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[Page 29]

The Community of Mezritsh (cont'd)


Houses of Worship


mie029.jpg The Great Synagogue building
The Great Synagogue building


It is not known where the first synagogue or Beis Midrash stood. It is also not know whether it was a brick or a wooden building. We do know that the last synagogue stood in the place where two synagogues had previously stood. It was built atop their ruins. We find a note about this synagogue in the ledgers of the Chevra Kadisha which notes the death of the man who looked after the synagogue, “The scholar Ziskind the son of Reb Yonah, who busied himself with the design and building of the synagogue in our community, may it be completed in our day.” (This indicates that at the time of his death

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it had not yet been completed. M. E.) “… He died in 5539 (1779).” In a letter to [Simon] Dubnow, Rabbi Yakov Szapira relates that Prince Czartoryski, the lord of the city, donated bricks for the building. (During that time, Rabbi Ozer served as the rabbi of the city. He was the son and successor of his father Rabbi Aboshl of Frankfurt am Main, and the fourth generation of the family that occupied the rabbinical seat in Mezritsh).


mie030.jpg The Holy Ark in the Great Synagogue
The Holy Ark in the Great Synagogue


In the year 5602 (1847) 300 of the city's homes were destroyed by fire, including the home of the rabbi. (At that time, the Gaon and famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Tzvi Eliezer Efraim Charlap of blessed memory served as the rabbi of the city.) The synagogue and the Beis Midrash were also heavily damaged. The synagogue of Mezritsh was designed by a famous architect who had built two other similar, albeit smaller, synagogues in Poland. The same architect also erected the Catholic Church, which still stands in the city. The synagogue was a large building. It is estimated that it could accommodate more than 3,000 people. The ceiling was supported by four pillars, each one being at least one meter in thickness. In the center, between the four pillars, stood the large bima [raised platform used for reading Torah]. One ascended the bima by stairs, which led from south to north. The bima was surrounded by an iron railing. There was a bench on the west side and a table on the eastern side. The bima was used for Torah reading. The Cantor of the synagogue conducted the Kabbalat Shabbat [welcoming of the Sabbath] service from the bima[37]. The synagogue's shamash [beadle] who was also the shamash of the community, would stand at the bima. The shofar blower on Rosh Hashanah would sound the shofar from the bima. Brass chandeliers hung from the ceiling. When electricity came into use, the candles were replaced with electric lights. At the western side there were two women's galleries, one above the other. The synagogue was three stories high at the southern side. At the northern side there were two more single story women's galleries which jutted toward the center of the synagogue. The walls were as thick as the walls of an ancient fortress. At the entrance was a wide iron door. Just inside were two wide, heavy, thick wooden doors. One entered into a large, spacious anteroom. To the left, on the north side, there was a Beis Midrash next to the synagogue where, years before, rabbinical leaders would sit and adjudicate religious and legal matters. The heads of the community would gather there to deliberate over communal matters. To the right of the entrance was the famous “Kuna” [stocks] into which an accused sinner was placed. In our time, memory was all that remained of the “Kuna”. After the synagogue was renovated, the wooden ark was removed

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and placed next to the stocks. The seat of Elijah the Prophet[38] was set on the southern side. From the anteroom, one entered the synagogue through two doors, each one being more than two cubits wide[39]. In 1912, the artist and craftsman Hersz Liber Podoljak was invited to renovate the synagogue. He carved the Holy Ark out of plaster, creating a true masterpiece. The Holy Ark was at least five cubits wide. One ascended from the south and the north on stairways of 15 steps, numbered in accordance [with the 15 psalms of] Shir Hamaalot in the Holy Temple[40]. From time to time the choir sang from the bima. There were dozens of Torah scrolls in the Holy Ark, some of them ancient. The Holy Ark was two stories high, almost reaching the ceiling. There was a crown on top of it. Under the crown there were two tablets, held up with lions on each side. To arrive at the western women's gallery, one ascended the poolish[41] stairs at the south and west sides of the building. At the northern poolish stairs there was a sink for hand washing, as well as a sand-filled box for burying circumcised foreskins.


mie031.jpg The Front of the Great Beis Midrash
The Front of the Great Beis Midrash


The Great Beis Midrash stood opposite [the synagogue – ed.]. Why was it great? Not because it was large in size or width, but rather because it was the Beis Midrash of the entire community. Previously, when the community was under autonomous rule, construction of a Beis Midrash was not permitted without the authorization of the community council. Everyone was required to worship in the Great Beis Midrash. After the fire, it had to be rebuilt, and the city's landowners donated bricks for the building. Nearby, on the same street, stood the Beis Midrash of the Tailors, also a brick building. This Beis Midrash was the first to be built with the official permission of the community council. According to the charters, the cantor of the city conducted the Neilah service of Yom Kippur in the Beis Midrash of the Tailors. The Hachnasat Orchim building was on the same street as the synagogue, and the Beis Midrash of the Talmud Torah was nearby. Close by and to the east of the synagogue was the shtibel [42] of the Biala[4] Hassidim. This was a brick building with three large rooms. There was a sukkah in a large yard adjacent to the building. The Beis Midrash of the Shoemakers was built of wood. The Beis Midrash of the Combers was one street over from the the Beis Midrash of the Shoemakers. Not far away was the Beis Midrash of Reb Itshe Leib, which was a brick building with a women's gallery. The Beis Midrash of Szmulewizna was on the same street. It was also a brick building. Not far from it, on

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on Warszawa Street, was the Beis Midrash of the Coachmen. This was a large brick building with many books. Young men would sit and study there. The rabbinical teacher Rabbi Mejer Leib also studied there. The rabbi's residence, where services were also conducted, was on the same street. This was a large Beis Midrash in the Piszczanka area. On Lubelska Street there was the Beis Midrash of Reb Sender Rozencweig, who willed 2,000 silver rubles to the poor of the Land of Israel. It too was built of bricks. There was a wooden Beis Midrash on the Street of the Bridge (the continuation of Lubelska St.). The Beis Midrash of the Admor Rabbi Meir Shlomo Rabinowicz was on the Street of the Train. There were other Hassidic shtibels of Radzyn, Lomza, Sokolow, and Gur[4]. There were many prayer groups. The Great Beis Midrash had thousands of books, hundreds of copies of the Talmud, and sixty copies of the Rambam. People would sit and study in the Beis Midrash.

Thus did the old exist alongside the new in Mezritsh throughout all those years – until the accursed bitter day arrived.

Translator and Translation Coordinator's Footnotes

  1. There is a footnote in the original Hebrew text here, as follows: “See my book “The Jewish City of Mezritsh”, page 34, and others.” return
  2. King Wladyslaw II Jagiello (1348-1434). Was Grand Duke of Lithuania and ruled there from 1377 onward. He married Queen Jadwiga of Poland in 1386, converting to Christianity at that time. He ruled Poland for forty eight years, and laid the foundation for the centuries-long Polish-Lithuanian union. return
  3. It is known that at least one Jewish family, the Zauberman family, lived in Stolpno. They were farmers, and had a large tract of land with hothouses bordering the palace land of Count Potocki in Stolpno that is mentioned by the author. Several members of the Zauberman family maintained houses “in town” (Mezritsh) as well as on the Stolpno property. Many members of the Zauberman clan were killed in the Shoah. (This note was written by the translation coordinator based on family history). return
  4. The following is a list of towns and cities mentioned in the current chapter of the Mesritsh Yizkor Book. The town names are listed in alphabetical order, along with their modern names. Distances to Mezritsh are provided so the reader can appreciate the distances Jews traveled in their daily lives before the advent of motorized transportation. Distances are “as the crow flies”. Locations of towns derived from: G. Mokotoff, S. Sack and A. Sharon, Where Once we Walked (New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2002).
    Distances calculated by Steven Morse - (http://stevemorse.org/nearest/distance.php).
    1. Bavaria is a state in northern Germany.
    2. Biala (the author is probably referring to Biala Podlaska), Poland; 52°02'/23°08', 15 miles from Mezritsh
    3. Bialystok, Poland; 53°08'/23°09', 81 miles from Mezrtish
    4. Brisk (now Brest), Belarus; 52°06'/23°42', 40 miles from Mezritsh.
    5. Dubno, Ukraine; 50°25'/25°45', 168 miles from Mezrtish
    6. Dzialoshitz (now Dzialoszyce), Poland; 50°22'/20°21', 153 miles from Mezritsh
    7. Frankfurt (now Frankfurt am Main), Germany; 50°07'/08°41', 623 miles from Mezritsh
    8. Furth, Germany, near Nurnberg, 49°28'/11°00', 542 miles from Mezritsh.
    9. Gur (now Gora Kalwaria); 51°59'/21°14', 66 miles from Mezritsh
    10. Izbitza (now Izbica Lubelska), Poland; 50°53'/23°10', 78 miles from Mezritsh
    11. Karlin, Belarus (near Pinsk); 52°07'/26°08', 142 miles from Mezritsh

    12. Kotzk (now Kock), Poland; 51°38'/22°27', 28 miles from Mezritsh
    13. Kozmir (now Kazimierz Dolny), Poland; 51°19'/21°57', 58 miles from Mezritsh
    14. Koznitz (now Kozienice), Poland; 51°35'/21°34', 59 miles from Mezritsh
    15. Krakoy (now Krakow), Poland; 50°05'/19°55', 181 miles from Mezritsh
    16. Leipzig, Germany; 51°18'/12°20', 449 miles from Mezritsh
    17. Lenchno (now Lecczna), Poland; 51°17'/22°53', 48 miles from Mezritsh
    18. Lomza, Poland, 53°11'/22°05', 88 miles from Mezritsh
    19. Lublin, Poland; 51°15'/22°34', 51 miles from Mezritsh
    20. Lukow, Poland; 51°55'/22°23', 18 miles from Mezritsh
    21. Magdeburg , Germany; 52°10'/11°40', 471 miles from Mezrtish
    22. Minsk, Belarus; 53°54'/27°34', 239 miles from Mezritsh
    23. Novohorodok (now Navahrudak), Belarus; 53°36'/25°50', 169 miles from Mezritsh
    24. Ostrova (now Ostrow Lubelski), Poland; 51°30'/22°51', 33 miles from Mezritsh
    25. Pozno (now Poznan) Poland; 52°25'/16°58', 248 miles from Mezritsh
    26. Pshischa (now Przysucha), Poland; 51°22'/20°37', 102 miles from Mezritsh
    27. Radzyn (now Radzyn Podlaski), Poland; 51°47'/22°37', 16 miles from Mezritsh
    28. Sokolow (the author is probably referring to Sokolow Podlaski), Poland; 52°24'/22°15', 36 miles from Mezritsh
    29. Trestina (now Trzcianne), Poland; 53°20'/22°41', 93 miles from Mezritsh
    30. Tyktin (now Tykocin), Poland; 53°12'/22°47', 84 miles from Mezrtish.
    31. Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania; 54°41'/25°19', 213 miles from Mezritsh
    32. Wlodawa, Poland; 51°33'/23°33', 44 miles from Mezritsh
    33. Wurtzburg, Germany; 49°48'/09°56', 578 miles from Mezrtish
  5. Zygmunt I August the Old died in 1548. His son Zygmunt II August (1520-1572) then became the last Jagelion king of Poland. He united Livonia with the Duchy of Lithuania., thereby creating a greatly expanded kingdom. (Encyclopedia Britannia, online edition). return
  6. Pinkas Medinat Lita, Dubnow, S. (Ed.) - Proceedings of the Jewish Council of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Berlin 1928. return
  7. Even Haezer is the fourth of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Laws, written in the 1600's by Rabbi Joseph Caro). It deals with the laws of marriage and divorce. return
  8. It was actually five years later, in 1497. return
  9. Jan Kazimierz, better known as Kazimierz IV Jagiellonczyk (b.1427, d. 1492) reigned as King of Poland from 1447-1492. Among his many children were three major players in the Jewish history of Mezritsh. Jan I Olbracht (b. 1459, d. 1501) became King of Poland upon the death of his father in 1492. He ruled until his death in 1501. Aleksander Jagiellonczyk, (b. 1461, d. 1506) became Grand Duke of Lithuania upon his father's death in 1492, and then King of Poland when his brother, Jan I Olbracht, died in 1501. He ruled as Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland until his death in 1506. At that time Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund the Old, mentioned on p. 17), became King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and ruled from 1506 until his death in 1548. This chronology is different from that of the author of this chapter, who states that Jan I Olbracht became King upon the death of his brother Aleksander. For more information on King Kazimierz and his sons, please refer to A History of the Jews in Russia and Poland by Simon Dubnow (Avotaynu, Inc, Bergenfield, New Jersey, 2000) pp 25-27. Dobnow's insights into the rule of the brothers is eye-opening: Olbracht established the first Jewish ghetto in Poland, ordering the Jewish survivors of the massive Krakow fire of 1494 to live in Kazimiezh, a suburb of Krakow, apart from the Christians. His brother Aleksander ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Lithuania, and confiscated all the property they left behind. When Aleksander became King of Poland after Olbracht's death, he did allow the Jews to return in 1503. return
  10. Powrotny – Literally “return”. A tax placed on all Jews returning to the town after being forced into exile return
  11. Yaven Metzula [deep mire] and Teet haYaven [muddy mire] seem to be references to the difficult (“muddy”) historical period discussed here. return
  12. Tach veTat refers to the Hebrew years 1648 and 1649, which were the years of the Chmielnicki Uprising. This great calamity in Jewish history is generally known by the acronym of its years 'Tach veTat' or 'Gezeirot Tach veTat' (the Decrees of Tach veTat). return
  13. King Jan Sobieski died in 1696, one year later than stated by the author. return
  14. The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815, not till 1824 as stated on p. 20) was convened by the major powers of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon in order to settle political issues resulting from that conflict. It was chaired by Austrian Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich. For more information, please refer to: http://en.wikipedia.org/Congress_of_Vienna return
  15. Szwiniarowa – no reference to this town can be found in Where Once We Walked, on JewishGen, or on the world wide web. return
  16. Tzaddik (Tzaddikim, pl.) – a Hassidic leader, believed in, admired and obediently followed. return
  17. Hassid (Hassidim, pl.) – meaning “pious” or “righteous”. Hassids were members of a Jewish mystical movement founded by Rabbi Yizroel ben Eliezer 1698-1760), who was known as the Baal Shem Tov (or the BESHT, the acronym of his name). Hassidism was established in the second half of the 18th century in Eastern Europe. return
  18. Shatnez - Mixtures of wool and linen that are forbidden by the Torah. return
  19. Misnaged (Misnagedim, pl.) – literally, “opponent”. A name commonly used to refer to Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews who opposed the rise and spread of Hassidism (see footnote 17, above) as promulgated by the Baal Shem Tov. Most prominent among the Misnagdim was Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), known also as the Vilna Gaon. Misnagedim feared that Hassidism would give rise to another messianic Jewish movement that would lead Jews away from the mainstream of Jewish thought and belief. Lithuanian Jewry were mostly Misnagedim. For more information on Misnagdim, see the entry in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misnagdim. return
  20. The “Holy Jew” referred to in this passage possibly refers to the Rebbe from Przysucha (commonly known as Pshsicha), Poland, 51°22/20°37'. return
  21. Admor (Admorim, pl.) - A Tzaddik who was admired and respected by the people would be awarded the title Admor, an acronym for Adonenu Morenu v'Rabbenu (our Master, Teacher and Rabbi) and was called affectionately 'Rabbi' or 'Rebbe.' Out of respect and admiration for the Rebbe, his followers named their newborn boys after him. They also formed around him a sort of court, with the Admor at its head. return
  22. Hassidic leadership is often defined by generations following the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). There was the first generation of leadership, the second generation, etc. Many of the leaders were direct descendants of the Besht. return
  23. Remedies based on Kabbalistic and mystical concepts. return
  24. All of these references are to specific changes introduced into the Hassidic prayer rite. return
  25. A ban of “Yehoshua ben Nun” is a term for a very stringent ban made originally by Joshua in the Bible. return
  26. People were often nicknamed by using their mother's name. This seems to have been common practice in this area of Poland, and is present in numerous Yizkor Books. In this case, Reb David Teitelbaum was also known as David Yocheved's (ie, the son of Yocheved). return
  27. The Biur is the Torah commentary written by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Moses Mendelssohn was a German-Jewish philosopher whose ideas gave rise to the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. For more information, please refer to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Mendelssohn. return
  28. Naftali Herz Weisel (known also as Hartwig Wessely, 1725-1805) was a contemporary of Moses Mendelssohn, an esteemed author and a central figure in the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment). For more information, please refer to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naphtali_Hirz_Wessely. return
  29. Rabbi Meir of Lublin, also known as Maharam (a Hebrew acronym for “Our Teacher, Rabbi Meir”) was known for his commentary on the Talmud, Meir Einai Chachamim. He lived from 1558-1616. For more information, please refer to : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meir_Lublin return
  30. “Hebrew-in-Hebrew” methodology - Refers to a pedagogical methodology where the Hebrew language and all other subjects were taught in Hebrew.  Hebrew was to be used as the language of instruction and freely spoken throughout the day.  Teaching Hebrew in this way was new and controversial.  The more traditional method was to translate the Hebrew in sacred texts on a word-by-word basis.  return
  31. Ein Yaakov is an anthology of the Aggadaic (lore) sections of the Talmud. Menorat HaMaor, (14th century) was written by Rabbi Yitzhak Abohav. Chayei Adam is a detailed survey of day-to-day Jewish law. return
  32. Hamelitz - For several decades, this was the most prominent Hebrew newspaper published in the Russian empire. It was first published in 1860. It represented the views of the Maskilim (see note 37, below) and was used by Eastern European Newish nationalists to communicate their message. For more information, see Bartal, Israel and Chaya Naor. 2006. The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881. University of Pennsylvania Press. return
  33. Maskil (Maskilim, pl.) - An enlightened one, a thinker. An adherent of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) Movement. This was a faction among European Jews in the late 18th century that advocated adopting Enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language and Jewish history. For more information, please refer to: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=350&letter=H return
  34. According to Jewish law, intentional suicides are to be buried at the edge of the cemetery as a sign of censure. In modern times this law is only applied if it is reasonably certain that there were no psychological disturbances or illnesses that precipitated the suicide (which is of course rarely the case). return
  35. A Machzor is a festival prayer book. Selichot are the penitential prayers recited during the weeks surround the High Holy Days as well as on fast days. return
  36. The Maaseh Buch [Story Book] is a collection of moralistic tales from the 16th century. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica it was compiled by “Jacob ben Abraham of Meseritz” , i.e. the Reb Yakov referred to in the main text, and published in 1672 (not 1602). return
  37. In most Orthodox synagogues of traditional style, the Cantor stands at a podium in the front (the amud), whereas the bima, which is used for Torah reading, is in the center. return
  38. A ceremonial seat used during circumcision ceremonies. return
  39. A cubit (amah) is a biblical measurement of length, equaling approximately 18 inches. Perhaps the author is indicating, by using this biblical unit of measure, that the builders were purposely thinking in biblical terms, and by implication, indicating the centrality and importance of this grand synagogue to the people of Mezritsh. return
  40. In the Holy Temple, there were 15 steps, numbered in accordance with the 15 psalms (120-134) of Shir Hamaalot. return
  41. Poolish – a Yiddish word meaning a lobby or anteroom of a synagogue. return
  42. Shtibel – (literally: little house). A small Jewish congregation, usually Hassidic. return

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