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That We Remember

 

Our Twin Town Ciechanowiec[1]

by Ephraim Eliyahu Ribak z”l

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
the Vice–Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

 

Streets and Markets in Ciechanowiec

Near the forest began the “Nay–shtot” (New–Town), a place without a specific shape. Scattered houses, that have been given a special name – “Volye” (“volye” means the part of a chicken, in which the eaten food find its way into – and that is also formless.) This part of the shtetl intersected the main highway, right up to a triangular, unpaved place called “market”. It was surrounded by houses, mostly taverns and stores, and at its top, which turned toward the river, stood a sort of noble house, which was colorful and had a meadow with grass, flowers, and trees.

Several lanes further on, through the main street and the brick barracks up to the dirt road, there were the House of Study and bath house. Along the main street and the Polish mill, over the dikes and bridges, starting from the street parallel to the Nurzec, there was the Bod–Gas (Bath Street), where mostly craftsmen lived. This led down to the river and to Blan Lake, ending at the bath house and branching off to Kozarer Street.

Below the highway, there was a channel with a vaulted opening for repelled water. There, a broad street had formed with a sandy ditch in its center, which was used as the pig market.

On one side of the hills, there were several larger houses, where wealthy persons and the rabbi lived. It was called “Gevirishe” or “Hoyfisher Gas” (Street). [This street was later known as ul. Dworska.]

There were also three smaller Houses of Study. The names of these schools were Rozenblum's, the Rabbi's, and the Shlyakhetske (Noble) Shul. Several lanes further on were the butcher shops, the Jewish kosher slaughterhouse, and the Gavenitz or Gawroniec. [The Gawroniec was a part of town located near the river with a pond. Originally it was an old riverbed. The Jewish owner of that area was named Gawroniec.] Wealthy persons, in fact, did live in genteel proximity to the front of the pig market; behind them the butchers; and on each side the sluices ran.

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The second group of hills along the road were formed by the back of the market stores, which ended with a wooden, urban building called “Shope”. This building was temporarily used for specific purposes: a fifth–rate group of actors would become lost there to play theater; a fun–fair carousel would be set up there, where you could ride on a wooden horse or in a golden carriage.

The main point, however, was that the fire–fighting equipment was stored there, including a fire pump from “King Sobieski's time” (the good old days), two wooden barrels on wheels, several grappling hooks, and so forth. There also was an open gate and a brass bell. From there, the person who first saw a fire in the shtetl, had to clatter away.

Also, there was a wide entrance area to the market, and the

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road wriggled away to one of the 4 steam engines, in which one belonged to the Jewish community.

A little further along, there was the so–called “Mazarek's Orchard”. In one of the orchard's corners, there lived a curious Jew: An old man, well into his eighties, named R' Benyamin Yoshes. Although he was not a learned person, he was very well a lover of the Torah, who supported the Talmud Torah, a Jewish religious school for the poor, and the Yeshivas. This R' Benyamin had hired for himself a Rabbi, R' David Zacharias, who studied together with him in the old House of Study. It was a pretty long way to go, but the old man never failed to come and to study every morning and at dusk. On his way, he would stop at many doors to kiss the Mezuzah there.

Charity recipients knew quite well that after studying a chapter of Mishnayot or “Eyn–Yankev” (Jacob's source, a popular prayer book from the 16th century), they would get their kitsve (handout) from him, and so they used to wait regularly in the House of Study. In addition, R' Benyamin still had another specialty, in terms of what he used to hand out to the poor and the rich: A kind of powder, wrapped in a small paper, which was sand from the land of Israel. He practiced this at every funeral procession that passed by his house.

Remaining on the main highway, after the bridge and Hoyfisher Street, there was a lane between the stores, which consisted of four long and narrow brick or cement buildings. Most of them were iron, leather, and cobbler accessory stores. After the narrow lane between the stores, you came to the big market, which was wide, long, and paved. There were small stores providing haberdashery and glassware and several larger dry–goods stores. In front of them were several wooden booths that accepted very small redemptions. There also used to be the market sitters, offering little baskets of pastries, greens, and fruits. [Market sitters were people selling their goods from outside stalls.]

On the other side, there were taverns and several pharmacies. In the southeast, there was a garden for walks with a grove of ten trees and several statues. A short distance away was the main pharmacy, followed by a two–storied brick or cement building, where the administration of the city was located.

On the western side of the market stood several old walls. There were stores as well, and opposite them, the fishermen. From there, roads and alleys led to the schoolyard and the House of Study. This was a mish–mash of wider squares without a definite beginning or end. Partly muddy, partly sandy. Here also were the horse and cow markets, as well as the artisans, common people, and Cheder teachers. The old wooden building that belonged to the community was also there. In addition, there stood the scales with the heavy iron weights and stones, with which one weighed pound for pound.

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From the west side, the Maltzer Gas (Street) entered the market, moving east to the Russian church and continuing to the highway towards Siemiatycze (Grodno district). The population consisted of both Poles and Jews.

The “crunches”, as the Enlightened persons called the bridges and dikes at that time, also served a religious purpose. There, the Jews would go to “Tashlich” (ceremony for the purification of sins) on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, with each country's[2] men on their own bridges and the women on the other bridges.

The “clowns of the generation” used to joke that the owner of the mills was preparing to sue both Jewish communities: They would – God forbid – clog the pond with their shaken off sins, reduce the energy that drove the mill wheels, and poison the fish.

Actually, such a lawsuit once started between the owner of the mills and the bosses of the Jewish steam engine. The lawsuit was brought to the court of the guberniyas' cities Grodno and Lomźa. But they were, in no manner,

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able to determine which District Court was competent for this conflict. The judicial authorities were unable to decide how and where to solve it. Both sides cursed each other, as was usual, but soon the litigants realized that it was going to impoverish them, so they issued a decree and tried to make a compromise. But even the ignoramuses were unable to disentangle the complaints and claims. It even ended up with an episode that almost led to a “wet war” [between the water people from the mill and the steam people]. Luckily, there had been the waggoneers with their whips, which saved them from bloodshed. The dangerous situation arose when they brought a new boiler, which had to be towed by 10 horses – so heavy it was! Of course, the road led over the bridges, and their owner decided that now was the opportunity to settle accounts with his opponents. He teamed up with his family and a bunch of hired goyim, and just as once in the Pentateuch, the kings Sihon and Og acted against the arrivals from Egypt. They lined up and handed over a statement: “We will not allow this ‘cumbersome object’ to pass over here, because it will damage the bridge.” In short, the water–strengths had gathered against the steam–strengths, sparking a series of curses and insults, “May the Lord protect and save us!”

After that, they went over to dry blows, as well. And it certainly would have come to bloodshed. But then the waggoneers went to the rescue, showing that they were the bosses of their horses! They “honored the horses with the right whips,” so that they made tracks with the waggoneers behind them.

The martial spirit associated with the bridges was transferred to the “wise guys” of both countries. Exactly at Rosh Hashanah, when the fathers, grandfathers and mothers devoutly used to shake off their sins of disputes and hatred, the young lads catapulted themselves into a patriotic war, each side defending its bridge and its dike. The middle bridge, which served as a kind of neutral zone, was considered “no–man's land”. The crowds threw stones from Russia to Poland, and from there, they were thrown back. Of course, that led to bruises, bloody noses, head wounds, and similar injuries, which usually required bandages and medical treatment.

In the heat of the battle, the fighting cocks even once drew the mighty Russia into the fight.

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“Vayehi Hayom”– And it happened one day. (Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, used to say: Where there is a “Vayehi, there will be trouble.”)

Saying that, an artillery captain, who lived in the “Old–Town,” crossed a bridge. There he was hit by a stone because some lout lusted to throw it over at that moment. Honestly, it had not been anything serious – God forbid! And the captain remained perfectly well. But in principle, it was a terrible crime against Russia, which had been “attacked” at the border. The captain could not stand such a great insult and decided to do a “great deed”. He did not formally declare war, as is customary today. But he went in the “kanyushna” (stable), giving a group of “heroes” the order to step out immediately and on the spot to teach the Jews a lesson.

The mighty empire of the Tsars had a great victory over the Jews. Wounded came to death, both among the Jewish lads and among the older Tashlich prayers. WHY? As we do know, “Giving permission to slaughter.

When the command to battle was given, the heads of both the guilty and innocent people had already been split. Panic broke out, and the Jews screamed, “Pogrom!” Luckily, there were intermediators and officials, who interfered and smoothed over everything.

But, what choice did you have? The Jews did not want to mess with the military ever again. The captain was crowned with names such as Haman, Titus Haroshe (the evil), and Meshumed (the apostate) and earned a pack with heated curses. This incident ended the “Yinglekh's Wars,” and thanks to that, the Tashlikh–prayers also were rescued.

In the Shul's courtyard, a uniquely magnificent panorama would unfold in front of the beholder. The building evoked enthusiasm because of its age. At the end of the 19th century, it was already several hundred years old. Its architecture was masterful. The synagogue was completely built of bricks and smooth chiseled massive stones. The main entrance from the west attracted attention. The middle part was about 70–80 feet high, imposing and beautiful with its staircase above the foundation, which was said to be wide enough to drive a carriage on. There were mosaic designs and decorated flat and semicircular columns.

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The columns had been built upon the foundation to a height of “tsendliker” feet (tsendlik: unit of 10) and were enclosed within a semicircular vault. In between, there were beautifully designed and decorated edgings of ledges, cornices, and globes, twisted and interwoven into various shapes, which flowed into a point or divided like the branches of a tree. Between the columns very large windows were fitted, whose reflections were visible from afar.

Over the unique artistic and decorative embellishments of mortar and cement, over the sloping curve of the main building which still had other mosaic designs – was finally, at the end, erected an “Aron–Kodesh” (cabinet for Torah scrolls, Holy Ark), with the “ten commandments”, made from golden shiny letters.

You could see two wings of the Shul from the south and north, which stretched on either side of the building below the windows. This image corresponded approximately to the third floor of the middle part of the building: flat at the edges, with a round vault in the middle on the west side.

The rooms were called “Kahal–shtiblekh” (community rooms). Above them, there was the stairway to the main building's gallery with the “Ezrat Nashim” (women's section), and below, there were rooms for “Talmud–Torah” ( Study of the Torah, usually a place of study for children), rooms for conventions and a place

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for the Second–Temple Prayers. The long wings of the building served as a big “Ezrat Nashim” (women's section). The east wall had only blind windows below, but above, there were small windows. At the very top above the ceiling was a smaller window, to which only courageous children dared to climb up from the female's shul by a narrow ladder.

The place was frightening because of the legends that were told. So, there should be the remnant of a golem, like the one the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew) had created. But apart from that, it was very interesting on the roof, because from this height you could clearly see both shtetls, the rivers, the fields, and woods. The synagogue was covered with a red colored tin roof. As attractive as the beauty of the entire Shul building was, even more awesome was its side with the main entrance, which was called “The Western Wall”.

The magnificent decorations and the massive appearance sank deep into memory. If you came early to the synagogue, you would encounter entire “music bands” of crows that built their nests in the vaults and ledges and on the cornices. All sorts of birds sang their “hymn of praise” in their own individual way, according to their own prayer style.

Climbing up a few steps, you came to a synagogue anteroom that ran along the width of the whole building. In its corners there were the “Kahal–Shtiblekh” (community rooms) and “Talmud Torah”. On frosty days when one even had to put on the good fur clothes, it was too cold in the Great Synagogue. That's why people usually prayed in the Synagogue anteroom.

At Simchat Torah the Torah was read here for special Minyanim (prayer quorums), so that all those present could be called for an Aliyah. (receiving the honor of being called up to the Bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah).

The Shul was entered through two ornate wings of the gate, which only the main Shammes (Synagogue caretaker) or the sub–Shammes were allowed to open, after they had knocked in a certain way and recited Bible verses , so that the dead who would come to pray, should withdraw in favor of the living. If souls were to be found there, one could be sure; and there were many who testified that they had heard their own now dead relative was called to the Torah in the middle of the night.

You entered onto a platform and from there on three sides, staircases led downwards. This had been made in accordance to the Bible verse: “Mi'ma'amakim kratikha Ja” (Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord!). From the first glance the eye was caught by the sacred splendor, and you would fall into ecstasy. The height of the

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shul, the gigantic square lecterns, an imitation of a foundation and proportionally narrower, but higher floors, artistically designed from marble and granite, colored green–violet and brown, intertwined with golden, silver, and bronze veins, harmonized with the painted walls. All this was combined with the artistic patterns of the ceiling, from which artfully designed lamps hung down with ten light tubes, which were large enough to reach into for cleaning or repair work. At the south–west corner, there was a four–sided ladder with a wheel at each corner and stairs on which one could stand and climb up. At the top there was a platform that reached very high. Thus, you could get anywhere if you wanted to clean or repair something.

To the northwest there was a small Bimah, mainly for a Bris (circumcision), and a “Kisse shel Eliyahu” (Elijah's chair ), which was bedecked with tapestry; there was a stylistically coordinated footstool, a small table with a prepared box of sand, and a place for a wine carafe. Right in the middle between the lecterns, there was a tall Bimah for “Kries–ha Toyre” (reading the Torah) for the Shammes, etc.

Further east, there was a beautiful carved podium for the Chazzan (Cantor) and his singers. The podium had special carvings: scenes of the Land of Israel – from Jerusalem: the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Menorah, and the Altar, with inserted Bible verses and instructions written in an artistic manner by a “Ktava raba” (Aramaic: by a master scribe).

There were stairs on the sides to climb up to the Aron–Kodesh (the cabinet for the Torah scroll, Holy Ark). These stairs, the handrails, and the fringing fence were masterpieces, shaped on a lathe by a local wood turner. The Aron–Kodesh was impressive and great. The Jews used to boast about it saying, “Anyone who hasn't seen the Aron–Kodesh, has not seen a splendid thing at all.” And truly, people would come from near and far to admire our Aron–Kodesh.

The Aron–Kodesh had its very own story. There already was an ordinary Aron–Kodesh in the Shul, but then enthusiasts got together and started collecting money for another Aron–Kodesh. It took many years until enough money was available. Then they commissioned artisans from Warsaw and abroad, who needed many years before they could finish this grandiose, sacred work. The Aron–Kodesh towered high up to the ceiling and protruded almost over the entire width of the east wall. There were fiery angels, Oyfanim (“Seraphim”) and sacred animals carved on it,

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as well as elephants, lions, leopards, deer, dragons, and other fantastic animals. There were also carved eagles, ostriches, pigeons, and fish. Furthermore, grapes, almonds, pomegranates, etrog (the yellow citron), lulav, myrtle and aravot (willow branches). Everything was covered with reflecting matte gold and many other colors of the rainbow.

Not harmonious in this large, beautiful shul was a structure that was left over from several generations before. At the very top square boxes made of wood and shaped like big stands had been set up on both sides. Filled with sand, they had been used to put in hundreds of “Neshoma–Licht” (candles of the soul, memorial candles) on the night of Kol–Nidre (“All Vows”, the declaration before the beginning of the evening service on Yom Kippur). This picture was then very imposing and left an awesome impression; the hundreds of candles melted, sparkled, and blazed up.

In the synagogue ordinary householders would pray throughout the year. Lomdim (Torah scholars) and devout Jews used to pray in the Beth Midrash (House of Study), where there was “Yir'ah” (fear of God, sense of awe), “Avodah” (worship, prayers), and Torah study at one place.

But during the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days), the elite would pray in the synagogue, and since the prayer ceremonies lasted longer there, the worshippers from other Batei Midrash (Houses of Study) used to come to listen to our Chazzan Reb David and his singers, who would have prepared special prayers. Often civilian and military lords and even aristocrats visited us then.

Near the Great Synagogue were standing two main “Batei Midrash”. The Beth Midrash heading west was very old. It was considered that it was older than the Great Shul. It was an old–fashioned brick or cement building, with its main door in the north–east corner. The walls were whitewashed and filled with bookshelves, stacked with religious books which had been brought in by worshippers in a “mood of holiness”.

In front were standing long tables with incised Hebrew letters and grease from tallow. On the bookshelves you could see “Shas'n” (“Shishah Sedarim”, Talmud), “Shayles–u–Tshuves” (notes and queries, religious responsa) and “Drush–Sforim” (a collection of sermons).

As a member of the “Tiken Soyfrem” (Repairing Scribes Association), I once found a religious book under the name “Meir Nativ” in the Beth Midrash. The author, Rabbi Meir, was a descendant of the Shakh 's family (Shabbatai HaKohen) who lived 1621–1662. He was called “Shakh”, after the name of his most important book and one of the famous rabbinic authorities. He lived at the time of the “Vilna Gaon” (1720–1797), and the “HaGra” (“the Vilna Gaon”, HaGaon Rabbenu Eliyahu) himself testified to this.

There is a quote from the Vilna Gaon, which reads, “In my early years, it took me far away to the shtetl Ciechanowicz, where many scribes and wise people are to be found. The local Rav, Rabbi Meir, had been my Rabbi ଀in nisterଁ (Kabbala, hidden/mystic area of Torah study) and friend in nigle”. (Talmudic meaning of the Torah).

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The Beth ha–Midrash (Study House) was always open. There would have been worshippers, people who learned alone, comrades who studied the Shas (acronym for “Shishah Sedarim”, Talmud), the Mishnayot (paragraphs of the Mishna, “Oral Torah”), Ein–Yaakov (“Well of Jacob”, a compilation of all the “Aggada” material in the Talmud together with commentaries), the Mikra (“what is read”, Hebrew Bible), the Midrash (Rabbinic legend, biblical exegesis by ancient Judaic authorities) and the “Alshikh” (the Alshich Hakadosh/the Holy, celebrated as a prominent rabbi, preacher, and biblical commentator, born 1508). Everyone felt at home here and came to enjoy the pleasant warmth of the oven, which was as big as a house and was fueled once a week.

When talking about the old Beth Midrash, I recall the name of the sub–Shammes (synagogue caretaker), Reb David'l. He was a simple Jew, burdened with children and very aware of his duties, which he carried out completely. He had to keep the lamps in order and clean them, heat the stove, fill the “kiyer” (ritual washstand) with water and call the Jews to the shul. For all his hard work, however, he had little blessings, so for his income, he still had to work as a baker.

Well, his “pletzlakh” (flat rolls) had a good reputation! But even here, he proved that he was a Jew with a good heart. Many of his pastries he used to distribute for free, and after leaving the world, his son Yehuda–Leyb took over the duty of a Shammes. For many years, he administered the holy work in the manner of his father.

Located in the front house was the small Beth ha–Midrash, where prayers were said from the very early morning to late night. There used to be countless minyanim (prayer quorums) praying one after another until it was time to rest. All prayed the same Maariv (evening prayer), a Bar'chu, a Kiddush, and Amen.

The elderly used to tell the following story:

After a conflagration, the community was very impoverished, and only with great difficulty did they manage to excavate a cellar, where a foundation was laid for a shul that was to be built there. Temporarily, they had to pray there. The Jews were heartbroken, but even more than anyone else, a village tailor, who prayed in the cellar as well, suffered.

“Vayehi hayom” (And it came to pass), that the tailor visited a porets (Polish landowner), who was just a warmhearted lord. Thus, he immediately noticed the sad expression in “his Moshke's face” and asked him for the reason. The Jew told him that he was so distressed because the Jews had no shul. “Dobzshe”– “Okay”, answered the porets, who was pretty drunk at that moment, “you will have the finest shul throughout Poland! ”

The porets, who gave his assurance in the presence of other lords, initiated the construction! They started bringing bricks, stones and wood together and then began to build. The Jews constructed the Beth Midrash all by themselves, but the lord, at least, kept under his own careful observation, that the proper craftsmen were chosen.

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The balebatim (bosses, owners) “opened their pockets”, although some of the Jews worked for free. The work had been interrupted quite a few times. Finally, the shul was built, although the porets was totally impoverished by it. It is said that this happened long before the first “pavstanye” (insurrection).

When Russia triumphed and the Polish uprising was drowned in blood, the porets was captured and sentenced to death. But the Jews went to the Russian general, standing up for him. Finally, he was acquitted.

The former walled basement and foundation still remained and had been connected to the shul. One could go down through the cellar to get into the shul. There, as well, was present a kind of “Mi'ma'amakim kratikha Ja” (“Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord!”), as it was in the great shul. For generations, the “holy places” fulfilled the spiritual needs of the community.

But already in my childhood, the “Haskalah” (Jewish enlightenment movement) winds started to blow, and a number of young people came under their influence. In addition, a few upstarts appeared, turning up their noses at the old customs.

Soon, they took a dislike to the old Beth Midrash. Its architecture, they murmured, was not aesthetic, and the big stone for “malkes” (punishment of whipping) didn't appeal to them. Furthermore, all the plots of the city could only be passed on through inheritance, and not even for all the money in the world could you buy any place.

As a precondition for Aliyot (Torah honors) and other honors and awards, there would be a claim to possession, title, and academic tenure, against which one is unable to fight. For example, my father, peace be upon him, held an “honorary position” to open the Torah Ark on the occasion of the Neilah (last prayer on Yom Kippur) and also for the “Tekiah Gedolah” (last long–drawn shofar sound at the end of Yom Kippur).

In short, they weren't well pleased with the old and conventional, and they did nothing but argue. Finally, some young people pulled together, collected a bit of “mamtakim” (sweets, coins) and started to build a new Beth Midrash, just over the way from the old one.

Although the respected balebatim were very annoyed by it – and the fathers were angry with their sons, as well as the fathers–in–law were angry with their sons–in–law, none of them would have dared to take action against such a sacred matter.

However, they didn't come to help. In particular, when the rebels were actually able to complete the construction right up over the windows, but then had to stop, the half–finished building stood vacant for many years and became the “nest” of the brats, who had come to infringe the holiness.

Over the years, even more have come along, who were dissatisfied with the old Beth Midrash, and so it became more and more given up.

But eventually, the new Beth Midrash was completed, with a beautiful “Ezrat Nashim” (women's section), with beautiful tiled ovens, and more comfortable seating. However, the “holiness” of antiquity was missing there, as well as the shelves with the religious books.

Later, the new Beth Midrash gained in importance, especially in the

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period when the Rabbi and preacher Reb Moshe Rubinstein arrived here: A great connoisseur of the Torah, an enlightened person, a teacher in “external wisdoms” (all the wisdoms besides the wisdom of the Torah ), a song–smith, a fine prayer leader and a caring man. He, a gifted Rabbi and the author of a religious book, called “Aish Dos”, which was highly praised by the great Talmudic scholars of the generation, attracted many respected balebatim (householders, bosses, owners) in the new Beth Midrash. By his influence, associations for Torah, work, worship, and interest free loans were founded. Rabbi Rubinstein passed away in Bialystok on 16 Adar, 5680 (March 6, 1920).

Especially in this new Beth Midrash, there was talk already about nationalism and “Hibat Zion” (lovers of Zion, name of a national Jewish movement in Russia). There, you could already find a “yeshive–bokher” (yeshivah student), who kept the Talmud on a lectern, but below was lying the novella “The Wanderer in the Paths of Life” by Peretz Smolenskin, Nachman Krochmal's “Guide for the Perplexed of the Time”, or Moshe–Leyb Lilienblum's autobiography “The Sins of Youth”.

According to the old rule “the envy of scribes increases wisdom” (Hebrew proverb, quote from tractate Bava Batra 21 a), the new Beth Midrash awakened the elderly, and they began to rebuild the old one. Of course, they initially could only make the corrections on the outside. But even soon after they started the rebuilding, something new came out of it.

The modifications were serious. The entrance on the east wall had been extended, an “Ezrat Nashim” (women's section) had been set up, and tiled stoves had been built. They left just a few tables for

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the scholars and established order on the shelves with the religious books. The work on top of the building was done by professionals, but the handcrafts at the sides were done by the balebatim, and my humble self was among them as well.

After the old Beth Midrash was rebuilt, people used to tangle up the names “old” and “new”.

In about 1916 when Nicholas Nikolaevich, the uncle of the Tsar and at that time commander in chief, fled with his army from the attacking Germans, the top of the shul was shot down, probably in order that the enemy could not spy on Russian crowds, who “did a runner”. This also led to a destruction of the “new–old” Beth Midrash. After the armies had withdrawn, many displaced people stayed in the shul.

At the second end of “Reb Alter Nates Gesl”, the Beth Midrash of the tailors was located there. Both tailors, as well as other craftsmen, used to pray there. They even had a rabbi, who would learn religious texts with them. He also “spoke” for their prayers between Mincha and Ma'ariv (at dusk), on the Sabbaths and religious holidays. Later, some of the rabbis became famous, such as Rabbi Zundl, who was well known as the Kamenitzer Maggid (preacher) and wrote the “Drosh Sforim” (sermon books.)

Besides the Batei Midrash, there were also Chassidic shtiblekh (prayer rooms), including the Gerer (Ger: most influential Chassidic dynasty in Poland before the Shoah and named after Góra Kalwaria, a small Polish town), the Trisker (Trisk: Chassidic dynasty having its roots in Turiisk, Ukraine) and the Radzyner (Chassidic dynasty having roots in Izbica and Radzyń, Poland).

The first two of them didn't differ much from the “Misnagdishe” (in opposition to Chassidism traditional) shuln. Only the “Radzyner shtibl” was different, especially after their Rabbi, R' Gershon Henokh (Grand Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Henech Leiner of Radzyń) had revealed his discovery that he had found the “worm chilazon”, with which wool could be colored “tekhelet” (blue). “Tekhelet” was the required color of a thread of the “tzitziyot” (ritual fringes)!

(According to the Talmud the blue dye named “Tekhelet”, which was used for ancient religious purposes for cloth and tzitziyot, was a secretion of a marine creature known as the “chilazon”. Unfortunately, nobody knew exactly what kind of species this was. Rabbi Gershon came to the controversial conclusion, that the “chilazon” was a cuttlefish).

But neither the Chassidim nor the Misnagdem recognized his “discovery.”

Translator's footnotes:

  1. These memoirs refer to the early 20th century. Return
  2. Ciechanowiec was a place consisting of the “Old Town” and “New Town”. The “Old Town” belonged to Grodno Guberniya, which was part of Russia. The “New Town” belonged to Lomza Guberniya, which was part of the so–called Polish Kingdom, which was also under Russian control. Return


Sad Days and Yamim Noraim

Tisha B'Av

The summer had come with all its splendor. With fresh vegetables, just taken out of the ground, practically for free. Fruit appeared, at first only a bit, but soon a big cornucopia of exceptional fruits from our gardens, and gardeners would show up. The whole area is wrapped in green, and young people

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go for a walk in the magnificent “Khrabines” pine forest. Some debate about different topics. One talks, one discusses, one dreams, and people yearn together … actually, an earthly paradise.

But even there, the Jewish calendar would intervene, beginning its mourning days. Just now will come “Shiva Asar B'Tammuz” (17th of Tammuz), the three weeks of the start of the mourning leading to Tisha B'Av. One would grieve about the first and second “khurbn” (destruction of the two Holy Temples). And from this moment, the new prohibitions would apply. You are not allowed to take a bath, shave, go out to have fun, celebrate a wedding, or eat meat.

The melancholy of Tisha B'Av is dreadful. The Jews would go to the Batei Midrash like mourners. Suddenly, they would put on sackcloth and old galoshes and would sit down on the ground. It is half dark in the shul. Tallow candles are flickering. Insects are buzzing. Mosquitoes appear, biting dreadfully. You would not sit on ordinary benches now, but, like sitting Shiva on footstools, you would sit on overturned lecterns. And Jews would bewail and cry over former misfortunes and current decrees and persecutions.

The Torah reader begins the Book of Lamentations with a sad Nigun (melody). The congregation sits and cries: “Oy! Oy! Vey!” The same happens in the women's section of the shul, where the women nestle at an angle to the female prayer leader, who reads tkhines (women's prayers) from the “Tseyne Urene” (women's devotional book). She reads aloud in archaic Yiddish the translations of Lamentations: The stories and Rabbinic legends concerning the khurbn. The women are sobbing and crying audibly.

The men are annoyed, slapping against the sides of the lecterns: “Shush! A woman's voice has to be silent!” They can't stand the whining. The lamentations have come to an end.

More pious Bney–Toyre (children of Torah) would still remain in the shul, rocking opposite the flickering candles and learning the “Agodes” (Rabbinic legends) from the khurbn (Rabbinic legend of lamentations), the tractate of Gittin, and others. “Bale–Mikra” (Men of the Mikra/Tanakh, learned persons) would delve into the book “Hiob”. It is forbidden to learn any other things, because that possibly could give pleasure on the day of national grief and mourning.

But rascals don't want to know about mourning. They make a game of everything, and Tisha B'Av becomes just a great merriment. They have prepared pine cones and brushes that would stick on their hair. But they fix the same weapon on girls, by throwing pine cones to get tangled in their hair. The “weak sex” accepts it, although it would not be easy to eliminate the disaster.

The rascals shorten the morning prayer, davening without prayer shawls and religious wear. Once again, they read Lamentations. While renouncing the lamentations, the rascals make use of the remaining pine cones supply. The most suitable targets are the long, matted beards. The attacked protest and shout, “Shkotsem!” (Brats! This word is used to refer to Jewish boys acting in a way unbefitting Jews.). Good–natured fathers,

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grandfathers, and uncles endure this in cold blood, smiling under their mustaches. They still remember when they were boys themselves.

It is one of the accepted customs, to go to the parental graves during the time around Tisha B'Av. In sackcloths and old galoshes, crowds of Jews were moving to the cemeteries. From the “Maltser Gas”, a number of little streets led to the old cemetery, which was already well filled 60 years ago. Fear and holiness rested on it, and there were the graves of great righteous persons.

There was also an Ohel (structure built around a Jewish grave as a sign of prominence of the deceased) and many graves around it, almost rubbed off, although you could still read some unclear words such as “Signs of Heroes”, “Iron Head”, and similar. There you would go to weep yourself out. The new cemetery had been a little far, but apart from the journey, one used to go there to cry out one's heart and the heavy mind on the graves of the dead.

 

The Days of Awe

After Tisha B'Av one seized the opportunity to spend some happy weeks. The summer heat started again, and so one would go for a swim in the river. The forest was beautiful and glorious and inviting for one to go for a walk.

But the happy, sunny days do not last long. Cold winds had already begun to blow, and drizzle started to fall. Jews started to make a “double” calculation. The first one between man and the Lord, and the second one between man and fellow man.

There was also forthcoming a material bill. The “Yamim Noraim” (High Holy Days) would be cost–intensive, and you also had to prepare for the winter. First several loads of wood had to be chopped up to dry out faster. You also had to stock up with a box of potatoes, beetroot, and similar items. Some would prepare dried apples and pears, as well as pickles and cabbage. One used to cook preserves, prune jam, syrup, and poultry fat.

In addition, you had to take care of the bench outside the house and smear it with glue, and you also had to repair the winter clothes and footwear. The socks, stockings, and gloves had to be darned, and the galoshes had to be taken out as protection from rain and mud. You also had to prepare the double–glazed windows in case of frost.

Cantors, singers, and prayer leaders, who recognized the changes, would have felt them deep in their bones. They wrapped scarves around their necks to protect their “tools”, that is their voices, so God forbid, they would not get a chill.

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Exactly in this mood, mourning voices began with the Slikhes (penitenial) prayers. With his big stick, the shammes (synagogue caretaker) would go out while it was still pitch dark, knocking on the shutters. “Jews, get up for Slikhes!” Our shammes was so influenced by the Slikhes mood, that he, when opening the shul, used to shout, “Deads, get out! Now there's a need for the living to come!” Meanwhile, he was shaking hard and his soul had fled to the tip of his nose. While the Jews went to Slikhes, the roofs and parks were silvered from the first frosts.

And just now the last Sabbath evening of the year had arrived, for which there is a special nigun (tune) for the Maariv (evening prayer). After midnight and for a big congregation, the cantor, together with the singers, would pray the last Slikhes, as well as the first.

One hastened to Shaharit (morning prayer service) and spoke the Hatarat Nedarim (the Annulment of Vows); the women, meanwhile, baked challah in the form of birds – an insinuation that the prayers should fly up.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Maariv (evening prayer) was prayed by the city's cantor and the singers. Our cantor Reb Dovid, and his singers had abandoned the davening, because Jews of our Bate–midroshim would finish their praying very quickly just in order to listen to Reb Dovid.

Rosh Hashana was a mixture of joy and fear of the Day of Judgement. The Shaharit prayers would begin very early in the morning, in order to give the davners of the shuln an opportunity to hear the cantor.

In the old Beth Midrash, the Musaf service prayer leader was Reb Bendet Ishes, who was said to be 100 years old and still remembered when Napoleon's army invaded Russia in 1812. And such an old person also was Reb Moyshe, who prayed the supplementary prayers in the new Beth Midrash. With his seriousness and piety, he contributed to the mood of “Teshuvah” (repentance).

During the ten days of repentance, even a fish in water would have trembled, and the Jews followed the reading from the Prophets dictum of that Sabbath: “Shuva Yisrael”… (“Return to Israel”, the first words of the Haftorah for Shabbath Shuva).

Given the honor in our shtetl of having R'Eliyah–Borekh as a Rabbi, we would listen on that Sabbath to a droshe (sermon) of “Miracles and Wonders”, which was made up of “Musar” (moral instruction) and “Halakha”(religious law).

The “balebatim” (bosses, owners) scholars used to be very enthusiastic. And even the craftsmen listened to it, having great pleasure. A cobbler, who had listened to the droshe (sermon) and later to the Songs of Praise, once proclaimed, “The Torah is like the work of a shoemaker – the work is never completed, you will never come to the bottom”.

Soon after Rosh Hashana, the racket concerning Kaparot (atonement, ritually ridding oneself of sins) began. The hens and

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cocks protested and screamed, while people swung them over their heads and babbled with the lips. And then after that, the chickens cried when they were killed.

At Erev–Yom–Kippur (on the eve of the Day of Atonement), one would be busy. Eating on Erev–Yom–Kippur is a commandment, as is fasting on Yom – Kippur.

Soon, one hurried and left to pray at the Mincha (afternoon prayer). One beat the chest and cried out, “I have sinned!” One distributed the different alms–bowls and then quickly went home to the last evening meal before fasting at Yom Kippur.

And even during the blessings, one would already hear the wailing and sobbing, whining and complaints. After blessing the children, one went back to shul. Whole families moved to the shuls, with waxy, tallow, memory candles in their hands.

The men carried their own holiday prayer books, the women – theirs. They ran fast, because before the Kol Nidre, many prayers had still to be spoken. It was customary for the men to speak the “Tefilla zaka” (the “pure prayer”, forgiving all that wronged them), while the women spoke the “Tkhines” (prayers in Yiddish for women).

Tradition demanded that you would light a soul (memory) candle, take off your shoes, wash your hands, put on the kitl (religious white robe) and the tallit (prayer shawl), before you would arrange the straw under your feet.

Then, when the cantor started with the Kol Nidre, the worshipers got rid of all physicality to ripen to a level of “hispashtut ha'gashmiyut” (a special way of praying to achieve a certain state of consciousness after “extracting everything physical, all materiality and emotions” to unite the soul with God). Everyone was overwhelmed by fear of God and inspired by holiness.

Our cantor, R 'Dovid, used to look like a high priest then at the worship service. His lyrical voice and his shining nigunim thrilled everyone. The holiness and piety of his praying united with the general mood of the congregation.

Some of the worshipers stayed in the shul for a whole night, standing on their feet during the whole Yom Kippur, and disconnected from their physical existence. The straw spread on the floor of the shul contributed to the mood of repentance.

When the time of the “Neilah” prayer came, the fear of God became even stronger. There was no time left – ki pana yom (“…for the day turned”, part of the Neilah prayer, asking the Lord to open “the gates of heaven”). The gates will close soon. The soul was fighting with the weakened flesh.

Then finally, there were heard prayers and crying. Jews prayed for a good year, a year of health, income, and peace. Famished and tired, they spoke the Maariv (evening prayer service) very attentively. Nevertheless, they did not hasten to go home. They went outside for blessings.

After blessings, they went home for “making havdole” (ceremony at the end of Sabbath) and eating something. Finally, again a commandment, they hit a post for “sukkah”, the festival of Sukkoth (into the ground).

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From Sukkoth to Simchat Torah

Shortly after Yom Kippur was over, one soon began building the sukkah. As mentioned earlier, the basic post of the hut had already been bashed into the ground at the end of Yom Kippur. Presently, one began collecting materials for the sukkah: a small board, an old door, a stick, a pole, a lid of a bunk. Everything was useful to construct the sukkah.

The sukkah, as is well known, is a temporary hut; one must not be too punctilious, and everything is of use. But when it is finished, it looks like a little palace.

Khol ha–mo'ed Sukkot (the intermediate days of the festival), were very happy and funny. One celebrated “Simchat Beit Hashoeivah” (joyous Water–Drawing Ceremony), which was an impressive celebration in the Beth Midrash. These days, one went to visit relatives and nearby places. Young fellows and girls came together to take a look at each other and matches were concluded. Cheder teachers ran around very diligently to get students for the new semester.

At Hoshanah Rabbah (the last day of Sukkoth), one felt relieved from the fear of the “Yamim Noraim” (“High Holy Days”). One stayed awake for a whole night. While reciting 48 of the “whole litany of the psalms”, one struggled to be awake at the right moment: When the heavens would split and the “ktiva vekhatima tova” ( “a good writing and sealing”), notes would be distributed. But annoyingly, one used to sleep away that very second.

Early in the morning one prayed for a long time. One would “klapn heshayne” (beat the willow branches on Hoshanah Rabbah), go to “hakofes” (Torah procession), and the “sude” (festival meal) would have been festively prepared with “kreplakh” (filled dough).

At Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret (“Eight day of Assembly”), it was a commandment to be drunk. Even those who had not taken charge of a prayer book all year long were enjoying the “siem hatoyre” (end of Torah, the conclusion of the daily Torah readings).

After the “kalpe” (kehile election) of new “gabaim” (Jewish religious functionaries), one was served a “kehile” drink, snacks, and refreshments. Everyone got “aliyot” (Torah honors), even the small ones. The congregation started to get drunk. After all, it is Simchat Torah! “Tson–kodoshim” (holy sheep, little children) were screaming: “Baa!” One marched with the flags.

Rich people put a candle into an apple, and poor ones used a potato. Scoffers performed their pranks. They knotted the prayer shawls of angry balebatim (bosses, owners) and tried to lead astray the prayer leader with his nigun (melody) and nusekh (style). And when you drank one smaller drop, you got really drunk. Then you would fumble outside through the mud, past strange houses. If it turned out, you could swipe a “tsimes” (baked sweet potato and fruit dish) and something roasted with a bit of “mashke” (strong drink).

In crowds, people would march through the streets, singing with hoarse voices prayers and songs in “khotse idishpolovina goyish” (a Judeo–Slavic pidgin). They took each other home, and in case someone was just too confused, the “ployneske” (wife) came to take him home. After all, it was Simchat Torah, and there was no need to worry about income.

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The Cold Winter Arrives

The religious holiday is over, and now the usual days arrive. What remains is a bad taste of too much food and drink. New worries arise. In many houses there is the nightmare to enlist for Russian military service. Jews used to despise “fonyen” (dergatory word for Russian) and to be a “soldatshina” (СОЛДАТЧИНА, Russian word for “soldier”).

They have no reason to sacrifice their young lives or to be thrown aside in a barrack, to be insulted by the General to the Corporal, and to receive blows and punches. The draftees are very worried and serious, and the “kantonistn” (drafted soldiers in Czar's army), who remained in the city, are showing off with clever remarks:

“Why are you whining because of the military service? We've seen something like that already. We served Tsar Nicholas I for 25 years, moreover treated like pigs, and been forced to convert from Judaism. In contrast, that is a pleasure now, a plaything!”

But that does not ease the mind. One is very worried concerning the “yedinakes” (only sons)– the real ones and the sham ones– the “pervi ligates” (privileged persons). It is really bad, when you are punished with poverty and health – because with some money you can wriggle out. There are middlemen from the Russian government. Each of them offers “a fair price”. You must deposit the money with a “sholesh” (mediator) and then – either…or! If you are exempted, the middleman gets the money, even though he has done nothing for it. But if not, what then? In that case, you will not be exempted,

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and you will get the money back. And even then, there still are some more strategies. One pretends to be a bit blind by wearing unsuitable glasses; one also implements other devices and, for example, acquires some “defects”. To achieve this, one had to go through a difficult process. One didn't eat and sleep enough, one drank vinegar, ricin oil, became emaciated and lost weight.

And with regard to “a trouble shared with others is a trouble halved”, the Jews developed a method to turn a worry into a revelry. They did not torture themselves alone, but in a group, together with others. They sneaked into gangs all night and played pranks, as well.

So, they knocked on the shutter of a respected householder and shouted, “ Get up, R. Moshe, hurry up, it's burning!” And when R. Moshe actually got up and realized that he had been pranked, he was at no loss for curses. The gang wasn't much affected by it. Meanwhile, the hunger continued, and when it became too difficult to bear, they snuck into a bakery and bought a bagel hanging from a stick.

At the Russian draft board, a combination of comedy and tragedy took place. It was a great misfortune when they proclaimed: “Godin!” (He's fit for military service.) Parents fainted after the sad news, that their son is no cripple. And how happy and funny they were when it was said: “Nit godin!” (Unfit!) which meant that he would be a cripple all his life. Such a young guy was now free for matches.

Meanwhile, the winter revolted. Around Chanukah, “Jack Frost” already ruled. The cold became very intense. And Jews covered themselves with fur coats, scarves, galoshes, and gloves. The frost even penetrated through the double windows, which were decorated with patterns from cut colored yarn on cotton wool. The panes were decorated with fantastic flowered trees. The inner windows looked silver–plated and little rascals were busy “minting coins”. A single coin became Korah's treasures (Korah, a biblical character, who was said to be one of the two richest men in the world). The frosts also hardened the mud. Winter was there in all its strength.

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Chanukah–Time

Chanukah. The holiday of Jewish strength and pride, which not only symbolizes the victory of the Hasmoneans, but also the struggle that the Jews have always waged against their enemies . It is historically and psychologically intricately connected to the Chanukah miracle, which occurred before our eyes, when the country of Yisrael was hemmed in, and a small settlement defeated seven Arab countries.

Chanukah used to be a friendly, light holiday, which was not weighed down by special religious ceremonies and not burdened with affliction and prohibitions. Chanukah was a day of social gathering.

Youngsters played with handmade dreidels. Bashed fingers and burnt hands – a willing sacrifice, if only a masterful toy–dreidel came out with beautiful, relief–like letters of the initials of “Nes Gadol Haya Shem” (“A great miracle happened there”).

Older ones play “kvitlakh”, just cards. There is even a “nutrikn” (mystical interpretation, taking each letter as an abbreviation) in the last word of the Sedre (portion of the Torah): וישכחהו (and he forgot him) would become: “Velkher Yid Shpilt Kortn Khanuke Hagvir Vert” (the Jew, who plays cards at Chanukah, will become a wealthy person). Very pious Jews used to interpret the nutrikn differently: “Velkher Yid Shpilt Kortn Khanuke Hot Veytok”. (The Jew who plays cards for Hanukkah is in pain).

Little brats, actually, would become wealthy. Even the stingiest uncle gives Chanukah money. And what is about the day's cracklings, latkes – and not having to go to religious school in the evenings?

Around Chanukah, the river begins to station itself. The bridges would safeguard against their later powerful enemy – the ice–floes when the ice breaks and melts. For this purpose, long poles are folded out as protectors. But the mighty ice bursts and makes fun of it as if someone said, “What can you, ordinary mortals do against me”? Frost and snow do their part, and people – their part. One avoids the bridges. One drives on the mighty back of the ice; one blocks the bridges. One smuggles forbidden goods from one country to another.

On the paths through the streets, there is a complete uproar. Long, powerful pines are brought out from places which you cannot approach. Now they get hewed and are loaded onto two massive sleds. Only the beam holds them together. Strong horses, harnessed to a sled, with a teamster in front and a handlebar from below. The two are far from each other, and this gives brave guys the opportunity to jump up in the middle and get a ride. The long, powerful blocks of wood are brought to the shores with the bow towards the Narew and the Vistula. There, they are tied together with wire and transported to distant places.

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As soon as the boys do not have to go to Cheder, they skate. Every little dumped water and melted snow is used for this purpose. One begins, the others follow, and it becomes a slide like a hymn – smooth like a pastry board. Jews with desire learn to relish what they have: be it the afterworld or the mortal world. One sits by the stove, having pleasure from sitting together.

And one carries oneself away into the worlds of sharp–wittedness and expertise, also into the fantastic worlds of Aggadah (Rabbinic legend, narrative part of the Talmud).

 

Purim and Pesach (Passover)

For the gang of rascals, every season offered their games, every religious holiday its experiences. Time doesn't stand still, Purim is approaching, and this holiday provides its antics. One sets up with weapons, which are named in the respective area: Grechete (grzechotka, a rattle with seeds inside a box), Dreier (kind of Purim grogger), Kalakotke (КОЛОКОТКА, clapper) and Haman rattle. One knows about Haman at that time, and one hears about today's Hamans.

In our shtetl, little was known about theater. There was no cinema and radio in the world. Every now and then, an organ grinder showed up with a mirror and a peep box. For a “groschen” (hundredth of an Austrian shilling) one saw amazing prodigies – actually, one traveled around the world and the seven seas with all their creatures: lions, dragons, werewolves and others; and for a kopeke, one put special receivers from the “machareike” (peep box) on the ears and heard the famous cantors with their musical groups.

But none of this could be compared to Purim, when one played “Mechires Yosef” (The Selling of Josef), the “Akhashveyresh shpil” (Ahasuerus play), and later also “Sulamith”, “Bar Kochba” and well–known heroes from the “khumesh”(Pentateuch). Then – the horses, the Turks, the Midianites and “Vashti's (wife of Ahasuerus) tsop (braid)”. Everything was interesting and amusing.

And usually, Purim itself was a marvelous pleasure: The shalach mones” (the sending of Purim gifts, mostly sweet food) and the Purim sude (festive meal).

Soon after Purim was over, one began to learn “Shir Hashirim” (the biblical Song of Songs) in the Cheder. The outside world had now matched the mood of “Shir Hashirim”. The lovely sounds wafted into the heart, and from out there came the confirmation that everything was absolutely true.

Now, it is just a mix of spring and winter. Winter goes away, spring rides on the wings of the warm sun rays. The snow begins to turn dark and soft, and it's easy to make “gomelkes” (triangular pieces of fresh or dried white cheese; also the name of dried cone–shaped cheese cakes) or to roll up a “menshele” (snowman). Some Jews would become angry and say, “This is idolatry!” But “gemore–keplakh” (little Gemara–learned heads, Gemara: 2nd part of Talmud) use to have

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a well–prepared pretext: “This is nothing but a fool, like in the void – a mouth – and can't speak, eyes – and can't see”.

Much has been written about “Zman Cheruteinu” (“Season of our Freedom”, part of the Pesach Haggadah). The Yiddish and Hebrew literature is rich in prose and poetry, in which the dear holiday Pesach is reflected with its very beauty and holiness. But there's still enough space to add something.

Erev–Pesach, the evening before Passover, is starting up several weeks before the holiday. The matzo bread, bakehouses, and matzo bakeries, where matzos are baked for Pesach, show up. Everyone wants to snatch a part–time job.

The girls rolling and pressing, the women kneading and molding, the boys pouring the mixture. Then there are the persons handing over water, perforating matzo, carriers, and Rabbinic supervisors. Everyone toils long hours for small earnings. Each of them would like to be able to celebrate Pesach, and that actually requires Korach's treasures.

Girls need a new chintz dress, shoes with high heels and the like, in order to be perfect in a respectable way. Cane–twirling bachelors, who are of marriageable age, must have new ties, rubber collars and cuffs, to look at the girls, that Shmuel–Ber, the matchmaker, has praised all day.

The houses are cleared from furniture. One had to cleanse, oil them, and make them kosher. Meanwhile, one is sleeping on the ground and hastily takes a snack on a box that becomes a bench, a barrel, and then a table. There is more than enough work.

In addition, one must take care of the kids, so that they do not reach the beets that have been placed on the barrel, being covered with a white tablecloth, the brewed mead in the Passover box and the matzos, which were placed in a basket hanging from the ceiling.

The gangs of little rascals also don't know where to go first: Either to the waters, or to the tailor and shoemaker to find out whether the shoes and the suit are ready, or to the chickens to stuff them – and catching the rooster that ran away.

Meanwhile, the preparations continue: One chops rozshinkes (raisins) for yayn–tsimukim (raisin wine), one cooks down schmaltz (chicken fat) for Passover and does many things that are necessary. When the last days before Passover arrive, the householders take care of the “mekhires–khomets” (the sale of leavened food, or “chametz”, before Passover).

That is of course done at the rabbi's, and Stefan, the “shabbes–goy” (a gentile, who performs certain acts which are forbidden to Jews on Sabbath) is the buyer. Those, who are more conscientious, bake “matzah–shmure” (matzo made with extra care to remain dry) themselves. There is even no time to eat. One quickly takes a dry bite and that is it.

The men must help making kosher the pans and other vessels – the tables, benches, the plate and the oven for the “tsholent” (cholent, slow–cooked Sabbath stew, left in the oven overnight). Kettles are boiled out with water

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and into them, burnt iron and stones are thrown. Then everything is scalded with hot water and heated with the burnt iron. One doesn't gamble with Pesach! For the smallest bit of Chametz (leavened food), there is a penalty – kareth! (“cutting off”, a severe divine punishment).

And just now, there is coming the night of “Bedikat Chametz” (ritual search for any possible remaining leaven on the evening before Passover eve).

Everything is prepared: A wax candle, a wooden spoon, a feather duster, a white rag, a few pieces of Chametz, which were placed in certain very confidential and secret places. Hence the father does not know where. He must find the Chametz because he should – God forbid – not make a “brokhe levatole” (a blessing made in vain).

On Erev Pesach (the day before Passover) people used to get up early, eat the Chametz in a hurry, such as bread rolls with milk and then hide several Chametz glasses. Finally, they would have finished the “making kosher” and soon would invite R' “Pesach” to come into their house.

Anyway, there is still a lot of work to do before Erev Pesach: Pounding the matzo crumbs, preparing matzo flour and “Charoset” (an apple–nut mixture). The sude (meal) would be very meagre, to guarantee some more appetite for the evening Seder.

The Gemara (2nd part of Talmud) says, that “eating matzo during Pesach is like desire to the bride”, although you have to admit that, actually, these two desires are not that similar.

The Passover meal is conducted according to a specific Seder (order): Kadesh (sanctify; recital of Kiddush blessing and drinking of the first cup of wine), Urchats (wash your hands), Karpas (dipping of a vegetable, usually parsley or celery in salt water and eating them). Errors regarding the Seder meal have already been described, and there are enough anecdotes about them.

 

Lag BaOmer and Shavuot

The holiday of Pesach is over. Nice days are coming. The sun warms. People start walking outside. The grass appears with its delicate green. Buds are just showing on the trees. Pleasantly fragrant flowers are of all colors. All kinds of creatures can be seen. Spring is here!

Forests, fields, and gardens come alive, awakened from their deep hibernation. Also, the wandering people are feeling the arrival of new life, although they cannot conform to its mood – because the Days of Sefira (ritual counting of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot) are coming. Instead of a reminder, that points to the connection between man and earth. It is actually a time of grief, for it commemorates the failed heroic Bar Kochba (Simon bar Kokhba), who, with his army, fought for Jewish independence from the Roman yoke.

Parties and weddings are prohibited during the Days of Sefira. Also not allowed are swimming in the river or playing (music/games). Exceptions are the last days of the month of Nisan and the first days of Sivan, after all, Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of ritual counting), but these are just islets in the middle of the sea. All other days are filled with sadness.

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Finally, Lag BaOmer is a memory of the 24,000 students of the tanna Rabbi Akiva (Akiva ben Yosef ), who joined the revolution against Rome and fought in Beitar. During the seven weeks of Sefira, the Romans decimated many of the students. Only at Lag BaOmer none of them lost his life. Therefore, it has remained a holiday forever.

Anyway, it is a popular holiday for the youngsters. So long as they don't have to go to school, they get up early in the morning. After all, they are thrilled to be going to war against the enemies of the Jews! Young boys equip themselves with self–made rifles – slingshots instead of bows and arrows, which shoot with peas and kernels. One is filled with the spirit of heroism; a war with “Gogmagog” (a legendary giant) – that's just a trifle!

During the campaign they move through the fields. But as soon as the walk leads through the streets of the Goyim (non–Jews), they are confronted by the enemy, soon a sheygets (an impudent youth) with his evil dog! “Zshidi!” (Jews!),

There is shouting, and the startled Cheder boys run away. After all, Jews are living in exile. One comes off with a torn hem and a bite in the calf. The war is over, and as usual, it would break out again next year. Several weeks later, the dear holiday Shavuot is arriving – “zeman matan Torateynu” (the season of the giving of our Torah).

Shortly before the religious holiday, one takes a bath. The young boys bathe on the dam under the tree, and those who are already learning the Pentateuch, together with the ordinary Jewish people and the horses, bathe under the sluices. Older balebatim (householders) and gourmets who don't know anything about swimsuits take a bath a little further on near Gavenitz, and of course secretly!

Everyone is happy when the dear feast day arrives. There are no hard rules at Shavuot: You are allowed to eat wherever you want – not like Sukkoth, when you have to eat in the “sukkah” (hut). And it is allowed to eat whatever you want, not like Passover. It is customary to eat milk dishes in special courses such as cheese blintzes and sour cream with vegetables.

The Shavuot holiday is adorned with a variety of flowers and greens, which you get for free from Gavenits. This holiday is a reviving one, without any problems due to chametz (leavened food) or water dripping through the sukkah topping.


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Ciechanowicz 70 Years Ago

by Gitel Pakciarz, Kibbutz Shefayim

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
the Vice–Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

 

The Terrible Plague in the Shtetl

Seventy years ago, our shtetl was almost wiped out by an appalling disease that raged in both the “new- town” and the “old-town”. The epidemic had started out one year before in neighboring towns, and when their inhabitants fled to us, they brought the disease along.

The plague broke out as follows: Suddenly, at night, people got violent cramps and pains in their stomach and feet. The pain was so terrible that they actually tore bits off their body.

At that time, we only had one single doctor. He didn't know what to do for the hundreds of sick people, who hoped for his help. God's anger poured out on us, and it was exactly as written in the holy Torah: “For there was not a house without someone dead” (Exodus 12:30)

The helpless doctor just did not know how to fight the disease; thus, the Jews changed over to using folk remedies. They started “raiben” (slathering) their whole body with liquor. Healthy young men with strong hands went from house to house and slathered. If people saw them on the street, they would point at them and say, “The 'raiber' (rubbers) are already coming!”

Not only did they rely on the “raiber”, but also used other means as well. So, the ditches were whitewashed with slaked lime and carbolic was poured out. All market vendors were chased away, and their fruits were doused with kerosene and carbolic. And when none of this helped, one went to the old cemetery and arranged weddings for poor people and orphaned boys and girls.

Above all, I still remember the terrible pain which Mishe Rozenberg (the sister of Chaim Rozenberg) experienced. She, terminally ill already, was taken to Ostrów Mazowiecka,where she passed away. Together with my brother, Isser

[Page 133]

Smolyar, I was sent to Czyżew where we remained until the disease ended. The plague had raged for several months until it became cooler and the first frosts came. Incidentally, it should be noted that it was only Jews who perished. The goyim (non-Jews) had been spared from the disease.

 

Our Shtetl's Curse

Our shtetl is known to have suffered great conflagrations which caused terrible destructions. This was believed to be the result of a hex that a great rabbi had put on our shtetl. At that time in the 1880s, we had a great rabbi here, a sage named Reb Ayzik.

As is customary, every great person has many “misnagdim” (opponents) . Also, R' Ayzik had many opponents and enemies, who disagreed with him and bothered him throughout the years. This then escalated so much, that they smeared the rabbi's chair in the Beth Midrash (Study House) with tar, so that the rabbi was stuck and couldn't move from his place.

At that time there was a great joker in our shtetl called Meir “der Feldsher” (the barber-surgeon). He was both feldsher and shaver. Every Sunday he seated a long line of goyim side by side in a ditch, smeared their chins with soap, and then, by going from one goy to the next, would “mow” their beards.

In the shtetl, one whispered to one another that it was the prank of Meir the Feldsher to smear the rabbi's chair with tar. In short, after the rabbi managed to tear his clothes off the chair, he went to the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) and said, “Just as tar burns, your city should start burning!”

Eighty years ago, when Mordechai Menash'kes conflagration broke out, the whole synagogue courtyard collapsed. After that Chaim Feival's Kalamash's fire disaster broke out, in which almost all Jewish houses went up in smoke. Only the houses of the Goyim remained. In 1915, the shtetl was burned down by the Russians. Remembering, I still see some of the conflagrations before my very eyes. I understand only too well that as our sages said so cleverly, “al tiftakh pe lasotn” (“Don't open your mouth to Satan”- Don't speak about evil things).

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The Year 1905 in Ciechanowicz

The revolutionary waves came from Bialystok to Ciechanowicz . As an important industrial city with a concentration of many workers, including a large number of Jewish workers, the “Bund” was very active in Bialystok, and a strong conspiratorial revolutionary activity emerged.

Ciechanowicz had strong ties to Bialystok due to the enormous amounts of wool that was transported through our shtetl toward Bialystok. And strangely, it was especially the rich sons and daughters, who, coming to Bialystok on business, were infected by the ideas of socialism and the revolution.

In Ciechanowicz, revolutionary winds began to blow, which enthralled large social stratums of the Jewish population - poor, rich, young, old ones, and also children. At first it was common to gather in the forest, but when it became suspicious, people gathered in the open air. As soon as it was shouted, “Police”, they quickly would run away.

I'd like to describe the impact of the revolution on children. We had a little boy in our place, who came from a poor family. He started to practice the “revolution's order” in a very original way. One Friday evening he came to our room and said, “Why do you need the goy to douse the candles and to take the candlestick off the table? I'll do it myself!” And without saying much, he soon took the candlestick off the table.

At that time, when the shtetl was exclusively under the influence of the Chassidim and Rabbis, it was one of the greatest revolutionary acts, to take the candlestick off the table on Friday evening! And this boy was no exception. All the children in his family became revolutionaries. The boy used to walk around in the shtetl exclaiming, “Wait, wait, one will quickly go to Ruvn Glihn's house to take away from him the 'vigele money' and distribute it among the poor”.

The boy sacrificed himself for his conviction. Once, the police caught and brutally beat him to make him disclose the names of the revolutionaries. But he remained steadfast, endured the pain with willingness to make sacrifices and did not betray anyone. When his unhappy mom stood there, watching the police officers tormenting her son,

[Page 135]

she begged them that they should better beat her instead of her child. Because of her great distress, she passed away young. Also, the end of the boy was very tragic. One evening at a conspiratorial gathering a shout broke out: “Police!” Immediately, he started running away quickly, but in the thick darkness, he fell on a sharp stone, was fatally injured, and passed away on the spot.

I remember the courage of a second boy. We had a neighbor who didn't mince his words and used to throw mud at the revolutionaries. The revolutionary tribunal therefore sentenced him to death. The death penalty's execution was imposed on a very young boy, who performed it as follows: The neighbor used to sell milk, and one evening he sat outside the door to keep the milk until it had cooled down. Then the little boy came to him, asking to sell him half a liter of milk. But before our neighbor even stirred, the boy pulled a small bottle of vitriol (sulfuric acid) out of his pocket and poured it into the neighbor's eyes. The neighbor was taken to Bialystok to Dr. Pines, who only succeeded to save one of his eyes. In the second eye, he remained blind all his life. Also, his face showed burn scars for a lifetime.

To remain authentic and truthful, I would like to underline that not all Jewish revolutionaries of Ciechanowicz were such cruel people. And last, we had to deal with “Jewish robbers”. And I would like to tell about such a robber. At that time, we had a young man named Jakob Grzybieniec. He worked for a tailor. When he was carried along by the tide of the revolution, his comrades imposed on him to do a revolutionary act by attacking Jews with a revolver in hand and rob them of their money.

And so it happened that at the end of a fair, when almost everyone was already departing and only a few Jews were left, Jakob dashed out of the forest with a loaded revolver and immediately rushed towards the Jews. But just the thought that he, God forbid, could kill a Jew terrified him. He started screaming, “Sh'ma Yisrael!” - and the revolver fell out of his hand. He was caught and handed over to the police, then taken to Łomża, where he was sentenced to 10 years of living in a penal colony. The prison was a kind of university for him. He read a lot of Jewish

[Page 136]

and general literature and immersed himself in philosophical and scientific works. He then returned to the shtetl like a real revolutionary, dressed in a “rubashke” (Rubashka shirt, Russian shirt that contains themes of tension) and shaven, as the Russian young men (in a derogatory sense) used to do. When the Bolsheviks arrived in Ciechanowicz at the end of the First World War, Jakob became the leader of the “REVKOM” (Central Revolutionary Committee). After the Bolsheviks left the shtetl, he fled to America.

At that time, there was no professional association, and workers used to work 14-15 hours a day. We had a Jew named Sholem the mulyer (Sholem the bricklayer). He employed workers on the building site, and they had to drudge “as much as possible”.

When his son Mordechai became a revolutionary, he said, “Stop! From now on, people only have to work 12 hours a day, that is, from 6 am to 6 pm!” He worked for his father and was the first to establish the regulation of the 12-hour working day. His father put a number of curses on his son, but it didn't help. At 6:00 p.m. all workers left the buildings.

Mordechai had an assistant called “Yidl-kuker”. Why? Because he used to stand there for hours, just looking into the world. He was angry with the whole world. Once, when he was standing by a building, a community notable came by and said, “Yidl, you're a good looker after all! So do make a good roughcast!” Yidl did not think long and splashed a trowel of mortar towards the Jewish gentleman, who lost an eye as a result.

The main leaders of the revolution in our shtetl were the children of the rich.

Simcha Konopiaty was both a large merchant and a very wealthy man. His son, Motl became a revolutionary. Because of the great shame, the parents sent him away to America. This was just the same that other wealthy persons did with their sons.

There is an interesting story about Chaim Żolondz's son. He was a revolutionary, as well. The police searched for him in every house until they finally caught him. He was taken to Brańsk. Suddenly, a large group of comrades emerged from the forest next to the path. They forcibly took him out of the cart, dressed him in women's clothing and sent him to America.

There was a very rich person named Moshe Hurwitz, whose daughter became a revolutionary, as well. She had a Marxist worldview, as can be seen from the conversation that she had with my father, Jakob Smolyar. Once,

[Page 137]

as a foursome, they drove to Czyżew when my father asked her, “You say that your father is an ignoramus. But look, who actually works for him? He drives to Warsaw to the wool market, buys 1000 puds (Russian unit of measure) of wool, earns a ruble for each pud. Finally, he has 1000 rubles then. So, who worked for this?” And Miss Hurwitz replied, “Why did the wool come onto the market? The shepherds looked after the sheep, the workers sheared the sheep, the wool washers washed the wool, the owner brought the wool onto the market. Finally, my father came, bought the wool and became a wealthy person “. The answer was so logical and interesting, that my father bowed his head and couldn't reply.

The Ciechanowicz's revolution was just a small episode, like foam on the water. The wave subsided quickly, and our shtetl continued to live the traditional Jewish life.

 

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