November 16, 2022
By Al Munzer
Aix-les-Bains is an idyllic thermal bath resort located in a basin formed by the French Alps to one side and the Jura mountains to the other, and is a place frequented by such luminaries as Queen Victoria and the Aga Khan. But to me Aix stands for a way of living that has guided me since I was 15.
After my bar mitzvah in November 1954, my mother suggested I might enjoy a summer camp experience that would deepen my understanding of Jewish life. I agreed, and that is how I came to spend the summer of 1955 at Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Kapellenbos, a small town near Antwerp and close to the Dutch border. I have very few memories of my stay at the yeshiva, except that I rode my bicycle across the border to Holland to buy Calvé Dutch peanut butter which was infinitely tastier than the salty American import sold in Belgium. But the immersion in an Orthodox Jewish atmosphere must have agreed with me. When my mother came to take me home, the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Blau, suggested I consider attending a yeshiva full-time, and mentioned the one in Aix-les-Bains, France, as a good fit.
I continued my studies at the Athénée Royal de Saint-Gilles for the next academic year. But then my mother and I heeded Rabbi Blau’s advice and she enrolled me at the yeshiva in Aix-les-Bains, properly called Yeshivat Chochmey Tsorphat, Yeshiva of the Sages of France, probably referring to such medieval luminaries as Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, better known by the acronym Rashi. The French name of the yeshiva was more descriptive, École Supérieure d’Etudes Talmudique et de Science, emphasizing that the curriculum included both religious and secular subjects; les profanes, as I quickly learned, was the generally used shorthand. I have previously described the magical adventure of traveling by train from Brussels to Aix-les-Bains, especially my first view of a mountain landscape as we followed the Rhone from Lyon to Aix-les-Bains. The yeshiva was located in Tresserve, a village on a hill overlooking Aix-les-Bains to one side, and Le lac du Bourget, made famous by the French poet Lamartine, on the other.
On arrival at the yeshiva, my mother and I were welcomed in the beit midrash, the main study hall, by the head of the yeshiva, Rav Chaim Chajkin, a short, somewhat rotund man with a gray beard and a friendly twinkle in his eyes. He wore a black suit and a homburg. My mother would often remind me of the Rav’s reassuring words as he took my hand, and gently addressed my mother in his Lithuanian-accented Yiddish, “Ir hot mir gebracht a gitte schoyre,” or “you have brought me a good piece of fabric.” I soon learned that the allusion to fabric, which could carefully be fashioned into a garment, was often used in the parables of Rav Chajkin’s own rabbinic master, the world-renowned sage, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, whose portrait graced the wall behind Rav Chajkin’s seat. He is commonly known as the Chofets Chaim, a name derived from the title of the ethical treatise he authored, “Desirer of Life.” The Rav’s gentle tone and the concern he conveyed as he encouraged my mother to tell him her life story and mine, reassured my mother that she was doing the right thing in leaving this “good piece of fabric” in his care.
Rav Chaim Chajkin was the most humble, honest, and caring human being I have ever met. Although I have not followed all the precepts that he conveyed or drilled into us, he has always served as my moral and ethical guidepost. After meeting with Rav Chajkin, we met the director of the yeshiva, Rav Cohen. He came from Alsace and was able to converse with my mother in German. He, too, assured her I would be well taken care of. As I said goodbye and embraced my teary-eyed mother, we both realized that this was our first separation since she reclaimed me from Papa Madna, my rescuer while in hiding during the Holocaust. But I felt myself ready and excited to start an altogether new chapter in my life.
I quickly learned some of the rules of the yeshiva, like wearing dark pants and a white shirt on Shabbat and a blouse grise, a gray smock, at other times, as well as the schedule of classes, Torah, as Jewish studies were referred to, in the morning and secular classes in the afternoon. I almost instantly became bosom friends with Claude Muller, Maxime Munk, and Baruch Meyrowitz. They gave me a tour of the property.
The main building of the yeshiva consisted of three connected, but quite different, sections. To the left a very modern wing, then still under construction; in the middle a two-story, yellow brick, farmhouse-like villa that my friends proudly told me had been the summer home of Queen Victoria; and to the right a medieval, roughly hewn stone tower with a cellar where, I was told, Rav Eljowitz, who was to be my Talmud teacher, made and stored his wine. A fourth building in the woods was simply called the barracks. It was a wooden structure that housed several classrooms used for both Talmudic and secular studies.
What made the two years at Aix-les-Bains special, however, wasn’t that I could boast of having slept in Queen Victoria’s bedroom or bathed in her tub, the little of the Talmud that I absorbed, or even learning the intricacies of Orthodox observance and prayers. It was the experience of living in a community and taking on responsibilities for the common good of the community and learning what it means to live the “good” life. While all yeshivot stress the study of the Talmud, it was the emphasis on the study of Musar or ethics that set Aix-les-Bains apart.
After a morning devoted to the Talmud, and an afternoon to the whole array of secular subjects, we were encouraged to spend time after dinner on such texts as Sefer Hamidot, a 19th-century enumeration of character traits by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, or Mesilat Yesharim, The Way of the Righteous, written in the 18th century by Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. With the little Hebrew I knew, study of these texts required help from more senior students, always generously offered. That generosity extended to all aspects of life at the yeshiva and was a more important lesson than any of the ancient erudite texts. Everything at the yeshiva depended on volunteer service. Sometimes it meant getting up at the crack of dawn to hike up the hill to Madame Blanc’s farm to observe the milking of her cows to assure the milk was strictly kosher. At other times it was soaking and salting huge cuts of beef in preparation for our meals. For some like Daniel Bensimon, it was taking Rav Chajkin on the back of his motorcycle to a doctor’s appointment. Why take a taxi when someone could earn the merit of a good deed? Was there a better way to teach respect for employees than to make sure we always assisted the Italian women who tended to our laundry? Chores were not looked upon as burdens, but as honors.
What better way to teach about the insignificance of material goods than to take dinner up to the modest apartment adjoining our dormitory on the second floor of the main building, which Rav Chajkin shared with his wife and three children? Was there a better way to learn about the richness of human diversity than to share the dinner table with students who came from Algeria or Morocco? Their lives had not been shaped by the destruction wrought by the Nazis, but by being hated as would-be accomplices of French colonizers. One benefit of the various backgrounds at the dinner table was the exchange of some choice Arabic curses for some Yiddish equivalents. Gilbert Breisacher taught us German and English as part of our secular studies but schooled me in hospitality when I was a Shabbat eve dinner guest at his home.
When I told Rav Cohen of my ambition to become a doctor, he invited me to take charge of the yeshiva’s infirmary which I did with relish. The infirmary was located on the lower floor of the castle tower and it became my undisputed domain. There were textbooks and manuals to guide me in my new responsibility. I learned how to give intramuscular injections. The French, I learned, loved their piqures, or shots, to prevent a host of diseases and improve bodily functions. If a student needed to see a doctor in town, I would go along and be invited to listen to heart and breath sounds. When I visited a student who had to be hospitalized, I was invited to witness my first operation, the repair of a hip fracture. But I really earned my keep during an outbreak of grippe, or flu, that I learned later was part of the 1957 influenza pandemic. It affected a large segment of the yeshiva since we slept in dormitories where viral transmission was inevitable. The infirmary only had two beds, which meant reorganizing the dormitories to isolate those who were ill. I negotiated a change in diet with the kitchen, borrowing some ideas from the way my mother had treated me when I had the flu, and others from the long list of tisanes, herbal teas, and other remedies favored by the French to treat virtually any ailment. Ten days after the start of the outbreak, everyone was healthy, and we recited a communal Birkat Hagomel, the prayer of thanksgiving after a major illness.
I remained at the yeshiva until July 1958 when my mother and I set out on our voyage to the United States. When I bid farewell to Rav Chajkin, he did not call me a Ba’al Torah, the title he conferred on those who had mastered the intricacies of the Talmud, or Ba’al Teshuva, given to those who had given up their worldly endeavors to devote themselves full-time to the yeshiva, but he called me a Ba’al Chesed, a Master of Benevolence. I accepted those words, not as a reward, but as an admonition and a guide to life after Aix-les-Bains.
© 2022, Alfred Münzer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
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