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Religious Life

 

The Serocker Rav, the Rabbi and Genius, Rav Yosef Levinshtayn,
May his memory be blessed

Harav Yakov Henokh Cymerman, of blessed memory

Translated by Pamela Russ

I remember him with his long white beard and sidecurls, with his patriarchal appearance and his enormous kindness.

His origins are from famous ancestry:

He was born in the year 1840 (Hebrew year 5600). His father, Rav Abish, of blessed memory, was one of the great scholars, a great-grandson of the genius Rav Avrahom Abish, of blessed memory, chief of the Jewish court of Frankfurt Am Main, and the renowned genius of the Talmudic book “Pnei Yehoshua,” of blessed memory.

When he was 17, Rav Levinshtayn married the daughter of Rav Itche Nissels of Prague, a Warker khassid [follower of the Warker Rabbi and his teachings], and a great scholar. He also received his rabbinic ordination from the great rabbi of Lublin, the great rabbi and genius Rav Yehoshua Heshel Ashkenazi, of blessed memory.

One year later, he assumed the position of judge in the religious court in the town of Karczew [unsure of this], and a short while after that, in the town of Zaklikow in Lublin. When he started to become famous as a great genius, he was taken on with great reverence as the rabbi and chief of the Jewish court of Serock, at the approximate age of 30.

He was beloved by everyone in the city: the khassidim, the scholars, the misnagdim [those who opposed the khassidim], and those who were “enlightened” because he was a great genius with a sharp mind, a historical and good person. At the beginning he was a misnagid, but he became a khassid with the goal of elevating the levels of joy and hope for the Jews.

When the Warker Rebbe, Rebbe Yizkhok, of blessed memory, died, the significant Warker khassidim turned to the Serocker Rav, and wanted to acknowledge his as their Rabbi, but he responded to them with a smile, saying “Be happy that I myself am a khassid.”

I had the great merit of being the Rav's student, many times sitting at his side during his Jewish court cases, and was awed by his wisdom and humor.

Here are two flowers [“gems”] from those times:

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  1. Reb Levi Yitzkhok the butcher came to see him, and said: “Rebbe, I would like you to call Avrom Yankel Koval to a court case.” When asked what this was about, he replied: “Avrom Yankel is spreading bad rumors about me.” The Rav asked him if he himself had heard these rumors. “No,” he said, “Hershel the tailor told me.” “If that's the case,” said the Rav, “then you have to call Hershel the tailor to court, because you heard it from him. You don't really know if this information about Avrom Yankel is true.” Levi Yitzkhok asked the Rav to send for Hershel. The Rav asked that he not call him, “because he is an impudent fellow and may say this again.” Levi Yitzkhok left with that with which he came.

  2. In the time of the conflict about Reb Eliyahu the shokhet [ritual slaughterer], someone tattled to the governor in Warsaw that the Rav is getting too old, that he doesn't know what he is doing and asked the governor to order that they select a new Rav (the Rav himself was already a senior). Just at that time, the governor had to be in Serock. When he arrived, the Rav and his guardians went to the administrative offices to greet him. The Rav did not know any Russian, so he took his son-in-law, Shulem Yakov, as interpreter. The governor welcomed him warmly, and told him right away that he had received a letter saying that the Rav is no longer of clear mind. The Rav calmly responded, “The person who wrote this was clearly angry that I still understand too much and lead the community with a strong hand. If I were not of clear mind, the author would be content and not have written anything.” The governor was very impressed with the answer and shook his hand warmly.
Serock had two ritual slaughterers: Reb Refoel Levinson and Reb Chaim Shloime, both learned khassidim – the first a Gerer khassid, the second an Alexanderer khassid. Both were not only khassidim, but people of action. Wherever there was someone sick, or someone who was needy, they were the first to help with whatever was at all possible. Once there was a rumor about one of them, saying that his hands shook, and about the other that his vision was becoming weaker, and because of that, they needed other slaughterers. The Rav turned it around and revealed that this was…

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The Serocker Rav, the Rabbi and Genius,
Reb Yosef Levinshtayn, of blessed memory

 

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Translation of letter:

This is handwritten by the Serocker Rebbe, of blessed memory, in which he remembers the terribly difficult experiences and the help he received from the Magid [the learned individual who traveled from town to town teaching and lecturing] of Serock. Taken from the “Genealogy List” from the Magid, of blessed memory, which the Rav himself wrote. The text of the photocopy reads as follows:

“In the time of my old age, my body has become heavy and it has become hard for me to write. In truth, I remember the early days that were poor and the people in the city were distant from me. Even food and clothing for me were scarce. And the Rav, the Magid, opened his hand and gave sustenance to those who put out their hands, even loving those who were distanced. Yes, this was in honor of Yom Tov (the holidays), as we derived pleasure from his righteousness and his ancestry. His origins are from our Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz, who was a friend and a companion of the king. Love can force the flesh as if I were a young man, and the reward for my efforts are six Milan, as though I did not acknowledge his goodness. (See note)

With joy and no sadness,
Parshas Tazria
With all that is holy,
1904

Serock, the Holy Rav Yosef the son of our great Rav Avrahom, of blessed memory
Lublin

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…an angry libel, but even so, in order to put out the angry fire of conflict, the Rav consented to taking on a third slaughterer. The Rav always had several Jews with whom he consulted, and whatever they decided, the Rav implemented. He called them together, and they agreed that another slaughterer should be hired. It was said, and it was done. So, they brought a slaughterer from Ostrow, Reb Elye Shtelang, a pious young man – a sharp one, a smart one, like fire. The Rav gave him a contract that he was being hired as a slaughterer. This was in 1907.

The first guardian was Aron Yoel Granjewicz, a Lithuanian Jew, a rich man, a contractor. He issued an exclamation of complaint: “How come the Rav did not consult with me but only with a few Gerer khassidim and they decided to hire another slaughterer?” This ignited a rage in the town, and immediately the town divided into two camps – one side against the Rav and the slaughterer, led by Aron Yoel, and the Rav's side was led by Leibel Leviner, a learned Jew, a Gerer khassid, and likewise, a wealthy man. His children were also learned, khassidim and rich men. The argument continued for several years, but the actual slaughtering was not affected.

The opposition, seeing that there was nothing they could accomplish, decided to make their own slaughter house, and they actually did take on another slaughterer, Reb Menachem Mendel Frenkel of Popowo. But a slaughterer needs a Rav, so they negotiated for a Rav.

At that time, I was boarding in Ostroleka. One fine morning, I receive a letter from the Serocker Rav, in which he writes to me: Since I am a student of his, and since the Rav of Kocin wants to come to Serock to represent the opposition, he asks me that I should call him to the Ostroleka Jewish court. Ostroleka had a Rav with two city leaders, and I should give him a warning from the court, that if he comes to Serock to take over the Rabbinate, he will forbid his leadership across the entire world. (Kocin was a town with a train station four kilometers from Ostroleka. Twenty Jewish families lived there.)

I immediately went to see the Ostroleka Rav, and showed him the letter. He tells me that I should immediately go take a wagon and bring the Rav of Kocin right over to him. I did exactly that. It was not easy for me…

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… to get this done. Even though he knew why he was being summoned, he nonetheless, did not feel inclined to come. I remained strong with him, in a good and not so good fashion, and brought him to the Ostroleka Rav. There I gave him the warning from the Serocker Rav. Then, the Ostroleka Rav said to him: “In the name of our court, we warn you that if you will go to Serock to take over the Rabbinate, we will forbid your leadership across the world.” To which he responded, that he never had any intention of doing anything against the Rav and will never even think about this in the future.

Less than four weeks later, the Rav of Kocin came to Serock. The old Rav of Serock proclaimed a ban on this Rav. Not long after this, the Kocin Rav lost his wife and two grown children while in Serock. Approximately two years later, I met the very same Rav in Warsaw collecting house to house. I gave him a nice donation.

The slaughterer from Popowo got mixed into this feud, at least he had some sense, and even though he as a slaughterer for the opposition, he always approached the Rav with humility and respect. When this feud finally ended, he remained as a slaughterer – that means, the fourth slaughterer.

It's interesting, that among the instigators of the opposition, some of them did not merit living to see the end of the feud, while others became impoverished.

Of the children of the Rav, of blessed memory, some became community rabbis, and others businessmen. The son-in-law, Reb Avrahom Kronengold, of blessed memory, a great scholar, a Gerer khassid, and on top of that, a reformist, had a haberdashery in Serock. The other son-in-law, Yakov Shulem (the son of the Kolobyeler [unsure] Rebbe), also a businessman, and in 1922 he left for America, and there – I think – he became a Rav. The Rav had three sons: the oldest, Abish, left for America in his youth. The second, Uri, lived in Rozan, was also a learned and pious man. The third son was Berish and he lived in Warsaw, was also a learned man and a community minded individual.

If the Rav ever had to leave (that was seldom the case), there were….

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…two Jews in the city who dealt with religious questions: my father, of blessed memory, and Elye Chaim Melamed, of blessed memory.

Reb Yosef Levinshtayn, may his memory be blessed, was not only the generation's genius in Torah knowledge, but was also a brilliant bibliographer in history. About that, witnesses say that he had many letter exchanges with great historians: Graetz, Dubnow, Javitz, and so on. Also, his great bibliographical work became famous, called: Dor Ve'dor Ve'dorshov (trans: Generation and Generation, and His Exegesis) that was published in the year 5660 (1900) in Warsaw.

He also published other religious books: Birkhas Avrohom (Blessings of Avrohom), Koneh Avrohom (Stem of Avrohom), about his great-grandfather Reb Avrohom Abish, of blessed memory, the head of the Jewish court in Frankfurt Am Main, with his commentaries and insights. Aside from that, he also wrote many essays and Torah dissertations, entitled: Maasef, Torah Mi'Tziyon (Torah from Zion), Shaarei Torah (The Gates of Torah), Hapisga (The Peak), Ha'Peles (The Balance), Knesses Khokhmei Yisroel (Assembly of the Learned Ones of Israel), and others.

There were many manuscripts left after him, on Torah and Jewish Law.

Older and full of many years, surrounded by the love of many, he passed on in Serock, on Wednesday, 26th day of Nissan, 5684 (1924).


Translator's note:

The last three lines of this letter pose some challenges in their interpretation. Without a larger context or an original document, there is little context to assist in a closer analysis of the text. Therefore, interpretations abound. The translator provides several possibilities for the three lines; one can only guess. These are possible interpretations:

  1. The expression “love can force the flesh” is often used in Jewish texts, originally from the Talmud, meaning that the spiritual overrides / presses / takes over the material. One possible translation could be: The love of G-d and work of G-d makes me ignore the physical pain, as if I am a boy, and my salary is six milan [likely the name of a particular currency], as if I am not rewarded without the salary.
  2. This is another possible interpretation: I acted like a young man swept by love for this man [the Magid], accepting a wage of six coins for labor I had done for him, ungrateful and unable to recognize the generosity and goodness shown to me by this noble man.
Thank you to the following translators for their assistance:

Orit Lavi
Yael Lajmer Liber
Dr. Perets Mett
Vered Schussman-Dayan
Hana Shayer


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Reb Aron Katzenelenbogen, of blessed memory,
the Magid
[1] of Serock

Translated by Pamela Russ

In the year 5676 (1916), at the time of the holiday of Shavuos, the Konstantine Rebbe came to Serock and took a large home in the market area, at the edge of the pharmacy and synagogue street. He opened his Bais Medrash and set it up beautifully. Very soon, a crowd began to come there, and they started using it as a regular place for prayers. On the Sabbath, a huge crowd would come to the festive table. Many khasidim (plural of “khasid”) would also come from other towns: Pultusk, Makow, Ruzhyn, Wiskow, and others. Our town became very lively. He also had famous ancestry – he was the grandson of Reb Mordkhe Neskez. According to the book of genealogy, written by the elder Rav of Serock, may his memory be blessed, he came from holy origins back to the Tannaim (rabbinic sages around 200 CE) and even further back to King David, may he rest in peace. He was a great righteous man (Tzadik) and scholar, and had a very good heart, and whoever came in contact with him even once, never really left him.

There is an interesting story about how I became one of his true followers, even though he knew that I was a Ger khasid, because …

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… before each of my journeys to Gur, I would go to say goodbye to him, and when I returned, I would go to greet him. Once he said to me: “At least when khasidim leave, we should remain friends.” [Meaning, if you're not a khasid of mine, at least we can remain friends.]

At that time, I was a “refugee,” still eating my “days” in Ostrolenka. In the month of Av (August), 5675 (1915), the Russians chased out all the Jews from Ostrolenka in a matter of six hours. Understandably, we left poor and without anything. I already had three children by this time; the oldest was five. And that's how we wandered to Ostrowa, and from there, with great difficulty, went on to Warsaw. When the Germans took over Warsaw, and Serock too, I was just arriving with my poor family to Serock. My parents secured a house for us in the marketplace. If you stood on the balcony of my house, and khasidim would stand on the balcony of the Rav's house, you could hear everything they were saying. After a short time, I became an importer and brought materials from Warsaw to Serock.

Elya Shokhet, or as he was called “Elya Khasid,” even though he was a Ger khasid, was the right hand to the Serocker Rav. He organized the seating: who should sit where, who should have the honor of leading the singing, and things of that sort. About the beginning of the month of Elul (August), Elya approaches me with a request that I go see the Rebbe because he wants to order a few cases of wine for Rosh Hashana. I had never yet gone to a different Rebbe, I hadn't yet even gone to greet this Rebbe. So, I told Elya categorically no, I would not go and see this Rebbe, but if he would bring me the order, then I would get whatever he wants. He didn't argue with me and then brought the order for 150 bottles of wine. The wine arrived and was delivered to the Rebbe's house in the best of orderliness.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana, Elya comes to me and says that the Rebbe asked that I should go see him with the bill because he wants to pay for the wine before using it. I went up, greeted him, and gave him the bill. The Rebbe summoned Khaim the shamash (beadle) and asked him to pay the bill. The Rebbe made a very good impression on me, but I did not become one of his followers.

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The Serocker Magid, the Rav,
Reb Aron Katzenelenbogen, of blessed memory

 

The Serocker Magid, the Rav, Reb Aron Katzenelenbogen, of blessed memory On Rosh Hashana, I ate with my family at my parents' home. After prayers, leaving the Ger shtiebel, we went to the elderly Rav to wish him a “le'shono toive” (a good year); that's what my father did for many years. Leaving the Rav's home, my father said to me: “You have to go up to the Rebbe and say le'shono toive.” I was very surprised and I said to him: “But you're not going either!” He said to me: “There's no question about me not going, I don't know him and he doesn't know me, but you were there today, and so he may be very disturbed that you left, and you have to be respectful to him – after all, he is a descendent of holy people!”

So, too bad. If your father says go, then you go. So I went. There were a few hundred Jews there. This was the first time I had seen such a sight. Everyone was still wearing their prayer shawls (taleisim [plural of talis]), because there, on Rosh Hashana night …

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Torah writings from the Serock Magid, of blessed memory, in the year 1912;
recorded by Reb Eliyohu Shokhet, may his blood be avenged.
Content: Commentaries and exegesis about Torah verses in Book of Genesis (Bereishis)

 

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…they would wear their prayer shawls[2] for the evening prayers. When I approached the Rebbe and said “le'shono toive,” he answered me with a great smile, in Hebrew, and said: “I am inviting you to my tish (table).”[3] I said nothing and left, almost angry.

When I returned home, I tell my father everything that happened, and declare that I will definitely not go to the Rebbe's tish. My father immediately replies: “No, my child, you will really have to go.” I was silent. As we were waiting to wash our hands for the meal, my father said to me: “Don't forget, remember to have in mind[4] that you will say the blessing after the meal at the Rebbe's.”

A crowd from the Ger shtiebel came to our house. We finished our meal. Before saying the blessings after the meal, my father said: “Yakov Henokh has to go to the Rebbe's tish, and if any one of you wishes to accompany him, he'll feel that much more comfortable.” Sure enough, there were some young men who came with me.

As I appeared at the doorstep, Elya immediately called loudly to me to come to the table. I was seated in the first seat next to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe immediately asked me to sing “Ve'ye'esoyu kol le'avdekho” (taken from the afternoon prayers of Rosh Hashana). It was a table of food, song, and intellectual Torah. After the blessings at the end of the meal, the Rebbe stood up and said to me: “Yakov Henokh, I am asking you to lead the morning prayers (shakharis). Gut Yom Tov! (Happy holiday),” and he left to his room. The crowds came right at me: “Mazel tov to you, the leader of the prayers!” The Rebbe himself used to lead the afternoon prayers. I said to them: “There's nothing to talk about. Let your Rebbe know that he shouldn't rely on me, because I won't lead the prayers.”

There was one khasid, Moishe Hirsh Srebro (Mendel Litman's son-in-law), he lived in Pultusk, a fiery khasid of the Serock Rebbe, who said: “You should know that on Rosh Hashana at night, after the tish, no one can disturb the Rebbe.[5] If I disturb him, I am risking my life for you, but I'll go knock at his door.”

I said nothing. Soon, the Rebbe's door opens, and the Rebbe appears. The bais medrash becomes silent. The Rebbe calls me over and says: “Why does one not wish to lead the prayers? Because one is not yet thirty years old? The people want what I want, and in the merit of my parents…

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Reb Eliyahu Shokhet,
may his blood be avenged

 


The tent (term used for religious gravesite) of the Magid
of Serock, of blessed memory, in the Warsaw cemetery

 

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… I ask that Yakov Henokh should lead the prayers. I assure Yakov Henokh a better year than the last one.” And not waiting for a response, he shut the door.

They celebrated until 3AM with drink, song, and dance, and of course, I did lead the prayers. I have to confess, since then, I remained a baal tefilla (one who leads the prayers), but to pray as I did on that day of Rosh Hashana, I never had the merit to do again, and in that year, the Rebbe's blessings were fulfilled perfectly. From that time on, I remained an indescribable follower.

I'm not really a believer of miracles, but I'll just comment on a few things that I and others noticed.

The Rebbe brought in all the young boys from the city's bais medrash, and from the Ger shtiebel (there were no other types of khasidic shtiebelekh [plural] in Serock at the time) to his bais medrash, and there they learned beautifully. The Rebbe, as usual, was dressed very elegantly with an ironed collar, stiff cuffs, polished shoes and boots, and silk clothing. This gave the young boys “permission” to dress better, and some even did so. Because of that, there were some parents who did not permit their children to go there. In the end, all the boys from the Rebbe's bais medrash remained God-fearing, religious Jews, and it was those others who actually became Communists. Once, the Rebbe went to the bais medrash and found the door locked. He knocked until someone opened the door. When he entered, he asked: “Why is the door locked? What have you done?” With great trepidation, they answered and confessed that they were playing chess. So, the Rebbe said: “From now on, you should take one hour each day – but no more than that – to play chess with an open door.” He dealt with the boys as a father to his children.

A lot of money was given to him, but if it weren't for these few Jews who took care of the Rebbe's home and the guests, the Rebbe's wife and children would have suffered difficulties. Not only did he give the needy much money, but he gave them household items, clothing, and even his own clothing. It's important to remember the two Rosenbergs:

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…. Yitzkhok and Yeshiye, two wealthy Jews, who assumed the responsibility of sustaining the Rebbe's home.

Later, when there was a change, he became the Magid instead of the Rebbe, but I had already left Serock and was living in Danzig. The Magid came to Danzig with the intention of spending that summer in a cottage in Sopot (near Danzig). He came to have a look and he was not pleased. Meanwhile, he was my guest for a week. At that time, there was a khasidic Jew, Yitzkhok Segal, who was sick in the hospital. I said to the Magid: “If I knew that they would let us see him, we would go visit him in the hospital.” The Rebbe said: “Let's go.” I took an open automobile, and because the Rebbe himself wasn't well, I asked the driver to drive slowly. On the entire route, the crowd grew on either side of the vehicle. I overheard as the non-Jews were saying to each other: “The holy Rabbi is going.” No one said a word in the hospital. Everywhere we went, the guards were welcoming and opened the doors obligingly. The only one who did ask a question, was the sick person: “The doctors say that they have to operate.” The Magid quickly responded: “You'll go to Berlin, and there you'll hear what they say.” The following day, he actually discharged himself from the hospital, went to Berlin, and there became healthy again.

A small characteristic of the Magid: At the Sabbath tish, behind the Magid, the smart young men would stand, and on long benches against the wall would sit the poor people who would go collecting alms for themselves from door to door. The Rebbe took better care of them than of his khasidim. Once, at his tish, he did not distribute his shirayim[6] to his khasidim, but gave them all to the poor who were there. Elya Khasid leaned over to the Magid and said something quietly to him. I heard the reply: “If I give everyone a small piece, what will each person have? These poor Jews will eat the food, and all the khasidim will have a share in this merit.”

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Khasidim

The khasidic life in Serock does not lend itself to much to division. The majority of the town were khasidim. The only ones who had a shtiebel (small house of prayer) were the Ger khasidim. For a certain time, the Radzimyn khasidim also had a shtiebel. In the small town synagogue, the first minyan (quorum) prayed according to the religious style of the Ashkenazi Jews;[7] the other quorums (minyanim) would pray according to Nusakh Sefard.[8] On the Shabbath there were two quorums: the first was the early group that prayed Nusakh Ashkenaz, and was not a large group. In the second group, that prayed Nusach Sephard, there was a crowded and packed synagogue.

If we had to divide the town, we would be able to do so only according to status. There were few rich people, with the majority being middle class and poor. But the poor were also respectable. On the Sabbath, for example, one couldn't see any poverty.

There were only a few wealthy people. Just very few had the merit of being wealthy-khasidic, such as, for example, Reb Leib Leviner, of blessed memory. They called him “Leibel from down there,” because he lived “down there” near the Narew. He was a humble man, a man of character, a scholar, a fiery Ger khasid, and a wealthy (prominent) man. He had a very good heart, helped everyone with their needs, and his house was open to every Jew. His children followed in his footsteps.

There were three distant relatives of his in the Rosenberg family: 1) Reb Feivel was an old khasid of Kotzk, a great man to his brethren. For many years, until his passing, he was the first gabbai (manager of the affairs of the synagogue). He built the synagogue and the ritual baths. During his time, the town was known in the world. He left three sons: Dovid, who became the gabbai after Reb Faivel's passing; Shmulik and Moishe, who ran the mill; and two sons-in law, Yeshayohu Melnik and Moishe Fishman. All the children were prominent businessmen in the town. 2) Zanwill Rosenberg was considered the town's rich man. He was already a modern man, but a very devout Jew. He was very active, a great philanthropist, ran a rich home, and left behind three sons: Yeshayohu, Khone, and Yankel, and two sons-in-law, Avrohom and Eliezer Merker. The sons-in-law were brothers, sons of the Otwocker Rebbe, both Talmudic scholars. 3) Moishe Rosenberg, not a wealthy man, but a man who ran a khasidic house (with the lifestyles and traditions), and a man who was a khasid of the Otwocker Rebbe, and he …

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… left three sons: Yitzkhok, who became a rich man during the time of the Magid (as was mentioned earlier); Khaim, a fine Torah scholar and khasid, and Yekhiel, a prominent Jewish businessman; and one son-in-law Asher, who was Yosef Beker's son.

There were learned, wealthy, and pious young men, and there were those who had “days” (it was the custom of the community to assume the responsibility [select a “day”] of providing meals for the yeshiva boys at no cost), who sat and studied and were busy with charitable, community issues, and learned Talmud with young boys in the Gerer shtiebel: these were Avremel, son-in-law of Yisroel Yitzkhok, and also the father-in-law, a pious man known by the name Yisroel Yitzkhok Arzikhover; Yakov Dovid Milshtayn, who was a real scholarly teacher (he was Itche Meier Jekel's son-in-law); Dovid Warsawski (Mendel Kristal's son-in-law). In town, he was called Dovid Jores, which was his mother-in-law's name; and Itche Swarc who was Moishe Pienik's son-in-law; Khaim Elezer, Yitzkhok Aron's son, and Itzel Janishe's son-in-law, and so on.

I remember the time when Serock still had a few Kotzker khasidim. Of Binyomin Kristal, I only remember his funeral. He was a Kotzker khasid, a Talmudic scholar, the rich man of the town. Another person, Moishe Yosel (the father-in-law of Leibel Leviner) and Meier Moishe (Mendel Wiernik's first father-in-law; later Mendel Wiernik married Yore Kristal, the widow of Mendel Kristal). Mendel Kristal was a man of total virtue from his father Binyomin who was a Talmudic scholar, a Ger khasid, and a wealthy man.

My grandfather, of blessed memory, Reb Yosef Eliezer Shokhet (the ritual slaughterer) was a young man who during his years of “days” (learning Talmud and being supported by the community) was with his pious, wealthy father-in-law in Serock, and was a sharp young man, and went to the Alexander Rebbe with the intention of staying there a few weeks, as he normally did. As he entered to greet the Rebbe, the Rebbe said to him that he should go to Radzymin to Moishe Avrohom, and study how to be a shokhet (Moishe Avrohom was the shokhet in Radzymin and also a khasid of the Alexander Rebbe), and said he should immediately leave Alexander and go to Radzymin by “ox” (there were no trains on this route yet) and they had to pass through Serock and wait there for about two hours until a wagon would come by and go to Radzymin. He went, and stood on the highway and waited. Meanwhile, his father-in-law came out and told him to come into his house. He responded: “The Rebbe told me to go to Radzymin, so I don't have the right to go into other places.”

As he entered Radzymin and came to Moishe Avrohom's house, Moishe Avrohom says to him:

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“Yosef Eliezer! I just received a postcard from the Rebbe this moment!” He immediately took out his knife and began teaching him what to do. Only in about a half hour did he invite him to sit down and have something to eat. Since the Rebbe told him about teaching Yosef Eliezer, they could say or do nothing else first.

After two months of being in Radzymin, Moishe Avrohom says to him that now he already knows how to be a shokhet. When Yosef Eliezer asked for a certificate to prove that he now has the knowledge, Moishe Avrohom says to him: “The Rebbe wrote only about teaching, not about a certificate,” and then told him to go back to the Rebbe and say that “Moishe Avrohom says that now Yosef Eliezer knows.”

He immediately went back to Alexander, and passing through Serock, again the same story happened as before. He came before the Rebbe and told him what Moishe Avrohom told him to say, no more and no less. The Rebbe said nothing. On the Sabbath, the Rebbe gave him much honor, and the congregation was very puzzled. After the Sabbath, the Rebbe summoned him. As Yosef Eliezer entered, the Rebbe said to him: “Go home and become a shokhet in Serock.” And he immediately took his leave. He didn't understand the whole thing, but if the Rebbe says go, you go. This time, as he came to Serock, he went directly home because the Rebbe had told him to do so. Once he was in the house, he already heard the news that two weeks earlier, one of the shokhtim (plural) had suddenly died. The following morning, Yosef Eliezer went to see the Rav and told him the entire story, from beginning to end, exactly as it happened. The Rav did not say a single word, but took an ordinary piece of paper and his goose quill (the Rav, of blessed memory, used a goose quill all his life), and immediately wrote that he takes on Yosef Eliezer as the primary shokhet in Serock and will accompany him at night to the first slaughter.

The slaughterhouse was two viorst (one viorst is 2/3 of a mile) outside the city, in the village of Wierbice. The Rav says, he doesn't even have any knives yet. He tells him to go back home, eat something, and come right back. When Yosef Eliezer comes back, the Rav gives him a package and says, “Here are the knives and the rocks [to sharpen the knives],” and he will have to pay as much as the widow of the shokhet decides, because there was no price yet established with her. He went right away, …..

[Page 116]

… and set the knives in order. That night, the Rav went with the grandfather to the slaughterhouse and all the khasidim in the town joined them. In the Alexander shtiebel, after the slaughtering, there was a festive meal. The Rav and many of the wealthy townspeople were also there, and Yosef Eliezer became the shokhet for the town of Serock. A week later, he went to see the Rav and reminded him that he did not yet have a certificate, and he asked for a “receipt” (that's what the certificate of a shokhet was called). The Rav responded: “The (Alexander) Rebbe sent you to us to be a shokhet, but he did not send you here for a certificate.”

A year later, the Alexander Rebbe, of blessed memory, went to Pultusk for a wedding and passed through Serock where he spent the night. There was a great festive meal held, and everyone in the city was present. After the meal, the Rebbe said that he would like my grandfather to slaughter a chicken that he would be able to take with him. They brought two white chickens right away and my grandfather showed him the knife. He took the knife, gave one look at it, and gave it directly back and said to proceed with the slaughter. The Rebbe covered the blood, asked for paper, and wrapped the chickens himself, not allowing anyone to help, and at that very moment, he declared loudly: “All you Jews should know that it is a mitzvah to eat from this young man's slaughtered animals.” In the morning, the Rebbe left for Pultusk. The entire city escorted him until a good distance out of town – all the Jewish wagon drivers: Zelde's Yekele and Itche Berl and their wagons, Khantze's Feivel Moishe (Henokh Faskowicz' father-in-law) who was a pious Jew and had a horse and wagon and used to travel to Warsaw for merchandise; Moishe Didak and Moishe Margolias also rode out with their smaller wagons and drove the crowd from Serock to Pultusk free of charge.

My grandfather became greatly respected in the town. The khasidic Jews held him as if he were a half chosen Rebbe, and the rest of the people actually were afraid of him.

The other shokhet was Nakhman Shokhet, a khasid from Pilew, also a great Talmudic scholar, and also greatly respected in the town. Nakhman Shokhet had great respect for my grandfather.

Two years later, the Alexander Rebbe passed on. At that ….

[Page 117]

…. time, a delegation from Pultusk arrived to my grandfather, proposing that he become the primary shokhet in Pultusk, which would mean double the salary and honor. My grandfather received the delegation very respectfully, made a festive meal for them, and afterwards said to them that he cannot go with them because the Rebbe, of blessed memory, had told him to “go home and become the shokhet in Serock.” Since the Rebbe is no longer alive, no one can change that, and “I remain a shokhet in Serock.” Years later, my grandfather was already over fifty years old, the terrible disease of cholera was spreading around. People died like flies. Whoever was caught by the disease, died within a few hours, or at most a few days, God have mercy on us. Nakhman Shokhet caught the disease, and died on the second day, may we be spared. My grandfather came back from the funeral and summoned the gabbai'im (plural of gabbai, managers of the synagogue), and told them to hire another two shokhtim (plural of shokhet) because he too is no longer a shokhet. Immediately after that, he went directly to bed and became ill. The doctor came and said it was nothing, but my grandfather summoned all the children and told each of them things, including that none of them should become a shokhet. He died on the third day. The town went into black mourning. Until after the thirty day mourning period, there was no mention of getting a new shokhet. After that, they took on Refoel and Khaim Shlomo.

From my grandfather's children, in Serock lived a son-in-law (my father, of blessed memory) and a son who became a famous circumciser (mohel). Both of these men were called Itche Meier.

 

Religious Jews

The majority of the Jews in Serock were religious. In the town, a non-religious Jew was someone who already allowed himself to trim his beard a little, but almost not even one Jew ever missed a day in the place of study (bais medrash) for prayers. One can say that the “ignoramus” type did not exist there because of the groups that studied in the bais medrash between the afternoon services (minkha) and night services (maariv); they studied Khayei Odom (famous book on Jewish law), Ein Yakov(commentary on the Talmud), the Talmud, and Psalms. Every simple Jew loved and respected the Torah. Ordinary Jews gave up the last bits of food in their mouths to be able to pay large sums of money …

[Page 118]

… to prominent teachers for education fees so that their children should become knowledgeable Torah Jews.

There was one Jew named Avrohom Yekel Koval. One of his sons, Yehoshua, was a brilliant scholar, and he married someone from Pultusk. In Serock at that time they used to send the sons away to other towns to study in yeshivas (religious Torah institutions for boys). There were many young men who were provided for in those towns (“kestkinder”) and there were many scholars as well. They would study with the younger boys. The youths who would come into the places of study (bais medrash), would immediately begin to study the Talmud and its commentaries because before that, they did not leave their kheder (children's religious school) for any higher studies. Even the butchers were Torah Jews. For example, Moishe Kozak-Wineberg. The whole family was called Kozak because their father, the old Yosel Kozak, was a Cantonist. As a child, he was captured and sent somewhere deep into Russia where he served for 25 years, and he still came home as a Jew. He raised a generation of children who were devout Jews: Moishe, a scholar, was one of them, and he had two sons – Yitzkhok Meier and Motele, both exceptional scholars. There were many sorts like this.

There was a Jew Yekel Shneider who was asked by the Rav, of blessed memory, to make the Rav's casket and tombstone from the table that Yekel used for cutting and sewing his clothing (that's how holy Yekel was). About Yekel, the Rav guaranteed, that not even one stitch was sewn without him reciting Psalms, and he never had even the smallest piece of leftover material. There was no Sabbath or other Jewish holiday (Yom Tov) without a guest.

There was also a Mendel Bobek, an exceptional Jew. Until after his wedding, he was a simple person. He hired a teacher for himself, Reb Shlomo Pesakh Melamed, this was Refoel Shokhet's father, a renowned teacher and a pious Jew. Mendel began his studies as if here were a young boy, studying khumash, rashi, Talmud (Torah and commentaries). He maintained this teacher until he was able to recite all six books of mishnayos (Talmud). Mendel Bobek was my book of ethics. I lived with him on the opposite wall. Early in the morning, still lying in bed, I already heard Mendel learning, so it chased me out of bed. He had one daughter, so he took a true Torah scholar from Nacielsk as a son-in-law, and provided for him for several years with great respect. His reverence for a Torah scholar was something to behold.

[Page 119]

There was a Jew, Yisroel Yitzkhok Stoler. He had a son who was scholar who studied Torah with me at the Rav's. There was Moishe, Dvoira Jerel's, a baker, who had two sons: one Refoel, a genius, and Moishe, also a great Torah scholar.

Many Serock Jews raised their children as workers. Every ordinary Jew kept his children in religious school for young children (kheder) then in higher learning (Talmud Torah), and after that they started learning a trade. Many had children who were Torah scholars. It's important to remember one particular Jew who lived in the same court as my parents, may their memories be blessed. His name was Hersh Meier Kozak (his real name was Wineberg), he was a son of Yosel Kozak. He earned his living as a water porter on a wagon with two wheels and a big barrel hammered on, and a horse that no doubt other than Mondays and Thursdays (as was the tradition), also fasted on the other designated fast days. This Jew's earnings were at best, three rubles a week – this was the time when Poland was under Russia. His son – Avrohom Noson, learned with Yisroel Zelig Melamed, and Meier Kozak paid one ruble and 20 kopeks per week as fees, and whatever was left was used for living.

My mother, of blessed memory, came home one day, and cried bitterly, and when my father, of blessed memory, became frightened and asked: “What happened?” She answered with even more outcry, that she was in the courtyard and overheard Aunt Bina say to her husband that he should go wash his hands and go eat, and then she excused herself that she had only one small piece of bread, but had a few potatoes in the house, and she had prepared it with a little fried onions (for flavor). So the husband asks her whether Avrohom Noson had already eaten. No, she said, because he's not yet home from school. He answered that she should give him (the husband) only two potatoes and leave the rest for their son Avrohom Noson because he needs energy to study.

At this point, she burst into another cry and said to my father: “This is the kind of poverty we have here in this court and we know nothing. What's the good of us sitting and learning if this can happen right next door in the same court!”

Their son, Arohom Noson, actually did become a Talmudic scholar. In 1910 …

[Page 120]

… he was called up to military service. He left for London and became a “machine man,” that is somewhat of a tailor. Avrohom Noson, in his 53 years in London, never yet missed a day without studying a page of gemara (Talmud), or of praying with the quorum, and remained truly a pious Jew.

 

Teachers

All the teachers were Torah Jews, even the teachers of young children. These teachers of young children were Avrohom Leib and Yehoshua Merle, who taught how to pray, to read, and the beginnings of khumash (Torah studies). For the older children, who were already studying khumash and the commentary Rashi, and a page of Talmud without commentaries, there were the teachers Khaim Yoine, Yosef Shmijes, Dovid Itziks, and Efraim Sandler, of blessed memory.

The most prominent teachers were Yisroel Zelig, Yosef Mendels, Yakov Hirsh, and so on. Their style was that of a yeshiva: Yosef Mendels taught limitless amounts of Talmud with commentaries every two weeks. Once a boy completed Yosef Mendels' heder, he continued with Yisroel Zelig or Yakov Hirsh. There, the boys would learn in greater detail with all the commentaries. The boys would study in these classes until age 14 or 15.

After that, when the boys could study Talmud independently, along with all the commentaries (tosefos and poskim), they would go into the Ger shtiebel and study with the other boys and young men.

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A Magid is a traditional Jewish religious “itinerant preacher,” a talented and skilled narrator of Torah and religious stories. Return
  2. A prayer shawl (talis) is generally worn only for morning prayers. Return
  3. A Rebbe's tish (table) is a mass gathering of the Rebbe's followers, where food, lengthy Torah discourses, singing, and dancing take place at a large table. These events normally take place on Sabbaths, festivals, or commemorative days, and can last many hours, long into the night. Return
  4. Before eating bread, one washes the hands and recites certain blessings, with the intention of having the meal in one place. If one is to leave the place where he has eaten, when washing for bread he needs “to have in mind” that he will recite the blessings after the meal in another place. Return
  5. That was the time when a Rebbe would prepare himself mentally and spiritually to be able to pray unhindered for his congregation (and Jews everywhere) for the New Year. Return
  6. These are foods from which the Rebbe has eaten, which were distributed to those present. It was considered a great honor to partake of these foods, as they had been originally served to and touched by the Rebbe himself. Return
  7. Nusakh Ashkenaz -- this is a style of religious service conducted by Ashkenazi Jews originating from Central and Western Europe. Return
  8. Nusakh Sefard -- the name for one of the various forms of the Jewish prayer book that merged Ashkenazi customs with kabbalistic customs and content; this “style” of prayer is commonly used among khasidim. Return

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