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The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Centuryby David Laskin
**This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.**
He sat at the Torah and at God’s service in holiness and purity, wielding the scribe’s pen and fashioning crowns for his Creator.
—S. Y. AGNON, “THE TALE OF THE SCRIBE” (1919)
Shimon Dov HaKohen was one of God’s secretaries, a scribe who laid down the law stroke by black stroke on the scraped, sanded hides of animals. The son of a scribe, the father and grandfather of scribes, Shimon Dov was a member of the Jewish priestly caste that traces its ancestry (through the male line) back to Moses’ brother Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites. The biblical Ezra also stood in this line—“Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven.” Ezra HaKohen, HaSofer—Ezra the priest, the scribe—was therefore Shimon Dov’s spiritual father and very possibly his blood ancestor as well, since science and scripture eerily concur that the Kohain DNA has remained intact all the way back to Aaron. It sounds as fantastic as a letterless shep­herd discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls in a desert cave while the ash and radiation of the Second World War still circled the globe, but there is an unbroken strand of genes and tradition that connects Aaron, shoulder to shoulder with Moses, asking Pharaoh to “let my people go,” to Ezra weeping and tearing his garments before the fallen Jews of Jerusalem to gentle-eyed, white­-bearded Shimon Dov inking his parchment by the window of a small wooden house in a market town at the fringe of the Russian Empire.
Shimon Dov, for all his august lineage, was a humble, ordinary man— learned, devout, meticulous, good to his diminutive wife, openhanded with their six children, slow to kindle with either anger or joy. But when he sat down at his table in the town of Volozhin, closed his eyes to pray for perfection, and took up his quill pen, Shimon Dov glowed with God’s radi­ance. His forked beard was so long that it brushed the soft surface of the parchment when he bent his head to write. Ever at hand were a turkey quill and a pot of special ink, always black. And a book, The Book, open to the page where he had left off. “All day he sat in his house communing with his soul in solitude, completely within the frame of the Torah,” novelist S. Y. Agnon wrote of a scribe at work. “He sat secluded and isolated and no one was with him except His Name, may He be blessed. . . . From morning to evening the quill wrote on the parchment and beautiful black letters glis­tened and alighted on the parchment as birds upon the snow on the Sab­bath when the Song of Moses is read.” “You must never, ever touch anything,” Shimon Dov’s children and grandchildren whispered to one another as quill scratched parchment and the beautiful sacred Hebrew cal­ligraphy spread across the scroll from right to left in dense, orderly lines. Precisely 304,805 letters composed the 79,847 Hebrew words of the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, and Shimon Dov knew every stroke as intimately as a tailor knows his thread or a soldier his gun. Not a thunderer before kings, not a prophet raging against the sins of his people, not a seer or a tzaddik (“righteous one”) singled out for a sacred mission or possessed of a shape­-shifting staff—but a member all the same of an hon­ored literate family that kept alive the book that had kept alive the Jews for more than three thousand years. When Shimon Dov died in 1917, his son Shalom Tvi instructed the mason to carve these Hebrew words onto his gravestone: “Son of Chaim, scribe of the Holy Book, he followed his father’s way, he was strong in Torah, he will rest with the hands of the Kohanim.” Hands are also carved on the patriarch’s gravestone—hands of the priest, HaKohen, raised and spread in blessing; hands of the scribe, HaShofer, curled in painstaking toil. How many times had Shimon Dov risen in shul to recite the birchat kohanim, the priestly blessing that none but a Kohen can perform? May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.
A crane or a crow flying from the Baltic to the Black Sea in the spring of 1875, the year Shimon Dov’s oldest son, Avram Akiva, turned thirteen and thus by Jewish law became a man, would have looked down on a vast expanse of rolling green—pale green fields, darker green woods—stretching nearly a thousand miles along the western fringe of the Russian Empire. This was the Pale of Settlement where the tsars had decreed that their Jews must live. The occasional city—Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna, Minsk, Kiev, Odessa— blotted earth and sky with its spires and smokestacks and hives of roofs, and then the planted and forested countryside took over again. Every few miles the verdant patchwork bunched into the gray­-brown corduroy of vil­lage, town, or shtetl—little town—and then relaxed into green again. Abel, Eiragola, Chelm, Slutsk, Zaskovichi, Kielce, Žeimiai, Karczew, Okup, Nowogródek, Piaseczno, Stargard, Biala, Rakov, Tuchin, Eishyshok—each shtetl name had its own peculiar linguistic knot tied by the language or dialect of the region, but the places themselves were remarkably similar.
A main street, usually named for the city it led to, entered from the fields at one end of town and disappeared into them at the other; a few blocks of wooden houses set in small garden patches fanned out around the main street, the houses of Jews and the houses of gentiles barely distin­guishable but usually in separate enclaves. The center of town was left blank to make suitable space for an onion-­domed Russian Orthodox church or a towered and spired Catholic church or sometimes both. The church plaza formed an obvious marketplace, and around its periphery stood the stalls and shops of the shtetl’s merchants, most of them Jews. There was also a place for Jews to worship and study, but this was usually tucked down a side street, discreetly out of sight of the loftier churches and built not of brick or stone or plaster but of rough plain wooden boards and beams. The syna­gogue was unadorned inside too but for a bit of fine carving on the ark and the exquisite embroidery and metalwork that encased and crowned the ark’s hidden contents, the one gem that every devout Jew held more precious than life itself—the scroll of the Torah—to which Shimon Dov or one of his fellow scribes had devoted years of their lives to hand lettering.
The family of eight lived in Volozhin, a town about midway between Vilna and Minsk of some five thousand inhabitants (half of them Jewish). Volozhin had one unique glory that made it stand out from all other shtet­lach. In 1803, a yeshiva had been started here, and for the better part of a century this school flourished as the most renowned and revered institute of Talmudic study in Eastern Europe, and thus the world. Shimon Dov had no wealth to speak of; his house was low and flammable, his family large, his income small, his prospects dim. But to live beside the Volozhin yeshiva during its golden age was a priceless blessing. Shimon Dov grew up hearing stories of how this kingdom of wisdom had come to be established in Volozhin, and he passed the stories on to his children. The tale always began in 1726 when a six-­year­-old boy named Elijah ben Solomon Zalman stood before the Jewish elders in the Great Synagogue of Vilna, the Pale’s preeminent city of piety and culture, to discourse on a passage of scripture. No one could believe that so young a child could be so learned, but by the age of ten Elijah, soon to be known simply as the Gaon—the “genius”—of Vilna, had outstripped any teacher in the depth and breadth of his mastery of the Talmud. Like many of God’s chosen, the Vilna Gaon was difficult. As a young man, he lived a life of ascetic focus bordering on madness. To stretch his time for study, he limited himself to two hours of sleep per day; he kept the windows of his chilly house shuttered against the distractions of the world and immersed his feet in cold water to maintain mental acuity. But in the course of his seventy­-seven years, this brilliant, eccentric, iras­cible scholar reinvented and reinvigorated Torah study. Eschewing the dia­lectical hairsplitting of the so-­called pilpul (pepper) method, the Vilna Gaon brought clarity, straight thinking, and direct engagement with the biblical text to the pursuit of Jewish knowledge. He also waged holy war against the noisy, joyous, populist style of Jewish worship known as Hasi­dism, which was spreading wildly through the Pale in his day.
According to family lore, Shimon Dov’s father, Chaim, founded the Volozhin yeshiva as a bastion of scholarship in the Gaon’s anti­-Hasid campaign—but family lore is wrong. Shimon Dov was born in 1835: there is no way his father could have been old enough to start a yeshiva in 1803 and still have been in shape to sire a son thirty-two years later. The yeshiva’s founder was indeed named Chaim—not Chaim HaKohen but Chaim ben Yitzhak, known as Chaim the Volozhiner. This Chaim was the prize stu­dent and disciple of the Vilna Gaon, and he made the school the prime exemplar of his master’s pedagogy and discipline. In time, the Volozhin yeshiva became the pattern and inspiration for yeshivot all over Lithuania, the Pale, and eventually the New World and the Holy Land as well. “Who­ever wanted to learn Torah traveled to Volozhin,” became a byword of the day. “It was the Torah center of the great Russian Jewry,” wrote a honey-­tongued Yiddish historian, “a holy place for searching souls, a mighty workshop of spiritual richness. Thousands found protection in her shelter, drank from her sources, absorbed her spirit, and became intoxicated by her aroma. Jewish lads, talented and strong willed, scraped their feet walk­ing from remote places to bask in the light of her Torah, to breathe her scholarly atmosphere, to catch at the wings of the Divine Presence.” The Hebrew poet Hayyim Bialik, who studied at the Volozhin yeshiva in the 1880s, said it was the place where “the soul of the people was forged.”
Shimon Dov had breathed this intoxicating atmosphere in his youth, and someday, God willing, his firstborn, Avram Akiva, would breathe it too. But first the boy must complete his apprenticeship. Already, at thirteen, Avram Akiva had proved himself an able and ready assistant. Already he was serious, determined, assured beyond his years, maybe a bit of a know-­it-­all. Other bar mitzvah boys trembled when the Torah was unrolled before them for the first time. What if they accidentally poked a hole in the parchment with the pointer? What if their nose dripped and smudged the text? Avram Akiva had no such fears. He knew that the sacred scroll was strong enough to endure his clumsiness and congestion, because he had spent his childhood absorbing the occult art and science of fabricating it. When his father needed ink, Avram Akiva went to the forests surrounding Volozhin to gather gallnuts—the hard, gnarled, tannin-­rich balls that gall wasps create when they implant their larvae in oak trees. The boy plucked the gallnuts off the trees, and at home he boiled them in reeking pots on his mother’s stove and then mixed their essence with gum arabic, copper sul­fate, and soot to make the velvety pitch-­black indelible ink with which his father wrote the words of God. The preparation of the writing surfaces also fell to the apprentice—the smoothing on his father’s worktable of the pliant rectangles of parchment, the backs of which he coated with powdery plas­ter. With a rose thorn affixed to a stick, Avram Akiva incised the parallel lines that would guide his father’s hand when the scribe took up the quill and, impregnating its tip with gallnut ink, summoned forth the diamonds, crowns, daggers, and petals of the Hebrew alphabet.
At fifteen or sixteen, his apprenticeship over, Avram Akiva duly enrolled in the yeshiva. He took his place on a bench in the dimly lit hall and gave himself over to the exacting regimen of prayer and study, study and prayer, days and nights of argument, analysis, explanation, insight, refinement, all to wring out a few more precious drops of the dew of Tal­mudic enlightenment. A couple of hours of sleep in a narrow bed shared with a brother or a boarder, meals wolfed down without ceremony or savor, and then back to the yeshiva to continue his studies—that was the life the scribe’s teenage son embraced with all his soul and all his might. Avram Akiva was lucky, for he was at the yeshiva in the latter half of the 1870s, during the directorship of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netziv, a brilliant dynamic scholar who ran the school for more than four decades and brought it to its peak. Under the Netziv, the student body, which had been around fifty when the school was founded, grew to as many as four hundred bochurim (yeshiva boys) from all over Europe and even Britain and America. The Netziv enforced the yeshiva’s policy that prayer and study must go on round­-the-­clock, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This wasn’t just scholarly zeal. The Netziv was con­vinced that if the light of Torah study ever went out, even for a second, then the primordial void would rise up once more and swallow the universe. And so with back bent, eyes bagged, brow furrowed, his days as pinched and monotonous as a monk’s, Avram Akiva kept the world spinning on its axis.
The youth sat with the sages at the table of Torah—but when his studies were over, Avram Akiva returned home to follow his father in the craft of the scribe. In the hierarchy of Volozhin, scribe was a decided step down from rabbi or Talmudic scholar. Ancient and honored though his profes­sion was, the scribe copied books, he did not compose or interpret them.
The scribe’s work straddled the worlds of labor and learning, craft and spirit. On the one hand, Shimon Dov and his son worked with their hands, like bakers or clock makers, not solely with their minds, like the scholars at the yeshiva—and in this pious community, the life of the mind, the mind bent on Torah, was all that counted. Everything else was deemed more or less a waste of time. On the other hand, what Shimon Dov’s hands pro­duced was the very staff of Jewish life, far more sustaining than bread, more precise and beautiful than any clock. Without the work of the scribe, the Torah would have vanished in a generation like thousands of other scrolls from antiquity; and without the Torah, Jews would have vanished, dis­solved like salt into the common sea. In the Diaspora, Torah was the Jewish homeland and the scribe was the archivist of his people, the custodian of sacred memory, the linguistic historian.
The scribe and his son kept their people alive while the Netziv and his students at the yeshiva kept the universe from slipping into the abyss. Avram Akiva sat at his father’s worktable and began assisting in writing the tiny scrolls that the faithful hung as mezuzot upon the doorposts of their houses and bound each morning upon their arms and foreheads in the leather boxes of the tefillin. The boy soon came to know the texts by heart. He mastered the technique of correcting errors by scraping the mistaken letters or blots off the parchment with shards of glass. He learned to repair damaged faded scrolls, to sew the old parchment pieces back together and reattach them to the wooden rollers called the trees of life—atzei hayim. To him fell the infinitely fussy task of unrolling the teffilin scrolls and inspect­ing them for dirt and decay. Patience became second nature. With every pen stroke, he had to wait for the thick glossy ink to set and adhere to the parchment, for gallnut ink is not absorbed but bonds to the surface of the animal skin as it dries. Reverence and ritual portioned out his days. Avram Akiva listened as his father murmured aloud or even chanted every letter of every word he wrote, never relying solely on memory, since each quill stroke was blessed. The son knew instinctively when his father had come to one of the Names of God, for the scribe would pause to collect himself and take a deep breath before inking the Name, which once written cannot be erased. One day, when he was old enough and skilled enough, Avram Akiva would write the Names in a Torah scroll on his own.
In the course of a year, Shimon Dov might complete a single Torah— assuming he had a commission for a Torah that year. The real bread and butter of the business were mezuzot and tefillin, which were always in demand. Still, it wasn’t much of a business—though business was obviously not the point. Fortunately, Shimon Dov had a wife who earned enough from her small grocery to keep their growing family clothed and fed (it was the same for Hayyim the Volozhiner, who, after founding the yeshiva, had run it on the income from his wife’s textile mill). Six children the couple produced over a span of twenty-three years—five sons and a daughter raised on the proceeds of sacred texts and staple foods.
The scribe and his family were among the pillars of their community, but never the central pillar. They knew this and it rankled them. They were short, these Volozhin Kohanim, but they stood tall in their own estimation. At once earthy and self-important, egotistical and insecure, recalcitrant and easily cowed, ambitious and anxious, they hummed with contradic­tions. They did God’s work but their women fed them. They sought the blessing of sages but gazed jealously at their richer, more learned, more accomplished neighbors. They bore a great name but no great deeds were attached to it. Ezra and before him Aaron were their progenitors, but 150 generations of hunch-shouldered exiles stood between them. The scribe kept the Book alive, but it was the Book of a people without a home, without rights, without enforceable laws, without means, without respect, and seemingly, in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the late 1870s, without hope of gaining any of these.
Things happened in Volozhin but nothing seemed to change. The yeshiva burned down one hot summer day, and a new yeshiva was built—as austere and resplendent as a Greek temple with pure white walls, unadorned pilasters, high windows, a peaked red roof. Students kept flocking here from all over Eastern Europe. Prosperous fathers still tried to snag prize Volozhin scholars as husbands for their pampered daughters. Imperial authorities swept into town, inspected the yeshiva, interrogated the rabbis, ordered that secular subjects and Russian language be taught—and the rabbis once again found ways to circumvent or accommodate government control while ensuring the uninterrupted flow of Torah study. The wheat harvest failed. Prices rose. Rubles changed hands from peasant to shopkeeper, merchant to banker, banker to prince. But in Volozhin none of it raised more than a ripple. An epoch was grinding to its close, but behind the walls of the yeshiva, study and prayer went on as always night and day. Shimon Dov bent over his parchment with his pious sons beside him.
In the pure white temple of knowledge, the bochurim prayed through the minutes and hours and weeks and months of the Jewish year. They believed that their devotion sustained the world that Hashem had sum­moned out of darkness and given to the sons of Adam. “Hashem, His will, and His word are all one and the same,” declared the founder. The bochurim devoted their lives to fathoming His word: His will was beyond them.
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