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The Holders of Religious Posts in Sierpc

By Rabbi Moshe Dov (Ber) Goldman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

Rabbis and Cantors

Rabbi David Kleinman of blessed memory was the rabbinical decisor[1] of the community. He did not receive any salary. His primary livelihood was from his tailoring workshop that he ran near the bridge and from traveling to the fairs where he set up a stall. At times, he would earn a few rubles for an arbitration, or when the rabbi got him involved with koshering a mill or a matzo bakery for Passover .

Reb David was a Gerrer Hassid, a modest man, and a tzadik. He would study Gemara when he was in his store. When a customer, a farmer, would come to purchase merchandise on a “spudnitze,”[2] he would place his red kerchief over the page of Gemara as a testimony a remedy[3] against forgetting and conduct business with the gentile in a Gemara melody, thereby continuing to think about the Talmudic section that he had been studying. If a solution to a difficulty in Tosafot regarding “Kofer HaKol” or “Modeh Bemiktzat[4] while he was measuring an arshin[5] or merchandise for the “spudnitze,” he would forget about the gentile and run to the Gemara to write his idea down in the cover. Of course, he did not become a wealthy man from this type of business.

There was another rabbinical decisor in the city, who was never an officially recognized clergyman of the community. However, since he was knowledgeable in issuing rabbinical decisions, he would issue a decision on a question when one asked him. He was called Reb Efraim Yosel Wloka, a scholarly, intelligent Jew. He was a Misnaged[6] his entire life, and worshipped in the new beis midrash along with the maskilim. My father appreciated Reb Efraim Yosel very much, because he was one of the important scholars of the city.

The cantor, shochet [ritual slaughterer] and mohel [circumcisor] Reb Eliezerke Smolinski of blessed memory was a jewel of the community. He lived in Reb Yisraelik Lipson's house near the zhika. I recall from my childhood years how we used to fool around before the holidays, especially before Rosh Hashanah. Every evening, we would climb upon the railings of the bridge that was immediately opposite the cantor's open window and listen to him practice for the holidays with his choir.

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The cantor, who was short, would usually wear a Polish-Hassidic tall pointed hat that made him a bit taller. He held his tuning fork in his right hand and a baton in his left hand, directing the choir like a choirmaster.

Aside from the bass and tenor professional singers who were preparing to be cantors, the rest of the choir members were children, artisans, or business “subjects” who had voices, but were very far from melodious and musical.

It was a pity to look at the elderly Reb Eliezerke as he toiled hard, with sweat running down his face, to bring a new “umipne chataeinu,” “kevakaras,” “hayom harat olam” or “kedusha[7] to the choir. We youths, for the most part Gemara students with good heads, would catch on to the pieces from outside, and one two three sing with cantorial groans.

It was said that in his younger days, Reb Eliezerke was an exquisite musician with an exceptional voice. This was at the time he arrived in Sierpc from Lithuania. When he was older, he was often hoarse. Therefore, he wore a woolen scarf on his neck, even during the summer.

 

The Dispute Regarding a Cantor

After Reb Eliezerke's passing, they began to look for a replacement. Candidates came from various cities and towns to try out. Some of them wore short suits and had trimmed beards. They spoke a German style Yiddish. These were cantors, and not shochtim or mohels. They had studied in conservatories and had cultivated voices. They wore black capes with top hats, and would have been more appropriate for the opera or for a German choral synagogue than for the Sierpc synagogue. There were also cantorial candidates who were fine Jews, dressed in Hassidic garb, with beards and peyos, who were good shochtim, mohels or teachers, but dull in cantorial skills.

There were also fitting candidates for the cantorial position of Sierpc, whom the congregation did not want to hire for various reasons. For example, the cantor Reb Kalman came for a Sabbath from Nieszawa, a town near Wloclawec. Reb Kalman was a musician with a non-hard voice. He was also a good shochet, bodek[8], and mohel, with all fine traits, such as: a pious intelligent man, knowledgeable of the book -- was this not good? From the outset, apparently not. He had one major flaw, perhaps the greatest one. From his youth, he grew up in Reb Eliezerke's house, sang with him in the choir, studied shechita, bedika, and mila from him, and later became his son-in-law. Everyone in town knew him and would call him by his first name Kalman. How can such a person be given appropriate honor by the community? Could they call him Cantor, Shochet, or Reb Kalman, given that they knew him from the time of his youth?

There was another one with all the appropriate requirements: the cantor of Lubraniec a town near Wloclawec. He had everything: he was a good cantor, a fine Jew, a shochet and mohel, without exception. However, the rabbi, Rabbi Yechiel Michel of holy blessed memory, without whose approval, especially with regard to shechita, nobody could be hired, said: “No, never.”

The reason for the rabbi's disapproval of

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the Lubrianer Cantor was as follows: the Siercper rabbi had a son, who was a gaon [rabbinic genius], Rabbi Yaakov Zelik Goldszlak, who was the author of many books. In his youth, he was the rabbi in Lubraniec. There had been a dispute against the rabbi, with slander to the authorities. There was a suspicion that the cantor had become involved in the slander. At the end, Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Zelik had to move away. He became a rabbinic decisor in Nalewkes in Warsaw, and remained there in great honor until the end of his life.

Thus, the community of Sierpc was unable to choose a new cantor. The matter lasted several years. Various factions were formed with various ideas. The enlightened people claimed that Sierpc must be freed from the spoiled idea that the cantor must also be a shochet. They wanted a “cantor” a musician, a “La sirotta”[9].

The Hassidim shouted at the enlightened people, “You sinners, you want a ‘cantor’? In truth, to quarrel[10] with our Father in Heaven. Troublers that you are, violators of the Sabbath, go to the theater with your girls if you want to hear singing. We need a representative of the congregation, someone G-d fearing, who will pray with proper intention. Who needs cantorialism?”

The average people, tradesmen, poor shopkeepers and market merchants would say, “We require both aspects. Both a good cantor, as well as a shochet. This is indeed our sole pleasure in life. A ‘mimkomecha[11] that comes from the heart and evokes a tear. ”

 

A Cantor for G-d and for People

One Sabbath eve, a rumor spread through the city that a cantor had arrived from Nowe Święciany, near Vilna -- exquisite, with a voice “roaring like a lion, ” a “golden” person, a scholar, knowledgeable in Torah, pious, modern, a shochet, a mohel, a musician and a conductor. He lodged in Lent's guesthouse. He was examined by the pillars of cantorialism in the town: Noachek Fukacz, Rafaelka Kleinhaus, Noach Lobaszka, Aharon Rozenik, Wolfke Czornaczopki, and others. They determined that the cantor was appropriate, and began to work at convincing the common folk from their side.

People gathered at Lent's guesthouse, toasted a lechaim, and set out into the city to urge that the cantor be given a chance to try out. Noachke was already a bit tipsy, and spoke some harsh words, “Blood will flow if you do not accept the cantor! !” Indeed, he presented an “Av Harachamim[12].

Noachke wept and sang, “Why, why, sweet Father, should they take revenge for our flowing blood… Why why, and aye, aye aye, should the gentiles say, a wind in their impure, piggish bowels: where is G-d? The singing of the new cantor goes through all the limbs.”

They began to whisper that there might be strong opposition from the side of the Hassidim, for the cantor is a Lithuanian, and he came with a short coat and a hard kapelush hat, as was the custom of the Lithuanians.

Noachke did not accept this and declared, “We will dress him up. I am a master tailor, not second rate. We will make a long frock out of silk for our cantor. We will get a hat from Betzalel Lopatke. I will arrange to have a pair of chamois leather boots sewn for him at Baruch's, and we will turn him, in a single day, into a perfect Hassid.”

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He spoke and he acted. They hid his German style clothing, and dressed him up so well that even his own mother would not recognize him. He had a refined looking face, and a yeshiva-like appearance as if from his mother's womb. The Hassidim were also glace (what is the meaning of this word?) and said, “Seemingly this is from Heaven.”

The cantor Reb Daniel Sheikes from Nowe Święciany near Vilna made such an impression Friday night with his service of Welcoming the Sabbath in the synagogue that all the worshipers in the packed synagogue enthusiastically talked about the new Sierpc cantor.

Immediately after Havdala[13] on Saturday night, the city notables, Noachke among them, gathered at a meeting in the Rabbi's courtroom. The rabbi inspected Reb Daniel's shechita knife, tested him on the laws, and nodded his head in assent.

Mazel Tov,” those gathered said, “Reb Daniel, you are the cantor of Sierpc.”

The Sierpc community simply came to life and received a new soul with the arrival of the new cantor. The synagogue was packed every time that the cantor conducted services with his choir, on Shabbat Mevorchim[14], Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, the four special portions[15], the lighting of the Chanuka candles, and especially at festival services. The soda makers, businessmen, fishermen, butchers, tailors, furriers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and locksmiths would first worship early in the morning in the old beis midrash, and, following, the Kiddush with the fish and fatty onions, would go to the large synagogue to enjoy the cantorial performance.

 

Shochtim and Shamashim [Ritual Slaughterers and Beadles]

When Reb Itche Yosel Canachowicz, the shochet of Sierpc for several years, left for Kalusz, they began to seek another shochet. A similar dispute took place, although on a smaller scale than the one regarding hiring a cantor. There were several candidates, and each one had his own side. This time, the sides were not Misnagdim and Hassidim, the common folk and the wealthier householders, but rather Hassidim against Hassidim. The dispute was between Ger and Alexander[16]. The Gerrers wanted the shochet to be a Gerrer Hassid, and the Alexanders wanted specifically an Alexander Hassid. In Sierpc, there was also a shtibel of the Plocker Hassidim, formerly Dobriner; however, they were so small and weak, and did not have their own power, so the Gerrers and Alexanders tried to win their Dobriners over to their own side.

Some time passed, and dozens of candidates came forward from near and far. They had differing skills, as well as letters of approbation from rebbes, but nobody moved from their place. If Ger said yes, Alexander said no.

A Jew once came to Sierpc from the small, nearby town of Sochocin, as a candidate for shochet. He was a young man, a “tchotchke[17]: tall, head and shoulders taller than everyone, with a face as handsome as an angel, with a black beard and two black, fiery, hypnotic eyes. He always had a smile on his lips, and his joy and friendship were infectious. With the bat of an eye, he won over the Jews of Sierpc.

Before he was tested regarding shechita and bedika in the slaughterhouse, and before his shechita knife was checked, rumor had it in the city that the community would appoint him. The women

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simply fell in love with him, and wanted Reb Yankel Reitczyk to be the shochet of the Sierpc community.

Pious Hassidim were greatly unhappy with the new shochet. They smelled that everything was not entirely proper. That lovely, beloved, smiling young man who can tell a proper joke; who does not shut his eyes if a woman speaks to him, but rather looks directly at her face; who does not say “put it on the table” when she hands something to him, but rather takes it directly from her hand the pious folk did not like that particular shochet. They felt that he was not so righteous because he wore a velvet hat during the week, and had peyos that were not so long.

The examination took place. The rabbi found him to be a sufficiently expert shochet. When the butchers saw how he slaughtered with nimbleness and dexterity, they immediately drank a few bottles of Akevit[18]. Reuven Zecharia's, Eliahu “Grepser,” and all the other butchers were full of amazement, and wished the new shochet a Mazel Tov.

The shochet was loved greatly in the Sierpc community. Indeed, he was a Jew with all the fine traits: a fine prayer leader, an expert shochet and mohel, with a splendid appearance, wise and intelligent, getting along well with people, a good soul with a heart of gold, G-d fearing but not fanatic. He was a modern Orthodox Jew, who was loved by all classes of people: Hassidim, Misnagdim, observant and non-observant.

“Woe over those who are lost and will never be forgotten.” He departed from the world tragically as a young man, in the second year of the First World War, during the typhus epidemic that spread through Sierpc and claimed many lives. A few months before his own death, he endured a great tragedy in his family, as his eldest daughter, Esther, died of typhus at the age of 15. Esther was the spitting image of her father. She was tall, well-grown, and beautiful, with the face of an angel, eyes like two lovely sapphires, and hair that covered her head like a crown.

After Reb Yankel's passing, Reb Yosel Eisenstat was hired as the shochet. Reb Yosel was a fine Hassidic musician, a shochet, mohel, and an honorable Jew. The community was content with him

*

Reb Moshe, the shamash of the old beis midrash, was a typical clergyman from his mother' womb. He was no scholar, but he carried out his holy work faithfully. On early winter mornings, he was the first person in the beis midrash. He heated the ovens, lit the lamps, and made the preparations for the first minyan [prayer quorum]. He was employed in this manner until 10:00. Then he was finished, and went home to eat something. He would also look in at the beis midrash at noontime.

“White friends” would play various tricks on Reb Moshe. The older he got, the weaker his eyesight became, and he had to wear dark eyeglasses. He would chase the children around the bima and would never catch them. His yelling and cursing out loud did not help. The more he shouted, the more the group

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laughed. It was a pity to see him while he was involved with the Jewish “shkotzim[19] and unable to control them.

Reb Leibish, the shamash of the new beis midrash, was a great scholar who would sit and study day and night. He was formerly a merchant who owned a small leather shop.

Finally, I wish to mention one of the first shochtim of the Sierpc community. They called him Reb Avraham Shochet. This Jew was an exception in that he worked almost around the clock. He was only a shochet of fowl, and he lived all his life in his own small house behind the beis midrash. One could always find him in his house poring over a book. His shechita room was also there. Day or night, if someone needed a fowl slaughtered for a sick person, Reb Avraham was prepared. Reb Avraham's wife would remove the feathers on the spot so that they could sell it, thereby helping her husband with his livelihood.

Reb Avraham was an Alexander Hassid and a warm hearted Jew. Full of joy and faith, he greeted every Jew pleasantly. He was also a fine prayer leader. He would always lead the first Selichot service in the Alexander synagogue and “Zechor Brit[20] in the old beis midrash. He would recite his prayers in a heartfelt manner, with Hassidic fervor. At times, he would lead the Musaf service on the High Holy Days in the old beis midrash, and at times in the new beis midrash.

Such were the clergymen in the former community of Sierpc.

 

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Moreh Horaah a rabbi who issues decisions on halachic questions. Such a person may be different than the community rabbi. Return
  2. I am not completely sure what this word means, but “spodnie” is the Polish word for trousers. Return
  3. Segula a kabbalistic or mystical remedy. Return
  4. Tosafot is a commentary on the page of Talmud. Kofer Hakol a person who denies everything, and Modeh Bemiktzat a person who partially admits, are concepts in Talmudic law. Return
  5. An old Russian unit of measure, roughly 28 inches. Return
  6. A non Hassid or opponent of Hassidism. Return
  7. Various sections of the High Holy Day prayer service (although Kedusha is recited daily). Return
  8. Bodek someone who examines slaughtered animals to see if there are any blemishes or imperfections that might render the animal non-kosher. Return
  9. I am not sure of the meaning of this term. Return
  10. There is a play on words here, as the Hebrew is lekanter. Return
  11. A section of the Sabbath and festival morning service. Return
  12. A section of the Sabbath morning service Noachke made a parody of it in the next paragraph. Return
  13. The ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath. Return
  14. The Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon). Return
  15. Four special Sabbaths in the vicinity of Purim, at which special prayers are recited. Return
  16. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksander_%28Hasidic_dynasty%29 Return
  17. This word does not translate well into English. It has the connotation of a fancy, superficial person. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tchotchke Return
  18. A Scandinavian liquor. Return
  19. This is usually a derogatory term for gentiles, but here it has the connotation of a wild kid or an “urchin.” Return
  20. The Selichot service two days before Yom Kippur. Selichot are the penitential prayers recited during the period preceding Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. Return


The old Beis Midrash

by Moshe Dov (Ber) Goldman

Translated from the Yiddish by Jerrold Landau

Personalities and Characters of Scholars and Observant Jews

The old beis midrash was the living spirit of the Sierpc community. There, the heart, the soul of the town, beat. As a former Sierpc beis midrash lad, I remember well the appearance of the old holy place.

The old building was brown, with a red, greased roof. Through the high, old fashioned windows, one could see the blue sky and the sparkling rays of the sun.

Zelik Reichgot's small tavern was to the right of the beis midrash. After services, Jews would go there to recite a blessing, and to refresh their hearts with a glass of Akevit (a strong spirit) and a piece of herring with a kichel. The naïve Reb Naftali, with his “guitar” lived on the left.

Baruch Konenbrand's bakery was opposite the beis midrash. The aroma of freshly baked rolls and raisin bread would waft through the beis midrash windows every morning. We indeed worshipped and studied in a tasty manner…[1]

The aromas of Shlomo Chaya's spice shop and teahouse also captivated us yeshiva lads. The schmaltz herring of the casks, truly “Ulikes” [meaning of this word is unclear]and

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the hot tea with sugar and lemon teased our noses and palates as we were studying and worshipping. We usually thought, “Soon we will go home to eat a bit. It will be a pleasure. A fresh roll, a bit of herring, and a glass of hot, sweet tea with lemon.”

The lovely, blue river flowed calmly and idyllically from behind the beis midrash past the yard. The water would recede around the month of May. Then, one would be able to walk easily across the river, dancing from stone to stone until one arrived at the other side. Maszerowske's orchard was there. We would quietly snatch and snack on fresh, supple, blood-red strawberries and indeed recite a “Shehecheyanu[2].

What type of dreams did we beis midrash lads weave there by the river… In the winter nights on the ice, and in the summer nights on the sailing boats, we thought, strove, hoped and fantasized - at times even romanticized… However, very little of this remains in the memory. Only the old beis midrash is etched in my thoughts, for there was pure G-dliness and holiness there. The holiness continued for generations without interruption.

Anyone who visited the beis midrash, frequently or rarely, for a long time or a short time, whether for Torah, worship or charitable deeds, left with an inestimable spiritual treasure…

*

It was pitch dark outside. Doors and shutters were locked. At dawn, the hens crowed.

In a humid, dark room behind the bridge, right by the water, a Jew was snatching some sleep. He called out in terror, “It is already late! Soon the morning guardians will gather!”

He washed his hands with the negl-vasser[3] prepared by the bed, recited “Mode Ani[4] with great devotion. He rubbed the sleep away from his eyes. He speedily put on his clothes and quickly ran to the beis midrash.

The Jew toils in his cellar for the entire day. He sews with his needle by the light of the dark kerosene “Kopshtik [what is this? ] lamp.” He plucks, rips, turns over, sews, and fixes farmers' clothes: trousers, parkas and caftans. With sweat, he toils for a morsel of bread for his family. Comes midnight and, as a “morning guardian,” he is no longer a tailor and patcher. He is Yosefke Chaike's - a tzadik, a hidden righteous person, a lamed-vovnik[5]. His name was Reb Yosef. He takes his tallis and tefillin from the nail near the door. They hang there constantly in case the Messiah comes suddenly, and one must hasten to the land of Israel. His tallis and tefillin would be ready.

He kisses the mezuzah with great love and starts to run to the beis midrash. He opens the door of the beis midrash with a thrust. He enthusiastically states, “And I, with Your great mercy, come to Your house. I thank you G-d for the mercy with which you have restored my soul, and I am not late.”

Nobody ever had to look for him. He was always the first in G-d's house. He bows toward the holy ark in the east: “And I bow down.” The illuminated eternal light flickers toward him. He sees the Divine Presence smiling from between the cherubs over the ark.

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It is still dark in the beis midrash. He lights the kerosene lamp. Out of habit, he puts a pot on the tile oven. They are cold, and there is no fire there. Soon, Moshe the shamash will come and throw in a few sticks of wood.

He takes out “Shomer Laboker” [Morning Guardian] from his pocket. He sings with devotion and wailing, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion…” His voice was sincerely sweet, and fills the entire space of the holy place.

Reb Yosef falls upon the flat, wooden table, as if he wants to kiss and embrace it. He breaks out in spasmodic weeping: “G-d, gentiles have come to Your inheritance and defiled Your holy sanctuary.”

*

The clock strikes five.

Moshe the shamash, with his face smeared with soot, is out of breath. He had already lit a crackling, lively fire in both ovens of the beis midrash. Melechke, Shmuelke and Berishke, the town fools, have already descended from their beds atop the shemos[6] in the beis midrash attic. Now, they are warming themselves at the open oven doors. They push and shove each other for a better place near the fire. Soon, a fistfight will break out.

The fools fight and curse.

Moshe Shamash calms them with a burnt potato, left over from the previous night. They are already warm from the hot fire in the oven.

It is already light in all the corners of the beis midrash. All of the flashlights are already burning over all the tables. The Sterin candles[7] in the lamp at the prayer leader's podium are also burning. They light up the prayer leader's “Kol Bo” prayer book, and the “Know before Whom you are standing” sign.

The “shiviti[8] was painted by David Noach Silberberg. He was a great scholar, as well as a reasonable artist. He expressed his talent in the designing of schools and houses of worship. David Noach Silberberg surrounded his painted “shiviti” with various verses, such as:

“A person worries about losing his money, and does not worry about losing his days. - His money does not help, and his days do not return.”

His pictures were impressive: a lion, leopard, deer and eagle, with the inscription: “Brave as a lion, strong as a leopard, running like a deer, swift as an eagle.”

A crowd of Jews come to the beis midrash: studiers, worshippers, reciters of Psalms, reciters of Kaddish and those observing yahrzeits, as well as guests who wish to receive donations.

Yehoshua Goldman sits at the small table near the oven and studies Chulin along with Tosafot[9] with his son.

Reb Yehoshua was a remarkable Jew with a sharp head and a phenomenal memory. He was an expert in all areas of Torah, and hard a sharp knowledge of other subjects.

He was a great scholar, expert in Talmud and halachic decisors, a true Tzadik and Hassid, as well as a Maskil, writer, and poet. He knew Bible, grammar, and was proficient in the “Baal Akeida,” “Alshich,”, and the “Guide of the Perplexed,”[10] and he would cite a world of poems by Naftali Hertz Wessely[11]. He was also familiar with the works of Yehuda Halevi and Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. He would read “Hatzefira,” and look at modern Hebrew literature and poetry.

Reb Yehoshua was also a great innovator of Torah ideas. He would write Torah and didactics, answer a question in Tosafot with the help of

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grammar or a Biblical verse, and explain Hassidism with a philosophical approach of Maimonides. He loved all Jews with the same soulful love: the tradesman and the scholar, the common person and the well-pedigreed. In addition, he was a wise Jew, not a fanatic, with a practical approach to life. People would come to him for advice or to clarify their complexities.

Avraham Grinewicz and his brother Yosel also learned at the same table. They were two brothers, but each had his own character.

Avraham Chaim had the head of a genius, with a grasp like a gaon. Had he studied worldly subjects such as, for example, mathematics and physics, he would have certainly become an Einstein. He was terribly absentminded. He could not sit in one place for one minute. His Gemara always was open, but one never saw him learning. He would absorb entire pages, folios, chapters, and tractates of Gemara and Tosafot with the glance of an eye.

His manner of expression and diction were a wonder. He was able to piece together a didactic, and connect a wall to a wall. He knew the Russian classics: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Pushkin. The old-fashioned scholar and the modern skeptic were blended together with [within?]him.

His brother Yosel was exactly the opposite. He had no special qualities. He was a quiet, modern, beis midrash youth. He was easygoing, polite, and had an understanding of business. In his free time, he would help his father Moshe a great deal in his small wholesale manufacturing business, located on the Jewish Street near the bridge.

Asher Glazer, the son of Avraham, also studied at the table at which those three students sat. He was dignified, and was a person of few words. He was not a great scholar, but quite pious and various diligent ['various diligent' is awkward]. He would always be studying.

*

At 6:00 a.m., the beis midrash was already almost full.

The first minyan [prayer quorum] began services. The tradesmen who must commence their work early, the people traveling to the villages who must be prepared to depart for the villages early so that they could return home before sunset, the merchants who must travel to Warsaw for merchandise, the market travelers who must go to the fairs to secure a good place for their stall all worshipped at this minyan. Those who were particular about reciting the prayers at the right time also worshipped at this early minyan.[12].

Now, the wall lamp over the copper “plate of honor” near the holy ark is also burning. The rabbi sits there. Today, he is coming to this minyan. It is Rosh Chodesh [the New Moon]. The old rabbi comes to that minyan only on Sabbaths and festivals. The entire week, he worships privately in his beis din [rabbinical court] room. His prayers last for at least three hours. “I cannot keep up with the prayer leader, who is running through the service like a speed train,” he used to say. On Rosh Chodesh this was not relevant: there is Hallel and the reading of the Torah. “It would be superfluous if I worshipped at home.”[13]

*

Youths and householders are already sitting around the tables. The youths are studying and the householders

[First unnumbered page after 48]

{Photo top: The old beis midrash.}

{Photo bottom: The new beis midrash.}

[Second unnumbered page after 48]

{Photo top: The synagogue (burnt by the Nazis).}

{Photo bottom: Fixing the electricity in the synagogue in 1927 or 1929. One of the workers, standing next to the ladder, is Avrahamel Bergson. The electricians from Plock are standing on the ladder.}

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are peering into a book. Some are reciting Psalms or jumping ahead with the service.

Let us mention in our Yizkor Book those householders, youths, and toilers who gave over their time to Torah.

Simcha Licht, a Misnaged and a scholar, always sat in the beis midrash and learned. He would have a habit of going to sleep right after maariv and taking a Gemara with him to bed. “An open Gemara is a great remedy for those who fall asleep,” he used to say. He indeed fell asleep quickly and left the open Gemara atop the bed for the entire night.

Yosef Divan was an old learner in the beis midrash with a snow white, patriarchal beard, long eyebrows and tall, scholarly, wrinkled brow. He studied Talmud regularly with a musical melody somewhat like the tune of Tal and Geshem[14]. He would sing through his nose. Sometimes, a beis midrash youth would go to Reb Yosef to ask him to clarify a difficult piece of Gemara or a Rashi.

“So, what is the difficulty,” Reb Yosef would say, “it is indeed very easy.” He would immediately recite the Gemara in the original, not translating any word. Unfortunately, the youth would go away with the same question with which he had come.

Yosef Wessalek was the gabbai of the beis midrash for many years. He had the splendid appearance of a major rabbi, especially when he would wear his high, velvet yarmulke and smoke his long pipe. He always went through all the minyanim so that he could bang on the pushke [charity can] during the repetition of the Shmone Esrei at all the minyanim. The coins that the worshippers tossed in brought in a not-insignificant sum every week, which was used for various small expenditures of the beis midrash.

Reb Yosef never conducted an accounting of thepushke money. “This is my bookkeeping,” he would say, as he opened his cloak with the velvet collar, “I have two large pickets in my bosom - the right for expenditures, and the left for income.” Bold householders would then ask with suspicion, “One can sometimes make a mistake. It is possible to mix up expenditures with income and vice versa.”

He wrinkled his brow, rolled up his scholarly, pious eyes and said, “I am careful and cautious, but… one is holy human… mistakes may happen…”

Pinchas Mlawa, a bit of a Maskil and a Zionist, loved to delve into Bible, especially the Latter Prophets. He would always discuss difficult chapters with the youths.

David Jawicki, a tailor used to come to the beis midrash evening, morning, and afternoon.

The studying youths were: Yosel Fukacz, a dear boy, a scholar with a pleasant personality. He would always disseminate his Torah and study a class with the younger youths. The brothers Berish and Leibka Krystal: Berish was pious and diligent, whereas Leibka was a bit of a modern Maskil. Moshe Yakir Waldenberg was a heartwarming, friendly youth. Leib Zelig Flatto was a Sochaczewer student, who knew how to learn well and to speak a fine Russian. David Burstyn, the son of Avraham Aharon the teacher, was an ideal, fine youth with a straightforward intellect. David Szarpharz was a student in the Gerrer Yeshiva, who had a beard and peyos. Later, he modernized. Efraim Weismel used to rise early to come early so that he could get the large “Yoreh Deah[15], the

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Vilna edition, before Moshe Ber Goldman grabbed it. Weismel and Goldman studied rabbinics[16] simultaneously.

Baruch Lifschitz, Yonatan's son, was a studier and a friendly youth. His brother Mendel had a sharp head. He studied and spoke Hebrew. Yechiel Moshe Senderowicz, Yosel Goldman, and Motel Reitszyk were young lads who studied with the older students.

Baruch Konenbrand the baker was a pious Jew who observed Torah and the commandments. His sons Hirsch, Shmuel, Moshe and Baruch were brought up in the fashion of Torah. Shlomo Chaya's was a Torah youth, a prayer leader and a fine Torah reader. Akiva Lanienter, a Misnaged, was also a gabbai of the beis midrash. Avraham Zeev Lanienter was knowledgeable in Torah and very pious. Yitzchak Grobert was a modern Jew, and a gabbai of the beis midrash. Yosef Pundak was a warm Zionist who loved a good cantor. Davidl Czarnaczapka was a Torah scholar, a prayer leader, and Torah leader. He was related to the rabbi. Meir Cypris was a beis midrash student with a short cloak. Michel Smolinski was a modern, intelligent man, and a charitable man. He was the son of the old cantor. Yehoshua Czarnaczapka was a pious person who was diligent in his studies.

Hassidim from the shtibels also worshipped in the beis midrash during the week. Their names were Nachum Tatz of the city council; Yaakov Moshe Teitelbaum, a sharp, Gerrer Hassid; Yaakov Shlomo Neiszat; Izak Rozen, a scholar and a modern Jew, who was a traveler who spoke Russian like a native Russian; Yosel Blachman, who had rabbinical ordination and was a capable merchant; Chaim Shochet; Avraham Shochet; the cantor and shochet Daniel Sheikes; and Yankel Shochet.

Several Jews from the new beis midrash would come to worship here. One of them was Chaim Nachum Tonwel, a warm Zionist who could offer advice almost like a prophet. He was not afraid even when mentioning Zionism in our Hassidic town was considered non-kosher. Earlier than others, he felt that the future of the people of Israel lay only in the Land of Israel. He was a scholar, a maskil, observant of religion and the commandments, and a mohel. He was imbued with the love of his fellow Jew. Doing a favor for someone was never difficult for him.

The minyanim [prayer quorums] in the old beis midrash continued until 10:00 a.m. Each of the prayer leaders had his own manner of prayer and a different voice. In general, they conducted services with their hearts and souls. Davidl Czarnoczapke led the services almost like a cantor. This was no surprise, for his father was Yechezkel Ryweshes, who always led the Musaf service on the High Holy Days. Shlomo Chaike's had a boyish voice, between alto and soprano, and was always a bit nasal. However he led the services fluently, with a good style. Baruch Konenbrand had a thick, bass voice, but he was not a bad prayer leader. He had clear diction, and worshipped with his heart and with devotion. As is said, G-d wants the heart.”

The Sierpc intelligentsia worshipped at the last minyan, around 10:00: former gymnasium students who had not yet been thrust into life, employees in businesses who were allowed by the business owners to go to services, and ordinary late-coming worshippers. I mention their names:

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Heniek Ajnerowicz, Gorfinkel the lawyer's son, Heniek Lerer, Bluman, David, Gedalia and Yizchak Zwikelski, Yechiel Lidzborski, Moshe Cypris, David Bergzon, Zelik Rozen, Mordechai Rozen, Mendel Blum, Abba Koczalek, Chaim Koczalek, Yaakov Bachrach, Baruch Lipson, the Schnitzer brothers: Hirsch, Chaim, Yehuda, Henech, Yaakov, Yitzchak, Chuna.

*

After 10:00 a.m., the beis midrash was almost empty. One of the last worshippers was always the small Itchele. He would come to the beis midrash around 8:00 a.m. He could not come earlier. Itchele had to open his dry good store in the market and had to remain there until his Dvora made the beds, cleaned the house, and cooked breakfast. His prayers lased at least four hours. He elongated the words, so that they became golden coins. In the middle, he had to go out a few times to prepare.

Itchele was a Hasid, a tzadik, and a great scholar. By nature, he would pray near the bookshelf. In that area, he would pace back and forth slowly and whisper, “Where are the appropriate places of the sacrifices?”[17]. In the middle, he would stop, glance at a book, and then begin again, “Where are the appropriate places of the sacrifices?”

He did not earn a great livelihood from his manufacturing shop. He was a poor man, in debt over his head. He would have to go around an entire day to borrow from his friends, so that he would be able to cover a promissory note that was being disputed. It could be that the beis midrash served as a refuge to him, a place where he could hide from his “thieving” creditors who wished to “kill” him.

There was also another who would come late to prayers. He prayed rapidly. He never had any time. Business was urgent for him exactly as soon as the minyanim concluded in the beis midrash. This was Zelik Reichgot, from the tavern near the beis midrash. First he had to deal with his customers who would come to the tavern right after services in order to refresh their hearts with a glass of whisky, tasty herring with onions and peppers, and oil cookies freshly baked by his Freidel. Reb Zelik would also sell homemade cigarettes, five for a kopeck. His cigarettes were very tasty, made from fresh, yellow Russian tobacco.

The excise officer often visited his shop. The street was then black with people. The excise officer Przybyszewski caught Zelik red-handed, serving a glass of spirits to Romba Jasza, 90 proof, from the flask with the green label, and selling cigarettes without a wrapper. Przybyszewski caught[might 'grabbed' or 'took' be better here? a flask of liquor and a packet of cigarettes in order to prove Zelik's infraction in court. He would put him in jail, for who knows how long. However, G-d did not let this happen.

Romba Jasza, the Jewish porter, whose drinking could bring misfortune upon a Jew, put two fingers in his mouth and let out a whistle that could be heard from one end of the Jewish street to the other. Immediately, his friends sprouted up, and placed Przybyszewski into a squeeze, as if in a vise.

Razem!” (Together) - commanded Romba Jasza. Yuda pushed from the right, Yaakov from the left, Szustak from behind, and Romba Jasza from the front.

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Przybyszewski's face turned as blue as a spleen to the point where he felt that death was approaching. From a rear door in Zelik's private room, where he kept his “merchandise,” Reb David pushed forward with a closed eye. He calmly took the flask of liquor and the cigarettes from Przybyszewski. He put the cigarettes in his pocket, and with regard to the liquor, he made a “Shehakol[18], and his friends the porters said Amen.

Reb David turned the flask over, one two three, and, like a trick, it flowed out of the flask to the last drop. In the middle of the drinking, Reb Dovidl gave a friendly Lechaim to the excise officer, and told him off with a sour look, “You should be ashamed. This you call liquor? It is pure water…”

Przybyszewski left in disgrace.

*

At 12:00, the beis midrash was already lively. Many lads had returned from their meal, and were sitting and learning. Older youths taught a class to the younger ones.

At that time, Efraim Weismel used to study Ketubot[19] with Tosafot with Noach's son. Leibish Zelik Flatto studied Bava Kama with Moshe Grosman's son and another student. Moshe Ber Goldman had four students: Aharon Reichgot the baker's son, his brother Nisan, Motel Rajtczyk, and Yechiel Moshe Senderowicz.

David Bursztajn had the ambition to study the entire Bible within one year. He succeeded. He indeed learned the entire Bible almost by heart. This helped him greatly in mastering Hebrew. He wrote a classic in Biblical Hebrew.

During the time that the beis midrash was half empty, it attracted lads who were the children of well-off families, or youths who were not occupied in business. They seldom studied and knew very little. For them, the open beis midrash was a type of club. They played chess and cards, or lay down in a corner to snatch a nap with a tallis as a blanket over their heads.

They would go home to eat at 3:00. Many lads would use the time before Mincha to study worldly subjects such as Russian, Polish, German, and arithmetic. They learned from Neidicz's “house teacher.” Several youths had private lessons with Zainwil.

Zainwil was a known personality in Sierpc. His father Wolf, a teacher of young children, conducted his cheder in the office of the pharmacy. Zainwil was an expert in languages and science.

Zainwil wore his warm clothing for the entire year, summer and winter. He did not remove his winter coat, fur hat, woolen scarf and leather, fur-lined gloves even in the great heat of Tammuz.

He always went around with a rain umbrella. Children would bother him, and he threatened them with the umbrella. Some people considered him to be unstable. On the other hand, my father of blessed memory would always defend him: “He is highly educated and is a warm Jew. He is an individualist, who does not do things just because, and does not dress to please others.”

Zainwil lived in a very poor manner. He earned his livelihood from giving lectures to children or youths who did not want to or were unable to go to the gentile school.

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At Mincha time, the beis midrash was once again packed. Various groups of tradesmen and laborers studied after Mincha.

At one table, Yehoshua Goldman learned Chayey Adam[20] with a group. At another table, David Noach Silberberg studied Chumash and Rashi. Avraham Chaim Granowicz studied Ein Yaakov[21] with a group of youths, mainly tradesmen and employees.

The groups interrupted their learning if a maggid or a meshulach[22] would come and deliver a lecture between Mincha and Maariv.

The maggidim were of two types, “foot soldiers” and professionals. The “foot soldier” maggidim were for the most part poor folk and greatly unsuccessful people who had already tried various means of livelihood to earn a bit of bread, and did not succeed. They memorized a sermon by heart, or wrote it down on paper, and delivered the same sermon in every town, earned a few kopecks, and went on further. Since they went from town to town by foot, they were called “foot soldiers.”

The beis midrash youths perpetrated various tricks on the maggidim. As soon as the maggid opened his mouth, the group standing next to the podium recited the sermon out loud, just as a zogerke[23] recited a petition for the women. With a maggid who had a written sermon, they would steal the paper from the table…

Once, an incident took place. A maggid, a small person from Bialystock who would come to the old beis midrash every year on the week of the Torah portion of Korach with a written sermon, had his sermon stolen from the table by Yosel the beis midrash lad. The maggid unfortunately began to drag on, “Korach, Korach, very wealthy like Korach…” He began to search through all his pockets, and then repeated, “Korach, very wealthy like Korach, would it be that they could say this about me… They should sink like Korach and his group,” and he stood there, lost. He could not understand what had happened - the sermon is not here. With great anger, he shouted, “You should all sink, apostates!…” and descended from he podium.

Professional maggidim or preachers with talent would not come that often. When one did come, the beis midrash and the women's section were packed. Even the city notables and the wealthy people would come to hear him.

There were also a few talented speakers from amongst the meshulachim. I will mention only three: The Telzer, the Volozhiner, and the Novominsker.

The Telzer had the power to describe the exaggerations of the Rabba Bar Bar Chana's[24]. With a splendid tune, he was able to sing such a fantastic portrait with words, that it seemed that one saw with one's own eyes the portrait drawn by an artistic painter on a canvas. The Volozhiner was able to make the audience laugh heartily with his humor, or cry bitterly with his tragedy.

I will never forget how he eulogized the great Gaon who had died at that time. The entire audience wept as he described the loss suffered by Jewry with the passing of such a giant.

The Novominsker was a typical populist orator. The youth especially related to his speeches, which

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were very short, but nevertheless filled with logic and meaning.

*

In the evening, the beis midrash was filled with youths, especially older ones. What did they study until the late hours? The Thursday night study sessions [Mishmar][25] were especially interesting. A number of youths reviewed what they had learned for the entire week. Aside from the studiers, there were also those who came to just spend an evening in the beis midrash. They served the studiers roasted potatoes, prepared herring, and brought tea from Moshe Nathan's tea kettle. Before dawn, they would prepare fresh rolls for breakfast. At times, they tore out a piece of fence wood, brought in the boards, and heated the oven.

On Mishmar night, the beis midrash was very joyous, and the main thing was that people studied.

 

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The translation is lost in English, but to “learn in a tasty manner” (Lern geshmack) is a Yiddish expression for enjoying one's studies. Return
  2. A blessing recited upon eating a new fruit (i.e. a fruit that one has not eaten for a long time), as well as on other occasions. Return
  3. Water for the ritual washing of hands upon arising. Return
  4. The first prayer recited upon arising. Return
  5. There is a legend that in every generation, there are 36 hidden, discreet especially righteous people in the world. These are called “lamed-vovniks.” Return
  6. The place for storage of worn out holy books and objects in preparation for eventual burial. Return
  7. Clear oil lamp. Return
  8. A sign saying “I keep G-d before me at all times.” Return
  9. Chulin is the Talmudic tractate dealing with kashruth and ritual slaughter. Tosafot is a commentary on the Talmud. Return
  10. Baal Akeida: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_ben_Moses_Arama ; Alshich: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moshe_Alshich ; Guide for the Perplexed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guide_for_the_Perplexed Return
  11. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naphtali_Hirz_Wessely Return
  12. It is considered preferable, although not always possible, to recite the morning service near sunrise. Return
  13. Additional Psalms of praise recited as part of the morning service on Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah, and festivals. Return
  14. Tal is the prayer for dew recited on Passover, and Geshem is the prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret. Both have the same unique melody. Return
  15. A volume of the Code of Jewish Law. Return
  16. Horaah - the skill of being able to issue rabbinical decrees on issues of Jewish law. Return
  17. A section of the early part of the morning service. Return
  18. The blessing before partaking of general food products, including liquor. This is a colloquial way of saying that he drank the liquor. Return
  19. A Talmudic tractate relating to marriage contracts. In the next sentence, Bava Kama is a Talmudic tractate relating to civil law. Return
  20. A detailed summary of Jewish Law. Return
  21. An anthology of Talmudic lore. Return
  22. A maggid is a preacher, often an itinerant preacher. A meshulach is an emissary of a charitable institution, who visits various communities to raise funds. Return
  23. A woman who leads a group of woman in the recitation of petitions. Return
  24. Rabba Bar Bar Chana was a Talmudic sage. Return
  25. Especially intense study sessions, often lasting all night, would take place in Yeshivas on Thursday nights. Return

 


The Old Beis Midrash as I Remember it

by Ben Zion Kempner

Translated from the Yiddish by Jerrold Landau

I do not know how old the old beis midrash was. Perhaps 100 years, or perhaps less. Therefore, it was called the old beis midrash, for later, a new, taller, beis midrash was built on the same Jewish street, on the left. As a small child, I would go with my father of blessed memory to worship in the old beis midrash on the Sabbath. Later, as a child, when I already was able to worship alone, not a day passed when I did not spend long hours inside the walls of the old beis midrash.

Coming home from the Yesod Hatorah Cheder, we children felt it necessary to spend a bit of time in the old beis midrash, which was always open. There, one could play around a bit, run around the long tables or go out to the yard that led to the Zsika River. There, we floated in the river the paper boats that we made in cheder.

Later, when we were older, we would hasten to the old beis midrash for the Mincha and Maariv services and to hear a maggid who would often give a sermon between Mincha and Maariv.

Even later, when we were “beis midrash youths,” we loved to go to the old beis midrash, take a Gemara from the bookcase, and sit down at a table to study it near the oven. We would study that way until late at night, oblivious to the passing of time. There was something attractive about the walls of the old beis midrash, and one could sense such a feeling of holiness when one crossed the threshold, that is hard to describe in words.

It seems as it was just yesterday that I was there in the house of worship. The old beis midrash stands before my eyes: on the left near the door was a large chest of books, Ein Yaakovs, various other books, Siddurim [prayer books], and very many Psalm books. From there, one moves trough the entire length

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until the eastern wall. The space was a long table with two long benches on both sides. The ordinary people sat there: fishermen, shoemakers, employees, and vegetable businessmen from the market.

There was a bench on the eastern wall that extended until the holy ark. There, sat the wealthy Jews, wheat merchants, and textile merchants who came to services in the winter wearing fine skunk furs with a gold watch in their vest pockets. Above stood the holy ark, with several steps to go up and two carved pillars on both sides. The rabbi of the city sat below the pillar, to the right on the holy ark on the east. Behind the rabbi, along the entire eastern wall, sat the well-off Jews, householders, large-scale merchants, and some of the gabbaim. Then, there was another long table that extended through the entire length until almost the door. There were two long benches on both sides, where the tailors, furriers, hat makers, small-scale merchants, and regular householders sat. Further on was a large bookcase. The small windows leading into the women's section were above the bookcase. Near the bookcase, close to the two ovens, stood a table. In the middle was the bima, with several steps leading up to it, and iron railings around it. The youth stood and prayed behind the bima, near the door from which one exits to the yard. This was the internal appearance of the beis midrash.

*

In the early mornings, both in the summer and the winter, when the sky was still dark, even when it was a cold of 20-30 degrees, or there was a severe snowfall, my father would arise from his warm bed and set out to the old beis midrash, wearing his tallis and tefillin, to be among the first ten to arrive for the first minyan. Since it was still dark outside, and it was still too early to recite the morning service, people would take the Psalms books from the shelves and recite the entire Book of Psalms with a minyan. How many tears did the simple Jews shed as they recited the chapters of Psalms?

Later, they began to conduct the service, word by word, without hurrying. After the service, they recited the entire Maamadot[1] of the day. Then, they went home, purified and in elevated spirits. They quickly ate breakfast and set out for work, some at the sewing machine and others by the shoemaker's table. One minyan followed another, until late in the day.

Among the Jews who worshipped in the old beis midrash, there were also scholars who would sit down to learn a page of Gemara after services.

Here comes Leibel Kramasz. He goes straight to the bookcase, takes out a heavy Vilna edition Gemara, and delves deeply into a difficult Talmudic section for several hours. Yehoshua Goldman and Mendel Lifschitz, both sharp scholars, debate a convoluted Rambam. At the second table, the rabbi's son-in-law Reb Yehoshua Papovski sits and teaches a class in Gemara and Tosafot to several students.

My beloved Rabbi Yehoshua Papovski, how calm and modest was your life, and how short was your lifespan. You were always prepared to disseminate Torah in public. You sat with and studied with youths during the day or late at night. Everything was so calm, without noise, and without a harsh word. You were the pure example of a human being and a Jew, until you were tortured by the Germans, along with

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many of your students. I am the only one of those who survived. Let the words of your dear student serve as the inscription upon your unknown grave.

*

In the evening, the old beis midrash was filled with hundreds of Jews. Tradesmen stopped their work; merchants closed their shops, and people ran to the Mincha and Maariv services. A maggid would often be present between Mincha and Maariv, and would expound with feeling about family purity[2], purity of character traits, and love of one's fellow Jew. Statements of our sages, and legends would be intermixed into his sermon. Jews listened with open mouths and absorbed every word. On the days when no maggid was present, the time between Mincha and Maariv was the appropriate time for conversations about the latest news in town, communal affairs, and politics. Often, one would find out that a child in town was very sick, or that a woman was having difficulties with a child. On such occasions, all those gathered in the beis midrash would recite Psalms with such anguish and weeping, that it tore the hearts.

After Maariv, those gathered went home, and some continued working until late at night. However, the beis midrash was not empty. Youths sat down to study until late at night, and the sweet Gemara melodies were carried through the stillness of the evening.

Poor people who spent the entire day making the rounds to the houses also came to the old beis midrash in the evening after a “hard day of work” to count the coins that they had collected. Late at night, they went to the guesthouse to spend the night.

On the Sabbath, the old beis midrash was set up specially in order to welcome the Sabbath Queen. The shamash [beadle] worked hard the entire Friday, turning things around, cleaning up, hanging a fresh canopy over the holy ark, and lighting all the candles. People started coming to services. They were completely different people than those who came throughout the week. “Jews of the Additional Soul”[3], washed up, having immersed in the ritual bath [mikva], wearing Sabbath garments - they felt as if they were reborn. They forgot, or tried to forget, the difficult work week, anti-Semitic “picketers” at the businesses, the loans that grew, and the unpaid promissory notes.

When the shamash banged the table and called out “Lechu Nerenana Lashem, Naria Letzur Yisheinu[4], one could sense that the Jews were not only singing with their mouths, but they were also singing a love song with their eyes and hearts to the Creator who gave the Sabbath to the Jewish people, from which they could draw new strength.

The services ended. In the interim, a long line of poor people who were staying in town for the Sabbath formed at the door. How fortunate were the Jews when they had the opportunity to fulfill the commandment of tending to guests! Not one poor person was left in the beis midrash. Even Jews who had to borrow a few zlotys to prepare for the Sabbath were not willing to forgo the opportunity to bring a Sabbath guest home.

On the Sabbath morning, most of the Jews permitted themselves to sleep a bit longer. Aside from the “Hashkama Jews” who would come to the early service[5], people would walk with measured steps, as if a dance, holding their Sabbath tallis under their arms, as they went to the old beis midrash.

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Young cheder students also went to services. The old beis midrash and the women's section were packed, and the services were completely different than during the week - more orderly and more respectful. Entire families of men, women, and children went home together after services in a joyous mood! After the Sabbath meal and a short nap, Jews once again set out for the old beis midrash, where one could study a chapter of Mishna, review the weekly Torah portion, or recite Psalms. Some people studied Ein Yaakov. This is what the Sabbath was like in the old beis midrash. This is what the festivals looked like, filled with holiness and sublime spirits that purified the Jew, gave a purpose to life, and imparted a belief in a better future.

The highest level of existence and holiness took place during the High Holy Days. In the month of Elul, when the first shofar blasts were blown in the old beis midrash, everything changed. These were seemingly not the same Jews as during the rest of the year. People went around with their heads lowered, for what are we, what is our life… When the days of Selichot arrived, people made their way like shadows to the old beis midrash. Even children were unable to remain at home, so they hurried to Selichot with sleepy eyes.

There was deathly silence in the old beis midrash. Every minute was like a year. The voice of the prayer leader could be heard, “Yisgadal VeYiskadash Shemei Rabba[6]. The eyes were focused on the Selichot books, first silently, and then the voices were raised, “The soul is Yours and the body is Yours, have mercy on your handiwork.” One would hear weeping voices that penetrated the deepest strands of the heart.

Thus passed the first days of Selichot. The shofar blowing during the services moved the hearts. In such a spirit, we moved on to the two days of Rosh Hashanah.

Dressed in kittels with white yarmulkes on the heads, enwrapped in tallises, the congregation worshipped for many hours. They did not even permit themselves to sit down. They worshipped with awe, and when they came to the recitation of the Al Chet confessional[7] in the Shmone Esrei, one could hear every bang on the heart, as tears fell from the eyes. Something felt lighter on the heart, as if a heavy stone was removed. The One Who Dwells On High certainly heard the warm prayers of the Jews and would inscribe a good verdict for them. However, one did not feel entirely certain of this. Jews made use of every free moment of the Ten Days of Penitence. They would run to the old beis midrash to snatch an additional chapter of Psalms. They would worship a bit longer, donate more charity, and go to the “good place” - the graves of righteous individuals.

On Shabbat Shuva[8], nobody took a nap. People recited Psalms, went to hear the rabbi's sermon, as the holy, awesome Day of Judgment was approaching.

People rushed the final meal before Kol Nidre, and Jews were already hastening to the old beis midrash for Kol Nidre while it was still daytime. Entire families, kith and kin, went, and nobody remained at home. It was crowded in the old beis midrash. The women's section was also packed, and hay was spread on the floor. Long boxes filled with sand were placed along the tables, and hundreds of memorial candles were placed therein. The hundreds of flames of the candles at twilight increased the poignancy of the moment. One could hear the quiet whisper of

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Tefilla Zaka[9], and then one could hear the bang on the bima.

A stout, tall Jew went up to the prayer leader's podium with slow steps, dressed in a long white kittel and a tallis with a large silver decorative band over the head. One could only see the black beard from the outside. Everybody knew that Reb Yosef Shochet was going to serve as cantor for the Kol Nidre service. Several youths stood near him, as the choir that would accompany him. Everyone held their breath. Reb Yosef began quietly, and then louder, with the choir even louder, as the splendid tones of Kol Nidre spread through the old beis midrash, penetrating all the limbs and stirring the soul.

Reb Yosef Shochet was a unique prayer leader in Sierpc. He had no equal. When he stood by the podium and led the services, it was if people were hypnotized and entered the highest existence. He awakened in the worshippers the deepest desire for repentance. Every word was sung, every verse was measured, and one did not[ note the add 't'] feel the fast at all as the time passed. Thus I was the entire Yom Kippur.

It was Neila, and Yosel Shochet was again standing at the prayer leader's podium. The day was already nearing its end, and the people were tired. The candles had already begun to go out one at a time, as they cast shadows around. However, Yosel Shochet's tones did not get weaker, as he stood firmly by the podium. He addressed the Father in Heaven with a pleading voice, “Open for us the gate at the time of the closing of the gate, for the day has declined.” And when one heard Yosel's shout “Next Year in Jerusalem,” every Jew felt at ease. Everyone believed that the warm prayers would certainly go before the Throne of Glory and a good year for the Jewish people would ensue.

*

All year long, the old beis midrash was a trusted companion for the Jews of Sierpc. It was a miniature temple that offered comfort, sweetness and strength in the darkest moments, and imparted a new belief in a better future, until a dark cloud settled over Poland.

The German beast rained fire and destruction on the Jewish cities and towns, and did not pass over Sierpc. The Jewish community of Sierpc was torn up from the roots. The old beis midrash was left standing forlorn.

Only a few Jews returned to Sierpc after the destruction. The old beis midrash remained standing, as if waiting for the Jews to return. However, they did not come. They were murdered with various unusual forms of death. The two last Jews of Sierpc, Moshe Grope and Yechezkel Leizerowicz, who attempted to establish their lives near the old beis midrash, found no peace there and made aliya to Israel. Jewish Sierpc ceased to exist.

 

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Sections of various parts of the Bible, Mishna and Gemara, arranged by the day of the week, and meant to serve as a symbolic replacement for the sacrificial rite. Return
  2. The laws of separation of spouses during the menstrual period. Return
  3. Tradition claims that a Jew is granted an additional soul [Neshama yeteira] on the Sabbath. Return
  4. The opening verse of the Sabbath evening service. Return
  5. Hashkama means “getting up early”. A Hashkama service is a Shacharit service that is timed to take place around sunrise. Return
  6. The opening words of the kaddish prayer, recited with a special melody at the beginning of the Selichot service. Return
  7. An error must have been made here, as the Al Chet confessional is recited on Yom Kippur, and not Rosh Hashanah. Return
  8. Bodek someone who examines slaughtered animals to see if there are any blemishes or imperfections that might render the animal non-kosher. Return
  9. A personal prayer recited before Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. Return

 

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