I did not have any idea about Hasidism then and yet I always believed in my heart the radiating brightness of the patriarchal figure in that generation.
Reb (honorific, Mr.) Icchok Dawid Frydman was the patriarch of the community. He was a short man and his hair, beard and ear-locks were entirely gray. He had a white face and warm black eyes. Uncle Bunem Blajwajs was the opposite of Reb Icchok Dawid Frydman. He was very tall and always had a smile on his face. Also the same age was the old man Judele but his small beard was still quite black.
Reb Abraham-Aba Ritenberg, who was called Aba from Brik also belonged to the old guard as well as Reb Jakob Szapiro and Reb Joske Grynberg. Also the dry-goods merchant Reb Chaim Dancyker who was at that time the shofar (ram's horn) in the shtibl, Hersz-Welwel melamed (teacher in a boys' grade school) and so many more old men of stately appearance. They sat at long tables in the first, large room of the Gerer shtibl and studied from open holy books.
Time passed and I grew up. I was frequently a guest in the Gerer shtibl, not hanging onto my father's shirt. Just like for dozens of other youngsters the shtibl was my home where I spent the great part of days and nights.
This is how it was for hundreds of Hasidim who spent their entire lives in the shtibl. They struggled to make and living and longed for the hour when the market day would end so they could go straight to the shtibl.
All the shelves were full of holy books. The scholars were deeply immersed in the gemore (part of the Talmud). The weaker students sat with an Ein Jankew (folk legends and fables from the Talmud), or a mishnayes (set of mishnah, a collection of traditional laws), or perhaps only a Hasidic holy book. The shelves were full of such holy books that were read by all kinds of people.
From dawn until late at night it was busy with praying minyans and during Talmud (explanation of Jewish law and commentaries) lessons it bustled with sharp opinions. The men's voices drew out the melodies and among them could be heard the high voices of the eight and nine year old boys, who were already there in the pre-dawn hours, repeating with fervor what they had learned the previous day.
And so day became night and wove itself into a new day. Here the differences between rich and poor disappeared.
Everything was discussed in the shtibl from world affairs to problems facing individual Hasidim. No subject was spurned and everything was discussed in a serious manner.
Days and years passed. There was a great fire and the men moved to the second Gerer shtibl that was rebuilt after the First World War. Three shtiblakh were located in this house, the Aleksander, Gerer and Amshynower.
There were three old men who were astonished at the length of their years and I can still see them before my eyes.
The first who comes to mind is my uncle, Bunem Blajwajs. He was the town magistrate, always happy, full of life and ready with a witticism. He felt obliged to attend all the simchas (celebrations) in town, the weddings and bris (circumcision). After he went to Kock and knew the Kocker Rabbi. Because he was not a great scholar he was seldom seen sitting with a Hasidic Holy Book. When the month of Adar arrived, just before Purim, he got up on a table and yell in a loud voice. Jews, during Adar (Purim is celebrated during Adar) one must rejoice. The second old man was my zeyde (grandfather) Reb Aba Ritenberg, who was among those who moved to the last Gerer shtibl. I see him bent over a holy book, a gemore, a Midrash, or a zohar and even with a tanakh (Five Books of Moses) - as if he was glued to them. All of his time was dedicated to studying Torah. Every year he read the complete Shas (the six orders of the Talmud), Midrash, zohar and mishnayes. He had very little to do with community business. He was the zealot of the Gerer shtibl. The third was Old Judele who was also a Kocker Hasid. He lived the longest of the three. He studied but also liked to listen to stories or events from the youngsters who talked about secular and Hasidic affairs.
Now to another generation of old men in the Gerer shtibl, the Pani (Polish, gentlemen) who embellished the mizrakh (the eastern wall of the shtibl). It was a great honor to be seated at the eastern wall. By this I do not mean the eastern wall because in a shtibl only a simple Jew is able to sit at the eastern wall and at the western wall the greatest scholars. By embellish the eastern wall I mean the spiritual eastern wall of the Gerer shtibl.
The first Pani group to be considered is the three shoychtim (plural of shoychet, ritual slaughterer) in the shtetl.
The first of the three, who were old distinguished scholars and had become masters of their trade, is Reb Chaim Szmul Rubinsztejn. He had the appearance of a cabbalist always absorbed in thought. He had a small, grey beard and a high wrinkled forehead. He gave the impression of being a nobleman. If I had not known that he was a shoychet, I would never had believed it. In the shtibl he was one of the corner Jews. He liked to sit at the corner of the table and study.
The second shoychet was Mosze Hersz. His beard never turned grey. He gave the impression that he would have difficulty understanding. He sat day and night studying, always keeping his finger on the gemore as a pointer. Even as a very old man he still went to the slaughterhouse to kill the animals. His hand never trembled. He was also a quiet man who kept to himself.
The third shoychet was the Shniadaver, the youngest of the three, who took the place of the famous Wisner Chazan (cantor), who led the famous contention (division of religious opinion). The Gerer shtibl triumphed and the Shniadaver shoychet was selected. In contrast to the other two, he always sat studying in the shtibl. The Shniadaver was also the bal-tefilah (prayer leader) during the Days of Awe (The ten days of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days). He would move the men to tears with his heartfelt prayers.
In the second group of Pani were: Reb Zawel Edelstejn, Reb Jeshaja Kalinowicz, Reb Berisz Frydman, Reb Alter Szmulkes and Reb Israel Jona Raczkowski.
Reb Zawel was the wealthy man in the shtetl, among the respected men in the shtibl and the most hospitable. Visitors in the shtibl were always sent to him and his house was never without guests for a meal. He was always in the shtibl in the evenings and pre-dawn diligently studying a large, long Vilner gemore that he brought from home.
Reb Jeshaja Kalinowicz was also a rich man and had a dry-goods store like Reb Zawel. But he was entirely another sort of man. He was burdened with suffering. His wife was always sick and his only son was a problem. In the end he was entirely abandoned as his son had left for Argentina. Reb Jeshaja was considered the scholar of the shtibl - he always sat with an open gemore studying diligently.
Berisz Frydman, a son of the old Reb Icchok Dawid was the mainstay of the shtibl, an important man, responsible for watching out for the younger generation, the young men and boys, so they would remain Hasidim. It is possible, as at other times, that maybe a lot of them argued with him about why he would not allow neck-ties around shirt collars or too much dressing. However he did pay attention to any of them because he wanted to maintain the original appearance of the shtibl and he devoted his entire life to this.
Reb Berisz was a simple man devoted to Hasidism. He was also one of the most hospitable to guests. Every Yontef (holiday) he traveled to Ger (Góra Kalwarija) where he was always among those who sat at the rabbi's table. Yon Kipper (Yom Kippur) before Kol Nidre (prayer said the eve of Yom Kippur) he was one of three men chosen to say Al Das HaMakom. He stayed in Ger for the ten days and immersed himself in Hasidism.
Reb Alter Szmulkes quickly became a yoyshev-oyel (Yiddish, a man who stays at home or a man who devotes his whole time to study). During the week he seldom came to the shtibl. He was a scribe and his work kept him away most of the time. On Shabes and the High Holy Days when he came to the shtibl, he was always absorbed in thoughts. He was very knowledgeable in zohar and cabbalah. He took over from Chaim Dancygier as the permanent shofar blower in shtibl. The last of the group was Reb Israel Jona Rackowski, a great scholar. He was always the one to read the final prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yon Kipper in the large besmedresh (synagogue, house of study) and also gave lessons in the shtibl on gemore. He was the first community leader in the shtetl who was sent to represent the Gerer shtibl.
When all the old men in the shtibl took their special places they became part of the general complexion of the shtibl.
Reb Mosze Dawid Sofer, was always the bal-koyra (reader of the Torah) on Yon Kipper, with the special melody. His reading was masterful, word after word, as if handing out pearls.
Reb Icchok Bunem's (son) Bajwajs, one of Old Bunem's sons was a great scholar. In his old age when he became blind, he would sit through every lesson in the shtibl and repeat the gemore. He was very smart and was among the politically astute in the shtibl.
Mosze Eliezer, who became the village magistrate after my old Uncle Bunem, was a happy man who always had a sharp mind. He took part in all the celebrations in the shtetl. He had his own remedies and never called a doctor. He always said that for an upset stomach the best remedy was hard, black bread broken up on a little place and spread with clean alcohol. He actually used the remedy and it helped him.
Mendel Israel Szlama's (son) was a tall, skinny man with a wide silk had on his head, that he brought from Russian when he migrated from there during the First World War. Every evening, and especially during the winter nights he already had his circle of listeners at the warm tiled stove where he talk politics or about town news.
Reb Abraham Szwarc was one of the prominent Hasidim. He had a tavern in town and was the first one allowed to spend money for all community things that the shtibl had to buy as well as the shtibl's large machnisi orchim (hospitable men, society that gave lodging and food to overnight visitors who could not afford a hotel).
Young men were also among those who formed and shaped life in the Gerer shtibl: Reb Zebulon Grabard, Reb Szaul Hersz Blajwajs, Reb Chaim Motl Israel-Jona's son-in-law, Reb BenCjon Kitejewicz, Reb Nasanel Stuczynski, Reb Jakob-Pinchus Pedeto, Reb Leibusz Frydman, Reb Itcze Zilberman, Reb Abraham Josel Melamed with Icchok Tambak, Reb Icze-Majer Icchok-Judel's (son), Reb Icl Jablonka and Majer Tsitzis-macher (maker of fringes for prayer shawls) and his two sons Israel and Mosze'l.
All of the above mentioned were only a small part of the large community who prayed in the shtibl. These were the prominent men who took part in community life and were leaders of Hasidism in the shtibl. There were also young men in the shtibl.
Zelman Szlama Rziwiec's son-in-law, Benjamin Mosze, Jeshaja Ewri and Michal, Icchok Wasermacher's son-in-law. These young men had always been devoted to Hasidism, organized feasts for the start of each new month and the meal ushering out the Sabbath. They were devoted body and soul to Torah and Hasidism. They attracted other young men such as Chaim Zejgermacher's son-in-law, a Warszewer and the recently married men in town, for example, Akiwa Stuszynski, Herszel Zilberman, etc.
The young single men in the shtibl were: Jechusza Kotliarek (the last got married), Jeshaja Winograd, Chaim Lejb Kozlowsksi, Natan Szajnman (at the end changed to a different camp), Michal Wasercug, Herszl Zilberman, Berl and Mosze Jablonka and the last two Fiszel Kupiec and Gerszon Góra who after the Holocaust made aliyah to Israel.
For twenty years I lived the life of the shtibl, twenty years I drank in the atmosphere and lived with the warmth and affection, immersed in a sea of generosity of one for the other, personally and through charitable organizations. I lived with self-sacrifice for Judaism, for Torah and for Hasidism.
|A group of Hasidic young men from the Gerer Shtibl
who were also active members in Zarei Agudas Israel
Sitting from right to left: Celniker, Kardan, Shejman, Zilbersztejn,
Jablonka. Standing: Winograd, Berl Jablonka, Melcer, Góra, Aron Jablonka.
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