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[Page 15]

A place of the Torah

Written in the 1880s' by Yisrael Yisar Katzovitz

Translated by Alon Meir Levitan

“In honor of my great grandfather, who is also my namesake.
He loved books and was the librarian of Moshav Bitzaron”

…It's already the end of summer. I feel refreshed, energetic and content. I sleep deeply and soundly, I devour my food, I like my job and I am never idle. My uncle is very happy with me, so you might ask, "What's the problem?" Out of nowhere these negative thoughts started penetrating my peaceful existence - "You are bound to stay an idiot and a simpleton!" What does it mean to be an idiot, you might ask? The entire summer I did not touch a book, and in no time the little knowledge I have gained will be erased. I find myself being pulled back to my days of Torah studies, but every time I remember Minsk and its yeshivas' I get a bad taste in my mouth and my skin shivers. I want to go to Kurenitz where I could study the torah on my own.

In my childhood I spent some time there studying in the cheder. Kurenitz is a very short distance from my fathers' home in Kribitzi and I can see my folks as often as I like. In Kurenitz I can study as I wish and I'll be rid of the arrogant, rooster-like heads of the Yeshivas and their police-men type aids, and all the Ta Ra Ram!

My father and my uncle like the idea. My uncle paid me twenty rubles that he owed me and I gave some of the money to my father. I had the tailor make me some clothes with the rest, and immediately after “Sukkot” I walked to Kurenitz


Amongst Chasidim

If you want to know the essence of the Hassidim you must live with them, mingle with, and observe them. The Hassidic movement has had a profound impact on the Jewish experience. It revolutionized the old, tired Jewish class system with a sense of equality and love and respect for the common man. It suited the aching Jewish heart to assuage it of the hardship of the Diaspora. Kurenitz is a shtetl of Hasidim and I must say in my childhood it was like a splendid oasis for me. As I enter Kurenitz I immediately feel that I entered a new world, a different kind of people.

Here you won't meet Jews who are full of themselves, who assume self-importance, and will constantly let you know that they are Jews of "Aliah." Here you won't find the rabbis who prance around like proud turkeys and look with distaste at the common person. Everyone is equal here - poor, rich, son of the Torah and the handyman. On holidays and days of celebration everyone mingles and you feel like you are part of one big, happy family. In addition to the beauty of friendship and sense of equality, I particularly enjoy the fact that you won't see here the spineless Jews with solemn faces, as you do in other towns. The Hassid says sadness is a curse. Work God in happiness. For the Hassidim, it is a mitzvah to be happy, a commandment. The Baal Shem Tov would say that a man who lives with joy fulfills the wish of his God. There are shtetls where after the three meals at the ending of Shabbat the Jews retain a sense of bitterness on their faces. Extreme despair comes over them and they start saying Tehilim with a whiny tune as if a dead person is in front of them and they are eulogizing him. Here they say Hassidut. They tell wonderful tales and sing wonderful, melodic, sweet tunes. It does not seem like a big deal, songs and tales, but I feel like my soul rises to heaven and my heart fills with good feelings and aspirations more than when I read the Mussar (moralizing) books.

The prayers are done here with special excitement. They give their heart and soul in their prayer. It is never done in haste. Every word is pronounced slowly with perfect enunciation and tune. Hassidut is discussed here often. One gives drasha and explanation and the rest listen. I started going to hear drashot. At the beginning it was a foreign thing to me, but slowly I started understanding. The Hassidut teaches us to see man as a partner of God, helping God in the creation of the world. Without the deed of the human beings here on earth, God could hardly do much in heaven. The essence of man and his aim and desire is to be God-like, to improve his personality and his deeds. The first Mitzvah, or commandment, is to get rid of the “have,” to stop putting such importance to small physical bodily urges and to selfish desires. Man must remember that he is the sparkle in the eyes of the creation, and that without him, the world means nothing.

The Hassidut will also teach us that the mitzvoth and bible studies must be done out of love, and not out of fear. A man should not do the commandments for his reward in heaven or the other world, but only for the sake of the commandment and its goodness. The prayer to God is not only the words written in a book, or the fasts and physical sacrifices, but it must heighten the spirits with excitement and should be done with extreme concentration. If its done properly it will transport the soul and enable it to reach higher levels of spirituality. With the help of such prayers man would ascend from a physical being to one that is one with God , one that has an unending splendor....

During the long winter nights, sometimes I find myself all alone in the shtetl, and I study until midnight, sometimes even later. I wake up when I wish, sometimes just before dawn. The short of it is that I am free and independent and I do whatever I desire. I don't have anyone watching over me and I study what I wish. In summer nights I stay awake all night and study, especially when there is a full moon. I open all the windows, a light wind blows around me and I dive with sweet tune into the passages of our scholars. Now I understand them and I admire them. If I meet a very difficult passage and I cannot understand the complicated ideas of our scholars, I have a solution. I stand with my face to the wall and I say with deep reverence, "Ahavat Olam." And when I reach the passage "Vten b'libanu bina l'haveen" I start begging, "God, open my heart and light it so I can understand and comprehend the saying of your Torahs."

After saying that, my eyes open wide and my thinking becomes clear. I read the passage again, slowly with no haste, and with deep concentration. God helps me. After a short time the difficult passage is absolutely clear. "Yagata Umatzata Taamim" - "The one that tries and studies hard at the end will comprehend." That is what our sages said. Sometimes I feel drawn to something new, and not to the Gammara, so I study the Midrash. Among the books I found in the synagogue was a book Bchinat Olam. It is an extremely difficult book, but that does not scare me…


Yuda son of Zushas – A land owner and a Hassid

I study in the shteble of Yuda Zushas'. To a house of study they call here shteble. Yuda Zushas is a handsome Jew. Tall, with a round black beard, his eyes are black and he has a very deep, penetrating stare. He is a serious person, but usually a relaxed aura surrounds him. He is always dressed in a clean, and elegant manner. Everyone says that he is a brilliant man, and has a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the laws. His Hassidic lessons are very lively. He also speaks Polish and Russian well. Even among the gentiles he is known as a very smart and decent man. He has two children: a son and a daughter. He also adopted an orphan girl. He rents a land parcel from the wealthiest landlord in the area, the Paritz. He has a pundak (a wine making and tasting establishment). He owns a boarding house. In addition, he has claims in numerous businesses in the wood processing and clothing manufacturing industries. Many of the town Jews work for him. He supplies for all of his relatives, and no one complains. In spite of the fact that he has so many businesses, he finds time for the Torah and every morning when morning prayers end, he reads from the Olam, a chapter from the Mishnah. Between Mincha and Maariv he reads from “Ain Ya'akov”.

I love to listen to his prayer when he is left all alone in the shteble. I especially enjoy the Shabat prayer. On Shabat I eat at his house. After everyone else has left the shteble, his son and I stay and wait for him. He faces the wall and prays with excitement and his beautiful voice fills the room with pleasant sounds and words of God. His prayers make you forget the rest of the world.

How beautiful is this house when we return from the synagogue! There are six silver candle sticks with long candles standing on a very long table that is covered with a white table-cloth. His wife, with her gentle, modest, yet proud face, sits on the “tzena vereyena”. The orphan girl and the daughter listen intently to every word she reads.

Yuda Zoshas starts signing “Shalom Alechem” in a sweet voice. Holy quietness surrounds the home. The son, and I softly join the singing in hushed voices. Now its time for him to bless the wine. We stand slightly bowing our heads. He holds the big silver wine glass that is filled to the top. For a moment he'll shut his eyes and fall into deep thought. And then, his voice lifts in song. Each word vibrates the air. The holiness of the Shabat becomes a reality. I breathe deeply and the experience fills me. We sit around the table, late into the night when the fish is all eaten, and we sing “ezamer - beshvacheen”. After we are done with the noodles, the son will recite a Mishniot chapter that is commonly told on Shabat.


Herschel the Tzadik (Righteous)

Another person who receives a lot of respect here is Herschel the Tzadic. In Kurenitz it's not common to be honored with the title “tzadik.” Herschel, a short, skinny Jew, is always in a hurry and at all times, busy with some chore or another. He is Yuda Zushas' assistant. The entire alcohol business is his responsibility he makes the wine, he measures and mixes it, he sells it and he registers the sales. His other important job is to observe the sun. He watches for the sunrises and sunsets. When he sees the first rays of the sun, he runs to all the houses of prayer, and sets the clocks. His job is to ensure that all the town's clocks are set in accordance with the sun, and with each other. In this way, the Jews will not set, God forbid!, the schedule for the daily prayers at the wrong times, or even worse, misjudge the time of the 'blessing of the candles' ceremony on Shabat evenings.

One night, on the month of Shvat, everyone had tired of scanning the sky for the moon. Not a single sighting of the moon had been reported. It was already the last night, and still the ceremony of moon renewal had not ended. The Jews sat late through the night, waiting and waiting, but all in vain. Eventually, all departed and returned to their homes to sleep. I had already fallen into a deep sleep, when all of a sudden, I was awakened by a loud knock on the window. I approached the window and heard a voice scolding me, “Get up quickly!”, and announcing, “It's time to renew the moon.” I washed my hands, got dressed, and ran hastily outside. Outdoors, I saw many Jews who also were hurrying from their beds, and were gathering from all corners.

As I later realized, Herschel the Tzadik hadn't slept the whole night. Instead, he had sat awake, and waited. He had hoped, 'Maybe God would have pity after all, and reveal the moon.' And as it turned out , Herschel the Tzadik hadn't waited in vain. The moon appeared and immediately he woke up all of the neighbors, and these neighbors woke up their other neighbors, until everyone was outside. We stood in the shivering cold, but the moon was shining and the beautiful sounds of the Jewish voices spread through the night air, and Herschel the Righteous, beamed with happiness…


Chaim Zalman – My Friend

I have a friend in the shtetl. His name is Chaim Zalman. He's the one and only son of Yuda Zushas'. He's only a few years older than I, but he is much taller than I am, and skinny, like a lulav. His face is elongated and pale, with a long nose, and long curly cues payas'. He is slightly sickly, and the doctors from Vilna have ordered him to drink plenty of milk and eats raw eggs. The doctors also recommended that he take walks in the fresh air. For this reason, his father, Yuda Zusha, asked me to take a daily journey with Chaim. Every evening, even during the winter time, we would stroll around the shtetl.

During the summer, and especially on weekends, we would take walks in the forest, in addition to our evening stroll. There, we would lie under a tree and discuss what a 'good Jew' is, the study of Hassidut, and everything that happens in Heaven and Hell. Both of us were confident that he, respectively, knew everything that happened in Heaven. On the other hand, we knew very little about what was happening on Earth. Newspapers never reached our area, and strangers would never visit.

One day, I learned about the world outside Kurenitz. Here is a tale that concerns a stranger who came to stay. One Shabat evening, Chaim Zalman approached me in haste and asked me to come to his house at once. He said “I want to show you something”. I entered his home, and he pointed to a Paritz that was sitting in the next room, eating gefilta fish. “The person you see here, is a Jew,” said Chaim Zalman. “He's a lawyer from Vilna, and he's visiting our Paritz.” I stood there and observed the stranger carefully, from top to bottom. He had no side burns! His beard was completely shaved, he ate without a kippa on his head, and his whole face was un-Jewish- like. I couldn't believe what Chaim Zalman had said to me. I went to his mother and asked if he had indeed told me the truth. She answered me, sighing deeply, “Yes, yes, my dear, this one is also a Jew.”

At dusk, Yuda asked me to sleep in the same room with the guest. He explained that the guest would get lonely, sitting alone at nightfall, and falling asleep by himself. When I went to the guest's room, he welcomed me warmly. He was very friendly and he spoke Yiddish eloquently, and with great depth of expression. He asked what chapter I had studied in my Talmud studies and mentioned many passages from different Talmudic chapters. He told me that just like me, he had been a poor yeshiva boy, but that was many years ago now. Some good people, he explained, had helped to put him on the right track, aiding him in becoming educated and learning the ways of the world until he succeeded in becoming a lawyer. While he was talking, I thought, “God forbid that this man truly exemplifies what it means to have found the 'right track'!”. Later he urged me, “Come with me to Vilna, my dear, and there we'll make a man out of you.” I thought, “Your concept of what is a fine man is really foreign to me.” As he spoke, he began preparing for bed. Suddenly, I felt something was very wrong. This “cool” man had taken his clothes off and he hadn't even bothered to put a talit. I began to shiver, I felt anxious and uncomfortable at the idea of sleeping in the same room as him. I left the room quickly, and didn't return… …That was, and still is, the way the days in Kurenitz pass. Life is good here, when I feel lonely I walk to my fathers' home, visit my family, and then I go back to Kurenitz to study the Torah…


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