The Indefinable Rebbe of Zhiskoverizh

The saga of an obscure, but incredibly legendary, bridge-figure

By A. Talmid Muvhak

To look at him, one would think he was viewing a simple baker, a shoemaker or nuclear physicist.  Yet to his followers (and they are legion), he was known affectionately as the Zhiskoverizher.  The term was not used lightly, nor easily spelled.  Even now, I quake to say it.

To some, it may seem strange that he had no other name.  But it was clear from the start that no other name would be necessary, such was his greatness.  Legend has it that on the day of his bris, his father said to his beaming mother, “My dear, I believe we have given birth to the next gadol.  Undoubtedly he will be known as the Zhiskoverizher.”  This was especially odd, since the child was born in Minsk.  Shortly after, the family moved to Zhiskoverizh, so the name would fit.  This critical move raised the town’s population to 16.  The spiritual heights achieved there over the next decade defy description.

Kopeks were few, but the family was rich in Torah exegesis.  Like other impoverished infants with no toys to play with, the Zhiskoverizher learned to speak at the age of six months.  In later years, he fondly remembered how, at the age of three, he and his mother would sit at the fireside together and debate the thermatuergical aspects of Kabbalah in light of the existential loneliness of Reb Nachman of Bratislav.

Had his saintly mother lived to his fifth birthday, she would have been proud to sit for hours autographing her young son’s first sefer at the Zhiskoverizh Barnes & Noble.  Although he had published a few minor chiddushim previously, this major philosophical work, Reishis Reishis, marks his serious entry into the Torah velt.

Of course, he was best known for the depths of halachah to which his mind would regularly plunge.  In fact, the vast body of his halachic works are so intricately crafted that you don’t want to try to decipher them, believe me.  Unfortunately, 95% of his halachic discourses concerned travel by horse and buggy; the invention of the automobile drastically curtailed his sphere of influence.

But it was the searing quality of his soul that marked the Zhiskoverizher as an unforgettable leader.  Oh Rebbe, Rebbe!  How we miss your mussar!  Who could forget the sharpness of his tongue, when confronted by obviously wicked people; or the softness of his voice when addressing raccoons in the forest; or the faraway look in his eye as he paid his rent; or the mysterious quiver of his lip as he sipped his tea?  Who has ever been zocheh to see such things?  Certainly none of us, who were born 100 years after his passing!

And so it is with deep longing that we must leave the Zhiskoverizher, whom none of us ever met.  With every passing year, his greatness expands.  As events here and in the Holy Eretz whirl with increasingly dizzying speed, we must ponder what he meant by his prophetic words, uttered in a moment of Great Vision, when he was shown an early Frigidaire:

Dos is kalt?  Ha!  In Siberia es gevain asach kalter!”  (Translation:  “My children, always heed the wisdom of your elders and follow the path of repentance.”)

Rabbi Muvhak teaches Zhiskoverizher philosophy to anyone who will listen.

This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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