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[Column 657][1]

Lamentation and Tears

Translated by Yael Chaver

My father, Rabbi Avrom Abeleh HaCohen Rapoport (may his memory be for a blessing). Born in Ostrowce in 1842. Died in Kurow on Friday, September 2, 1904.

Copy of the text on the gravestone of my father (may his memory be for a blessing)

Here lies
Rabbi Avrom Abeleh HaCohen Rapoport (may his memory be for a blessing), of priestly lineage. Son of Rabbi David HaCohen Rapoport (may his memory be for a blessing), head of the rabbinical court of Ostrowce, descendant of the great scholar Shabtai HaKohen, the author of Shach[2]. He was an expert on the Torah and renowned in his generation, modest in his habits and decent in actions. He was always engrossed in studies, and composed many sacred books.
Died in 1904, on Friday, September 2, 1904, at age 61.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My grandfather (my father's father), Rabbi David HaCohen Rapoport (may his memory be for a blessing), head of the rabbinical court of Ostrowce. Died on June 20, 1887.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My grandmother (my father's mother), wife of the rabbi of Ostrowce, Sarah-Alta-Sheyndl (may she rest in peace). Died on Tuesday, January 13, 1885.
May her soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My mother, Maytele (may she rest in peace). Born in Kurow in 1848, died in Shem-tov on January 3, 1925, and was buried the next day, Sunday, January 4), at age 77.[3]
May her soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My grandfather (my mother's father), Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Flakser (peace be upon him) of Kurow. Died on March 20, 1840.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My grandmother (my mother's mother), Beyle Flakser (peace be upon her). Died in Kurow on October 1, 1888.
May her soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

In Deep Mourning
My wife, Khaya-Sarah (may her memory be for a blessing), born in Opatów in 1874, died in Toronto on Friday April 8, 1949, at age 75.M
May her soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

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My brother, Ya'akov Yitzchak (may his memory be for a blessing), died young following a long illness, and was buried in Kurow.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My sister, Rivka Feygl (may her memory be for a blessing), died following a long illness, in the town of Beł┼╝ec, Lublin province.
May her soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My father-in-law, Rabbi Ya'akov Vizenfeld HaCohen (may his memory be for a blessing), head of the rabbinical court of Zaklików. Died on March 26, 1926.

Copy of the text on the gravestone of my father-in-law (may his memory be for a blessing)

Here lies the rabbi of the town of Zaklików, Rabbi Ya'akov Vizenfeld (may his memory be for a blessing). Born in Opatów, where he lived for most of his life as a merchant and wealthy man. He combined wealth and learning, and focused on learning. He became the town rabbi at age 50, and served in that position for 25 years.
The great rabbi (may his memory be for a blessing) was of priestly lineage, a descendant of scholars. He himself became widely known as an important scholar, and his charity and pure spirit were impressive. He died after a long, serious illness, on March 26, 1926.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.
My grandfather-in-law (the father of my father-in-law, the rabbi of Zaklików), the wealthy scholar Meirl Vizenfeld HaCohen of Opatów, died on August 8, 1908.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.


Tsvi, son of Sender Keslbruner, Rabbi Rapoport's grandson, son of Penina-Perele, cut down young.

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Copy of the text on the gravestone of my son Shabtai (may his memory be for a blessing)

Here lies Shabtai Rapoport

Renowned person of noble spirit, educator, writer, community activist, Shabtai HaCohen (may his memory be for a blessing), son of Rabbi Tuviya (may his light continue to shine), grandson of the Shach (may his memory be for a blessing). Died on January 10, 1951. 1898-1951.
May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living.

My brother-in-law Moshe (may his memory be for a blessing), and his wife, murdered in Biała Podlaska.

Tsipele Rapoport, daughter of Rabbi Tuviya Gutman, murdered by the Nazis in Biała Podlaska.

Rostovski, Tsipele's husband, murdered.

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Penina Perele Rapoport, daughter of Rabbi Tuviya Gutman, died in Lublin.

The gravestone of Penina-Perele Rapoport in the Lublin cemetery.[4]

Miriam Rapoport, daughter of Ya'akov Yitzchak, son of Rabbi Abeleh – murdered.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Columns 657, 658, and the first paragraph of 659 are memorial notices in the traditional form of death announcements. Return
  2. The Shach is a 17th-century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, which is in wide use to this day. Return
  3. I could not determine the meaning of the Hebrew Shem-Tov, which seems to refer to a place. Return
  4. I could not translate the word volya, which appears at the end of this caption. Return

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Father-Mother, Grandfather-Grandmother,
and the Biography of a Generation

By Rabbi Tuviya Gutman Rapoport

Translated by Yael Chaver

My mother, Matele (may she rest in peace) was cheery, loved to converse, and was a very good storyteller. She loved to recount memories of old times, of the traditional Kurow way of life, customs, describe her parents, episodes of her youthful years, and her wedding.

Over the years, I have forgotten most of her tales; but a few bits and pieces of her truly legendary stories still remain in my memories. I would like to set them down here, as I think they are of historical value. Modern readers will certainly view them as a distant, faint echo of bygone worlds.


Reb Hershl, My Kurow Grandfather

My Kurow grandfather's name was Hershl Flakser; but the Jews of Kurow, like those of the entire vicinity, called him “Hershl of Rabi-Shoyv,” as he was originally from the town of that name, in the Chelm region.

(In those days, the Jews tended to change the names of towns in their own particular style: Opatów became Apto, Radom became Rodim, Ostrowiec became Ostrovtsi, and Kurow became Koriv. Hrubieszow was completely converted to Judaism, and was called by a real Jewish name: “Rabi-Shoyv.”)[1]

My grandfather did not come from a rabbinical family. His parents, and his family as a whole, were ordinary middle-class Jews: simple merchants and storekeepers. Grandfather, too, was a bonnetable, experienced merchant, and lived his life in the world of commerce.

His main trade consisted of lending money, with interest, to the landowners in the vicinity. They would repay the loan and interest mainly by means of grain and potatoes. His business flourished.


Grandfather: A Strict Moneylender, Yet a Warmhearted Jew

The basis of his livelihood was indeed lending money to the landowners in the area, for whom the issue of interest was secondary and incidental. Most of his income was derived from selling the grain that he bought from them

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at great profit. However, he was also a moneylender who did business with the Kurow traders, Jews and non-Jews. Like other moneylenders, he was unyielding: one had to be accurate, repay the money at the set time, or be denied further credit. However, that was only one aspect of his character. Mother provided facts that reflected Grandfather's nature quite differently: he was a warm person. Below is only one fact:

There was a certain Jewish grain merchant in town, who did business almost entirely with Grandfather's money. At harvest time every year, he would borrow several hundred rubles from Grandfather, which he always repaid on time, with interest. Once, when the due date had come, the man did not bring the money. Grandfather waited for several weeks, but he did not show up. This was suspicious. He also noticed that the man was avoiding him, turning away each time he spotted him. Grandfather became irritated, and called for him. Well, when Hershl Flakser summoned you, you had to show up; the merchant came immediately.

Below, I would like to present the dialogue between Grandfather, the lender, and the borrower, the grain merchant (as my mother recounted it).

Grandfather (severely): Tell me, you, what's the matter with you? You're not repaying the money, or the interest, and I notice that you're hiding from me. Do you think I'll keep quiet? I'll destroy you completely.

Merchant (weeping): Dear Reb Hershl, I'm impoverished, I made some bad business deals, and lost all my money. I'm no longer a merchant and have no means of livelihood. My only choice is to leave town and become a beggar.

Grandfather (angrily): If that's the case, you're really a sinful Jew, and don't believe in God. After all, you're a merchant, and have always made a good living. The first time your deal turned out badly, you

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lose your faith in God, blessed be he. You should go on making deals; God can help you to be successful once again.

Merchant: What will I deal in, now that I have absolutely no money?

Grandfather: And what about Hershl Flakser? Have you forgotten where he lives? Why didn't you come to him and tell him everything? (Grandfather often referred to himself in the third person, as a kind of grand gesture that was common for wealthy people in the Jewish communities.)

Merchant: I couldn't show myself to you; and whenever I saw you from a distance I became dizzy.

Grandfather: You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself. A Jew should not despair. But let's make a long story short; tell me, do you have anything to trade with?

Merchant: Yes, I know a landowner with whom I can make a deal, and I think it will make a lot of money.

Grandfather: How much money, for example, would you need for this deal?

Merchant (meekly, quietly): I don't know… I might need about two hundred rubles.

Grandfather (loudly): What do mean, “might”? You mean you need more. Well, tell me how much you need.

Merchant (smiling humbly): Well, if Reb Hershl asks, I must say that I actually need a total of four hundred rubles.

Grandfather: So tell me why you're acting like a fool? Hershl Flakser will not, God forbid, let you fall. After all, you have a wife and children. Hershl Flakser also needs to make a living, and you will pay him interest. Sit down; I will count the money out for you.

And grandfather set a flask of brandy on the table, drank le-khayim with the borrower, and wished him success:

“Remember that you already owe me three hundred rubles and interest. The payment date was several weeks ago, which adds to the interest. Write down the due date in your notebook, and remember to pay on time!”

The upshot was that the deal was successful, the borrower made a nice sum, and repaid my grandfather for both loans, with interest, in full. Grandfather later boasted:

“Hershl Flakser doesn't give away money. You must return the principal and interest to the last penny. If you can't do it the first time, do it the second time, or the third time – but pay him you must…”

That was not the only time that Grandfather showed consideration towards the Jewish merchants of Kurow. He would grant loans to support anyone who suffered a setback.

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Yankl Flakser, Hershl Flakser's relative, born in Kurow in 1869, moved to Warsaw in 1907, and was murdered in 1943. He is the father of the survivors Moyshe and Hesse, who live in Paris, and is a third cousin of Y. L. Peretz.


With renewed courage and confidence, that merchant made progress, and repaid all the loans. The word in Kurow was that Hershl Flakser lent merchants his success as well as his money…


Grandfather, the Charitable

Grandfather was not only a moneylender. He was also a generous benefactor. More than one young woman of Kurow would never have married if not for him. For example, a Jewish shopkeeper made a match with a girl, and undertook to pay 150 rubles when signing the engagement contract.[2] However, he could not draw such a sum from his resources –150 rubles was then a medium-sized sum for this purpose. Well, he went to Hershl Flakser, who loaned him the money, to be repaid in installments. The installments could stretch over several years.

Grandfather also loaned money to young married men who had just ended the period of parental support and were beginning to learn how to conduct a business.[3] (Such young men were often considered novices. Grandfather, with his business sense, would say, often with a smile, “One cannot charge these novices interest, as they have never earned anything in their lives. However, one can entrust money to them, because even though they are unpracticed, they are more energetic and confident than older traders.”)

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Actually, Grandfather made such charitable loans only in return for guarantees such as pledges, jewelry, or objects made of silver, which he kept in his iron safe and did not worry about. He wrote each person's name on the object. (At the time, Grandfather was the only person in Kurow who owned a large iron safe.)

The wealthy Mendl Bayer of Piława first made his fortune with a charitable loan of 200 rubles from Grandfather, in return for pledges of jewelry and a full set of silver flatware. Mendl Bayer became rich, and, of course, retrieved his jewelry from Grandfather after repaying the loan. However, he gave Grandfather the flatware silver as a present, to commemorate that first act of charity. My parents still owned a few spoons engraved “M. Bayer.” By then, Bayer was a millionaire.


A Miser

Although Grandfather was affluent, really extremely wealthy, and money seemed to flow to him ceaselessly, he was also close-fisted, and a legendary miser. In everyday life, he counted the pennies. Several examples follow:

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Yankel Shnayderman (“Mashinist”) occasionally led the prayer services in the small synagogue. He was murdered, along with all the other Jews of Kurow.


At home, Grandfather always wore a dressing gown. He owned three: one for weekdays, one for Shabbes, and another one for holidays. However, all three eventually became worn out. Peysekh was approaching, and it was decided to have new ones made. Grandmother Beyle went to the fabric shop, and brought three types of fabric (in those days, people did not buy ready-made clothing). Grandfather liked the fabric, but wasn't ready to have three dressing-gowns made all at once. He decided that two would be enough: one for weekdays, and the other would do for Shabbes and holidays. However, he wanted a double-sided fabric, sewn so as to make a reversible garment. All of Grandmother's protests were useless. Making three at a time, he claimed, was decadent and wasteful. Naturally, Grandfather had his wish. He wore the elegant reversible dressing-gown for many years.

Mother told us many similar stories, but the few I have presented here are enough to prove that he was none too open-handed.


Grandmother Beyle and Her Lineage

In many respects, my grandmother Beyle (my mother's mother, may she rest in peace) was the opposite of my grandfather. First of all, she came from aristocracy: her great-great-grandfather was the great rabbi and righteous man, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak HaLevi Horowitz, (may his righteous memory stand us in merit), known as “the Seer of Lublin.”[4] She was very proud of this lineage, and often

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spoke of the legacy left by her ancestors. The actual heirloom consisted of a large two-handled glass pitcher, the size of an old-fashioned copper pitcher that was used for ritual hand-washing. According to Grandmother, the Seer of Lublin used it as “Elijah's cup” during the Peysekh Seyder. Although my Kurow grandfather had plentiful silver goblets, large and small, only this glass pitcher was used at our Seyder for “Elijah's cup.”


Grandmother Beyle Says Her Own Blessings over the Hanukah Candles

Grandmother Beyle had another precious heirloom from the Lublin Hasidic dynasty: a small gold Hanuka lamp that, according to tradition, had been used by the great rabbi himself for Hanukah candles. Grandmother loved that lamp very dearly. She had a special silver case made in Lublin, in which she kept the Hanukah lamp all year round until the Hanukah ceremony. However, Grandfather used his own silver Hanukah lamp. He said that an ordinary Jew was not worthy of saying the blessing over candles in that particular lamp, as it was impossible to know the special intentions and prayers of that righteous man as he was saying the blessings. So Grandfather blessed the candles in his silver lamp, and Grandmother blessed the candles separately (like a man) in her inherited gold lamp. She justified it by saying that she was permitted to do so, as it was a legacy from her grandfather. However, eventually she regretted using her ancestor's gold lamp.


Beyle, daughter of Hershl Rapoport and great-granddaughter of grandmother Beyle Flakser

[Column 672]

A Kurow Legend About the Inherited Gold Hanukah Lamp

An uncanny event took place concerning the Hanukah lamp, which agitated the entire town. It was a general topic of conversation, and eventually became legendary.

Besides the women whom Grandmother employed as servants, Grandfather had his own servant (only for his businesses, such as collecting money from borrowers, handing money over to landowners, etc.), This servant was an ordinary, unlearned, unmarried man named Akiva. However, he was honest; Grandfather thought of him very highly, and in fact trusted him with large sums of money. For many years, the servant was employed by Grandfather. Eventually, he was married in Kurow. Grandfather was very involved in the wedding, and spent quite a sum on it. The wedding was just before Peysekh. Immediately afterwards, the newly married couple went to London, planning to continue to America.

Well, Hanukah arrived, and Grandmother took out the Hanukah lamp from the safe, to bless the candles (the lamp was kept in Grandfather's iron safe all year round). When she opened the silver case, the Hanukah lamp was gone, and the case was empty. Grandmother almost fainted. What had happened? No one except Grandfather had a key to the safe (and it was a key that could not be copied). The town was in complete uproar. People gathered to discuss this unfathomable event. Some suspected the servant of stealing the lamp while leaving the case behind, so that no one would notice it was empty until Hanukah. But Grandfather said, sensibly, that it was impossible, as he always wore the key around his neck. Besides, he had previously

entrusted the servant with huge sums, and the latter had always been honest. Well, the rumor began that it was not a simple burglary, but that Heaven had intervened, and it was not for us to understand… Of course, some people stubbornly reiterated that it could only have been the servant, and that one could not prevent an insider household theft. But the scholars and Hasids were sure that the lamp had disappeared into the heavenly domain… They based this opinion on a similar tale in the Talmud (Tractate Ta'anit, 25, 1), and that it was retribution, because Grandmother, as a woman, was forbidden to bless candles in the Hanukah lamp of the holy righteous man, the Seer of Lublin.

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Grandmother Beyle goes to Lublin to Visit the Graves of her Ancestors

According to Mother (may she rest in peace), the children would ask for her thoughts about this incident. She would always say, “Children, don't talk to me about it.” Some time later, she went to Lublin, pretending that she was going to shop there. But the children discovered that she had visited the grave of her ancestor, the Righteous Man of Lublin, where she had cried her heart out, and begged for forgiveness. So, the matter of the Hanukah lamp continued to hang over Kurow, an eternal secret and a holy mystery that developed into a town legend.


Grandmother Lights a Wax Candle Every Year, on the First Night of Hanukah

Immediately after Grandmother returned from Lublin, where she had confessed at the grave of her ancestor, she traveled to Turisk to confer with the rabbi of that town. She told no one what the rabbi had said (in general, she would not speak to anyone about that Hanukah lamp). However, after she returned from Turisk she did not bless her own Hanukah candles. But she lit a large wax candle on the first night of Hanukah every year, placed it in a corner, and murmured a quiet prayer. The secrets of the vanished Hanukah lamp hovered above that flickering candle.

Let this article of mine be a “literary property” and a historical contribution to the “living archive” of survivors. It is they who have the honor of setting up a memorial to the bygone, sweet and sad, legends and folklore of our Jews of Kurow. Tales such as these nourished the fantasy of our bygone Jews, who were murdered so tragically. They provided a kind of “spiritual nourishment” in the form of synagogue conversations during the long winter nights of Kurow.


Grandmother Beyle in Daily Life

Grandmother Beyle's character and behavior was completely different from those of Grandfather. Where Grandfather was very careful with money and watched even the pennies, Grandmother was generous and sweet-natured. Her household was comfortable, reflecting their wealth: there were always two servants, and the home was lavishly supplied with only the best and most expensive of everything.

However, she was not self-absorbed, but very generous and hospitable as well. Any Jew who arrived in Kurow received food and drink, as well as a fine gift of money.

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In general, she was very open-handed towards anyone in need.

She was a follower of the Turisk Hasidic rebbe, and sent him a note with 100 rubles twice a year, before Peysekh and the New Year.

Let me praise my grandfather as well. He thought very highly of her, and, even though he himself was parsimonious, he allowed her to run the household in her own manner and give charity as she saw fit.


Grandmother's “Birthing Act of Charity”

In addition to her general generosity, Grandmother practiced an unusual charity, which was renowned in Kurow as “Beyle Shoyver's Birthing Act of Charity.”[5] The expectant mother's family would send for her even before they sent for the midwife. (The Yiddish term for midwife, heyvn, was the only one used in Kurow; the other terms: heybam and akusherke were not used).[6] As my mother told it, the only midwife in Kurow at the time was the mother of Khayim Shmuel Lustman, who was well into her nineties. When she was needed to assist at a birth, she was carried on someone's shoulder, as she could no longer walk. Grandmother would stay until the child was born, and would do the good deed of making the first “contribution” for the newborn. Anyone who dared to refuse Grandmother's gift placed himself in danger. It was a good deed that she took upon herself to do, for rich as well as for poor (so as not to embarrass the poor persons). She also remembered to make sure that the new mother had nourishing food for the first few days, such as a good chicken soup, a good wine, and a few saucers of esrog jam.[7] (She did that for the poor only. Esrog jam was considered especially beneficial, as it is one of the species that is blessed during sukkes, and would confer a blessing on the newborn. If the child was male, Grandmother would be the first to come to the bris celebration, and would certainly not come empty-handed.) If it was a girl, Grandmother wore her finest clothing, wrapped in the traditional “Turkish shawl,” entered the women's section of the synagogue and handed out nuts and raisins in celebration.[8]


Grandmother Advises About Naming Babies

Nowadays, naming babies is not a problem. There is no shortage of names, and in our State of Israel it is really simple:

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one takes a name from the Bible; and names like Hedva, Ora, Tsahala etc. are fine.[9] But in those days, such ingenuity was unknown. Names had to commemorate previous generations; as there were many children, names were in short supply, and people went to great lengths to give a suitable name. (Incidentally, I would like to note that the matter of naming, either according to taste or in commemoration of ancestors was discussed problematically by the sages (Mishna Berachot, 35; and Bereshit Rabba, 37.)

(The mothers of newborns would seek Grandmother's advice, as she was so experienced with new mothers.) For example: a boy was born, but had to be named after his grandmother (as his grandfather's name was already taken), and the grandmother was named “Simi” – how could the problem be solved? Grandmother immediately ruled: the child should be named “Simkha”! I take the responsibility. It's the right name! May you derive much pleasure and joy from this child!”[10]

In the opposite case, when a girl was born and had to be named after the grandfather, whose name was Moshe – certainly unsuitable for a girl. But Grandmother, thanks to her experience, immediately said: “Here's an excellent suggestion: call the bride-to-be Masha, and you will have both names in one person: Moshe and Masha.”

Once, Grandmother was faced with a problem: a girl who was born had to be named after her grandfather, who was named Ber. Even my experienced grandmother found no solution to that name. Well, she conferred with her sons-in-law (at that time, my father – may his memory be for a blessing – was being supported by my grandfather, as were my mother's brother-in-law, the husband of her sister Rive, who was later the rabbi of Tarnogród). Between them, they somehow turned “Ber” into a suitable feminine name.

Usually, Grandmother did not interfere with Grandfather's business. As we have said, she was a housewife. Matters of new mothers and naming occupied a good deal of her time. She glowed with joy during a week when she was helping a new mother.

(Let me take a break from my biographical notes. Now, as I write a few paragraphs about birthing mothers and newborn boys, I must write about old-time customs in Kurow pertaining to that field).

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1. Birthing Mothers and Mohels in Kurow, Customs and Ways of Life

When a mother was about to give birth, a copy of the book The Angel Razi'el was placed under her pillow (as a charm to ensure an easy birth).[11] If the baby was a boy, the mohel's special knife would also be placed there the night before the ceremony, and would stay there until the bris actually took place. (Notes with amulets for “Protection of the Mother” were pasted onto the wall next to the mother's bed; they were used to drive demons away from both male and female babies.) During the week before the bris it was customary for the boys from all the kheyders to be led by the helpers to the new mother's room, and recite the Shema there. The boys were given small conical paper bags containing round, cooked peas. The boys' joy was tremendous (I think I was never as happy as when I received that conical paper bag full of peas).


2. How is the Non-Jew Doing?

My father (may he rest in peace) used to talk about a very old custom of the mohels in Kurow. Jewish law states that a child who is sick may not be circumcised, and the mohel is charged with visiting the new mother several times during the week before the bris to find out how the child is doing. However, rather than saying “How is the child doing?” he had to say, “how is the non-Jew doing?”[12] This custom was instituted by the long-ago rabbi of Kurow, the great righteous man, who was known as “Rabbi Noyekh,” the author of the renowned book Kav-khen. As I later heard from the respected scholar of Kurow, Reb Shmuel-Leyzers (whom Grandmother married after the death of Grandfather Hershl), the custom began long ago, in the times of Shmuel-Leyzers' great-grandfather, the Kurow rabbi of that time, who was called Rab Shmuel Koriver. He gave strict instructions to the mohels to phrase his question only as “How is the non-Jew doing?” The custom was carried on from Rabbi Shmuel to his disciple, the later Rabbi Noyekh.

My father explained that this phrasing was not just a whim, or – God forbid – a joke, but had a sacred purpose. The first cry of a newly circumcised baby causes the mother great sorrow, and she often bursts out in tears (especially when the child is her first-born). This phrasing is meant to show love for the commandment of circumcision.

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Let the new mother remember that the child becomes Jewish only after the bris. Up to that point, he is an ordinary orel (non-Jews used to be called that).[13] However, the custom disappeared over time, and was even completely forgotten.


3. The Large, Brick-Built, Box of Sand in the Kurow Synagogue, for Foreskins

According to scholars of old customs, similar boxes were placed in almost all the oldest, historical synagogues (our synagogue in Kurow was in that category; “We mourn for those who are gone and are no longer with us”.[14]

The young people of today will certainly deride such seemingly ridiculous customs; but scholars who study the spiritual life of bygone generations will find them to be characteristic. Only the eye of a student of the soul can see the bright sparks given off by such customs.

The history of our martyrs is replete with prohibitions of circumcisions. Only the greatest devotion of the Jewish people to this most significant of commandments – to bring Jewish children into the covenant of the patriarch Abraham – has overcome all the prohibitions. Our Jewish people of bygone times intended the custom of keeping a box for foreskins to be an eternal commemoration of the commandment when the prayer mentioning the covenant of Abraham is chanted (during the ten days that precede Rosh HaShana and at the concluding prayer of Yom Kippur…).


4. Payment for Performing Circumcision

Not only did the mohel not request payment (a request which is a transgression, according to Jewish law – Shulchan Aruch 10, 261, in the commentary by Isserles), but a mohel considered himself favored to have been requested to perform a bris.[15] I remember that when I was living in Kurow, there was a competition between the mohels: each wanted the honor. Some even paid the father in order to receive the honor.

My mother (may she rest in peace) would say that when my father (may his memory be for a blessing) decided to become a mohel as a young man, Grandmother Beyle paid families considerable sums of money so that they would grant him the honor.

I remember one fact: my grandfather was renowned as an expert mohel. He was very nimble, and after the bris was performed, his knife was unstained with any blood. Once, a “circumcised” child was born in Lublin, and a mohel with specialized knowledge was needed (the child was not completely “circumcised” and needed to undergo a bris). The Lublin gaon and tsaddik,

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later Hassidic leader, Rabbi Tsadok HaKohen (may his memory be for a blessing), advised the father to consult with Reb Abele of Kurow, as he was the greatest expert in Lublin Province.

The father and child immediately came to Kurow, with an extra carriage, hired for a two-way trip. Naturally, my father did not hesitate, traveled, and performed the bris, which required special experience. My father was very successful, and all the mohels in Lublin were astonished. The story became famous in all mohel circles. The father of the child was extremely wealthy, and wanted to please my father with a gift of 25 rubles (not, God forbid, as compensation for his work, but as reimbursement for travel expenses). However, not only did my father (may his memory be for a blessing) refuse to take money, but he was adamant that he would pay the cart-driver in full. Only in that way would he receive the full merit of performing the commandment. They went to Rabbi Tsadok HaKohen (may his memory be for a blessing) for a verdict according to rabbinic law. He proposed a compromise, saying to the father, “Do as I say, for the sake of Reb Abele. Let him pay half of the cart-driver's pay.” My father (may his memory be for a blessing) was happy with this outcome.

Only in such a merit-seeking environment could someone like Grandmother Beyle Shoyver emerge. She devoted a considerable part of her life to charity towards birthing mothers. In general, people were not paid in those days for fulfilling commandments; leading prayers during the High Holy Days was considered a great honor.


5. Personal Reckoning

Sometimes, in the darkest hours of the night, when an involuntary personal reckoning arises, and national sorrow manifests itself, I think of the great folklore treasure that we have lost, a Jewry rich in spirit and soul. What remains is Jews, some of whom have impressive bank books but, at the same time, are “spiritual paupers.” All the great religious commandments have been exchanged for an ordinary “job,” and I am overtaken by melancholy.


Old-Time Womens' Bonnets

I am devoting a special section to the bonnets that women wore in bygone days. I consider it to be not only appropriate, but also as an obligation, to set this down for future generations. Whereas many other old customs and ways of life continue to this day (though with certain changes in the spirit of these days), the traditional bonnet that was played such an important role in feminine wear for many generations: the beloved bonnet that our mothers and grandmothers so lovingly decorated and embellished,

[Column 679]

and enhanced with lace and flowers. The bonnet adorned them when they traveled to see a prospective bride for a son, when they accompanied a daughter to the huppah, and at every holiday or party. The more flowers, the better and the more impressive. The bonnet, however, has passed away, lonely and with no descendants, as though it had never existed. Well then, it surely merits description, or it will be overlooked by history. Incidentally, bonnets are closely connected with Grandmother Beyle's biography.


Itta (Abeles), Rabbi Rapoport's sister, murdered by the Nazi killers


In those days, no Jewish woman (God forbid) wore her own hair. She would have been excommunicated. Even a wig was a great provocation. My mother recounted that a young woman was driven out of the women's section of the Kurow synagogue for daring to enter in a wig. In those faraway days, it was common to cut off a woman's hair on the day of her wedding; the women believed that it was a sacred duty. Those who were extremely observant shaved the bride's head and immediately covered it with a satin bonnet. (My mother's head was shaved and covered with such a bonnet on her wedding day, when she was not yet thirteen years old. She became thirteen on the last day of the Shive Brokhes.[16])


What Did the Bonnet Look Like?

The “architecture” of the bonnet was very complicated. It consisted of three different sections, made in the shape of Noah's Ark: “lower, second, and third stories” (Genesis 6, 16). The lower story was in the shape of a masculine bonnet (excuse the comparison) that any well-to-do Jew of Kurow would wear, even a young talmudic student,

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under his hat, so as to cover the entire lower portion of his head. Only craftsmen were free of this obligation. This lowest section of the feminine was termed “the underbonnet.” It was topped by two more sections that were decorated with lace and flowers.

As all the women in Kurow wore bonnets, there was a shortage of people skilled in this craft. There were only two women in town who specialized in it; they were called “bonnet decorators.”

If any of the readers would like to see what such a bonnet looked like, they only need to look at the picture of my mother (may she rest in peace) in this book wearing this historic bonnet, with the caption “Matele Rapoport.”


Gitele, the Pious Synagogue Activist

The history of old-time women who were active in the synagogue, read prayers out loud for other women to repeat, were mourners, and averters of evil spells, is quite rich. They included many interesting types, and were the focus of many fascinating and amusing bits of town folklore. Here, however, I would like to describe only Gitele, the synagogue activist of Kurow. It is also connected with my grandmother's biography.

She was not a native of Kurow, but came from the nearby town of Wąwolnica. She was widowed there (may it not happen to us), moved to Kurow to live with her daughter. She quickly became renowned among the women as extremely pious; and indeed, she was very strict and God-fearing. She prayed three times a day, and in public, in the small women's synagogue. In addition, she was very learned. She possessed very many women's tkhines[17] for every problem, and knew almost all of them by heart. She also fasted every Monday and Thursday, and was the only person in Kurow who kept up the custom of measuring graves in the cemetery.[18]

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. In this interpretation, the Hebrew words rav (“rabbi”) and the acronym shoyv for shoykhet u-voydek (“ritual slaughterer and inspector”) are construed as the elements that comprise the town's name. Return
  2. At the engagement ceremony, agreements are made that formalize the mutual commitments: to marry at the agreed- upon time and date, and to participate in wedding expenses as well as the anticipated startup costs of the new household. The parents of the couple often represent their children and take upon themselves the financial responsibilities involved. Return
  3. The parents of the bride or groom were often obligated to support the new couple for a specified period. Return
  4. Horowitz (1745-1815) was a Hasidic rebbe from Poland who was a leading figure in the early Hasidic movement. Return
  5. I was not able to determine the meaning of “shoyver.” Return
  6. The writer provides information about the terms used for ‘midwife.’ Heybam and akusherke may have been regional or considered old-fashioned for Kurow at the time. Return
  7. The esrog is citron. Return
  8. I was unable to determine the significance of “Turkish.” Return
  9. These feminine names are adapted from biblical Hebrew words. Return
  10. In traditional Ashkenazi Jewish culture, Simkha is a masculine name. Return
  11. The Angel Razi'el is a kabbalistic book from the 13th century, which was considered to contain proetctive and healing texts. Return
  12. The phrase uses orel, (an uncircumcised person) a Hebrew term for non-Jews; the term has come to be pejorative. Return
  13. The Hebrew word for foreskin is orla, and a non-circumcised male is termed an orel. Return
  14. This mishnaic phrase (Sanhedrin 111a) often concludes the eulogy for a great scholar. Return
  15. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530-1572) was an eminent rabbi, talmudist, and expert in Jewish law. Return
  16. Shive Brokhes is the Hebrew name for a series of seven blessings, said at the festive meals that are part of the week-long festivities that follow a wedding. Return
  17. Tkhines (supplications) is a genre of private devotions and paraliturgical prayers in Yiddish, written by women and men, recited primarily by women. Return
  18. Fasting weekly on those days is considered to signify great piety. “Measuring graves” or cemeteries with lengths of thread is a form of supplication for someone in need or dangerously ill. The cemetery, or individual graves, are measured by women with thread that is then worked into a wick for candles dedicated to charity, or used on holidays. Return


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