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Chapter 6:

Lanowitz in Legends


[Pages 229-234]
Lanowitz Legends

By Ch. Rabin

1. Hayim Mordechai Became a Trader

Hayim Mordechai was meant to be a Rabbi. He studied regularly and attended the synagogue between lessons. His wife supported the family in the intervals between childbirths. When she could stand it no longer, she told her husband that her talent is household work and cooking, that he is the one who needs to support the family.

She sewed a money pocket into a book he was reading and the book into his vest pocket. Next, she dispatched him to the Yermolinitz fair and told him: “The money I gave you is our main asset, the result of our labor. Guard it on your journey. In order not to divulge its hiding location, do not touch it until you arrive at the fair.Look for suitable merchandise at the fair,. Purchase only an item that you like.”

When Hayim Mordechai arrived at the fair, he sought a spot far from its noise. He sat down in the shade of a fence, spread out his jacket, took out his book and read it until sundown. As the fair visitors left and the place fell silent, Hayim Mordechai arose for his evening prayer. He stood up to pray “Shmoneh Esreh” [= 18 prayers], his eyes closed, with his book and money pocket under his armpit. At that moment, a thick-bearded Jew, carrying a parcel covered with an old sheet and a belt, passed by. He noticed the book and the money pocket protruding from the book under Hayim's armpit. He began to plan how to remove the book and money pocket, and then return the book to its owner. He tried to pull the book from Hayim's armpit but failed in the attempt. Hayim Mordechai's arms held it tight. The man waited for Hayim to complete his prayer and said: “A Jew does not come to the fair only to sell. If you bought nothing with your proceeds it is like going twice in one direction.” Hayim, remembering why he came to the fair, replied in kind: “You, who came to sell your merchandise and did not, nor buy anything, did you not waste your time?” The man, agreeing with Hayim's logic, offered his wares to Hayim, suggesting he would benefit from a trade. The man opened his parcel, pulling out a beautiful red kerchief.

Hayim's eyes lit up as he admired the green and blue flowers of the kerchief. He remembered his wife's instruction to only purchase items that he liked. Hayim was eager to purchase the item. The man sold him hundreds of identical colorful kerchiefs. Hayim paid him with paper money of identical color, each having the king's image on it. Together they left for a restaurant feeling like old friends. In the morning, they parted warmly, Hayim to Lanowitz and the other Jew to Yampol.On the way home, Hayim was saddened that this friendship ended so quickly. He was consoled by the thought that his wife will be glad that he is now a trader.

When his wife saw the merchandise, she shuddered. She wondered as to whom will they sell so many kerchiefs of the same design, or where will they find so many women customers. She was consoled by the fact that the cost of kerchief was one quarter of the normal price. But, her heart sunk: “Where will I find willing buyers?”

When the first Shiksah [=Gentile young woman] bought a kerchief, her friend, who pined for the same boyfriend as the first, became envious. She, too, bought one. Her neighbor saw her, became envious and bought one as well. After a few days, all the kerchiefs were sold due to their popularity and the envy of other Shiksas.

The village lads loved the new looks and were content. Hayim Mordechai made a good trade and his wife was proud of him. The story serves to demonstrate that help from G-d can come quickly when consumer desire runs wild.

2. Baruch Peretz and the Bear

Baruch Peretz was one of the strongest men of the town, built like a cedar trunk. Muscle bound, he was also one of the most courageous men of the area. Just as there is merit to courage, excess courage can also be a liability. His story is as follows:

When Baruch married Rivka, he promised to build her a house in Lanowitz. He could not afford a plot of land in the center of town. Instead, he opted for a plot next to the Catholic Church. The plot was available because no one wanted it. A large bear was reputed to appear at this plot at night. Baruch ignored the advice of his friends not to challenge the night animal. They considered the animal to be a kind of messenger, to dissuade Jews from living adjacent to the Catholic Church.

Baruch said to himself: “If my wife is afraid of the bear, let her stay at home in the evening hours; that suits me. I am among those who finish their evening prayers at the synagogue early and returns home early. Should I be late some day and meet the bear, I will trust the Lord to help me in such a situation.”

One day he left his home in the early night hours to go into town, completely forgetting why he avoided departing at night heretofore. He returned from town that night, forgetting the danger, as the bear came towards him. Days later he admitted his racing heartbeat when he saw the bear. However, his version the day following the incident was different: “As I approached him, he came towards me. When I arrived at my house, he disappeared, having realized that I was not afraid of him.”

On another occasion, Baruch left his house on Saturday evening to participate in a Sabbath celebration at the house of Michel Geldener. It was the birthday of Melvina, his wife, nee Lida. The house guests enjoyed their meal and the company as the hours passed. The guests departed in the wee hours of the morning. Baruch Peretz left, forgetting about the bear danger. Baruch's house was close to the Geldener house. Soon a horrendous cry was heard from the direction of Baruch's house. All the guests were frightened. The men in the group turned around to try and save Baruch. When they arrived at his house, the men noticed that Baruch was holding the bear's ears. The bear, the size of a wild pig, was attempting to pull Baruch to him, but Baruch held his ground. Baruch, in turn, tried to let go of the bear's ears but his hands failed to respond. They stuck to the monster's ears. Finally, the men cut off the bear's ears. The animal disappeared. Baruch was carried home having fainted, with the monster's ears stuck to his hands.

3. If One Tells You About Naked Ducks, Believe Him

Eti Hayas was always able to support herself. What occurred took place when she was selling liquor directly from vats. The customs office gave her a liquor sales permit. Inasmuch as the production of glass in Russia at that time was in its infancy, and bottles were in short supply, she was permitted to sell directly from her vats to fill customer's glasses. The vat's faucets, made of wood, always leaked a little. The resulting vapor caused nausea so the vats had to be kept in her barn. Eti, who for tax reasons had to account for the vat's content, decided to collect the dripping liquor with a saucer and return it periodically to the vat.

Eti earned a good living from this concession; hence she decided to add another item to her household, geese. She planned to fatten them in the winter, to slaughter them on Purim and preserve the meat, and then use the goose fat on Passover. Twenty geese were purchased on Hanukah and placed in coups to lessen their mobility. This was meant to help them gain weight rapidly. It was hoped that they will have grown and be fat, ready for slaughter on Purim. The plan was to hang their bodies in her attic so that the meat freezes rapidly. Each week, one goose would be unfrozen for a meal and its fat processed for use at Passover time. That is, if all goes well as expected. A further plan was to let the geese out of their coup to roam freely a day before the slaughter so that their muscles are relaxed and their blood circulation improved. This was meant to make the slaughter and feather plucking easier, also to improve the meat's taste.

As she thought of the plan, she realized that this is the first time in her life that she could afford to buy 20 geese at once, and eat a whole goose once a week.

She let the geese out of their coups in the evening and lay down to sleep, expecting pleasant dreams. In the morning, she rose early, thinking how blessed she was to be able to raise 20 geese. But, when she arrived in the barn she found the geese all dying, lying all over the floor. Eti cried; she could live with the loss of the geese and the disappointment. She could not live with the loss of the geese's feathers. Eti needed them to create feather beds and pillows for her daughter's future dowries. Eti went to her Rabbi to ask for permission to pluck the feathers of a dead bird. She hoped he would understand the need for such a dowry as is customary at every wedding. The Rabbi gave her he desired permission.

She and her daughters plucked the geese's feathers. They were thinking of the happiness a future wedding entails, and were consoled about the loss of the meat. When they finished plucking, they placed the geese on a pile and covered them with sacks to cover their shame. Eti waited for darkness to throw their bodies into the river, so that no one would know of her humiliation. In the late afternoon, as the sun set, Eti was astounded to see the geese rise, quacking loudly, because they were cold.

The story ends with the following explanation: During the night when they were set free, the geese drank from the saucer that collected the liquor drippings. They became so drunk that they felt nothing as their feathers were plucked and their bodies thrown into a pile. Based on this story, believe it if a man tells you about “naked geese….”

4. How Idel Leibish Ideles Died

The image of a lit candle appeared at night in the famous swamps of Lanowitz, located between the riverbeds that flowed near the houses of Moshe Kofitz, Zerach Feigeles, and Anton Habrod. No one knew what it was about, yet they were afraid of it. The candle appeared to guard their swamps. It was said that if a person dares to cross the swamps at night, the candle will blind and confuse him. The person will end up going in circles during the entire night. He will return home either dead or crazy. Most people chose to bypass the swamp, even if the alternate road was longer, to feel secure.

Idel Leibish Ideles was a man among men, a life-long wagoneer who knew the area's roads, also where dangers lurked. He was unafraid. One day he decided to no longer bypass the large swamp. He resolved instead to take the swamp road that shortens the distance to his house by one third. As he returned from a long day's journey to Volochysk, close to midnight, he directed his horses to the swamp path. The path was soft, as if carpeted. The cold air rising from the swamp refreshed him. He felt good. Suddenly, the lit candle approached his wagon, scaring the horses. Idel had difficulty controlling them. The struggle to control the horses continued all night.

The story ends with Idel returning home with broken bones, pain over his whole body, and difficulty breathing. Within a year he died. No doctor as able to help him.

[Pages 235-237]

The Original Barons of Our Town

By the Editor

1. Baron von Buelow

Baron von Buelow was a descendant of the famous von Buelow whom Czar Peter the Great brought to Russia to industrialize the country. One of the original von Buelow sons was named secretary of treasury, and another received the Osnick district as a present from the Czar. Our Baron was his great-grandson and heir. Over the generations, his origin and the circumstances of his arrival in Lanowitz were forgotten. Regimes changed in the meantime. The Baron became a loyal Polish citizen. His life consisted of merrymaking in the style of the Polish nobility. He was careless, unfaithful to his wife and violated the rules of his Catholic religion whenever these conflicted with his needs or desires. Reb Uziel Rabin who leased his estates for many years, tried to guide him to become a decent person. The Baron listened to his mentor like a child to an adult, and was thankful for the guidance he provided.

Some traits of his German ancestry remained with him. He was always punctual and technically proficient in the tradition of his ancestors. His house was spacious, having several rooms dedicated to sports and study. Only a few rooms were meant for eating and drinking. His furniture was heavy, made of dark walnut wood. The image of an eagle with spread wings and claws was carved into the furniture to symbolize the family origin of the owner.

He regarded his furniture as sacred. Only a close friend or a person of his social standing was allowed to sit on a chair with an eagle emblem. His employees were allowed to sit only on kitchen stools or standard chairs.

Reb Uziel, a smart man, tried to persuade the Baron to sell him a couch that stood unused in the great hall. The Baron tried at first to hide his anger, then said: “My friend, Zilio [short for Uziel], you are dear to me, but you have forgotten that I am not a Jew. I will not sell my furniture, with our family emblem on it, for any price.”

Years later, the Baron became heavily indebted when he borrowed money to support his mistresses. He appealed to Uziel to save him. Uziel replied: “I think I can find customers for your expensive and unique furniture.” The Baron agreed to the proposal: “Sell all you can, just save me from bankruptcy.” The Baron acted too late. His creditors came that very night and took whatever was available. The Baron, who owed money to Uziel as well, had previously filled a room with furniture and locked it. When the creditors left, the Baron approached Uziel and said: “You are the one Irespect the most. Had I listened to you, I would not be in this financial state. The furniture is yours. I am moving to Poznan where the government has allocated me land, an estate and a house. Uziel entered the room, walked between the furniture items, and then asked the Baron for a hammer or an axe. When the tools were brought, Uziel proceeded to destroy the family symbols carved into the furniture. To the surprised Baron, he explained: “I am not a German Baron; I am a Jew, a person who is not allowed to have such symbols. I shall use your furniture but without these images.”

2. Baron Roni Olishevsky

Roni Olishevsky was a Polish Baron. His grandfather received the title and local land because he betrayed the Polish insurrection of 1862. The men in the family were all over 2 meters tall and the women over 1.80 meters. His unusual height led to lechery. Russian princesses and Polish Baronesses came to his bed. Leaseholders offered their 16 and 18 year old daughters to satisfy his sexual desires for the generous payments they received in return.

When the Baron became entangled in debts, he approached Uziel, asking him to save him from his “shame”. Each such discussion always ended with the remark, “Please understand, in my society, honor and religion are primary. You must save me. I will not spare cash, but I will guard my honor and my faith.” Each time Uziel saved him financially until next year's crop was sold. In later years, the Baron lost his estate, no longer able to pay back his debts.

On a Friday night when, as he phrased it, “his Jewish creditors”, prepared for the Sabbath, Roni appeared at Uziel's house, drunk as usual. He asked to speak to Uziel in confidence behind closed doors. As they sat in the room, Roni first hesitated, then took from his pocket a long velvet box and said: “This item has been in our family for generations. It is sacred, yet I have no choice but to pawn it for however much you can loan me.” As he said that he collapsed into the von Buelow walnut couch and cried: “Please understand Zilio, I brought you an item that is dearest to me. I will not rest until I redeem it, and you will get your money back.” Reb Uziel did not take the time to inspect the item. He took pity on the good-hearted Gentile, removing a packet of bills, he gave these to Roni.

At the end of the Sabbath, Uziel's wife Dina decided to investigate what happened between the two men the previous evening. She opened the velvet box and found a silk cross with stitched gold threads, covered with diamonds. On the short cross-arm was embossed the family coat of arms.

Dina, who was quite smart, said to herself: “This is the first time that the honor and faith of this noble Pole is worth the monetary value he received from a Jew.”

[Pages 238-239]

Experiences We Do Not Forget

By Israel Glazer

There are experiences that cannot be forgotten. They come up in one's memory periodically even though they are not strictly personal. Inasmuch as these memories reflect something about the way of life of our town, they need to be told.

The Incident with “Bentzi Hudiah”

Benzion Gurvich was a dreamer, as if functioning in another world. He was this way since childhood. When he reached adulthood, this characteristic persisted. There were times when others in the community doubted his sanity and degree of responsibility. Despite these liabilities, he married (the daughter of Aaron Mardeshicha) and led a normal family life. The youth of our town listened to him and always found him interesting.

Periodically, he would drift from reality, raise his head towards the sky and look yonder. When you tapped his shoulder to connect with him, he would look at you puzzled, expressing impromptu ideas that were beyond your comprehension. The worst aspect of his habit was his periodic aimless street wanderings. It is during these wanderings that he threw caution to the wind and ran into dangerous situations.

Once, on Christmas midnight 1924, Bentzi was returning from his aimless wanderings back to home and reality. The main street was empty. Suddenly, he encountered two Polish soldiers who had celebrated the holiday at a local tavern. When they saw a Jew on the street, they were reminded of Jesus and his crucifixion; it was time to take revenge.

What did they do? They beat up Bentzi until he stopped resisting. Next, they brought him to their headquarters. The local officers from the Polish nobility joined in to torture Bentzi systematically so as to force him to confess. They pulled his hair, and the hair of his mustache. They twisted his arms and pressed bullet cases under his fingernails. To make matters worse, they rubbed soap into his torn hair and fed him this mixture to cause him to vomit.

He confessed nothing and withstood the torture, a fact that angered the higher-rank officers at the headquarters.

Two soldiers were ordered to take him outside to finish the interrogation. The soldiers led him on the road to the village of Grobova. On the way to the village, the soldiers took him to a steep hill which had a sharp drop on the other side. They planned to kill him by throwing him downhill. Bentzi had, in the meantime, recovered from his torture and sensed the impending danger. He managed to flee from the two drunken soldiers. Rolling down the steep hill, he hid in one of its crevasses. The soldiers searched for him but failed to find him. Bentzi was saved.

The incident was brought up for debate in the Polish Seym (Parliament). The Jewish delegates demanded a formal investigation. As expected, the investigation ended without indictment of these officers.

The community was in despair for days after this incident. We teenagers realized that this incident was another convincing argument in our ongoing dialog with the older generation regarding our future in Lanowitz. It was another reason for choosing the immigration route to Palestine.

[Pages 240-245]

Calling Up 4th to the Torah

By Yitzak Meir Weitzman

Shaya Nathans returned from America to his home, his family and wife. The connection with the community was renewed. He started his life anew as if America did not exist. Lanowitz was worth more than 10 American communities.

On the Sabbath, he was called to the Torah and properly honored. He felt “at home”. In Lanowitz, he found warmth, friendship and honor. He found “Yiddishkeit”. It was good that he returned. Here one can live; there is purpose to life. He began to enjoy his stay.

Except that he accepted the job of Gabbai [The person who selects congregants to come up to Torah reading]. His peace of mind was shattered. His days turned into nights. Life became gloomy. Here is how it all happened:

Shaya was touched by the reception he received at the synagogue. The service was followed by a Kiddush where, again, he was the honored guest. As he looked around, he noticed the darkness of the synagogue walls. He noticed a wet spot on the ceiling. All around there were signs of neglect. When he asked why the roof leak was not repaired, he was told, “We have no money for repairs.”

Shaya decided to act. He took it upon himself to have the roof repaired, and the ceiling and walls painted. The synagogue looked festive again.

When congregants came to the synagogue on the Sabbath, they saw and appreciated the clean new appearance. All realized that these improvements were thanks to Shaya. He was elected to be the Gabbai of the synagogue.

He fulfilled this role in a manner not customary in Lanowitz. He adopted the American approach to give out Aliyas [=being called up to Torah reading] in rotation in accordance with the honor and learning level of a congregant.

The Aliyas were divided up over the weeks to honor each congregant periodically while including Bar Mitzvas, Weddings, holidays and guests. This left the issue of the 4th Aliyah unresolved for obvious reasons. Offering the 4th Aliyah to a congregant is a form of contempt. It was a way to make light of him. There is, of course, an explanation that the reading of the Torah was commanded by G-d at Sinai, so each congregant needs to take part in the process. However, even this explanation was not convincing to those offered the 4th Aliyah.

Gedaliah, the water carrier, was asked to accept the 4th Aliyah. It was explained to him that he either accepts the honor or will get no Aliyah at all. The same was done with Hayim Rimer.

It was known that Hayim Rimer is not like Gedaliah. He was muscular, and anyone who tackled him risked a hospital visit. Rimer was ambitious; he expected to receive the same honors as any other congregant. He accepted the 4th Aliyah once, then twice. When he noticed that other congregants were whispering and secretly mocking him, he sought an explanation. Another person explained to him: “Being called up 4th to the Torah is something no one wants. It is depreciating to a person to accept it.” After Hayim heard this, he went to Shaya, his neighbor, asking him to change the order of his Aliyah. Shaya, who regarded himself as responsible to G-d, and for synagogue decorum, would not even consider Hayim's request. Shaya regarded Hayim as a man who practices only a minor portion of the Ten Commandments, hence is not entitled to a “better” Aliyah. Reb Shaya felt that as a Gabbai he had a heavy responsibility, so he stood by his decision.

What shall Hayim do? To be called up to the Torah and not respond is clearly not allowed. If he responds, he will be ridiculed. What to do? Hayim would respond to the Aliyah, then, when finished, he would fold his Talis and leave the synagogue for home. There he would have a drink of hard liquor. As his blood rose to his head, he would wait and ambush Reb Shaya on his way home, throwing stones or mud at him. Reb Shaya returned home every second Sabbath with his clothes soiled, himself hurt or injured. One Sabbath, in the autumn, when it was very cold outside, Shaya put on his clean fur coat. He came home with his coat torn and dirty, as if returning from a pogrom. Frieda, his wife, always asked him why the dirt and injury. After she received an explanation from her husband she would say: “Shaya, offer him the 3rd Aliyah thereby ending this matter.” His answer invariably was: “You demand that I give the 3rd Aliyah to this bastard, murderer and thief?” Next, he would enter my room - as a bachelor I was living with them - partly asking, partly shouting and laughing, “Mr. Weitzman, what do you say to a wife who wants me to give the 3rd Aliyah to Hayim Rimer?” I, who was their border, would agree with Reb Shaya. Having studied Torah I could not do otherwise.

As the attacks continued, Shaya's family life was disrupted. Frieda would cry and Shaya suffered both pain and anger. I, who enjoyed the company of these two quiet people, was affected by their depression, yet was unable to help.

What could Reb Shaya do? If he were to give in to Hayim, he would lose the confidence of the congregation. If he did not capitulate, how can he stop the continuous suffering? His life was peaceful only on the Sabbath when Gedaliah received the 4th Aliyah, and disturbed when Hayim received the “Honor”. When his expensive coat was soiled and torn he felt like on “The 9th of Av” - the day of mourning, hurt and in pain. His wife pleaded with him to give Hayim Maftir [=the last part of the Torah reading] to end the misery. Reb Shaya answered her as always, asking me to mediate between them - “I should give Motil Melamed and Hayim Rimer Maftir? Where is her logic? Women do not think clearly.”

This time, I decided to act. I felt that I must stop this hell that we suffer every second Sabbath. I decided that Hayim went overboard in his reaction. He threw stones and shattered Shaya's house windows. One stone fell into my room; I was lucky not to be hurt. I realized that my life was also in danger; that Hayim hates me as Shaya's tenant. I was now a party to this sad struggle.

There was another reason for my decision. From arguments on this subject I had overheard that there was no chance to offer 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th Aliyah or Maftir to a person such as Hayim, but it occurred to me that offering him the last (7th) Aliyah would be acceptable. On an autumn day, Frieda stood in front of the window, wrapped in a shawl, silent, and Shaya was in his room sad and alone. It is then that I proposed the aforementioned solution. Give him the last Aliyah, a less esteemed one, call him up for the 7th and settle the matter. I told him - “How long can one suffer?”, and for emphasis I added - you suffered enough! I noted that my proposal was accepted. I next needed to have Hayim accept it, to settle the dispute. How to do this?

On Sunday morning I went out, resolved to put all business matters aside and focus on settling this sad matter that has turned our house into a house of mourning every two weeks (when Hayim Rimer was given an Aliyah). I had to find the right person to approach Hayim with the aforementioned solution.

As I stood outside thinking whom to ask, who do I see: Michli Itzik Shmuels. I said to myself: “This is a golden opportunity. He was a good friend of long standing. When I loaded grain on freight trains, I used to give him a portion to feed his horses.” Ours was a true friendship.

I asked Michli: “Where are you going?”
He replied: “Nowhere.”
I said: “One does not go nowhere!”
He replied: “I swear, what else is there to do?”

That moment Hayim joined us. He saw us from his window. He ignored me, regarding me as associated with his rival, Shaya. He approached Michli and asked him for a cigarette. While Michli took out cigarette paper to roll one, using tobacco, I left them for a moment and brought back a packet of cigarettes. I offered Hayim a cigarette. He looked at me, hesitated for a moment, then reached out to accept my offering, adding: “Let me have another one.” I told him, I don't smoke, you may have another cigarette. He took the whole pack.

At that moment an idea occurred to me. I turned to Michli, asking him to honor me with a visit tomorrow, commemorating my grandmother's passing. I told him that I celebrate it like a birthday. I next turned to Hayim and asked him to honor me with his visit as well. He knew where I lived and where I was inviting him. Nonetheless he asked: “Where do you live?” He did come the next day.

I informed Frieda of my intent and asked her to prepare a festive buffet. The next evening both, whom I had invited, came dressed in holiday attire, and I in my Sabbath clothing. I asked Shaya to stay secluded in an adjacent room. After my guests ate enough and drank more than enough, I turned to Hayim and said: “I am a Cohen; as you know we are peace makers. You are in Shaya's house. You came to honor me. I ask you to do something in my honor and settle your dispute with Reb Shaya. Before I could finish my remarks he jumped up like a snake and said, “What? You want me to settle with this bastard, this thief?” I calmed him: “Reb Hayim, I ask you to do this in my honor; you know that we of the Cohen dynasty always try to make peace.” I elaborated on my traditional role. Hayim interrupted: “If I settle, will he continue to offer me the 4th Aliyah?” Disregarding that he is in Shaya's house, he continued: “That thief, he has made my life miserable.” In his anger, he turned to leave the house. I held his hand and said: “I promise that henceforth you will be offered the 7th Aliyah. I take responsibility for this change.” We called Reb Shaya from his room to confirm the agreement. Hayim got the 7th Aliyah, Shaya was able to walk home in peace, and I was proud of my accomplishment.

One day, we were sitting down for a chat at the home of Dr. Joseph Zinberg. The atmosphere and company was pleasant as usual. Suddenly his Ukrainian maid came into our room pale and shaking. She turned to the host and said: “Reb Rimer is at the door, he wants to talk to Mr. Weitzman.” I feared the agreement with Shaya had become unglued. I was afraid to meet him alone so I asked my friends to join me. We were all afraid of Hayim's anger. As we stood at the door, Hayim looked pale and angry. I asked him: “Were you again offered the 4th Aliya?” He looked bewildered and replied: “No, they offered me the 7th Aliyah, thanks to you. I came to hear from you if this event will distress me as much as getting the 4th Aliyah did?” I calmed him as a father calms his son, assuring him that the 7th is a respectable Aliyah.

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