered chidushei Torah to a group on Chiyuv Kenass Ve'ha'amodoh Bedin, at the beginning of Eilu Naaros. Although it was difficult for me to speak, because I am altogether opposed to the whole idea of it being obligatory to deliver a Torah discourse — it is something that should come by itself — as it turned out I had great benefit from it, because I became more involved with the better bochurim in the yeshiva and I was also considered as a member of that group.

Yom Revii, 1st Adar 5685 — HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein . . . arrived in Eretz Yisroel. Many preparations had to be made before his arrival. Many of the bnei hayeshiva went to receive him at Lod Station (he arrived via Alexandria) and at one o'clock in the afternoon he arrived in Yerushalayim. He was met at the station by a large crowd, among them many of the city's most distinguished men. A reception was held in his honor that evening in Hotel Warschavsky.

An incident took place at the reception that would have been fascinating had it not been upsetting. For the record, the situation of the Yerushalmi Jews of those times should be noted. What happened was, when one of the speakers wanted to speak in loshon hakodesh, one of the members of the Yerushalmi Agudah went out and started screaming that it was absolute idolatry to listen to someone speaking loshon hakodesh. That incident put a damper on the whole evening.

On yom Chamishi, the second of Adar, towards evening, the Rov arrived in Chevron. Here too, a fine reception was held in his honor, although the English governor interfered greatly by not allowing him to be welcomed with a large gathering outside the yeshiva. We were forced to confine the welcome to inside the yeshiva.

The reception was very interesting nevertheless. All the bnei yeshiva and all the townspeople were in the yeshiva. First, the Rov himself spoke about Eretz Yisroel and about moving the yeshiva over here. He spoke a little in ivrit and a little in "jargon" (Yiddish). Afterwards there were many speeches of welcome, which were all exclusively in Ivrit. In the evening a soiree was held for the Rov in the "hotel." Many of the distinguished Arabs who were there were also invited. Towards the end the Rov delivered chidushei Torah and it was very interesting.

14-15 Adar 5685 — The first Purim that the yeshiva is celebrating in Eretz Yisroel, Purim and Shushan Purim. In Chevron there are two days of Purim because of the doubt whether it was walled since the days of Yehoshua. The bnei hayeshiva celebrated with great joy; especially apparent was the joy that each and every individual felt over having merited coming to Eretz Yisroel and celebrating the first Purim here.

The Pesach period 5685 — was very gay. The passage of tourists, which is always conspicuous in this country and especially so in Chevron where the Me'oras Hamachpeloh is, grew very considerably during the festival. Over a thousand people visited Chevron during Chol Hamoed. In the yeshiva too, most of the time was spent very joyfully with the Rov. Several festivities were held during the holiday and the joyful emotions of the talmidim were wonderfully apparent.

The Alter's Arrival

Yom Shlishi, 24th Sivan '85 — news arrived that the Alter, the Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel has already left Alexandria and should be arriving in Yerushalayim tomorrow. The news infused the bnei hayeshiva with vitality and happiness and they started planning his welcome. Almost all the bnei hayeshiva traveled to welcome him in Yerushalayim and most of them also traveled to Lod Station. I also spent all of Yom Shlishi in Yerushalayim. There was a great deal of activity in Chevron — around eighty bnei yeshiva traveled (altogether there are now around one hundred people in the yeshiva, kein yirbu,) and it was difficult to obtain automobiles for everyone to travel.

Yom Revii, 25th Sivan 5685 — At nine o'clock this morning the Alter arrived by train from Lod. All the talmidei hayeshiva who were in Yerushalayim, myself included, were already waiting on the platform. When the train stopped, we entered the Alter's carriage and greeted him. Then he alighted and all the talmidim surrounded him and we walked with him, singing and dancing until we'd left the Station House. Then everyone got into motorcars and carriages and went to Hotel Warschavsky, where they rested from the rigors of the trip.

Many of the city's notables also arrived, among them the gaon Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. After a few hours had passed, we went to daven minchah at the Kosel. The sight at the Kosel was very interesting indeed and heartwarming. First we prayed with a great many tears. The Alter wept a great deal. Then we davened minchah and said several chapters of Tehillim.

After prayers at the Kosel, we left immediately for Chevron. The procession to Chevron was a fine sight. Around twenty automobiles drove in a line. In the first car sat the Alter and Rav Epstein. In the others, were members of the yeshiva board and all the bnei hayeshiva. On the way to Chevron, we stopped for a short while at Kever Rochel. We went inside and said some chapters of Tehillim. We arrived in Chevron in the afternoon. The Alter first entered the yeshiva and delivered a short shmuess and with that, the reception ended.

Yom Revii, 1st Menachem Av 5685 — My learning has greatly improved over the past few weeks. I am now learning seder Kodshim. I have already finished maseches Arachin and am already busy with Bechoros. I am taking great interest in my learning and am discovering great blessing therein. The Alter has delivered several mussar shmuessen in the yeshiva. There is a weekly shmuess in the yeshiva and several others during the week in his house. I have also already visited the Alter privately several times.

End of Part I


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