Dedicated by Robyn and Josh Goldhirsch
in loving memory of Isser ben Dovid Halevi Shapiro

Dedicated by David & Eda Schottenstein 
In loving memory of a young soul, Alta Shula Swerdlov
And in merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya", Schottenstein 

 

A Torah of Flesh and Blood
When the Russian Jewish Soldiers Removed Their Shirts on Simchat Torah
The Cantonist Saga
It is one of the most tragic and horrific narratives in the history of Russian Jewry: the story of the Cantonists.
On August 26, 1827, Tsar Nicholas published the Recruitment Decree calling for conscription of Jewish boys between the ages of twelve and twenty-five into the Russian army. These boys were known as Cantonists; derived from the term 'Canton' referring to the 'districts' they were sent, and the 'barracks' in which they were kept. Conscripts under the age of eighteen were assigned to live in preparatory institutions until they were old enough to formally join the army. The twenty-five years of service required that these recruits be counted from age eighteen, even if they had already spent many years in military institutions before reaching that age.
Nicholas strengthened the Cantonist system and used it to single out Jewish children for persecution, their baptism being of a high priority to him. No other group or minority in Russia was expected to serve at such a young age, nor were other groups of recruits tormented in the same way. Nicholas wrote in a confidential memorandum, "The chief benefit to be derived from the drafting of the Jews is the certainty that it will move them most effectively to change their religion."
During the reign of Nicholas I, approximately seventy thousand Jews, some fifty thousand who were children, were taken by force from their homes and families and inducted into the Russian army. The boys, raised in the traditional world of the Shtetle, were pressured through every possible means, including torture, to accept baptism. Many resisted and some managed to maintain their Jewish identity. The magnitude of their struggle is difficult to conceive.
This thirty year period from 1827 till 1856 saw the Jewish community in an unrelieved state of panic. Parents lived in perpetual fear that their children would be the next to fill the Tsar's quota. A child could be snatched from any place at any time. Every moment might be the last together; when a child left for cheder (school) in the morning, parents did not know if they would ever see him again. When they retired at night after singing him to sleep, they never knew whether they would have to struggle with the chappers (kidnapper, chap is the Yiddish term for grab) during the night in a last ditch effort to hold onto their son.
These kids were beaten and lashed, often with whips fashioned from their own confiscated tefillin (phylacteries.) In their malnourished states, the open wounds on their chests and backs would turn septic and many boys, who had heroically resisted renouncing their Judaism for months, would either perish or cave in and consent to the show of baptism. As kosher food was unavailable, they were faced with the choice of either abandoning Jewish dietary laws or starvation. To avoid this horrific fate, some parents actually had their sons' limbs amputated in the forests at the hands of local blacksmiths, and their sons—no longer able bodied—would avoid conscription. Other children committed suicide rather than convert.
All cantonists were institutionally underfed, and encouraged to steal food from the local population, in emulation of the Spartan character building. (On one occasion in 1856 a Jewish cantonist Khodulevich managed to steal the Tsar's watch during military games at Uman. Not only was he not punished, but he was given a reward of 25 rubles for his display of prowess.)
Cantonist Shuls
The brave few survivors who maintained their faith and managed to return to their families 25 years later, found it hard to integrate into the regular community. They were illiterate, uneducated, and have lived among Russian gentiles for a quarter century. So they build their own shuls (synagogues) in order to do things in their own way. These came to be known as the Cantonist Shuls.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein related the following story which he heard from a Jew who heard it from his grandfather.
This man’s grandfather once attended a Cantonist Shul on Simchat Torah, the joyous holiday when we dance with Torah scrolls in the synagogue. Now the cantonists could dance like Cossacks. They were tall, strong, muscular men, and the heavy Torah scrolls would seem like toothpicks in their arms. They effortlessly danced on for hours on end. Many Jews from different synagogues came to see them dance. Truth be told, some of these Jews sadly and foolishly down at these soldiers. They looked like Cossacks, and were crass and uncultured. It was not their fault, they had no education, they grew up without family or community; they were drafted into a hostile army at such a young age. But people are often judgmental: “he is just not my type…”
With Bare Skin
Then for the final hakafah (circuit around the synagogue's central lectern), the cantonists, as if on cue, suddenly in unison removed their shirts from their bodies. With the Torahs held tightly to their bare skin which was covered with the most horrible welts and scars, they danced around even more energetically. Their smiles and joy were now giving way to streams of tears flowing from the cheeks of the learned and educated Jews who came to watch them dance.
The learned Jews were now filled with deep shame. They were all thinking the same thoughts: We may have studied and observed this Torah, but these holy Jews gave their bodies and lives for it. We are holding the Torah scrolls; but their bodies
are Torah scrolls. For them, Torah and their bare skin have become one. Theirs was not a Torah of sermons and words; it was a Torah of life, of self sacrifice, of absolute and unwavering commitment.
Living today in freedom, few of us have been beaten for our Judaism. Yet as we will once again this year hold on to the sacred scrolls and dance with the Torah, we ought to ask ourselves how we can make the Torah part of our own flesh, allowing its words be transcribed on the tablets of our heart not just on the parchment of our synagogues. For this is the Torah that really matters—the one that ignites a fire in our souls.
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A Torah of Flesh and Blood - When the Russian Jewish Soldiers Removed Their Shirts on Simchat Torah