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Diary of Determination

Early 1900s, Montreal. Reb Yosef Levi Shano is a chassid who refuses to bend with modern winds. A century later, his progeny are his testimony

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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CHASSID INSIDE AND OUT It wasn’t easy to hold onto one’s principles in the Montreal of the 1900s, but with his rebbe’s blessing, Reb Yosef Levi Shano stayed a chassid inside and out (Photos: Family Archives)

W hen Montreal resident Naomi Segal wrote down her memories in a diary in the 1940s, she didn’t dream that 70 years later it would be of interest to people outside the family and a new generation of frum Yidden. Yet according to Montreal researcher Shmiel Grossberger, when he discovered this document, he felt as though he had found gold. “I have a keen interest in teaching Montreal children about the chassidishe Yidden in Montreal many years ago,” says Grossberger. “I believe the diary will strengthen them to face today’s adversaries to our community.”

Yet despite his good intentions, there was a hitch. The Segal family didn’t want to part with the diary, which was a treasured family heirloom. But Grossberger was persistent and the family finally agreed to give him copies.

The story that was of particular interest to Grossberger concerned Reb Yosef Levi Shano, a Gerrer chassid who lived in Montreal with the blessings of his rebbe, the Sfas Emes, in the early 1900s. It was an era when Montreal’s small Torah-observant community had to display considerable mesirus nefesh to remain steadfast in their Yiddishkeit.

Mrs. Segal heard the story of Yosef Levi’s experiences from his daughter, Mrs. Rivkah Chaiton. The two women met after Mrs. Segal had given birth and she was looking for someone to assist her. The person she found was Rivkah Chaiton, who Mrs. Segal describes as coming “from a home of ten children, the oldest of six girls and four boys. She told me her biography.”

Mrs. Segal wrote down in detail what she heard from Rivkah Chaiton and gave the narrative a title: A Story with Mesirus Nefesh. In the process she created an heirloom for the Shano family as well. When Mr. Shano’s great-grandson, Yerachmiel Glassner, found out about the diary’s discovery from Grossberger, he immediately alerted the rest of the Shano family.

Grandsons Mottel and Aaron Chaiton (top) and Mottel with his own sons. “He told us how he could never take what didn’t belong to him, even if it was ‘less than a penny’ ”

“We’ve heard this story since we were young,” says another great-grandson, Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, director of the Torah Academy School in Johannesburg, South Africa. “However, never with so many vivid details and dates.”

But Rebbetzin Rochel Kviat, a granddaughter of Yosef Levi Shano and the daughter of Rivkah Chaiton, dismissed the idea that life was difficult in early 20th-century Montreal, after she found out about the diary’s existence. “There were no hardships,” the still-energetic 90-year-old rebbetzin insists. “We didn’t have mesirus nefesh. This is the way we did things.”

However, she agrees with Grossberger that the diary is a valuable document. “The Zeide was a very strong personality and held up Yiddishkeit to the strongest degree,” says Rebbetzin Kviat. “You see it in my mother’s narrative.”

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