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[Page 145]

From the Recent Past

 

Figures and Events

by Yosef Sela - Yoshe Schulstein (Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh)

Translated by Sara Mages

When I bring up chapters of memories from Kotzk's past, acts and events, personalities and characters, images and legends - I realize that for me, and for people like me who experienced them, they aren't just tales from the past, but life stories that occurred in our generation. It seems, that it was just yesterday when schoolchildren still studied the Torah in “heders” with the “melamdim” [teachers] of Kotzk, while, on the other hand, the girls “went” to the Gentile schools and studied together with the “shekzim” and “shiksas” [Gentile boys and girls]. The Zionist legends aroused longings to Eretz-Yisrael of the Chumash, removed the cloak of holiness from the “holy language” and turned it into everyday language…

The town's craftsmen organized in their own associations - established a cooperative grocery store, a charity fund and the association of “Hachnasat Kallah” whose function was to match and marry orphans according to Jewish law. Kotzk's Hassidim dreamed an old dream about the “restoration of the pristine splendor.” They didn't rest until they found a descendant of R' Mendele, placed a rabbinical crown on his head and Admorut as written: “Renew our days as of old”…

I leaf through the pages of the past and I don't accept forgetfulness. Therefore, I'll draw a few drops from the big sea.

*

Kotzk, although it was blessed with memories of the past and important figure such as the rabbi, R' Mendele, the founder of the “Kotzk Dynasty,” and to differentiate, Berek Joselewicz, the hero of the War of Independence of the Polish people - its people counted the years and the events according to the “fire” that broke out in town, before or after the fire, and when you said “fire” - you didn't say anything - because the elders of the generation would ask immediately - you mean the first fire or the second?

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In the last generations the progressive townspeople used to peek in the weekly calendar - they didn't need it to set the Sabbath and the holidays since this matter was entrusted in their hands from time immemorial, but to know what the weather would be like on a certain day in a certain week - wind, snow or rain. From time to time, when the astrology of the calendar was faulty and the prophecy didn't take place, the matter probably caused that someone “committed suicide by hanging,” Heaven forbid! As a result of this, the excitement raged continuously for three days and nights because it's well known that - everyone should express his opinion…The clowns and the ignorant of the generation preferred the daily page on the “weekly” because the buffoonery and the jokes were written on the back of the daily page which was torn off at dusk…

There was a street corner and near it were majesty and splendor, beginning and end - the corner of the synagogue and Beit-HaMidrash. Why the end? It was customary in Kotzk to accompany the dead on their final journey near the synagogue.

The whole community streamed here on the Sabbath and holidays. The prayer ended - the God-fearing and men of action return to their homes in a slow pace, so, God forbid, they will not stumble in a rough stride on the Sabbath - and the adjacent streets blackened from the abundance of silk and satin Kapotas.

Not far from here is the building of the bathhouse which opens its gates on Sabbath eve also for the seculars, “the sweat's fans,” and some say that also the “uncircumcised” didn't stay away from it…

*

Morning has come. Shlomo the Shamash is walking from house to house and knocks with a tilted handle of a short stick. Three knocks on the shutter, meaning: one must hurry up to worship God, two “thumps” close to sunset on Sabbath eve, announce that it's “candle lighting” time. Even today, these thumps pulse in the ears of a Kotzk son …

Dawn. The first to appear in the morning dimness from the nearby alley is Berel bard (Berel the old) the woodchopper. A lanky elderly Jew with a long white beard, which is divided into two, is counting his slow steps. In one hand he holds an ax and in the other a long saw that their polished and shiny teeth look as if they are keen to do the sawing work…

Moshe Gritzki the carter, who already fed and watered his pair of horses, enters them to the yoke of the harnesses on both sides of the shaft. He unties and ties, and strengthens the straps of the harnesses with all his strength as he supports himself by his right knee. He takes the reins and tosses them towards the cart which is already full of passengers. They sit frightened with a heavy heart: a long way, accompanied by a lot of shaking, awaiting them until they'll reach the city of Radzyn - and from there, quite a long way to the train station. Although, a more comfortable way in the lightweight carriages of the carters of Radzyn.

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De grabe Sara (Sara the fat) is already engaged in an extraordinary agility in her tiny garden which grows the best: green onions, reddish radishes, peas, cucumbers and sunflowers. Not once, we, the city children, sneaked over the fence and caused havoc.

And here's the “heder” of R' Avraham the slaughterer. He's standing and doing the holy work with “devotion.” With trained hands he grabs the chicken and swiftly thrusts the “Chalaf” [butcher's knife] between his teeth. With one hand he gathers the chicken wings and with the second he pulls its head back. He plucks a few feathers from its neck, so, God forbid, the “Chalaf” won't be damaged. He takes the knife out from between his teeth, passes it swiftly on its throat, and the glittering blade is stuck again between the teeth of R' Avraham the slaughterer who is ready to return to his work on the next chicken which is fidgeting in his hand, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, there is a brave rooster, a man among men, who escapes from the hands of the slaughterer with his half-slaughtered throat. He runs and jumps over the adjacent yards, shouting loudly as if he wants to say: Jews, sons of merciful fathers! Look what this angel of death has done to me - he slaughtered me… and those who stood and watched whispered to each other - “reincarnation,” maybe a sinner was transformed into this rooster to correct the sins that he had sinned when he was a man in the previous incarnation, and who knows? Maybe, God forbid, at that time he ate “something else” - not from the butchery of R' Avraham the slaughterer.

In another alleyway, near R' Yekutiel the scribe, lived Avramale “de roeite ko” (red cow). This nickname came to him because of the reddish complexion of his face that didn't look like the face of a Jew. A burly tall Jew with a strong back - his hour came when a fire broke out in town or in the surrounding area. He sprang to life immediately after hearing the fire brigade's bugle call. He put the shiny copper hat on his red head and rushed, with all his power, to the “shufa” (the fire brigade's hut). He confiscated the first horse that came his way, untied it from the cart, quickly jumped on it and galloped there. The farmer - the owner of the horse was left dumbfounded, and woe to him if he tried to prevent Avramale the “red cow” from taking his horse…Then, Avramale would beat him with his strong arms - “so they will know” - have you seen?- he argued - have you ever seen such an insolent Gentile? His whole village could go up in flames and he didn't move…

R' Yekutiel the scribe examined mezuzut which were disqualified, sold tziziot and “four corners,” “Siddur Korban Minchah” and “Ṭayṭsh Ḥumash.” If someone longed for “Mayśe-bikhl” or a novel by “Shomer” [Nahum Meïr Schaikewitz] - he had to trouble himself and go to Alter'l the scribe who lives up the street. When you got there, you were guaranteed that you wouldn't leave empty-handed. Alter'l spread before you all of the “bargains” in his bag and whisper in your ear that he just received for sale the book that everyone has been waiting for, and it is “Sefer HaGoralot” [book of astrology]. There, you will be able to know your future in a simple and clear method.

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Here before you is the book's black page, and in its center is a white circle with 12 painted numbers like in the face of a clock. Take a tiny ball of bread and toss it carefully on the board. Pay attention to the number that the ball fell on or close to it, and open that page in the book. Now you can read the answers to your questions: Will I be rich or poor? Will the husband return to the bosom his abandoned wife? Are you destined to die in your bed in your home - or, mum's the word, on a bed of strangest in a foreign land?

*

On the road to the flour mill is the smithy of Avraham the blacksmith. He installs horseshoes to horses, wheels to carts, iron hinges, etc. Boys congregate at the entrance to the smithy and look at the bellows which fans the fire with embers. Avraham the blacksmith is always covered with black soot and his hands don't rest for a moment. He raises and lowers his heavy sledgehammer on the hot iron and stomping it as if it was soft wax. Sparks of fire are flying around, go out and disappear, the rhythmic tapping of the sledgehammer come one by one, on the iron and on the anvil alternately, and they're accompanied by Avraham's heroic sighs. Sometimes, the horse is stubborn and refuses to let Avraham to shoe it. Then, Avraham the blacksmith approaches the stubborn horse with a pair of blacksmith's pliers in his hand, wraps its ear around it, as if he whispers in his ear what would happen to it if he continues to be stubborn. Then, the horse gives its leg submissively to Avraham's hands and doesn't lower it back to the ground - as if it wants to say: if you don't lower my leg I won't you shoe the other leg…

In the flour mill of the brothers Zeklik mezuzot weren't fixed to the doorways - so it was told in town- and demons run around there undisturbed all night long. One night a miller saw, close to the area where the Gentiles worked day and night, a “demon,” in the form of a cow or a bull, spinning between the straps and the wheels…The Gentile miller didn't remove his floured clothes, lay on top of the flour sacks, and slept a restless sleep. One night - so the story goes - a Gentile miller was about to pass the strap over the wheels and at the same moment a demon grabbed the hem of his clothes and dragged him between the strap and the wheel. The miller started to turn with the wheels until the machines stopped - and then, he passed away. Of course, such a nothing has never happened to a Jewish miller. Needless to say, that he only had to call out the verse - “Shema Yisrael” - and the terrified demons would scatter in all directions for fear of the Almighty...

Alter Chaya Benis, is standing in the grocery store of his wife Chaya Beni and sells a small quantity of cheese, a little butter and bake goods. At the same time, Chaya Beni is busy next to the hot oven and passes the baker's shovel back and forth with her trained hand. She's baking “gritshene babelech” (buckwheat biscuits) smeared with oil, strudel, almond bread, lekach [sponge cake] and the like. From here, she orders her husband Alter: weigh some cheese for a customer! Did you hear me? Alter obeys her, cuts the wedge of cheese with a “kosher” cord, puts it on one of the pans of the rusty copper scale

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and on the other he puts a counterweight - a copper coin in the form of a “Dinar” from the days of Nikola.

And here is one of the town's secular men who is lacking pedigree and “ancestral right.” He's known by the nickname “Das lame hentele” (the paralyzed arm) because of a birth defect in his left arm. It wasn't a derogatory nickname. There was affection, respect and even astonishment in it because “Das lame hentele” was the best tailor in town. When he appeared in the street - something that happened rarely because he spared his time - on his way to one of the rich men to discuss the matter of the suits for his son's wedding, people's eyes accompanied him with admiration and affection. His appearance was poor and emaciated - he was short and had a skinny face… but our Sages of blessed memory have already said - “Don't look at the jar, but at what's inside it.”

The negotiation with the rich man ends quickly. Tomorrow, the tailor and his apprentice will transfer their possessions - sewing machine, scissors and irons - to the home of the rich men and one of the rooms will turn into a workshop for a short period of time. This rich man would boast that this tailor will sew his clothes. Others, who so far were satisfied with a “simple first-class tailor,” pray secretly in their heart that very soon they'll be able to invite him to their homes… The town's craftsmen also peered at him with awe, because one of them rose to greatness thanks to his “glorious handiwork.” Let us honor the tailor “Das lame hentele” who is praised and honored by all the townspeople, big and small, poor and rich alike.

Recently it became widely known, and the matter became the topic of everyone's conversation, that Avramele sherer (the owner of the barber shop) also started to engage in the craft of sewing. The rumor, that Av'mele sherer became a tailor and was “dressing the naked,” aroused great interest in town. Those, with little faith, didn't flinch or spared their time until they arrived to the barber shop and peered through the open door to see and be convinced that his familiar figure is no longer there…But the fact is: that the three sons of Reuvele Chaim Kraitzmans (Reuven Chaim Kraitzman), who were called by all: “Matek,” “Yisrael” and “Simcha'le” the youngest among them - are dressed in new modern coats that only now were taken from the hands of Avramele sherer! And the proof - the white basting thread is still visible on their clothes because he had no time to remove it before candle lighting time. This Sabbath the youngest among them will celebrate his “Bar Mitzvah.” This transformation was a marvel to the residents of the town since Avramele sherer was engaged in totally other trades such as, haircut and the shaving of the head, shaving of a beard - but only to the seculars. Those, who guarded their payot, were assured that he wouldn't touch them with the tip of his scissors. Besides that, Avramele sherer was also known as a “feldsher” (medic) and the healer of the town. He rushed, even at midnight, to those who had abdominal pain or to those who had a fever - with his stick in his right hand and the medic's bag in his left.

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This bag, which wasn't a purse or a suitcase, contained medical devices and prepared medication such as castor oil, cupping, leeches, etc. When one of the patients was complaining of a toothache, Avramele invited him to the dental clinic at the barbershop. There, Avramele seats the patient in the barber chair and drops his head on the pillow, which was recently used for the task of shaving. Then, he walks to the medicine cabinet, which is hanging opposite the mirror, searches and pulls out various bright and shiny pliers that cast fear and terror on the owner of the “aching tooth.” Some say: that the pain ceased immediately upon hearing the ringing of these shiny devices, and the patient asked to postpone the tooth extraction for another time….

With his kindness Avramele sherer isn't offended and isn't angry - on the contrary: he shows understanding to the frightened “patient” and helps him to overcome his pain by placing a cotton wool soaked in liquor or 96% alcohol inside the tooth. Then, he separates from the patient with the blessing “I wish you a speedy recovery” and, God forbid, may we not know a toothache, (and the patient replies) - if only, Ribono Shel Olam

But, when the patient is already standing on the threshold, Avramale smiles and reminds him that if, God forbid, the pain would attack him for the second time, he will see him for a second visit, even at midnight - one slight knock at the door and he'll get up to help him, and don't be shy - for God's sake!

I brought forgotten memories about the town's simple folks, who weren't given the names of their forefathers and the names of their forefathers' fathers, as it was customary by the wealthy or by the scholars and the pious. Of course, there were also important Jews in town such as Pinchas Itzlez the “nelamed” [teacher] whose students, the boys of Kotzk, finished “Shas” [six orders of the Mishnah and Talmud] with Tosafot [commentaries] before their “Bar Mitzvah” or, for example - Mendel Chaim Shaoles, the cantor of the “Mussaf” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the shtiebel of the Kotzk Hassidim - despite his hoarse voice, and many others.

But, I meant to be here and tell a little bit about ordinary Jews, Jews without “pedigree” and “ancestral rights” - whose lives passed under Kotzk's sky with joy and sorrow, laughter and sadness, simplicity and greatness as one.

 

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