The eleventh of Iyar is the yahrzeit of Rav Yitzchak Isaac Krasilschikov, the Poltava Gaon (1888-1965). Born in Kritchev, Rav Yitzchak learned in the Mir Yeshiva under Rav Eliyahu Baruch Kamai. Prior to the Communist Revolution he became the Rav of Poltava, and was known as the Poltava Gaon. In 1926 he published Tevunah, his commentary on the Rambam, it was the last Jewish religious work published in the USSR.
As the Communist persecution increased, Rav Yitzchak left the rabbinate and moved to Moscow taking a job as an accountant. Living in the shadow of the Kremlin he learned in his small apartment each night and a number of displaced Russian rabbis would join him. As the only available kitchen was one shared with other residents of the building, he only ate foods that could be consumed raw. Beginning in 1952 until his death, Rav Yitzchak authored a commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi. He did so, even though Yerushalmi is studied less frequently than the Bavli, because he had dreamed his entire life of living in Eretz Yisroel. Realizing that it was unlikely that his dream would ever materialize, he substituted by writing about Seder Zeraim, on which there is no Talmud Bavli, only Talmud Yerushalmi, as it covers mitzvos that are only applicable in Eretz Yisroel. He had no one to consult with as he tirelessly worked his way through the mesechtos, and the odds of his commentary ever being published would seem to have been nil. He had few seforim to consult.
Rabbi Harry Bronstein was an American rabbi and mohel who made frequent trips behind the Iron Curtain to perform brissim and otherwise offer support to Jews who were languishing in Communist countries. On May 12, 1965 he was visiting Moscow and the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Rav Yehudah Leib Levin, asked Rabbi Bronstein to accompany him to visit the Poltava Gaon who was hospitalized. The Gaon told Rabbi Bronstein that under his pillow was a handwritten manuscript of the second volume of the Tevunah on the Rambam. He wanted Rabbi Bronstein to smuggle it out of Russia and have it published. He was concerned that the nurses were KGB agents and would try to prevent him from doing so. Rabbi Bronstein assured him that if he was able to smuggle out the manuscript, he would see to it that it was published.
The Poltava Gaon then told him about his commentary on the Yerushalmi. It consisted of twenty handwritten volumes, more than 20,000 pages, and his two daughters had it in their homes, one in Moscow and one in Leningrad. The commentary consisted of two parts, one a pshat commentary and one more in-depth. The next day Rav Yitzchak passed away. Rabbi Bronstein returned to the United States and an organization called Al Tidom oversaw the publication of the Tevunah. But there was still the bigger prize waiting in the USSR.
On his next trip to the USSR, Rabbi Bronstein arranged for all twenty volumes to be photographed on microfilm. The microfilm was brought to the American Embassy in Moscow from where it was to be brought to the United States in a diplomatic pouch. The night before the pouch was scheduled to depart a fire broke out at the embassy and the film was ruined. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, in June of 1967 Rabbi Bronstein was arrested in the Kiev airport, beaten within an inch of his life, and dumped at the airport in Prague. He was forbidden to enter any countries in the Soviet Bloc any longer.
In total seventeen attempts were made to smuggle out the commentary until Rabbi Yehudah Pollack was able to convince the daughters of the Poltava Gaon to allow the manuscript itself to be taken to the United States. It was brought to the consulate in Leningrad and transported to America over time in diplomatic pouches. The agreement was that the manuscript would remain the property of the United States government, it is now in the Library of Congress, and Rabbi Bronstein could publish it. The embassy also arranged for the daughters to move to Brooklyn.
Under the direction of Rav Elya Weintraub and Rav Chaim Kanievsky the commentary began to be published by the Mutzal M’aish society in Bnei Brak. All of Zeraim and some of Moed have been published.
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The thirteenth of Iyar is the yahrzeit of Rav Yechezkel Taub, aka George Nagel, the Yabloner Rebbe (1895-1986). The fifth child, and only son, of Rav Yosef Moshe Taub, first Yabloner Rebber, he married his wife Pearl in 1915 and became rebbe with his father’s passing five years later. Although he was not adequately prepared for the position, he threw himself into the role and was very beloved by his followers. He was warm and personable as well as very learned. In 1924 Rav Yechezkel became involved with the Chovevei Tzion movement and was convinced by its founder that an entire chassidus should move to Palestine to serve as the kernel of a Chassidic community. Although he was warned by the Gerer Rebbe that he did not have a solid financial plan on which to proceed, he moved ahead.
After raising money and arranging for his chassidim to move to Palestine in stages, he moved with a group of at least ninety-families to found an agricultural community. A substantial portion of their funds were spent paying for a dairy. Their community eventually became Kfar Chassidim. Unfortunately, they faced many challenges including the fact that no members of his community had any prior agricultural experience, and most were too old and frail to start now. David Ben-Gurion was very vocal in his opposition to the settling of untrained farmers in Palestine. Relations with their Arab neighbors were poor and remittances from Europe dried up.
With his chassidim on the verge of starvation, Rav Yechezkel negotiated with the Jewish National Fund for assistance. The agreement was that the land would be turned over to the JNF, dairy production would cease, the living quarters would be moved to open more land for agriculture, and unproductive community members would be sent back to Poland. While the situation began to improve, by 1938 things were still difficult. Some of those who had remained wished to join those who had been sent back to Europe, but they lacked the funds to return. Investors wanted to start seeing a return, but the land was now owned by the JNF and there were insufficient profits being given to the chassidim to pay back investors. Some investors who had been promised plots of land began to threaten the Rebbe and called him a thief.
He went to America to raise funds for the chassidim as well as to pay back the investors. Before he departed Eretz Yisroel he sent his wife back to Europe. He based himself in New York, where his niece lived, and his fund-raising efforts proved successful. However, with the outbreak of war, he was unable to return to Palestine or to assist his chassidim who were in Europe. He moved to the west coast and found work in shipyards in Los Angeles and San Francisco, while still conducting himself as rebbe.
As reports came from Europe about the annihilation of the Jews, he felt very guilty about having sent his chassidim and his wife back to Europe and believed that he was responsible for their deaths. He believed that even the chassidim in Palestine were angry with him because of the failure of the project. He gave up his title as Yabloner Rebbe and gave up Torah observance. He cut off his beard and payos, stopped wearing a yarmulke, became an American citizen, changed his name to George Nagel and began working in Los Angeles as a contractor and real-estate investor. A handful of people in Los Angeles, including some of the Chassidic rabbonim there, knew who he was, but they respected his wishes for privacy.
In the 1960s he suffered some financial setbacks and then had a heart attack. A visit from a relative while he was hospitalized caused him to rethink what he was doing with his life. When he recovered, he enrolled in Cal State Northridge to study psychology. He lived in the college dorm, more than half-a-century older than the other students. After receiving his Master’s degree and writing a book about how he was able to help drug addicts, he agreed to pay a visit to Israel.
His family in Israel planned a surprise reunion for him with his chassidim and he was shocked at how warmly he was received. For the next few years he shuttled back and forth between Los Angeles and Kfar Chassidim. One time when he spoke he mentioned that he was so focused on the lives that were lost, that he didn’t have the perspective to realize how many lives were saved because of the community in Israel. He began to be religiously observant again and moved back to Kfar Chasidim in 1981. He quietly resumed his role as Yabloner Rebbe until his death.