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[Column 237]

The Amszynower Congreation in Shtetl

By Pinchas Frydman / Ramat Gan

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Everyone depends on luck, even the Hasidim.

Ger and all the others favored large congregations so they could have their own shtiblach (small, Hasidic prayer houses) where they would pray daily, study and chat about spiritual and other matters.

The Amszynower Hasidim were not that lucky. Their congregation was small so they did not have a corner of their own. Even though the Rabbi was an Amszynower Hasid, their membership still remained small and even though they dreamed of having their own shtibl they could not manage it. They did not want to share with another group because they would have been the minority.

I remember when I was a child that they prayed at Moshe Berkowicz's house. Later the second minion prayed in the large synagogue and the last years they got together with the Sokolker Hasidim, who were also a small group, and created a shtibl where every Shabes and Yon Tef [religious holiday] they prayed together. I would like to tell about the Amszynower Hasidim, their virtues and stories so they can be an example to future generations.

[Column 238]

Josef Mendel Cynamon

Josef Mendel the Baker was a righteous man, his wife Malka was the businesswoman and ran the bakery. She knew how to handle the gentiles, who on market and fair days filled the bakery. She knew when to speak softly and listen, when to reprove with sharp language, or stare someone down. And that is how she ran the business and he, Josef Mendel, would hardly set foot in the bakery.

His day started at “dawn”. He was busy most of the day praying, studying and at the Khevra Kadisha (voluntary burial society). Later he would wander into the bakery, have a look around and then run to prepare a little for the world to come.

Then one had to collect money for a Jew who fell on hard times, here came a Hassid with a letter from a Rebbe stating that one should help him. What was the address? To Yosef Mendel.

Here comes an author pleading for help to publish his religious book, which will soon appear. But he mentioned to his wife that he still did not have a guest to share his Shabes with and cannot go with a guest on Shabes.

[Column 239]

So he would run around and sing softly “world do not totter, world, world do not totter” …this was his favorite song that he with a merry melody which would steal into a sad tone. This was how he poured out his cares. For a long time he was a poor man…then he sold butter for a living and he became impoverished.


Yitzchakel the Painter

That was what he was called. I do not remember his surname. It is possible that I never knew it. When called to the Torah he was called Yitzchak ben Reb (honorific, Mr.) Eliakim Getzl. If he ever painted – I don't know.

To me he was a short man with a large, grey beard and a huge tallis (prayer shawl) bag under his arm. His place was at the rabbi's house or in the synagogue where he would study all morning.

He was a scholar of the old type, simply studied, without getting into debates. He was the balmusef (prayer reader for the additional service, Shabes and holidays) in the shtibl. Well, he was far from being a singer, but everyone knew that he was the appropriate person to lead the community in prayer. When he said “my all being will recite, Me Kamoha, who is like you”, people really felt that every bone in his body trembled.

[Column 240]

He came from the ancient rabbinical authorities of the Hasidim, lived with the motto “Dear are all people, who are created in G_d's image”! Nobody should be wronged, respect is owed to everyone, even children.


Yankel Plocker

This man was known by several names in town. First, Yankel Pesia Ita's. Pesia Ita was his mother's name. Yankel der dreyer (the turner) because he was a turner by trade. Yankel der rov's (the rabbi's) because he was a rabbi's son. When called to the Torah he was Yakob Ariyah ben Reb Chaim Menachem.

He was a capable, bright man and one of the assistants in the Burial Society. Without him the cleansing of the dead would not take place.

He was the sexton in the Amszynower shtibl and a prayer leader in the synagogue.

During the First World War he served in the military under Samsonow. When Samsonow was beaten he and a few others made it back to Russia.

During the entire war he never ate treyf (unkosher food).

During Simchas Toyre (Heb. Simhat Torah, marks completion of the annual cycle of Torah reading) when everyone danced with the Torah, he was in ecstasy. He stood on a bench and yelled, “It should live”! He went after those who had strayed and brought back to the fold.

At a celebration he could not sit in one place. He ran to help prepare, to serve. He was a Hasid without great aspirations, but a dear, simple Jew.

He is gone but not forgotten.

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[Column 241]

The Fire Brigade

By Yitzchak Bursztajn/ Montevideo

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Reb [Mr.] Jakob prayed in the Sokolower shtibl. People called Reb Jakob Yankel der dreyer [the turner, (mechanical)], because of his trade. He was something between a turner [lathe operator] and a carpenter. He had a sort of “mechanical thing” in his home for this purpose. It was a combination wheel with rope and tied together pieces of wood in an ingenious manner and all he had to do was press his foot against a plank. The wheel began to turn and with its turning, the entire machine moved. It is with this machine that Reb Jakob gnawed the wood and sticks that were needed to make the peasants' spindles. Therefore men call him Yankel der dreyer.

All year Yankel prayed in the Amszynower shtibl, but during the High Holidays he prayed in the large synagogue where he led morning services. Besides he wanted to be closer to the rabbi. He was an ardent Hasid and admirer of the rabbi. Therefore men also called him Yankel dem rov's [the rabbi's].

Yankel der dreyer was a religious Jew, even a little fanatic. He would become angry at the least little deviation from devoutness. Despite his anxiety over Judaism and making a living, he still had his worldly

[Column 242]

“hobby”. All those years he was always an ardent supporter of the well-organized fire brigade. Especially during a fire in the shtetl, he was always one of the first to arrive at the scene to fight the fire. His work he did with enjoyment. Being a fireman he considered a mitzvah [doing a good deed].

Around 1924 the fire brigade in Czyzewo was reorganized to modern standards. The leader, a young Pole, a retired soldier, was very dedicated and well organized. He enrolled Jews and Poles, the majority being young Jews. All of them were issued special uniforms, with brass buttons and caps with lacquered visors. Every Sunday they exercised in the square at the shed. The Commandant drilled the volunteer firemen. From time to time the volunteer firemen also marched, like real soldiers, through the city and out as far as the railroad station. During the exercises several Jews distinguished themselves. But the best was Jakob Epsztajn who was tall young man and swift. He would climb the high ladder quick as a cat and was admired by all the onlookers who would applaud his acrobatics.

[Column 243]

The Daf-Yomi[1] Ended

Hasidim and Misnagdim [Opponents of Hasidism]

By Yitzchak Bursztajn/ Montevideo

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

When they began to study the Daf-Yomi in Czyzewo, the Talmud lessons were studied in the large Beis-haMedrash [House of Study], although the majority of students were from the Hasidic shtiblekh [small houses of prayer]. Later, when the congregation grew smaller, they studied in the Gerer shtibl. It must be acknowledged that studying in the Beis-Medrash[2] was solemn.

Reb Yisrael Yona's voice during the teaching of the Daf had a gorgeous echo in the Beis-Medrash. Each word was clearly and distinctly heard, not only by those sitting around the large table studying with him, but also by those who stood and listened. Everywhere that someone stood around the entire Beis-Medrash, Reb Yisrael Yona's translations and hypotheses were heard.

[Column 244]

Many modern theaters would have wished to have as good acoustics as the Czyzewo Beis-Medrash; the reading rang loudly and was sustained for a long time in the void of the Beis-haMedrash.

Reb Yisrael Yona was an earnest scholar; he had a wonderful power of speculation. Since the beginning of the Daf-Yomi, he had led it in Czyzewo with other scholars. Not only older Jews were drawn to it, but also the young, who were already able to study a page of gemara [commentary on the Mishnah (oral law)] with its critical commentary and there was no lack of them in Czyzewo. It was believed that the large Beis-Medrash belonged to the misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism]. But in reality, it was the Beis-Medrash for everyone, without differentiation,

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Translator's notes

  1. A daf is a two-sided page of the Talmud. Daf-Yomi is the daily study of such a page. It takes seven and a half years to complete the daily study of the Talmud. return
  2. Beis-haMedrash and Beis-Medrash can be used interchangeably. return

[Column 245]

A Day in Czyzewo

Shmuel Abarbanel/Tel Aviv

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Czyzewo, a shtetl [town] like all Jewish shtetlekh, a market, Jewish shops, a beis-medrash [also known as a beis-hamedrash – house of prayer or synagogue], several Hasidic shtiblekh [one room houses of prayer] and Jews, Jews who on Sunday morning walk from praying with a talis [prayer shawl] and tefilin [phylacteries], stop at the market, have a conversation, politics, business, notice a strange young man, approach him [and say], “Shalom aleichem [hello], where are you from? Who are you looking for?” That is how I saw the shtetl 35 years ago.

However for me the words sound very different; my heart beats with distant memories. I remember my youth, faith, doubts. An entire ball of thread of experiences awakens and I see them alive. Still more, the first time that I heard the name “Czyzewo,” it was bound with mystery, secrets.

An actual occurrence:

5685 [1924 or 1925], Sokolow [a shtetl in Poland], in the Rabbi's yeshiva [school for older boys], a tired summer day, we sit engrossed in a lesson by Reb Simkha Rosh Yeshiva [head of the yeshiva], some sort of difficult “school of thought,” some sort of small thought constantly ticks and disturbs, “How is a Litvak [someone from Lithuania], a misnagid [opponent of Hasidism] the head of the yeshiva?… ” Suddenly, the door opens a little, quietly, quietly and a strange figure appears, a tall, thin Jew with a long, pointed, gray beard, on his head a sort of compromise of a Jewish hat with

[Column 246]

a Lithuanian cap, with a sack on his back, and comes in, makes a movement with his hand that we should not be interrupted, sits down for a minute, for the moment on the last bench near the door and is quiet. After the lesson, young boys approach, say hello. He answers with a cold, stiff hand and does not say anything; young boys become uncomfortable. A strange person; who can he be? They look at him intensely. Before nightfall, he prayed Minkhah [afternoon prayer]. He stood straight for an entire hour; he did not move. He recited Al-khet [first words of the prayer recited on Yom Kippur asking forgiveness for one's sins] on a regular day. Later, he ate bread with onions, drank cold water, all so quietly. Perhaps he is dumb? However, no, someone, somewhere quietly asked a question – When is the rebbe coming? After all, where could he be? He slept at night on a hard bench in the beis-medrash, rose at midnight for study and prayer. Perhaps only a penitent? Perhaps only a lamed vovnik [one of 36 righteous men upon whom rests the faith of the world]?… This was somehow more plausible to our 14-year old reasoning. We were filled with secret longing…

He sneaked around so full of mystery, without speaking, for several days. But the same morning when the “rebbe” came back, he tied up his sack and ran away. Where did he run?… The young know – he probably went to “stand watch” in a city where there are no righteous men…

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But…see…he still strides with his sack on his back right to the rebbe's room…

When the shamas left, a bold group lunged for the keyhole. They heard some strange words:

“Czyzewer Rabbi… A virgin… Simkha Sanoker – (there was such a person here with us, a somewhat elderly young man with wild, disheveled peyis [side curls], blazing, famished, yes, a scholar, a literal child prodigy, an assiduous student, studied the entire night, held his feet in cold water).

– Rabbinical chair, in the future, a small dowry, kest [room and board provided to a son-in-law]…

They came to us, a little ashamed, disappointed, explaining that they think it is only a matchmaker, But no! Now we know with certainty it was not so simple that a sort of lamed vovnik was here and had brought a woman for Simkha… Very great things can come out of this… Someone even uttered the word “Mosheikh” [messiah or redeemer]…

But where is he?

Not here! Vanished! Out through the kitchen! And perhaps not out?

Just disappeared?…

The idea lingered that Czyzewo is somehow tied to secret world…

The next year I did not hear more of the cold, subtle argumentation and split hairs of Reb Simkha. My unease chased me through Jewish shtetlekh with young Breslover Hasidim. My soul was at ease, Likutei Moharan [Teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov], stories of rebbes, Hasidic dancing at common meals, oh, how good!… But one still has to study! I was cast-away to Bialystok in the Noworadik yeshiva, in a dim, half dark building on the “Khanajkes” [an area of the city].

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Sad, closed off young men who repeat musar [ethics – religious study stressing piety], torture themselves and moan. They do not study in all cases. I thought I would find here “a synthesis of learning and manners.” I found only sadness and fear, fear of the world, fear of transgressing. No bright ray of light… It was so sorrowful for me and I would simply cry quietly from longing for our style [of study]. Reb Avraham-Yafa, the mashgiakh [spiritual supervisor of a Yeshiva], the handsome, majestic Jew with a yellow-blond patriarchal beard, with a mild smile, noticed my mood in my eyes:

– With you, Shmuel, there is no sadness, but melancholy – strengthen yourself.

– Take yourself in hand, he said to me…

I choked… I could not… only when I firmly decided to leave there did I discover that “even a small coin was nowhere to be seen.”

I did not have traveling expenses. But this did not frighten me; I knew that Jewish towns would not abandon a young man who was traveling to seek a place of learning.

I arrived in “Lapy” on a Friday (the first train station on the way to Czyzewo). Instinctively, my feet led me to the beis-hamedrash and there I experienced one of my greatest disappointments.

I saw him from afar through the open door… My heart began to beat fast… Yes, this is him then… My former lamed-vovniki; he was cleaning the beis–hamedrash with a large broom in his hand, sweating. Angry, he greeted me with complaints: (Now he did speak, oh, did he speak?!)

– Lapy is not a community cashbox – there is no money for Hasidic young men who are escaping from yeshivus [religious schools for young men]…

[Column 249]

Insulted, shamed, I hung around for several hours at the train station and in the evening, at Minkhah time, I returned to the beis-medrash. Demonstratively, I took a gemara and sat down to study aloud. After welcoming the Shabbos, a young man invited me for Shabbos. Sitting at the table, I asked him a question about the shamas. He made a motion of contempt with his hand, “Nonsense, a Jew, a villain, an ignoramus. Every summer he goes from house to house begging, proposing matches, presenting himself as a righteous man, a hermit who studies in order to serve God.”

In a bed made of rolls of textiles, I lay late into the night unable to fall asleep. In my head “false righteous men” and lamed vovnikes were tangled. Everything became “doubt”… I thought the first crack in the thick wall of my edifice of faith.

My host gave me a zlote [Zloty – Polish coin] on Shabbos night. He took it from the gabbai [assistant to the rabbi] so that I would be able to come again. I arrived in Czyzewo on Sunday, during the week of Shavous [holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah] 5686 [1926].

A quiet town. At the large market stood circles of Jews and they talked, accepted greetings and answered evasively and inquired about the rabbi. I had a small connection to him. Maybe I will meet Simkha Sanoker there; that would be so good. On a side street, on slippery stairs, I entered the beis-din-shtibl [small religious court room]. The rabbi welcomed me with a warm smile, questioned, consoled, spoke and taught, served tea (I was ashamed to ask about Simkha). Later, he sent for several young men, told them of my situation, asked that I be helped. They took me to the Gerer shtibl with them. We conversed on the way

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and they were happy with me. We became friendly.

There was a noise in the Gerer shtibl, a tumult, they were praying, they conversed, Hasdisic, joyful. I was again comfortable, so close, so familiar. Little by little, the older group dispersed. Meanwhile, several young men left to go through the shtetl to collect money for my expenses, brought me “lunch” and I remained alone. I looked around me and saw strange things – the other door led to the “Aleksander shtibl.” Was it possible? Ger and Aleksander Hasidim under the same roof? Was it really that way? – Yes! It was! I would have to speak about it everywhere…Useless hatred…I saw young men wearing white collars with neckties, so cleanly dressed. It was a sin in other, deep Polish provinces, strange, they would have to think about it…

Everyone quickly returned to the room; they brought an entire treasure for me. The gemaras were not even opened. A conversation occurred about something I did not expect, a conversation that surprised and scared me. It seems that they had gathered thoughts which they had to express to someone new, a stranger. When I told them about Simkha Sanoker, the one who was supposed to be their rabbi's son-in-law – everyone threw themselves into the theme of “purpose.” It had already become clear to them that there is no purpose in sitting and studying, waiting for a rabbinate. There were no longer any available shtetlekh; in general, there were already 10 kest-eidems [sons-in-law supported by their fathers-in-law while they study] waiting in each shtetl. Life in the small shtetlekh was difficult. Without zest and purpose, one must escape, escape to Warsaw or perhaps even to Eretz-Yisrael, do academic study.

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I sat confused by the new themes before me. My attempt to try and carry out a conversation about “Breslover Hasidism,” whose “messenger” I was considered, did not help. The group warmed up and became daring; we went out for a stroll, saw the shtetl. The conversation continued with each separately and when I sat in the back of the room at night at Minkhah time, eating evening bread near a young man whose parents had a restaurant, the young man took out from a box behind the bed several editions of Literarishe Bleter [Literary Pages], and from there read ideas and poems with enthusiasm, I felt that something

[Column 252]

was breaking in me. Something new had been revealed for me.

Late in the evening, when several people came to me – I do not remember their names (the faces stand clearly before my eyes) – and accompanied me to the train station, it became clear to me that “Sokolow is not my place and purpose.” I am going home, home to seek a “purpose.”

If I did not find a purpose, but only wandered on new paths – Czyzewo, you were the cause of this.

I remember you, Czyzewo, you are a holy loss. I cry at your destruction along with your former inhabitants.

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[Column 253]

A Maskil [follower of the Enlightenment] Among Hasidim

My brother Arya-Shakhna and his family, may God avenge his blood

Gad Zaklilowski

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Arya, such a quiet one, was the quietest in the family. We came from a great distance, my wife and I, to the reception at his wedding in Czyzewo and there we saw our entire family. Hasidim were also there as wedding guests from the bride's side, with Shabbos-yom-tovidikn [Sabbath and holidays] charm. Jews with beards and peyes [side curls] and Hasidim with satin kapotes [long frock coats worn by married men] and shtreimlekh [traditional fur hats worn by some Hasidim] like my father. I alone was in European clothing. My father asked me if I had something with which I could change my cap and pointed to my wife, who was wearing a silk shawl on her head that was much prettier than her hair. She was much more practical than I. She knew she was coming among Hasidim.

Father – I said – it is true that there were various customs in various places about bare hair for me, as with women. But mostly, people went with uncovered heads. Our blessed sages also were not fastidious about this and even went to the Beis haMedrash [synagogue] with an uncovered head.

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A conversation started on this theme that I will not repeat here, only that my father concluded:

– Listen to what I have to say. My firstborn, I will not examine your learning. But, an observant Jew does not go with an uncovered head. And what does the Mishnah [rabbinic commentaries] say: Notnin alaf khomer makom shehalakh kesham [A person may have great knowledge, but his behavior can put him in a situation where he does not want to be.] and: “One should not act differently, so as not to cause divisiveness.” We need to carry on the way they do where we come from in order to avoid a quarrel.

The bride's relatives also came closer to be able to hear the conversation in which several older Hasidim took part. I listened to the Czyzewo juicy, Hasidic conversation with great enjoyment, until my father, smiling, realized that the conversation was taking up another subject and said:

– What do you say, Gad (strongly stressing the letter “daled” [d] in my name, as the “daled” in “ekhad” is stressed in the Krishme Shema,[1] so that it would not come out as an error as with the word God). But Arya the khazan [cantor] approached unexpectedly:

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– He said, “Father, just as the “your” from “Honor your father” in the Torah, you should also honor your brother even with your knowledge. Therefore, I must give Gad respect and not carry on any disputes with him.” And Dovid, the youngest brother, with the rabbinical diploma in his pocket, said:

“I do have rabbinical ordination, but he [is the one who] studied, not I, so that in matters of Halakah I will not interrogate him. But the customs are not according to law but according to compassion.”

My mother also listened to the conversation and answered intoxicatedly:

“I also know the law. I am the daughter of a rabbi.”

Here I said to her:

“And my father is the son of a rabbi.”

Avrahaml Landa, the Sokolower rabbi, a son-in-law of the Czyzewer rabbi, mentioned, pointing to me:

“You see, he is quiet. Soon he will probably have something to say to you.” The older Czyzewo people of stately appearance divided themselves. Some spoke favorably about me, because I come from an area where the rabbis even dress in this way. But the others, several strict Kotsker [Kock] Hasidim took even more offense at me because I did not even have any sign of a beard with which they could console themselves:

“Probably it is not with any kind of ta'ar (razor), but with a scissors, or a machine.”

They intensely wondered how this could happen in a Hasidic house. Such attire?

My father said to me:

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– Do you think they are, God forbid, separate? It is “just like this” – having a conversation with a man from the newspapers. I know them, dear, good Jews.

I understood that my father wanted me to spend them with them.

He said:

– Of course, they must then be answered:

Therefore, I answered and said:

– Gentlemen, two things happened here – one, an error, and the second that we understand our sages of blessed memory. The mistake is that all religious laws and customs about which my respected brother, the ordained rabbi, asks that we obey with a moderate application of the law is only about “bareheadedness,” about going with a bare head. But not about with what the head is covered, if with a hat or with a cap? The Maymer Khazal [aphorisms of the sages], which we appreciate is the commentary in Messekhta Shabbat, daf kal [the tractate dedicated to the laws of Shabbos, page 130] which states “Likha ketuva dela mai b tigra” – (at every wedding, a quarrel takes place) and thus as it then written how much and about what the quarrel must be, we then fulfill the mitzvah [obligation] with the Maymer Khazal.

To the veiling of the kale [bride]! Then to the khupah [wedding canopy – marriage ceremony].

When the khosan-kale [groom and bride] were sitting at the table after the khupah, they demanded their due from me, a blessing in addition to a mazel tov [good luck]. I said to them:

“The letters kale [khof, lamed, hey] arranged differently, are read as hakl [hey, khof, lamed – “everything”] and the letters of khosan [khes, sof, nun] changed in the same manner to nakhes [nun, sof, khof – “joy'].

Therefore when khosan and kale are together, there will be hakl nakhes [everything joyful].

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I could record a “world” of Hasidic conversations from that Shabbos here, about the minyon [minyonim in the plural – 10 men required for prayer] at the bride's house, how six minyonim of men occupied the two rooms, who sang, with such excitement, a great number of bold Hasidic Shabbos songs, with such warm-hearted sincerity.

Where are you Czyzewo, amiable shtetele?

Where is your undug grave? What remained of you?

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Where are you, Arya, my quiet, quiet brother? The only horapashnik [proletarian], the only manual laborer in the family.

What can I do for you, for your remembrance, more than saying Kaddish [memorial prayer] with those from Czyzewo, one of the warmest Jewish shtetlekh?

Thus I sit on a stone and cry:

Yisgadal veyishkadash” [“Exalted and hallowed…” – the first words of the Kaddish].

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Translator's notes

  1. Prayer recited when going to sleep and during morning and afternoon prayer – Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ekhad – Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. return

[Column 259]

The Great Quarrel

Hyman (Anshel) Kowadla

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I left Czyzewo for America in 1906 at the age of 20. The events that I will describe took place a mere 10 years before my departure. They are deeply engraved in my memory so that whenever I think about my old home they swim before me as if alive. I see them as if they had just happened, although 60 years have passed since then.

Czyzewo had a population of various classes, as in other neighboring shtetlekh [towns], merchants, small traders, artisans, wagon drivers, dorfs-geyer [peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods], among them Hasidim from various shtiblekh [one room houses of prayer], and misnagdim[opponents of Hasidism] who prayed in the beis-hamedrash [house of study, also used as a synagogue]. Various quarrels would take place and small disputes over various kehile [organized religious community] matters. But it was rare when such a quarrel as I will describe here happened.

In the earlier years when my narrative begins there were two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers]. One of them was Rabbi Josef Leib, of blessed memory, who, already advanced in age, wanted to give up the craft and there was a search for another candidate for his position.

Among all of those who announced their candidacies was a young man from Vizne who in addition to being a good

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shoykhet and mohel [circumciser], was also a qualified khazan [cantor]. And he showed his mastery on a Shabbos at which the new moon is blessed. The beis-hamedrash was fully packed with listeners, even the Gerer and Aleksander Hasidim shtiblekh that were located on the second story over the beis-hamedrash, also came to hear him. The women's section was also full. They could not rave enough about the khazan with his choral singing, the sweetness of his prayer and blessing of the new month captivating the entire congregation.

After the rabbi of the city at that time, Reb Moshe Yoal, blessed be the memory of a righteous man, saw the Vizner's khalef [slaughtering knife] and the writings from many prominent rabbis and shoykhetim who had provided witness to his kashrut [observance of the kosher dietary laws] and abilities as a shoykhet and mohel, he was hired as the khazan in the beis-hamedrash and it was demanded of the city dozores [synagogue wardens] that they hire him as the shoykhet. At that time he also had the opportunity to show his abilities as a mohel specialist.

And here the quarrels began. The Hasidic group, particularly the Gerer shtibl, left in a great tumult, against the nomination of the Vizner as shoykhet. In no way would they permit a khazan in Czyzewo to be employed as shoykhet who while praying sings with notes

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just like a klezmer and cuts his beard with a scissors. They immediately found a young man from Śniadowo was a good shoykhet and mohel and also a good bel-tefilah [person who recites the prayers in the synagogue]. But after the people in the beis-hamedrash heard the Vizner, by no means did they want to change from him to another one. And little by little a quarrel flared that was transformed from cursing to fighting and reaching the spilling of blood. The shtetl was divided into two camps. And in the course of two years not one day passed that some bloody fighting did not take place between the Hasidim, followers of the Śzniadower side, and the opponents of Hasidism, followers of the Vizner.

It quickly led to police involvement because of the frequent fights and the denunciations that were made to the police by both sides and this led to frequent arrests and trials.

The fight would often take place on Friday night when the Hasidic shtiblekh would place young people, and even older people, under the window of the beis-hamedrash in order to listen to the Vizner prayers. They would be attacked by people from the beis-hamedrash and it became a bloody fight until the police intervened and arrested several of those fighting.

The butchers attended the beis-hamedrash and belonged to the Vizner side. The opponents would only employ the other shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] to slaughter the chickens, although the rabbi of the city, may the name of a righteous man be blessed, did not forbid slaughtering by the Vizner.

The fires of the quarrel flared to the highest level on a Simchas-Torah [the celebration of the conclusion of the yearly reading of the Torah] during the hakofes [circular procession with the Torah scrolls] in the beis-hamedrash, led by the Vizner khazan and his choir. Several young people from

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the Gerer and Aleksander shtiblekh stopped in the antechamber, perhaps without bad intentions, but beis-hamedrash attendees suspected that they would rush into the beis-hamedrash in order to disturb the hakofes. Terrible fights broke out and a tumult began in the entire shtetl. The shouting from the beaten to bloody and the cursing of the crowd actually reached to the very heavens and while the local police were powerless and could return order to the shtetl, the head of the post office telegraphed the district police chief in Ostrowa and gendarmes and police arrive from there and carried out many arrests. Several dozen people were arrested on yom-tov [religious holiday] and were placed in Christian wagons and immediately taken to jail in Lomza.

Mass beatings ceased, but because of various secret police agents and informers from one side or the other, there were always more arrests.

Many of the arrestees were freed after a short time, some of them because of a lack of evidence showing their guilt and others who were successful in establishing their innocence.

It appeared as a calming of the mood had begun and life in the shtetl welcomed a more normal character. But as a result of an accident that occurred, the almost muffled ardor of the quarrel again broke out. A fire happened at the house of Zanwil Edelsztajn and several of the men from the beis-hamedrash were arrested on the charge of setting Zanwil's house on fire. It was said: those from the Hasidic side had pointed out the misnagdim to the police, that they had a hand in the fire. In the course of almost an entire year, the arrested were

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investigated. The examining magistrate came to Czyzewo often in connection with the investigation. However, he could not get any direct proof and everyone was freed.

In time a tragic event happened:

When Tuvya, of blessed memory, was freed from suspicion of taking part in setting fire to Zanwil's house, he wanted to show that the suspicion was groundless. He was afraid that this would disturb his earning a living as a butcher. Before the reading [of the Torah] on a Shabbos, he went up to the

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bimah [elevated area from which the Torah is read] in the beis-medrash and swore on the Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] that he had no connection with the fire. But he died the same year. Some of the people saw in this a punishment from heaven for swearing falsely. Others said that he had a heart attack because he could not bear the heartache of the shame because of the false accusation.

The quarrel ended when the Vizner khazan received a contract from an American town, where he became the khazan, shoykhet and the mohel.


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The Great Peace
(A folk tale about Czyzewo in the past)

A. Wiewiurka

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

It really has only one name. Czyzewo, but it is really two Jewish shtetlekh [towns]; and not because a river, a bridge or a forest divides this tightly compressed shtetl [town]. It is two shtetlekh because two Hasidic sects, Gerer and Aleksanderer, carried out sharp arguments that ended with this: there were two rabbis, two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] and two shamosim [synagogue officials who assist the rabbi] in the shtetl.

This happened when the old Aleksanderer Rebbe [the head of the Aleksanderer dynasty] died and a large group of his Hasidim, not strongly approving of his son, conferred and began “traveling” to Ger.[1] Earlier, most of the Czyzewo scholars and rich Jews, also including the Rabbi, Reb Yonale, were from the Aleksanderer group. The Gerer was the smaller party. Now, however, both parties were equally large. As the rabbi was also among those who had gone over [to the Gerer], this greatly irked the remaining Aleksanderer. It had been their right for so many years to choose the rabbi and the shoykehtim in the shtetl – they decided to bring a separate rabbi, an Aleksanderer Hasid.

Said is done; on a beautiful night, another rabbi was brought into the shtetl.

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Six wagons traveled with him. Moshe-Josef Melamed [religious school teacher], with a torch (flare-sticks) in his hand and a lot of cheap whiskey in his head, danced in front of the wagon on which the new rabbi sat, and, with his hoarse voice, grated, “Long live the king.” A group of Hasidim drank and sang Aleksanderer melodies the entire night, “to the great displeasure of the Gerer,” so that the entire shtetl shook and, in the morning, the shtetl had two “men of great distinction.”

The Gerer were insulted by this: is it possible to “Encroach upon the rights!”… Bring in another rabbi, when Reb Yonale has been the rabbi in the city for 30 years and what kind of a rabbi! A gentle Jew who would give away his soul for a Jew… They were furious and three days later there remained no panes of glass in the windows of the Shniek [second one] (that is how they referred to the new rabbi)… Who knocked them out we do not know to this day; suddenly a stick had knocked on the panes, the glass shattered and the stick vanished.

It should be understood that on the same night, the window panes of the Rabbi, Reb Yonale were knocked out. Moshe-Josef Melamed had knocked out the windows here; he actually did it gracefully, not hurrying and after each

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blow, he stuck his drunk red face in the window pane hole and looking right in the rabbi's face hoarsely shouted:

– Old drunk, I have excommunicated you!

The shamas and two Gerer Hasidim chased him. In the middle of the market a large crowd came running from both parties. Hands crawled into beards, fingers entangled in peyes [side curls], slaps reverberated and flew from cheek to cheek and when the battle ended, the crowd saw that a minyon [10 men necessary for organized praying] of hats lay trampled in the mud. Quietly and ashamed, they bent over, each taking his hat, and went home.

From then on, Czyzewo became two shtetlekh. The “Gerer” realized that the two shoykhetim were “Aleksanderer.” They decided to appoint their own shoykhet. The deed did not please the shoykhetim; one of them, Simcha Bunim, thought about it and went over to the Gerer. The two same shokhetim remained, but divided – one showed the slaughtering knife to the old rabbi and one to the new. The butchers were also divided – the Gerer bought meat from theirs and the Aleksanderer from theirs. And when all of these matters were arranged, the true quarrels really began.

Moshe-Josef Melamed went around and swore on his word that the old “senile one” could not decide any question and Chaim-Moshe, the melamed from the Gerer “congregation,” simply argued that the Shniek is a sheygets [pejorative word meaning non-Jewish boy or man, also used when referring to someone whose piety is being questioned], a transgressor.

The rabbis themselves said nothing. Reb Yonale was a Jew, a naïve person and continually admonished that quarreling was an ugly

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thing and he would say, smiling into his beard, that if one rabbi is good, then two rabbis are certainly good! Why in Warsaw, not to give an evil eye, are there so many rabbis… It is tolerable; Czyzewo, a very considerable kehile, does not have to be ashamed…

The new rabbi, too, was a Jew, a quiet one. He would circle up and down across his beis-din-shtub [religious courtroom] in his flowery robe, listening to all that was told to him and quietly shake his head with his long, black beard, then go to his seforim [religious books] cabinet, take out a book and look and it always appeared that he did not know what he had been told…

The Aleksanderer stopped persecuting the old rabbi as a result of an actual occurrence.

A poor Jew, the wife of a wagon driver went to the new rabbi to ask a question about a chicken that had a broken wing. The chicken was treyf [unkosher]. There probably was bitterness in her heart. Incidentally, she was afraid of her husband, who shouted that he did not need a chicken for Shabbos. She thought about it and went to the old rabbi with the chicken. He examined it: treyf. However, the rabbi saw her tears. He said to the woman: Show me the chicken again. I will look again. Perhaps I will find a rabbinic approval. He took the chicken and went into the kitchen with it. In a second, he came back with a chicken in his hand. He gave it to the woman and said with joy: yes, the chicken is kosher.

The Jewish woman ran away happy and in two hours the entire Aleksanderer public cooked like a kettle: the “old one” had made fit a treyf chicken!

Moshe-Josef Melamed and an entire gang rushed into the rabbi's house with tumult and screaming. The rabbi saw such a large group.

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He sat on an armchair and calmly asked:

– Jews, what do you want?

However, the clamor grew larger: Unpure chicken … chicken … unpure deciding religious questions.

The rabbi became angry and cried out:

– You are yourselves unpure!…

It was lucky that the rebbitzen entered and the crowd learned from her that the rabbi had given his own slaughtered chicken to the woman…

The Aleksanderer left the “old one” alone after this deed. But then the parties themselves became even greater enemies. They did not intermarry; as far as possible they did not do business with each other and fathers-in-law became angry with their own sons-in-law who belonged to the opposite side.

* *

The commandant, who had reigned over Czyzewo for three days, did not want to permit speculation about which of the two sides was correct and who was the true rabbi – he sent for both rabbis and informed them that in the morning, no Jewish soul should remain in the shtetl.

Just as the old rabbi and his shamas left the commandant's house, the new rabbi arrived with his shamas. For a moment, both rabbis looked into the others eyes and each went his way.

This was the first time that both rabbis had seen each other and understood each other.

In time an entire Gerer group was assembled in the small Gerer synagogue and, also, a number from the other side. The rabbi stood on the bimah [elevated area on which the Torah is read], his hands trembled and his voice also shook.

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– It is a temptation… A dark time… as a verse states… I ask you, Jews, to stop wringing your hands… and I ask the women not to cry… do not let enemies think that we have, God forbid, lost our faith in our God… thus is His will… Let everyone take what he can and, in the morning, we will leave the city.

But now there was a great lament from the women who stood on the chairs, their faces wrapped in shawls and the rabbi had to interrupt his prayer. The shamas banged twice on the table. Women suppressed their sobs. The rabbi spoke further with anger:

– I decree that there should be no crying… Where Jews go, the Divine Providence goes with them… God does not leave, God forbid, his people… Everyone should calmly pack what they can and when the day begins we will leave… Until God will take pity…

The crowd quickly approached, each ran to see what he could do. Moshe-Josef Melamed ran around to his businessmen and asked for at least a half month. Jewish women quietly pinched their cheeks to hold in their crying as the rabbi had requested.

Although the entire shtetl knew the sad news, the Aleksanderer group, however, was in its small synagogue and again heard the news from their rabbi. The new rabbi already knew that the old rabbi had decreed not to cry; he agreed and also issued the same edict.

And in the morning, both Czyzewos gathered at the bridge. The Aleksanderer with their rabbi, shamas and shoykhet at the head and the Gerer with their rabbi, shamas and shoykhet at the head. There were no wagons and horses in the entire area. They were forbidden to stop in any shtetl;

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the crowds went with children in their arms and packs on their backs. Both rabbis and shamosim carried Sefer Torahs [Torah scrolls]. A Jewish woman could not restrain herself from crying; she stopped, remained behind the crowd and sobbed into her shawl.

The neighboring shtetlekh which they passed through were already empty of Jews. Several gentile girls called after them: “Zydi do Palestini. [Jews to Palestine].” Gentile boys twirled a pig ear from their waists, but the crowd went farther, farther silently, each group with its rabbi. Their eyes did not look with hate, but one did not speak to the other – angry is angry!

They were in the Przerewer forest at night and it was here they were to remain overnight and to go farther in the morning.

Several men with the rabbis remained to stand on guard and the remaining spread out silently on the ground, among the trees whose branches shook.

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The old rabbi, Reb Yonale, stood and looked at the sleeping crowd. He saw the children huddled to their mothers' bosoms because of the cold; he heard the uneasy, sighing breathing of those sleeping. He saw God's children strewn in the forest like lonely, wandering, homeless animals. It strongly tugged at his heart.

He turned away from the remaining guards to the side, fell to a tree, clung to it and began to sob: the Almighty… The…Almighty…

Something touched him. He looked around – the new rabbi stood near him, his head sunken on his chest like a tree that bends in falling.

– “Excuse me, Rabbi,” – he murmured quietly and stuck out his hairy hand to Reb Yonale.

And in the morning, as the crowd awoke to wander again, there was one Czyzewo. At the head went both rabbis and behind them an exhausted congregation and in their mournful eyes shone a new light of hope.

(From the book, Extinguished Light)

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Translator's notes

  1. Ger [Gora Kalwaria] was the home of the Gerer Rebbe. “Traveling” to Ger traditionally means traveling to the court of the Gerer Rebbe. Here it means praying in the Gerer synagogue. return


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