The Tzemach Tzedek’s Chossid’s Difficult But Inspiring Life

A captivating memoir by Pinkhes Dov Goldenshteyn (1848-1930), a chossid of the Tzemach Tzedek, tells us in raw detail about his life in Ukraine without nostalgia or white-washing. For the first time, the book has been translated into English.

We don’t have to wonder what life was like in the shtetl or rely on stories we heard as children. While Orthodox Jews did not traditionally write memoirs in past generations, Pinkhes Dov Goldenshteyn (1848-1930), a talmid chacham and a shochet, tells us in raw detail about his life as a poor orphan in Ukraine without nostalgia or white-washing.

A lifelong Lubavitcher chasid, Goldenshteyn wrote his Yiddish memoirs to strengthen the belief in Hashem and hashgacha pratis of his children and grandchildren in America and elsewhere, some of whom were wavering in their religious commitment. With the translation of those memoirs into English, a new generation can also feel that wave of complete faith while also seeing the difficulty of life in nineteenth century Ukraine. Many Jews then were entrenched in poverty, scared of forced enlistment in the Czarist army and surrounded by family and community who struggled to survive on a daily basis. Despite all these basic challenges, the hard life was full of faith, love, plentiful moments of shared joy and the profound feeling of Hashem’s presence throughout life.

In this first of two volumes, which traces the years from his orphanhood, when he was raised by his doting sisters, through his maturation into a Torah scholar and shochet, Goldenshteyn endures tremendous hunger, suffering and humiliation. Readers see what life was like in the shtetl — the cold, the hunger, the difficulty of travel. They see both good and bad marriages, family members who give away their last piece of bread to a loved one and others who have more but refuse to help, the hierarchy of suitable candidates for shidduchim, the corruption caused by desire for money and honor.

Despite these hard truths of life, Goldenshteyn’s story uplifts readers. His faith carries him through his difficult time. His struggles bring him into personal contact with the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, less than a year before the Rebbe’s passing, who advised him when to marry and in which town and yeshiva to study. He later met with the Tzemach Tzedek’s son, Reb Boruch Shalom (the Rebbe’s great-great-grandfather), to ask for explanation of the Tzemach Tzedek’s guidance. His search for parnassah brings him to where the town rabbi, the Malbim, receives him with honor.

Goldenshteyn also visited the Rebbe Maharash, who gave him specific instructions which if he had followed, would have gained him a prominent position as a shochet. Sadly, he did not follow the instructions fully and only later realized what he had lost. His quest for a bracha and advice leads wealthy laymen to give him the unusual role of a minor celebrity for carrying a cherished esrog to the Lyever Rebbe. His faith and his personal integrity ensure that his life is filled with blessings even if he chronically lacked food and money.

The story of Pinkhes Dov Goldenshteyn’s life is enhanced by his literary skill. He writes like a professional storyteller, leading readers in suspense and dropping bits of foreshadowing until we turn every page hoping to learn the next twist in his eventful life. Ultimately, the reader sees how the different pieces of his life fit together like a puzzle, as if a plan was always there waiting for Goldenshteyn to walk into it. Hashem is the true protagonist of this story of life in the nineteenth century shtetl. The rich often lose their wealth. Social status comes and goes. Strength of character, loyalty, honesty, piety and generosity last longer than the vanities of this world. As we read about Goldenshteyn’s tumultuous life, we learn about one person’s unvarnished experiences in the legendary shtetl of a world that no longer exists.

The Shochet: A Memoir of Jewish Life in Ukraine and Crimea by Pinkhes-Dov Goldenshteyn is presented and translated by Michoel Rotenfeld and published by Touro University Press.

The book can be purchased on Amazon here.

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