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{Pages 495 - 499}

Setting Out from Romanova

by Meyshe Yehude Mayzl (Staten Island)

Translated by Sheldon Clare, Paul Pascal and Judie Ostroff Goldstein

(Last version: Sh. Tsivion)

The Rabbi

Long ago in Romanova there lived a rabbi, a good, honest, holy, and pious man. Possibly one of the world's legendary "thirty-six saintly souls.” His name was revered far and wide. Bursting into this man's life of sanctity, there came a desperate woman, as beautiful as she was alien – the landowner's wife. "Save me, rabbi! I am about to lose my estate, all of my property!"

The rabbi had been sitting alone, poring over his religious books. "What does this hussy want from me?” He was frightened to the point of fainting. Everyone in the house, large and small, ran to the study, trying to help, to revive their cherished and beloved father, so badly shaken. He managed to stand now, and was peering sternly out through the window. From outside, the landowner's wife studied him and wondered, "What is the pale man whispering? I've heard that this is how he makes a blessing. So will his blessing be fulfilled? Is my happiness then assured?"

Itshe Gittes the Hebrew Teacher

Let me tell you about my Hebrew teacher, Itshe Gittes, the Torah tutor of Romanova. He would instruct a class of nine or ten students, tackling gemora [Talmud] using the simplest of approaches. He didn't delve into the subtleties or the knotty conundrums. When a difficult passage in an obtuse chapter would present itself, he would go for the easy, literal meaning, the interpretation most common-sensical and logical. But when it came to Hebrew grammar – whether the accent on a word was on the last syllable or the second-last, whether a vowel was unstressed or a consonant doubled – for this he had a distinct gusto. "You rascal!" he would scold a pupil good-naturedly, "this is Hebrew, our holy language! Don't forget, if you are careless with it, you'll really catch it from me!"

Earning a wage? Getting paid for his teaching? It was the last thing on his mind. One boy, a lad named Hayimke, had an aptitude for Biblical Hebrew. H ayimke's clothing was tattered, one patch on top of another, His father long since dead, his mother a widow who survived on alms, the boy had found, however, a permanent place in the rabbi's heart – he was treasured. Certainly far more than the boy who came to heder dressed in a brand-new suit, his father a magnate, always offered the place of honor, a boy who peered at a holy book with no more understanding than a rooster would have, looking into the same book.

My Zeyde

The mayor of Romanova was a feeble, old Jew – my zeyde [grandfather], Reb Yankl, may he rest in peace. His face was stern, his expression cold. (This is how I still often see him in my dreams.) But in his heart he was as gentle and sweet as a child. He would regularly take in boys, strangers, to his home, clandestinely, so that they could study Torah rather than be caught by the authorities to serve in the Czar's army. He did this, even though in gemore he himself wasn't that well versed.

One particular Sabbath, my zeyde was standing before the congregation, taking his turn leading the morning prayers. The synagogue was festive, and full of people. Suddenly, pandemonium! What's going on? What happened? Soldiers, pointing rifles, were rushing into the synagogue, going in after a particular young man, a brilliant Torah scholar, who had been hiding there to escape military service. They even brought a rope to tie him up and take him. But he "got lucky." He was able to disappear. How did he do it? My zeyde had figured out what was happening, and in the middle of the kedusha prayer, started coughing and hacking, with increasing intensity, then fell down. There was such a turmoil, even the soldiers got swept up in it. But thanks to that turmoil, the young victim was able to save his skin. And my zeyde ? My zeyde had died on the spot!

My father, who then had to sit Shiva [ritual mourning], but who neither cried nor lamented, later explained, "My child, your zeyde's death was a holy sacrifice. But now, in heaven, he is without doubt very happy; for his death liberated a learned Jew from the clutches of heathens."

The Ritual Slaughterer

My uncle Leybke was a shoykhet [community ritual slaughterer] in Romanova, as well as being a judge, an ordained rabbi, and a cantor. A person of stately appearance, he had a glorious beard and a sunny countenance. His clothing was inevitably spick and span, always neat and tidy. He was ready and willing, at a moment's notice, to help settle disputes between a husband and a wife, any kind of quarrels between people. On the go non-stop, he constantly tried to fulfill the holy obligation of peacemaking, like Aaron ha-Kohen [Moses' brother, renowned as a peacemaker par excellence].

In his role as shoykhet, do you think he would take home his own portion of the slaughtered meat, as was his right? God forbid! On the way home from the slaughterhouse, butchering knife still in hand, he would divide up his share to give to this person or that in the street. And to whom? Anyone he felt needed it, a pauper, a widow...

On top of all this, my uncle was highly knowledgeable in worldly matters, too, political issues, and he would read newspapers and journals in various foreign languages. If a war broke out, his left hand would delineate the battle fronts as well as any map hanging on the wall, as he named all the mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans.

Today, the Sabbath morning prayers he customarily led were not up to the usual standard. As it happened, my uncle the rabbi was away today, solving religious queries for the community. His life looked at as a whole, my uncle was accomplished in all things that mattered. He had it all.

Reb Itshe the Preacher

Reb Itshe of Muravka was the inn-keeper's son-in-law, and was from Muravka. However, as it happened, this tragic story took place in Romanova, where his bad luck and his feet had brought him. He had gotten advice on how he could earn a living. Blessed with a talent for oratory, he threw his pack of things over his shoulder and took a gnarled walking stick in his hand, transforming himself into an itinerant preacher. The process itself accorded him confidence. Traveling only on foot, this tall and athletic figure never accepted a seat on a wagon. In this manner, he wandered from village to village, town to town, teaching the world how to live an ethical life, as our forebears had done, to be pious, to be honest, and to keep God's commandments.

A talented preacher was our Reb Itshe, and an advocate of the common folk. His voice flickered with fire and flame, his eyes blazed like rays of the sun, and his words resounded and roared like waves of the sea. Subsisting on bread and salt, and a ladleful of water, he never knew the taste of meat or fish. Yet despite all this, he was always cheerful, with healthy color in his cheeks and all his limbs fit and hardy.

One frosty day he came to Romanova and went directly to his lodgings. And where was it? The synagogue, where he finally laid his pack down, on one of the benches. This was his “hotel” throughout Lithuania, Belorussia, and Poland.

Mikhl the baker invited him for dinner. Mikhl was a pious Jew who had no truck with hypocrisy or falsehood. Sitting there at this unpretentious Sabbath meal, he began reflecting on the day's Torah reading, the last chapters of the Book of Exodus. He went up the two or three steps to the curtain that covered the synagogue's Holy Ark and kissed it, evidencing a particular physical and spiritual exertion. He stood by the Holy Ark enveloped in his talis [prayer shawl]. Here he was at ease. He knew the village well; he knew everyone and everything here. He began his presentation low-key, with some simple scriptural problem, answering it straightaway with a solution from [the famous interpreter of Holy Writ] Rashi. Then suddenly and forcefully, out poured a mystical, esoteric insight, which was quickly absorbed into his discourse like a spark consumed by its fire.

“In the desert our forefathers built a holy tabernacle. They were celebrating its dedication when presently the news spread that Nadav and Avihu [sons of Aaron the High Priest] had been struck dead...The festivities were thrown into chaos, the entire pageant ground to a halt. We learned from this, and it's well-known to everyone now, that the two had presumed to bring “strange fire” to the sacrificial altar. And why was the sentence of the court so severe? Why was consumption by fire the decision to be meted out upon these priests, the two older sons of Aaron? Strange fire, my friends, strange fire!”

His voice, now full of pathos, seemed almost to be singing. “For strange fire, one pays dearly!” His tone was laced with urgency. “Our own fire, my friends, our own fire, fire that is authorized and sanctioned, such fire is holy. Our own fire is from the divine World-to-Come. Strange fire, alien fire, is from “That Other Place,” that world where Satan has dominion, from man's Evil Side, which tempts him into doing that which is forbidden.

“Strange fire! This is a world in which no one takes responsibility! On today's equivalent of Mount Sinai there stands, shamelessly, the god of money. Everyone is trying to get to it. They go on their hands and knees, they fall, they get up and crawl some more. They contort themselves with their crawling, along their crooked, narrow, alien paths. Drained of all decency, all their spiritual resources are dammed up. Our precious inheritance, God's 613 commandments to us, are left to rot.”

The preacher would heap guilt upon guilt on the congregation, like slaps in the face. He would lose all sense of rationality, all sense of composure. He was more a wild tempest than a human preacher – savage, thunderous – searing the assembly with lightning. He would throw the congregation into the numbing cold, then into the agony of conflagration. Sins, transgressions of all kinds, in That World – you'll pay for them all, this was his message.

Sinners, sinners! Boys, girls, men, women, all are guilty! Before long, a screeching wail would break out from the women's section of the synagogue. And all of the preacher's harangues would be backed up with solid quotes from the Torah, biblical exegeses, Talmudic references. Yes, it's on account of our unspeakable sins that the Exile – our dispersion and banishment – has been brought upon us, with all its evil consequences and pain.

Where is it he is referring to? Obviously, he means Hell, where the Angels of Torture, all seven categories of them, are howling savagely, screaming and shrieking, lashing at their victims with red-hot pokers. “Burn them! Roast them!” they cackle. “Tear strips from their skin!” Let evildoers never forget: there is judgment in this universe and there is a Judge!”

With screams, roaring, and stirred up colors he described heaven and earth, life and death with fearsome, terrible images; as if he had just now come from there – not from Lazava, not from Romanova.

Everyone was upset, excited and consciences were aroused. Itshe, Itshe, you such and such, do not place such heavy stones on people's hearts…understand your people whom you teach. They are not so difficult, not so bad. Restrain yourself, come to your senses. Give them a smile for once.

Ingeniously he changed his manner of speech to one of gentleness and refinement. He would start with a tasty melody, like a yiddeshe mama rocking her tiny child in the cradle and singing a song about the little white goat.

Now I will tell you story from Hell: Once, during a short Sabbath the synagogue sexton yelled: “Repent you sinners in Hell. It is already late!” They turned to him with a plea: Wait a while, have pity. In Yaneva it is not yet time for Havdalah [blessing at the end of Sabbath], also in Romanova. That is indeed right! Soon I will know. Sometimes a passionate preacher talks and talks and cannot be interrupted. You should benefit from his merit. What be done with him? He is a man inclined to anger! Once again, “Repent you sinners in Hell!”

A certain merchant, Reb Detz, headed the delegation and stood and argued. “It is still before Maariv [evening prayers] in my Hotzeplotz! [town proverbial for its remoteness].”

Pani [Polish title for gentry] Detz! You respectable man, you have lost your memory entirely. You know very well that in Hotzeplotz men play cards now, they drink liquor and snack on cakes. Aha! You forgot…Repent you sinners in Hell! Too many already remain unmarried.”

He continued singing an amazing story about two pious men who separately knocked on the gates of paradise. Understandably, both were accepted with great honor. But the pious men found no joy there. Why? We will see together. Now listen, gentlemen! This is what happened: those two made an alliance and ran away from paradise. One of them was a lamedvav [one of the thirty-six hidden saintly men without whom the world could not exist], a pious man, “one who is hidden.” The second one was a very poor Hasid, a simple man, a “wise man from Chelm.” But do you know where they ran? There, to the sinners in Hell…the devils. The Angels of Torture screamed at them with terrible, savage voices and with raised fists drove the two out. But the two strange men were stubborn and did not want to go back to paradise. They stayed in the middle of the road, neither here nor there. This is a deep subject…one must understand this.

This was not like him, was not his style. The uninspired congregation listened calmly and quietly. The clock struck half past nine and people were thinking: it is already late, time to finish. He has understood the message. And if in passing the road takes us to paradise, we will talk abut them a little. He paints various pictures, compares each tenderly and gently, gives his evidence taken from judgements, Midrash[a body of post-Talmudic literature of Biblical exegesis] and Shas [the Talmud]. But the images were watery and pale, the similes, the examples, dry, cold, thrashed out and old. There sit pious men everywhere, good, religious men before G-d, prophets, angels, rishoynim, akhroynim, tanayim, amorim and gaonim [sages] from every generation until now. Their names shine forth from both Torahs, Babylonian and Jerusalem. Among the tanayim, the famous Chananya, who made a measure of carob last an entire week and there are more pious men, and more and more. They sit crowned by the shade of the canopy of the divine presence. The fathers and the mothers are in the seats of honor. If I am not mistaken, there are the benevolent from “the nations of the world,” the gentiles who saved Jews from murderers and even men. With crossed hands they listen to the song, the songs of praise of the angels/ choir…without good deeds, without sins, without drink, without food. They sat like that constantly and so will they eternally sit. Their task? To defend and protect the people of Israel.

In the middle he considered throwing in a subtle hint to ignite that what was dear to him. Perhaps it will kindle a spark, a little fire – but no fire was lit. For a short time he was silent, then he sang a sweet melody. When Messiah comes I wish for you all, brothers, good and religious, that while still being in good health, you should enjoy the ox and fish that is prepared for the pious at the time of the Messiah. Me? He who does not already know, shall know: I belong to a society, an association, spread over the Russian and Romanian Diaspora, who observe a new commandment; no meat and no fish, no G-d fearing man should talk about it, on our table. Therefore this is my desire: leave me a small bottle of wine, reserved for the righteous at the time of the Messiah, he declared with good, courageous humor. As it is stated in scriptures: a glass of wine puts joy in people's hearts, illuminating faces embittered and dark from pain and suffering. Even the end of the sermon left the congregation with a cold smile. Because time is short, I will stop here for today about the world to come and about paradise in the other world. We will with G-d's help begin the month of Nissan. Herewith I conclude the lecture. Praised is the Master of the Universe, praised be his name, and come to Zion, Redeemer, and we say amen.”

Reb Michl sat at the table. The silver and copper coins clinked in the plate. Young heder boys ran to eat supper. As Reb Itshe spoke, the young boys frolicked and ran through the snow and in my memory I am one of them.

On a beautiful morning the synagogue sexton, Borach Rosh's and a middle-class man went to collect money in the shtetl to pay the preacher for his lectures. “He has, may the evil eye not harm them, a large family that needs to be supported. The Muravaker has legitimately earned the right to be healthy and alive, for he leaves to the mercy of the Almighty the task of planting justice and faith in human hearts.” The sexton took some of the collection for his trouble, but there still remained a large sum. The main thing was that that these pious, middle class men opened the knots of their pouches. The heavy, filled handkerchief is soon carried off to Reb Michl, the baker.

Wednesday evening after a rare sermon, the preacher was again invited to Reb Michl's. The religious, honest man showed his respect by serving a dairy supper with a glass of liquor and a cake. The preacher exchanged the coin for bank notes and thought: It will be sufficient for the holidays, for wine, matzah [unleavened bread], prayer books, hats, shoes and clothes for the boys and girls. Also there is enough for a gift for Tema, a warm shawl like the one on the shoulders of Reb Michl's wife. The balance will go to support me and for tuition fees. After Passover, if I will still be left in this world with G-d's help and without any holy promise, I will go on foot, without a horse and wagon, to another district for the entire summer. Do I have then a choice? What can one do? It is indeed wrong to leave children with only a mother. Parents are obliged to protect their children together like young saplings before they bloom.

Thinking about this, he took his leave: “Go in good health – be healthy, thank you!” He left and went to his place on his bench. Under his head there was a folded towel for a pillow. He lay down near the heated stove and covered himself with a fur coat that had lost most of its fur, (the father-in-law's gift – the former fur coat). He soon slept and dreams came, dream after dream:

He is at home…Shalom Aleichem! [Peace unto you, a greeting] Aleichem Shalom! [unto to you peace, a greeting]. The children are happy, there is the furniture. Tema's bright face…tears from her eyes that laugh…in the dream as in reality, everything distinct, substantial and clear…

That week a beggar was staying at the synagogue, a lame wretch, an idiotic short man. Reb Itshe thought him curious. “Mister, what do people call you?”

The beggar kept silent and looked the preacher right in the eye. The preacher asked again, this time properly. “What are you called, my friend?”

In response the beggar was silent and shook his head.

“Why are you silent? What is your name? You are not a mute. I heard you say amen after a blessing and you pray as a pious Jews. I do not mean you, G-d forbid, any harm.”

The beggar let out a groan, spoke a couple of words with a sniffling reprove. “What do you want? I am called Leyzer.”

“Leyzer? Good!”

Reb Itshe thinks, even though the man's an idiot, he is still a pious Jew. Who damaged him? This god fearing, poor, punished soul; it will be a good deed to speak to him more often.

After going from house to house, Leyzer arrived at the synagogue ready for his feast. He took his sack off his shoulder, put it down next to his prayer shawl, took out two half challahs [twisted egg loaf], washed and made the blessings over the bread. Laid out on the bench were pieces of cheese and a hard boiled egg. A housewife gave him a sour pickle from the pot and two onions. He also had a bottle of kvass {drink made from fermented bread]. He ate with great gusto, gulped, swallowed, and guzzled from the kvass bottle that a storekeeper had given him in the street.

Reb Itshe sat on the side contemplating and thinking about deep mysteries. He noticed that Leyzer smiled while reciting the Grace after Meals. What is the condition of such a Jew? A cripple, an idiot, who eats and is happy. A thought chases a thought, a supposition that Leyzer, his short-term neighbor, this beggar is one who relies on G_d. Suddenly he lifts his head from the gemore. He has made made a decision:

“Reb Leyzer, let us talk a little. It will be nicer and pleasanter for both of us.”

But Leyzer is a hard nut. “I do not want to, leave me alone. What do we have to say to each other? You are a teacher and I am a beggar with a thick skull. I do not want to and you cannot make me.” Not another word, neither good nor bad, did he utter.

And that is how four days and four nights passed. Itshe sat or lay on one bench and the beggar remained opposite him on another. This Layzer was a criminal, one who could make himself seem crooked when he needed to, or blind. He crept around in chinks and peepholes and came out to make quick swindles. He was, as it is said, like the wind in a field. This Leyzer only made himself seem idiotic. He knew that the preacher slept deeply. He had seen the bulging wallet. This was his trade and he was a master. With nimble fingers he took the pouch from Reb Itshe and quietly, carried it away. Noiselessly he opened the door, did not close it, and disappeared into the snowy night.

All morning men came to pray in the synagogue and they noticed that the preacher was still lying on his bench. What is wrong, Reb Itshe? Are you sick?

He was silent. They lit a candle and brought it near to light his face. When they turned to look at him his mouth was contorted from pain and troubles. Why are you silent, Reb Itshe? Speak to us. Where is your tongue? From his open eyes, tears ran – their fire, their ardor extinguished.

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