Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Chofetz Chaim and the Cantonist

At a dinner in honour of Shimon Waronker, the famous principal of a South Bronx school, he told the following story about the Chofetz Chaim and a cantonist. He Heard the story from a Rabbi Gutnick, who heard it from the son of the main character in the story.
The cantonists were conscripted into military schools as early as seven years of age. After graduating from military school, they served twenty five years in the Russian army. Jews who served were under extreme pressure to convert to Christianity. Those who refused endured physical abuse and starvation. Many died during their term of service. A major goal of drafting Jews at such a young age into the army was to induce them to abandon their faith.
The Chofetz Chaim(1838-1933) was a famous rabbi in Poland who is most noted for his Jewish legal works on the subject of gossip and other forms of forbidden speech.
The Chofetz Chaim was traveling and stopped for the night at an inn. Sitting down to a meal in the dining room of the inn, he noted a rough looking man in stained work clothes sitting at a nearby table. The man took out a sack , from which he removed bread, salami and butter. The Chofetz Chaim heard him bantering with a gentleman at a nearby table in Yiddish.
As the rabbi looked at the man, the innkeeper came over to him and said, "Don't pay any attention to him. He's a "cantonist". He's a wild man. I know you want to talk to him about eating meat and dairy together, but don't waste your time. You'll just start trouble.
When the Chofetz Chaim heard this, he immediately walked over to the man's table.
"Are you a Cantonist"? he asked
"Yeah!!" the man answered "What about it?"
"I'll bet it was rough in the army." said the Chofetz Chaim sympathetically.
"Rough??!!" countered the cantonist? You can't imagine how rough it was!! They wanted me to convert. They tried to beat me into converting. They tried to starve me. But I was born a Jew and I'll DIE a Jew!" He slammed his fist on the desk for emphasis.
The Chofetz Chaim reached out to the man. "Let me shake your hand. he said shaking the man's hand with both hands. " I have so much respect for you. You've made an unbelievable sacrifice to remain a Jew. Please promise me that you'll speak for me in the next world if you get there before me. Your word will carry a lot of weight. You are a living saint."
The cantonist was speechless. He was deeply touched by the Chofetz Chaim's expression of respect. Cantonists often lived at the margins of Jewish society upon their discharge from the army retaining little beyond the knowledge that they were Jews. The Chofetz Chaim and the cantonist spoke several times more with each other during the Chofetz Chaim's stay at the inn. They exchanged addresses. The cantonist became first a visitor and eventually a respected disciple of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. He ended up marrying and raising a family who were observant Jews. It was his son who learned in yeshiva with Rabbi Gutnick of blessed memory who related the story at a gathering in Morristown , New Jersey where Rabbi Waronker was present.
The cantonist was brought to Judaism through the heartfelt words of the Chofetz Chaim. It can truly be said that the children of the cantonist were in a real sense the fruit of the rabbi's kindness, of his ability to seek and find the goodness of strangers. May the memory of the Chofetz Chaim and the Cantonist guide us in likewise transforming our world.

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