In the 19th century, the heart of European Jewry – its centers of Torah learning, its crown of glory – was centered in the vast expanse of the Russian Empire. There, under the hand of the czars, lived millions of Jews – poor in material wealth but blessed with a love of Torah and a dedication to their faith that was unshakeable.
Czar Nicholas I, the evil tyrant who ruled over Russia and who instituted the infamous forced draft of Jewish children of eight and nine years old, was determined to Russify the stubborn Jews and to convert them to Russian Orthodoxy.
Seeing that his drafting of the children was failing to accomplish his purpose, the evil monarch now attempted a subtler plan. He would combine force with bribery; he would use both the carrot and the stick. To begin with, he decreed that all Jews who refused to convert must immediately leave such centers as Petersburg and Moscow, no matter what the economic loss involved would be. Those, on the other hand, who did convert, would be free from all restrictions.
Some Jews where not able to withstand the temptation and did, indeed, leave the faith of their fathers. The vast majority, however, scorned the offer and defied the threats. It was then that the czar brought into play another weapon.
The New Schools
The czar and his advisors realized that it was the total dedication Jews had to Torah that kept them firm in their faith. Children in Jewish schools were totally immersed in Jewish learning and free from any alien influence. Perhaps, if some method could be devised, whereby a new type of school – one that would teach Russian culture – could be introduced, the exposure of these children to the general culture would inevitably lead to their Russification and conversion. It was worth a try.
To that end, the czar chose a young German Jewish intellectual, Dr. M. Lilienthal, whose job it would be to travel throughout the towns and cities of the Pale of Settlement where the masses of Jews lived, to explain and persuade the Jews to send their children to the new schools.
As his first stop, Lilienthal chose Vilna, known as the “Jerusalem” of Lithuania. Here, he called together the leaders of the community – men of wealth and prestige, and began to explain to them how Jews would benefit from the new schools.
“It is of great importance that the Jewish children attend these schools so they can become literate in the language of the land. In this way, they will become successful businessmen and will be able to meet the outside world in a more prepared manner. We should be thankful to the czar for this wonderful opportunity to teach our children.”
The leaders of Vilna sat in polite silence, not wishing to publicly disagree with the man they knew was the czar’s agent. One of the elderly leaders, however, Reb Chaim Nachman Parnas, could not restrain himself and rose to his feet:
“Worthy doctor, we are indeed impressed with the desire of the czar to raise the educational standards of his subjects. I am puzzled, however, at his reasons for choosing the Jews. There is hardly a Jew who does not, at least, know how to read and write Hebrew. The Russian peasants, however, are almost totally illiterate, not even knowing the alphabet. Surely they are in greater need of culture than we are.”
Lilienthal, seeing Vilna would not be a very successful stopover, nevertheless persisted. He dwelt on the theme that every Jew had an obligation to learn a foreign language and attempted to bolster his argument with proofs from the Bible. In particular, he cited the case of Mordechai.
“Do you remember,” he said, “how the Bible tells us Bigsan and Seresh plotted to kill King Achashveirosh? How was the plot foiled? The Bible tells us Mordechai informed the king, but the Talmud goes deeper. In Megillah (13b) it tells us Bigsan and Seresh were Tarseeim and were speaking in their native tongue. Mordechai, however, being a member of the Sanhedrin knew 70 languages and was able to understand what the plotters were saying.