in Haredi Society
The character of the Jewish shtetlakh in Lithuania and Byelorussia changed considerably in the early part of the twentieth century. The erosion of the traditional way of life among the younger generation had become a mass phenomenon. Local batei midrash and yeshivot, the venues of religious study, became depleted—many of them had even closed down. 1 It would seem that almost all Jewish youth had fallen captive to the Haskalah, Zionist, and revolutionary socialist, movements. This phenomenon has been described in countless biographies, most of which were written by those who had personally experienced such a transformation. Though born into religiously traditional families, they adapted to the changing world around them.
If they described it at all, those who remained faithful to the Jewish religion and tradition commonly characterized their encounter with the process of secularization in the traditional shtetl as a survival experience—one guided by the Divine hand— whereby, whether by virtue of ancestral or other merit, they were deemed worthy of heavenly grace. Thus, for example, wrote Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1880–1966), head of the Va'ad hayeshivot, 2 and at the end of his life the chairman of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Israel, about his birthplace, the district of Mogilev in Byelorussia, where previously the mitnagdim, who “encouraged the study of Torah, ” had clashed with the hasidim, who were devoted to “the study of Hasidism and imbued the Jewish masses with the fear of God and belief in the sages. ” In his words:
That was back in the good old days, but when I was a child no traces of this “holy war” remained…. The yeshivot had closed down and only a privileged few made the journey to visit their hasidic rebbe. Children still studied in the heder3 …but with no yeshivah— even at the elementary level—in the entire district, none of the thousands who became acquainted with the text of the Torah went on to become a talmudic scholar or a rabbinical authority … the youth went straight out into the world from the heder, [and] studied crafts or peddling…. Those endowed with talent and ability rejected the Torah and embraced the Enlightenment.
And who would have ever imagined that I would be an exception and leave that environment to study Torah in the great yeshivot? … For only because the Lord took pity on me did He rescue me … from the land of my birth, where the flame of the Torah was al