Every author needs to have a primary audience in mind before setting out to write. The ultimate test of the effectiveness of the work, regardless of the genre, is whether or not the writing was an agency for change in the lives of his or her target readers. Whether the work is short or long, fiction or nonfiction, poetry or polemic; whether it is meant to educate or entertain, inform or inspire, or achieve some combination of all the above, the work must result in some kind of shift in readers’ feelings, knowledge or perspective to be deemed a success.

In the very first page of his autobiography, Pinkhes-Dov Goldenshteyn (1848-1930) tells us who his primary audience is and what he hopes to achieve.

I wrote this book for my children and relatives who are spread throughout numerous countries … I wanted them to be able to understand what their father endured during his lifetime and how G‑d always helped him and never abandoned him. I also want those who plagued and tormented me and are currently in Russia to read this in order to learn the moral lesson that there is a G‑d in the world who protects the harassed and oppressed and repays everyone according to his deeds.

May they repent.

The Shochet—A Memoir of Jewish Life in Ukraine and Crimea— is an unparalleled autobiographical account of faith and piety amid poverty, suffering and loss experienced by a smart, rambunctious and traumatized orphan living in the fast-disappearing traditional Jewish communities in late 19th-century Eastern Europe. As a child, adolescent and even as a young adult, Goldenshteyn, known as Pinye-Ber, was tossed between a succession of families and communities that didn’t know how to handle him.

For the story of Goldenshteyn’s life to serve as a role model and inspiration for teshuvah—repentance—by his descendants and and his tormentors, the first requirement is for him to simply tell the truth about what he went through without embellishment or exaggeration, and he does that convincingly.

Thanks to Michoel Rotenfeld’s scholarly and deeply engaging translation—the memoir was originally written in Yiddish and published in the Land of Israel in 1928-29—and introduction, Goldenshteyn comes across as someone without guile or pretense, a person who has neither the desire to highlight the faults of others nor the need to hide his own shortcomings and mistakes.

But his life was not just any life. It is the life of the archetypal orphan who, almost a century after his passing, arouses feelings of love, protection and compassion.

His life was a heroic journey in which he finally found his identity far from home in the village of Lubavitch, in the ideology of Chabad and the courts of the third and fourth Chabad Rebbes, the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash (Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch). He found his occupation as a shochet (a ritual slaughterer) and spent many of his adult years practicing his trade and raising a large Jewish family in Crimea, a place seen as a Jewish backwater and thus a center of assimilation that negatively impacted his own children’s Jewish observance. He then tried to find refuge in immigration to Ottoman-controlled Palestine before World War I, but his difficulties only increased, as did his trust and faith in G‑d.

Volume I of “The Schochet” was published in October 2023. Volume II will be published in September 2024.
Volume I of “The Schochet” was published in October 2023. Volume II will be published in September 2024.

A Tragic Childhood

Born in 1848 in Tiraspol in the Tsarist Russian province of Kherson—a part of historical Ukraine—Pinye-Ber was the youngest of eight siblings who were born to a poor, pious, loving Jewish family of Bersheder Chassidim, who instilled in their children a desire to above all to live a G‑dly life immersed in Torah and Chassidic traditions. But his mother died when he was 5 years old, his father passed away less than two years later, and the children found themselves living in abject poverty. As Pinye-Ber recalls:

The orphaned children all lived together in a tiny, little dwelling … Understandably their expenses could barely be met. More than once they did without food or drink to at least have money for heating so they would not freeze; but even so, there was not enough money for heating.

One by one, Pinye-Ber’s older siblings died, or settled for unhappy marriages and then died, leaving the young boy alone in the world. The succession of tragedies in his life is so remarkable that if this was a work of fiction, it would be proper to admonish the author: “Enough tragedy already. You’ve made your point.”

With no close relatives to care for him, the boy was taken into foster care by distant relatives—a wealthy, childless merchant called Reb Elye the Vinegar Maker, and his cruel, shrewish wife. As bad as it was at home, school was worse.

By nature I was happy; if I chuckled or simply had a happy expression on my face, I was given a blow of the strap across my face or back. It made no difference where the strap struck as long as it hit me well. I was never beaten on account of my learning, because I knew the sections of Talmud and khimesh with Rashi’s commentary as soon as I reviewed them once on Monday. So I was left with nothing to do all week except listen to the others constantly reviewing Sunday's lessons and still not mastering them by Thursday. Naturally, I had to laugh at them. But since they were children of the well-to-do, I was slapped because they were blockheads. I was slapped so much that I became disgusted with the kheyder and melamed. If only things would have gone well at home, but things were no good there either.

Desperate to escape from school after a particularly severe beating from his teacher, Pinye-Ber leaped out the window and ran off to the cemetery where his parents were buried.

Here was where my sisters would come during difficult times of loneliness and hardship to cry out their hearts to our parents. Here I too had come to plead and cry for my parents to somehow help me and make my life easier. And I was then all of eight years old.

Although he was found after a short while and returned to his sisters’ home, the next two decades of Pinye-Ber’s life are highlighted by stories about his running away: running away from foster families who first gave him hope, fleeing yeshivahs where he briefly felt he could make his mark as a scholar, running away from promises of matrimony, and along with it, a comfortable income of a young scholar from a good family supported by his in-laws; even running away from a wife he loved and respected and children he adored for the sake of imagined material or spiritual benefits that he would find someplace other than where he was.

Each of these attempted escapes from the reality of his life provides rich details in the tableaus of time and place, as well as insights into the daily and religious lives of Jews and Jewish communities bound to tradition and oblivious to the tectonic shifts going on around them.

Like orphan-hero archetypes in fiction from David Copperfield to Harry Potter, Pinye-Ber inspires love, compassion and reflection on how we treat others. If he makes a mistake, our desire is to stop him and guide him, not judge him. If only we could be there to be his older brother, his friend or patron, to show him acceptance and love, give him confidence and make his life easier, we certainly would. But since we can’t, he at least gives the reader pause to consider how we respond to troubled and troublesome young people, and ask ourselves what their backstory might be and how we can help them.

That kind of impact on readers makes this not just a good book, but a great one.

Pinkhes-Dov Goldenshteyn in Crimea in the early 1900s when he started to write his autobiography.
Pinkhes-Dov Goldenshteyn in Crimea in the early 1900s when he started to write his autobiography.

Time Capsule

Many readers will find particularly fascinating Pinye-Ber’s eyewitness descriptions of and the courts of the third and fourth Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbes.

Pinye-Ber’s first visit to the White Russian seat of the Chabad movement came in the late Summer of 1865, during the leadership of the Tzemach Tzedek:

Even before the Rebbe entered, the zal [study-hall] was packed. So when the Rebbe came in, a pathway through the crowd was barely cleared for him to walk to the bimah. The Rebbe walked onto the bimah and was followed by the khoyzer. Sometimes the Rebbe would speak words of Torah for an hour or two.

After the Rebbe left, the khoyzer, or “repeater,” whose role it was to memorize the Rebbe’s discourses, would repeat it again to the crowd. Throughout the week that followed the Chassidim would study the Rebbe’s previous discourse, to the point that they themselves all knew it by heart.

Pinye-Ber was pleased by this: “In short, the main aspects of Lubavitcher Chassidim was Torah study and prayer. Whoever did not know any Torah was not a Lubavitcher Chassid … .” He unflatteringly contrasts Chabad’s emphasis on intellectually rigorous study with the ways of the Polish Chassidim, for whom it is enough to be “dressed as Chassidim, travel to their Rebbe, [and] recount and believe in miracles performed by their Rebbe … .”

Pinye-Ber was also taken by the simplicity of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s own lifestyle, something he was likewise eyewitness to: during that first trip he hides himself from the shammes in order to peek through the keyhole of the Rebbe’s room and see how he conducts himself in private. He sits and watches as the Rebbe prays for a long while in tallit and tefillin, spends an hour writing a Chassidic discourse and then eats a small meal before returning to studying. The room, Pinye-Ber recounts, included two walls of holy Jewish books, a little bed and a chest, and an armchair next to which stood “a makeshift table with two stools. You would not find such a magnificently simple study in Poland either! ‘Fortunate is the eye that saw all of this.’”

Some years later, already married and a shochet but struggling to support his growing family, Pinye-Ber resolved to once again travel to his Rebbe, who by this time was the Tzemach Tzedek’s youngest son, Rabbi Shmuel:

After all, I had been a Lubavitcher Chassid since my youth, if you recall. What about my not having enough money to cover the expenses of the trip? And what about traveling such a long distance? All of that did not matter to a true Chassid, because nothing at all can deter a true Chassid from traveling to his Rebbe.

It took Pinye-Ber three weeks to reach Lubavitch, where he finally arrived utterly exhausted. After praying and writing his note enumerating his requests for blessings, Pinye-Ber entered the Rebbe’s study for a private audience. “I would advise you to travel home right away,” the Rebbe told him. “Don’t delay and leave immediately … And G‑d will most likely prepare for you a place to practice shechita.”

The shochet was stunned, he’d risked so much to get there and was now being sent home. The day was Wednesday, and the Chassid with whom Pinye-Ber was staying told him the Rebbe probably meant he should leave after Shabbat. An eventful Shabbat followed, during which Pinye-Ber climbed under the long table at which the Rebbe sat to be able to hear more closely his words of Torah and the conversation with those around him. “This also made my entire trip worth all the effort.”

The next morning, when Pinye-Ber went to the Rebbe to bid him farewell, the Rebbe asked what had kept him from leaving prior to Shabbat. After hearing Pinye-Ber’s explanation, the Rebbe told him: “Nu, travel safely and may G‑d help you. You’re a pious young man. No matter, G‑d will help you.”

After a series of ups and downs, Pinye-Ber ultimately lands a job as a shochet, which he chalks up to the three extra days he’d spent at the Rebbe’s court.

An 1886 depiction of third Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, who was known as the Tzemach Tzedek.
An 1886 depiction of third Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, who was known as the Tzemach Tzedek.

An Introduction Worthy of a Book of Its Own

The more than 300-page dramatic autobiography, a page-turner in every sense of the word, is preceded by a comprehensive scholarly introduction to the life and times of Pinye-Ber Goldenshteyn by the book’s translator and editor, Michoel Rotenfeld.

Itself an extraordinary work of scholarship and insight, the introduction contextualizes the author’s life amidst the deteriorating Jewish life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, and contrasts this work to those of maskilim who sought to demean and denigrate everything that was good and holy about traditional Jewish life.

Among the most significant paradoxes in the life of Pinye-Ber that jumps out at the reader is how he was able to balance faith and trust in G‑d’s constant goodness with the seemingly endless suffering that he was subjected to throughout his life. To explain this, Rotenfeld includes in the introduction an extensive section on how the Chassidic concept of Divine providence impacted Pinye-Ber’s worldview.

Pinye-Ber’s pronounced and distinct appreciation of Divine providence, Rotenfeld writes, is rooted in the thought of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and expanded on by generations of rebbes of Chabad-Lubavitch. Rotenfeld notes that:

As a Hasidic Jew, Pinye-Ber strives to serve G‑d with joy, which is a cardinal principle taught by the Baal Shem Tov, and this seems to be a natural consequence of his divine-providence-centered consciousness. Regarding the belief in divine providence, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, writes, “When one reflects on the reality of G‑d’s constant watchfulness and care, there is no room for anxiety at all. Afterward, one can proceed to serve Him with joy and gladness of heart.”

Pinye-Ber remarkably experiences a seemingly unending series of tribulations throughout his long life; nonetheless, his indomitable spirit and joyous determination to press onwards shine forth. Being conscious of the divine providence in his life serves to remind Pinye-Ber that behind all adversity and challenge lies divine purpose, a concept that enables him to transcend the hardships of this physical world and serve G‑d with joy.

In short, The Shochet is a timely and timeless story of faith amid suffering that teaches us much about where we came from and where we ought to be going. It will inform, inspire and elevate those who read it.

Published by Touro University Press, Volume I of The Shochet: A Memoir of Jewish Life in Ukraine and Crimea is available at Jewish bookstores and online from Academic Studies Press. Volume II, which details the author’s life in Crimea and the Holy Land, is set to be published later in 2024.

Michoel Rotenfeld, the book's translator and editor.
Michoel Rotenfeld, the book's translator and editor.