Saturday, January 22, 2011

Life……An Odyssey of Discovery……..Part 1

My husband Avraham’s father a”h passed away thirty-six years ago. One of the few possessions that he has from his father was his tefillin.

Now these tefillin are not like any other tefillin that you see. They are so tiny, that they can fit into the palm of your hand with room left over. They measure 2.2cm square. In comparison my son’s tefillin are 3cm square and my grandson Gilad’s tefillin are 4cm square. We never knew why they were so small and neither did anyone else.

Note the red box cover.  

For the past thirty-six years, the tefillin have been in a dresser drawer. Truefully, we really never paid to much attention to them, they were just a keepsake.
This past December 2nd 2010, in the Shabbos edition of Hamodia [an English language religious newspaper], there was an article by Chana Sorele Teitelbaum called Chashmonaim..Under The Czar. With the permission of the author and Hamodia, I have posted her article and pictures at the end of my blog.
The article speaks about the hardships that the Jews of the day had to under take, that the boys were drafted into the Russian army at age 12 and stayed for twenty-five years. The goal of the Czar was to obliterate any and all connection to Yiddishkeit.
Some of these boys [at great risk for their life] would have a tiny pair of tefillin that they could hide in their uniform pocket.
In the article was a picture of the tiny tefillin. When my husband saw the picture he was stunned and said to me, these look like the tefillin that my father had.
And so the search for his family’s history began. We contacted all of Avraham’s cousins trying to connect what we knew [which wasn’t very much] and what they knew.We found out that my husband’s grandfather had written a brief history and one of the cousins had the letter.
With this information, we discovered that the family name was Guttman not Goodman. The name was change by the Canadian immigration. We learned that his grandfather was sent away from Odessa by his father at age 12 because he was going to be drafted. An older brother [we don’t know his name] accompanied him. There is no mention as to why the brother wasn’t drafted.
We learnt that at first they went to France and then after some time boarded a boat to Canada settling in Montreal. We also learnt that my husband’s grandfather had a sister [we don’t know her first name] who was married to a Rav or Mohel by the name of Goichberg and lived in the Bronx N.Y. If this name means anything to anyone or if you know of a family by this name, would you please let me know?
The brother didn’t like living in Montreal, returned to Russia, joined the Russian army and was never heard from again.

With the information we were gathering we still didn’t know the names of Avraham’s great grandparents or anything about them. We researched the database of Jewish Gen including the archives of Odessa. We checked the passenger logs from The Ships Lists archives trying to find the ship Avraham’s grandfather and uncle came to Canada on. I checked the archives of Canada immigration looking for landed status as I knew that they settled in Montreal.

We were at a dead end. I knew that Avraham’s grandfather died and was buried in Montreal and so I had an idea to call the only Jewish funeral home [they are still in business] at the time and see if they could help me.

Sure enough, they were a fountain of information. We learnt the names of Avraham’s great grandparents, Yisroel and Rachel Guttman, some dates and where they were from.

Now back to the tefillin. We now believe that the tefillin that Avraham always believed were his father’s, were not in fact his father’s, but his grandfather’s. If we are correct, then these tefillin are 120 years old. If not, and they are his father's then the tefillin are 88 years old. 

We spoke to a Sofer and asked him to come and inspect the tefillin and give us his opinion.

I sent a note to the author thanking her for writing this article telling her about the tefillin we have and giving us just the push we needed to research our family.

She wrote back to me saying that her husband said we should have the Sofer check  'yud' on the 'shel yad'. In the three pairs that they [the author and her husband] examined, the yud is attached to the box in a very complicated way, thus making it extra mehudar. Also the width of the 'retzios' in even in the narrowest parts is no less than 2mm, size of a barley, the necessary shiur mentioned in Halacha.
Sitting at the computer looking for information became a real passion. I was determined to find out everything I could about my husband’s family and my mother’s family a”h. A cousin of mine had already researched and made a family tree of my father’s family history.
Someone asked me why I was spending so much time researching the histories. I told them that the information although very interesting for Avraham and me, it was not really for us but for the next generation and all future generations. Everyone needs to know where they came from. With intermarriage at such an alarming rate ones ‘yichas’ [background] is so important.
The search is still on. I contacted The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal requesting whatever information they have on his grandfather. I am assuming that the family were members because my father-in-law and all Avraham’s uncles had their Bar Mitzvah’s in this shul. One uncle was also married there and Avraham’s grandfather is buried in their cemetery.
Until next time……….
My next blog will be part 2. The Sofer’s Report……
Please feel free to post your comments.

Once again I want to thank Chana Sorele Teitelbaum and Hamodia for allowing me to post their article and pictures.


By Chana Sorele Teitelbaum
The artifacts shown in this feature are owned by a British antique collector who acquired them during his travels in his former hometown in Hungry. An expert on antiques as well as a student of the manufacture of menorahs, he determined that those shown in this article, which he discovered in an antique shop are genuine. He found the tefillin in the sheimos section of an old cemetary whose renovation he arranged for. Also found at that time were valuable documents proving that these artifacts belonged to the Cantonists.

Two thousand years have not dimmed the intensity with which Yiden perform the rituals of Yiddishkeit. The lifesaving tactic of quickly substituting a game like dreidel while sefarim and other religious articles were hidden from the eyes of the enemy, is one that the Jewish nation has used throughout the centuries - from Jews threatened by the Inquisition, to those suffering first under the czars and then behind the Iron Curtain. With unbelievable commitment and inner strength, Jews have resolved to see the 'light', no matter how outside forces attempted to extinguish it.

Yidden living under oppressive rule of various czars were determined to avoid demands that they abandon their religion. Undaunted by evil decrees, they devised ways to continue living as G-D fearing Jews despite the danger. Among these determined individuals were some Kantonisten or Cantonists- Jews who were forcibly drafted into the czar's army as mere children and were required to serve for twenty-five years. These heroes of the mid-1800's managed somehow to see light even in their darkest moments.


In these photographs, we see testimony of the incredible mesirus nefesh displayed by Kantonisten in Czarist Russia.  These historic Jewish artifacts belonged to Jewish youths who served in the Russian army for long periods against their will and who were forced to give up their Yiddishkeit.  Had they been found with these religious items in their possession, they would have been killed immediately.  Instead, the innovative young men crafted for themselves palm sized menorahs and minature pairs of tefillin that could easily be concealed inside their uniform pockets or worn under their helmets. In times of crisis, they would turn to these religious items as a segulah for safety or to pray for a miracle.
What is remarkable about these soldiers is that did not perform the mitzvos of tefillin and lightning Canukah candles simply to fullfill the miniumum requirements. From these artifacts it appears that they were extremely well versed in halachah [laws] and that they invested their knowledge and love for Yiddishkeit in the performance of these mitzvos, to ensure that their observance was mehudar [extra observant].
The Kesher of the tefillin was made with a tiny sliver of retzuah and connected to the tefillin itself in a brillant masterpiece of handicraft that would normally be impossible due to its miniature size.
One menorah has only 'four' cups [indentations] for eight candles, but, as is discussed in Shulchan Aruch, this very rare menorah, which cantains eight notches for the wicks is deemed kosher.