Monday, November 17, 2008

Abraham Berger (~1845-1916) of Harodok, Freehold and New York

                                     Abraham Berger (~1845-1916) of Harodok, Freehold and New York


    "He was a great man." So began my great-aunt Ida when the subject turned to her father, Rabbi Abraham Berger of Harodok.

     In 1979, I asked by aunt Riva Berger about her grandfather, Abraham, who died when she was quite young. She gave me some information and then I went with my mother to visit my great-aunt Ida Gruber, one of Abraham's daughters who had a lot to say. Additional information was supplied by a grandson of Abraham, Eli Cohen, who came to my parents for a dinner party that year. Eli an engineer and the son of a great Jewish scholar had some insight into Abraham's intellectual life.

      Abraham's parents were Esther and Rabbi Isaac Levi Soloveichik. Aunt Ida said they lived in Lite, the Yiddish term for a large area encompassing Belarus, Lithuania and parts of adjoining countries. It is possible to say something about Esther's and Isaacs's ancestors. Anthropologist, Shifra Epstein pointed out that there is an acrostic on Abraham's grave stone that reads "Av Yitskhakle". The reference is to Rabbi Isaac ben Rabbi Khaim Volozhiner usually called Reb Itsele (1780-1849) who ran the Volozhin Yeshiva which is father had founded.

       Based on dates and naming traditions we can be a little bit more specific about the relationship between Abraham and Reb Itsele. The dates require Reb Itsele to have been either a parent or young grandparent of one of Abraham's parents. Ashkenazic naming traditions, which do not permit a child to have the personal name of a living parent or grandparent mean that Isaac could not be the son or grandson of Reb Itsele. Thus it was Abraham's mother Esther who was a daughter or granddaughter of Reb Itsele.

       Abraham's father belonged to the famous rabbinical Soloveichik family descended from two brothers Abraham and Isaac ben Joseph Soloveichik who were active in the mid-18th century. Here again, traditions allow us to be more specific about the relationship. The famous brothers were Leviim by tribe but Abraham's father was a Yisroel. Therefore his descent from the Soloveichik family was through the maternal line. He took his last name from his mother's side which was not unusual.

        The Tsarist Empire which ruled Lite was far from democratic and many special restrictions applied to Jews. Although Isaac was a rabbi, he and his wife lived by farming despite a restriction  that Jews could not own land.they could not own land. People fortunate enough to have some capital could get around this by leasing farms owned by non-Jews. This is what Abraham and Esther did.

         An even more onerous set of Tsarist laws governed conscription: In 1827, Tsar Nicholis I decreed that the Jewish community must supply 10 military recruits per 1000 people. The recruits were to serve 25 years. They could be drafted at any age between 12 and 25 but in practice boys as young as 9 were commonly taken. Once again fortunate families could exempt themselves from this and Abraham was lucky. His parents, however, had to change his surname to create the legal fiction that he was the only son of another family. He became Abraham Berger. Another brother, Israel had his name changed to Rothstein. Aunt Ida thought that two other brothers Zavel and Fulya (Rafoel) kept the name Soloveichik. There was a fifth brother as well as at least one sister but my aunt was not sure of their names. Israel became a ritual slaughterer in Talotshin and has many descendants in the US. Fulya owned a dish store in Minsk and also has descendents in the US. Zavel worked as a private tutor for a wealthy family and became wealthy himself.

        As was the custom for males in his family, Abraham had extensive Yeshiva training. His accomplishments in the field of Jewish learning were so impressive that, on his grave stone, he received the rare accolade of 'ish gadol ha-toyre' (Great Man of Learning).

        Abraham married Sore Rudnitsky in the late 1860's. Although, he was trained as a rabbi, Abraham did not want to make his living from it. He felt it did not pay enough (an oremer breyt) and he did not like living in towns.Insteads got a job managing  large forests (the Yiddish term for a forest manager is 'shafer') around Harodok, a town between Vilnius and Minsk. The owner of a forest would provide him with a house, a horse and a cow. Abraham and Sore raised their family there. According to Eli, Abraham constructed a complex involving a mill and bridge along the local river which attracted visitors because of its impressive engineering and architectural imagination.

         By the 1890's, however, Abraham and his family were living in a one or two family house in Minsk. It is possible that he was driven out of  the countryside by repressive legislation. One of Abraham's sons, Max (Meyshe) Berger had already moved to America in 1888 and he was gradually joined by other siblings. In 1903 Abraham caught the SS Finland at Antwerp arriving in New York on July 13. Initially, he stayed with Max but he had more ambitious plans. Abraham and Sore were very serious Sabbath observers and realized that employers in American cities made it difficult for Jewish workers to take Saturday off. Abraham dreamed of founding a rural Jewish community that would be economically self-sufficient enough to allow Jews to observe Sabbath. His model was the European shtetl. 

          The first step in the plan was to run a mill somewhere in Pennsylvania to serve as the economic nucleus of the new community. Abraham enlisted a real estate agent named Gross to take him around looking at old mills that were in disrepair and which he could put back into operation. He finally located one on the upper Mannesquan River in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The site, on the red clay banks of the river, was idyllic but the mill, a grist mill, was in ruins. Abraham got it up and running and established a profitable business selling flour to kosher bakers such as Pechter's. By 1910, though, Abraham was back in New York where he became a popular Talmud teacher giving a lesson (shir) to classes of 25 to 50 people while his son's Max and Sam (my grandfather) ran the mill. He also did odd jobs to contribute some extra money to his grown children and their families. 

           Abraham died on May 16, 1916 of a stroke associated with atherosclerosis. He is buried in Highland View Cemetary in Queens.

           His mind was always on higher things. One day he was telling a younger relative about how much better things are in heaven than they are on earth. "Why then", the youngster asked "are we put on earth?" "To perform mitsves (do good deeds)" was Abraham's answer.   

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