A Hasid Turns Modern: A YIVO Autobiography, Part 4

Rose Waldman


This is part four in a series of five posts about an auto­bi­og­ra­phy of a Pol­ish youth from the 1930s found in the YIVO archives. You can read part 3 here. For all the arti­cles in the series click here.

The most traumatic event in RJ’s life occurred shortly after he entered yeshiva. At just eleven years old, he was the youngest student at Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Warsaw. 1 1 See reference to Yeshivas Toras Chaim as a Lithuanian yeshiva in Rabbi Shimon Huberbrand, ed., Kiddush Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland During the Holocaust (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1987), 178. Possibly because of this fact, the yeshiva heads assigned the best boy in the yeshiva, a bright student by the name of Melech, to be his study partner. One exceedingly hot summer day, RJ noticed that Melech looked especially sad and depressed. To RJ’s question about his odd state, Melech responded, “It’s nothing.” Young RJ took his response at face value.

But the next morning, RJ found a crowd of boys huddled at the entrance to the yeshiva. “What happened?” he asked. He learned, to his horror, that Melech had committed suicide.

Soon after, RJ writes that he then began questioning the concepts of life and death and whether heaven and hell exist at all. But he never links this line of questioning to Melech’s suicide. It’s easy to speculate that this traumatic event was the seed that led to RJ’s doubts, inclined him toward skepticism, and eventually brought him to embrace modern ideologies. But RJ never credits it. He writes about these two realities of his life—Melech’s suicide and his own existential agnosticism—as if they were two entirely separate things. All he says about Melech’s suicide was that thoughts of it shadowed him and it took a long time to free himself from this nightmare. Was he unaware of a possible connection?

At any rate, it appears that RJ succeeded, at least in his own estimation, in freeing himself from the “nightmare.” Several years passed peacefully, he writes. “Perhaps,” he muses, “they were even the best years of my youth? Full of fantasies. I studied Talmud and more Talmud.”

If RJ is to be believed, the rat that was discovered at the bottom of a pot of soup (discussed in the previous post about RJ’s childhood) had more severe of an impact on his life than the suicide of his peer. He never forgot about the rat, he claims, but he did eventually get over the suicide. It’s possible that the severity of a child’s reaction is different from that of an adolescent who has already learned how to somewhat buffer himself against the traumas of life. The raw horror of how RJ felt as a six-year-old may have hit him with more impact than anything that came after. But it’s also possible that, conversely, the rat incident was easier for RJ to brood over because it didn’t require any personal angst or introspection. Although the memory of it continued to plague and horrify him, the thoughts existed at a remove from himself, as something he’d experienced just because he was there, not because it connected to him directly. A friend’s suicide, on the other hand, shocks one’s very psyche, as it goes to the core of what it means to be human and mortal. To protect himself, it may have become necessary for RJ to force it from his mind, since continuing to brood may have been too painful. It is also possible that this too, like the Hasidic tale at the beginning of his memoir, is a kind of literary convention. Suicide had become a popular plot device in literature at the turn of the century, in particular within Jewish literatures. 2 2 See the introduction to Passionate Women, Passive Men: Suicide in Yiddish Literature by Janet Hadda (Suny Press, NY. 1988) where she debunks the popular myth, perpetrated by Emile Durkheim, that Jews don’t commit suicide.

Despite this apparent but repressed trauma, RJ records his transition from yeshiva boy to maskil—a transition that was likely fraught with angst and doubts—in a matter-of-fact tone: “An iron wall stood between our yeshiva life and the outside world, but many had torn through the wall and gone on out to the free world. I, too, was among them.” He was fifteen years old at the time. He turned to secular literature and began to study these works with the same diligence with which he’d applied himself to the Talmud. One of the first steps he took toward becoming “modern” was to join the Bressler Library.

The scholar Shmuel Werses studied the stages of transformation of those who abandoned their religious, usually Hasidic, upbringing to embrace the tenets of the Haskalah. 3 3 Shmuel Werses, “Portrait of a Maskil as a Young Man,” in New Perspectives on the Haskalah, ed. Shmuel Feiner and David Sorkin (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001), 133-37. In his examination, Werses discovered a very specific pattern that led from Torah scholar to a young man interested in modernity. One characteristic of this pattern was the budding maskil’s embracing of a “hero,” someone he revered and sought to please or emulate. Many of the nascent maskilim were mentored by older, established maskilim, who introduced them to the Haskalah movement’s literary canon and ideology. Often, the mentors would provide an appropriate reading list. 4 4 See Jeffrey Veidlinger, Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) for a more in-depth depiction on the role of literary and cultural figures interacting with the general Jewish public, disseminating literary works and encouraging Jewish expression within society. It seems that Bressler served as RJ’s hero character. Bressler, RJ explains, was an intelligent man who guided young, new readers on a systematic course of reading. “To me,” RJ says, “he acted with fatherly love.” At that point, RJ admits, he understood secular literature “the way a Cossack understands tehillim,” 5 5 See the previous post for a discussion on RJ’s use of Jewish-themed similes and descriptions. but Bressler steered him toward the right books. One time RJ didn’t have the monthly fee for the library and therefore assumed he would have to stop reading. But Bressler gently assured him that he could pay when he had the money and he mustn’t interrupt his reading. “He was truly one of the few righteous people,” RJ says. 6 6 RJ’s opinion of Bressler was shared by many. See “The Bressler Reading Room” by Mosze Zonszajn for a wonderful description of Bressler and his library.

The Werses’ model also outlines the typical literary catalogue of such a library, among them: Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim; late nineteenth century Yiddish literature, such as works by Mendele Mokher Seforim; and the poetry of such figures as Samuel David Luzzatto and Naphtali Herz Wessely. 7 7 Werses, “Portrait of a Maskil as a Young Man,” 139-43. RJ devotes approximately four pages of his autobiography to list the authors he reads and his opinions about some of them. For the most part he subscribes to the typical maskilic and post-maskilic corpus. As already noted, he read or was familiar with the works of Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and Barbes. He also read Rilke and Heine. In Yiddish, he devoured the works of Reisen, Rosenfeld, Sholem Aleichem, Linietsky, Peretz, Asch, and others. And poetry held a special place in his heart. He waxes eloquently about Mikhail Lermontov, Zusman Segalowitch, and Chayim Nachman Bialik. In fact, RJ concludes his autobiography with a paraphrase from one of Bialik’s poems: 8 8 H.N. Bialik, “Oyf dem hoykhn barg,” in Lider un poemen (Berlin: Klal farlag, 1922), 45.

איך פֿאַרענדיק מײַן שרײַבן, ווילט זיך מיר אויסשרײַען וווּ ביאַליק ז״ל האָט געשריגן, וווּ איז, … אַזוי וואָלט איך שרײַען מײַנע קינדער יאָרן, באַצייכענען: וווּ זענען זיי, גיט זיי מיר צוריק...

As I end my writing, I have a desire to cry out the way Bialik, may his memory be a blessing, cried: Where are... So I want to cry [about] my childhood years; mark them. Where are they, give them back to me…

A poignant lament. And a powerful conclusion to a memoir that traces the journey away from childhood and into adulthood and modernity.

Waldman, Rose. “A Hasid Turns Modern: A YIVO Autobiography, Part 4.” In geveb, January 2016:
Waldman, Rose. “A Hasid Turns Modern: A YIVO Autobiography, Part 4.” In geveb (January 2016): Accessed Apr 24, 2024.


Rose Waldman

Rose Waldman holds an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University. She is a writer and translator.