You will be hard-pressed to find a book with a more uninteresting title than The Shochet: A Memoir of Jewish Life in Ukraine and Crimea (Touro University Press). While the title may be boring, this is, in fact, an extremely fascinating book that details the life of an unassuming Jewish man in late 19th-century Ukraine.
The book, brilliantly translated from the original Yiddish by Michoel Rotenfeld, librarian at Touro University, is the story of Rabbi Pinkhes Dov Goldenshteyn, who was a shochet and wrote his autobiography for his children so they could understand the trials and tribulations he went through. While Goldenshteyn’s intent was for his children, he has also bequeathed a great gift to us all.
By the end of chapter 2, it’s eminently clear that there is nothing nice to say about Jewish life in 19th-century Ukraine. Disease, poverty, discrimination, and malnutrition were just some of the many problems Jews had to live through.
Yet with all of those problems and more, Goldenshteyn is a man who never lost his faith. He recounts countless stories of where he had felt he had no luck, but never once blames God. He interacts with countless scoundrels and rogues, but always emerges with his faith intact. This includes no less than his future in-laws who promised him the world, but ultimately delivered nothing, except for their destitute and mute-like daughter. And to all this, Goldenshteyn takes it all in stride.
In many ways, Goldenshteyn is like Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who was a witness to history. The times Goldenshteyn lived in were certainly not as calamitous as when the Second Temple fell. Yet he witnessed kings, and wars, and had a number of face-to-face meetings with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, who was the third Chabad rebbe, and much more.
While Goldenshteyn lived through many historical events, his autobiography lacks any and all historical context. He solely concentrates on his own experiences in order to convey a spiritual message to his descendants. So that they maintain the traditional Jewish mode of life and remain true to God and his Torah.
He knew that some of his children were straying from the ways of their forefathers, and he was determined to influence them to return to traditional Judaism. He felt so strongly that his life story was the best means to achieve this goal that he chose autobiography over the traditional Jewish method of writing an ethical will.
Goldenshteyn, with all of the many tzures he went through felt that he was a beneficiary of significant divine providence, and wanted his descendants to know that it was all worth it. And that they should go along on the right path and believe in God, as their father did.
Goldenshteyn was an ordinary person, who like his contemporaries, was simply struggling to survive. He never intended to write a historical account, but in his ordinariness, he has left the world with a captivating historical narrative about Jewish life in the Ukraine. He certainly was not an academic, but his book gives the reader much more details and insights about Ukrainian Jewish life than academics who attempted the same task.
What makes the book unique is that while he may have been a shochet, he was also a fantastic storyteller, which makes this such an interesting read. The book uses significant Ukrainian terms and Yiddishisms, to which Rotenfeld does a superb job of elucidating the reader and filling in the many blanks.
People like to reminisce about the European Jewish world that was. They recount stories of Jewish life in the old country, its richness, and the endless numbers of Talmudic scholars and Hasidic holy men. It takes the reader back to a largely fictional world where everyone was poor, but they were happy. They had their richly religious but monetarily poor lives, but their bellies were nourished by mitzvot.
In The Shochet, the world that was for Goldenshteyn was one that is better described as a living hell. The world around him and all the Jews of Ukraine was filled with poverty and oppression, and that was on a good day.
Born in 1848, the book is the first of a two-volume which takes the reader from Goldenshteyn’s birth to his starting as a shochet in 1873. In the annals of Jewish and Eastern European history, The Shochet is a remarkably unique and fascinating work.