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[Page 103]

The Religious Life

 

The Synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn, a Work of Art

 

[Page 107

One of the famous Synagogues

by Meir Balaban

Translated by Moses Milstein

Extract from the book: Zabtyki Historyczne Zydow w Polsce

The Shebreshiner shul is included among the famous shuls—like the Vilna shul, and the Kracow, Lemberg, Lublin, and Poznan shuls.

Almost all the shuls in Eastern Poland are built in the form of a quadrangle. The first thing you notice on entering such a shul is that the prayer hall is below street level. You descend the stairs to go in. The educated explain it in a religious way based on the passage from T'hilim, “Mi'ma'amkim karaticha Adonai[1].”

The reality was different. In order to comply with the requirement of depth (Mi'ma'amkim), the chazzan's spot was lowered a little. But the general lowering of the building was due to an old church ruling, “The unbelieving Jews are not to build synagogues of great splendor, or richness, but of moderation and moderate size.“ In order to get permission to build a shul, in spite of the bishops and the government, the area had to be reduced.

To the right of the chazzan, in most shuls, on both sides of the oren kodesh, stood a stone table in the form of a mizbe'ach[2]. The Yizkor candles burned there on Yom Kippur. A nine-armed candelabra, in the form of the seven candled menorah seen on Titus' gate in Rome, sat on the table. Similar menorahs, small and large, were found in many shuls. Examples of the larger ones are found in Pogrebiszcz, S., and Zamosc. Some have smooth arms, some have arms covered with brass buttons, flowers, etc.

The name of the donor can sometimes be seen on the foot of the candelabra.

The ceiling in the Shebreshiner and the Zamosc shul is built over the center. The prayer hall is a regular and moderately sized quadrangle.


Translator's Notes

  1. Psalm 130 “Out of the depths I have called you, Lord.” Return
  2. Altar Return


[Page 120

Sabbath in my Town

by Emanuel Chmielash

Translated by Moses Milstein

You could say that our shtetele was poor. But it is we who are poor today. From that little shtetl of yesteryear shone greatness and spiritual richness. It is of little use to compare the small satisfactions of life in little Shebreshin to the wealthier life in the outside world. Those of us who still dream can be forgiven if we still dream of the past in S., and not of something else.

We had a colorful and meaningful life. All sorts of images of the past come quickly to mind, but to transcribe them to paper is harder.

*

Shabes. Every Shabes has an Erev Shabes

A hot, summer Friday, about 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. I lived with my parents, sister and brother, HY”D,[1] on Green Street (R' Mordechai Fleischer's street).

My Shabes clothes are prepared with great attention. Having finished work, I leave the house by the “front”, near Geshichter's pharmacy warehouse. Years before, it had belonged to Shnitser.)

On the stairs of the warehouse sit R' Zelig Getzl, and R' Shaul Moshe Pinye HY”D. At the wall, in front of Mordechai Fleischer's house stand, like soldiers at a fortress, Zelig Getzl's sons. Now, they aren't looking for a farmer and a sack of wheat, they are just out for a breath of air after a week of hard work. During the week, they were oppressed by the stress of making a living: Friday night, the air was free.

On Friday night, the cement stairs in front of Estherishe Fleischer's , HY”D, closed front door are also occupied.

The merchants on and around the street are still busily engaged in getting ready for Shabes. Some carry cholents, and following them come small girls carrying little pieces of wood to contribute to the oven. The mitzvah of keeping the ovens going for the neighborhood cholents belonged to Chaiele, Moishe Pinye's, and Menuche Chana the ba'al hagule's daughter-in-law, HY”D. Merchants run to Shimon Goldman and Feigele Gedalia's, HY”D, food stores to buy chicory with coffee they had forgotten to add to Thursday's shopping list.

There is still smoke coming out of the chimney of the wooden house belonging to Mordechai Fleischer and where his daughter Nechama Gernreich lives. In other homes, floors are still being washed. Other men carry the milchedik borscht and the food for sholes sudes down into the cellars where they each have a locker. At Laizer Shtifim's, half the floor is washed while, on the other half, the father and sons still sit at their sewing machines, hurriedly finishing a bit of work. It needs to be ready for early Sunday morning for a customer in Cukrownia.

Closer to Shabes, the children of R' Mordechai Fleischer come out of the house, a Sabbath glow spread over their faces. Dressed already in their Shabes clothes, they sit around the stairs. From time to time, you can see the grandchildren come running from their zayde's house and straight to Shimon Oldman's store to buy treats.

From afar comes the sound of R' Moishe Shemesh's hammer calling out the time for candle lighting. Then follow the sounds of doors closing and keys jingling as Jews close their stores for Shabes. The streets thin out. Soon the windows begin to display the red flames of the Shabes candles. Shabes!

*

With the coming of Shabes, the appearance of the street changes. The stores are shut behind iron bars. Locks, serious and determined, hang on the bars as if to say, “We are having Shabes!” The sidewalk is cleared of the weekly dust and dirt, the gutters whitewashed. The stones of the sidewalk arrogantly say to the bricks, “The wheels of the farmer's heavy wagons will no longer batter our backs.” And the bricks answer, “And, over us, will walk Shabesdike Yidden.”

And indeed, the wheels fall silent, and young, Jewish girls, full of charm, come out to go walking after a long hard Friday at work. Jews in satin and cloth kapotes with sidurim under their arms hurry to the synagogues for Kaballat Shabbat.

Prayers in R' Mordechai Fleischer's small beit hamidrash, in his courtyard, were attended by himself, his sons-in-law, his son Dan, HY”D, all the neighbors, the carpenters from the courtyard next door, and others. The Gabai was Zelig Blachazh, HY”D, fanatically religious, but an honest Jew. In the seat of honor sat Mordechai Fleischer. His sons-in-law occupied the Eastern wall. In the first row, sat R' Yermiyahu Rabinovitch (Later rabbi for Bialobrzeg, from Czepla Street in Warsaw). His presence truly graced the little bet hamidrash and the shtetl. The west wall was occupied by the ordinary citizens with Dantsche Fleisher at the head. He didn't, it seems, want to sit next to his brothers-in-law.

Even before Kabbales Shabes, the prayers take on a cheerful tone. Faces, shed of the gloom of the work week, the stresses of making a living, of hard toil, take on a Shabes appearance. Some are already looking for someone to play a joke on. They arrange for a real ba'al menagn[2] to lead the prayers. The initiative usually comes from the west wall group. In the middle of “lechu neranena” they mischievously lead him to the tones of the Days of Awe to the pleasure of the audience. But R' Yermiahu turns his face from the ark to the west, and with one look, they are serious again.

As the worshippers return home, the young people end their walks, and the street is deserted. From the open doors and windows, you can hear the sounds of dishes clattering, intermingled with the songs of Shabes

Saturday morning, and singing is heard. Familiar words, heimische melodies. The closer it gets, the clearer. They are in Hebrew. Curiosity takes you out of your house. In the distance—columns of soldiers. As they near, you can make out a brown reflection—the Betar youth, returning from their military muster.

There are already a few youngsters out walking on the “trottoir”—one in new shoes, another in a new suit. A new suit, on the first Shabes, means the young man has to undergo a public exam. His friends circle him, appraise him from all angles, ask who the tailor was, and of course, give their opinions.

The barber shops are busy. Stubble-faced boys go in and come out with clean shaven faces.

The new sidewalk becomes steadily livelier. Some stand in groups hotly engaged in conversation. Others walk along companionably, softly singing a workers song. Coming from Gershon Cooper's house are the strains of a newly composed march, “El Adon.” That would be the Gerrer Chasidim davening Shachris. Their Shachris always began earlier so that they could take a break before Musaf to study Talmud.

Fathers and their children, talissim under their arms, are streaming, either towards the shul, or to the large beit hamidrash. And in that beit hamidrash, daven together Chasidim without a shtibl, Chasidim quarreling with their shtibl, Zionist business men, non-Zionist business men, and plain, simple people. The left half of the eastern wall was Zionist. Seated in that pew were Moishe Hersh Berger, Abraham Finkel, Yerachmiel Ginzberg, Benjamin Chmielash, Shia Wertman, and Moishe Mantile.

Prayers from the Zionist pew only begin to get going at the Kriat shema. After the first shmone esrei, the eastern half becomes livelier. Important issues are thrashed out, taken from the news in “Heint”, or “Moment”. With great relish, they repeat words of Yeushson, argue about an article by Itshak Greenboim, remark favorably on an essay by Hillel Zeitlin, or criticize a statement by Zev Jabotinsky. Neither banging on the table or hisses of “sha…” from the congregation can subdue their heated discussions. An excited participant can only be silenced when the Gabai honors him with an oleh torah. It isn't until “katar” that they realize the davening is coming to an end, and they take off their talissim. Slowly, some just ending their “vikoach,” people make their way home.

Walking back from the beit hamidrash, you run into girls and boys coming out from the beit hamidrash and getting in a walk while their fathers are still davening at the shtibls. They usually end later. Slowly the strolling groups leave, and the street empties. The air carries the sharp smell of cholent being carried by the mothers.

After the meal, we go out to the benches near the houses. We eat fruit and chat amicably with neighbors. A little later, the older people retire for a nap, and the young take the afternoon to leave the city. In town, it is blazingly hot. Hezkel's soda water factory is packed with people. There they slake their thirst caused by the salty, fatty cholent they have eaten, with bubbly, cold soda water.

Some people avoid the heat and play chess in the shade of the half-open candy stores of Yankel Yar, or Yosele Warman.. Many of the young go to the “plazhe,” others to the Bloiner orchards, and others to the valleys between the hills around the cemetery.

Young girls and boys, half dressed, take the sun lying on the lawns of the “plazhe”. They smear cream on their faces, put leaves on their noses to avoid sunburn. Boys splash in the water, teaching others how to swim. Swimmers show off their skills.

In the orchards, ex-shtibl boys and girls gather, and eat the fresh fruit. On blankets spread close to one another on the ground, or on suit jackets, couples lie, and declare their love.

The valleys between the mountains were used by the various organizations, Zionists, Bundists, HeChalutz. There the Yudenshtats Partei arose and held several meetings. This was after the putsch by the revisionist party in 1933. The leaders were Yankel Gewertz, Chaim Ber Bach. I was a member of the committee.

Many youthful secrets were left in the valleys, expressions of affection, words of love. More than once, their sweet dreams were interrupted by a goy running after them swinging a scythe or a sickle.

*

Around 5:00 o'clock, they all begin to stream back to town. At 6:00 o'clock, the promenading begins in and around the shtetl. Girls dressed elegantly. Boys in presentable suits, striped shirts with stiff shiny collars—like at an exhibition.

The new promenade, the Zamosc Road, the Roslop Road, and Fleischer's sawmill, are filled with people—newlyweds, boys and girls walking side by side, or girls in a group, with boys eagerly following. Flirting is the order of the day. From time to time a girl's embarrassed giggle can be heard, and a blushing face can be seen. The strolling goes on until late in the night.

With the appearance of stars in the sky, you hear the shop doors opening with a weekday clang. “Have a good week,” they call out.

Business partners get together for their weekly accounting. Many of the strollers leave to begin their work week. Couples tarry as late as possible until the girl says,” It's time to go home.” The boy takes her home silently, and waits by the door, unwilling to part, until she says,” Yes, it's late,” and steals into the house so as not to wake anyone.

Montreal, Canada.


Translator's Notes

  1. הי”ד “May the lord avenge his blood” Return
  2. Someone proficient in music Return


[Page 125

Illegal activity in the shtibl

by Moshe Zisser

Translated by Moses Milstein

My father, Laizer Zalman, was a Radziner Chasid. He would study all year in the Radziner shtibl . His entire livelihood came from selling Passover salt. He was the only one in town who was occupied in this business.

In 1904, when I was eight years old, my father took me to the Radziner shtibl to study. The older boys studied separately from the younger boys.

Mornings and evenings were for studying and davening, but the rest of the day was given over to the clandestine work of Zionism which was illegal under the Tsar.

At first the older boys kept their activities from us, driving us away with blows when we approached their desks. But later, they took us gradually into the “work.” We would stand guard, stationed 20 meters apart, and when we saw the police or the watchman approach, we would give the signal, “Lecha dodi,” “Barach dodi ch'tsevi”, and the one closest to the shtibl would shout, “Tchivchak is coming.”

While we kept guard outside, the older boys were inside reading various Hebrew newspapers, mostly, HaTsfira , whose editor was R' Nachum Sokolow. There was always a fire going in the stove when they were reading the newspapers and books, so they could, in the worst case, burn the material.

 

Illegal even among our own

One Friday, we were visited by several prominent young people, among them, the Talmud chochem, R' Abraham Mordechai—Laizer Papieroshnik's son, Leibish Kretchish, David Groiser, Yankel Gershtenblit—Israel Milchiker's son, Leibish Kiro, Abraham Itche Becher, Todros Nickelsberg, and others. They had brought a sack, and from it they distributed Keren Kayemet pushkes to the boys. The pushkes were considered traif by the frume Jews of the shtetl. When they found out about the “great transgression,” they threw the boys out of the shtibl. It was a big disgrace for the parents.

I remember that once, before I began going to the Radziner shtibl, I went to call my brother to come home for dinner. I saw none of the older students there, except for R' Moshe Honigman who told me. “Go tell your father that Yosel is also now with the “learned ones.”

And so, nationalist enlightenment gradually spread throughout our shtetl.

Haifa

 

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