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{Page 300}

The Orthodox Movement in Belchatow

By Leib Pudlowski

Translated from the Yiddish by Jerome Silverbush

Edited by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

[with comments in brackets]

At the end of the 19th century, a group of young men, most of them weavers, including Shmuel Zanwel and Zaken Altman at the head, existed in Belchatow who would study the Mishnah or the “Ein-Yakov” [“Jakob's Well” – 16th century book of rabbinical Talmudic literature] every day at dusk in the beis hamedresh [house of study and prayer]. To preserve the sanctity of Kabbalat Shabbat [the Friday evening service welcoming the Sabbath] they would take everything out of their pockets. (At that time there was no Shabbos eruv [an area marked off by a string, beyond which you could not walk or carry anything on the Sabbath] in Belchatow). They had a room in Ezriel Graber's house where they would daven [pray] with their own minyan [quorum of ten males necessary to hold a Jewish prayer service] and even presented their own Torah.

At the beginning of the present century [20th], there already existed a yeshiva in Belchatow with 400 students from every corner of Poland. The yeshiva was located in the beis hamedresh, and its director was the Belchatower Rabbi Braun, later Lukower Rebbe [Chasidic rabbi], who was famous throughout Poland as the Lukower Gaon [genius or brilliant man]. The students in the yeshiva ate and slept in the homes of the property owners of the shtetl.

Belchatow had a masonry shul [synagogue], a large beis hamedresh, and many small Chasidic shtiblech [small prayer houses]. The ordinary people prayed in the shul and in the beis hamedresh. The Chasidim rarely prayed there, although they did purchase “shtet” [seats]. On the Shabbosim [Sabbaths] before Yom Kippur and Passover, the Belchatower Rabbi Zemach Tornheim would give his sermons in the shul, and on the remaining Shabbosim of the year he preached in the beis hamedresh. The meetings about all important city legal matters used to take place in the ante-room of the shul. During the time of the Tsar, the dozores [members of communal council] used to have their meetings in the ante-room. Before the First World War, the Belchatower dozores were: Mordekhai Szpigelman, Alter Borensztajn, Hershl Plawner, Yakov and Hersh Szotlender, among others.

In Belchatow before the First World War, Jewish life, in general, was mainly concentrated in shul or in the beis hamedresh. In 1905, during the weavers' struggle against the factory owners, the weavers once entered the shul while the property owners were saying slichos [a prayer said during the days preceding Rosh Hashanah] and beat them with murderous blows. On the birthday of Nicholas the Second and at other official “galuvkes” [the birthday or anniversary of the death of the tsar or members of his family] the occasion was marked with solemn prayers in the shul. Yoske, the teacher of the youngest children, used to bring his students to the shul where they would receive sweets. Yoske's cheder [religious school for young boys] was the only legalized cheder in Belchatow. On the wall in his cheder hung a picture of Nicholas the Second with his family. The other cheders (Sholom Amshinower), Leyzer Malamed's, Mendel Grocholicer's, and others, were “secret,” and they would actually disperse the students when the Tsar's school inspector came into the city.

The Belchatow Synagogue,
in background the Talmud Torah

During the years 1909-1910 vigorous struggles took place in Belchatow over the introduction of new ritual slaughterers. Three sides were formed: the Gerer Chasidim, the Aleksander, and the property owners with their rabbi. The entire struggle was carried out in the ante-room of the synagogue. Each side had its supporters and its “starke” [“strong ones”]. Alter Borensztajn of the Gerer would come to the meetings, surrounded by “starke” in order to protect himself from blows. The dispute lasted two years and finally they accepted three new ritual slaughterers, one for each side. The property owners brought in Leibl Muszkat from Piotrkow, the son of the Piotrkow cantor. He was the ritual slaughterer in Belchatow for 30 years.

The Belchatower Jews spent their time mainly in the beis hamedresh. Even when the yeshiva had permanently shut down, the young men would sit there the entire day and study. The Gerer and the Aleksander would each sit at their own tables. They liked to talk about business and politics in the beis hamedresh. The Rabbi would ban the rebellious. Khalitse [release of a man from the obligation to marry his brother's childless widow] was also granted there.

Around 1911 a secret group of Maskilim [adherents of the Enlightenment] was created in the beis hamedresh, and in 1912 it reached the point that the title pages of prayer books were torn out and Gemaras were thrown in the toilets. Suspicion fell on the group of Maskilim, and a trial was organized for them. The rabbi took out a Torah scroll and called upon the Maskilim to atone. One of the Maskilim, Chaim Dzialowski, went to the Torah and kissed it and promised to be good and pious before the entire congregation.

On the Shabbos, the scholars of the city would study the Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers, one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah], the Mishnah, the Chumash [Five Books of Moses], and Rashi with the property owners. The Belchatower rabbi led a rabbinic table at which they sang Jewish nignunim [melodies] by the Wolborzer Rebbe.

The Gerer Chasidim were the most numerous. They had two shtiblech [small prayer houses] in Belchatow, and they also had the greatest influence on the city. They made the decision whether to accept a rabbi or ritual slaughterer. They were followed by a part of the middleclass element and, often, even non-organized weavers, who obtained weaving work from the Gerer, wagon drivers, and so on. The Aleksander Chasidim held second place after the Gerer, and there was always a struggle between the two for power over the religious Jews in Belchatow. The hatred between them was so great that they would not even arrange marriages among their families.

The ordinary people would travel to the Radoszycer Rebbe. Every Shabbos at night, the wagon drivers would hitch the horses to several wagons, fill them with men and women, and drive to Radoszyce, which was right next to Belchatow. On the way back, the women used to tell each other about the miracles of the Rebbe, Reb Ber.

It is necessary to remember the Khevra Kadishe [burial society] from those times that consisted of truly pious Jews and great scholars, such as Josef Gutman, the city's bookbinder, who would awake every night at midnight to study and recite prayers in commemoration of the Temple in Jerusalem; Alter Bresler, the Bel Musaf [man who recites additional prayers on Shabbos and holidays] from the Gerer prayer house, and others. The burial society also would spend the night with the sick, give charity, and hold celebrations. That is how religious life looked in Belchatow until the end of the First World War.

* * *

At the end of the First World War, a severe change occurred in Jewish life in Belchatow. Jewish communal life grew rapidly. The Po'alei Zion [Workers of Zion], the Bund [the Jewish Labor Organization of Poland], and others started public activities. The young started to flow into the parties. The religious Jews were also pulled along with the current. In 1918, the first religious groups were formed, under the name “Tiferes Bukherim” [magnificent young men], which consisted of members from the houses of study and prayer and members from the property owners class. Similar organizations already existed in a series of cities in Poland, but there was no organized contact among them. The organizations were not involved with political problems. Their only task was to give the religious youth the possibility to live a spiritual life. The youth from Chasidic and Misnagdish [orthodox opponents of Chasidus] circles were grouped ideologically in the Tiferes groups. They used to conduct celebrations, dancing and singing, as the Chasidim did, and they also studied The Ethics of the Fathers, the Five Books of Moses, and Rashi. The young from various strata lived together in a friendly manner, from Chasidic young men to butcher boys and porters. The majority of the members consisted of workers and craftsmen from various trades: weavers, barbers, tailors, porters, butchers, wagon drivers, and young Chasidic men from poor homes. There was rarely one from a rich home.

The “Tiferes Bukherim” had its own self-help fund. In an emergency, one was obliged to help the other. On Shabbos, the members would spend the entire day at the organization and would only go home at the Shabbos meal time. Friday nights they would study Chumash and Rashi, Shabbos morning they would all pray in their own prayer house. After noon they would study the Pirkei Avot and Mishnah. At shalosh-sudos [the late afternoon meal on the Sabbath], they would celebrate with a barrel of beer, dancing and singing. Right at the beginning of its existence, the Tiferes had over one hundred members. Among the most important workers and founders of the organization were:

Jakob Machabanski - the chairman of the organization, a son of simple people, weavers and hand workers and he himself was a weaver who could study a little Chumash and Rashi. He had organizational talent and was very influential with his straight-forwardness. He later became the chairman of the Tseirei Emunei Israel [young, faithful followers of Israel] and Agudas - councilman in the first Belchatower city council.

The second important activist was Moshe Przybylski. He was called “Moshe God,” because he was always gazing absent-mindedly at the heavens. He was the actual leader of “Tiferes Bukherim” in Belchatow. He would mainly dedicate himself to the education of the young men. Later, he was the leader of Agudas Israel in Pabianice.

Mention should also be made of Moshe Eksztajn, Zajnwel Muszkat, Ishaye-Yudl Rzeslawski (Kiperniak), who later became chairman of the first Belchatower Kehilla [internal governing board of the Jewish community] in independent Poland.

The “Tiferes” also had a dramatic circle. On Purim 1919, they put on a performance of “Ahasueros” [King of Persia from Purim story]. They gave the performance in their own meeting hall without scenery, with a temporary stage of boards and benches. A large audience came in honor of Purim. Women were also allowed to see the performance.

In time, a group was created in “Tiferes Bukherim” that demanded that the organization modernize its work, create a newspaper, join the religious cultural organization “Tevunah,” etc. The most outstanding member of the group was Shlomo Muszkat, the son of Belchatow's ritual slaughterer. He was very well versed in spiritual subjects as well as in secular subjects, possessed a quick mind and a significant speaking talent. He later became active in both “Tseirei Emunei Israel” and in “Po'alei Agudas Israel,” and was the representative of the Agudas in the Kehilla and in the City Council.

In 1919, the “Tiferes” in Belchatow was dissolved and was reformed into a “Tevunah” organization. The activity of the new organization was not much different from that of the old Tiferes. Zajnwel Muszkat (the Belachtower ritual slaughter) and Moshe Przysbylski studied with the young men in Tiferes. The leaders remained the same, but in time, the membership became exclusively members of the middleclass element.

Also, the activities of the “Tevunah” did not find favor with its members. An internal fight started around the question of Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel]. At the time of the Balfour Declaration, one group demanded more Zionist work; a second group was not satisfied that “Tevunah” concerned itself only with religious education. The bitter end came as “Tevunah” fell apart. The Zionist-oriented element joined Mizrachi [an Orthodox Zionist movement founded in Vilna in 1902], while the majority, together with the leadership, joined the then-forming “Tseirei Emunei Israel” [a non-Zionist Orthodox movement].

* * *

”Tseirei Emunei Israel” was founded in 1920. Its membership consisted mainly of former members of “Tiferes Bukherim” and “Tevunah”. It was also joined by groups of Chasidic young men from the Gerer, Radziner, and other prayer houses. The group carried out a series of changes in the new organization. The most noteworthy members of the group were: Yitzhak Pigula, Elimelekh Pudlowski, and Zalman-Peretz Gelbart. In the later years, they played an important role in various Belchatower parties.

 

Yitzhak Pigula

The following members were the first provisional administrators: Jakob Machabanski, Moshe Ecksztajn, Zajnwel Muszkat, Shlomo Muszkat, and Ishaye Yudl Przybylski – all former active members of “Tiferes” and “Tevunah.” Among the administrators were also the Pyuro brothers. One of the brothers, Mayer, had quickly risen to the top of the Belchatower “Tseirei Emunei Israel.” He was an expert on orthodox literature, a capable educator, a good speaker, and he also was capable of interpreting the bible clearly. Israel Frenkl and Moshe Chaim Grynblat were also members of the initial administration. Both were representatives of “Shlomei Emunei Israel,” which supervised the youth. They were later among the most respected activists in the “Agudah” and the founders of the Beis Yakov [religious schools for young girls] movement in Belchatow. During the first two years of activity of the administration (Machabanski – chairman, and Mayer Pyuro – secretary), no important changes took place in the life of the organization. The leadership sharply opposed every attempt at reform by the “young” [“Yunge”] members. Angry struggles occurred during the entire time among the younger members who demanded political activity, a library, a reading room, vigorous activity for Eretz Yisroel, etc. There were stormy meetings and, although the youth succeeded in attracting a large group of the “Tseiri-Emuneikes” to their cause, their efforts did not have any success with the leadership. The only innovations were the studying of the “Horeb,” the “13 Letters” [sic [1]] by Dr. Shimson Rafael Hirsch, and “God's People” by Dr. Nusen Birnbaum. Most popular were the lessons from “Guide for the Perplexed” and “Duties of the Heart,” taught by Dovid Shoykhet. The Belchatower rabbis [morah horahs, or religious judges], Shmuel Yehoshua Szilim and Moshe Eliezer Pudlowski, also gave Talmudic lectures.

[no caption]

The Tseireim would distribute the orthodox organ, “Der Yid” [“The Jew”]. Students would come from Warsaw, Lodz, Piotrkow, etc.

Many Hasidic parents did not want to send their children to the Tseirim. They were afraid that their children would get infected with the spirit of the “yunge” [young people], and it also was not fitting that their children mix with the common young people who were members of Tseirim.

The finale of the struggle between the “alte” [old] and the “yunge” [young] played itself out at the general conference at the beginning of 1922. Both sides mobilized all of their supporters. Almost 120 youths came to the meeting and the youth who had the majority in the new administration won.

 

Three Belchatower young men who received rabbinical diplomas
[from right to left:] Kadzial, Borzykowski, and the dyer's son

A group of Chassidic young men in Belchatow.
[Additional information provided by Dora Szczukocka Bornstein:
Second from left is Benczkowski]

The new administration opened a library and a reading room (the new librarian was Elimelekh Pudlowski). Later, there was a vigorous fight about the character of the library. A decision was even made that non-religious books would not be allowed in the library. But the majority of the library committee consisted of the “Yunge,” and they actually smuggled in books from worldly authors. However, Peretz, Mendele, Sholom Aleichem, Asch, Opatoshu, etc., were not allowed in the library.

The library principally relied on translations of foreign works from which any pages with sexual content were cut out. At the end of 1923, the library had 500 books.

In the organization, there also existed an Eretz Yisroel committee (with Zalman Peretz Gelbart as secretary), which raised money for Keren Hayeshuv [fund for the Jewish homeland].

In 1923, one of the most important efforts of “Tseirei Emunei Israel” was the dedication of a new Torah. The collection action for the purpose was started by the “Tiferes Bucherim,” but the work finished only with the end of the existence of the Tseirim.

The dedication celebration lasted an entire month. Every night Jews would come in and write a letter [in the Torah]. Feywel's klezmer band played joyfully. On the day of the dedication, Abraham Keynisls and Leibush Pelcman came on white horses with disguised faces to relay the news to all corners of the city. At dusk all the religious Jews came to the meeting hall of the Tseirim, from where the new Torah was carried under a wedding canopy to the synagogue. Jews danced and sang along the entire way. Leibl Shoyket sang chapters of Psalms with a choir in the synagogue. The celebration ended with a great feast during which sermons were given.

Agudasher Kibbutz-Hachsharah in Belchatow
[members of the Agudas training kibbutz, a preparatory agricultural
community for prospective agricultural immigrants to Eretz Yisroel]

Leave-taking evening of the Belchatower Tseirei Agudas Israel
in honor of the secretary Yitzhak Alfiszer
for his making aliyah to Eretz Yisroel. (1937)

After the dedication, the fight in “Tseirei Emunei Israel” about the Eretz Yisroel question became more intense. A large group of members, including Zalman Perec Gelbart, Sucher Jutkewicz, and Yitzhak Yosef Flam, had demanded more activities for Israel and closer cooperation with the Zionist Movement. When the leadership did not satisfy their demands, the entire group left the Tseireim and joined “Mizrachi.”

The most respected activists from the group were the Gelbart brothers. The older Zalman Perec, who suffered from lung disease, was the soul of the movement. Even on his death bed he continued the party work. The younger brother Kalman was also an activist inMizrachi.” It was known everywhere that his opinion and position was right and just. He later perished in the Poznan concentration camp.

In the second half of 1923, again another group formed in the organization, which requested that “Tseirei Emunei Israel” be transformed into a religious workers party. This suggestion found a deep resonance with the majority of the members, which consisted of weavers, shearers, and other related trades in the textile industry. At the end of 1923 it was decided at a general meeting to give the organization the name “Poalei Emunei Israel.” After the decision, a small number of members – children of Chasidic factory owners – did leave the organization. Those who left even created a new managing committee for “Tseiri Emunei,” but the organization did not carry on any tangible activities. “Tseiri Emunei” first regained its strength in the 1930's. In 1935, the Belchatower “Tseirei Emunei” had 50 members. At that time the important activists were: Moshe Janowsky* (chairman), Yitzhak Alfiszer, Borzykowski, and Fakentreger.

The Belchatower “Poalei Emunei Israel” was compatible with the “Poalei Agudas Israel” in Poland. This was actually the first religious worker party in Poland. The second was an organization with the same name in Piotrokow.

 

[The banner in the photograph identifies the group
as the “Managing Committee of the Youth Group”.]

[continued on next page]

 


* See an interesting song written by Moshe Janowsky on page 268. return
1. [The book's title is actually “19 Letters”, ed.] return

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