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Reb Alter Wolmer

by Dov Gorzalczany of Tel Aviv

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

He was born in 1896 in Sokolow Podlaski, and educated in his parents' house in the traditional, religious style. Slowly but surely during the time of his studies in the Yeshiva of Sokolow, he dedicated some of his time to secular studies, and diligently completed studies as a bookkeeper.

He moved from Sokolow to Jandziw[1] or to a nearby village, where his father-in-law owned a mill. Nevertheless, he did not remain in the village for a long time, for during the 1920s, the attacks anti-Semitic ruffians of the N. D. reached their peak of infamy – especially in our area.

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They caused many villagers to uproot themselves from their place to go to the nearby towns.

Reb Alter Wolmer moved to Czyzewo.

He set up his house in a lot next to the post office. He earned his livelihood as an official with the Szopkowicz Brothers Forestry merchants. He later became their partner. Still later, he became the partner in the flourmill of Messrs. Lepek and Szopkowicz.

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Since he was of pleasant manner and liked by people, he quickly stood out and took his place among the honorable families of the town. He also had a recognizable place among the Hassidim of Aleksandrow. His deep knowledge of Torah and holy books, in addition with his broad, variegated general knowledge, earned him a most honorable and prominent place among the community of Hassidim. Everyone revered him. He added to this reverence by slowly earning a place in the wold of Hassidic cantors, since he worshiped wit a sweep voice – at first with Lecha Dodi on Friday nights and at the end as the leader of Shacharit on the High Holy Days.

His excited dynamism in all areas brought him to a strong economic position. His name went before him, and his fame went out as a successful businessman. His abilities stood out everyone, and the “Aleksandrowers” did not hesitate to choose him as their representative in the only “Cooperative Bank” in our town. His place was not missing even on the communal council. Later on, when the influence of the Hassidim of Gur declined, he was elected as the head of the Czyzewo community. He served in that lofty position for many years, and he fulfilled his duty faithfully and responsibly, as befits his uprightness.

The manner of Reb Alter in communal and social affairs was crowned with success. First of all, this was with regard to conducting services, with regard to which this wonderful man brought great satisfaction to hearts and souls.

His home turned into a place that served the community. His faithful wife, Bashka, also gave over a great deal to visitors and those who turned to her for help as the chairwoman of Linat Tzedek. Her efforts were directed to the assistance of the ill and needy, as she concerned herself with arranging hospital

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stays, lending out of sanitary equipment, and cleaning the equipment after it was returned.

czy0781.jpg [13 KB] - Alter Wolmer, his wife, daughter and mother-in-law
Alter Wolmer, his wife,
daughter and mother-in-law

The years of the terrible Holocaust brought Reb Alter Wolmer, together with Reb Zebulun Grosbard (the head of the community and head of the Merchant's Union), and Yehoshua Lepek (one of the chief Zionists and activists of the “Zentus”) to the Judenrat. After Reb Zebulun was fired, Reb Alter filled his place.

He did not take the opportunity to flee and save himself. However, he did attempt to hide his family. He almost chased away his eldest daughter and forced her to flee – however he did not listen to the pleading of his daughter Mirl who urged him to flee. His responsibilities to the community to which he was so faithful removed this thought from him. He preferred to remain with the community and to share in their common fate.

He went on his final journey with the remnants of the Community of Czyzewo. He was taken to Zambrowa and from there to Auschwitz – the vale of murder.

The death of this finest of people breaks the heart.

May his memory be blessed!

czy0069.gif [8 KB]

Translator's Footnote:
  1. I cannot accurately identify this town. Perhaps it is Janiszewo. return

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Reb Szmuel Zeev and Lea Kandel

By Yosfe Kandel (Okon), Yafa Kandel (Grinwald), Yaakov Kandel and Avraham Kandel

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

He was born in Czyzewo in 1887 to his parents Jakob and Sura Rachel. He married Lea (nee Baron) from the nearby town of Zaromb in 1908. She was an intelligent and refined woman, a woman of valor and a dedicated mother who always supported her husband. Thus was our dear mother.

Our father of blessed memory observed tradition and was careful about the commandments. He also worked all of his life to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. He always found time for communal service, in particular with the Mizrachi movement in the town, in which he found content and a purpose for life.

Among other things, his activities to found the Modern Cheder, which would operate in the spirit of the times, must be pointed out. On account of this, he was forced to abandon his regular and beloved place of prayer in the shtibel of the Mszcznow Hassidim. He moved over to worship with the masses in the Great Synagogue, and later to the Szlamburger Shtibel that he established along with Reb Yosel Baruch Lepek.

The flame of Zionism in the prayer “And may our eyes behold your return to Zion” comforted him throughout all of tribulations of life. Four of his six children are found in Israel.

Father, Mother and our two brothers Yitzchak Noach and Chaim Zebulun were brutally murdered by the murderers of our nation in the year 1941. May G-d avenge their blood.

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czy0785.jpg [23 KB] - Szmuel Zeev Kandel, his wife Lea, and four of their children  (two of whom are in Israel)
Szmuel Zeev Kandel, his wife Lea,
and four of their children
(two of whom are in Israel)

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The Lithuanian

by Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Reb Pesach was one of the honorable people of the town. His house was the only one in the entire town that was built with two stories of red brick, in contrast to the other houses that were build of wood. He was very rich, and was liked by all circles in town. He frequented the Hassidic houses. He himself was not a prominent scholar, but he knew very well how

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to cleave to Hassidim. In the middle of one of the bright nights of Elul, prior to the holidays, when the horses were hitched to the wagon and the Hassidim were preparing to travel one by one to travel to the Rebbe, Reb Pesach went along with his splendid suitcase that contained provisions for all of the travelers.

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Our Reb Pesach also had a daughter who reached the age of marriage, and was perhaps even a bit beyond that age. The matchmakers were not quiet and did not rest. They occupied themselves with this matter greatly, but help from Heaven was not forthcoming.

Year after year went by, and a match was not found for the daughter of Reb Pesach. The Hassidim encouraged Reb Pesach and said to him, “Don't worry, forty days prior to the creation of a child, his match is decreed from above. It must be that the proper match is yet to come. One day, the salvation will come with the blink of an eye.”

Indeed, thus it was.

The match from Heaven appeared with all his glory and splendor.

Reb Pesach made a match with an excellent boy from a Lithuanian family, one of the choice ones from the large Lithuanian Yeshivas, whose was known to be an expert scholar.

However, at first it was difficult for Reb Pesach to decide on the matter. How can he bring a Lithuanian into the Shtibel? How could this young man find his place among the Hassidic young men, who speak to each other in the second person and do not treat each other with respect? How would he be able to tolerate seeing a young twenty year old man talking to a ninety year old in familiar language?

However, he had no other way. He had found no other match, and, after all, he always desired to marry off his daughter to a scholar. Therefore, when they advised him about Ben-Zion the Lithuanian, he did not hesitate until he had concluded this fine match.

It was no wonder that everyone talked and was astonished about this match.

The young Hassidic men talked among themselves, “What was Reb Pesach thinking, that he would bring to us a veteran Lithuanian, whose entire essence is formality?”

However the elder Hassidim, who were more levelheaded and broadminded, received with joy the news that, with the help of G-d, Reb Pesach had finally succeeded in finding an expert scholar as a match for his daughter, who would be supported at his table for many years so that he could continue to study Torah.

There was one old man there

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who had himself traveled several times to the Rebbe of Kock. He looked upon this matter positively, and turned to the grumbling young men and said to them:

“Why all the noise? 'Litvaks' should indeed come to us. It is up to you to draw them near, to expose them to the treasures of Hassidism, and to bring them into the Hassidic mysteries.”

The elder continued on, saying, “Remember that when that young man comes to you, whom you call the 'Litvak', you must draw him near and introduce him slowly to our way of life.”

The words of the elder influenced the young man, and they all decided to draw the Lithuanian near, and to make him one of the group.

On the first days after the seven days of celebration[1], when Ben-Zion the Lithuanian entered the Shtibel, he sat in front of a large volume of the Vilna edition of the Talmud that he had received from his father-in-law as a gift, and began to study in the Gemara-melody that is known from the Lithuanian Yeshivas on account of its stress on each syllable – the young men looked upon with wonder and were silent. His methodology of study surprised them. They gave him leeway of a few days to continue with his method. For the first days, they also overlooked his manner of speaking, in which he used the formal style even to a young child. This is nothing – they thought – this is dough that can be kneaded.

Ben-Zion the Lithuanian had all of the character traits of a Hassidic young man. His gait was quick and elastic. His new ideas on Torah that he presented to the young men of the Shtibel testified to his sharpness of mind, brilliance, and exceptional grasp. He disliked verbosity of words, and matters that were off topic. He stated his words in brief and with reason.

He was of middle height. His build was thin and lean. His beard was short and groomed in accordance with custom. He had penetrating, dark eyes. They always exuded a thirst for knowledge; a desire to obtain knew facts that would augment his store of knowledge.

During the first days, he recognized the division between himself and the rest of the young men. Even though he studied his Talmud all day, he silently felt within himself a sort of desire for both worlds. Everything was new to him. He saw Jews who wrapped themselves in tallises and put on tefillin in a manner that was different

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than what he was used to in his youth. All of their customs and manners were different than those he was used to. They all made various strange movements during the time of prayer and study. This one made motions of devotion; the other one paced back and forth, and then went to the corner, with his tallis covering his entire face, and his entire body trembling.

A desire was awakened in his heart to probe into the character of these young men and to understand them. He wished to understand them and their manners. In particular, their camaraderie amazed him, as they sat around the table after the services and drank a cup of “96” liquor, wishing each other blessings from the depths of their hearts. How strange is it, he thought in his heart – for what does liquor have to do with a Beis Midrash, a place where one studies Torah?

From examining them, he realized that all of these young men were cut from one mold. There is no “I” and “you”, just “we”. The “I” is subordinate to the “you”, and the “you” is subordinate to the “I”, and thus they merge into the “we”.

Slowly, a meeting of hearts took place between the young men and the Lithuanian, who began to look on this entire matter with different eyes. The young men began to invite him to the Rosh Chodesh feasts, and on occasion urged him to look into some Hassidic book before going to sleep. Thus, from both directions, the closeness was forged and grew from day to day. There was now only one final barrier between them – the Lithuanian “Misnagdish” education that cannot be uprooted from the heart in one day.

However, the day finally came where this barrier was removed. Ben-Zion the Litvak became completely involved in the life of the Shtibel and became an inseparable part of Hassidic life.

This took place on the heels of his first visit to the Rebbe, along with the other young men, before the holidays. The splendor and glory that pervaded in the court of the Rebbe, and the “still, silent voice” that rose above the thousands of Hassidim, who were crowded together and absorbing each expression with awe – these removed the final obstacle from his heart.

He then understood the concept of “faith in Tzadikim” and finding shelter in the shadow of a Tzadik.

Being in the presence of the Rebbe was equivalent with all of the discussions and statements of the young men before this trip.

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He said to himself, “On occasion, there is a certain unique experience that awakens sublime feelings, which can have more influence than an entire book”.

When he returned from the court of the Rebbe along wit the rest of the group, he felt himself as one of them in every manner, and he told them:

“Please don't continue to call me a Litvak. I am one of you.”

With the passage of time, Ben-Zion ascended the rungs of the ladder of Hassidism and became a pillar of the Shtibel. He was the living spirit of the camaraderie. He was active in charitable matters and in helping those in need. “Lithuanianism” was no longer recognizable in him.

Nevertheless, he continued to be knows as, “Ben-Zion the Lithuanian” among the townspeople.

Translator's Footnote:
  1. Traditionally, seven days of celebration follow a wedding. return

The Waker

by Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Most of the townsfolk did not know him very well. To them, he was a simple Jew, who did not stand out from among the other residents.

The called him Avraham-Chaim the “Kayatz”[1]. This nickname stuck with him for tens of years, and I never thought about looking into the source of this name, for it was used by everybody as if this was his surname.

Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, the market days on which farmers from the entire area filled up the streets and alleys of the town with their wagons and horses, as they brought all sorts of merchandise for sale – Avraham-Chaim would wander around between the wagons of the farmers with the other merchants of the marketplace, touch the sacks and packages, and turn to each farmer with the same question, “What is for sale, mister?”

Avraham-Chaim was not like the other merchants who had special storehouses and would purchase large quantities of grain to fill up their storehouses. He was a small-scale merchant. It was sufficient for him to purchase two or three sacks of wheat, rye or other types of grain on a market day. They sold it to him as if it was especially designated for him. There were those farmers to whom the “Leviathan” merchants did not pay attention to, because their quantity of merchandise was small.

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On those market days, one could see Avraham-Chaim walking through the streets with an empty sack under his arms, or carrying a quarter of a sack full of wheat on his back, bringing it to his own room that served as a dining room, bedroom, kitchen and grain storehouse all together.

The townsfolk would run into him on those days and ask about his wellbeing. He would answer everyone: “Thank G-d, everything is good. May it only be that G-d gives me years to live, and I will certainly not be lacking anything.”

This simple Jew was without any makeup or rouge. His beard had not yet become completely white, which took years off of his withered body. His face was furrowed, and his hands were very callused.

He did not worship in the Shtibel and did not travel to the Rebbe. He also did not attend the Great Synagogue. He was the pillar in the “Chevra Mishnayos” Synagogue – the founder, Gabbai and Shamash all together.

During the time of the lessons, when the householders of the town crowded together around the tables, Avraham-Chaim took a place at the edge of the table near the door. At such times, he gave the impression of a guest who had come for a moment to hear the lesson.

Nevertheless, it was obvious that something was agitating in his heart when he sat at the table with the people attending the Mishna class. This was an internal happiness that enveloped him in the presence of the dozens of householders who were sitting at the tables studying Torah.

During those moments, he would completely forget about his narrow room full of wheat, his barren life and his gray, boring work in the kitchen. He turned his attention away from all of the gentile farmers among whom he circulated and conducted business twice a week. He forgot everything about the life of vanity and physicality. These minutes were to him like his entire life – minutes of boundless spiritual joy, or sublimity and splendor.

The householders of Chevra Mishnayos treated him with appreciation. They valued his extra dedication as a Gabbai and Shamash combined, and attempted to assist him in any way that was possible. However, he refused to accept any help at all. He would say the following to anyone who volunteered to help him sweep the synagogue, or perform any other task:

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“There is no need. This job is upon me, and please do not disturb me, for this work is very pleasant for me.”

He had one special trait. This trait was known to several dozen scholars in the town for many years. We, the nine and ten year old children, found out about it incidentally.

It took place on a winter day. We, eight boys, studied in the large cheder of the town. At that time, we were studying the discussion regarding Rabbi Chanina the deputy Priest in tractate Pesachim – this was a discussion that was totally new to us. Each day, we would enter into the depths of the laws of ritual purity and impurity, and we would be astonished at the various levels of impurity: first degree, second degree, third degree, etc. We were very proud that the Rebbe involved us in such a deep section. We studied all day with diligence. We hid among the recesses of the new halachot. New vistas opened up before us. It was as if we received a short vacation from the Talmudic sections of “Nezikin” (Torts) and “Moed” (Festivals) in order to breathe for a few weeks in clear, pleasant air, among the thick oaks that were planted by Rabbi Chanina the deputy Priest. The new learning refreshed us to such a degree that even the Rebbe recognized a change for the better among us, in our studies and our diligence.

One day, the Rebbe turned to us and said:

“Children! I advise you to wake up for one week at 5:00 a.m. At that time, it is still dark outside, the cold is very strong, and it difficult for children such as yourselves to wake up then, but you must remember the first paragraph in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law): 'Be as strong as a leopard.' You must overcome all of the difficulties and obstacles, for then you will feel the true essence of the study of Gemara. During those early hours, the brain is clear and the mind of man is fresh, as if it was just created. It is possible to understand and grasp everything. I am certain that throughout the week, we will be able to review the entire section about Rabbi Chanina the deputy Priest, and you will know it all thoroughly.”

The words of the Rebbe were a pleasant surprise to us. On the one hand, we desired this type of “exercise” of waking up while it was still night, and trudging through the snow to study. However, on the other hand, the “evil inclination” portrayed to us the strong cold

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that was outside, the deep darkness, and the warm bed that we were to have left prematurely.

“However who will wake us before dawn?”, we asked the Rebbe.

“Leave that concern to me”, answered the Rebbe with a bright face. “If you decide to get up, I will concern myself that there should be somebody to wake you.”

We all agreed to the suggestion of the Rebbe.

We were still children and did not appreciate the value of this decision, for to us, every matter of getting up early on winter nights was seen as a “trick” and nothing real.

We doubted whether the matter would actually come to pass. We thought that it would be impossible to wake us all up at one time. The following question particularly bothered us: who would be the one to accept upon himself such a difficult task, to go around in the darkness and cold of night throughout the city and to wake up the children to study Torah?

However, all of our doubts were resolved. That very night, when I was in a deep sleep, I was suddenly awakened to the sound of a strong knock on the windowpanes next to my bed. I immediately turned my ear, and heard a voice calling:

“Gerszon! It is already ten minutes to five. Get up to study!”

I was completely surprised when I recognized the voice of Avraham-Chaim the “Kayatz”. However, I recovered from my astonishment within a moment. His hoarse voice of the waker hurried me to get out of bed. I got up quickly despite the cold and darkness, as I imagined before eyes the first paragraph of the Shulchan Aruch. I felt myself as a small lair of leopards.

Within the span of a few minutes I washed my hands, got dressed, took my Gemara and flashlight, and hurried to the Beis Midrash of Chevra Mishnayos, the place where our cheder was located.

I thought that I would undoubtedly be the first, for I had hastened to get up without any delay. However, when I arrived at the Beis Midrash, I was surprised to see the Rebbe and the rest of the students waiting for me. At that very moment, the clock on the wall struck five.

We were all emotional, and given over to the experience of waking up before dawn. We were particularly moved

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by the fact that the waker was Avraham-Chaim the “Kayatz”. Even though we were studying the first early-morning lesson with great diligence and with a clear and pleasant frame of mind, we would still glance on occasion to the corner near the lit stove where our “waker” sat, hunched over a book of Psalms, as he was reciting the Psalms of the Son of Jesse with great concentration.

Avraham-Chaim continued on with this tradition for fifteen years. As has been said, only a few special people knew about this, only those who fulfilled the adage, “night was only created for study”. He was the living alarm clock of the town. He would awaken every night at 2:00 a.m. light his kerosene lamp with a small piece of paper, and go out to his holy work.

He would traverse the dark streets and alleys of the town in the midst of the night, and on occasion cut through the night silence with his hoarse, yet strong voice. His route was planned out ahead of time. He woke everyone up at the time that they wanted, having being asked to do so. Thus did the four Beis Midrashes of the town fill up at each night with early rIssers.

The “Kayatz” was diligent in his holy task for fifteen years, and there never was an interruption. In nights of dense fog, during snowstorms, just as in bright, moonlit nights – he would always go out in the same heavy clothes and large boots in order to awaken the Jews to the Divine service.

He never complained about a Jew who did not wake up to his call. He judged him favorably: surely there was a reason. Even on the foggy winter nights when strong winds blew through the town, when almost nobody would be found in the Beis Midrash, he not angry and did not complain. “It is nothing”, he would say. “Even if only one out of ten came, it was worthwhile for me to wake up all ten”.

He did not only expend his efforts for great scholars, but also for schoolchildren. When some Rebbe asked him to awaken several students and a specific time for a specific lesson, he would immediately add the children to his list.

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Thus was there in his heart a strong love for the study of Torah. Thus did he bear the difficult task that he took upon himself, to awaken Torah students to the Divine service. I am certain that he continued on with his task until his final moments, until the terrible destruction of the town.

Translator's Footnote:
  1. The waker. return

The Cantor of the Town

by Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Cantorial issues never affected the town. There was never any need to advertise prior to the High Holy Days that they were searching for a qualified cantor for the Musaf services, as was the case in many other town where the issues surrounding cantors took a very important place.

Reb Eliezer the cantor of the town was a “Cantor” in the full sense of the word. He served as the prayer leader in the Great Beis Midrash and was the cantor of the masses of people in the town, of all of the artisans, merchants, and workshop owners who were not of Hassidic extraction and who had worshipped for generations in the Great Beis Midrash in accordance with the Ashkenazic prayer rite. He was especially the cantor of hundreds of pious women who on the High Holy Days all looked similar to each other, like cherubs with their white, shiny, clear clothing. These were pure and sincere women, who never turned their attention to differences of opinions and the opposing views of Hassidim and Misnagdim, or between the Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Chabad, and Arizal prayer rites. It was the woven prayer of a Jewish woman coming from her heart.

In the women's balcony, which was like a large gallery of pillars that occupied half of the space of the Beis Midrash, all of the women of the town gathered together in one unit, or more accurately – with one heart. There worshipped the wives of the Hassidim and Misnagdim, of the Zionists and Agudists, of the Aleksandrow and Gur Hassidim. When on occasion the modern elements recommended bringing a modern cantor for the High Holy Days, a cantor who knew how to sing with a choir, who worse a tall, velvet hat and held a tuning fork in his hands – the Gabbaim (trustees) of the synagogue would push aside this suggestion immediately, without bringing it to deliberation. For it was sufficient for these Gabbaim to hear the enthusiastic opinion of these women about the prayers of Reb Eliezer, which they found to grow more meaningful and sweeter every year, in order to push aside any recommendation of this nature.

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The songs and melodies of Reb Eliezer the Cantor were the topic of the day among all that came to the Great Synagogue on the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Reb Eliezer was not a “Prayer leader” like Reb Shaul Tzvi in the synagogue of the Gur Hassidim, Reb Jeszaja of the synagogue of the Aleksandrow Hassidim, Reb Baruch the teacher in the synagogue of the Sokolow Hassidim, Reb Yankel Wibitker in “Chevra Mishnayos” or the other prayer leaders of the Hassidic prayer halls of the town. He was called “Reb Eliezer the Cantor” and that was fitting for him. His manner of standing at the prayer podium, his motions and enthusiastic melodies, as well as his clear, fine voice – all of these gave him the character of an experienced, professional cantor. I can still remember the unique image of his face, as if he stands alive before my eyes: He was of average height. He had a dark beard that was divided into two sections. The edges of the sections had turned silver, as if they were singed by the flame of advancing age. His cheeks were thin and sunken, which made his high, wide forehead stand out even further. His eyes were always raised upward, so that your gaze would never meet his. He could chat with you for hours without gazing directly at you with his eyes. He always made the impression on everyone that he had a special relationship with Heaven, a certain soulful attraction.

He occupied himself with his profession all the days of the year – or to be more specific, his wife and daughters worked at their profession – the baking of black rye. This bakery was called by his name: the Bakery of Reb Eliezer, even though he himself did not know how to place dough into a bucket.

His only occupation was to assist from time to time some sort of good deed in order to ease the burden upon some person. He spent the rest of his time in the Hassidic synagogue or in the Beis Midrash in front of an open book, as he silently hummed heartwarming melodies. He was always engrossed in thought. When he walked along the way, when he was standing, when he was sitting with a book, his thoughts always enveloped him completely. He always seemed like one who was caught in a place that was not his own, as if he was a wanderer in a strange place. For what was the purpose of all of the days and nights of the year, when it was impossible to pour himself out before the podium with prayers and supplications to the Holy One Blessed Be He, and to express the feelings of the heart and soul with such heartwarming and awe-inspiring hymns?

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Indeed, this was the nature of Reb Eliezer the Cantor. It was as if his soul was created on the six days of creation for the sole purpose of the prayers on the High Holy Days, and the purpose of his life was only for those pleasant Musaf services that he performed with his voice in the town. Therefore, his life throughout the year was like a life lacking in content. Only as the High Holy Days neared, when Ahron the Shamash announced on Friday night his traditional announcement that on Saturday night at midnight, the Selichot service would take place, did the fire of life burn n the eyes of Reb Eliezer. His eyes appeared as burning coals.

To what is this similar? It is like a fish that is taken out of water, that flutters about and struggles bitterly as it does not have a drop of water to breathe. At the moment that it is returned to the water, it turns immediately into a new creature, influenced with pleasant, effervescent life.

Those days, the days of Selichot and the Ten Days of Penitence, were to him like the source of living waters, clear, fresh water, which restored his soul to its full life. Then, all of the melodies and tunes that were hidden away all year in the recesses of his heart were reawakened, and began to break out.

During those days, when he sat in his home, when he ate his meals, when he walked around the streets looking for a good deed to perform, one could hear from his mouth the pleasant melody of a hymn or a prayer. This was a sort of practice, a preparation for the High Holy Days, when the tune would break out with its full strength and sweetness.

Reb Eliezer did not conduct himself like other cantors, who would practice for many weeks with a choir prior to the High Holy Days, in order that the prayers should sound “just so”. He did not follow this pattern. He would say, “A cantor does not perform tricks. He has to prepare his heart, and the tunes and melodies would come out properly.”

The impression of those High Holy Days is still etched deep inside of me. The synagogue was filled to the brim, especially on Yom Kippur when even the “barber”, the only Sabbath desecrator in the city, was not missing. All of the worshippers were dressed in festive clothing. Meir and Binyumche, the two well-known water drawers whose characteristic pictures were publicized by the American “gazettes”, were seated next to the western table. Behind them were the porters

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and wagon drivers, who used to worship at the early Minyan, before sunrise, throughout the year. The women of the town peered through the windows of the women's gallery at the large congregation and the cantor standing next to the podium like a conductor. The cantor was standing there, his face like an angel, covered in his white Kitel and his Tallis that was decorated with many silver decorations. He was assisted by his two sons. He supplicated, sang pleasant melodies and poured out his prayers as an emissary of the congregation standing before the Holy One Blessed Be He.

Reb Eliezer composed new, original tunes for “Kevakarat”, and “Heyey Im Pipiyot”[1], etc. The congregation of worshippers reached the peak of emotion as he recited the hymn “Eleh Ezkera Venafshi Elay Esphecha”, whose theme is the Ten Martyrs of the Roman Government. His voice was soft or was weeping as he poured out his heart to all of the themes described in the moving words. The men and women of the congregation wept together with him.

Reb Eliezer was weak by nature. His shriveled and lean body always suffered from various ailments. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he poured out his entire essence and blood in his prayers, the High Holy Days were to him the source of health and strength. It was as if he did not live throughout the year except for the merit of these days.

Reb Eliezer's tenure lasted for tens of years without interruption. Throughout those years, he bestowed the best of his melodies, enchanting tunes and heartwarming singing upon our townsfolk, until that bitter and violent day when they were all brought to slaughter and buried in a large communal grave. Then Reb Eliezer the Cantor perished as well, may G-d avenge his death, and his voice was silenced forever.

Translator's Footnote:
  1. These are two segments of the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. return

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In the Sukkah of Reb Itzel

By Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Reb Itzel's father, Yedidya, was one of the simple householders of the town, whose knowledge of the “small letters”[1] was very weak. He was one of the worshippers of the first minyan [prayer group] in the large synagogue, along with the rest of the tradesmen, peddlers, and craftsmen. He would participate in the recitation of Psalms on a daily basis. In the evening, after the Maariv service, he would sit at the edge of the table of those who studied Ein Yaakov[2], and pay attention. The legends that he heard at that time would remain etched in his memory, and would later bring him a benefit in his livelihood. There were indeed many legends that were too complicated for his understanding, but he believed them

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in a straightforward fashion, for they were secrets of Torah that are only clear to scholars and people of good deeds.

He would earn his livelihood from the market days of the town, particularly from his business with the gentile[3] farmers. There was nothing that a farmer brought to town for which Yedidya did not know the price and did not purchase. He would buy all types of grain, legumes, butter, eggs, and fruit. He would also buy the textiles of the farmers, used clothing, empty sacks, and all types of furniture. Even wagons laden with wood for the winter or potatoes, honey, and wax – were valid items of merchandise for him.

Yedidya was expert in the language of the farmers. He understood their spirit, and knew how to draw them near. Often the statements of the sages, which he would tell over in the language of the gentiles, would serve as a tried–and–true means of obtaining their merchandise at a fair price, and often for a much cheaper price than the farmers were accustomed to receiving from other Jews. For the gentiles loved to chat with him, and he knew how to capture their hearts with his intelligent, sweet talk.

He was called by them “Yedidya the Wise.” Indeed, Yedidya was a wise, intelligent Jew, who grasped everything clearly and delved into the depths of matters of his fellow.

He was of average height. His body was gaunt, and he wore spectacles over his eyes. For the most part, his spectacles were tied to one of his ears with a string. His gait was slow and deliberate, and his words were weighed and measured. He did not like chatter and plays of words. Anything he said was stated briefly and to the point. His wisdom was in that he knew how to be brief and hit his mark. He could influence any person, Jew or gentile, with one word.

His eyes would also participate in his art of speaking. At times, when someone was trying to blame him for something or simply being lighthearted with him, it would be sufficient for him to place his spectacles on his forehead and give him a stare or a wink for the other person to lower his eyes in embarrassment.

Nevertheless, with all these traits, he did not succeed in become wealthy. His livelihood was earned with difficulty and in a meager fashion.

He sensed a lack in study of Torah even more than a lack of money. In his inner heart, he longed to become a scholar

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through the influence of the worshippers of the shtibels who would travel to the rebbe. Therefore, he attempted with all his energy to rectify this lack through his only son, Reb Itzel. Even though he was far from being wealthy, he gave his son over to the best teachers in the town, with whom only the children of the wealthy studied. He was indeed helped from heaven, and Reb Itzel grew up and became a serious scholar.

As is known, “a son takes after the father,” and “the deeds of the fathers are a portent for the children.” Aside from being a fine scholar, Reb Itzel inherited his father's traits and excelled with his intelligence. He was involved in the life of the town. Aside from that, the events of the world at large came his way. Even though he was a G–d fearing Jew who was exacting with the light and difficult commandments, he absorbed the knowledge of the world at large, and would at times peruse the news in the Hebrew newspapers, such as Hatzefira and others. Incidentally, he would also glance at the words of literature written there. These things would shake him up deeply, and he would mutter to himself, “Complete heresy… of the students of Moshe the Dasoi”[4]

He became very extreme because his knowledge of the secular world, and if they would refer to secular books as wicked a sinful in the Hassidic House, he would add many more sharp words to the description.

“These are not just wicked or sinful. They incite people to apostacy, Heaven forbid, and one must keep far away from them.”

In the Hassidic House, Reb Itzel was the only one who brought news of the outside world. He would add his own commentary in accordance with his world outlook. Everyone liked to be near him. During the break between services and study, or late in the evening, many would gather around him and drink up his words with thirst.

It was a spiritual pleasure to listen to his discussions on various matters, such as Hassidic issues, stories of Tzadikim, political events of those days, or on the deeds of the maskilim who were destroyed the vineyard of Israel[5]. He would always spice his words with a statement of the sages or with the incidental words of scholars.

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It fell to the lot of Reb Itzel, who specifically knew the source of evil, who understood the world of Haskalah and was alert more than anyone else in town to the danger lurking for anyone who has contact with that world, and who zealously opposed the reading of outside books and books of Haskalah – to be stricken by this plague in his own home. Baruch, the oldest of his eight children, looked into the outside books and was damaged…

One could not notice anything in the home. Baruch – or as he was called: Butsha – was apparently a lad like all other lads of the shtibel. He wore Hassidic garb and observed all the commandments of the Torah. He would also read a great deal of Hassidic books and stories of Tzadikim – books which his father provided him in abundance. Even so, his father noticed with his sharp eye that some sort of change took place in his manner of thinking, and some sort of strong internal ferment was taking place. He began to follow him with open eyes and to pay attention to any word that came from his mouth, until one day the cat came out of the bag, and the mask was removed from the face of his son. That took place on the holiday of Sukkot.

Reb Itzel's Sukkah was known throughout the town, not because it was graced with special beauty and eye–catching decorations. In these matters, Reb Itzel's Sukkah did not stand out from the other sukkot in town. It too was built from several old boards and covered with branches from the two trees that grew in his yard and was designated for this purpose. The uniqueness of Reb Itzel's Sukkah was that it was large enough to hold several minyanim [tens], and was designated to serve the needs of all the neighbors around him. On the eve of the festival, when the framework of the Sukkah was set up, all the neighbors would gather, fathers and children. Each would bring their contribution to the Sukkah of Reb Itzel. Some brought branches, others brought paper decorations, others brought carpets and white tablecloths, while still others brought poles and planks to finish off the Sukkah. At that time, Reb Itzel would stroll in his Sukkah as an expert builder, giving orders to his workers. He supervised the work with all its detail, and ensured that all the laws pertaining to the Sukkah would be followed. On the one hand, he wished that his Sukkah would exemplify all his “erudition,” and would demonstrate the laws of Levud, dofen akuma, tzurat

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hapetach,[6] etc. On the other hand, he wanted his Sukkah to be kosher according to the most stringent viewpoints. At the end, he blended everything together. Within a few hours, his Sukkah was ready and prepared for the neighbors.

This was the procedures for the Sukkah of Reb Itzel every year.

On the night of the festival, immediately after Maariv, all the neighbors would gather in his Sukkah, which had enough space for 30 people. Reb Itzel sat at the head of the table, wearing a black, velvet hat on his head, surrounded by his eight children. Behind him sat the neighbors with their children – approximately 20 additional people. All partook of the festival meal together. There were long breaks between each course, since the housewives had to bring the food from their distant homes. Reb Itzel would utilize those times to deliver pleasant words of Torah as well as stories related to issues of the day.

After the Grace After Meals, the children and simple householders exited the Sukkah, leaving behind only about ten scholarly Jews to fulfil the commandment of sitting in the Sukkah, as is written “you should dwell there as you normally live.” Then Reb Itzel renewed his rich treasury. This time, he discussed more lofty and sublime matters, for he knew that his audience consisted of scholarly Jews at his level. He would bring his listeners into the world of kabbalah, the mysteries of the Zohar, and the ten spheres; or he would bring them into the forests of the Baal Shem tov or the tables of Tzadikim. At times, he would discuss didactics related to issues of the festival, or open the window of the world at large to them as he would discuss the maskilim and the perverters of religion. These discussions would extend for many hours. At times, people would go directly from the Sukkah to the mikva, since dawn was breaking and it was not worthwhile to go to sleep.

On that festival night, the meal was taking place as always. Reb Itzel delivered his Torah discussions as usual, and nothing special was noticed. At the end of the meal, most of those present left the Sukkah, and only Reb Itzel's cronies remained. Reb Itzel did not say anything for a long time, for he was immersed in his thoughts. Those at the meal

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waited in anticipation. However, it was as if he had become mute. It was obvious that something was bothering him.

He suddenly became aroused, turned to the others, and said:

“This time, I will tell you a story that happened to me, in my house. The event itself is nothing to be happy or proud of, but it is appropriate that everyone know about it, so that one can keep away from evil and guard one's house carefully.”

“The topic is a about my eldest son Butcha,” continued Reb Itzel after a deep sigh. “I have known for a long time that something was not proper with this son. I was suspicious that he was reading outside books, but I could not catch him in the act. Once, a few days before Sukkot, late at night, I went to his bookshelf to get a specific book. To my great surprise, I found a book written in Hebrew, which I opened and recognized as an outside book. It was written by a well–known maskil. I realized immediately that he had forgotten about it and left the book among the rest of his books. I said to myself: “I will look into it and see what is this poison that these books imbue to their readers.” I read a story that could apparently have been written in holy books. It was a story about a Jew who was sanctifying the moon with holy intentions. The book describes the Jews in a nice fashion, as a Hassid and a holy person, and the moon as a creation of G–d, Who lights up the face of the Jew as he sanctifies it, and listens to every prayer and every verse that emanates from him. As I was reading, I almost turned into a follower of that book. However, I knew that “A Torah scroll written by a heretic should be burned,” and how much more so such a book. I decided to look through it and to search for the heresy and impurity that they bring into the holy – until I found it. After all his fine and heartfelt descriptions, the writer ends his story with a brief sentence, that when the Jew returned home, he was killed… It is easy to understand his improper intention. The sages have said that the sanctification of the moon saves a Jew from a strange death. This heretic came and invented a story to contradict the words of our sages. The worst thing is that he began with nice words in order to capture the hearts of the pure youth.”

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After a bit of time, Reb Itzel continued to relate:

“That night, I turned on the winter oven, I ignited a bit of paper which contained ashes from the oven, I poured kerosene on the ashes, I place the book upon it, and set it on fire. This was in order to fulfil the command, “A Torah scroll written by a heretic should be burned.”

Reb Itzel continued to discuss a great deal about this topic, instructing his listeners how to guard and protect themselves from the net of the Haskalah.

When the conversation ended and all those at the feast returned to their homes, Reb Itzel felt an easing in his heart. He felt a bit calmer, for this matter weighed upon him like a heavy load. Since he discussed what was on his heart and warned his listeners of the danger of secular literature, he felt as if the load has been removed. He sighed a calm sigh.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. The “small letters” refers to the rabbinical commentaries and glosses on the Talmud and codes of laws, generally written in smaller font than the main text. return
  2. An anthology of the aggadaic lore as opposed to legalistic] material of the Talmud. return
  3. The word used here for gentiles is arelim, literally “uncircumcised,” implying a slightly derogatory tone. return
  4. Referring to Moses Mendelsohn who was born in Dessau. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Mendelssohn return
  5. i.e destroying the purity of Judaism. return
  6. Levud – that if there are spaces in the walls below a certain width, the wall remains valid; dofen akuma – that if the schach (foliage cover of a sukka) does not extend all the way to the wall, and the space without schach is covered by some covering, the wall is considered to be valid, but one may not sit under the covered area; tzurat hapetach (literally: form of a door), that if a wall has an opening in the form of a doorway, with two doorposts and a lintel, it does not invalidate the wall. return

The Prayer Leader

By Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

That morning, we felt a change in everybody. Apparently, no change was noticeable. The studies took place as every day – the same Gemara, the same Talmudic discussion, and the same names of the Talmudic sages. However, the tune of the studies changed. The melody was different.

Even the atmosphere in the cheder was different from the usual. The echoes of the new studies touched the hearts of each of us. We felt that a new period of time had begun. We entered a period of seriousness and self–reflection.

We were still young and tender. It was before we got to know the world, and its various sins and iniquities. That trembling of the soul that awakens in the hearts of adults, as they go into seclusion with their souls, in moments of self–reflection – that was still strange to our hearts. For what business do we have with reckoning of sins and feelings of repentance?

We were already three years old, and we were hitched to the yoke of Torah, as all children of the towns in those days. We studied prayer, Chumash, and Gemara. We did not know any other studies. We were connected to the rebbe, the cheder, Chumash, and Gemara from morning until evening. Was there any place for self–reflection and thoughts of repentance in the hearts of children such as us, students of the cheder of Reb Shaul–Tzvi?

Despite this, we felt as if some change had taken place inside us that morning.

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Our rebbe, Rabbi Shaul–Tzvi, would start every day before the Gemara class with a joke, a pleasant statement, or a regular short story. However, this time, the rebbe had a serious look on his face, and he said with emotion:

“Children! Today, the month of Elul begins. Starting from today until after Yom Kippur, even the fish in the water tremble from fear of the Day of Judgment. Every one of you must, therefore, increase your diligence in the study of Torah, pray with more intention, recite many Psalms, and get up early every morning for Selichot. Remember do not forget, today is Rosh Chodesh Elul!”

From that morning onward, Reb Shaul–Tzvi taught us with a melody that shook up the heart, unlike every day. The statement, “the rabbis teach”[1] had a unique ring to it, arousing latent feelings in the heart.

Everything changed. It was like a new creation.

The Talmudic discussion of “one who exchanges a cow for a donkey”[2] was blended with the tunes of “The soul is Yours and the body is Your handiwork[3]. The Talmudic discussion of “Abandonment without awareness” blended with the tunes of “Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar”[4].

Even our day–to–day conversations were more enthusiastic and soulful.

For Reb Shaul–Tzvi, the entire month of Elul was a sort of lengthy Rosh Hashanah. Since he was the prayer leader in the shtibel, the representative of the congregation of those Hassidim and people of good deeds, and in his modesty, he did not feel that he could even reach the ankles of any of them – he already began his holy work from the beginning of Elul.

He was not a cantor. He did not sing lengthy tunes or repeat each word two or three times. He was also not one of those prayer leaders who fit melodies into the prayers.

“G–d wants the heart,” he would say. “The main thing is the heart, the feeling.” One must pronounce and enunciate the proper words with which we plead and supplicate before the Holy One Blessed Be He.”

This was his primary power as a prayer leader.

When he would teach us Gemara and Tosafot, he would include the echoes of the Selichot and the prayers in the lesson, to arouse our tender hearts and instill the seriousness of the month of Elul and the High Holidays into them. During recess or

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at times when we would review the lessons, he would open the large machzor [holiday prayer book] adorned with various commentators, and study carefully all the hymns and prayers, to understand their meaning and delve into the depths of their intentions.

Indeed, song and melodies are good before the Holy One Blessed Be He, but only when it comes hand–in–hand with the supplications of the heart and prayer that bursts forth from the recesses of the soul.

Therefore, Reb Shaul–Tzvi did not place the emphasis on the melody itself, but rather on understanding the prayers and hymns. He did not enchant his listeners on account of the tunes – even though they were very pleasant and sweet to the ear – but primarily with his heartfelt singing, full of emotion, as if he was “explaining” the content of the words coming from his mouth.

I remember the day after that day, when I was completely under the influence of our rebbe Reb Shaul–Tzvi, when I had felt the special atmosphere of Elul for the first time. I got up early, went myself to the river at the edge of the town, a small tributary of the Bug, and stood at the bank for about half an hour. I contemplated its clear waters that flowed peacefully, with the current speeding up in the morning and the early evening, as they passed the “Kessel Grob” (Kettle Pit) (a deep place in the river outside the town), flowing toward the village of Rus.

With special attention, I followed after the school of fish swimming in the middle of the river. I saw and felt the trembling passing through the water as they swam to and fro in the water.

This vision illustrated before my childlike eyes the words of the rebbe:

“During the month of Elul, even the fish in the water tremble from the fear of the Day of Judgment.”

Every day, the rebbe dedicated a special period of time to explain the Selichot and hymns of the High Holy Days.

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On such a day, Elul left its mark on the entire town as well, as the people greeted it with an investigation of their deeds and thoughts of repentance.

The synagogues were filled more than usual. Many attendees were tradesmen and merchants who were often absent from the synagogue due to their occupations. However, they came to the three daily prayers every day during Elul. Idle conversation between people was minimized. Relations between people became more heartfelt and more imbued with mutual trust.

The ambience of Elul was felt the most within the walls of the Hassidic Shtibel. The sounds of Torah burst forth from it day and night. The number of those delving into Hassidic books continually increased. The young men began to look into their deeds and make an accounting of their souls. As they prepared their souls for the advent of the Days of Awe, their hearts were filled with longing and anticipation for the prayers of the prayer leader Reb Shaul–Tzvi. Everyone waited impatiently for the first Selichot – for that hour in the. middle of the night when Reb Shaul–Tzvi would sound his voice that penetrates the innards and the heart.

This hour arrived.

On Saturday night in the middle of the night, the Hassidic House was overflowing with worshippers, elderly and young adults, youths, and children, all still wearing their Sabbath clothing. Gartels and peyos were waving in all directions due to the longing for devotion and emotion. Then a middle–aged Jew came forth from the congregation and ascended the prayer podium. He had a thin body, pale, wrinkled face, eyes burning like fire, and thin, trembling beard. When he reached the podium, he stood bent over, exemplifying his modesty and broken heart. This was the prayer leader Reb Shaul–Tzvi.

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Yisgadal Veyidkadash…”[5] His voice carried through the space of the prayer hall, and the words were enunciated with the special melody, without decorations and screeches, as if they rose up themselves from the depths of the heart and immediately penetrated the hearts of everybody.

“Unto You, Oh L–rd, is righteousness…”

The enthusiasm increased. The voice of the prayer leader rose from time to time, and a holy awe filled all the worshippers. Every person imagined that the cantor directed his enthusiastic, penetrating voice directly to the individual alone.

“Unto You is the day, and even the night, You prepare the lights and the sun.”

“Unto You is the heavens, and even the earth is Yours, You laid the foundation for the earth and all therein.”

Here, his voice rose over all the other voices, and his wonderful intonation captured the sublime moments expressed by those verses. “Unto You is the heavens, and even the earth is Yours” – so clear and understandable are the words.

It was if a magic wand brought all the wonders of nature – the burning heat of the summer and the depth of the cold of the winter, the mighty Leviathan, the sea and its waves, the mighty rivers, the large serpents, and all the mysteries of nature –– before the shtibel, to the eyes of the congregation of which he was its emissary. It was as if he showed them how the waves break up, how the rivers and seas dry up, and the heads of the Leviathans shudder under His wondrous providence; by the sublime, elevated “You”[6] before Whom everybody is pouring out their hearts, and from whom they are asking forgiveness before the Day of Judgment that is approaching.

Thus was the prayer of Reb Shaul–Tzvi. He did not follow the normative path of all cantors, but rather knew how to emphasize

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and to enunciate properly specifically the sections that no cantor pays attention to. This was the grandeur of his influence.

This was a recitation of “Hebrew” more than a cantorial rendition. Just as with Selichot, he would enunciate each words of the High Holiday prayers with sweetness, as he breathed a soul and living spirit into each verse.

Many roles were placed upon him: he was a teacher of children, a prayer leader, an advisor and leader in all aspects of the Aguda, an activist in matters of Beis Yaakov[7], a director of Gemilut Chasadim [charitable fund] into which he invested the best of his energy and efforts. However, his primary praiseworthiness came through the merit of his prayers. He gained renown throughout the entire area by virtue of being an exemplary prayer leader.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. A common introduction to a Talmudic discussion. return
  2. Mishnah Bava Metzia 7:4. return
  3. A section of the Selichot [penitential] service of the High Holy Day season. return
  4. Three sections of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service. return
  5. The opening words of the Kaddish, sung with a special, powerful melody on the High Holy Days. return
  6. The “You” in this verse refers to G–d. These opening verses of the Selichot service, describing G–d's control over nature, are taken from Psalms 74. return
  7. An Orthodox girls' school. return

Shmuele the Walker

By Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Nobody knew how or when he arrived in the town. He snuck into town several decades previously without anyone knowing, as one of the groups of beggars who made the rounds to the doors. Like them, he too made the rounds to the doors of the town that winter to collect donations. He also extended his hand in the various Beis Midrashes of the town. He would sleep in the poorhouse at night along with the other indigents. Nobody paid any attention to him, and nobody cared whether he remained in town or left along with a group of wandering paupers.

Just has his arrival was unknown, without arousing any attention, so was his sojourn in town, which was without any impression or notice. Nobody cared about him or followed him.

Like a shadow of a passing image, he would appear every day in the synagogue during the early hours of the morning. With silent steps, he would slink over to the table next to the western wall, the place of the simple Jews, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. He would recite the Shacharit service in his regular corner, and then recited several chapters of Psalms. Immediately thereafter, he disappeared, and nobody saw him until the next morning, at the same time and in the same corner.

Nobody took interest in him, not when he arrived and not when he left. Nobody was curious to known why this itinerant pauper

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set up residence in this town, after spending tens of years living the life of a wanderer.

He was always immersed within himself, and fully enveloped with secrecy and mystery. He never spoke to anybody, or raised his eyes to look at anybody. He also stopped making the rounds to the doors and sticking out his hand for donations, as if he had suddenly become wealthy, and had some wonderful treasury of gold and pearls in his wanderer's sack that was always on his back.

Indeed, he actually became wealthy in town. He displayed a treasury of energy, power, and work, and he used this treasury to its fullest extent. That treasury was precious and important to him more than all the treasuries of gold and silver.

A desire to work, to earn his livelihood through the sweat of his brow and to earn his bread in truth and uprightness arose in him while he was living in town. He started to work in the tzitzit [ritual fringes] factory. He did not concern himself with wages, nor did he take interest in work hours. He made no conditions. He worked in accordance with the verse, “In the morning, man goes out to work and labor until evening.”[1].

He would sit all day next to the spinning wheel, and spin the wheel incessantly, producing large quantities of wool strings with the machine that would serve for the production of the tzitzit.

He was closed into himself at the workshop as well, as if he locked his heart with seven locks. He did not exchange a word with any person during all the work hours. The only sound that could be heard from his mouth was the sound of sighing and groaning that burst forth from the depths of his soul from time to time.

His heart told him that his personal secret cannot be told. Nobody must know that a small piece of paper with a small notebook waved fluttered atop his stormy heart, below his cloak, as he turned the spinning wheel.

Given that this was a secret, it was necessary to be quiet and lock his lips forever. Thus, he spent his final years next to the spinning wheel in a remote place, far from his place of birth, in constant muteness.

All this had to happen.

If he made a decision on that decisive day, and if those numbered words were already etched on that small note – that nobody will read

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until after he left the town for good – he was dutybound to guard the second item related to this, that I the complete science, the decisive muteness.

Days, months, and years passed, and that stranger who arrived in town from afar guarded his secret, maintaining his daily routine. He never left his regular place next to the western wall in the synagogue, and next to the spinning wheel in the tzitzit factory. Similarly, the “small note” never left the region of his heart – the small ledger with the note that caused a change in his life and turned him into a different person, a person who bears the obligation of mystery, and upon whom quiet had been decreed for all the days of his life.

The tragic day finally arrived when the deep secret became known to everybody. He was childless and isolated in his death. He gave up his soul in the workshop, among thousands of bundles of wool, next to the spinning wheel. Incidentally, the wheel was spinning.

For the town, however, his death lifted the veil from his secret. It quickly became a wonderful legend, that became a point of conversation for men, women, and children for many years.

Now, the riddle that perplexed many people was solved: For whom did he work? Why did he dedicate all his energy to his work, when one work day per week would have been sufficient to provide for his meager livelihood?

This is what was written on that note attached the small ledger:

“Here I am, alone and abandoned, without a wife and children. I have wandered in cities and towns, made the rounds from door to door, collected donations, and gathered coin after coin. I deposited everything in the post office, as is listed in the loan ledger. Finally, I started working in the tzitzit factory and increased my income. After my death, I bequeath this entire treasure

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to this town, to build a Talmud Torah to educate young students, so that this will be my final legacy after my kaddish…”

He came to town anonymously, along with a group of wandering paupers. He lived in the town for decades as an anonymous person shrouded in mystery, surrounding himself by utter silence. However, after his death, he became famous throughout the town and the region, thanks to the Talmud Torah building that was built from his money, which flourished into an institution of pride.

Translator's Footnote:
  1. Psalms 104:23 return

Flocks of Holy Ones

By Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

The townsfolk waited impatiently for the festival of Simchat Torah. The elderly, middle aged people, and especially the “white crowd” – the six or seven–year–old children, and even younger ones – all waited.

That day, it was as if the entire town, with its houses, streets, stones, and clods of earth, turned into one splendid celebration.

Everyone, without exception, from all strata, classes, and groups of the town, celebrated that splendid holiday.

The worshippers of the Beis Midrash, the simple Jews of the entire year, the tradesmen, tailors, shoemakers, porters, hewers of wood and drawers of water, did not understand the intentions and internal depth of the festival. For them, it was simple! Jews were rejoicing with the Torah, and therefore they danced in the Torah processions, kissed the Torah scrolls with awe and love, and paid dearly for the chatanim[1]. Everyone made sure to get an aliya to the Torah. Then, the celebrated a Kiddush together, with the gabbai [synagogue trustee], the head of their community, as they rejoiced.

To them, Torah was simple. They would put on their tefillin, recite the three daily prayers, recite a chapter of Psalms, and that was the entire Torah – the written Torah, the oral Torah, with all the commentaries around them.

The worshippers of the study groups already felt more sublime feelings on Simchat Torah. The Ein Yaakov and Mishnah study groups already felt the sweetness of Torah the entire year. Therefore, to them the Torah scrolls were not white parchment with holy black letters, but rather all their studies

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from the entire year – the legends told by the teacher of the class, the feeling of the study of Torah, times and seasons – all of this came before them on the day of Simchat Torah. In honor of this, they organized a large Kiddush in their Beis Midrash, and sang and danced almost all day.

After the simple, pure Jews moved the celebration to the Hassidic House, where the festival encountered its full fulfilment. There, they unified the “body” and “soul” of the festival. The festival spread forth from there. It burst forth from the narrow confines of the synagogue and Beis Midrash, and moved to the street, outside, to the town under the skies, and even amongst the uncircumcised gentiles.

Avraham Yosel the teacher was almost the only one who brought the festival of the Torah to the outside. The uncircumcised gentiles came from the villages to see him at his work.

He was a short Jew with a beard divided into three parts – a bit of hair under his chin, and two bundles of hair coming out of his two jaws, as a segol symbol.

He earned his livelihood as a teacher of young children from those days. That is to say, he lived a life of poverty and want, living in a one room with his large family. The children of his cheder also studied with him in that room.

However, none of this is interesting to our topic. The main essence of Avraham Yosel was in the shtibel in the Hassidic house. There, he was no longer a teacher, and a poor, suffering Jew. There he was the head, the leader, the educator, and the guide.

He sat in one place in the shtibel, and could not restrict himself to sitting next to a book for a half or quarter of an hour. Rather, he was always in motion and wandering around.

He opened a book, placed it on the table, looked into it for a moment or two, and began to pace to and fro without stopping. He then looked into the book again, and again wandered about… From time to time, he would utter some sort of silent moan, or raise his hands above.

This was his way of study.

All the books of Hassidism and Kabbalah were clear to him. He knew many chapters of Zohar by heart. At times it seemed that he lay down on the bench in the shtibel, and rested

[Column 814]

with closed eyes late at night. In truth, he was reviewing then what he had studied as he was wandering about a brief time before.

His work in the shtibel was primarily with the young men, the “blossoming Hassidim.” He had to direct them in the path of Hassidism, and bring them into its main room.

Therefore, we could meet him suddenly when he was strolling with some new young man who had recently arrived in town to be supported at the table of his father–in–law. He would stroll with him and explain the way of life to him.

Throughout the year, one could not notice any special feelings of joy on his face or through his way of life. His strange mannerisms in the Hassidic House, his way off study, his many quiet discussions with the young Hassidim, his constant delving into books of Hassidism and Kabbalah imparted a serious appearance to his face. This was despite the fact that he was always among the initiators and activists for communal meals, such as the Rosh Chodesh feast, the Melave Malka meal, or a regular meal among friends in which one could delve into Hassidism and the service of G–d.

The day of Simchat Torah was different. On that day, Avraham Yosel the Teacher went outside his usual bounds. He was no longer as he was, he was not a teacher, a Hassid, a Kabbalist, or a guide to the older lads that day. On that day, he took on a special cloak, the cloak of Simchat Torah.

The following was the order or his day, or more accurately, the order of his service, similar to the service of the High Priest.

Simchat Torah [Rejoicing of the Torah]– that was the name of the festival. Therefore, one had to toss out all bad events from the face, and one had to begin to rejoice, to dance, and to celebrate with the Torah.

Already on the eve of Simchat Torah, Avraham Yosel the teacher would turn the Hassidic House into a sort of wedding hall in which people would rejoice under the canopy of the Torah.

[Column 815]

Already before the processions and before the services, they would bring out wine and liquor. Avraham Yosel would direct the activity, distributing a portion to everyone, and forcibly bringing them into the dance circle in the Hassidic House. He danced, sang, jumped, shouted, and responded to every shout, every commotion, with the following words echoing after every verse:

“Simchat Torah – Simchat Torah.”

He barely slept that night, and did not let many of his lads sleep, for how could one sleep. The day was short, the work was great, and one must rejoice. It is a commandment to rejoice, and what joy, and what festival – other than Simchat Torah.

One the day of Simchat Torah, his primary role, for which he had a tradition for a long time – on that day when he became the shepherd of the holy flock and the patron of the young children who were standing under the tallis for Kol HaNearim[2] – was to concern himself with them so that they would not miss out on anything on that day.

As was his way in holy matters, on that day he went from Kiddush to Kiddush. His mouth did not stop that day. He did not go alone, but rather with his entire entourage. About 30 or 40 children accompanied him all day. Their parents knew about this, and granted special permission for them to go with him. He brought them into every place where a Simchat Torah Kiddush was taking place. He looked after them as a faithful shepherd. He took charge in every place. He became the distributor. He distributed the first portions to his “holy flock.” The young ones followed after him like sheep following the shepherd.

When the Kiddush participants formed a circle and the dancing reached it pinnacle, he raised his voice in ecstasy, and directed his words to his entourage, who joined him in the dance:

“Who are you?”

“The holy flock.”

“And does the flock say?”

“Meeh, meeh, meeh.”

[Column 816]

The dance then continued on.

That is how he brought them from place to place throughout the entire day, until after they had already concluded the Mincha service with his group in some final place toward evening. Then they finished the final Kiddush. He then went out with them all to the main street of the town. Then almost all the townsfolk, including the gentile men and women who were standing at the side, knew that Avraham Yosel the teacher was about to conclude the Simchat Torah festivities.

He conducted and led his flock, the flock that he tended.

Again, the same thing, the continuation of what happened previously.

“Who are you?”

“The holy flock.”

“And what does the flock say?”

“Meeh, meeh, meeh.”

All the bystanders on the street joined his entourage in the responses of “the holy flock,” and the shouts of “meeh, meeh, meeh.” Even the gentiles assisted in the shouts of “meeh, meeh, meeh.”

The voice of Avraham Yosel the teacher continued for over an hour, and for more than the hour, the responses of the children of the “holy flock” resonated through the atmosphere of the town.

Each year, it was the tradition of Avraham Yosel the teacher to celebrate Simchat Torah with the children, and to imbue their hearts with waves of joy. In order to influence them, he descended from his staircase, attired himself before them as a shepherd, and continued to present his questions to them, in order to receive their faithful response – the response of the children of Israel, the response of the pure, clear souls and hearts, responding the clear answer to the entire area on the festival of the Torah:

“Who are you?”

“The holy flock.”

It is no wonder, therefore, that the name of Avraham Yosel the teacher, Avraham Yosel the master of the “holy flock” was guarded in the mouths of these children, the “white group” of the town.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. The special Simchat Torah honors of being called to conclude the annual cycle of Torah reading, and begin the new cycle. return
  2. The portion of the service when all the children are called up in unison to the reading of the Torah. return


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