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Encounter with Netanyahu’s late father-in-law

INTRODUCTION: The father-in-law of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu died two weeks ago. Shmuel Ben Artzi was a novelist and memoirist. In Eastern Europe, he studied in Novorodock yeshivas in the 1930s and wrote beautiful memoirs of his time there.

Since I studied in the Novorodock yeshiva in Jerusalem, 1972-1978, and steeped myself in the history of this branch of the Musar movement, I could identify some of the people Ben Artzi portrayed in his novels.

As part of my research on Novorodock, I tried to track down every European, former Novorodock student living in Israel. Most of these students were teenagers during their time in Novorodock in Europe. In this fashion I sought out and met Shmuel Ben Artzi himself.

As things turned out, far more significant than the interview I had with him was a chance meeting sometime later that we had on Sept. 13, 1975, on a Saturday night, the eve of Yom Kippur, at the Novorodock yeshiva in Jerusalem.

It was long after Shabbos because as twilight set in, Rabbi Ben Zion, the head of the yeshiva, gave “hisorerus shmuesn,” long, emotional, powerful talks about the coming Day of Judgment — with the lights out, in pitch black.

I found the meeting with Ben Artzi  moving and significant, and sensed that it would be worthwhile to take notes of our encounter back then, 35 years ago.

In wake of Ben Artzi’s passing, I dusted off these notes. I could revise them, deleting or altering old references and and various digressions, but that would change the tone and spirit and of our encounter, and the stream of history it reflected. I present these notes here, essentially unchanged, with bracketed insertions for clarity.

What began as a pleasant meeting without much significance gradually evolved into a powerful moment for Ben Artzi — and an awkward one for me.

•       •       •

Shmuel Ben Artzi came up to me [after Rabbi Bruk’s talk and ma’ariv were concluded], and asked if I remembered him. I did, and we got into a short discussion about my doctoral thesis and the change of plans from writing about Novorodock to writing about R. Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement.

Ben Artzi’s  presence indicated a renewed personal-spiritual interest in Novorodock, not just his usual intellectual interest. He came specifically to hear the hisorerus of Rabbi Brook and said he planned to daven in the yeshiva on Yom Kippur as well.

Somehow, either he or I started talking to Rabbi Avraham Abramson [my neighbor in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sanhedria Murchevet].

Perhaps [Rabbi Bruk’s son] Rabbi Yitzhak Bruk brought us all three together. I knew from my previous talk with Ben Artzi a couple of years ago (approximately spring, 1974) that he regarded R. Abramson highly from his days in [the Novorodock yeshiva in the Polish city of] Mezritch, and that in his fourth story, the person encouraging Ben Artzi to go on aliyah was R. Abramson.

R. Abramson and Ben Artzi began talking a bit and reminiscing quite generally.

I saw that neither recognized the other.

I said nothing, waiting for them to discover who each was, waiting to see the beautiful, moving expressions that were bound to break out on their faces.

After a short while, Ben Artzi asked R. Abramson what his name was. When R. Abramson replied, Ben Artzi just about fell over.

He grabbed R. Abramson’s arm and started shaking it quite strongly and warmly. It was 43 years since these two men had seen each other!

Unfortunately for Ben Artzi’s emotions, R. Abramson did not remember B. Artzi. (In those days, Ben Artzi was called “Shmuel Bilgorayer,” after the city he came from.)

R. Abramson responded, “The name is familiar.”

Ben Artzi said, “You probably didn’t see the book I wrote.”

R. Abramson turned to me and asked whether this was the book I had lent him. I nodded, indicating it was. So Ben Artzi burst out: “Then you probably recognize yourself in the last story!”

R. Abramson said he did not. R. Abramson has left Novorodock intellectually and spiritually for a long time . . . Anyway, despite the lack of recognition, they started up a nice reminiscing session. We all started walking home [back to Sanhedria Murchevet] together.

SOME of the goodies revealed during the walk home: There are about 200 boys in Mezritch. The older ones  were no longer in a chavurah [groups dedicated to introspection, self-analysis and character building]; rather, they were these groups’ leaders, rashei ha-vaad and mechazkim.

The rashei ha-vaad were boys or men who were Russians [i.e., people influenced during WW I] by the Saba [the “Elder of Novorodock,” 1849-1919, the founder of this branch of the Musar movement], or at least stemmed from that earlier Novorodock period.

The mechazkim were boys who had come to the yeshiva once it had moved from communist Russia in 1922 to Poland. The size was generally 10 boys per chavurah.

There was one student they remembered. Ben Artzi provided this information:

He was a scholar, a lamdan. He asked to leave the yeshiva because he wouldn’t follow the Novorodock path and, besides, was considered by the administration to be a free-thinker. This student did not, however, wish to cut himself off from Novorodock and continued to study in a nearby shul. He was physically attractive, handsome.

He got married. He was sought  after by the girl he married — this being an unheard of development for a Novorodock yeshiva student. Later, he became a teacher in a Talmud Torah [an elementary school, a cheder].

To me, he sounded very much like Zemach Atlas [the protagonist of the well known novel by the Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade, also a former Novorodock student].

Ben Artzi indicated that he was the same type as the one described as Zemach Atlas, but he added that while Grade is a great writer, he portrays Novorodock extremely poorly; this latter fact being only logical since Grade was only in Novorodock for two months (according to Rabbi Bruk, as reported by Ben Artzi).

R. Abramson added this information about this student: Once he came to him late at night in spiritual agony and said: I learn and I learn, but I can’t find emunah, faith. What is the path to faith?

R. Abramson related to us that he felt the extreme psychic pain of this student. R. Abramson’s talk with him did not help him.

R. BINYAMIN Zilber [the renowned pietist, Talmud scholar and decisor, d. 2008] was Ben Artzi’s ideal. There was much kinas sofrim [“jealousy of the scribes,” i.e., much envy by Ben Artzi of the spiritual heights of R. Zilber].

Rav Binyamin came from Brisk, where he was a great scholar, lamdan. In the Novorodock yeshiva in Mezritch, R. Zilber was a tzaddik; in Ben Artzi’s words, “stoop-shouldered, davening with great emotion, hispa’alus, always thinking pure thoughts, etc. — but he did not follow the Novorodock path. He did not study Musar. He considered it [a diversion from the more important, Torah study], bittul Torah.

I told Ben Artzi that R. Zilber, right then, was in Sanhedria Murchevet — by now, we had arrived at R. Abramson’s home in Sanhedria Murchevet —  and when Ben Artzi heard that, he was absolutely taken aback.

Immediately he said that he wanted to go meet him.

Then he paused a moment, and said that when he saw him he might well start crying.

I was under the impression that he might not go.

He invited me to go, and if I had said yes, then all of three of us would have gone.

I did not feel that it was my place,  however, to go, and I said I would not.

Ben Artzi related that a story he had published about Novorodock, which he had told me about previously, was all about his inner struggle — and failure — to measure up to R. Binyamin Zilber.

Ben Artzi said that R. David Bliacher, a leading Novorodock yeshiva dean back in Europe, opposed his aliyah to Israel on the grounds that Ben Artzi would be mitkalkel [fall away from the religious path].

“He was right,” said Ben Artzi.

R. Abramson indicated that R. Bliacher opposed his own aliyah on the same grounds, but Ben Artzi strongly contradicted this, indicating that R. Abramson was a “real spiritual force (ko’ach)” in the yeshiva and that R. Bliacher couldn’t afford to lose him.

This is the picture of R. Abramson presented in Ben Artzi’s book mentioned above, Shifti.

•       •       •

Thus my notes end.

Looking back, I believe I feared going to R. Zilber with Ben Artzi because R. Zilber was (and still is) a towering inspiration, utterly — quite literally, utterly — devoted to spiritual pursuits,  and not a subject for historical research. Somehow, I felt it would be wrong to involve him in what I thought would turn out to be an exercise in historical remembrance. And remember, this was the day before Yom Kippur! It is difficult to describe the intense spiritual focus of R. Zilber at that season.

Maybe I was wrong. I am told that, at the age of 90 (!) Ben Artzi became a ba’al teshuvah who returned completely to his roots. If had I acted differently 35 years ago, perhaps Ben Artzi would have returned much sooner, with so much more life ahead for himself and his family. Who knows . . .

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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