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[Pages 225/226]

The Synagogues and the Religious Life

Lipa Mendelson

Translated by Sara Mages

Edited by Jack Bader

 

The Great Synagogue in Ludmir

The great synagogue stood in the center of town. There was room in it for several thousand people. After you passed through a corridor, you went down a number of stairs and entered the synagogue's interior. The construction type and shape were in the style of ancient synagogues. The Bimah[1] stood in the middle of the synagogue, facing the Holy Ark which was made with magnificent decorations. To reach the Holy Ark you had to climb a number of stairs. On top, at the end of the stairs, was a spacious area that could contain more than a Minyan[2]. This area was surrounded by a beautiful iron fence.

The iron banister was in the same pattern as the guardrail by the stairs and the little choir boys, who stood on the stairs, leaned on it.

The circumference of each of the synagogue's pillars was four meters. There was a cupboard inside the pillar on the left side of the Bimah. All the ritual objects were locked inside it like beautiful “crowns”, Yads [ritual pointers], Shofars, scrolls, a tablecloth to cover the cantor's pillar desk, and also small tablecloth to cover the Bimah'stable, and the rest of the tables on which the Torah Scrolls were read during the holidays and festivals.

Stairs on two sides led to the Bimah.The Bimah was surrounded by a beautiful wooden guardrail. A wooden table stood on it, and a leather pillow and wooden mallet were always placed on it. They were used to silence the public and announce that the cantor was beginning to pray.

 

The cantors of the Great Synagogue

Famous cantors prayed in the synagogue.

The cantor R' David Kliger served with the choir that he conducted. He was a wise scholar and the worshipers greatly enjoyed his prayers.

The cantor R' Baruch from Lutsk, a young man with a strong pleasant voice, served after him. He prayed alone without a choir.

A well known cantor, R' Meir Diner, was appointed after him. He lasted longer than his predecessor who served for two years. R' Meir Diner prayed with a 16 member choir that he conducted alone. After several years he was accepted as a cantor in the city of Rzeszów [Raysha] Galicia.

The cantor R' Shmuel from Lutsk was appointed after him although his voice was unpleasant and weak. However, R' Shmuel was considered to be one of the best choir conductors, and the congregation enjoyed the choir that he coached and conducted. The tenor was R' Moshe, son of Feibel Broder a Włodawka Hassid. The bass was Tuvya Leibishes, grandson of Rodeski the grocer. The alto was Froika, son of Yakov Ginsberg the owner of a kiosk on Farne Street. He delighted the worshipers and listeners with his strong pleasant voice. His mother and two brothers, Azriel and Aharon, live in Israel.

R' Shmuel was the last cantor. He perished in 1943 along with the community of Ludmir.

vol226.jpg
The exterior of the Great Synagogue, built in 5582 (1801)

 

[Pages 227/228]

The Worshipers

People who didn't belong to a Hasidic sect prayed in the Great Synagogue. But, on Shabbat Mevarchim[3], Sabbath Rosh Chodesh[4], the Three Pilgrimage Festivals[5] and Selichot[6], also the “Shtibblach Hassidim”[7] came to the Great Synagogue after the prayers ended there to enjoy the songs of the cantor and his choir.

 

The Great Beit HaMidrash

The Great Beit HaMidrash stood a few dozen meters from Ludmir's Great Synagogue. It was a large wooden building that contained on the right side of the corridor a second smaller Beit Midrash. Therefore, they called the Beit Midrash on the right side - The Small Beit Midrash, and the one on the left - The Great Beit Midrash. Those who entered encountered a large Bimah surrounded by a wooden guardrail, which stood in front of the Holy Ark.

The order of the day started with Hashkama [sunrise prayer]. Learned Jews and also simple Jews: Slaughterers, clothes sellers, tailors, shoemakers and similar, rose early in the morning to pray in public. Those were holy pure Jews, who were dedicated to God's Torah and the nation of Israel with all of their hearts. They were the regular early morning Minyan. When they finished with their prayer, the second Minyan arrived followed by the third and the fourth, until midday.

When they finished with their prayer, Beit HaMidrash filled with young men and Jews, who set time to study in the afternoon when they weren't busy in their businesses. But later, Beit HaMidrash filled with Jews who came for Mincha[afternoon] prayer. Jews who were on the road most of the week, traveling with their merchandise from village to village, city to city, to markets and fairs, hurried to Beit HaMidrash on their free day to listen to the laws of the Torah.

Also, respected merchants, Hassidim and men of action, came to Beit HaMidrash for Mincha and Maariv [evening] prayer. And there were also Jews, who between prayer to prayer, listened to tales about ancient wars, or listened to preachers who knew how to win the hearts of their listeners with fairy tales, beautiful fables and lectures. The preachers and story tellers came often. The best time to listen to a preacher was between Minchaand Maariv.

And if the preacher was really good, weary hard working Jews flocked from all over the city to listen to his words. Various preachers appeared during our days. Some were forced to stand not on the Bimah but on stairs of the Holy Ark to be seen by all the listeners.

I remember a different kind of a preacher. He was a scholar and a successful story teller. He knew his profession very well, and for example, when he told a story about a lion who walked in the forest, a story that could be told in two minutes, he told it for half an hour.

And precisely, when the audience's nerves were very tense and they were anxious to know the rest of the story, he cocked his ear as if he heard something, and said: “What do you ask? Would the preacher also preach tomorrow? We will see according to today's income! It is understandable that no one asked him anything, but he understood that when the audience is interested to know the sequel, it is necessary to remind him at the end of the sermon to fill the bowl standing by the exit door, and there were donors who made sure to that.

Beit HaMidrash started to empty at the end of Maarivprayer, but some Jews remained and sat around long tables. At the tables they listened to the lessons of Ein Yaakov[8] that one of the scholars volunteered to give each evening. The cantor, R' Melech, prayed there for many years. He had a powerful voice, and knew how to please with his songs when he appeared in each celebration that took place in the homes

vol228.jpg
The interior of the Great Synagogue

 

[Pages 229/230]

of Ludmir's residents, like Brit Milah [circumcision], Tenaim [conditions of marriage], wedding, or Shalom Zachar [welcoming the male] (It was customary to gather on Sabbath eve before the circumcision at the home of the woman who gave birth). If there were a number of celebrations in one evening, as it often happened, he tried not to discriminate between the residents, rich and poor, and honored them and the hosts with a song and a ballad, with “Good Shabbat” and “Mazal Tov”.

His sons live in Israel.

 

The Yeshiva

Most of the Jews in Ludmir, a city with a large Jewish population, were devoted to religion and tradition. Brotherhood and friendship prevailed between each other. From ancient days there was a 3 room Yeshiva in Ludmir. Only students, who already attended Talmud lessons for at least two years, were accepted. Before their arrival to the Yeshiva they already had a certain concept in the Gemara.

In 1908, I was accepted to room A. On the next day I already studied in room B. I'm not ashamed to admit that I forgot the names of my two teachers (I studied with the first for one day, and a year and a half with the second). I think that the name of one of them was R' Moshe and the second, who came from Lita, R' Yitzchak. Both of them were good in explaining and their dignified appearance testified that they were scholars.

The head of the Yeshiva, who taught in room B, was R' Menachem Mendel Kostromezki. The head of the Yeshiva lived with his family, 3 sons and a daughter, in the Yeshiva building. He was a prominent scholar, learned and sharp-witted in the Torah and in wisdom, and an enthusiastic follower of the Hassidic dynasty of R' Aharon of blessed memory, from Karlin. His blue eyes radiated love and serenity, and yet, he intimidated his student. A dark yellowish beard, streaked with gray, adorned his face. He was dressed in a long dark gray coat that fit his body and wore shiny boots, both summer and winter. His students acquired a certain learning method in the sea of Talmud and sufficient knowledge, and later they were able to study alone without help.

It wasn't easy or simple to be accepted to the Yeshiva. First of all, it was necessary to pass a Gemara test with the head of the Yeshiva who wanted to know the extent of the examinee's knowledge and perception.

I remember that during my exam, when we reached this question in the Gemara:

“If so, what is the meaning of therefore?” The head of the Yeshiva asked me in his Lithuanian accent: “Do you care that the therefore is there?” He repeated this question a number of times until I told him that I didn't care, and that for some reasons the Gemara thinks that it is unnecessary. After my answer he closed the Gemara.

Two men, who were assigned the work of admitting the students, sat in the Yeshiva after the holidays (Passover and Sukkot), until Rosh Chodesh Iyar - after Passover, and until Rosh Chodesh Heshvan – after the holiday of Sukkot. Almost all the students came from cities and villages around Ludmir like: Kryłów [Krilev], Ustilug [Ustila], Kiselin, Lokachi [Lokatsh], Lanovitsy, Motchiov, Zaitishez and more.

One of the two was R' Moshe Mendel Goldberg, a Jewish scholar, clever, rich, and a Belzer Hassid. His face and his manner of speech indicated all mentioned above. He was the owner of a shop and a flour mill. He gave the flour to the shopkeepers on credit, but never gave them additional flour before they paid their previous debt. It wasn't easy for the young men to receive an admission confirmation to the Yeshiva from Mr. Moshe Mendel in the form of a signed and sealed note. He negotiated with each student on the amount of money that he brought with him from home to pay the entrance fee. He, Mr. Moshe Mandel, squeezed each student to nearly his very last small coin before handing him the admission note. He had the habit of leaving the students for a day or two after he told them: “No, we will not accept you, you don't have enough money.”

The pain and sorrow of these students was great. After all, they really thought that they would not be accepted, and didn't know where to turn and what to do. On the other hand, great was the happiness of the student who received the acceptance note.

The second, who collaborated with Moshe Mandel in the work of accepting students, was Asher Chaim Badnski of blessed memory, a Jewish scholar, a beloved man, sensitive and kind, who always tried to avoid the negotiations with the students, but without success. As a rich man, Moshe Mandel took the leading role in his work in the Yeshiva and in life in general, and was never affected by others.

 

They ate by “Days”…

Almost all the students in Ludmir's Yeshiva who came from the outside, like all the Yeshiva students in Poland and Lita in those years – close to fifty years ago – ate by days. Meaning: each Yeshiva student had seven homeowners for the seven days of the week. He ate with each one of them on a regular day of the week.

Shopkeepers, who didn't take students on “market days” because they were in the shop from morning to evening, didn't refuse to take them on other days, and those who came home late from their businesses gave the young man money instead of a meal, this money was enough for him for a dinner and he also had some change left.

Many homes searched for a young man for the Sabbath. Usually, there wasn't a home that refused to give a daily meal to a Yeshiva student, and gave him his food with kindness.

 

Footnotes
  1. Bimah– a large raised reader's platform Return
  2. Minyan – to count – the quorum of ten male Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations Return
  3. Shabbat Mevarchim –The Sabbath which precedes the arrival of every new Jewish month Return
  4. Rosh Chodesh – Head of the Month - the monthly celebration of the New Moon according to the Jewish calendar Return
  5. Three Pilgrimage Festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth Return
  6. Selichot- special prayers for forgiveness Return
  7. Shtibblach - the name for the house of worship in a Hasidic sect Return
  8. Ein Yaakov - the ethical and inspirational teachings of the Talmud Return

 

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