Clockwise from left: Yerucham Levovitz of Mir, Mirrer students, Mordechai Pogramansky, Naftali Zvi Finkel (the Alter of Slabodka), and Slabodka students (with Yitzhak Hutner at center)

Courtesy the author

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Who Were the Students of the Great Lithuanian Yeshivas?

Surprising numbers came from Germany and the United States

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky
May 24, 2024
Clockwise from left: Yerucham Levovitz of Mir, Mirrer students, Mordechai Pogramansky, Naftali Zvi Finkel (the Alter of Slabodka), and Slabodka students (with Yitzhak Hutner at center)

Courtesy the author

Before the First World War, young men from Western European countries or the United States were a rarity in Lithuanian yeshivas. These Talmudic institutions were located in areas under the control or protection of the Russian Empire, whose attitude toward Jews, particularly after the murder of Czar Alexander II in 1881, made this region an insecure place to live. Even if these yeshivas gained renown and respect among Jewish communities overseas, their members did not consider it a good idea to endanger their sons and send them to this “wilderness” to study. A significant change took place in this attitude after the war, and even the Hafetz Hayim himself was moved by this phenomenon:

And were the majority of them already filled up with foreign wisdom in the schools there, where they poison the mind of a person while he is still young?! This is one of God’s miracles that especially after the war (WWI) and the Russian Revolution with every poisonous heresy that spread from there to the ends of the earth, many young Jews from enlightened countries, even Germany, the source of the Enlightenment which laid Judaism waste, woke up and came to Poland in order to quench their thirst from the springs of Torah in Lithuania and Poland. There are even exceptional and God-fearing [students] among them.

This new trend did not spring forth ex nihilo. Up until the First World War, the rabbis of Germany sought to separate themselves from the Ostjuden and regarded them as second-rate relations who were unworthy of their company. As the German occupation administration spread over the Lithuanian provinces, the German rabbis began to be appointed to field positions there, and they had the opportunity to come in contact with the unique quality of local Torah learning. They radically changed their estranged attitude and even extended help to the Slabodka, Grodno, and other yeshivas. The favorable impression that these yeshivas made upon them trickled down to German Orthodoxy. When the war was over, its rabbis found in the adjacent Lithuanian yeshivas the best rabbinical training institutions for their youth. This approach was reinforced by great Torah scholars who had graduated from these yeshivas, among them Rabbis Avraham-Eliyahu Kaplan (1889–1924) and Yehiel-Ya’akov Weinberg, the heads of the Talmud faculty in the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. Their special Talmudic instruction prompted their talmidim to go and study in the Torah institutions in Lithuania and Poland.

The geopolitical changes in the region further strengthened this trend. After the war, the Lithuanian yeshivas were located in free and independent states, where the Jews were equal citizens in many senses. There was no longer any reason for concern about going from Central Europe to Lithuania or Poland to study for a number of years in one of the famous yeshivas there. Indeed, in the late 1930s the reputation of these yeshivas spread throughout Europe, and religious authorities who knew the Lithuanian Torah world well encouraged young men from local Orthodox communities to go there to complete their studies.

American Orthodoxy came to the same realization as well. Graduates of Lithuanian yeshivas arrived in the United States among the waves of immigrants from Russia at the end of the 19th century, and a number of them became respected community leaders in local congregations. In their aspiration to create a new Torah world in their country, they saw raising a generation of scholars as a vital need. However, there were only a few yeshivas in the United States after the First World War, and those that existed did not reach the same level as the yeshivas they knew from their youth. It was obvious to them that the natural place for nurturing Torah leaders was at that time in Lithuania and Poland, where the yeshivas had been rehabilitated. This approach was encouraged by the roshei yeshiva as well. Economic difficulties and large debts of their yeshivas in the 1920s had forced them to travel to America to raise funds essential for the Torah institutions’ functioning. Their extensive appearances in American congregations gave publicity to the Lithuanian yeshivas, which had been unfamiliar to many until then. Among their audiences and the community activists who aided the yeshivas, there were those who were impressed by the personalities of their guests and convinced to send the young sons to their institutions in Lithuania and Poland for rabbinical training.

It was not only to these yeshivas that the American and European candidates arrived to complete their rabbinical studies. From the time that the Hebron branch of the Slabodka Yeshiva was established in 1924, not a few candidates chose to study there. However, the serious blow the yeshiva was dealt by the Arab riots of 1929 reduced the attraction of studying in Eretz Yisrael, and from that point there was only one destination: the Lithuanian yeshivas of Eastern Europe.

Among the students who began to appear in these yeshivas were two main groups, those from Germany and from the United States. They came with the sincere intention to intensify their knowledge of Talmud and Musar, but they all had the identical goal: to receive ordination that was meant to open the doors of the communities in their countries of origin and procure for them respected rabbinic positions. Besides this common purpose, these groups were quite different one from another.

The talmidim from Germany were from well-to-do families that had preserved their identity as members of Orthodox congregations. Despite their separatist orientation, their youth had been brought up in German culture, had received a general education, and had graduated from gymnasia. Some had even studied in universities and received doctorates. In the yeshivas, they were outstanding in their punctiliousness, their dedication to the studies, and their piety. Most of them did not have a yeshiva background, and they were not on the level of a yeshiva gedola. These German bahurim had to begin their Talmud studies from the foundation, but thanks to their abilities and their prior academic experience, they overcame these natural difficulties; the gifted ones among them even acquired the ability to study independently in a relatively short time.

This education of the talmidim from Germany was funded by their parents, and therefore they were considered “wealthy” by the others who surrounded them. Their impressive economic circumstances were completely transformed in the years following Kristallnacht. In those years the yeshivas were obliged not only to take care of all their needs—similar to their support for local students—but even to pay for private tutors from among their peers. The Telz rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham-Yitzhak Bloch, complained about this to the Joint in the beginning of 1936:

It is understood that we make no distinction between one student and another in matters pertaining to food or clothing. As much as we can we extend this to all the poor pupils alike. Nevertheless, the German students whose parents became poor and are unable to send anything to their sons, even if they would like to, became quite a problem to the Yeshiva whose treasury is depleted as it is. The German youth is a community obligation and they are looking forward especially to your aid. If not for the worries how to provide for the German students, their number in our Yeshiva would increase greatly, as many who are still in Germany are appealing to us to save them from the German Hell and give them higher education as we did to their friends.

The Joint Distribution Committee had budgeted special funds to support the talmidim from Germany, but these funds were insufficient to cover the expenses of the yeshivas that continued to swell as more refugees arrived from that country.

Most of the American talmidim were university graduates from middle-class families, and a few were the sons of congregational rabbis. They were different from their fellow students from Germany and the rest of the talmidim in their loudness, their lack of manners, and the way they spoke to their elders. Their absorption in the yeshiva was not easy. They were liable to experience culture shock as they encountered “primitive” conditions in the remote town where their yeshiva was located. Their highest concentration was in Mir, and an article that appeared in an American newspaper described their first meeting of this Polish town: “When they arrived in Mir, a place that does not even appear on a map, they had to change their entire way of life. Hot baths, sports facilities, cars, a pressed suit and the theater—all these are unknown in Mir … In the beginning, it was hard for them to get used to this kind of life. They especially suffered because they did not find clean bathrooms.”

After the initial pains of absorption, the American young men succeeded in adapting somewhat to this new way of life, and a change was even seen in their personalities and behavior. Their desire to succeed in their studies was strong, and their broad general knowledge helped them approach the Talmudic material. Nevertheless, it was hard to break old habits. One day an incident occurred that was described in the same article:

It was about a football game. A Harvard graduate knows that it is possible to study science and still go outside between lectures and play a little ball. But in the Mir Yeshiva they don’t agree with this approach. This is what happened: five or six Americans wanted to get some air and, with great gusto, started to play football right in front of the yeshiva. Their Polish friends and householders from the town stood and stared with amazement. This was the first time that they had seen the combination of students and ball-players … Immediately the administration informed the young men that they “had gone too far.” After a quiet protest, the group gave in.

They had to restrain themselves and refrain from games until the summer, when the yeshiva bahurim went to vacation sites in the nearby forests. There they could return with enthusiasm to their beloved ball games.

The Mir Yeshiva was noted for attracting not only Americans but also other foreign students. The largest groups among them created their own separate “colonies” and kept their distance from the local talmidim to a certain degree. But when these students had to improve their level of learning, they required the help of their counterparts from Poland and hired them as private tutors. Some American bahurim would even pay the locals to copy summaries of the lectures and the Musar talks that were meant to serve them when they returned to their home country. The income from these services helped the poor talmidim from Poland a great deal, especially considering the difficult financial situation in the yeshiva. Moreover, the joint activity brought the locals and the foreign students closer one to another, and was mutually fruitful. The Polish bahurim found an opportunity to express their abilities in teaching and exerting spiritual influence, and to change their bashful nature. At the same time, they adopted from their “students” a broader frame of mind and much general knowledge that they did not have before. Thus the “residents of the colonies” not only received (because those who studied for a number of years in yeshiva achieved a high level of scholarship) but also contributed to the social atmosphere there.

Complete lists of the students in Mir from two different periods—from the middle of the 1920s and from the second half of the 1930s—indicate their origin. It is difficult to postulate the number of foreign talmidim between these two periods. What’s more, a brief perusal of the first list shows that there were no foreign bahurim at all at that time. Consequently, there is only one period in which the number of these students can be observed in Mir, and the general picture may only be filled in by anecdotal material. Table 1 shows data regarding Mir talmidim according to testimonies from the beginning of 1932 and the fall of 1934, followed by precise lists from the winter term of 1935-36 and 1938.

The surprising data in the table is the percentage of foreign bahurim, which in the 1930s was approximately a quarter of the student body. As could be expected, two main groups stood out: from Germany and from the United States. There is an obvious opposing trend in each of them: The number of students from Germany continually increased, whereas the Americans began to decrease significantly from the middle of the 1930s until they lost their numerical superiority among the foreign students in the yeshiva.

The presence of American talmidim was presumably the fruit of Rabbi Eliezer-Yehudah Finkel’s lengthy visit to the United States in 1926. The strong bonds that he formed with the leaders of local Orthodox Jewry and its activists motivated several of them to send their sons to his yeshiva. Parallel to this, the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933 was what caused the constant increase of the number of bahurim from Germany in Mir; the newer ones were penniless refugees when they arrived there. They stood out in their numbers as well as in the financial burden they imposed on the yeshiva. Only from 1936 onward did the yeshiva begin to receive support for them from a few outside organizations.

Origin of the Mir Yeshiva students in 1932-38
Origin of the Mir Yeshiva students in 1932-38

Two yeshivot gedolot in Lithuania, Slabodka and Telz, were graced by a number of foreign students. talmidim from Germany had been studying in Knesset-Yisrael of Slabodka since the 1920s. The first student from America arrived there in 1927. In the early 1930s, the presence of American bahurim in Slabodka was so noticeable that the American consul in Lithuania found it necessary to take part in the laying of a cornerstone for its new building in 1934. Four years later, 31 foreign bahurim (11%) studied in Slabodka, among them five Americans and only two Germans.

Origin of the Telz Yeshiva students in the interwar period
Origin of the Telz Yeshiva students in the interwar period

There are lists from the Telz Yeshiva showing the origin of its talmidim from two distinct periods, one from the years 1918-29, and the other from the years 1936-37. Unlike the second list, which is exact, the summarizing data from the 1920s provides only a general picture of the foreign students in the yeshiva, but it can be used to help identify trends.

In table 2, which shows data regarding Telz talmidim according to the two existing lists, the number of foreigners stands out, making up 22% of the student population of the yeshiva in the second half of the 1930s. American bahurim were not enrolled there at all in the 1920s, and in 1936-37 they were quite few. Obviously, it is not possible to estimate the number of American students in the first half of the 1930s, but based on other sources, this appears to be insignificant as well. In the two lists, the talmidim from Germany stand out. Students from that neighboring country were enrolled in the yeshiva from the beginning of the 1920s, and their numbers increased in a fashion similar to that in the Mir Yeshiva.

An examination of the enrollment in the Lithuanian yeshivas shows that only a few of those institutions attracted foreign students, mainly Mir, Telz, Slabodka, and Kamenitz. The data available does not explain this phenomenon, and one can assume that the attractiveness of the yeshivas was related to the visits of their heads overseas or the renown of their mashgihim. However, it would seem that the main influence in choosing to attend these institutions was from the recommendations of rabbis and community leaders overseas who knew the yeshivas well and could direct the young people in their communities to the appropriate institutions of Torah learning. When “colonies” formed among them, these colonies then drew more talmidim, and this was what determined the trend relating to their numbers in the Lithuanian yeshivas.

The picture of the yeshiva bahur as he appears in the imagination—an adolescent youth so frail that he could be knocked over by a gust of wind—is far away from the image of the actual talmidim who studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot gedolot between the wars. On the contrary, they were young adults who were, on the average, in their early 20s, and their personalities had already been seriously influenced by the Musar talks of the mashgihim in their yeshivas. These teachers had a significant role not only in strengthening the spiritual sides of their students’ personality but also in developing their sense of self-worth, which was expressed in many different ways in their lives, from modern dress to argumentative interjections during public meetings.

It is appropriate to open with the impressions of the journalist Hayim Shoshkes, who visited Mir in 1925. For the first time in his life, he saw a Lithuanian yeshiva from the inside; before this, he had known about its world from Enlightenment literature alone. These works described the yeshiva bahur as an unfortunate, bent-over creature who wasted his days next to useless books and who depended on ba’alei batim to provide him with meals at their impoverished table. Shoshkes was surprised to discover an entirely different picture in the yeshiva:

About one hundred young men dressed in short suits sitting in groups by lecterns with books and involved in a lively discussion, but all their movements and behavior while they are studying are saturated with a certain culture and discipline. One group does not drown out the voice of another, and the general picture of this study-hour is not inferior to that of a seminar on Roman law in an ancient German university … If it were not for the brimmed hats the young men were wearing, it would be possible to think according to their outward appearance that these are students in one of the institutions of higher learning—so much intelligence is expressed in their faces.

The outward appearance of the individuals described was not unique to the Mir Yeshiva. Its talmid Moshe Higger transferred to the Slabodka Yeshiva in 1923 to continue his studies there, and wrote, “Even the Elder [Rabbi Notte-Hirsch Finkel] made sure, like Rabbi Yeruham [Levovitz] of Mir, that the bahurim wear clean clothes, and, to the extent possible, according to the latest fashion. They all had suits (not necessarily black) and wore ties around their necks and brimmed hats on their heads.”

In these quotes, the yeshiva students’ modern appearance is emphasized. But their modernity was expressed not only in their clothing. In a few yeshivas, the local talmidim read newspapers and were conversant with current events. The director of the Vilna YEKOPO, the Jewish Committee to Aid Victims of the War, visited the Mir Yeshiva at the end of 1929 and was surprised by “the familiarity of not a few bahurim with newspapers, politics and international events.” This was not being done surreptitiously, as was the case in the past; in the Telz Yeshiva it was customary even during meals in the dining hall.

A comparison of these descriptions with the persecution and investigation of those who read Haskalah books and newspapers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries shows that the involvement with the Enlightenment had ceased to be a central issue in the yeshivas in the interwar period, as was written about the Kamenitz talmidim: “Even the least serious among them … even if they read secular books, neither Haskalah nor disgusting books and materials, but about general topics, one can see that they are intelligent.” It is reasonable to suppose that the general knowledge of these yeshiva bahurim was further broadened through the influence of the foreign students previously mentioned.

Yeshiva gedola talmidim were measured by their peers and teachers by the level of comprehension they showed in their studies and their ability to think profoundly and come up with novel interpretations. It was very difficult for students who were not sufficiently talented to survive in an institution where the entire social experience revolved around scholarship and academic success; the psychological pressure they experienced encouraged them to leave sooner or later. bahurim who did not find satisfaction in intellectual pursuits and aspired to goal-oriented success were likely to cease their studies as well and quickly go out into the big world. Those who continued in the yeshivas naturally had a high aptitude for study and a strong personality. But no matter how talented they were, they could only advance and succeed in achieving outstanding accomplishments through dedication, continual study, profound analysis, and review.

Several testimonies from the interwar period describe this sort of devotion to study among the yeshiva talmidim. The daily studies in Kamenitz and Telz extended to the “third seder” into the night; bahurim in Grodno set up a special afternoon seder on Fridays, when most other students were busy preparing for the Sabbath; and Rabbi Yehiel-Mordechai Gordon was forced to lock the doors of the Lomzhe Yeshiva on summer evenings in order to take all his students on a daily, one-hour excursion.

There were young men whose academic accomplishments were outstanding, and their names were well-known throughout the yeshiva world. However, only a few were considered real illuyim who could almost instantaneously comprehend a profound sugya. One of these special young men was Mordechai Pogramansky, who may have been sui generis in the yeshivas during the interwar period. He arrived in Telz as a young man after the First World War. A short time later, he earned the sobriquet “the Tavrig illuy” and became completely familiar with the Talmud and legal works. When he got older, he continued his studies in his room. He rarely visited the yeshiva, and whenever he entered, he was surrounded by the many bahurim who wished to pose difficult questions or hear his Torah teachings. He was not content with the routine yeshiva study but delved profoundly into Musar and Kabbalistic works until he formed his own philosophic Musar-Kabbalistic system. This is how the rabbi of Kovna, Avraham-Duber Shapiro, described him in one of his writings: “There is in our country [Lithuania] a young man who is a great and superb illuy, not just like someone who is called an illuy today, but a true illuy like one who lived hundreds of years ago. He excels in his broad knowledge, profundity and wondrous comprehension, and his original novel insights are like those of one of the outstanding giants. Besides this, he is an exceptional and wonderful fearer of God, a mouth that gives forth pearls of sublime knowledge in the ways of Musar, and an exceptionally refined person.”

Another unique figure whose talents were expressed in his philosophical thinking was Yitzhak “Varshever” Hutner, who arrived in Slabodka at the end of 1921 when he was 15 or 16 years old. He was accustomed to writing down his impressions and thoughts, which were imbued with his most profound life experiences, in his personal diary. Even though he wrote these thoughts for himself, he would polish them a number of times until they seemed like lyric prose. About two years after his arrival in Slabodka, he wrote words that reflect the influence of Rabbi Notte-Hirsch Finkel’s Musar talks:

As I perceive today this image of a world set in motion by some individual force that occurred by happenstance one day, I see the vision of the entire weight of the slightest movement of human life, and in my ears I hear the storm of worlds being propelled, hidden and folded up in the force of an individual hand that occurred one day. This is because a man’s life is not just an every-day occurrence. Man is everlasting, every partial segment of his action, whether emotional or physical, is everlasting. Each of a man’s steps in the world holds within it a complete eternity of existence. A man’s slightest motion, a quiver of feeling in the heart—this is no hasty leap above or around the world’s mechanism, [but] an endless store-house that contains a primeval force of eternal motion. This is the true face of the story of human action.

Despite their uniqueness, these talmidim did not step outside the accepted scholastic boundaries of their institutions. Highly intelligent yeshiva students were often gifted with other outstanding abilities as well, but those talents were usually stifled by the pressured and achievement-oriented curriculum.

However, there were exceptions among these bahurim, usually individualistic personalities who were unable to hide their abilities, and they brought them to the fore on various occasions. One of these was a student in the Mir Yeshiva, Hayim “Tiktiner” Semiatitzky (1908-43), a future poet. Because he was an individualist, he would study Talmud on his own rather than with a study partner. His career as a poet began within the walls of the yeshiva. He composed his first poems around 1930, and his writing was known among the talmidim. One of his poems was once even shown to Rabbi Eliezer-Yehudah Finkel. The rosh yeshiva was impressed by the work but found a Talmudic sugya to be more to his liking; Semiatitzky left Mir circa 1934. A book of his poetry was published in Warsaw a little while later, in 1935. Other talmidim with great literary talent studied in the Novardok yeshivas in particular, among them Hayim Grade and Mordechai Strigler. A short time after they completed their yeshiva studies, they also published their first literary works.

The young men spent most of their time in yeshiva in the study of the Talmud and its commentaries, and quite a number of them even published their own novel Torah interpretations in religious journals. A few had the privilege of collecting their novellae in books, and these books were published. Besides their writings in distinctly Talmudic language, several bahurim developed a refined eloquent style and an exceptional ability of expression in the elegant Hebrew, which they had learned in elementary school and through studying the Holy Scriptures. The principal virtues of their writing were expressed in the letters they wrote to their friends, sometimes showing aspects of lyricism.

It is natural that the yeshiva students who were intellectually gifted did not excel in physical culture, but where possible they also showed athletic abilities. The talmidim in Telz used to go in the summers after the sedarim or on Friday afternoons, with the permission and even the encouragement of their teachers, to the local Mastis Lake for swimming and boating. Also in Lomzhe Yeshiva, which was situated on a hill over the Narev River, the young men found an opportunity to show their abilities on hot summer days. The swimming season began every year on the day before Shavuot, when the talmidim would immerse themselves in the river before the festival. They took advantage of breaks in their studies, especially on Fridays, for bathing there in groups, teaching the new students how to swim, and crossing the breadth of the river. The Lomzhe talmidim had the reputation of excellent swimmers. When the rumor spread that the yeshiva students were going down to the river, many local residents joined them in order to enjoy safe swimming in the water. One of the yeshiva graduates wrote, “In the end, there was not a yeshiva student who didn’t learn how to swim in deep water—besides his ability to swim well in the ‘sea of the Talmud.’”

This excerpt is reprinted with minor modifications from Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky, “The Golden Age of the Lithuanian Yeshivas” (2022), with permission of Indiana University Press.

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky is a lecturer at Efrata College in Jerusalem. A native of Lithuania, a senior electronics engineer and formerly an innovative technology–intensive projects manager, he is the author of The Golden Age of the Lithuanian Yeshivas (2022).