LAST JEWISH SCHOLAR
"Sandler is in Moscow!" - I was told in autumn of 1995. I didn't believe that. I thought it was a joke. For my acquaintances and me he was a mythic and mysterious figure. In early 90s we didn't know where this man could reside, we even were not sure whether he was alive at all (some people referred to their relatives in Israel who had been with him in the dissident underground organization, others assured that Sandler had disappeared in 1937 and only recently his manuscripts had been discovered; some tried to prove Sandler was a pseudonym of a collective of linguists from Birobijan). The only real thing among all those rumors was a small green book - a self-tuition manual by Sandler. This manual, published in the late 80s, was purely Soviet in content and imperceptibly anti-Soviet in spirit. Many of my friends knew its whole pages by heart...
But it has come out that Sandler is neither a pseudonym nor a collective (though his achievements obviously exceed the abilities of one person) but an almost 80 year old scientist from the Tiraspol University. I wouldn't say that he became less mysterious to us due to this. The fact we knew his mail address didn't influence our perception of the mystery. The previous inaccessibility remained. Can a true wise man, tsadik, guru be accessible? (Having mastered the self-tuition manual we consider ourselves true Sandler Hasids...). The possibility to see and hear the Teacher was almost unreal, so I decided that Sandler's arrival in Moscow is only part of the myth shaping in my presence. I was again told about that later, and this time had no doubt: Sandler really was in Moscow and (that exceeded the highest hopes) was teaching at the RSHU! At that time I was a true Yiddishist with a Turo-college diploma to teach this language but without any employment perspectives. (My friend Leib Silin with such diploma had applied to all schools and yeshivas in Moscow and understood that Yiddish is in no need in this non-Jewish city). At that very moment we learned about Sandler's arrival!
A daring hope visited me: should he allow us to attend his lectures? I, naturally, remember that day very well. Silin and me came to the old building in Nikolskaya street, approached the necessary classroom, waited till the end of a "period" and saw Sandler - a gray-haired small man.
He was in the suit with a tie holding a piece of chalk in one hand and a notebook - in the other. His look was both strict and gentle. I pictured the author of the self-tuition manual in almost the same way; though he appeared without a beard, caftan and hat...
We were very excited. We came up to him and, without introducing ourselves and interrupting each other, trying to say as much as possible before he left us, started talking Jewish, "It is a big honor... Your lessons... The self-tuition manual... We even couldn't dream... Forgive our impudence... We are very glad... Wouldn't you allow us to be in the class..." Sandler gave his consent at once. He only said he wouldn't ask us and check our written tasks. And I became a voluntary student of the program "Jewish Studies Project" at the RSHU.
The next academic year (1996/97) Semyon Anatolyevich had no timetable lectures but we continued our lessons... in his kitchen (at that time he resided in the teaching staff hostel in the new building in Miussy). Silin, me, several students of the Maimond Academy (Mark Maltinsky, Katya Rempel and others) and former RSHU students attended those lessons. We could only dream about such lectures: Sandler took a text, we read it aloud, dwelt on difficult parts, interesting phenomena and etymologies, discussed and retold the text. In summer 1997 Semyon Anatolyevich together with his wife left for Tiraspol and returned in late August.
The lectures did not resume, but Semyon Anatolyevich never refused to help. I usually read a book to the end, wrote out what I couldn't understand and came to Sandler with a list of my questions, sometimes very long, 2-3 pages. Sometimes I used a phone when the question was short. I remember I once called at 10 p.m., apologized for the late call and asked something. Sandler invited me home and spent a whole hour with me.
In autumn 1997 the "Jewish Studies Project" managers David Fishman and Mark Kupovetsky offered me a contract on Yiddish teaching and a work over a new manual edition as a Sandler's assistant. I refused: the responsibility seemed too high to me whereas my level of knowledge, on the contrary, was insufficient. In December Sandler himself made me such offer and I accepted it as Rebe's proposals are not to be discussed. As a result, I enjoyed a double honor: to learn both Jewish and the methods of its teaching. Semyon Anatolyevich used to attend my lectures, point out to my weak points, look through the materials, give me advice. During this work I met my future wife...
Besides teaching, I was much busy with the manual. The work was organized in the following way: Semyon Anatolyevich wrote the text of another lesson, gave me the handwriting; I typed it on the computer, made corrections and brought him printed copies. He verified and returned them to me for final corrections. When all lessons were ready, I started working over the dictionary. After the final verification the manuscript was sent to America to be assessed by two authoritative Yiddish scholars. In July 2001 the RSHU publishing house issued the manual. Semyon Anatolyevich Sandler considered this book his life's work. He failed to survive three days before it appeared: June 28, 2001 early in the morning his heart stopped.
The relatives, friends and students came to the funeral at Vostryakovskoye cemetery. The workers of the funeral brotherhood implemented everything according to the Jewish law, and invited everybody to bid farewell. Sandler's widow fell onto the coffin. She was crying and singing: "Shlof zhe, yidele, schlof zhe, yidele..." David Fishman read the Kadish and started singing one of the favorite Sandler's songs, "Zol zein, az ih boi..." The students joined in singing... Many farewell words were pronounced. Everybody suddenly realized with pain that the whole epoch of the Jewish science in Russia passed away together with Sandler: he was the last Jewish scholar in the true sense of the word.
Today that the memory starts unwinding the events, I understand that the fate gave me the joy to communicate with this wonderful and wise man. I owe to him very much of what I know. I recall his words, see him gestures, hear his voice. Not long before his death I promised to bring him his poem I had typed and printed. The heat in the town was incredible.
After the work I hurried home to my little child. I thought I would go the next week-end, the next... I was late...
"People of the Book in the world of books",
Saint - Petersburg