by Alter Honigman, known as Alter Meir David Lelewers
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Above, we discussed Linat Tzedek. As we now discuss the rest of the qualities of the Jews of the city, we must note that in general they were forged from fine material. In the absence of an organized community, and without a budget, individuals or groups of individuals founded various institutions with their own efforts institutions that would have been founded by communal councils in other cities.
One of these institutions was the charitable institution for the poor.
A significant economic recession afflicted the Jews of Poland during the 1880s and the beginning of the 1890s. Jews were pushed out of the servitute lands. Poles began to work in wholesaling and as middlemen. Thereby many Jews were deprived of their livelihood, and estates of the poor king were created in many districts of Poland . Furthermore, many fires broke out during the summer. The fires destroyed the wooden houses of the Jews in the towns. There were no insurance companies and even if they did exist, they would not have insured such wooden houses whose roofs could be ignited by any spark from the chimney.
These mishaps caused many Jews to migrate to the west, to centers of manufacturing and commerce. They migrated with their wives and children, in order to collect donations from their more fortunate brethren who lived in better houses and were earning livelihoods.
As far as I remember, the Jews of Zawiercie observed the commandment of giving charity appropriately, and fulfilled the principle that You meet a beggar give him.
However, as the groups of beggars grew and turned into camps, the residents began to complain that the doors never closed from morning until evening. Some of the poor people acted boldly and at times even dishonestly.
In light of this phenomenon, some individuals of the town who felt that the situation required a repair arose and founded a charitable fund in which all the residents of the city participated through monthly payments. They informed the beggars who made the rounds to the doors of the residents that they must approach the trustees of the charitable fund to receive a note. The note entitled them to receive a certain sum amount of money.
Three people stood at the head of this organization: my father Reb Meir Lelewer, Reb Shabtai Chazan, and Reb Avraham Borensztejn. My father distributed the notes. Avraham Borensztejn was the treasurer and he handed out the money.
A rule was established that a beggar can only receive support once every three months. As proof, the organization stamped the date on the passport or other document. After receiving their allotment, these beggars were forbidden from going around to the doors of the generous people.
Many beggars agreed to the rule, and left the town on the same day that they received their support and wandered to a different city. However, there were those who wanted to benefit at both ends, and remained in the town.
The second matter was hospitality and a place to sleep. Even before this time, this issue disturbed the residents of the town a in an acute manner. The issue remained a problem, since there was no hostel for poor people; they made use of the Beis Midrash as well as the women's gallery of the synagogue. The lack of cleanliness in these two places became unbearable. Therefore, they began to think about a hostel for the poor people, called hekdesh in Poland. The establishment of such an institution required large sums of money.
A Jew of Zawiercie, Reb Koppel Bogajer, intended to set an example for others by dedicating two rooms of his house as sleeping quarters for itinerants who were spending a night or two in the city. Reb Kopel thought that he was contributing to the solution of the problem in this manner. However, not only did others not follow his example, but he also liquidated his private institution after some time, since he began to loathe the immoral, half wild, unhygienic behavior of the guests.
There is an old adage that friendship is expressed during a time of distress; but in Zawiercie, friendship was also felt during joyous occasions.
A wedding in the city imbued joy and light upon most of the residents starting from the Sabbath upon which the groom was called up to the Torah in the synagogue. Most of the Jews of the city, along with their wives, participated in this event. During the Maftir , the women would toss various nuts and sweets down from the women's gallery in a display of friendship. The Kiddush for the residents of the city in the home of the parents of the groom was splendid. If a groom was getting married to a bride outside the city, he would go around from house to house on the evening before his departure to the wedding in order to receive blessings from the Jews of the city. He was accompanied by the Shamash [beadle] of the house of worship in which he worshipped. The Shamash would carry a lantern and fuel. The groom would be accompanied to the home of the bride by his friends, relatives and parents. Relatives and friends from the bride's side would wait for the entourage a short distance from their town. Then the groom would descend from the wagon in which he had been travelling to this point and ascend the wagon in which the young men who came to greet him would be sitting. When the wagon with the groom entered the bounds of the city, it would make seven circuits around the well in the marketplace, followed by the rest of the wagons.
Indeed, these were unforgettable experiences!
No less, and perhaps even greater, was the impression left upon the town by the weddings that took place therein.
On the Sabbath prior to the wedding, the bride's friends would come to bid farewell to the bride. There would be gifts, dances, and refreshment. The visits would last until the evening. The farewell touched the heart.
Many residents of the city participated in the wedding itself. They would bring gifts and shower the couple with good wishes. On the first Sabbath after the wedding, it was the custom to accompany the bride to the synagogue as she was holding a Korban Mincha Siddur in her hand, a gift from the groom. Many people participated in this ceremony. The Kiddush and refreshments lasted until late at night.
Festive ceremonies were also held when a Torah Scroll was dedicated in the synagogue. The completion and the filling in of the missing letters was conducted with great splendor in the presence of a large gathering. Many residents of Zawiercie literally all the people of the town stood crowded in the rooms of the ceremony, or gathered outside when the hall was too small to hold everyone, as they rejoiced with the Torah scroll.
I recall one festive event of this nature, when Reb Levi the butcher and his wife, who was the daughter of Reb Leib Zawader (Leib Kira), organized a celebration for the conclusion of the Torah scroll that they had donated.
Reb Levi specially invited a band of Jewish soldiers from Czêstochowa, and the ceremony was conducted with great splendor.
The new Torah scroll lay on a table in the center of the room in which the celebration took place. A scribe who oversaw the holy task of filling in the missing letters stood next to the table. He called up the people who had been honored by the hosts to fill in a letter. Everyone filled the letter that corresponded to the first letter of their names.
The missing letter in the Torah scroll had already been outlined with a thin line by the scribe. After the honored person filled in the letter with the special ink that is to say, at every conclusion, the band played and those assembled danced. The head of the band danced, joyous and mirthful, in the center of the circle, with a clarinet in his hand. His name was Reznik. He was a young Jew with a hot temperament. He was a Ukrainian Jew who had been drafted into the army. His brigade camped in Czêstochowa. The tunes that the band played and to which the people danced, remain etched in my memory to this day.
There is no need to add that refreshments, including copious amounts of wine and liquor, were served to the participating guests.
Women were also honored in this celebration of the conclusion of a Torah Scroll. Each of the female participant was honored with sewing a few stitches in the covering [mantele] of the Torah scroll.
The celebration in the room of the host began in the afternoon and continued until late at night, at which point the Torah was brought to the synagogue under a canopy.
The procession set out from the house of the hosts, and lasted about two hours, even though it was a short distance from Porêmba Street to the synagogue. The procession was drawn out because people took step after step, and after every three or four steps, a different Jew was honored with carrying the scroll.
The procession was headed by the band, which was playing a marching tune that I still remember to this day.
The gabbaim of the synagogue waited outside the synagogue with the Torah scrolls in their arms. They went out to greet the new Torah scroll that was about to be placed into the ark [Aron Kodesh].
The dancing began anew inside the synagogue, with the Torah scrolls that had been removed from the Aron Kodesh in the hands of the dancers. The musicians continued to play and the dancers continued to dance until they placed the new Torah scroll on the Torah reading podium.
The dancing continued even as they read a Torah portion from the new Torah, as well as when they placed the new Torah scroll into the ark alongside the other Torah scrolls.
Despite the late hour, the crowd did not hurry to leave the synagogue. They wanted to be infused with the joy more and more. To childless couples, the dedication of a Torah scroll was as if they had married off a son or a daughter.
To complete the picture, let me tell my memoirs about the way of life, the entertainment and amusement enjoyed by the circles of people that were not among the religious people and the Torah scholars.
Earlier, I described how I began studying the watchmaking craft with the sole watchmaker and goldsmith in the town, Reb Yaakov-Leizer Mitz.
As was the custom in those days, the apprentice also had to perform household and family tasks in the home of the craftsman with whom he was studying.
One evening, Reb Yaakov-Leizer and his wife asked me to perform a task of this nature. They told me that there were invited to the wedding of a poor man that night. The wedding was to take place in the home of their friend Feitel Bromberg who was known in the town as Feitel the Tinsmith. They were going to lock up their shop and home. They offered me to join them at the wedding party, on the condition that I would go out once in a while to see if anyone had damaged the door of the shop and stole anything from it, as well as to enter their home to check if everything was in order in the bedroom where their children were sleeping. A kerosene lamp was lit on the table and they were concerned that a fire might break out, Heaven forbid. I accepted the invitation and joined the couple.
The wedding took place in the home of the Bromberg family. This was a spacious house, for Reb Feitel was a wealthy man. He was a contractor in a factory that employed several workers. He himself no longer worked. His livelihood was assured. When I entered the well-furnished salon, I got the impression that he had given over his home out of his good heart for the purpose of hosting a modest wedding for a poor man. However, it later became clear that this was a contrived wedding for entertainment and amusement at the expense of a poor, non-local Jew.
And what happened was as follows:
When I entered the dwelling, I found several dozen men imbued in a festive atmosphere. The long table was set with wine, cakes and sweets. People were crowded around the table or at some distance from it. Some people also wandered about the room. Everybody was dressed in festive clothes and enjoying the refreshments. The hosts urged the invited guests to eat and drink.
A man of about 40 years of age set at the head of the table. He was wearing a kapote and a kashket in accordance with the custom of those days. His mannerisms and appearance showed that he was not among the wealthy.
Those present were very jolly. I realized from their innuendoes and by looking at their preparations that this was a performance rather than an actual wedding.
The bride sat among the women, next to a wall of the room. She was younger than the groom, and she was wearing a wig. She was merry. She chatted a great deal with the other women. This continued until the father-in-law stood up and announced that the wedding ceremony was about to take place.
Everything was in order: The person conducting the wedding ceremony arrived. There was a legitimate wedding canopy with four poles. The ceremony was conducted in accordance with Jewish law and custom. The laughter and merriment increased from moment to moment while the groom, a poor, downtrodden man, acted indifferently to the entire wedding and those arranging it.
Then one of the participants of the ceremony announced, in accordance with custom, that the couple should enter a special room for yichud, where they would partake of their first meal together.
From the behavior of the guests and the hosts, one could realize that something funny would happen if the couple enters the special room.
We did not have to wait long for the awaited joke. Suddenly, the door of the special room opened noisily. The man left the room very angry. He shouted, What type of a crazy woman did you give me? She pushed me against the wall until I almost died.
The false bride exited right after him. She was also shouting, as she explained that she wished to take revenge upon her husband for stepping on a wart on her foot, as he intended to fulfill the verse and he will rule over you..
The guests almost burst out in laughter from the great amusement. They staged an attempt to make peace between the couple, but suddenly the bride disappeared. When she returned what did I see before my eyes? The bride appeared as a clean shaven lad. The appearance of the lad increased the laughter and shouts of the crowd. The groom and bride stood in the crowd and also laughed. The difference was that there was a tinge of bitterness in the laughter of the groom.
As the noise and tumult died down, and after the crowd, including the bride and groom, sat down next to the table to eat and drink after the pretend ceremony, Reb Feitel the host explained why he had arranged a fake wedding and why he mocked a poor man also a tinsmith who had come to seek work with him.
Reb Feitel had served as an apprentice for the father of the so-called groom. The father was not a bad man at all. He taught Reb Feitel, who had lost his father, the trade as he had agreed with his mother. However, not only did the wife of the tinsmith impose various tasks upon him, but also literally starved him. He suffered the pangs of hunger with her. She first distributed the meals to the
members of the family. When his turn came, there was not enough food left. In such cases, she promised that she would give him money to purchase some sort of food, but she did not always keep her promise.
He wanted very much to take revenge upon her, but what could a child do? Therefore he made a vow that when he would grow up and become a tradesmen, he would pay back one of her sons who would seek work with him.
Then the awaited day arrived. Many years later, the son of this woman came to Reb Feitel to seek work. After realizing who he was, he decided what he decided after he learned that the man was a widower.
Reb Feitel concluded his story and added, It is true I mocked this man. We had fun at his expense. However, he certainly received work. Tomorrow, he will go to work with me, in the factory. You can be certain; he will not be starving for bread.
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