Translated by Tina Lunson
Edited by Lorraine Rosengarten and Tom Merolla
There are sources that allow us to determine when Tarnogrod was established as a settlement. It is accepted by the Jews that the town arose in very old times but in general the Jews in our town had their own way of reckoning time: So many years before the great fire, so many years after the great fire. Large catastrophes remained etched in the memory for a long time and served as dates for further chronological events.
Its age was characteristic of the town: Old houses, old ideas, little power of conception and naive enthusiasm for newly discovered beauty.
And such was Chaim Tsibelkale.
He was a small, thin little Jew with a long, hoary gray beard; the teacher of the young children's cheder [school-house] who lived his whole life in peace and quiet and never traveled outside the town until the day came when he had to travel with his son Eli Meir for conscription in Bilgoraj.
Upon his return he gathered his pupils and with great ardor told them about the wonders that he had seen on the on his six-mile journey to Bilgoraj. The point is, he had only now realized how large the world is. He had never imagined that beyond Tarnogrod the world was so large and so wonderfully beautiful.
This same picture, this same kindergarten teacher's ardor, was still in my mind years later after I had left the town and perceived the wonder of the larger world. The naiveté of those people lives forever in our hearts and just as we use wood to keep a fire burning, so we remember those na´ve people with the belief that the world is full of greatness and wonder.
Who of us does not remember Bazshe Bank?
Properly speaking he was not a Tarnogroder, not born and not reared in Tarnogrod. He was only a guest there for a while, passing through. Yet he managed during the short time of his stay in Tarnogrod to make such deep ties with the people of the town, especially with the youth, that we felt he was our own, a person from our town.
He came to us at the beginning of the First World War. He came as a refugee from Shinova and was dressed in the clothing of a yeshiva bocher [yeshiva student]. That was his appearance, his dress. He became a pupil in the Oshvyentsimer yeshiva and used to sit with the other study-house youths and study, appearing to be an observant Jew. But even then he possessed secular knowledge, had been infected with the haskole [Jewish enlightenment movement] currents of that time. In secret, he continued that study and gained secular knowledge and education.
In secret he also found a language with the Tarnogrod youth, who had felt the thirst for knowledge and had begun to take the first steps toward the goal of developing a cultural society in the town. He helped us a great deal then, cooperating with us in word and deed to revive and to create the cultural atmosphere in our town.
And later, now in Berlin, he still felt connected with us, and with our cultural institutions and often helped us financially as well.
Bazshe Bank died suddenly after the war, of a heart attack in America. We, his comrades and friends, all who saw him at work and felt his bond with our town and with the ideals of our youth, will never forget him and always hold his memory dear.
Really, in Tarnogrod, besides Getzel Wassertreger, there was another Getzel who was very much the honorable proprietor, a Jewish scholar, who could write in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish too. So no one ever called him just Getzel but by his family name too, Richter, or Getzel Faliks. But it was enough to say just Getzel and young and old knew who was meant. Getzel Wassertreger was unique among us. There are not many such Getzels in God's creation.
Getzel was born into the poverty of Aharon Itsik Dakhbashleger, with whom he grew up hungry and going around in rags until someone had mercy on him and gave him something to put on. No one ever paid tuition for him to go to cheder. Nevertheless he learned to pray. What else would a Jew like him need to know?
He also had no time to learn a trade. Already in his early childhood years he had to go out to earn money and so became a water carrier.
He was still almost a child the first time he put a pair of collar-straps with two wooden cans on his narrow shoulders, went to the well, filled the cans with water and carried them off to the wealthier houses. So he began to earn a livelihood and that is how he always stayed.
In Tarnogrod there were other water carriers as well. But it would be a mistake to take Getzel for one of them. Getzel was completely different, even though he carried water the same way. For when he went around with the buckets, full or empty, that was not the only way he spent the time: He sang the psalms for the whole year as he walked and had a good word for every Jew that he met, reminding him of his ancestors, knowing exactly when every yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] was. He was literally a living calendar.
Getzel loved people and everyone loved him. He was always happy, always content, even when he had nothing in his pocket and had to fast a little. In summer he generally did not wear any shoes, he went around barefoot. In winter he bound his feet with rags, as he was accustomed to doing from his early childhood.
He had a fine folksy humor and used to find a joke with which he could make little of wealth, not to be overcome by never having known the taste of new clothes. He was happy with his lot.
People in town used to whisper that Getzel was a lamed-vovnik, one of the thirty-six righteous people on whose merit the world exists. Jews were very careful not to speak about this openly, so that Getzel would not be redeemed and so would have to, God forbid, depart from this world.
Kuni-Leml - The Tarnogrod Job
He was called Aharon, but very few people knew his real name, had already stopped using his family name, because everyone called him Kuni Leml.
He was the watchman for the poorhouse and busied himself with the poor and sick residents of that place, and had to be ever ready to intercede in the quarrels among the crazy people, the permanent and temporary residents of the poorhouse.
He was also the one who set up the taharah bret [the board on which the dead would be washed and purified] with all the accessories, and watched over the bodies so that they would not be alone before burial.
Besides that he was also a locksmith. He was called to houses to repair a lock or iron, tin and wooden casks, or to fit a key.
Every Friday morning he went from door to door collecting donations. Otherwise he would shame the holy Shabbos and, heaven forbid, starve along with his wife and children.
He went around hungry all week, never complaining. He silently bore his deep grief over the horrible death of his two grown sons. With that same stoic calm and quiet he worked around his wife Shifra, who had become blind. No one ever heard a sigh from him, no complaints about his bitter fate.
If Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev were alive then and the Ruler of the universe ordered Kuni Leml to a Rabbinic Court and laid out all his errors before him, Kuni Leml would win the case. His sufferings were not smaller than Job's. But Kuni Leml had never made any errors.
Poor yet strong Kuni Leml! You did not heed the warning from Zalke Melamed; the doctor of our health committee while the cholera was raging. He warned every sick person not to drink any water. Kuni Leml, while he was sick, had his wife draw water from the well and he swallowed one bucket after another. But despite all predictions he got well and went on living in want, torment and loneliness, which he bore with such extraordinary heroism.
On the day that Kuni Leml departed this world, the gates of all the seven heavens opened wide and there was a commotion in the world above; angels and saints came out to welcome the great saint who had come from the world below before even the slightest sin, who had with such strength carried all the troubles and not complained. With great honor, the angels led him straight into the bright Garden of Eden.
Lipele The Shoemaker
The Talmud teaches us: All Israel has a portion in the world to come, for it is written: all your people are righteous.
A relevant story:
Lipele the shoemaker, a small, thin Jew; a plain and simple person who still possessed a great heart and that heart was full of love for God and of the great desire to do something in the world so that, when the time came, he would not go into the next world with empty hands and empty pockets.
One ordinary weekday afternoon, Lipele stood up from his shoemaker's bench, picked up the two empty wooden buckets and went to the well to bring water for the needs of his household.
Near the well stood the house of Itsik the elementary teacher, my rebbe, with whom I was then studying in cheder.
Itsik Melamed, already elderly, a very revered Jew, used to go every Shabbos and holiday to study the commentaries with other elderly Jews who were artisans.
Those people with whom he studied approached Itsik Melamed with great respect and reverence. Lipele was also among those attendees and, usually, when he went to the well, he would leave the buckets outside and go in to visit Itsik Melamed for a pinch of snuff and to listen while we, the young pupils, sat and studied Torah.
But one such afternoon Lipele stayed with us in cheder longer than ever, listening attentively to what the rebbe was studying with us.
After a while Lipele, with great humility, turned to Itsik Melamed:
Rebbe, please, tell me, how can a soft-hearted Jew like me merit the World to Come? I cannot learn Torah, I don't have the opportunity to pray or recite psalms frequently because of my livelihood, which takes up all my time. I don't have the means to give charity, because I am a common Jew myself. So what can I possibly do to merit a bit of the World to Come?
He stood twisting around for a while and then added, Rebbe, tell me, is this a good thing that I do? Say I walk on the street and I see two pieces of straw lying on the ground, one on top of the other, like a cross. I cannot pass them by unless I am careful not to disturb them. Am I right?
After thinking for a while, Itsik Melamed answered with these words:
What you do with the straws is a very good thing. That you want to do the other good things, but you do not have the possibility of doing them, you should know that, to the Master of the Universe the point is the intention, the good will. For the Eternal such things are considered as mitsvos performed.
When the rebbe finished speaking the room was so quiet that we could hear the buzzing of the flies. Such sighs of relief tore from the childish hearts. They joined him in the great joy of knowing that he had found his portion in the World to Come.
Lipele straightened himself up and left the cheder happily.
When later in cheder, we studied about Jacob our ancestor's beautiful dream about the ladder that stood on the ground and whose top reached the heavens; Lipele's exultation came to mind. When I was older and encountered the dream of a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, I saw even more clearly the comparison to the lovely figure of that simple, salt-of-the-earth Jew who had, in his longing for the World to Come, raised himself up to the level of his head reaching into the heavens.
Peysakhl the Sacrifice
The goat has always been surrounded with a special feeling among Jews. More than other animals, the goat has brought out a warm attitude. Many stories and songs are interwoven with the motif of the goat.
In our shtetl too the goat occupied a special place, became almost a piece of the history of the town. Especially interesting is the history of the goat that had a special name among us:
Peysakhl the Sacrifice.
Who among us does not remember Yosef Leibeles? He was a kind Jew, a wagon driver, a jokester. He owned two wagons and three or four horses and used to take long trips with them, driving back and forth with merchandise from the Tarnogrod merchants to other, far-off towns.
He watched over his horses like the eyes in his head. And his horses were connected to him, expressed love for him and it even seemed that they understood his language. They never strayed from the path, they went wherever Yosef Leibeles indicated with the reins, and served him faithfully.
Yosel Leibeles also saw to it that a nanny goat was always part of his household. A nanny goat, he said, is like a second mother. She gives milk and from milk one can make many things, to wit, sour cream, buttermilk, cheese, butter and from those all kinds of other good things.
A nanny goat could also do the favor of giving birth from time to time to a little goat, sometimes also a he-goat. This was no small heritage, because if a nanny goat belonged to the category eat and contribute, the he-goat was simply an eat and contribute nothing, a sponger and a mischievous fellow as well, who only makes trouble, and who needs him? It happens that when a holiday came around, he was slaughtered and people had a jolly holiday with him.
A he-goat was born at our Yosel Leibeles too and it seemed that he would wait to slaughter him until Pesach. But his tongue stumbled in speaking, and he was caught out with a wrong word. Instead of saying that he would slaughter him on Pesach, he was understood to say that he would be a sacrifice for Pesach.
He did not have to do anything else.
His words were repeated to the rebbe, who promptly sent the beadle to bring Yosel Leibeles to him and announced:
First, that from today forward, no one could slaughter the he-goat. He would live as long as the Master of All Worlds gifted him with years.
Second, the he-goat could do whatever his heart desired in the town, and no one could beat him, or lay a hand on him, to say nothing of a stick.
Since that day Yosel Leibeles has not been one to envy. But the whole town became involved as well.
The he-goat knew his way around and knew where to go, sometimes to a roof on which grass grew; sometimes to a window where potted plants were set out. Sometimes it pleased him to go to a basket of apples in the middle of the market, to baskets of cabbage, or potatoes, and the poor market-stall sellers were afraid to chase him away, and with pounding hearts had to watch as the he-goat played them.
No one dared to raise a hand to him.
Quite a bit of time went by and the he-goat never stopped making trouble and creating anguish for the people of the town. Until the day came when thank God may His Name be blessed, finally had mercy on them and they found the he-goat stretched out with his feet in the air. He was truly dead.
People ran to the rebbe again and the rebbe ruled:
Since the Peysakh sacrifice was a holy animal, he must be dressed in shrouds and buried in the cemetery.
Yosel Leibeles and a few other Jews dealt with the holy animal and did exactly what the rebbe had said.
Yosel Leibeles and the whole town of Jews with him were united and restored.
Since that time the Tarnogrod Jews know to be careful with the tongue, so that, heaven forbid, they will not stumble and bring unwarranted troubles upon themselves.
A Jew Travels to Eretz Yisrael
Let us return for a while to Itsik Melamed and tell about his journey, together with his wife Rachele to Eretz Yisrael.
Itsik Melamed's material circumstance was really an unusual one. Besides his teaching, which he had done his whole life; he also had a small candy factory. In addition his wife knitted underwear and had several assistants in that industry. But in all their years, may heaven preserve us, they had never had any children and in their elder years they decided to travel to the Holy Land.
Itsik Melamed liquidated everything, packed up the very essential things, and the entire town came to accompany him and say farewell.
Such a distant journey in those days was not taken on lightly. When they arrived in Jaffa they got two Arabic camels to which they were tightly strapped so that they would not heaven forbid fall off on the way to the holy city Jerusalem.
The journey from Jaffa to Jerusalem lasted almost one week. Rachele was greatly weakened by the long journey and the difficulties of the trip, became ill and died a short time later. She found her eternal rest on the Mount of Olives.
Itsik Melamed spent days and years in Jerusalem. He married again at the age of eighty and his wife favored him with a son.
He wrote a letter twice a year from Jerusalem to Tarnogrod. In the letters he recounted all the names of his students, the artisans, he mentioned the holy places such as the Western Wall, the Tomb of Rachel, the Tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness. So from time to time his students in town collected a small sum of money from among themselves, which they sent to him.
With the outbreak of the First World War the connection to Eretz Yisrael was broken and we did not hear anything more about our rebbe, Itsik Melamed.
Shomrim [Guardians] Knocking
The sages of the Talmud said:
There are three partners in the creation of a human being: God, father and mother. When the human dies, heaven forbid, it is said, the Master of the Universe takes back his portion.
Just as in many other small towns, Tarnogrod had for generations observed the custom that every Shabbos shomrim went through the streets and alleys early in the morning calling: To the Shul.
They pronounced those words with a special melody that awoke the sleepers behind their locked doors and shutters.
On ordinary weekdays, the shomrim knocked on the doors and shutters rather than calling out.
That knocking by the shomrim represented the call to the shul or Get up for the worship of the Creator.
On hearing that knocking that had its own special rhythm - two knocks one after the other and then a third knock - the Jews in the dark, damp houses woke up from their sleep, washed their hands using the ritual cup , recited the Modeh Ani [prayer said upon waking, before getting up from bed] with great intent, wiped the sleep from their eyes, quickly got into their clothes and hurried to the study-house.
If someone had died in town, God forbid, the shomrim tapped out just the first two knocks. This was the sign that during the night, the Master of the Universe had taken back his portion from some house in the town.
For many years Kuni Leml was the shomrim-knocker.
In that dawn when only two knocks were heard, screams of terror were heard from behind the closed shutters and barred doors. Soon doors and windows were open and in the completely dark outdoors voices could be heard calling out and asking with curiosity:
Who? Who died?
Kuni Leml felt more important than usual on such a day. Everyone turned to him with questions. Each person looked his in the eyes with curiosity, waiting for his answer.
If the deceased had been an eminent proprietor, a person with property, Kuni Leml did not conceal his satisfaction and would add:
Today, thank God, there will be some livelihood.
Kuni Leml was also the one who set up the washing board and the accompanying vessels necessary for ritual washing of the corpse.
The two concepts, death and life, flowed together as one for Kuni Leml. He was not shocked by death just as he was not enamored of life, which for him was full of trouble and suffering. In the hovel where he lived he saw life in its lowest state. At the funerals where he always served, he heard the lamentations of mothers over dead children, of wives over young husbands. Thus, death never upset the equilibrium of his ever-silent rigidity.
In his later years the charity house where he lived was in danger of collapse and had to be closed. Kuni Leml - who after the death of his wife Shifra had remained a widower - lost his home and had no place to spend the night. He went to the cemetery, which was located outside the town, and spent the night there in the hut for the guard for the corpses.
Then one dawn no one heard the shomrim knocking. When they went to the cemetery they found Kuni Leml there, dead. In that dawn there was no one to announce to the town by knocking only twice, that Kuni Leml was dead.
Translated by Tina Lunson
I was three years old when my mother took me off to heder [small Jewish elementary school], to the elementary teacher who they called Fife. His real name was Hersh, but no one knew his family name. Every day my mother gave various candies to the children, and especially to the teacher and his helpers.
The teacher sat me at the table, showed me the alphabet and told me to repeat: This is an alef [first letter of the Hebrew alphabet]. For a few days my mother went with me into the heder and later took me home again. She had to be in heder the whole time because I did not want to be left alone with the teacher and the boys. But that did not go on for long. One day my parents decided that it was time for me to go to heder by myself. The point was that they wanted me to get used to staying by myself in heder for the whole day.
I put up a fight in my own way and did not want to go to heder by myself. Then the teacher's helper came; he had not anticipated my crying and screaming, but he just set me up on his shoulder and went out in the street with me. I fought like a lion, I screamed and scratched his face. The helper accepted everything patiently, but the passers by spoke to me: Phooey, this is not nice. A boy should go to school. Their words did not calm me and I never stopped crying and screaming the whole way, kicking my feet and scratching his neck and face with my nails, and that is how he carried me wailing into heder.
The teacher heard my protestations and saw the helper's scratched face, and thought that I should be punished. The great punishment with which he would finally put an end to my stubbornness was a pak [burden]. That happens like this: My long coat was turned inside out, and they did the same thing to my hat and put it on my head. The teacher stuck a broom into my inside-out coat, hoisted me up and sat me on the top of the oven. All the boys and the teacher shouted Hoorah! This is what happens to a boy who doesn't go to heder! This had a powerful effect on me. The following morning I took myself to heder. But I could not forget the humiliation of the pak for a very long time and I still carry it with me to this day.
The heder consisted of a single room in which about fifty boys studied. The same room served at the same time as a residence for the teacher and his household, for cooking and sleeping. There were two tables in the heder, one before the teacher, the second before the older helper, who also worked with the children.
The helper also went with the children to recite the Keriat-Shema [central prayer of Jewish liturgy, which expresses the concept of monotheism and declares faith in God. Keriat-Shema includes the recitation of three paragraphs from the Torah] at the home of a woman in confinement after giving birth to a male child. The helper only took the very small children into heder and at lunchtime he brought them all food from their homes.
Long benches stood on one side of the table. On the other side stood the bed-benches that by day served as seating for the students and by night as sleeping places for the teacher's household.
The teacher often suffered from toothaches. Still in my memory is the time he took a string and tied one end to an aching tooth and the other end to a doorknob. Then he told a student to go and open the door. The student did so and briskly opened the door, and the tooth sprang out of his mouth.
There were levels in the heder. When one level was studying, the other played outdoors. It was harder in the winter, when it was very cold outdoors and we were all packed together in different corners, and also under both tables. One time, one boy poked a button into the eye of another boy. The boy, of course, cried out and there was chaos. The teacher worked long and hard, and sweat ran down his face, before he got the button out of the eye.
There was a bed standing right by the door on which the teacher's sick wife lay, completely covered up, and we could always hear her moans and cries of terrible pain. One time she became suddenly still and the teacher became very agitated, went to her bed, uncovered her face and shouted out, She is dead! Children, go home! On the way out each of the boys glanced at the bed, saw the white face of the teacher's wife and, terrified, we left quickly.
In the morning the teacher went around to the parents of his students and collected a little money for the burial expenses.
For three days we, his students, were running around merrily, happy with the freedom and thinking that we would be so free for the whole seven days of the shivah [initial seven-day period of mourning that follows burial] but our joy was destroyed on the fourth day when the town rav [rabbi] arranged with the teacher to study with the children.
I studied with the elementary teacher for four terms. Half a year was considered a term. After ending a term one went over to a higher level. In the elementary school I learned the Hebrew alphabet, praying from the prayer book, and Hebrew language. After that I was ready to go to another teacher who taught Torah, Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, regarded as one of Judaism's greatest commentators of Talmud] and Talmud.
Faiwel the Talmud Teacher
When I was five years old I could already pray from a prayer book by myself and my father sent me to study with Rebbe Faiwel in his heder. There, I began to study the Five Books of Moses. After I short time I learned the Rashi script and soon the commentary also. After studying for two terms I began to study Talmud. The teacher was satisfied with me and reckoned me among his good pupils. Therefore I had to pay a dear price, which was going every Shabbos [Jewish Sabbath] to be heard. None of the boys liked to have to do this, really like today a category in the shul [synagogue], and it also cost me a lot of well being. My father, proud of the rebbe's praise, sent me to his friends every Shabbos so that they could observe and praise my knowledge. The rebbe sent along another student as well, someone not so adept at study, in order for me to help him out. So, Shabbos was for me the hardest day of the week. The people outside who saw me walking with a Talmud volume used to laugh and call out, The Talmud is bigger than you are! The distinction I received from my listeners consisted of a pinch on the cheek.
With Faiwel I also learned to write Yiddish. That study went like this: At first he wrote out a whole line of alefs and I had to fill the whole page with the same letter. He repeated this with all the letters. After that I had to write out the alphabet backwards. This was called the tashrik [reverse] style. After that we moved on to spelling. The rebbe wrote out a line: I went to Lublin to purchase some merchandise, and I had to fill the whole page with the same line. Finally the rebbe had us write a whole letter. Writing such a letter took us entire months, and this was a sign that we had reached the highest level in writing Yiddish.
After some time, when I was already sixteen years old, that same Faiwel would come to me from time to time and ask me if I would write a letter to his children in America. He was embarrassed about it, and would answer, My letters spoke words and read themselves.
The fact is that I learned my first knowledge in Yiddish from Faiwel melamed [teacher]. In comparison with other teachers, who were always going around angry, Faiwel was a calm and quiet person and showed his students a great deal of love and devotion.
At the rebbe's there were two kinds of water. From one well, one got salty water, and from the second, sweet water for cooking and drinking. That was harder to bring, and on the day that I brought the rebbe new-moon money or money for a holiday like Lag ba-Omer [33rd day of the counting of the Omer, celebrated as a minor holiday - the reason for this holiday has not been definitely ascertained], Tu b'Shevat [15th day of the month of Shevat, originally the yearly date for reckoning the age of trees for tax purposes and to know when the tree's fruit could be eaten, which would be the fourth year. During the Zionest movement, planting trees became symbolic for Jewish reattachment to the land of Israel], or Purim [feast which celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from the plot of Haman to kill them in the days of Queen Esther of Persia] - which not all the students did - then Shoshale, the rebbe's old mother would come to me and say, Meirl, come, I will give you I nice drink of sweet well water.
I studied with Faiwel melamed for four terms and afterward went over to a great Talmud teacher, Itsik melamed.
I studied with Itsik melamed for four terms also, two years. Besides Talmud, we also studied the Five Books of Moses with various commentaries.
At the entrance to his house was a very small room, which served as a kitchen, and was also a workshop for his wife, who knitted underwear and employed a few other knitters as well. In the second room where we studied there was also a little factory for candies, where the rebbe's adopted son Hersh worked. It often happened that the rebbe helped him in his work and got us to help too. In time, we children became experts and knew the craft of making candies.
After Hersh's marriage, Itsik melamed and his wife, both in their elder years, made aliyah [the act of immigrating to Israel] to Eretz-Yisrael [land of Israel].
At Shmuel Natan's, I studied Talmud with more exegeses. There too the heder was in a single room where the rebbe also lived with his family. There too the sick rebbetzin [wife of rabbi] lay all day in bed, in the same room where we studied and she often moaned or cried out in pain. Still the rebbe was good humored by nature, and we boys loved him very much.
When I became Bar-Mitzvah [at 13 years, a Jewish boy becomes responsible for fulfilling Jewish law] I was turned over to Leibel the teacher. I had given a fine Bar-Mitzvah speech and my study now took on a serious character, with additional glosses to Talmudic commentaries and the exegesis of Rav Shmuel Edels. It was said about Leibele melamed that he was a bit of a philosopher. That is, he occupied himself with inquiries and philosophy. The truth is that I never noticed this in him. It is possible that this came from the fact that he stemmed from Shebreshin [Szczebrzeszyn], where they said that there were many heretics.
Sender the teacher was a great scholar, an ordained rav and had authority to respond to difficult questions.
Certain householders in town had demanded that the community counsel make Sender a recognized decider of matters of rabbinical law and pay him a monthly stipend permanently. But the rav and his sons opposed it and Rav Sender stayed with his teaching, living in poverty and want.
His students had the reputation of being good pupils and the study was deepened with a lot of exegeses.
One time on a winter day Sender melamed called me aside and asked me very earnestly: Meirl, do you want to study SHaKH [Rabbi Shabtai ben Meir Ha-Kohen, eminent 16th Century interpreter of Jewish law]? Of course I quickly agreed and he told me that I and Leibush Shachnas should come to him three times a week before dawn, at four in the morning. He really had no other time because he was busy the whole day with the other students, who were not yet competent for such difficult study as SHaKH.
When I relayed this news at home my parents were very happy. My father woke me at three o'clock from a deep sleep, my mother saw to it that I dressed myself well, and with a lantern in my hand I went over the dark streets in the cold, in the snow, in the rain. The rebbe was still asleep, but at my arrival he quickly got up, washed his fingers and promptly sat down to study SHaKH with us.
Leibush Shachnas and I, as young as we were then, saw ourselves as grownups, felt as though we were adults. No small thing that we were already studying SHaKH. That's what those who dreamed of becoming rebbes studied.
One time when we arrived at heder completely frozen we could not wait long for the rebbe to open the door for us. We had to knock and knock harder and harder. When the rebbe finally woke up and let us inside, he told us the reason he was so fast asleep and did not hear how hard we tried to wake him.
The story was so:
In the same room where Sender and his wife and six children lived, there were another two beds. The older children slept in one of the beds. Mirlin or Yonelen were put to bed on the table. The smallest child, Pessale, was laid in a small crib, and the other four children in the beds of the father and mother. That night little Pessale would not stop crying and they had to take her out of the crib and put her in the mother's bed. So they had to move another child over to the father's bed and the rebbe had to sleep in the crib. According to what he said, he got so warm and cozy and was so fast asleep that he did not hear our alarms.
It remains a puzzle for me to this very day how the rebbe got into the small, narrow crib and then felt so rested afterwards. In later years when I read Avraham Reisen's poem: A Family of Eight and Only Two Beds, I saw again the home of my rebbe, Sender melamed.
During that time my father was studying how to combat yetzer ha-ra [inclination toward evil] and achieved a high level in it. In his view it was yetzer ha-ra that persuaded me to sleep and made it hard for me to get myself up at dawn when he woke me and I went back to sleep. My father had to wake me two or three times. So he told me a story:
It happened that a young man who was supported by his father-in-law after his marriage and who studied day and night, was pestered by yetzer ha-ra and on a particular morning when he had just wakened himself from sleep, yetzer ha-ra argued: Look, man, you went to sleep very late, now it is still early and you are still tired, it's cold and wet outside, while in bed it's warm and pleasant, why torture yourself, go back to sleep just once. The young man went back to sleep but when he woke the second time the immediately understood that there had been a bit of yetzer ha-ra that had bewitched him with its speech. The young man had, however, reached a certain level and already knew how to wage war with yetzer ha-ra. He decided that every time yetzer ha-ra pestered him at dawn to talk him into sleeping, he would take the finger-water, which stood by his bed, and simply pour it into the bed. Yetzer ha-ra would have no power in a wet bed.
My father ended the story and sighed deeply, adding, Meirl, you have not yet reached that level and you do not yet know how to overcome yetzer ha-ra.
Sender Melamed in Eretz-Yisrael
Some time after I had made aliyah to Eretz-Yisrael, my childhood friend Shmuel Khefer (Fefer) came from Haifa to visit me, and among other things he told me that our rebbe, Sender melamed was here in the country with his family, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, near the old age home. He was there with his wife selling cigarettes. My friend had met with Sender and learned from him that he was here to get a certificate to be a rav, as Rav Kook, of blessed memory, had accomplished through the English authorities and when my friend had asked him if he belonged to the Mizrakhi movement [religious Zionist organization], he answered him with a joke: The Mizrakhi took from us observant Jews the word Torah, and from you Zionists the word service and made itself a political party. What do I need them for?
I was then living in Rishon LeZion, and traveling once to Tel Aviv I decided to visit my rebbe, Sender melamed. Arriving there, I encountered an old woman standing by a little shop. I bought a pack of cigarettes from her and asked if she was Chanale. She said she was and asked if I was from Tarnogrod. When she heard my name she exclaimed, You were one of our students! I asked her about the rebbe and she pointed upwards with her finger. At first I thought she was indicating the fourth floor, but she soon told me that he had recently not been feeling well, that his strength was going, and that on Tisha be-Av [A day of mourning marking the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem], sitting in shul where he studied with a group of Jews, he was suddenly taken ill and breathed his last.
His father was named Avigdor and he himself had started his teaching career in Tarnogrod. But after a time he moved to Mlave [Mława, Poland], where he studied with two sons of a very wealthy man who paid him well and supplied him with everything. Yossele came home to his family only two times a year for holidays. That went on for many years, until his wandering became tiresome and he decided to return home and become a teacher in Tarnogrod.
At that time Yossele was already an old Jew, but still full of courage and with a reputation as a good teacher. He was strict and severe. He was a Kohen [A Jew who can trace his ancestry to the priestly tribe descended from Aaron] but because of his anger people said that he must be Kohen gadol [high priest] because we, his students, did not eat honey.
Yossele's method was:
Every Sunday he read us the Talmud passage. Monday and Tuesday were for questions. On those days one could ask as many times as one felt necessary. He was friendly; he patiently explained the answers to all the questions. But when Wednesday came, no one dared to turn to him with any question. He asked the questions then and woe to any student who did not know the correct answer. He struck with whatever was close at hand. For Yossele Wigdors the concept forgot, the word with which we sometimes answered, did not exist.
It did happen, in some good-humored moment when we had correctly answered the questions, he posed a question and one of the students tried to take pride in his knowledge. The rebbe then would say with a smile on his lips and in a thoughtful voice, You are still young and you don't yet know that the end of knowledge is to know that you don't know. When you are older and you attain a degree of knowledge that you still know nothing, it will be the beginning of your knowledge. His words and the tone in which he said them are etched in my consciousness until this day.
Yossele was an honest person, and when it happened that a student was weak and could not take in the study in his heder, Yossele would go to the father and ask him to take his son and teach him a trade, because it was a waste of his money that he was throwing away in paying tuition for him.
When his young daughter Chaia-Beile was married and moved to Bilgoraj, he sold his house in Tarnogrod and also moved to Bilgoraj, to live close to his daughter whom he loved more than all other children and used to call her my precious little daughter.
Only many years later, walking along the street, I spied a Jew with a long white beard and patriarchal appearance, but also very bent over with age. When he got closer I easily recognized my old teacher Yossele Wigdors. To my greeting, he looked at me and asked:
Who are you, scoundrel, wait, wait, you are Meirl Berishes?
Yes, rebbe, it is I.
They say that you became some kind of a Socialist, Zionist, some kind of thing, Meirl? For God's sake, stay a Jew.
In my tone there was certainly a little heat:
Rebbe, I am a Jew like all Jews.
He looked at me, inspecting me, and said:
Yes? If you say so, if you say so.
He said good-bye, shook my hand and his last words were:
Meirl, be a Jew. You should know, that I have always loved you.
I did not see him any more.
Lesson Readers and Study Partners
After Yossele Wigdors, I no longer studied in a heder. For a year Yossel Avraham Itches (Apteker) and I studied every day before lunch in the Shinovar [Sieniawa] shtibl [literally little house which served as a house of prayer - see page 135] with Yossele-Shaye-Shayes (Milch). We studied the tractate Nedarim [vows]. After lunch we studied separately in the beit midrash [house of study].
After that, Eliezer Mosheles (the young rav's son) and I studied Yoreh Deah [volume of The Code of Jewish Law - Shulchan Arukh - dealing with charity, torah study and dietary laws] each morning at the beit midrash with commentaries by Berishl Rotenberg. In the afternoon Wolf Pinie Bentz (Weissman) and I studied independently; Wolf is now in Israel. Our Rebbe Bereshl was a great scholar, an expert with a sharp mind, one of the best students of the rav of Bilgoraj, Rav Silberman, who people used to call the genius of Matsheve.
While studying the Yoreh Deah about the laws of kosher and treif [foods not allowed to be eaten under Jewish dietary laws], Eliezer's father Moshele took us to the slaughter house where he gave us practical examples that helped up to better understand the laws in Yoreh Deah.
Watching how they examined the lungs and liver of the slaughtered cow and how the butcher took the tube of the lung in his mouth and blew it up so that the inspection by the rav or the shochet [ritual slaughterer] would be thorough, I was disgusted to nausea. Reb Moshele, who noticed this, said to me, Meirl, a rav cannot not be a delicate man, must not be disgusted by bad odors and other things. Otherwise one cannot be a rav.
At that time the older rav was also teaching a lesson on tractate Hulin [Talmud tractate containing laws of ritual slaughter and details on kosher and nonkosher foods]. Among the select students who studied with him, I also took part in the lesson, which was at a very high level. We studied on the winter nights, three times a week, with the rav in his home.
When the First World War broke out I was already completely independent in study. I studied various tractates with commentaries with Itche Yakiv Galis (Zychler). Itche was a serious youth by nature, very friendly, and our relations were very sincere. But in time we went our separate ways. I began to read apocryphal books, as modern literature was called in those days, and he saw me as someone who had gone badly astray, and he broke off our relationship.
In those times even the others in the beit midrash began to look at me askance, they were afraid that I would despoil the other boys, and the reb forbade me from further study there.
Since time immemorial it had been the practice in town to throw dirty water out into the street. But if the watchman suddenly passed by and caught you, he had to be slipped something, something put into his hand, and if you did not have anything to give him he would promptly write a report. People referred to a report from the watchman as going to sit in the prison.
Such things also happened when a Jew covered his roof with wooden shingles instead of with tin, or built a house without a building plan, or differently from the way it was in the plan. If it had not previously settled it with the watchman, he would put together a report and take it to the court. The punishment was almost always to go sit in the prison for a few days.
True, one could exchange the sentence for a monetary fine. But what Jew would do such a foolish thing, and instead of going to sit, throw money away in the street?
Krotshek, the watchman for the town council, was also the overseer of the prison. Krotshek's work consisted of coming to the Jews to remind them that it was time to go sit in jail. Then one would put something into Krotshek's hand and put off going to sit until later, that is until a more convenient time, for example after the non-Jewish holidays when trade was dead and it was cold outside. That was the most suitable time for the Jews to go sit in the prison. Then one packed some bed linens, took the tallis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [small black leather boxes with straps that contain pieces of parchment on which passages from the Torah are inscribed] under their arms and went to the prison, to sleep well and rest up the whole time. Food they brought from home, the very best.
The prison was always open, because Jews still had to go every morning to pray because there may not always be a minyan [minimum gathering of 10 people necessary for communal religious service], and then Krotshek looked the other way while the Jews went out to pray with tallis and tefillin. People also came to visit those who were sitting in jail, to chat about their own matters or about the news that was printed in the gazettes. In winter, when there was a singeing frost outdoors, people used to go to the prison to warm up.
But it happened that a control commission came from another town, and Krotshek had to lock the prison and keep it closed until the commission went away.
One time when such a commission arrived in town unannounced it was a market day and the prison was, of course, completely empty. What Jew would go to sit in jail on a market day? For Krotshek it was a big trap. His whole career was at stake. He ran out to the market and told the first Jews he saw what had happened, that a commission had come; someone had to save him and go sit in jail.
How hard it was for a Jew to give up the market day, but he had to realize that Krotshek was correct and he had to go sit in jail, locked up for several hours, until the commission left. Both Krotshek and the Jews were equally happy that all ended well.
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