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Jewish Journeys: In the Beginning, a Stolen Book

Rebecca Boroson
April 2, 2017

by Rebecca Boroson

THINKING about the greatest turning point in my life, I realize that it did not occur in my life at all.

The story is that when my grandfather was 12 and the member of a khasidic dynasty in Shklov, a village in what is now Belarus, he stole a book and taught himself, in the privy, to read it.

What book it was we were never told, nor from whom it was stolen, but it could not have been a Russian book -- he would not have been able to penetrate the Cyrillic letters. And it was not a Hebrew book, because, only a year away from his bar mitsve, he was certainly already able to read the language. It must have been a Yiddish book; the Yiddish and Hebrew alphabet are the same; everyone spoke Yiddish, the everyday language, rather than Hebrew, the loshn ha-kodesh, the sacred tongue, so he would have been able to make out the sense of the forbidden words.

Why forbidden? Here is the mystery and the seed of what and where I am today. It must have been a secular book, by a secular author, anathema, in a sense, in his insular, deeply religious milieu. It may have been a book of stories -- stories about real people, not just the giants of the Bible, not just the Sayings of the Fathers or other religious writings.

I have tried to imagine what book it might have been, given the chronology -- he would have been 12 in 1886. It could have been by the great early masters of Yiddish literature, Mendele Moykher Sforim, or a youthful Y.L. Peretz or Sholom Aleichem.

At any rate, he read about the wide world and left his small one as soon as he could.

If he had not read that book and left Shklov, he would not have become what’s called an apikoros, a free-thinker. If he had not become a free-thinker, he would not have been a supporter of Kerensky and the Mensheviks. If he had not been a Kerensky supporter, he would not have been anti-Bolshevik. If he had not been anti-Bolshevik, he would not have escaped the Soviet Union, taking his family, including my mother, to America.

If he had not taken his family to America, they all would have been massacred by the Nazis, along with his sister and 33,000 other Jews, on September 29, 1941, in a ravine called Babi Yar.

And I would never have been born.

So you see, his stealing that book was the turning point of my life.

As for who owned it first, from whom it was stolen, I am guessing he did not steal it from anyone he knew, but from a passing peddler.

I have always thought that peddler was really Elijah.

Rebecca Boroson is editor emerita of the Jewish Standard, a weekly newspaper based in Teaneck, New Jersey.