Israel Cohen, Translated by Adam Prager
The tombstone of Rabbi Yitzhak Kahen (father of Yisrael Cohen)
Next to the tombstone stand his widow and the cantor
Galicia has few towns of this kind: Lvov, Brody, Tarnopol, Zhulkov etc. One of those towns is Buczacz, lying between Stanislavov (which leads to Lvov) and Tarnopol. However, Buczacz's dignity and reputation can be credited solely to itself. Almost all Jewish spiritual trends swept through this town and left their mark. Or perhaps it was Buczacz that left a mark on these trends by lending them a personal touch and hue. For it is a town built on tradition, as well as being honored with a considerable number of Jews. In 1765, the Jewish population of Buczacz reached 1055. From that time on it only grew. In the 17th and 18th century Russian-Bratslavian [Russian Orthodox?] area, Buczacz was the leading community. Following the region's partition, the Buczacz rabbi became the religious leader of one part. Buczacz sent a community leader (who was also called the head of state) to the Russian-Bratslavian state and also to the Council of the Four Lands. The community leaders, David Prager, who participated in the sessions of the Council in 1664, and Arieh Leib Ben-Yitskhak, who was a Council member at Kulikov in 1727. Are well known. Among the noteworthy Buczacz rabbis we should mention R' Yaakov Eliyahu Ben Moshe Mak; R' Elkhanan Ben Ze'ev Wolf, whose son R' Abale was the son-in-law of Tsvi Meisels, the famous community leader, who was a member of the Council of the Four Lands; R' Tsvi Hirsh Ben Yaakov Kara, author of Neta Sha'ashuim; his son-in-law R' Avraham David Ben Asher; and R' Avraham Ben Tsvi Hirsh Teumim, author of Khesed Avraham.
Buczacz was characterized by people like R' Avraham David Ben Asher (1770-1840). His life history and philosophy constitute a very important chapter in Buczacz' history. We shall, however, suffice with a concise account of his story. As a boy he already drew attention to himself by his great Talmudic erudition and sharpness. Tsvi Hirsh, author of Neta Sha'ashuim, chose him as a son-in-law for his daughter. At twenty he was ready to serve as the rabbi of Yazlovitsh. Buczacz was a town of scholars and Talmudists who did not believe in the tsadikim and their miracles. The war between the Talmudists and the hasidim reached its peak at that time, and it greatly troubled R' Avraham. When his son fell ill, his wife and friends urged him to bring the sick child to R' Levi Yitskhak of Berditshev. After refusing for a long while, he finally consented. From that day on he was a different man. He was greatly influenced by R' Levi Yitskhak, who helped him in reconciling his Talmudic and hasidic views, positions that were polarized in his town. The hasidim could not imagine a greater joy, for many of them feared his mastery of the Talmud and rabbinical law. Nevertheless, after he inherited his father-in-law's position, everyone marveled at his religious knowledge but opposed his way of life, his following the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. In the practice of rabbinical law, he would draw his judgment from the Talmud and from rabbinical authorities [poskim], and not from the principles of the Kabbala. His wide-ranging literary work was basically rationalistic, Talmudic and exegetic. His essay Da'at Kedoshim, as well as Eshel Avraham, was incorporated as an independent section of the Shulkhan Arukh. In addition to all of his other books, he wrote a Kabbalistic commentary named Birkat David [David's Blessing]. At one point in his life his reason was somewhat shaken, and according to tradition he was cured by the rabbi of Sasov. He acted as Buczacz' rabbi till the day he died, approximately fifty years, and bestowed his spirit upon the town.
Many legends grew up around R' Avraham. People would say of him that he never went to sleep until he had reinterpreted 18 halakhot (religious laws) and that he had no idea what a coin looked like. When a gravestone was erected for him after his death, the word malkeynu [our king] was etched on it, Immediately someone reported this to the authorities; however, by the time they arrived to investigate, the letter kaf had been altered to pey, forming the word mealfenu [our teacher] (though missing an alef). Since that day, none of his successors were given the title "Rabbi." Instead they received the more modest title: "dayan" [religious judge].
In the narrow town square stood the Town Hall (Ratusz), one of the most magnificent buildings in Galicia built in true Baroque style. Previously it was a square building abounding in ornamentation. After the fire it was badly damaged, however it still partially retained its original shape and engravings. On the way to the railway station, one can see on the right the remaining ruins of the castle built in the 14 th century and conquered and demolished by the Turks. Later on, Nikolaus Potocki restored and lived in it. Also the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches stood out and everyone spoke of their beauty and interior splendor. Buczacz boasted of several other historical ornaments as well. During World War Two, part of the town was destroyed; during the past twenty years, it has been restored and rebuilt.
In the cemetery there were ancient graves and tombstones, some bearing famous names, others anonymous. There were mausoleums of tsadikim and gravestones recording miracles and calamities. I believe that even the town elders would have lost their way in this labyrinth of graves. Since some of the pinkasim [record books] were lost or burned, it was very difficult to retrieve from the depths of oblivion the town's history, which was waiting to be drawn out of these silent tombs.
Most wondrous was the Old Study House that, according to the etching upon its walls, was built over 210 years ago by Italian architects whom Count Potocki had invited to build his magnificent palace. It was not just any study house but the stronghold of the mitnagdim, a center for the opponents of Kabbala and hasidism. Those who studied and prayed there were a consolidated ideological group that occasionally left its mark on the town. They were Ashkenazim. Not "Ashkenazim" in the sense of being 'Germans, reformers'; on the contrary, they were pious Jews, strict regarding all Jewish laws, major or minor. They uncompromisingly followed the strict Ashkenazic system which teaches according to the pshat [literal meaning]. The allegoric and esoteric were foreign to them, and altogether proscribed. A large group of them would convene in the Old Study House on Saturday afternoon to hear one of the talmidey khakhamin [learned men] teach the weekly portion together with an explanation of the akeda [the sacrifice of Isaac]. While doing so, he would introduce opinions and explanations of philosophers who supported his position as well as of those who did not. A large treasure of books, a true archive, was to be found in the Old Study House. This was no chance collection but a well-planned one. Besides the well known sacred texts which were acceptable to all, such as the Tanakh [Bible], the Talmud with all its commentaries, the Midrash [homiletic interpretation], the Shulkhan Arukh [Jewish code of laws], and the poskim [rabbinical arbiters], you could find Hebrew research and philosophy books from all periods, books on grammar, engineering, astronomy, dictionaries and even rare manuscripts dealing with medical research in the middle ages. Not everyone was permitted access to all of these book, some of which were held behind lock and key. However, it should be stated that books dealing with hasidism, kabbala and esoterica were hardly to be found. Being the largest and most convenient library, everyone used it; in addition to learning Torah, they developed a certain style and direction. In this study house, S. Y. Agnon spent many an hour, and imbibed its spirit. Up until the Shoah, you could find his notes and comments in the margins of the volumes he studied. I also found there writings of the Malbim [Meir Leibush Ben Yekhiel Mikhal a rabbi and exegete of the Tanakh (18091879)], in his own hand, on one of the books in the Old Testament.
However, a Jew in Buczacz, a town full of tradition where erudition and character went hand in hand, could not help but feel a certain flaw, as though one of its strings had snapped. Some personal or public prayer, past or present, remained unanswered and continued to hover in the air. It is possible that this is the case in every Jewish town in exile [ba-gola] that plucks the plumage of its youth. Maybe this feeling originates from the state of perplexity felt by every young Jew who grows up in his surroundings, is nourished by them and in turn gives much of himself, only to suddenly be at a loss: where now [le-an]? Even this beneficent mountain can only give its visitors what it has always given. Whatever the case, even in a town of scholars and fine individuals such as Buczacz, life in exile will always be flawed. When, following an absence of several years, I visited Buczacz and tried to fathom it, I became aware that, indeed, an unfulfilled wish encompassing generations was reflected in the town's inhabitants and life style. S.Y. Agnon, born and bred in this town, attempted to mend this flaw, which is as fine as the defect in a choice citron, by means of artistic design. In the artistic sphere, these Jews excelled in both the sacred and the secular modes. However, in his great novel Oreach Nata LaLun, this ever-present flaw and incompleteness that has been Buczazc' imprint is again projected. Maybe the reason for this was Agnon's re-encounter with the town.
A thin layer of mystery and innocent dreams surrounded Buczacz. Basically, however, Buczazc was a rationalistic town, if one may refer to a whole town in such a way. From the character of its rabbis and scholars, the quality of its hasidim and mitnagdim, the aims of its intellectuals [maskilim] and the causes of all its wars, we learn one thing. This was a town that failed to lend an ear during the last generations to the kabbalists and mystics, ignoring tsadikim and the like. However, Buczazc did not possess a bloodless radical rationalism of dry bones. Tanakh [Bible] and grammar studies [dikduk] were common in town, as well as study of Agada and Midrash. One of Buczazc' writers was Itsi Farenhof, author of Sifrey Sha'ashuimand, in contrast tohim, the learned scholar, David Tsvi Miller, who specialized in ancient tongues.
Itsi Farenhof was a man of aspirations and initiative. His love of Hebrew was profound and his taste was excellent. He set out to plough the fields of Hebrew literature in Galicia and succeeded in making a small furrow. Unlike other literary experiments, his was especially interesting and unique. The small pamphlets Sifrey Sha'ashuim were issued speedily throughout the Hebraist world. Writers such as Tshernikhovski, Klausner, Berdichevski and others contributed poems, articles or reports. To this day these small pages exude pure intimacy and good will, the Hebrew beautifully styled and modern. Professor David Tsvi Miller was a great authority in Arabic culture and ancient tongues, an expert in Assyriology and taught these languages at the University of Vienna. He translated into Hebrew the Hammurabi Code, studied the structure of Biblical verse and deciphered its laws. He was a teacher at the Viennese Seminary [bet hamidrash havinai] founded by Shilink and Weiss. On reaching old age, he was awarded a rank of nobility by Kaiser Franz Josef. Last but not least: Agnon, who dwells within us and represents the grandeur of Hebrew literature.
Buczacz' spiritual decline started long before World War Two. The young left, some to Erets-Yisrael, some to America and the rest to other countries. The languishing yeshiva students grew old and cultural activity dwindled. Nevertheless, the town's strength had not yet diminished completely; it was still capable of supporting many generations to come. One could compare it to a very wealthy man who has lost his fortune, but the remnants of whose wealth are still scattered about.
Beautiful and gracious Buczacz now lies in ruins. Bestial occupiers have poured their poisonous wrath upon its Jews, trees and rocks. This is how it was portrayed in a letter by Dr. Avraham Khalfon, one of its last Jews:
Buczacz exists today only as a geographical fact. The town has been destroyed. Only two Jewish families remain and there are no Jews in the rest of the region. The streets of the town are covered with weeds and thistles. The houses were demolished, the synagogues are used as public lavatories. The cemetery was ploughed over by army excavations, its tombstones used to pave the Pig Market. The high school [gymnasia], the elementary schools and other important buildings were destroyed. Over ten thousand Jews, inhabitants of Buczacz, were put to death by various means. Their bodies were buried in mass graves on the Pedor, the Bashtim, and in the forests and fields .
Let us be consoled in that a small portion of the teachings [Torah] of the Study House [Bet Midrash] of Buczacz reached Erets-Yisrael and lives in its children and children's children!