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Study Halls and Minyanim (Prayer Quorums)

During World War I, all the buildings in the city were burned down, among them the large study hall and the synagogue.

The ruins remained until the Jews of the city returned after the war from other places, like Russia, and until Poland returned to normalcy. The city's Jews rebuilt their burned homes in their original locations. They also rebuilt the large study hall, where they prayed and studied. The [large] study hall contained a study hall called the “community” shtebl. In the winter, when bitter cold prevailed in the large, unheated study hall, some prayed in the small one.

On the Sabbath, two minyanim prayed in the large study hall. The first was of the “common people”. The second, it may be said, was for prominent people, who, before prayers, studied a page of Gemara, the Torah portion of the week or the Zohar.

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The large study hall, before World War I

 

The city of Ostrolenka did not have a specific cantor. Unofficially, the position was filled by the ritual slaughterer, Chaim Berel… Throughout the year, on Sabbaths and holidays, he led the congregation in prayer. During the High Holy Days, he gathered a choir of small children with sweet, ringing voices, who accompanied him in singing and melodies. Chaim Berel was an imposing figure. When a Jew from another city met him in the street, he immediately realized that here was a Jew who attended to the community's religious needs. He was quick-witted, did not get angry and had a good word and pleasant smile for everyone. Everyone in the city, rightist or leftist, liked and respected him. Many did not know that his family name was Kachan. They said Chaim Berel the Ritual Slaughterer, and knew to whom they referred. He was the city's best-liked ritual slaughterer.

Opposite the study hall was a two-story wooden

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building, and in it was the Talmud Torah. The Yavneh School was also there in the beginning. Later, it moved to Berek Joselewicz (Cyganska) Street, near Jakow Filar's house. A minyan prayed in one of the Talmud Torah's rooms on Sabbaths and holidays. Selichot [prayers for forgiveness and mercy, recited during the month before Rosh HaShana] were said very early in the morning, before the children came to learn.

The Mizrachi-Zionist minyan was at first in the house of Pianko, and later moved to the Yavneh School. Many people who could be called the intelligentsia worshipped there, both the religiously observant and the non-observant. The main prayer leader [baal tefilah] was Jakow Dancyger, a young Torah scholar, thin as a rail, with a sweet, wonderful voice. During the High Holy Days, when “places” were sold, all were sold because it was known that Jakow Dancyger would lead the Musaf [the additional morning prayer]. He and his four children prepared for weeks before the High Holy Days. With rhythm and grace, they sang cantorial selections and most of the Modzitz melodies. On the High Holy Days, during intermissions in the prayers, lovers of song and melody would come to hear Jakow Dancyger, and to sing a new Modzitz melody. He was offered large sums to lead prayers in other places, but he refused to leave Ostrolenka during the holidays. The leader of the morning prayer was Reb Efraim Chmiel (Chamiel), who sometimes also led the Musaf. He had a pleasant voice, and knew how to use all the nuances. The boys also accompanied him during prayers. The Mizrachi minyan had the city's finest prayer leaders.

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Fejga Frejda Zylbersztejn on her way to Selichot

 

The Gur minyan was the largest Chassidic minyan[1], before it divided because of a dispute over the new Gur Chassid ritual slaughterer. The Ostrolenka community refused to accept him and the matter almost reached the law court. Using the Yoreh De'ah and with the help of Advocate Grojsbard from the city of Lomza, they tried to prove that it was permissible to accept the slaughterer. As reinforcement, they brought Rabbi Dr. Rozenman from Bialystok, who was also expert in Polish language and culture. They even threatened a cherem [ban]… [The shtebl of the] Alexander Chassidim was at Lewtan the Baker's. As in all Poland, Ostrolenka's Alexander Chassidim were weak opponents of the Zionists, in comparison to the Gur Chassidim. Some of those who worshipped with them belonged officially to Mizrachi, such as Michel Sarniewicz and his brother-in-law, Blumsztejn, who contributed to Zionist funds.

There were also among them prominent people, such as Menachem Frydman, Jechezkel Zylbersztejn and Herszel Szperling, Jews of reputation in the city, generous property owners. As wealthy members of the city, they contributed considerable sums when there was fundraising for the impoverished or for communal needs. The Alexander Chassidim shtebl was a meeting place of intelligent Chassidim. They never fought among themselves, and did not become involved in the disputes which erupted from time to time in the city. They gave a free hand to those who prayed with them during elections for the city council, the community, Parliament and the Senate.

At the edge of the big market square, near the bridge, at the home of Reb Lejbel Skrobacz, was the Amszinow shtebl. Although the gabbaim were strict, the imprimatur on their behavior was given by Reb Lejbel Skrobacz, a Torah scholar who was not a member of any organization, who had sympathy for the Mizrachi, and who contributed and raised funds for the Zionist enterprise. Therefore, the Amszinow Chassidim were also sympathetic… toward the Mizrachi. Nothing was done or determined in the Amszinow shtebl without Reb Lejbel Skrobacz. There was a minyan in one of Pesach Hochberg's rooms. They removed everything and

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brought in a Holy Ark, tables and benches. Meetings of the Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael were also held there. Pesach, the balabayit of the minyan, was a Zionist, and gave his all to the Zionist enterprise. The minyan was Zionist. In other minyanim, those who worshipped there had to make a monthly payment. They did not pay a cent for Pesach's rooms. All donations from those who worshipped there were contributed to the Land of Israel.

The wife of Mr. Pesach Hochberg was an exceptional woman. She never complained that her house was being turned into public property. In the winter, at Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael meetings or at the minyan, they brought in mud and snow, and soiled the polished floor. Not only did she not look unwelcoming – the opposite: her face shone. She received them warmly and also offered refreshments. Alas for those who are lost, and are not to be forgotten!

Chaim Drezner, Bnei-Brak, Israel

Footnote

  1. Until World War I, all the Chassidic shteblich (except for Gur), were in the large study hall building. Return

 


The “Kolner” Shtebl

As in most of Poland's cities and towns, there were many houses of worship in our city. This was because there were many kinds of Chassidim. The divisions were great, causing competition and separation. The synagogue on “Synagogue Street” was especially designated for “common” Jews, tradesmen and workmen. The congregation in the study hall was mixed, and the place was known as the official house of prayer, because the rabbi himself worshipped there. In that building, right next door, was the “community” shtebl. Those who worshipped there were of no specific character. Prayers at the community shtebl began in the early morning hours. During the morning, several minyanim prayed there. It seemed that this shtebl primarily drew people who were always hurrying and busy with their work and trade, and who did not care for punctuality and set times of prayer. On the second floor, near the women's section, there were a few shteblich of different nuances: the shtebl of the Zionists, and those of the Amszinow, Otwock and Alexander Chassidim. Jews who prayed at the Zionists' shtebl had feelings for the Land of Israel. In our city, they were the most active in disseminating the Zionist idea. To the credit of Anszel Lew, of blessed memory, it is remembered that he was the driving force and main motivator of this group. We, the youth, absorbed this and were influenced by him. He always recruited us and gave us various tasks, such distributing shekels, placing Keren Kayemeth collection boxes in homes, putting “bowls” in different houses of prayer on Yom Kippur Eve, and so on. In the shtebl, we gathered for discussions about Zionism and to read many of the movement's books. Of course, all of this activity was camouflaged. Near each of us was a book of Gemara, as if we were learning Torah. In a far corner, we hid all publicity material and the Keren Kayemeth boxes.

The shtebl of the Gur Chassidim, who were of the greatest number and influence in our city, was located very far from this center, in a house at the edge of the river, not far from the bridge. The house was once a barracks, and was converted to a shtebl where all the Gur Chassidim prayed, among them many of our city's respected balabatim. In those days, new winds began to blow in our city. A revolution in the thought processes of many of our townspeople began. As far as the education of their children was concerned, they were once again dissatisfied with heder studies and began providing a general education for their children. The way of life and existence changed to some extent. This was also expressed in clothing. Youths slowly began to change their clothing, shortening their outer garments and dressing in the European-style. Many of the adults, as well, were no longer overly strict in their dress. They began to shorten their kapotas [frock coats], became punctilious about cleanliness, and wore white collars and neckties. The traditional hat also took on another shape, not in the style of the observant Chassidim. This change in clothing in the spirit of the time was a subject of continuous disagreement and quarrels during prayers.

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The progressives appeared for Sabbath prayers wearing beautiful shortened coats, with slanted, not straight, pockets (a sign of heresy). More than once, their appearance caused a delay in the reading of the Torah and disturbances in the orderliness of prayers.

One Sabbath, a crisis broke out. The very observant and the fanatics decided to act, because “It is a time to act – for they have breached Your Torah”… What did they do? On their behalf, during the Amidah [the prayer recited standing], pranksters went out to the hallway where the coats were hung, and tied every two coats of the progressive worshippers together. They placed rotten eggs in the slanted pockets. At the end of prayers, when people went home, the crime was discovered. The scene and dispute that took place are indescribable. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. The progressives decided to establish a new shtebl and called it the “Kolner” shtebl, that is, the shtebl of those with collars. The heads of the rebellion and founders of the shtebl were Mendel Brin, Awi Jechezkel Kupferminc, Szmuelke Frydman, Zalman Kosowski, Zyskind and many other worshippers. They rented some rooms in the home of Szmuelke Frydman and set up the Kolner shtebl there. In time, a close connection developed between the worshippers.

I would not be fulfilling my obligation if I did not take this opportunity to tell about the central person and driving force of this shtebl – Szmuel Frydman, who was a special personality. In his soul and dexterity, he was an artist. Who knows if this man was not destined for greatness in the field of the arts, if he had lived elsewhere? He invested all his artistic talent to lend beauty and splendor to the house of prayer. The new shtebl required a Torah scroll and a Holy Ark, and here he found expression for his feelings and aspirations. An sufficient amount of money was collected and a Torah scroll was written. With his own hands, Szmuel Frydman made the “trees of life” [wooden roller rods], and decorated them with shells. The names of the worshippers were engraved on them. And what beautiful and breathtaking engraving he did on the Holy Ark! Indeed, he poured all his soul into this holy work. I will never forget the celebration on the day the writing of the Torah scroll was completed. How joyous and spiritually uplifted were the worshippers! Liquid refreshment was provided in full measure. With happiness and enthusiasm, they danced Jewish dances in a circle, hand on [the next man's] shoulder, singing with devotion and thanking God that this good deed had fallen to their share – to complete the writing of the Torah scroll. We, the pranksters, surrounded the dancers in an outer circle, moved with them to the same tempo, and sang “And purify our hearts, so that we may serve you in truth” and other Chassidic songs of the time. Reb Szmuel was also proficient in culinary matters. He was especially expert in the preparation of the famous punch with which he pleased the worshippers. Prayers in this shtebl were always pleasant, because we were not bound by superfluous stringency and prohibitions which were no longer in the spirit of the time.

Especially engraved in my memory are the seudah shlishit [third Sabbath meal] parties, held every Sabbath at dusk. Each worshipper, in his turn, brought food and drink. In the twilight, melancholy song would pour out of the heart, of yearning and longing for the day that is entirely holy and exalted. How hard it was to part from the extra soul [granted the Sabbath observer], return to bitter reality and say the Havdalah [prayer], separating the holy and the secular. In those days, our fathers knew how to create substance in their lives through prayer, and by spending time in a circle of friends. Especially on the Sabbath, they let go of all their cares and the burden of making a livelihood and, like sons of kings, lived the day that is all holiness and radiance, yearning and spiritual uplifting, communing with the longed-for Sabbath Queen.

Awiezer Drori (Kupferminc)


The Zionist Shtebl

In the large study hall building, connected to the synagogue in the same courtyard (when it existed), there was an entrance through a back door to the house of the Alexander, Amszinow and Otwock Chassidim. This is not the place to describe all the many ties that bound us, the Chassidic children, to those Chassidic houses of prayer (shteblich): on vacations or at prayer, on a memorial day for the Rebbe, or listening to stories with happy endings in the “About Good Jews” group… or a Chassidic trip out of the city on the Sabbath, or a new melody that the Chassidim snatched at the Rebbe's tish [communal festive meal], or when we sang Jewish songs to army melodies, or just happy events in the shtebl. I want to tell you about the shtebl located near the Otwock shtebl at the entrance, the first one in the hallway. It was called the Zionist shtebl. They talked a great deal about this shtebl in the city. The ultraobservant looked with disfavor on them and saw them

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as sinners who lead others astray. A small thing: predatory Jewish-Gentile Zionists, who actually pray just like fervent Chassidim! We, the Chassidic children, were absolutely forbidden to look at them or walk by them. But how is it possible to restrain oneself and not, at least, take a peek when we were right next door? We did avoid going near them. Influenced by our parents, we were also afraid, and passed them hastily, like when we neared a church. We avoided playing near them and befriending the children of the parents who prayed there.

The door of the Zionist shtebl was always closed, as if against the evil eye… It was rare to hear their cries of prayer, which were without the fervor of “a market in heaven”, like Chassidic prayers. For them, everything went on quietly and with restraint. Perhaps they themselves did not feel comfortable there? Sometimes I felt sorry for them, as if they were segregated, and no one wanted to come in contact with them. As a small boy, I did not understand the importance of that shtebl in those days. Even the faces of the worshippers were not etched in my memory.

I remember a morning when I passed near their shtebl with my father (on a Sabbath or a holiday). The door was open and as I peeked in, a Star of David was the first thing that caught my eye. I shuddered. An extraordinary feeling took hold of me, as if I had passed by a church and seen a cross, of which a Jewish child was always terrified… But the feeling passed and I felt the similarity to the Star of David that I saw woven in gold on the curtain of the Holy Ark in the study hall. I felt in all my childish depths that this was genuinely Jewish…

Today, I understand that the Zionist shtebl with the Star of David, which was then unacceptable and treyfe [not kosher] for the ultra-Orthodox of the city, served great Jewish goals and symbolized Zionism and the State today. Now I know and understand that that shtebl was also a kind of shtebl… with prayer, song and enthusiasm, like all the Chassidic prayer houses (shteblich), but that everything took place calmly, with pleasure and patience… in a circle of friends, in prayer to the Creator. Without a doubt, among the worshippers were serious and religious people, who prayed with kavana [spiritual focus].

Y.I


The House of the Otwock Chassidim

Ostrolenka was one of the Jewish cities blessed with many minyanim, study halls and Chassidic houses of prayer (shteblich). In and of themselves, the Chassidic shteblich in Ostrolenka were special. The Chassidim there were occupied with studying Judaism, conducting themselves according to its ways, traveling to the Rebbe to ask his advice on small or large matters, and not dealing with the outside world, except in matters of livelihood. The city's shop owners were Chassidim. Among them were those of average means, as well as wealthy persons. They were involved in the city's public affairs. Many were represented in the Jewish community: they were members of the community committee, chairmen and also in the city council… Among them were people influential in municipal matters. While they sometimes took the law into their own hands to restrain the progressive youth, they did not always succeed. The tide of development and progress did not take into consideration the wishes of the ultra-Orthodox and the conservatives.

There were four Chassidic shteblich in Ostrolenka: Gur, Amszinow, Alexander and Otwock. Before World War I, all the Chassidic shteblich were concentrated in one place (Synagogue Street) on Kilinskaga Street, in the study hall building, except for Gur, which was located on Cyganska Street (today Berek Joselewicz), near the river. After Poland became independent, all the Chassidic shteblich dispersed all over the city. The Gur Chassidim influenced municipal matters. More than once, they let their strong arm be felt. The Amszinow Chassidim, as well, had not a little influence and certainly helped matters. The Alexander Chassidim were liberal. Their approach was minimalist, and they were inclined to understand and take the point in time into consideration. (They acquired a reputation with the Gur and Amszinow Chassidim as irresponsible and too liberal…) The Otwock Chassidim were less influential. Their shtebl had a few minyanim of mostly “common people”, downtrodden workers who could barely support themselves, lacking a sense of municipal matters, very observant (dwelling enthusiastically on inconsequentialities), for example: making blessings on each fruit, praying aloud, not swallowing words, and saturated with a deep-rooted love of their fellow Jews, particularly toward individuals, which they took from the Otwock and Warki Chassidim. Therefore, they were completely devoted to the individual. They were not

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great scholars. (Those who were could be counted on the fingers of one hand). Rather than scholars, the Otwock Chassidim were Chassidim and God-fearing. More of the heart than of the head. Dear, good Jews. They barely maintained the shtebl and prayed there only on Sabbaths, holidays and the High Holy Days. On other days, they prayed at the community shtebl and in the study hall.

Among them were glaziers, small poor merchants, cigarette makers, tinsmiths. They barely made a living. On the other hand, they were quiet, simple Jews with a great deal of faith, who went their own way and did not “stick their noses where they did not belong”.

Some of the Otwock Chassidim etched in my memory to this day because of their uniqueness were Reb Dawid Szlafmic and Reb Chaim Notte Zuckerman (about whom I devoted an article), Reb Mordechaj Zuckerman and, finally, Reb Icze Sojka, who was the most exceptional of all the Otwock type. I remember him even as a youth, standing above the whole Chassidic world. First of all, he was a handsome and respected Chassid (he once hosted the Rabbi of Otwock, when he came to Ostrolenka, in his home), a wonderful musician and creator of new melodies for the Chassidim. And this must be noted: the rich man of the city, the owner of the flour mill in partnership with others, he was a Jew with a big heart for all, who did not follow the Otwock style. In time, this clever, liberal Jew became such an example of a representative of the city and a community worker, that everyone, without exception, believed in his honesty, loved him and treated him with great respect.

As a small boy, I had a special relationship and a blind love for the house that stood on Kilinskaga Street then, not far from our own. [A visit to the] house of Reb Icze Sojka was the first of my childhood visits to neighbors' homes. I had great feelings for this family. My father was also an intimate friend of Otwock Chassidim. I would bring him [Reb Icze] brand new melodies, which he adapted and endorsed. He was a great musician. Sometimes I helped him with zmirot [Sabbath and holiday songs] at the shtebl, such as Lecha Dodi or Bnej Ejchala. This gentle and pleasant Jew stood alone, in contrast to the Otwock Chassidim. When World War II broke out, he migrated to the Slonim Ghetto, with many Ostrolenkan Jews, and was murdered there along with his wife, son, daughter, sonin- law and four grandchildren, who were murdered in Bialystok and Treblinka. May God avenge their blood.

I wish to mention Reb Dawid Szlafmic, a glass merchant. He was unique in that, although he was not a great scholar, he had great magnetism for the city's Otwock Chassidim. He managed all shtebl matters highhandedly, without even considering Mar Bar Ashi [a rabbi who relied on the wisdom of the people], criticized everyone and apparently derived pleasure from it. More than once, he caused disputes and quarrels which reached the rabbi. He had a power of speech which succeeded in bringing many Chassidim over to his side. He performed his activities speedily, without unnecessary words. What primarily remains in my mind are his prayers on the pulpit. I will never forget the Musaf [additional prayer] on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. (My father led the morning prayer.) Like a lion, he stood on the pulpit and fought with Heaven. His prayers, On Rosh HaShana Inscribe Us, the Yitgadal before Musaf and Hineni surely made a large hole in heaven. His prayers captured many hearts; they also warned his listeners and demanded that they repent.

His dramatic voice surely shook the One in Heaven from the place where all the human creatures stand before Him on those Days of Awe. Whoever heard Reb Dawid pray was made to think deeply and repent. He had only to begin his first prayer on the pulpit, and a terrible flame was released in the shtebl… Because of his special prayers, he gained a universal reputation.

Mordechaj Mendel Szlafmic, one of his sons, was one of the Labor Zionist organization community workers in Ostrolenka. He emigrated to Israel and came back. He and his family were murdered by the Nazis.

May God avenge their blood.

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Reb Mordechaj Cukierkorn of blessed memory

 

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Finally, I would like to briefly mention the bestknown of the Otwock Chassidim, Reb Mordechaj Cukierkorn, with the patriarchal beard, who influenced everyone with his uniqueness, as well. He was tall and well-built, with a face that expressed goodness of heart and courage. Although he had staggering gait, he was dynamic and full of brilliant ideas. He was honest and sharp, and opposition to every injustice filled his Chassidic nature. He worked hard all his life. He was a tinsmith (building doors for ovens and bread boxes) and taught the profession to members of his family. Reb Mordechaj reacted quickly in matters concerning questions of honesty. He spoke the truth with all his heart, was completely honest, and full of humor and acuity. He could even throw the truth into the face of a king and, if necessary, would not yield to anyone. (He was a close friend of my father's.) He miraculously succeeded in reaching his children in Brazil at the height of World War II. A few years ago, he passed away in Brazil, of blessed memory.

Y.I.

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