[Pages 86 - 102]
It is on those days that the Rabbi's Court comes to life. During the whole summer, since the Rabbi left for the warm baths in far away places, it had sunk into a tired quiet slumber, The neighborhood, as if by some artifice, accompanied him. Occasionally the dead silence was broken by the dull sound of the iron handle of the pump that stood proudly in the middle of the court and delivered water from the depths to the whole neighborhood. Jews with small prayer shawls draped over their bare chests hurried to this pump. The Jewish women, with fat stained calico dresses and headscarves, carried jangling empty buckets. The clanging of the iron pump handle rents the tired silence and water from the depths of the earth pours forth noisily and cools the hot air. With bent backs, they drag the heavy full buckets on the way back, leaving a wet snake like trail behind them.
However, with the arrival of Elul, the sounds of fall begin to be heard. A whole row of stables clatter open and the Rabbi's wide coaches with the springs above the wheels can be seen with their dusty harnesses hanging on the walls on iron hooks. All of the equipment is dragged out to the middle of the court, aired-out, cleaned and polished by the non-Jewish watchman. A smile spreads on the thin, wrinkled, leather like faces of the Jews passing by and their eyes showed inner joy, when they notice the watchman's work that was a sign of the imminent arrival of the Rabbi. Soon economic activity in the town would pick up. The news of the Rabbi's arrival spreads quickly through the streets and alleyways. In the poor homes the Jewish women begin thinking about the hens, eggs and the like which will be carried into the Rabbi's house to his wife Hadassah, may she be healthy, who never argues about the price.
The news was received with a special joy in the Rabbi's Bais Hamedrash (study house) that stood opposite. Since the Rabbi went away, the neighboring Jews have been reluctant to come to recite the afternoon and evening prayer in public. Even in the Beis Medrash they run through the prayers hastily and audience feels as if it was in mourning without the presence of the Tzadik Hador (the Most Righteous of the Generation). The special half bench half chair, Elijah's Seat, that was the place where circumcisions were preformed on generations of Jewish children, stands there as if abandoned. Without the Rabbi as godfather, no one brings children to be circumcised and the ceremony is performed at home.
The whole dynasty - the Rabbi and his daughters and his sons-in-laws- was spread out comfortably in buildings scattered over the whole width of courtyard that was hidden behind a big white wall. In scores of windows the long absent and forgotten sunlight shimmers again. Suddenly the curtains are pushed aside, the windows opened and red faces of the women appeared who with their strong and muscular arms cleaned, washed and polished the wide rooms with their massive white covered furniture.
A few of the first Chassidim arrive. They are local residents, with brown tobacco stained nostrils and mustaches, sucking on the stems of their pipes, a suck and a spit, a spit and a suck. They have arrived early so as to be the first to see the radiant face of the Tzadik (holy man) and to have the privilege of being the first to shake his hand.
The pale Gomorra-boys, (young students) with braided ear locks tucked behind their ears and with narrow cloth hats on their heads, with long coats and with trousers tucked into their boots, now feel uncomfortable. All summer they relished the juicy cherries and other fruits stolen from the Rabbi's orchard which stretched behind the wall and far away to the river. Now this comes to an end. A furtive rogue gloomy look creeps into their eyes. How will they be able to look the Rabbi in the face after such mischievous pranks?
On a gray, foggy morning Zalman'ke, the Rabbi's coachman, marches into the hungrily courtyard leading the two chestnut brown horses by the reins. He is going to hitch up to the Rabbi's coach for the trip to the train station. Half-sleepy Jews, with prayer shawls) under their arms walk slowly with measured steps, to prayers. When they see what is happening in the courtyard they straighten up their backs and push a finger into their cold beards pulling out one whisker at a time while thinking about how they will greet the holy Tzadik.
On that morning of the Rabbi's return, the gates to his courtyard stayed open longer. Jews from the town, the Rabbi's Chassidim, grain dealers and ordinary rural peddlers exchanged their greasy coats for their Sabbath caftans and proudly, with their fingertips tucked under their black linen belts, walked with measured steps to the Rabbi's courtyard. There they sat on the benches or lay on the grass awaiting the arrival of the coach. A solemn silence reigned with no one daring to say a word so as not to desecrate the holiness of the moment. Suddenly, as if a storm had blown in, the, whole congregation swayed, left their places and ran wildly toward the snakelike footpath close by the gate. What moved them was the clatter of horses' hoofs on the cobblestones of Warshava Street. The rubber coated coach wheels made the dull sound of the horses' hooves stand out. The horses swept like a whirlwind through the streets as if they felt the importance of their mission: they are carrying the Holy Rabbi and not just any ordinary person of flesh and blood. With pride and envy they rushed through the open gates into the courtyard. With foam on their mouths they come to a sudden stop opposite the Bais Hamedrash near the rows of standing Jews. The first one to jump down from the coach was Zalman'ke. Beaming with joy he threw down the reigns and ran around to the carriage door. From now on he will often take the Rabbi for an afternoon stroll around the fields and woods. That means more livelihood at home, more silver coins in his pocket and more drinking whiskey at the tavern. Zalman'ke opened the coach door quickly and revealed the Rabbi in all his glory. The smile that appeared on the Rabbi's pink full face with it's high furrowed forehead and shining gleaming beard, filled the surrounding air with happiness and delight. His blue eyes with their mild compassionate look of wisdom and understanding of the whole the universe, took in the rows of weary, pitiful faces of these small town Jews. For a few moments he thought about the far away Marianbad in the Austrian Empire that he visited recently and that was frequented by royalty and dignitaries who came to revel in its salty water and where wealth and worldly pleasures had contaminated the air. How small and unimportant the hunch backed, sad Jews appeared! However seeing relatives and friends spread warmth through his whole ample body and breathing heavily he took his first step forward. The whole crowd, too, pushed forward each hoping to be the first to return his greeting. Callused, veined and trembling hands waved in the air. The Rabbi with his down like pointy finger tips barely touched the outstretched hands but this touch was enough to cause a tremor in the assembled crowd as if an electric current had poured a pleasing warmth into all their limbs. This was the way that the Shchinah, The Divine Presence, would be received.
Having finished his welcome greeting the Rabbi hurries to the steps of his family's house where his wife and children longingly await him. The shamash (sexton) trails after him carrying two heavy satchels containing the Rabbi's talith (prayer shawl) and tefilin (phylacteries) and his manuscripts, the most precious jewels in the Rabbi's the house.
Even though the sound of the Rabbi's steps long faded away, the throng remains standing as if they were glued to their places. That is the power of the radiant appearance of the holy Tzadik.
That evening, the Bais Hamedrash came to life. The holy books that stand in rows in open bookcases stretching from the floor to the ceiling collected and fondled by generations, attract renewed attention. The old dusty and yellowed pages of the Talmud and books about Kabbalah are opened, their four cornered letters pronounced with fresh enthusiasm. A dissonance of speaking and singing rents the air and float into space over woods and fields. Old and young sit by the dusty books, rock back and forth with their bodies and study God's laws. Young boys, with falsetto voices and a sparkle in their eyes, follow twisting Rashi letters. (A special kind of Hebrew script used for printing Rashi, Reb Shlomo Yitzchaki's commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud.) Aristocratic young people, desirable youthful bridegrooms with just the first signs of a beard, rock back and forth while brushing their hands over fat-bellied books while humming one of the Rabbi's old melodies. Older Jews, whose minds are on serious legal problems or on Kabalistic writings, chew the tips of their beard, and with dull blank expression, look into an other worldly sphere of only mind and spirit. Suddenly a keen open-minded Chassid, in a fit of spiritual ecstasy and with a book in his hand, begins pacing back and forth from one end of the Bais Hamedrash, back and forth for hours as if he hopes to catch the thin thread of Divine Thought. A knock on the lectern, that stands in the middle between the four columns, interrupts all thoughts. The whole congregation straightens its belts and surges forward. At the rear door of the Bais Hamedrash that leads directly to the Rabbi's room they come to a stop as if ordered to do so. At that moment the door opens, and in the intense dead silence one could actually hear the rustle of silk and satin as the bright figure of the Rabbi appears in all its glory. The wide silk stripe in the middle of the satin garment, which closed up to the neck and ended in a two-pointed collar, transformed the priestly long coat into a holy garment. The sable shtreimel, (Fur edged hat worn by rabbis and Chassidic Jews on the Sabbath and holidays) brought recently from abroad, shines like fine gold, blending together with his bright red face and the gold blond beard. All eyes follow the Rabbi's movements. With benign steps, he moves over to his holy corner by the. Eastern wall and begins to sway in fervent prayer.
After mincha, the afternoon prayer, the crowd lines up in rows and the rabbi walks, short winded, between them. By chance, he puts his gentle hand on a strange shoulder whose owner then gladly follows him. This means a longer stroll around the courtyard and a talk about Torah and worldly affairs. The Jews go home happily, eat a warm supper, and thank their creator for having lived long enough to come into contact with this brilliant form and creative source. It was as if the Shechina (Holy Spirit) has descended from the high heavens and had come to rest in the human form known as the Radzyner Rabbi.
The door opens wide and noisily as a bursting sack, pushes through the narrow opening. The head of a man, Mendel Danilak the bookbinder, can barely be seen under the sack filled with his merchandise. A dull thud awakens the half-sleeping Jews. It is caused by the contents spilling out on the long table that stands by the door near the ritual table. All year round only poor people or itinerant beggars who, during the day go from house to house use this table. During the night it serves them as a bed. On it, Mendel the bookseller leisurely arranges his holiday prayer books with their shining golden bindings as well as ordinary storybooks written by observant Jews. Having arranged his merchandise, he turns around to face his audience. He stands still for a moment. On his yellow leathery face his long blonde mustache hangs down into his long pointed blonde beard that hides his pale lips. From under long wiry eyebrows and his furrowed forehead an angry look appears in his blue eyes. Thoughts run through his mind. Is it worth sweating and panting under the heavy load for what would surely be very small reward? Instead of announcing his merchandise he remains silent and stares as if in some dream world. It is pride that keeps him from becoming a cheap merchant! He knows that he is a bookbinder with wide horizons. His work is appreciated by the Rabbi himself, as well as by Chassidim from the big cities of Lublin and Warsaw that buy the old Rabbi's writings and send them to him for binding. But he also knows that his fate to become not only a talented and artistic bookbinder, but also an ordinary bookseller is determined by divine providence. Looking at the gathering of the rich, satisfied, Chassidim raises mutinous thoughts.
A bang on the lectern interrupts this chain of thought. The Rabbi has come in and the Slichot prayer begins. A forest of heads rocks back and forth and the compressed air is filled with sad groans Yours is both the body and the soul.
(P93) In the sexton's house, which borders on the Rabbi's private reception room, the air is saturated with tobacco and smoke. The rows of chairs are crammed with thoughtful Chassidim sitting and writing their requests. Circles of Chassidim crowed around Chaim Barishover the Sexton and swallow his tales. He traveled with the old Rabbi to foreign lands and cities to search for the snail. He captures the audience with his fascinating stories.
Coming out of their interview with the Rabbi, the faces of Chassidim beam with internal radiance and grandeur. For a long time the sounds of the brilliant conversion with the Rabbi rings in their ears. Words of consolation or clever advice for seemingly hopeless moments are balm for the chassidic soul. Uplifted, they stride back deeply concerned with deciphering the meaning of the only hinted at, never clearly defined, words of the holy revered Rabbi.
When night settles, the sounds from the Rabbi's Court ring through the air. The young Chassidim are busy chanting their lessons; the sweet sounds of their voices carry far and echo back from the far-away stone wall that surrounds the old holy place on the other side of the river. (The Jewish Cemetery-see map)
Opposite is the other Ohel, maintained by the Chassidim, with its big pump and piles of kvittles (written requests) that cover the gray stone. This is the Ohel of the Rabbi's father Reb Gershon Hanoch, may he rest in peace. Chassidim from near and far come here all year round to unburden their hearts. Every visitor leaves a substantial fee that benefits both the oil for the Ohel as well as for the caretaker Boruch Hirsch who is famous throughout the city. He is a joker and live wire. At the local weddings he appears in a calico Turkish uniform and with his artistic talents and his famous Cossack Dance, he makes bride and groom and all the guests happy.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when long rows of hundreds of Chassidim on foot and in wagons make their way to the Ohel, on this holy day his look changes and becomes very serious. Jangling the long Ohel keys, he lets the visitors enter one by one. They make a turn around the high walled tomb while saying prayers for the dead. Then they drop a kvittel to the revered Rabbi while mumbling secretly to themselves. Having unburdened themselves to the cold stone, their mood becomes lighter. Contentedly, they place a final payment in Boruch Hirsch's hand, and go, exuberantly into town to make final arrangements for the impending holiday.
From then on, the light in the courtyard is never extinguished. As soon as the sun prepares to hide its face from the town, Mordechai the Sexton, with the help of his non-Jewish watchman, lights the lanterns that surround the newly erected linen wall. Immediately, bright flames spring up all over the length of the courtyard. When night falls, a forest of heads, praying outside, rock back and forth under the open sky. Their voices, broken and painful in Let Thine awe, (From the evening service of eve of Rosh Hashanah) are surrounded by the stiff impurity of ringing of the church bells, as if the devil, camouflaged as dead iron, had taken upon himself to disturb the Jewish prayers. The dense metal sounds force their way into the air shrieking as if trying to deafen the living sounds of the prayers that issue forth from thousands of hearts and are directed to God's throne. Eventually the bells humbly surrender their shrill echo and sheepishly disappear into the deep black night. Soon silk scrapes against satin, hands are joined by happy voices wishing a Happy New Year rent the air. The prayers overcome the devil!
The lamps of the Bais Hamedrash burn late into the night and the doors and windows remain wide open. The Chassidic audience is tightly packed into the fetid atmosphere. Now the table is set. The Rabbi sits at the head of the table dressed in a grayish-white satin costume. Around him, in two rows, sit the older highly respected Chassidim. The Rabbi tastes something from one of the dishes that have been set out then pushes away the plate. This means that the rest is Shireim (leftovers). The old respectable Chassidim surround the table and with hands and fingernails, spear pieces of fish or meat straight into their mouths licking their greasy fingers. The young Chassidim stand frozen into their places around the margins of the hundred year old, thousand pound bench, holding on to the ceiling with their hands. They look with envy at the older Chassidim who have the honor of sitting close to the Tzadik. The Rabbi delivers his teachings in a falsetto-nasal voice while continuing to eat. They listen with bated breath so that they won't miss a word, a sound, or even a movement. The Chassidic teachings are expressed not only in words but also in movements and in the ability to repeat exactly what happens at the Rabbi's table.
The only Chassid blessed by god was Aaron Z'elekover from the town of Zelekov He was tall and erect and from his noble aristocratic face one could discern his breeding. His high forehead and penetrating look, and his measured steps arouse respect for his scholarship. The large nobleman's eyeglasses on his nose added charm to his refined look. He is the center around whom small groups of Chassidim gather to hear him repeat what the Rabbi has said around the table. He is blessed with a sweet high- pitched voice. His sincere pleading, especially on the mornings of the High Holidays, is famous throughout the area. Upon leaving the Rabbi, the Chassidim take home with them enormous spiritual baggage consisting of the Rabbi's newly pronounced teachings and newly absorbed nigun (melody). This equipment gives the Chassidim sufficient spiritual support to last a whole year.
The Rabbi's orchard, with its trees of various fruits, stretches for a long distance beyond the wall all the way to the river. Even though a fence that has a locked gate surrounds the orchard, everyone considers it as being in the public domain and the fruit free for the taking. Those who benefit most from this situation are the bright young boys who steal into the orchard shake a tree and came out with hands full of red cherries or with green sour gooseberries. They do not consider this a sin nor do they feel any pangs of conscience. They know that the orchard is public property!
Two wooden huts look down from between the trees on the other side of the wall. They are usually closed and rarely was anyone seen entering them. They are silent witnesses to a stormy past era. On the outside they are identical. However, the first glances through the dusty windows reveals different interiors and for what purpose they were erected. In one there were piles of large and small jars and bottles of all sizes. The smell that emanated from there reminded one of a pharmacy. It comes from medicines and chemicals. The other hut is a fully equipped workshop with all sorts of mechanical equipment ostensibly for a laundry. However both huts serve as scientific laboratories for the old Rabbi Reb Gershon Hanoch, of blessed memory, who was half doctor and half chemist and a great genius. Here carried out his experiments with the aquatic creature called the Chilazon (snail) to reveal the ancient secret of producing the blue dye. From the time that The Temple was destroyed the Jews stopped wearing a blue thread in their prayer shawls. According to the Talmud these threads were dyed in the blood of a snail found in the Mediterranean. From that time on, according to the traditional explanation, the snail disappeared and appears only once in seventy years. This stubborn genius challenged this accepted tradition. In order to do that he studied chemistry in German books. In the same way, he studied medicine, gave medicaments and wrote prescriptions like a qualified physician. In order to carry out his plan he went to Trieste on the Mediterranean and brought back a large quantity of snails to his far away, Radzyn. Here the snail will get its due and with his blood and some additional chemicals will again grace the prayer shawls with heavenly blue fringes. Hidden in an inner room, a large jar was set up in which the many hairy legged snails, the size of a kittens, were soaked in chemicals.
The Rabbi entrusted the secret of the art of converting the blood into blue dye to his trustworthy assistant, Yehoshua Barishover. He was a short, full, red-cheeked Jew with wise eyes. who was a well combed, and always neatly dressed. He became and remained the chemist of the court. He was not a great scholar, rather more of a Maskil (follower of the Enlightenment) who was tight lipped and whose aristocratic appearance engendered great respect. In addition he was the bookkeeper of the court and carried on its correspondence in beautifully scripted letters and envelopes. His work in the Tchelet laboratory created an additional source of income for the court. Everyone who wanted to wear a blue fringe had to come and pay him a fee.
The great disturbance that the Tchelet created in the learned Jewish circles caused great grief and sorrow to the Rabbi. In order to calm his agitated colleagues he published one book after another about the Tchelet question. However, this did not calm the storm nor convince his agitated colleagues. Things remained as they were. His supporters, however, did weave a blue thread into their prayer shawls. As a result the Radzyn Chassidim became famous in the whole Jewish world. Everywhere, Radzyn Chassidim could be easily recognized by blue thread in their prayer shawl. In the beginning the opposition to the Tchelet produced quarrels in many cities and towns, especially in Radzyn. The Mitnagdim, (opponents of the Chassidim within Orthodox Judaism) who always looked askance at the chassidic leadership and their strange antics, now saw in the Tchelet a deviation from Jew tradition. They saw any agitator for the Tchelet as an offender.
In the Eighties of the Nineteenth Century what happened in Radzyn was a repetition, on a smaller scale, of what had happened to Reb Zalman Schneor of Ladi. There was a river in the middle of the Shtetl upon which stood a water mill, which belonged to the Rabbi. On one dark night, as bad luck would have it, the entire mill went up in smoke and fire. All that was left were the charred pillars covered and protected by the water. An informer appeared, and the old Rabbi was locked up in the Radzyn jail for sixteen days during which he never stopped studying or let the pen out of his hand. He was known throughout the scholarly world for his great compositions such as 'The Laws of Purification', 'Ohels' (see above), etc. He utilized the short time that he was imprisoned to write another book, a commentary on the book by Reb Eliezer The Great called 'Life Styles'. From that time on as a reminder of the time he passed in jail he was referred to as The Life Styles. With his passing, the controversy slowly faded. His replacement, Reb Mordechai Yosef Eliezer, was a peace seeker. With his deep wisdom and radiant appearance he managed to win over the Gerer Chassidim who had been the greatest opponents of the Tchelet in his father's time. However the Shtetl of Radzyn remained divided. On one side were the Rabbi's followers, the Tchelet wearers, whose center was the Rabbi's Bais Hamedrash, while the other side were those whose center was the Communal Bais Hamedrash.
All year round, the Rabbi's white wall, the tallest of all the buildings on the street, proudly overlooked the whole town and attracted respect. The rooms were wide and roomy with many rows of windows that not only attracted light and sun, but also were conspicuous in the town for their holiness and awe. Every Chassid or ordinary Jew who passed over the threshold of the sexton's house felt the atmosphere of spiritual exaltation, of Torah and the Divine Presence. One room was designated as a lounge for welcoming guests. Twelve heavy armchairs stood around an old stiff oak table covered with white cloth. The doors rarely opened and it was even more rare for an ordinary everyday Jew to get a glimpse of what went on there. The only one who had a foothold there was Chaim Barishover, the Sexton, who went in every morning and dusted the furniture. The place smelled of mustiness and age. Those who did have free access to the place were mostly non-Jews. The important town officials who would sometime pay a visit to the Rabbi would be received there. The sober sounds of foreign languages that escaped through the windows signaled that there was an important reception taking place to help some individual or the whole community
A group of artists marches into the broad hall and take up positions at its center waiting for a signal to start the first act. Who are these odd creatures with their strange gait? Some of them are yesterday's Bais Hamedrash boys such as Zishele the painter and cantor, Godl's Yentshe, Yoel the son of Yentsche Godel's, Boruch Hirshes' son together with craftsmen's apprentices. The latter have visited the Yiddish Theatre in the big city of Warsaw and brought with them a new repertoire of snappy songs, which they have included in their Purim performance. The majestic Achashverosh stands dressed in his royal robe and flirts with Queen Esther. (A man dressed as a woman because hearing the voice of a woman is like seeing her in the nude) Even Viazata, one of the ten sons of Haman, stands there with a group of household servants. The bright young men surround them and curiously examine the pants with the gold stripes and the tinkling swords. They try to touch the attractive pants, and when they are met with a harsh look from under a mask of make up accompanied by push from a muscular hand, they move as far away as they can.
Silence, The Rabbi is coming! This is announced in the hoarse voice of Chaim the Sexton. As if by magic, the tongues are silenced and the Rabbi appears. He breaks out into a big smile when he sees the large crowd of Chassidim, ordinary Shtetl Jews, Bais Hamedrash boys and Cheder (religious school for young boys) children who have gathered there. He sends his mild loving look in all directions as if wanting to quiet their frightened looks. The Rabbi sits in his place and the performance begins. The acting and love songs, that are not kosher all year round for pious Jews' ears are made kosher on this night even for the Tzadik himself. The performance often produces hearty laughter in the audience and the voices of men and women blend together into a harmonious symphony that no one sees as improper. The Rabbi himself laughs heartily as if he is an ordinary member of the audience.
Now comes the second act called 'The Little Tailor'. Zishe, the leading actor, crosses one foot over the other and spreads out his piece of cloth intended for making a kaftan. A lens hangs from a string attached to two strings from both ears. In one hand he holds a needle and in the other a thread. As he struggles to insert the thread into needle, his sweet falsetto voice flows into the air bemoaning his faith:
A little tailor sits on high,A pleasing tenderness envelops the audiences who for the moment forget their everyday worries and delight in the magic of theatre.
Sewing the waist of a kaftan;
With one leg crossed over another,
He sings a sugar sweet tune.
It is long past midnight when the performance ends and the Jews leave intoxicated by this non-Jewish pleasure. However, they know that only on Purim night can they loosen the reins and allow the body to taste earthly pleasures. Tomorrow total holiness will reign again in the court.
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