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The shul, besmedresh and oheves khesed [love of charity] – drawn by A. D. Fishbeyn

 

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Grayeve – Aspiring and Dreaming

By Professor Shimen Rabidovitsh

A Chapter of Memoirs

Translated by Tina Lunson

What I am writing here about is our common birthplace, the sacred community Grayeve, based on my youthful impressions up to the year 1914. We left Grayeve exactly the fifth week of the First World War, as did many other families “biezshenes,” or refugees, as they were called. Since 1914 I have to my great regret, not visited Grayeve. I regret very deeply that I did not in these 30 years accept a proposal to make a lecture tour across Poland, because I would certainly have visited the town of my youth.

The Grayeve Jewish community in the years before the First World War was naturally like all small provincial communities in the Lomzhe [Łomża] province and the neighboring areas: economically an average community, mainly merchants and shopkeepers, a few artisans and quite a few pious, exemplary Jews. Grayeve was different in certain respects, in that it was a border town and there was daily and very lively contact with Eastern Prussia (Prostken or Prostki as Grayeve Jews called it; Lik [Ełk] to Kenigsberg [Kaliningrad] where Grayevers used to visit the professors; Kranz [Kręsk] where the rich went in summer “to the baths”), on one side and with the large Jewish center of Byalistok [Białystok] on the other side.

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Although geographically Grayeve was certainly Poland, its Jewish settlement belonged intellectually and linguistically to Lite [Ashkenazi Lithuania]. It was typically Litvish [Lithuanian Yiddish dialect] in its style of learning (such as Talmud study).

The Grayeve community was religiously orthodox through and through with an overwhelming majority of misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism]. There were also two large Hasidic prayer rooms, Kotsk[1] and Ger[2]; and there were also a few individual followers of other Hasidic rabeim [Hasidic rabbis]. Not one Jewish shop was open on Shabes (except for Shvarts' pharmacy, but what Grayeve Jew would go to buy ordinary things not necessary for saving a life?). Since the majority of the shops were Jewish and the Poles from the surrounding villages only came to Grayeve when there was something to buy, the Shabes rest in Grayeve was total, in the strictest sense of the word. Even the somewhat free youth, who began to be bold in Grayeve shortly before 1914 –including several students of gimnazyes [secondary schools] who came back to their home town for vacation – did not dare to go out on the street carrying a stick on Shabes. Perhaps the Jewish doctors were a little more lenient in that respect – the doctor and the pharmacist in every Jewish town enjoyed a bit of a “privileged” position concerning the religious lifestyle and one was often not as strict with them.

Of the Grayeve wigmakers – there were a total of four Jewish wigmaker shops – it seems that one or two had the “courage” to edge in on Shabes a little (but really just a little) after the shames [beadle] Zalman Zmude the Lame, had already shouted out from the main streets of Grayeve “In shul arayn!” [Get into shul!], which always sounded like In-el-shul-arayn.” Why they chose a limping beadle for that strenuous function, I really do not know. (Grayeve beadles are a chapter unto themselves.)

Even the small circle of shippers and their employees, some of whom had to go to the train station on Shabes and desecrate it in public, were officially and practically besmedresh [house of study] Jews. They did not pray in the congregation every day, maybe not even every Monday and Thursday [when Torah is read], but Rosheshone, interim days, Purim, not to even mention Shabes and holidays, they were in the study-house in their taleysim [prayer shawls] with all the other Grayeve Jews, and some even with a talis over his head, like the others.

In that detail Jewish Grayeve had the same face as most Jewish towns in Russia,

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especially the small towns with a compact Jewish population. So Grayeve's Jewishness was total, with a set way of life; a Jewishness of “when you lie down and when you rise up….” [from the Shema - the basic tenet of Judaism], from the first day of birth when kheyder [Jewish religious school] boys came to the child-bed to read the krishma[3] and receive a packet of nuts and sweets; until the funeral in the cemetery at the end of Shul Street which was the horror of every Grayeve Jewish child, especially during long winter evenings at school and even more so going home in the moonless nights. (The gas lamps in the middle of the Grayeve market square near the pump were installed much later.)

 

2

The social and political life of the Grayeve community was not highly developed, as in the majority of the provincial towns of the same type. The few maskilim [followers of the Jewish Enlightenment] in Grayeve lived as the other Jews. The revolutionary spirit at the beginning of the century found a weak echo among the Grayeve youth, especially when compared with, for example, the great mobility and activity of various Jewish circles in not-so-distant Byalistok (which had Jewish factories, Jewish industrialists and workers). Only a small part of Grayeve artisans, especially the younger ones and a few intellectuals – that is, a few gimnazye and other students, but they were very few in number, limited to only a few families in town – got carried away by the waves of the distant revolutionary movement. As far as I recall, there was no actual organized Jewish socialist party of a certain scope, like the “Bund[4] or Poalei Tsion.[5] A few individuals received illegal literature from Byalistok and other places, which they spread a little among the artisans and the youth; and a small circle of “left” young people used to gather in the cemetery particularly on Tishebov when all the Jews go to that “good place,” to visit their ancestors' graves. The police did not suspect that those few young people went there for a completely different reason.

Grayeve had many societies and charity organizations, like other Jewish towns.

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Shortly before the war the Jews had begun to organize a kind of collective lending society, a cooperative bank, which was needed to help and protect the Jewish merchant against the Polish boycott and the agricultural expansionism of their competitors.

Relatively, the most touching political group was Khibat Tsion [lovers of Zion] movement which also found a lively response in Grayeve. However, the founding of “political Zionism,” by Theodore Herzl probably shocked a lot of the earlier, older proponents of the idea of a settlement in Erets Yisroel.

 

3

As I am writing a page in a chapter about “Zionism in Grayeve” I must connect it to my father, Reb [Mr.] Khaym Itsik of blessed memory, although I do not intend to write my father's biography, and certainly not my own autobiography. However, my father was the “head of Zionism” in Grayeve and so involved all of his days, that I cannot separate them. He was sent as a delegate from the Lomzhe province to the 7th Zionist Congress [Basel Switzerland, 1905] – after Herzl's death, when the question of Uganda was discussed. My father belonged to the naysayers, although the mizrakhi [religious Zionist party] under the leadership of Rov [“Rabbi”] Reynes said “yes” to Uganda.

The overwhelming majority of Grayeve Jews were very apathetic toward Zionism, uninterested, or neutral. The more conscious, intelligent leaders of the orthodoxy were even strongly opposed, passively or actively. My father told me that the contemporary Rov Eliahu Aron Milikovski – the author of Oheli Aron [Aaron's tents] printed his book in Grayeve. He later became rov in Kharkov and eventually head of the beys-din [Jewish court] in Tel Aviv, where he passed away after having reached a great old age – had initially been sympathetic, but later under moral pressure from the direction of Rov Khaym Brisker, the greatest Talmud authority in Russia at the time, became estranged from Zionism. His follower, Rov Moyshe Avigdor Amiel (later lived in Antwerp and then became the head rabbi in Tel Aviv) stood at a distance from Zionism until the war years.

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I recall that the Zionist preacher and religious writer Rov Itsik Nisnboym in Varshe [Warsaw] had even written to my father in 1913 that Rov Amiel – then a candidate for the Grayeve rabbinate – was no sympathizer of Zionism. In the war years Rov Amiel joined the mizrakhi and became one of its most important ideologues and spiritual leaders.

Even as a young child I often came up against opposition to Zionism from many religious Jews in Grayeve. What they did not dare say to my father's face they told me while I was sitting with them by the big oven in the new besmedresh studying Talmud. To them, Zionism and heresy were synonymous. My father would probably have been strongly persecuted if he had not been a true God-fearing Jew who constantly studied in the besmedresh. He was the only Jewish merchant in Grayeve who went every day before dawn to the first minyen [prayer quorum of 10 Jewish adult men], to pray and study a page of Talmud before making his daily visit to his granary office in Prostken. The great respect the ultra-orthodox Grayeve Jews had for the head of the Zionists in their town somewhat counterbalanced the orthodox opposition to Zionism and prevented it from taking on radical forms. However, my father was not completely kosher in the eyes of those very pious Jews. “Reb Khaym Itsik is a little caught up in the story,” they would say amongst themselves, and I would often hear it in the new besmedresh in Grayeve, where I spent a large part of my youth.

Not only was our home the “tsienistish” [Zionist] center in Grayeve, so was our granary. Residing for many years among my father's goods, were the remains of the first library in Grayeve, which the Zionists had founded on Shtutzin [Szczuczyn] Street. It was in the granary in a dark brown bookcase before I was even able to read, where I first saw Hashliakh[6] [The Emissary] and Akhiasaf[6] and other Hebrew publications. As I came to understand, the library was closed soon after its founding because of fear of the Grayeve police (Zionist societies were not legalized in Russia and Poland at the time). The holdings were hidden in the chief Zionist's granary until shortly before the War when a small Yiddish-Hebrew lending library was founded again in Grayeve.

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The meetings of the leading Zionists in town took place in our home. There were no official elections among the Grayeve Zionists. “Parliamentary procedure” had not evolved in little towns like Grayeve, but people knew exactly who the chief Zionist was and his most active colleagues. The Grayeve police knew that as well and often made house searches, rummaging through all the cupboards, desk drawers and bookcases (“savantkes” in Grayeve Yiddish). Even if they found no sheklim [coins] or National Fund collection boxes, it still had to cost five or ten rubles [in bribes] to prevent them from making a “protocol” against father. As we use to say, “That's how the story went.” It is hard to say whether the house searches resulted from denunciations. It was enough for some kind of Zionist speaker or Erets Yisroel messenger [meshulekh] (as we called it then, their modern heirs are now called shlikhim) to visit us and stay overnight, to result in two or three policemen turning our whole house upside down. Initially we were terrified, but then we became accustomed to these uninvited visitors. As a result, my father kept the Zionist literature, collection boxes and other heretical materials on the other side of the border at his granary in Prostken for security reasons.

 

4

How easy it is to be a Zionist today. The younger generation cannot imagine how hard it was during those years in our Grayeve. The Bund had little influence on the artisans or on the youth because then, only a few had been influenced by socialism. The strong hand of the Grayeve police was able to defeat much of their influence. They were “real goyim” [Gentiles, non-Jews], that is to say that they were indeed on the take. The greatest difficulty for Zionism was the traditional apathy of the middle class, which was the majority of the Grayeve community council in addition to the ideological opposition of the Kovne [Kaunas, Lithuania] “black office”[7] and other militant orthodox circles.

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After many battles my father for example, was allowed on the bime [Torah-reading platform] in the new besmedresh on Shabes nakhamu [“Shabes of comfort” after Tishebov] and Shimshen the beadle was allowed to recite the prayer of blessing for the Odessa “Council for the Settlement in Erets Yisroel.” This eventually became a custom in the other Grayeve bote-medroshim. Later my father was also “allowed” to recite the laments for Zion and “God of Zion” on Tishebov morning. The others who recited the laments began to feel this was a “monopoly” of the chief Zionist and thus a great triumph for the small handful of Zion-dreamers in Grayeve. Among them I would especially like to mention: Khaym Katsperovsken, a miller and an excellent prayer leader for Rosheshone [“head of the year” or commonly known as the Jewish New Year], whom we used to call Khaym-nigune-milrah because when he sang zokhreynu lekhaym [remember us to life] the accents were on the last syllables. There was also Yankev Yehoshue Kharmin, whose nickname in Grayeve was Sto-razum. He was the Zionist school teacher to whom my father gave strong moral support and whose kheyder he sent all 5 of his sons. This was considered a “modern” religious school since we studied from Shnayder's text book Beys seyfer, which was more contemporary than what they studied in other Grayeve khedarim.

There was also Elimelekh Pomerants the dear and devoted Hebrew teacher (I also studied with him one semester); Hershl Koptshilovski, a very great idealist, a fine person and a son of one of the finest families in Grayeve. He died in the First World War on the road between Shtutzin and Grayeve. Other notable names include: Berl Rozen, Faynshteyn, Zeydke Berman, Khinkovski, my uncle Mordkhe Rembelinker, Gevirtsman, the younger Tzvi Vislovski, Dr. Shaul Olshvanger, a dear Hebraist and son of the family who produced several Jewish scholars and Zionist activists (Emanuel Olshvanger, Alek Olshvanger in Erets Yisroel, my friend Eliahu Olshvanger now living in Switzerland who was gifted with a treasury of wisdom and love of the holy language, although he was long considered a Yiddishist. Before I left for America, Eliahu came to London and begged me, almost decreed that I not go to America, but to Erets Yisroel). Dr. Shaul Olshvanger, like all of his brothers brought a new atmosphere to Grayeve. They combined in themselves Russian and German culture and to this day still occupy a special place in the history of Grayeve intelligentsia.

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At age fifteen I once went to Dr. Olshvanger as a patient for one single reason: I wanted the pleasure and honor of being medically examined by someone who spoke Hebrew. The fifty kopecks from my “private fund” were well worth it, even though I did not then need a doctor. What a luxury for a young Hebraist in Grayeve to be able to enjoy!

 

5

I will briefly describe the main activities of the small Zionist group in Grayeve. They consisted mostly of collecting money and propaganda – in today's language, the struggle to recognize the commandment to settle Erets Yisroel; presenting verses and quotations from the Mishne [2nd century BCE collection and oral interpretations of Jewish law] to show that Erets Yisroel was “kosher.” In fact, many of the holidays were used for intensive Zionist effort. On Tishebov they collected money for keren kayemet leyisroel [Jewish National Fund]. “Sheklim” were sold the whole year and prior to the Zionist Congresses. All the pledges were for Erets Yisroel on Shabes nakhamu. A separate activity was developed for the month of Elul[8] for selling esroygim [citrons used for Sukes, the festival of booths]. The most observant of the observant used to agitate strongly against esroygim from Erets Yisroel because the Jewish colonists were generally heretics and they did not observe the sabbatical year of rest. Instead of Erets Yisroel, they imported esroygim from Corfu – but right afterward there was a pogrom against Jews in Corfu. In the month of Elul the Grayeve bote-medroshim began seething with the esroygim question.

I used to go around to the bote-medroshim nailing up long proclamations using every source of the holy literature that it wasn't a sin to buy an Erets Yisroel esreg, but rather the opposite; it was a very great mitsve [commandment]. It was even written: “and you shall take from your own” and so on. I went to the trouble of nailing up the proclamation on the doors of the bote-medroshim – the only publicity center in old Grayeve – and our pious opponents ripped them down, just as they tore down every announcement about Zionist speakers such as Nisenboym or Yevzerov, who used to come to Grayeve. Even the word “matef” [“speaker”] was a thorn in their eyes.

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Why just matef and not magid [preacher] or darshen [orator]? My rebi, Rov Berele (a grandson of Yudke the coachman, who traveled the “line” between Grayeve and Lomzhe) used to tell me, it is not for nothing that they are called matef, because it is written, “for floating you shall be floated and those who floated you shall be floated” [Mishne: a metaphor for someone who killed a person and whose head was seen floating in the river].

We did not need to concern ourselves with announcements. My father would order a couple hundred Erets Yisroel esroygim and lulovim [palm branches] from Odessa or Varshe and the last two weeks before Sukes our house became partly an esroygim market: cases of esroygim wrapped in special esreg batting – their fragrance and color still live in my memory – and the children ran the business and wove the rings to hold the lulavim. One Grayeve specialist taught us how to “clean” esroygim, that is, to rub off their imperfections. It was not always successful. The stem often broke off during that operation and the esreg would never find a buyer. We also used to make “propaganda” so that Jews would come to us, assuring them that such flawless beauties as ours could not be found among the Corfu esroygim. Jews came and looked and scrutinized to see that the stem was whole and whether the esreg was really flawless. Grayeve Jews had time. They spent hours selecting an esreg, just as they spent time in the shops choosing foodstuffs or clothing. Naturally they bargained and haggled over an esreg, a holy thing, as they did over everyday items. Grayeve knew nothing about “fixed prices” then – and not only in Grayeve.

 

6

Every holiday had its own fight. On Erev Yonkiper [eve of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement] at the afternoon prayers there was a long table standing in the vestibule of each bes-medresh full of plates – collection bowls – with receipts for various societies: the guest and poor fund, visitors to the sick, the Talmud Torah [school], the home for the poor sick, a bowl for the beadle, for the besmedresh, and so on, where every Jew should throw in a contribution after praying, before going home to the final meal prior to the fast. The Zionists finally succeeded in getting permission to set out a bowl for the Odessa Committee for the Settlement in Erets Yisroel, which created a yearly report of the receipts (including the names of the donors who gave twenty kopecks or more, if I am not mistaken;

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it would be worth the effort to look into those reports to see if the Grayeve Jews who donated to Erets Yisroel can be found). My father gave me the assignment of ensuring there would be a bowl for Erets Yisroel in each besmedresh including the women's section. So, I became the central overseer of all the Erev-Yonkiper bowls, especially in the largest bote-medroshim: the old, the new, the shul, the guest and poor society. We did not have any rights in the Hasidic prayer houses. I spent a certain amount of time in each besmedresh to see that the Erets Yisroel bowl did not get pushed aside, because the other institutions did not look on it with friendly eyes. I also had to remind them about an accounting and a well-to-do householder, and that there is such a thing as an Erets Yisroel bowl. That is how I came to see how the Grayeve women gave charity after the afternoon prayers. The women would put three or five kopecks in a bowl and withdrew change to put into another bowl. Thus, they were able to “work” perhaps fifteen bowls with three or five kopecks and maybe put a little change back into their tear-stained kerchiefs. May they have a light-filled hereafter and may they forgive me, I would never blame them. The kopeck in those days in Grayeve was a coin worth much more than a dollar to today's American grandchildren of the poorest Grayeve families. For a kopeck – two groshen – in Grayeve you could get a lot of things, and a donation of a kopeck was a donation!

We packed up the money in kerchiefs. Each besmedresh had its own kerchief; and of course we counted it before Yonkiper began. I was often late coming home for the last meal due to my supervision of the Erets Yisroel bowls in the Grayeve bote-medroshim.

Later the task became larger. In addition to the Odessa Committee we added a new bowl for the National Fund. At first the head of the Odessa Committee Menakhem Usishkin, was very much against allowing a keren kayemet leyisroel [KKL] bowl because it would result in competition. Later he agreed by necessity. At that time the leader of the Moscow Zionists Dr. Yekhiel Tshlenov, was the head of the KKL. After the First World War, as is known, Usishkin himself became the great fighter for the goals of the KKL. I do not know whether the custom of the donation bowls continued in Grayeve between the two world wars.

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The Grayeve Zionists also arranged special simkhes beys hashuave evenings on the interim days of Sukes. The Zionist minyen on Shmimi Atseres [seventh day of Sukes] and Simkhes Toyre [rejoicing in the Torah, the eighth day of Sukes] had a special place, which was arranged in a private home (once at old Polakevitsh and one at the very active Zionist Faynshteyns). This served as both a source of revenue for the Zionist cause because all the promissory notes went only to Erets Yisroel. This was a morale-strengthener for the group, enlivening the spirits of the small Zionist circle and fortifying them in their struggle to build up Erets Yisroel.

 

7

The holidays were the high points of Zionist activity in Grayeve, but that activity went on the entire year: the sale of sheklim (and Grayeve sent delegates to Zionist Congresses twice, my father to the Seventh Congress, see above, and Dr. Shaul Olshvanger to the Ninth Congress), and all sorts of collections for Erets Yisroel such as collecting money at weddings. (In competition with Tsar Nikolay's postal service, we carried around wedding invitations with KKL marks and thus had a “Jewish post” long before Medines Yisroel had created the first Jewish postal service. I introduced that postal activity for KKL during my first year in Bialystok in 1915.) The Zionist youth were happy in their role as the “hands and feet,” or execution organ for Grayeve Zionism. They were not as ideologically regulated as the Zionist youth in Bialystok for example, or other large centers. They did not revolt against the “elders”. It was only shortly before the First World War that an attempt was made to create a youth group and if I am not mistaken, Dr. Shmuel Ayzenshtat came to Grayeve especially for that purpose.

Shortly before the war a small group of Zionist young people also began speaking Hebrew amongst themselves and propagandized for speaking Hebrew. The poor things used to have to pay a groshen for every Yiddish word that accidentally slipped from their mouths.

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So it was in the Bogushe forest, along the highway between Shtutzin and Raigrod [Rajgród] on the way to Kosherove [Kędzierowo] from one direction and Shtutzin on the other, at the site of the post office, where the Grayeve youth gathered beside the train tracks. It was this location where they began to hear the sound of the old language that was revived in Erets Yisroel and in other lands

A large part of the Grayeve youth from more well-to-do homes learned Russian and German. A smaller part went to various gimnazyes in Lomzhe, Suvalk, Mariampol, Pultosk and Vilne [Vilnius]. Russian was not yet the main language of Grayeve youth before the First World War. At that time, there was a small group of young Yiddishists, but the majority of the enlightened youth were inclined to speak Hebrew.

Much that the Grayeve Zionists did also took place in other towns and villages in the provinces of Lomzhe, Suvalk and Grodne. The general Jewish society and the special Zionist life of Grayeve was not – and naturally could not be – as ordered as in the larger Jewish settlements like Byalistok, Varshe and so on. Yet, when one compares Grayeve life to settlements in Poland and Lithuania with the same Jewish population and way of life, one can certainly say, without any exaggeration that intellectually and culturally Grayeve Jewry stood on a higher level than other towns of the same stature.

The heirs of those Grayeve Jews up to 1914 – their children and grandchildren, wherever they are now – may be proud of the life and aspirations of their ancestors in old Grayeve. To the merit of their ancestors, may they create their own merit in Jewish life as that will be the finest memorial to our small and lovely Jewish holy community, Grayeve, may she rest in peace.

Shimen Rabidovitsh
(Grayeve, Byalistok, Berlin, London, Leeds and now in Chicago)

 

Footnotes
  1. Kotsk: Hasidic dynasty founded by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787–1859). The Hasidim of Kotsk focused on truth seeking rather than conformity to religious traditionalism. They were also known for their radical and controversial style of expression. Return
  2. Ger (Gur): Thelargest Hasidic dynasty in Poland prior to the Holocaust; founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1799–1866), brother-in-law of The Kotzker Rebbe. He was an insightful Torah scholar and Halakhist [halakhah: the collective basis of Jewish religious law, including Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic.] Return
  3. krias shema prayer: affirmation and declaration of faith in one God, the original proclamation of monotheism. Return
  4. Bund: Jewish Labor Bund was a secular anti-Zionist socialist party in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century. They focused primarily on furthering the rights and status of the Jewish proletariat. Return
  5. Poalei Tsion: Movement of Marxist Zionist Jewish workers in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century. Return
  6. Hashliakh and Akhiasaf: early Zionist publications written in Hebrew. They were little “journals” of a few pages, but politically very important. Return
  7. “black office:” group of religious scholars who engaged in an impassioned war of writings against Zionism. Return
  8. Elul: last month of the Jewish year, dedicated to spiritual preparation for the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Return

 

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