Autobiography of
Joseph Rabbinowitz

Kischineff, November 27, 1886

“So span-long hast Thou made my day, my life as nothing before Thee” Psalm 39:6

The day of my birth was the holy Sabbath, 23d (11th) September, 1837. My birthplace was Resina, on the Dniester, a small town in Bessarabia, where I spent the first ten years of my life. My father was David, son of Ephraim, son of Rabbi Wolf, of Orgeieff, in Bessarabia. Through them I am descended from

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Joseph Rabinowitz

Rabbi Israel, a learned commentator on the Talmud, who traced his descent from the primitive Gaonim. My mother’s name was Esther Sarah. She was a daughter of Nathan Neta, whose father was a disciple of the celebrated Zaddik Rabbi Jacob Simson of Schofatuvke.

I owe my early training to my maternal grandfather, Nathan Neta, of Resina, with whom my father then living at the village of Maschkowicz, near Orgeieff, placed me for education in my early childhood after my mother’s death.

Nathan Neta was an excellent man, learned in the Law, and a strict adherent of the Bescht, (a form of Hebrew Chasidism) and its devout practices. He endeavored from the first to instill in my young mind his own love for Torah, Talmud and religious books. He hardly left me out of his sight night or day (we shared the same bed), and took me with him three times every year when he went on pilgrimage to the learned Rabbi Salmina, of Raschkoff, son of Joseph, and the learned assembly of Chasidim (devout students) who met at his house. There he was proud to exhibit my early knowledge of Hebrew and the Holy Scriptures. I well remember how in my eighth year I repeated the whole Tractate Succoth, Mishna for Mishna, before the assembly at the Feast of Tabernacles, and how Zaddik warned my grandfather not to let me become too precocious. He was indeed, unwearied in all the details of my education, interspersing his instructions with numerous anecdotes of miraculous occurrences, and of the fates and sayings of learned men. I had to learn and repeat every day some chapters out of one or another of the twenty-four books of our Bible. I also had to commit to memory Rashi’s Commentary on the Pentatueuch, and other books.

At six years old I could repeat the whole Song of Songs, and still remember how deeply even in childhood I was moved by Rashi’s words in the Prologue to his Exposition, on how Solomon, filled with the Holy Ghost, prophesied in that book of Israel’s repeated captivities, then still in the future, how they would bewail their former glory, and remember the loving kindness once vouchsafed them by God above all the peoples of the earth, and would learn to say, “I will go and return to my first husband, for then it was better with me than now.”

In 1848 I was already in the second decade of my life, when, my grandfather being too old and feeble to continue the conduct of my education, my good father took me from Resina, and placed me under the care of my widowed grandmother, Rebecca, who, as daughter and daughter-in-law of Rabbins, was commonly called the Rabbinerin (Rabbiness). Under her roof I studied the Talmud night and day for the next five years under very learned teachers, whom my excellent father paid most handsomely, quoting on that behalf an utterance of the Talmud that a man’s requirements for the duties of life are all predetermined for him, but not the amount that he shall spend on enabling his children to study the Law, for which, too special rewards will be vouchsafed for him.

My chief teacher at that time was Rabbi Joseph, son of Akiba, who belonged to the Chasidic circle of the celebrated Zaddik R. Raphael, of Berschid. With him I read many difficult passages of the Gemara, the Sohar, and other books of the deepest Hebrew Mysticism, and among them the writings of the great Rabbi Pinchas, author of the Chasidic Masaim, founded on Psalm 34:14, and Exodus 23:7, “When a lie shall be abhorred as no less a sin than a breach of the Seventh Commandment then will manifest Himself Messiah the Son of David in His glory.”

R. Pinchas labored diligently at that time with his disciple, R. Raphael to implant the mystic doctrines of the Chasidic school, and teach its devout observances among their youthful hearers at Orgeieff. All our striving then was through union with the Holy One and His Shekhina, and to implore the gift of His Spirit from the Holy One, who, as Sohar says, walks at that hour with blessed souls in the Garden of Eden.

My mind at that time was entirely absorbed in Chasidic devotions, in meditations on the Eternal, and I took no pleasure in the amusements and occupations of my youthful companions.

I happened in my sixteenth year, on the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, 1853, that I was chastising myself at night-time, in penitential remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem, which was followed by the Fall of the Second Temple, when a messenger of glad tidings appeared with the announcement of my espousals to Golde, daughter of Daniel, son of Elia, which had just taken place in the customary manner, with the breaking of costly vessels, in remembrance of the sack of the Holy City; and were to be followed at latest in three years’ time by our marriage. The whole transaction had been accomplished for us by the fathers on either side, and I had but to bow and smile acquiescence to the congratulations which poured in upon me.

In those days the fire of Chasidic piety glowed on the altar of my heart, but a flood of other influences now came from Central Europe, which tended rapidly to quench its fervor. An imperial ukase compelled all children of Hebrews to learn to speak and the write Russian language, and all teachers to read Moses Mendelsohn’s translation of the Pentatuech with their pupils. A new spirit began to stir within me, and new ideas as to the real meaning of the Law and the Prophets served to infuse doubts in my mind as to the absolute sacro-sanctity of my Chasidic instructors, and the truth of their transcendental interpretations of the Scripture.

I began to read the modern Hebrew literature of the day, and gladly embraced new and more rational ideas and interpretations, more coming soon under the influence of which the over-wrought fancies of former teachers began to fade in my mind like a dream when one awakeneth. I was greatly helped toward this change by the acquaintance and intercourse with a young man named Jechiel Zebi, son of Meir Herschensohn, who at that time had a high reputation for Talmudic learning in Orgeieff. This new friend soon began to open my eyes as to the real nature of Kabbala and Sohar, and to show me that these were but a blinding veil for the minds of their Hebrew readers hiding from them the truth and the right interpretation of the Holy Scripture. He imparted to me some of the conclusions, which he had drawn from a scientific and historical study of the Law and the Prophets. I attached myself daily closer to this new friend, and we sat many hours together pursuing this, to me new course of study.

One day, after a visit to Kischineff, he brought back with him a little book which he said had been given to him by a Christian Pastor as one which would show him what Jesus of Nazareth really taught. It was in fact a Hebrew New Testament printed in London. “Perhaps,” added Herschensohn, “this was really the Messiah whom Moses and the Prophets foretold.” He gave me the book which I have by me still.

Other circumstances besides my intercourse with Herschensohn (whom my Chasidic teachers regarded as an “Epicurean” or Rationalist), led to a breach between me and my old way of thinking, and former teachers such as R. Joseph of Berschid, which compelled me to think of leaving Orgeieff. I retired to my father’s house in the village of Maschcowicz, where he carried on his business. There I almost zealously pursued the study of a fresh set of old Jewish writers, of Maimonides, Albo, Gaon, which I had commenced in Orgeieff. I frankly proclaimed my new convictions the whole Chasidic system of mystic Theology rested on self-deception, and was irreconcilable with sound reason. My father by no means discouraged me in pursuing this new mental development, and gave me every assistance that I needed.

The time at length arrived for my marriage with Golde, who was now (1856) seventeen years of age, and is still my faithful and beloved wife. We were united in holy matrimony on the 7th Tebeth, and I continued for eighteen months to reside with my father-in-law, Daniel Goldenberg, at Orgeieff, and renewed my intimate intercourse with Herschensohn. I had hardly any other intimate friends there, though I daily attended prayers at the Beth-ha-Midrash. After residing a year-and-a-half at my father-in-law’s house, I hired one for myself in Orgeieff, and opened a small shop with the help of my wife’s marriage portion of 800 silver roubles.

In 1859 our dawning prosperity was suddenly ruined by a fire which destroyed sixty-six houses in Orgeieff, and deprived me and my wife, with our infant son, of all our little property.

The next decade was a time of much bitter suffering and anxiety. Yet did my great losses and my consequent poverty exercise a wholesome influence on my mind, driving me to fresh studies and occupations. I had some acquaintance with law which I carefully improved, and soon became legal advisor to my countrymen, far and near. My advice and my advocacy were invoked on all sides, and God granted me good success. I became also a contributor to various Jewish newspapers, and well-known as a promoter of education and enlightenment among my people. Zederbaum, the founder of Jewish jounalism in those parts, welcomed my co-operation. I established a school in Orgeieff for instruction in Talmud, Torah, and the Hebrew and Russian languages. The school did a good work and my endeavors on behalf of education were observed with favor in the highest government circles of Kischineff and Odessa. I became a member of the Society for Promoting Enlightenment among Jews in Russia. Wealthy families in Kischineff and the neighborhood gave me employment, and a new era of prosperity began for me in 1866 with the formation of a large business in Orgeieff, for the sale of tea and sugar in the town and neighborhood, which I conducted with success. Moreover in 1869 I was elected to a post in the Landrath of the district of Orgeieff, such as no Israelite had up to that time filled. So ended my third decade.

Anyone acquainted with the difficulties which beset the Israelite in Russia will understand my earnest desire, and endeavors for the advancement of my people which I then thought could be accomplished by education and enlightenment only. The spirit of the new time would soon, I trusted, set them free. The emancipation of so many thousands of serfs in Russia by the high-minded generosity of Emperor Alexander II, and emancipation of the negro slaves in the United States of America, which was effected by the great war between North and South, diffused a breeze of freedom and deliverance which I sucked in with avidity on my people’s behalf, and awakened in me hopes that the nations of Europe would soon begin to see that their Jewish brother also is a man, and remember that the earth is given to the children of men.

But now came great disappointment of my hopes based on the liberating power of mere intellectual enlightenment. The crushing blow inflicted upon France in 1870-71, showed me how little the highest advances in civilization may avail a great people in the day of adversity, and that such alone would not save Israel.

Then again, the horrible persecution that broke out in Odessa greatly troubled me. I then found that education and enlightenment so far from shielding Jews from the rage of their enemies, made them and their nationality all the more odious to their Christian neighbors. The Jews of Odessa were the first to change costume, language, and proper names in order to be more like their neighbors, who in turn were the first to overwhelm with scorn and reproach, and to threaten them with destruction. In the third place, my work and official position as a member of the Landrath, taught me how little there was of sincerity behind the apparent friendship in which many Jews and Christians stood to one another.

I lost all spirit to continue my work at Orgeieff, sold my large business there, settled all my accounts, and moved to Kischineff on 9th November, 1871, with my wife and children, four daughters and one son, who was already attending the gymnasium at Kischineff. I hired a flat in a good house in the midst of my own people and the center of town, and intended to carry on a business in tea and sugar and other articles to be supplied from Odessa. But I heard an inner voice saying to me: “Leave trade and traffic; it will bring thee no blessing. Be an advisor and an advocate of thy oppressed people, and I will be with thee!” I obeyed what I felt was a divine call. I had a large circle of friends and acquaintance who gladly availed themselves of my legal knowledge and experience in various difficulties with the government and in the Courts of Justice, and were ready and willing to pay for my assistance. I bought a piece of land in a quiet part of the town on which I built a comfortable house, and moved my family into it in 1873, less by my youngest little daughter (Tikwa), who fell victim to the cholera when it raged in Kischineff in 1872.

I soon became a much sought and much visited personality. Many in sore need implored my help. Many widows and orphans told me among floods of tears, sad stories of oppression, and in too many cases I discovered that the oppressor himself was a son of Abraham. Moreover, persons of wealth and position confided to me their private affairs, or consulted me on matters of municipal policy, in which I was ready to help them with no other payment that their grateful thanks. In this period I studied the Holy Scripture at home, and also gave lessons in Hebrew and Russian. Our Jewish public worship I attended on Sabbath and Holy days only, and was always ready to give up the leisure hours of the Sabbath-day to the exception of inquiring friends who came with theological and scientifice interest.

In those days it was ordered by Providence that the learned journalist, Alexander Zederbaum removed from Kischineff to St. Petersburg, in order to publish his journal, The Interpreter (Ha-Melitz), in Hebrew and Russian, in the centre of Russian life and activity. He gladly invoked my assistance as a native of Kischineff in his new sphere, to act as a reporter and correspondent, and as an earnest of Jewish liberties and the amelioration of our people’s condition. He urged that now himself in a position to gather information and exercise influence at headquarters, the time was come for us both to make a combined effort to raise our people’s moral and social position, and that I should set myself to write a series of papers and essays with this object in view, which might appear regularly in his journal at St. Petersburg.

I felt that this close appeal to my conscience must not be neglected, and was more zealous than ever in calling public attention to the low moral and intellectual condition of my compatriots in Bessarabia, and to their special needs. My efforts in this direction were not without effect.

About this time, the cruel war broke out between Servia and Bulgaria on the one hand and Turkey on the other. The Emperor Alexander II resolved to assist the two Slavonic States in their efforts to gain their national freedom by sending Russian troops across the Danube, and Kischineff was the headquarters for this army in the south.

My own zeal on my people’s behalf was naturally awakened, and hope renewed that the end of two millenniums of oppression might be approaching, but no help was forthcoming for Israel. When I heard how the notables of the Bulgarian people assembled themselves in the ancient Cathedral of Tirnova to thank the God of Heaven for deliverance from a tyranny of five hundred years, tears flowed from my eyes, and I exclaimed, “O Lord God of Israel, when shall it by Thy gracious will to raise the horn of Thy chosen people? When wilt Thou take to Thyself Thy power and reign over Thy long forsaken and shame covered Zion?”

In 1878, I wrote a well-known pamphlet, entitled Sabri maranan werabbanan—What think ye, our Lords and Rabbins? which appeared in the Hebrew journal Morning Light (Haboke Or), and endeavored to show how the Rabbinate itself (i.e. the body of Jewish clergy) might be reformed and lifted up out of its present impotent condition as the first necessary antecedent of any real improvement in the state of the Jewish people, now lost in the mazes of poverty, ignorance, indolence, and unbelief, which must make the existence of true religion among them impossible. Many nights did I sit in consultation with the learned Dr. Levinton, anxiously inquiring how our people might be engaged of their own free will in agricultural pursuits, as the most useful and profitable of occupations, and so be raised out of their present miserable condition of hopeless, crushing poverty. With the consent of Government in Kischineff, we called a large meeting of our principal citizens, and endeavored to establish a society for the assistance of poor people undertaking garden work, and I addressed the Jews generally in their own dialect, for the furtherance of the same cause, setting them a practical example in my own person and those of my two sons, David and Nathan, who worked with me daily in our own garden plot.

With a like end in view for Russian Jews generally, I wrote frequently to Zederbaum’s journal in St. Petersburg. At the same time, I did my best to improve the synagogal service at Kischineff by providing a new and handsome House of Prayer, with a good choir, and by removing from the service all objectionable features. This I accomplished with a general concurrence. In such ways as these my activities on Israel’s behalf, during this my fourth decade, were mainly practical. My conviction now was that the time for writing and theorizing was gone by—that what our people mainly needed was in the first place active, healthy employment, which might take them out of their miserable trafficking in silks and satins, gold and silver rarities, embroideries, and the like—that even our boast to have first created and then ruled the mercantile system of the modern world was no longer maintainable; that, in fact, we are, and must remain, as the prophet Amos tells us, “a little one” among the nations. Amos 7:2,5 To thoughts like these I gave expression in an essay which appeared in Zederbaum’s journal, whose Hebrew title may be rendered, “Hasty Scribes and Boastful Traders.”

And so, I enter on my present and fifth life’s decade, and the period of the movement toward Christianity among the Jews of Russia. Many events in its first years turned my mind to fresh problems on behalf of Israel. The death of the just, gentle, high-minded sovereign Alexander II, was followed by terrible persecutions which broke out in Jelisabitgrad, Warsaw, Keiff, Balta, and other places, and the flight or banishment of many thousand Jews to America and Palestine.

These awful occurrences helped me at length to recognize Him of whom Moses and the Prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, who said of Himself (John 18:37), “To this end was I born and came into the world, that I may bear witness unto the Truth. Everyone that is of the Truth heareth My voice,” whom I now recognize as my Lord and my God.

Here I lay down my pen, and lifting up my eyes to Him who now sitteth on the right hand of the Majesty on high, I say to Him, “Wilt Thou still be angry with us? Shall Thy wrath burn like fire forever? Wilt Thou not turn again and quicken us, that Thy people may rejoice in Thee?” O that I might hear what God the Lord will say concerning us, that He would speak peace to His people and to His saints, so that they turn not again to folly! Yet is His salvation nigh to them that fear Him, that Glory may dwell in our land. Amen.