The term gabe in Yiddish or גבאי in Hebrew, needs some special clarification.
The dictionary defines the gabe as a warden of a public institution, especially in a synagogue and also manager of the affairs of a Hasidic Rabbi. The truth of the matter is that the role of the gabe as well as his rank or status, was, and still is, determined by circumstances and by the characteristics of the synagogue, community, societies and leaders. This chapter about Institutions illuminates the various tasks and social standing of the gabe. I will use the Yiddish word gabe in my translation.
The same goes for shames in Yiddish שָמָש in Hebrew. The dictionary defines the shames as a beadle, sexton in synagogue, Rabbi's personal assistant. His tasks are various from knocking on the wooden windows to waking up people for prayer, to lighting the candles in the synagogue and to closing up after the last men has finished praying. Therefore I will use the term in Yiddish - shames]
One of the oldest, most influential and richest societies in town was the Khevre Kadi'she. It was a great honor to belong to that society, especially to become a gabe in that society. Very few could reach the level of becoming the gabe of the Khevre Kadi'she, who was a kind of a president. Only chosen ones, the learned of the town, such as R' Israel Yosl Mazursky, R' Hillel and R' Shalom Kostrinsky, were privileged to be thus honored.
It seems that this society did not confine itself only to burial ground, or cemetery lots, and to the dead. It included in its activities other community functions. All these activities were entered in writing into the register of the Khevre Kadi'she.
Regrettably, the old register where they registered many important events was destroyed. The new register that dealt only with society-matters, is missing. It got lost during WW1, when the residents of Horodets fled away and many houses were burnt down.
We will have to be contented with the recollections presented to us by R' Alter Alman, R' Mordechai Greenberg and other Horodetsers.
It became a custom that when someone wanted to join as a member of the society, he had to pay 25 rubles. In addition, he had to prepare the annual banquet, the eve of the month of Shvat. If the banquet was not so fine, it was possible to compensate the members of the Khevre Kadi'she with another, better, banquet.
The new member was obliged to serve as the society' shames for the next three years. The role of the shames was to call the members of the Khevre Kadi'she to perform their duty when someone died.
[Editor, A, Ben-Ezra, noted: Almost the same requirement appears in the Khevre Kadi'she of Zablodov (in the region of Grodno) : For three years the new member must remain in the lowest rank of a servant of the society and for three years he must prepare the banquet for the society. (look up Yerukham Bakhrakh's materialen tsuder geshikhte foon byalistoker gegent, YIVO bletter vinter 1946, band 28, no.2 z.323 and also z/325, 326)]
Khevre Kadi'she members were exempt from paying burial-fee. However, if a death occurred among non-members, the society with its gabe fixed the sum of money to be paid for the burial.
The Horodetser Khevre Kadi'she excelled in its unique and various practices and customs such as praying in Beit Hamidrash every first of the month, practicing together Small Yom Kippur and arranging the yearly banquets. [Small Yom Kippur was the custom of fasting and praying for atonement, the evening preceding the first of the month. The prayer was said even by those who did not fast].
The big banquet
Among all the other practices of the Khevre Kadi'she, the practice for which they were foremost noted was the winter banquet. [The editor comments: in Zablodov and in Grodno they held the annual banquets during Khol Hamoed. In other communities the banquet took place on the following dates: 14th, 15th, 19th of 20th of Kislev].
Before the banquet, the members observed the fast [of Small Yom Kippur] and prayed for atonement in the Beit Hamidrash.
The banquet took place in the gabe's house. If there was no new member to prepare the banquet according to the rules of the society, the members of the society prepared the banquet by themselves. It was really like a King Solomon's banquet. They baked special large Hallahs, served big portions of fish, meat, chicken, tsimes [vegetable stew] and fruit-dessert. The banquet was not short of wine and whisky. It was quite a joyful and high spirited event. They used to sing aloud all kinds of melodies. At that annual banquet they chose the candidates for the following year and almost always the same candidates were chosen. The folks, then, went home joyful, taking with them parts of the food wrapped in cloth for their wives and children.
The Simhath Torah Banquet
This second banquet, smaller, took place on Simkhath Torah [joy of finishing the year's reading cycle of the Torah] also took place in the gabe's house. It started on Shmini Atzeret [eighth day of Sukkot] in the evening and continued until late evening. The banquet consisted of fruit, cakes and whisky. The banquet was held in a very festive and joyful mood. After the banquet, all went out to the street and led the gabe to the synagogue. They carried lit candles in their hands and sang aloud Chasidic and Misnagdic melodies. The town-children preceded them and helped with the singing. Upon entering the synagogue, they continued the jubilation with songs and dance, while making the Hakofes [circular procession with the Torah scrolls around the reading platform] around the platform.
All the folks, be they Hasids or Misnagdim, came to the synagogue to participate in the Hakofes.
The Khevre Kadi'she had relatively high expenses: fencing in the cemetery, paying the grave-diggers, meals arranged for the purpose of boosting the society and other similar matters. Where did they get the money to cover the expenses? The society sought to cover the expenses by means of requiring a fee for the dead, according to the financial situation of the close family. A committee was chosen for the purpose of assessing how much to charge for every dead person's burial. The assessors saw to it that the society would not lack money to cover all that was needed. The truth must be said that the assessors were not too accurate in their assessment.
In the years of the sprouting revolution-movement in Tsarist Russia, the trend of liberation that spread all over Russia permeated Horodets as well. The first signs of this trend were reflected in the Khevre Kadi'she which possessed a good deal of bureaucratic tendencies. A rebellion started rising against the Khevre Kadi'she. People came out in the open with complaints about the management of the society. They demanded more acceptable handling of burial fees. The society, however, had its own justified considerations and was not willing to give in to the rebels. Thus a real feud started in town, the notorious feud concerning Khevre Kadi'she.
A group of young, strong and capable men united and founded a new Khevre Kadi'she and started competing with the old society. When someone died, they came earlier to snatch the dead, without charge, brought the body to the cemetery and that was it. The old society remained without a stitch of work: no dead and no money. However, they did not keep quiet either. When they realized that things were worse and they were almost bankrupt, they kept vigil and started also to make haste. It actually happened that the two societies would stand waiting to snatch the dead body. It became a matter of ambition: who will defeat whom, which society would prevail and which would discontinue.
The anarchistic situation continued for three years. Both sides became weary. When the feud cooled off, the two societies decided to bring the case to din-Toire [lawsuit before a rabbinical court]. They sent for Rabbis from Korbyn and Antipolye, and they sat as court, together with the old Rabbi, R' Yehoshua Yaakov. After having heard the claims of both sides, the Rabbis declared the following verdict that contained 4 points:
Both societies were satisfied with the verdict. The old society was satisfied that it prevailed and would continue to exist. The new society was satisfied that it had won in essence and carried out its agenda. There was again peace and quiet in town.
Besides the very influential Khevre Kadi'she, there were other societies in Horodets that stimulated the communal cultural-life of the Jewish inhabitants of Horodets.
We know that there was once, in Horodets, a society by the name of Ein Yaakov. [Ben-Ezra refers the reader to the article Dr. Israel Michal Rabinovits pp. 94-97 of this book]. We neither know how long this society existed nor when it was discontinued.
Seventy-five years ago [around 1875] there was also a Shas society [שס = ששה סדרי משנה = the six Mishnah books = oral Jewish laws]. The members used to assemble once a year in Yosl Lieber's House (of the Mazursky family) allocated the Shas parts to the members and also celebrated the conclusion of the yearly study. This society was also discontinued. However, though there was no more a Shas society belonging to the whole community, there was a small Shas society in the Karliner shtibl. On Hanukkah or on the 15th of Shvat the members gathered in shtibl to celebrate the conclusion of the yearly study and have a feast.
There was also a Mishnayes society that functioned quite a number of years and was discontinued because of a feud amid the slaughterers. [Ben-Ezra refers us to the article The feud pp. 71-72 in this book].
The celebration of the commencement was in the form of a feast, not a big one, on Hanukkah or 15th of Shvat, in a member's house such as Alter Shoel's. The cost of the feast was covered by the membership fee of 3 rubles paid by the new members. If there were not enough new members, the old members used to chip in. At the commencement they used to read the introduction to the register of the society that had been written by R' Moshe Tzvi. They also read out the names of the new members. The secretary was R' Shalom Kostrinsky, and I was once the writer. This was the text: today . in the year ..we have gathered in the house of alter Rabinovitz, and a new member has joined the society, R' ..and has paid 3 rubles to the appointed for the society.
At the commencement they also voted to elect five arbitrators, as well as a gabe. I was elected, once, as an arbitrator and I was also the one who kept the register. I kept the register several years, and then passed it to R' Mordechai Kostrinsky.
One of the finest society was the Talmetoyre society [Hebrew: תלמוד-תורה = Talmud Torah= learning of Torah]. The objective of this society was to pay tuition fee for poor children. The gabe was R' Shalom Kostrinsky and the trustee was R' Israel Yankl Kamenetzky, or Yudl the melamed and at one time Zeidl Yarmok.
The income of the Talmetoyre society came from the following sources: membership fees, hallah-fee and paying off kapores [paying money to redeem the necessity to buy a hen for observing the custom of atonement.]
Every housewife was required to contribute one groshn a week as hallah-fee, which she put in a separate box. The intake would render three rubles a month. The town's shames or somebody else used to collect the few groshn.
On Khol Hamoed of Passover and of Sukkot, they used to meet together in the gabe's house. There, they decided how many children they would support, and how much money they should pay this or that melamed. [Ben-Ezra comments: there was also a Gmiles-khe'sed society [charitable loan-without-interest society]. Its cashier was Motye Hillel's. Apart from the community's Gmiles-khe'sed society there were some Jews who handled a private Gmiles-khe'sed, such as for example Khayim Itsik's, and they used to lend a few gilden.]
This is how it proceeded until the outbreak of WW1, when all the elements of old societies were shaken up and new societies were not founded. With sound of the cannons, many ways of life disappeared together with the old dear institutes.
Actually the Hakhnoses-O'rkhim was not founded by the community. It was a private institute. It was referred to as Itsik's Hakhnoses-O'rkhim. Officially it was founded before WW1, when Itsik became a Gevir [rich man]. [Ben-Ezra refers us to Fanye Shaf pp. 107-108 in this book].
In previous years, there was a hekdesh [a poor-house] near the bathhouse. It was very cold in there, like in all other poor-houses. It was wet and there were some torn cots. R' Itsik's Hakhnoses-O'rkhim was more of a home than an institute. People felt there like at home.
Itsik's Hakhnoses-O'rkhim was a distinct chapter in the history of Horodets for the last 50 years. Even before he turned his house officially into a Hakhnoses-O'rkhim, the tradition of his family was to open his house for all the poor. There was hardly a day when there was no poor man in the house. On certain days, 9 or 10 poor people spent the night in the house. Each of them got a cot with a pillow and a dish with cooked food. They used to sleep on the cots, in the alcove, in the parlor and in summer they slept in the cellar [the word here was unclear] and in the attic. In making the beds for the poor, the children used to compete who would make the beds in a quicker and better way.
It was said that once, on a hot summer day there was, somehow, a big crop of poor men, about ten of them. One of them was dressed like a dandy with lacquer shoes and cap. One of the poor men pulled Itsik to the side and said: Do you know, R' Itsik, the poor man with the cap is a thief, a murderer and possesses every possible evil. Beware of him. It was late at night and Itsik was still sitting, bent over a book, and studying. Everybody was already asleep except for the dandy. The dandy then approached R' Itsik and asked him why he did not go to sleep. Itsik answered him: I will tell you the truth, young man; I have heard that you are .. I am afraid of going to sleep. The dandy said: Yes, R' Itsik, It is true that I am a thief and a murderer, but I will not do you any harm. You can go to sleep. R' Itsik went to sleep and in the morning the young man had already left and nothing was missing in the house.
R' Itsik used to draw a great deal of pleasure from disguising himself and listening to what people had to say about him and about his hakhnoses-o'rkhim. It is worthwhile to relate the following incident. Once he travelled through some small town and went in to the synagogue to pray. A Jew approached him, greeting him with Sholem aleykhem and asked him where he came from. Upon hearing that he was from Horodets, this Jew asked him if he knew the hospitable R' Itsik Zuselman. R' Itsik responded: You call him hospitable? He is a sheigetz [insolent person]! He drives out every poor man from his house and lets nobody cross his doorstep! How can you say that?, said the Jew, you are slandering the name of a precious person. He has a very high reputation here. All the folks rave about him. I know better! said R' Itsik, I know him better than you. I tell you that he is a sheigetz. He cannot even face a poor man
Itsik could not keep up playing the comedy for long, and he admitted that he, indeed, was R' Itsik. If that is so, said the Jew, You are indeed a sheigetz
When we talk about R' Itsik's Hakhnoses-O'rkhim we must not neglect to mention the wonderful figure of the righteous Alte Zuselman, Itsik's wife, who was the soul of Hakhnoses-O'rkhim. It is worthwhile to recall a few events that illustrate her radiant personality that became almost legendary.
Every evening, before going to sleep, she used to leave a small kerosene-lamp burning on the window sill. She wanted the small lamp to serve as an indicator, to guide the way to a place for the night, in case a poor man came late at night, when the whole town was asleep and it was dark outside.
More than once, she gave her dinner meal to a hungry poor man, telling him that she had already had her dinner, and later she could be seen in a corner, somewhere, eating a piece of bread with tea.
When there were more poor men than pillows in the house, she insisted that only she would offer her pillow. When something was missing in the house or when someone was caught red-handed, she was never angry, but would say: He probably needed it.
She even died in the service of the poor and needy, like a soldier on duty, taking care of the horrible typhus disease at the time of WW1. She said: When God above needs me He can always take me away.
It really happened that way. She caught the disease and God took her away. May her memory be blessed!
(drawn by her son Israel)
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