Thursday, January 24, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin - The Pair of Tefillin

The Koidenover Rebbe, shlit"a
(Picture by Sender Schwartz/UMI)

I was always very curious about my roots and was the family genealogist. It wasn’t until I became frum that information about the past had any real bearing on my present and future.

By the end of my freshman year of college, I was already shomer Shabbos and shomer kashrus. The one thing I was missing was a pair of tefillin. I never received a pair of tefillin at my Bar Mitzvah and probably had put them on only once by a Lubavitcher at some type of Jewish festival. I was ready to spend my summer learning at a camp in Pennsylvania and knew that I needed to buy tefillin. I asked the Rabbi who gave a weekly shiur at my university if he could order me a pair and he asked me a question that would lead me down a most unusual path.

“How do you wrap your tefillin, in or out?”

I had no clue but I told him I would ask my grandfather who was in his 90’s and used to put on tefillin every day until he was in his mid-30’s. My grandfather showed me how to put on tefillin. Although our family was from Minsk, not the most Chasidish place, our minhag was to wrap “out” and not to make a shin on the hand. He said that his father taught him how to put on tefillin and told him that everybody does it the other way, and we do it this way. I told the rabbi my findings and he ordered me a pair of tefillin with a Sefard kesher. Although I was a little bothered by the lack of the shin, he said it wasn’t necessary. I began to get very curious. If Chasidim wrap out, does that mean we were Chasidim? Should I be davening Nusach Sefard? My grandfather was not able to help me on this one. His father came to America in the 1890’s and a lot of people adopted generic minhagim of the shul they attended. Besides tefillin, the only unique mesorah he passed down were nigunim for the Pesach Seder, nigunim which were not standard fare.

At this point, I was determined to begin a quest to find out if there were any Chasidim in Minsk. I asked anyone who I thought would have some clue. I got a slew of responses: “Why do you care? Just do what everyone else does.” “All because you wrap out doesn’t mean your family davened Sefard.” “There were no Chasidim in Minsk.” The truth is that while many people may have changed their nusach hatefillah, 99.9% of Ashkenazim who wrap out would also have davened Sefard. And there were Chasidim in Minsk. After I looked in a Lubavitch minhagim sefer and saw the way they put on tefillin, I thought for a week that I might actually be Lubavitch. Anyway, while this search was going on and I was davening Ashkenaz, I happened to have connected with someone in my home town (another great hashgacha pratis story but not for now) who davened at a local Chasidisher shtiebel. Whenever I was home from school I would stay with this friend for Shabbos. We started learning Nesivos Shalom, and I knew I had found the path for my neshama. Chassidus spoke to me, especially this sefer. I would carry it with me wherever I went. (This was about twelve years ago, before it became so popular).

One year and a half later, Hashem had some interesting plans in store for me. I was selected among a group of students to spend my junior year in Oxford University in England. I didn’t actually want to go but I applied anyway to humor my parents. I was accepted and knew there was some reason why I had to go there. I continued asking people in England about Minsk until I met a Chasidisher Rov in London who put me in touch with a shliach from the Stoliner Rebbe who used to live in Minsk. He had returned to America and was living in Monsey. I was excited. Perhaps he knew the history of Minsk. Maybe he even met someone with my last name. I called him on the phone and it turns out that his aunt’s mother’s maiden name was Slatkin and they were from Minsk. He said they were Koidenover Chasidim. What was Koidenov? I had never heard of it. I found a book in Oxford’s Oriental Institute Library called HaChassidus HaLitais (Lithuanian Chasidism) which had a map of the region and showed which Chasidim were in each town. Minsk hosted Koidenov and Slonim. I also made friends with a Slonimer Chasid in London who had also heard of Koidenov. Anyway, the Rabbi from Monsey told me to call him in a few weeks and he would try to find out more information from his aunt. I attempted to reach him and was unable. For some reason, I never bothered calling him again, yet I was still quite curious. I finished my year at Oxford and returned to the U.S. for my senior year in college. About a year later, we hosted a Shabbaton at the university with a Rosh Yeshiva and two bochurim from Monsey. One of the bochurim used to attend our university. I asked him if he knew this Rabbi in Monsey and said that his father was their Rebbi in yeshiva. A month later, I went to Monsey for spring break to learn and to meet their Rebbi. The Rebbi gave me his sister-in-law’s phone number and I called her. I explained that my great grandfather was named Chaim Noach and he lived in Baltimore….. “Uncle Chaim from Baltimore!,” she exclaimed. At that moment I knew. Her grandfather, “Zeide Yosef”, was Uncle Joe. My grandfather had told me about Uncle Joe and we knew he had five children but we had completely lost contact with his family. I started singing the Pesach nigunim, and, of course, they were the same. My long-lost cousin was the wife of a prominent Rosh Yeshiva of a Chasidishe yeshiva in New York. She told me that the Slatkins were Koidenover Chasidim and that her grandmother, my great great grandmother used to bake the yud beis challos for the Koidenover Rebbe. I couldn’t believe it. I thought maybe I would track down information linking us to a particular Chassidus but to find frum cousins was beyond my imagination. Although I had wanted to daven nusach Sefard for awhile, I told myself that if I ever found out my minhagim, then I would switch. I didn’t want to do something generic if I had the option of following in the path of my family. I spoke to my cousins right before Purim and I did not wind up meeting them until after Pesach. In the interim, I started davening nusach Sefard on Shabbos haGadol. I was excited to learn more about Koidenov and I was able to have seforim transferred to the university library from Yeshiva University. As I graduated, I was looking forward to going to Eretz Yisroel to yeshiva in Elul. I would finally have the opportunity to meet the Koidenover Rebbe.

On my first off Shabbos from yeshiva, I went to join my cousins in Bnei Brak. Erev Shabbos, my cousin took me to meet the Rebbe. He opened the door and welcomed me in. I told him about my family and how my great-grandfather was a Koidenover chasid and he exclaimed “v’dor har’vii yashuvu ad hena,” and the fourth generation will return here (Bereishis 15:16). I had come home and received a royal welcome. The Rebbe invited me to daven at his bais medrash Shabbos morning and share the seudah with his family. I told him about my journey and started learning about the minhagim. I even got to see the Koidenover siddur, which is what all of the Lithuanian Chassidim used to use (Stolin and Slonim) before they made their own siddurim. One of the most astonishing realizations for me was that Koidenov came from Karlin/Stolin and Lechovitch and that Slonim actually came from Lechovitch and Koidenov. The derech I was so drawn to in the Nesivos Shalom, the one that brought me towards chassidus, was actually the path of my zeides. I was finally home.

I became a ben bais by the Rebbe, spending many Shabbosim and Yomim tovim. He was m’sader kiddushin at my wedding and recently performed the upsherin for my son. It has been an amazing experience and I know that it is only beginning. As the Rebbe is rebuilding what was once a giant Chassidus in White Russia and Lithuania, many of us old Koidenovers have come out of the woodwork in America. It is a zchus for us to help revive what was so much a part of our family’s lives.

While I have heard plenty of Rabbis “specializing” in baalei teshuva, encouraging people to follow the generic yeshiva minhag, I feel very strongly about reconnecting with the past. Many baalei teshuva were able to become frum precisely because they didn’t follow the masses. They were able to see what they thought was truth and to choose that despite the popular trend. Therefore, imposing one brand of yiddishkeit on such a person is often a recipe for disaster. Continuing in the ways of my ancestors, helps ground me. It gives me a path, not just some random nusach or minhagim from Artscroll. I guess conformity doesn’t run in my blood if my family became Chasidim in the hotbed of hisnagdus. Minhagim allows for some individuality within the framework of halacha, in a society which is very much about conforming. Finally, it helps give me a sense that I am not just coming out of nowhere, but that I am merely returning to something we took a break from for a few generations. There is a sense of continuity. It helps that I was drawn to Chassidus. I am not suggesting that people must research and follow their family’s minhagim. What I am saying is that it should be an option or even a suggestion for those who are starting out, instead of the common discouraging attitude. Imagine if the Rabbi from college did not asked me how we wrapped tefillin. He could have ordered me a regular pair with an Ashkenaz kesher, yet his one question sparked a search which eventually ignited my neshama. Everyone must find their own path that works for them. While people can get carried away with minhagim and forget about the essentials, I believe that minhagim establish the rhythm of our lives and are a precious heritage to bequeath to our children. I have many more thoughts about this in light of posts by A Simple Jew and Dixie Yid, but that could be for another time.


At January 24, 2008 at 11:06:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fascinating story! I, too, have had the thrill of discovering distant relatives, exchanging genealogical information with them, and exploring our shared heritage. I did not know of my family's Chassidic background until I learned about our common ancestor, a rebbe, and that set me on a path of searching to find out more about his beliefs and practices ... and so much more.

At January 24, 2008 at 11:36:00 AM EST, Blogger A Talmid said...

Beautiful story!

At January 24, 2008 at 12:40:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Rabbi Slatkin: I understood that you also undertook it upon yourself to learn Yiddish. Can you tell us a little more about your reasoning to do this and how you went about it? Thanks.

At January 24, 2008 at 1:02:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story! Hatzlocho in your chasidic journey!

ASJ: About the Yiddish, I would guess, anyone who is seriously drawn to Chassidus naturally would want to learn it, since today it is de facto the chasidic "lingua franca".

At January 24, 2008 at 1:13:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid: How were you able to learn Yiddish? How did you start?

At January 24, 2008 at 2:22:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An amazing tale of hashgochah protis! "All rivers flow to the sea..."

At January 24, 2008 at 3:40:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like any other foreign language - grammar, vocabulary, practice etc.

I didn't know English originally either, though I started to learn it when I was still a teenager, while Yiddish I started when I was a grown up.

Still, there was a siyato deshmayo that I met a friend, who is also a baal tshuvo from Russia, who happened to be a big expert in Yiddish (he is also very involved in Chassidus). So I organized lessons for starters, with him (some other interested people joined too), and we learned together a big deal. Afterwards I used a textbook called "Yiddish for Russian speakers" written by Shimon Sandler from Moscow, and also I use the dictionary of Moyshe Shapiro (Russian-Yiddish). It is one one the best in its kind.

I guess, someone who knows both Russian and Loshn Koydesh has some advantage in learning Yiddish, because it has a significant percent of hebrew and slavic components.

There should be textbooks for learning Yiddish in English too. But note, that academic Yiddish is not always the real one used in different dialects, and there is often no way to figure it out from the books, so that's where the real expert teacher is necessary.

At January 24, 2008 at 6:14:00 PM EST, Blogger Shmuel the Sofer said...

Very special story!!!

At January 24, 2008 at 6:17:00 PM EST, Blogger Long Beach Chasid said...

This story was so beautiful. This is something i have been struggling to figure out. I am beginning the same path in college that you began so many years ago and it is such an inspiration to know that beautiful things like this happen to us on our quest for truth. With that said can you give me any advice on finding my own family history? I have narrowed it down to the towns my great great grandparents immigrated from to America.

At January 24, 2008 at 7:16:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for everyone's kind remarks.

ASJ, I had a tutorial in Yiddish in Oxford and then took a course my senior year in college. I really like languages and was already learning Modern Hebrew in college. I picked up even more when I was learning in Eretz Yisroel at the Rebbe's home. As the Rebbe says his Torahs in Yiddish, it paid for me to understand what he was saying. Learning a language opens up an entire world, enabling me to have access to so many more people than I would have otherwise.
There is also something about Yiddish. The Rebbe told someone that it is the lashon that tzadikim spoke. When he speaks in Yiddish there is a special something that is not necessarily there when he speaks in Hebrew.
And yes, it is the "lingua franca" of Chassidim but as Koidenov is a Chassidus from Lithuania and White Russsia, the Yiddish that I speak is a Litvishe Yiddish, not the Galicianer or Hungarian yiddish that people refer to as Chassidish. so that would me Teyreh, not Toireh. As just about all of my family came from White Russia and Lithuania, I would feel uncomfortable doing it differently. (By the way, don't get me wrong about all of these things. The main thing is avodas Hashem and not to get to overly consumed with all of these minhagim that we forget about the ikkar. I just happen to be fascinated by it all.)

Long Beach Chasid. I would love to talk to you more about your search and see if I could give you any clues. you can email me at my website if you want.

At January 24, 2008 at 7:24:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And yes, it is the "lingua franca" of Chassidim but as Koidenov is a Chassidus from Lithuania and White Russsia, the Yiddish that I speak is a Litvishe Yiddish, not the Galicianer or Hungarian yiddish that people refer to as Chassidish.

That's why I think it is incorrect when people refer to Galicianer/Polisher pronunciation as "chasidish". These differences are merely regional, and were shared by chasidim and misnagdim alike wherever they were, wheither they spoke in Litvisher, Ukrainisher or Poylisher Yiddish.

At January 24, 2008 at 7:41:00 PM EST, Blogger Rabbi Yonah said...


What a wonderful story and I agree with everything that you have said. it is so important to know where we come from, what our minhagim were. It enables many baale teshuva, myself included, to connect to HKBH in a deep and lasting way.

Generic is generic, and I am also one that decided to find my own path, and I feel very rewarded by it.

I encourage all my students to do the same. To study at the yeshiva that feels right, fits right. Not to go to one place or another to put a notch in my gartle.

At January 24, 2008 at 9:31:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Slatkin,
I have some classical music CD's with pieces performed by orchestras conducted by Felix Slatkin and by his son Leonard. Are they possibly related to you?

At January 24, 2008 at 10:47:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob- I am familiar with Leonard Slatkin and I get the question all the time. I never got around to contacting him so I can't verify any connection.

At January 26, 2008 at 11:23:00 PM EST, Blogger Unknown said...

My grandfather was also from Minsk.
Have you ever heard of the name

At January 27, 2008 at 11:44:00 AM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Interesting. My mother's family is from Minsk...last name Raskin.

At January 27, 2008 at 2:22:00 PM EST, Blogger Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this posting, and was intrigued to see that R. Slatkin initially traced Koidenov by a map in a Hebrew book, found in Oxford, entitled Hachassidus HaLitais.
This rang a bell to me, as i have a similar book in English. It turns out that it is a translation of the Hebrew book, published in England in 1970 ("Lithuanian Hasidism, from its beginnings to the present day" by Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch.Pub. Vallentine Mitchell)
The same map is there, showing that Minsk had not only Koidenover and Slonimer chassidim, but also Kobriner. There is a significant section (pages 160-163) on Koidanov.
The author of the book, born in 1900,was also the author of the entry on Koidanov in the 1st edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

At March 26, 2008 at 7:53:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Pair of Tefillin story was really outstanding, I wish I could find out that much history about my family especially from a pair of Tefillin. My great grandfather came Kiev around 1934 ( Isidor Goldenberg), there is a Shlomo Goldenberg who is in Kiev he is the chief rabbi I wrote to him to see if there is a possible relation but I never got and answer. I think I will write him again.

At April 30, 2008 at 11:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i know the rabbi from monsey that helped you, he's a very nice guy!

At December 4, 2008 at 4:26:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I am actually looking for more information about Koidenov. Since my great grandfather was the Koidenover Rov (before the holocost) and adopted by the Koidenover Rebbe. He and his Kehila where burned alive in his Shul by the nazis yimach shemom.

At March 1, 2009 at 3:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I have been researching some shetl history of my families and have very recently become convinced that my mother's family: Zlotkin came from Koidanov, immigrating to the U.S. around 1900-1902. (I have a siddur that my great grandfather brought with him). The reason I am convinced is that two other surnames that were in our family are also in that shetl.

I can't even find the place on the map. (I know it no longer has that name). I hope to visit the area in the next year or two with relatives from Israel. All of my ancestors on both sides come from Belarus and I have the names of almost all the towns. Today, I think I stumbled onto Koidanov.

Do you have more information on Koidanov, etc.?

Philadelphia, PA

At October 18, 2009 at 9:03:00 PM EDT, Blogger Forensic Genealogy Blog said...

Beautiful story! I am very interested in learning more about the Jewish community in Koidanov in the 1930s and early 1940s. I am very interested in talking to anyone who might have known the Galperin and Gildenberg (Goldenberg, Gilgenberg) families or who maybe have gone to school with their children. It would mean a lot to me.

Huntington Beach, CA

At February 2, 2010 at 1:20:00 AM EST, Blogger Chazzan805 said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I'm writing a short story on my impressions of the Koidenover Rebbe during his visit to New York last year and found your article doing some research. I would love to talk for some advice. I discovered chassidus myself in the last few years, and have begun to learn Meor Einayim. I would be interested in hearing a little about the Slonimer sefer that you mentioned. A few people have recommended it.


Post a Comment

<< Home