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[Page 36]

The Melamdim [Teachers]
in the Shtetl [Town]

 

Thus We Studied Torah

by Avraham Goldberg

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My first rebbe [teacher] was called Reb Moshe Yakov Rozental, a former Radomsker Hasid. He lived in the Synagogue Street, across from the Great Synagogue. The kheder [religious primary school] in which we studied was in the courtyard and the only window, which gave light, looked out onto Leib Zajbel's stall. The horses in the stall looked in sadly equine, through the window and listened to “the voice of Jacob from the nursery school children.”

The kheder room also was used for other purposes. A machine stood there to press oil from flax seeds brought by the peasants. The waste from the pressing of the oil was sold in the form of four-cornered “cakes” as food for the cows.

The pious song of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers spread from the kheder during the Days of Awe. My rebbe was very talented in music and song; he had a sweet voice. He traveled as a leader of prayer to the kehilus [organized Jewish communities] in the surrounding areas. He had a “choir” of choirboys. When he sang out Yareiti Biftzoti [I am in awe] and “Unetanneh Tokef” [liturgical poem - part of the liturgy of the Days of Awe] with flourishes together with the choirboys, people came running in wonder.

There was a room near the kheder in which the daughter of the melamed [teacher] had her workshop. The sons also worked somewhere in a large city but, despite all of this, my rebbe was a very poor man.

We kheder boys felt very good with the rebbe, Reb Moshe Yakov. To the extent that I remember, we had pleasure from the vivid environment; a few dozen meters from the kheder there was the river along with wide meadows

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on which cattle grazed. Moshe Borukh's orchard was not far away, full of apples and pears during the summer, which tempted us and drew us to them. However, an “angel of death” in the figure of Kopl Mantil, Moshe Borukh's son-in-law, stood at the orchard. He persecuted us without mercy. Woe to the child who fell into his hands.

Besides the orchard, we children had another recreation, which I remember today with an unpleasant feeling: not far from Reb Moshe Yakov's kheder lived the crazy Fradl, a lonely woman, whose hysterical shouting resounding in the street. We kheder boys teased her, which gave us wild pleasure.

 

klo037.jpg
Reb Moshe Yakov Rozental with his wife

 

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Reb Moshe Yakov had a reputation as a good teacher in Klobuck. When my parents brought me to kheder the first time, the rebbe welcomed me with fatherly tenderness. Immediately, upon learning the first letter [of the Hebrew alphabet], the “angel” began to sprinkle candies and nuts, of which there were enough for me and for my new friends who, because of this, immediately took me in as one of there own. I learned the holy letters with joy and then entire words. Reb Moshe Yakov quickly made me into a “Hebrew-reading boy” and after a half year of studying I had to leave my dear, good kheder.

*

Khol Hamoed Sukkous [the intervening days of the Feast of Tabernacles] Reb Itshke, a Jew, a boorish man, came to our house. He was what we called a “handy man.” We studied with him - Khumish [Torah] with Rashi, Gemara Bava Metziah [Biblical commentaries - The Middle Gate], writing a Yiddish letter, as well as Russian. The kheder was located in Podkamenicer Road, hidden deep in a courtyard in a half room, half house with a small window. On a bleak day it almost was dark there. Here we also had our childish joy, which was always disrupted.

Reb Itshke's kheder room was located in a peasant's courtyard, packed with agricultural tools. Cows stood ruminating hay. Small calves learned to run, springing over stones and tree stumps. Learning did not go into our heads here. We quarreled outside. But when we tried to do mischief with the calves, we were brutally driven back into the kheder room.

Reb Itshke and his kheder left the room under pressure from the students' parents. He rented a large room with two windows. A large table with long benches was installed. We students of Reb Itshke also had a “devil” here who disturbed our learning. The “devil” was the pear tree that appeared through the window in the kheder courtyard that was covered in juicy pears during the summer. We went to it and tore off the tasty fruit at every opportunity.

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Woe to the student who was caught in a transgression. Reb Itshke did not know any mercy. He lay the fellow over the bench, pulled down his small pants and Reb Itshke counted the blows of the whip according to his discretion. After such an execution, the rebbe was pale. He gasped and his stomach rose and fell. The heavy penalty did not help. We again tore pears and there were always new “victims.”

In general Reb Itshke was included among the best melamdim [kheder teachers] and had more students than the other melamdim in Kolbuck. In addition to the teaching profession, Reb Itshke also was occupied with sock manufacturing and commerce. In the shtetl, he was considered a respectable person who made a good living, particularly after he bought his own house and continued to carry out his teaching and his commerce there.

*

Reb Yisroel Lapides, a smart Jew, a man of stately appearance with a beautiful patriarchal beard was my third teacher, who taught me Torah. Both the students and their parents were satisfied with this teacher. He was the only melamed in Klobuck who gave to his students a clear Hebrew with an understanding of the meaning of the words. Reb Yisroel did not let the praying be gobbled up. We had to stop at each verse.

Reb Yisroel had his system for the study of Khumish and Rashi: we began to learn a Torah portion on Sunday, and on Tuesday afternoon the best student repeated the entire portion of the week. Everyone listened. Everyone had to repeat the portion according to the example of the best student. Everyone knew the portion of the Khumish and Rashi at the end of the week. On Friday we read the weekly portion with musical stresses and learned Targum Onkelos [Aramaic translation of the Torah] translated into Yiddish. During the summer, we also studied The Ethics of the Fathers.

The learning of Hebrew as a language to speak was new in Lapides' kheder. He endeavored to teach the students Hebrew words, which could be used in speaking. Simultaneously, he also taught how to write a Yiddish letter. He had a beautiful, elegant handwriting and required

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of the students that they copy him. The punishments in Reb Yisroel's kheder also were different. He did not have a whip but two rulers: one a thick one and the other a thin one. The students received a slap on the hand with the thin ruler for a light “sin.” A greater punishment was a slap on the back with the thick ruler. Despite the light punishments, the discipline in kheder and the respect of the students in the street was extraordinarily strong.

Reb Yisroel was not a scholar. He had not studied Gemara, but what he gave his students was complete. He tried to give each khederB, boy the simple day-to-day yidishkeit [a Jewish way of life]. In addition to Khumish, Rashi, Hebrew, writing a Yiddish letter and fulfilling the commandments such as: “Honor your father and your mother,” “Love thy neighbor,” he also implanted the love of prayer in his students. He taught us the songs of praise and liturgical poems from the holiday prayer book for each holiday. We had to know them just as we knew Ashrei [prayer recited three times a day] and to understand every word.

In addition to his stately appearance, Reb Yisroel also made an impression on us with his long pipe. We knew what kind of mood the rebbe was in by the way in which he let out the smoke. As soon as he smoked quickly, we knew that a storm was coming and every boy tried not to anger the rebbe.

After “exhausting” the education of Reb Yisroel, I entered the kheder of Reb Meir, the son-in-law of Shloma Dovid Hirsh, the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]. He was a pious Jew with wide orthodox knowledge, a grammarian. He did not move without Tanakh [The Five Books of Moses - the Torah]. His students were grown young men. I was the youngest among them. There also was a female student in the kheder - Hena, the rebbe's daughter, who later became a well-known teacher.

It was then during the First World War that the Germans stood at the gates of Warsaw. In addition to the lesson from the Torah, our rebbe gave us a shiur [lesson on a subject of Torah] in the field of strategy and instructed us in the war tactics of Prince Leopold of Bavaria. The Rebbe, Reb Meir also awoke in us the idea of the “return to Zion” that he explained to us in his way.

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From Kheder to the Yeshiva

Reb Meir, the son-in-law of Shloma Dovid Hirsh, the shoykhet, was my last melamed. From him I went to the house of study, to the yeshiva [secondary religious educational institution] that had just been founded in Klobuck. Those studying in the yeshiva were mostly from the Klobuck artisans and shopkeepers. The yeshiva was too restricted for me. The learning was dry and I was no longer interested in the “Laws of an Egg Laid on a Holiday” [from the Shulchan Aruch - codification of Jewish law]. Yet, I studied, in order to [please] my parents who wanted nothing else than for me to be a scholar.

We sat in the house of study and studied the Amora [scholar] Rabbah and the Amora Abbaya with the old melody. We arose very early and we studied in the house of study until late at night. We often were questioned by the rabbi or by other learned men. We never stopped studying. My greatest aspiration was to be able to study without the help of the older young men. In addition to studying we also were employed in serving the yeshiva: gathering money to memorialize the dead, making the lanterns for the yarhzeit [anniversary of a death] of Rebbe, Reb Yankele, adorning the house of study in ''days of celebration,” etc.

The founding of the kheder, Yesodei haTorah [Foundation of Torah] that was led by Reb Zisha Bornsztajn, a great scholar and affable to people, revived the small yeshiva. A number of the young men went to study in the highest class of the Yesodei haTorah. Our rebbe was Reb Avraham Kanapnicki, a manufacturer merchant, a former student of Rebbe, Reb Yankele. He had an ascetic face and never smiled. However, his teaching of Gemara captured me. In addition, the students were chosen - the sons of the best scholars in the shtetl, among whom also were the rabbi's two sons, Shmuel and Binem, sons of those competent to decide matters of rabbinical law, the scholars from the Dudek family.

Despite his strictness, Reb Avraham never lifted a hand to a student. His look and word were enough that we would study with diligence. Such were my teachers. I learned Torah and respect with them, which remained with me for my entire life.


[Page 42]

My Melamdim

by Borukh Szimkowicz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

When I was four years old, my father led me to the melamed [teacher] of the youngest children, Reb Itshe Ber, who was called the kurczak [chicken]. He lived in the synagogue street. I began to learn the alef-beis [alphabet] there. Reb Itshe Ber was an angry teacher and imposed a fear on the children with his screaming. Therefore, the students did not like him and only learned under the pressure of fear.

My hostility to my first teacher was so great that once when I received monthly money (tuition) from my father for the teacher, I hid it somewhere under a stone and did not give it to the melamed. Of course, when the matter came out, I paid with spanks and tears.

After two years of torment with Reb Itshe Ber, I arrived in the kheder [religious primary school] of Reb Moshe Deitsch (Moshe Szajowic). We learned Khumish [the Torah], Rashi and Gemara [commentaries] with him. He also crammed the Torah into our heads with a whip. He mostly let out his anger to a student when he suddenly asked him where we were [on a page] and the [student] could not find the right place in the Gemara that we were studying.

The Reb carried on a “second war” with us during the wintertime. Of the 30 students who studied in the kheder, many often “disappeared.” The teacher knew where to look for them. He left for the frozen rzeka [Polish – river], as we called the river, with his whip under his long coattails and when he found his students there, he let them have it and chased them until they came back to the kheder.

In addition to the river, we kheder boys had another spot where we “carried on winter sports.” This was the hill that led from the market to Shlomo Aliarczik's house. We started down the frozen and snow-covered hill with ice skates or small sleds that had been provided for us by the son of Avrahmtshe the tinsmith, a student in our kheder. We also met the rebbe's [teacher's] whip on the frozen hill. However, here

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we succeeded in running away and arriving in the kheder before the rebbe. When he found us sitting at the table, he began an investigation: which boy had skated. He did not rest until he found the “criminal” and the whip did its [work]…

The ice skates and the small sleds were the main yetzer hara [evil inclination] that tore us away from the holy Torah and brought on us the rebbe's whip. We quietly carried on a trade with the skates and sleds in the middle of learning. We hid the goods in Moshe Borukh's stall that was located not far from the kheder. Asher, his son, who studied along with us, protected our dear sports things. In return, he received half a bagel and an egg that we brought with us to the kheder. A boy often ran to check if our dear treasure had been stolen.

Thus – in playing and in pranks under the rebbe's whip – I grew and became serious. I also was given a serious teacher, Reb Berl Borukh, who taught Torah to only a select [group] of students. We were eight boys in his kheder. Several names remain in my memory: Yakov Ahron, Yehiel Rozen, Emanuel Charzowski, Leyzer Klajnberg, Yakov Granek, Henekh Fajga. We studied Gemara with commentaries with Reb Berl Borukh.

Several of us went away to study after studying for a few terms with the teacher. Layzer Klajnberg and I left for Praszka, where we studied with the Praszka rabbi, the author of She'erit Yakov [Remnant of Yakov]. In time I came home again, and with Emanuel Charzewski, studied with Moshe Shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] and in the Klobuck house of study. We repeated the tractates with commentaries with diligence. We learned “as a pair” and alone in the morning hours and in the evenings. We debated the fine points of Talmudic law and absorbed God's Torah.

 

My Friend in Learning

Of all my kheder and house of study friends, Emanuel Charzewski is engraved in my memory. We went to kheder together, studied together with Moshe Dajcz, with the rabbi, and in the grey mornings

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we went to the house of study to learn God's Torah. Our sisters also became friends through our friendship, my sister, Toba and his sister, Fraydl Leah. They always were close together.

We grew up, and left our childhood. My friend Emanuel was industrious in his studies, a dear person, a sensible person; one could consult with him about various questions. We both became Zionists. Reb Meir Shlomo Hirsh, the Klobuck Hebraist and grammarian, had an influence on both of us. We both studied Hebrew. My friend remained devoted to his religious belief and belonged to the Mizrakhi [religious Zionist] organization in Czenstochow.

During my departure for Eretz-Yiroel, I arrived in Czenstochow at six o'clock at night to say goodbye to my friend of many years, Emanuel Charzewski. He already was a father then and had a small, dear little girl – Chana'le, who today lives in Israel. I was supposed to leave at eight in the evening, but my friend would not let go of me, I should remain over night and leave early in the morning. Emanuel also wanted so much to go to Eretz-Yisroel, but something did not go well for him in this respect.

I stayed with him at night. We spent the entire evening together. We went to say goodbye to our teacher, Reb Meir Shlomo Hirsh, who then lived in Czenstochow. We slept very little that night. We paged through our entire past. Emanuel promised me that we would meet in Eretz-Yisroel.

When I already was in the country, I received l'shanah-tovah [for a good year] cards from him every year and once he wrote to me that he was ready to come to Eretz-Yisroel. However, fate wanted something else.


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Longing for Education and Knowledge

by Sura Bratt, Paris

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I was born to simple, pious parents. My father was an honest Jew, a Kohen [priest]; my mother – a quiet virtuous woman. My father, Zalman Brat [Polish spelling], never had any great ambitions. He lived in another world and had one answer for his difficult life: “This is only a vestibule to there”… to the other world of holiness and eternal life in gan-edn [paradise]. Because of this belief he always was stoic about his poor life and was proud of his fulfilling the mitzvah [commandment] to give the priestly blessing [in the synagogue].

He never used a watch during his entire life. He would wake up in the morning, look into the sky to see if one was permitted to put on tefillin [phylacteries] and pray.

He would go to sleep just as the sun went down. My father did not have the least burden for providing for someone in this world. He had as many children as God gave and did not take care of them; not even when it was necessary to report the newly born “person” and get a birth certificate for him.

When I reached the school years, I wanted with pleasure to take this first responsibility and obligation that

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every child had, namely, to study in school. However, my first dramatic experiences began here.

To be able to send a child to school at that time in Klobuck, one had to be the head of a household with three acres of land. This was supposed to be a guarantee of tuition. Because the school had no more than two rooms, the rich children were accepted first. I also had to take upon myself the entire struggle to enter the school because my parents did not recognize the need for it.

After a great deal of effort and tears, I finally entered the school. A week later, I was asked for my birth certificate. I spared no effort and went to the city hall alone for the document. The official searched in his books for a long time and finally said to me in an angry tone that I did not exist. That is, officially I had not yet been born. As a child I already had the experience of the value of such a small paper…

That I was a girl and my father did not care about my getting a birth certificate was the reason for the problem with the arrangements for getting it. However, I pleaded with my mother that at least she should be able to remember the year of my birth.

– Wait my child – she said – I think it was three weeks before the new year…

– This is not important, Mama, only the year. – I said with a tremble in my heart.

Alas, my mother wracked her brains and finally with a victorious tone said:
– It was then 40 degrees of frost… A bit later, the Czar had issued an order that all Jews who lived in the villages had to leave and go to the shtetlekh [towns].
With a great deal of difficulty I was just able to learn that my birth fell on a historic date. Namely: the Russian Revolution of 1905. And the birth certificate was filled out with my year of birth.

I grew in my longing for education and knowledge for which, sadly, my parents did not have any understanding.

 

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